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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Poetry editors are people too: an interview

Martin Willitts, Jr., the retired Senior Librarian in central New York, is also the former poetry co-editor of hotmetalpress.net. Nominated for two Best of The Net awards and his fifth Pushcart, Martin had several poetry chapbooks accepted in 2011, including True Simplicity (Poets Wear Prada Press), Why Women Are A Ribbon Around A Bomb (Last Automat), Protest, Petition, Write, Speak: Matilda Joslyn Gage Poems (Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation), How To Find Peace (Kattywumpus Press), Swimming In The Ladle Of Stars (Pudding House) and Secrets No One Wants To Talk About (Dos Madres Press.) When I met Martin, however, in the lively discussions about poetry in the Poetry Editor Group on LinkedIn, I had not yet discovered his work before learning about our similar experiences as poetry editors, poetry contest judges, and traditionally published poets who try to help other poets and writers, and so I asked:

Mary Harwell Sayler: Martin, if you were to give poets advice, what would you say?

Martin Willitts, Jr.: There is no shortcut answer to writing poetry since there are so many ways to write a poem. Being open to revision is hard for many writers.

MHS: That was true for me when I first began to focus on revising. Since I enjoy word games though, I began treating revisions as a game – playing with connotations and sounds in synonyms. What other ways might poets go about the work of revision?

Martin: Have a self-critical eye. Listen to yourself as to how to write in your unique voice. Be aware that if you have something new to say that it must be new.

MHS: Yes! Many poems I’ve critiqued over the years had musicality or a rhythmic beat but nothing new to say that had not been said many times by many people. Similarly, advanced poets have sometimes sent poems for an edit or a critique that came across as workshopped. In other words, the poets wrote on a literary level with lilting lyrics but did not invest themselves in their poems, so their work sounded like everyone else's.

Martin: What happens a lot is that writers listen to friends who pump them up with positive feedback, so they think they are a great poet. Or they belong to a writers workshop where the dominate voice influences all the other writers, and everyone writes like that one writer.

I work alone, do not belong to a workshop, do not teach at a college, and have no contact as I write. This is a blessing in terms of keeping my "own" voice and vision, but it is also a curse since I do not have a sounding board to tell me when I need revision.

MHS: That’s been true for me too, especially since I live in a rural community. Thankfully, though, my husband developed a discerning ear and has become an excellent first reader who helps me to gain balance in my work by pointing out the strengths and weaknesses I might not notice.

It’s far easier to see or hear what needs improving in someone else’s poems, and I understand that, when you edited poetry, you actually gave each poet a one-on-one response. That’s rare!

Martin: I used to give feedback to every submission. I took time with some kind of comment rather than the standard rejection slip. Then I found some writers did not like the word "no" with an explanation. They insisted on writing and justifying how great their poem was and how "stupid" I was to reject them. I stopped writing comments after that experience. I still get nasty emails from one rejected person five years later. If it was such a great poem, why didn't someone else publish it? In other words, it was so terrible, no one wanted it.

MHS: (Sigh.) In poetry groups on the social networks, I’ve noticed the word “idiot” used in references to poetry editors, and I just do not understand! Why do poets treat editors as idiotic enemies? (More sighs!) I’m beginning to think that, with the availability of free blogs for posting one’s poems, some poets have begun to write, but not read poems, with such profusion that they have disconnected from our literary past and become, well, unteachable.

Poets who are serious about their work, of course, will read and study poems by poets who write with skill. They welcome and listen to professional feedback even if it causes a temporary ouch! But, after all that, their poems still might not be accepted by poetry magazines or publishers of poetry books and chapbooks. Why does this occur?

Martin: I have been fortunate this year to have had nine chapbooks accepted for publication. I know how rare this is, and I appreciate the good fortune which came out of hard work and determination.

Although there is no right answer to your question, I have seen enough bad manuscripts and enough good manuscripts to say that a lot of rejection is due to a really bad collection or where the contestant did not read the instructions (i.e., too many pages; rhyme for free verse contests; no theme for theme contests). I once received a 100-page manuscript for a 25-page limit.

MHS: I’ve noticed this too. It’s as if poets or writers get in such a rush, they cannot slow down enough to catch crucial details in contest rules or writers’ guidelines.

When poets do follow the rules or guidelines or patterns established for the forms in which they write, does their conscientiousness pay off in terms of having their work accepted more often?

Martin: Acceptance rates are highly unpredictable. As an editor, I was limited by the number of acceptances (let's say ten), and I would get 100 submissions. Therefore, 90% would get rejected due to space. The same in a contest where only one entry could win, and I would look at several hundred manuscripts. After a while, things seemed blurred until I decided to go with immediate yes/no piles. I would go back a second time to look at the yes pile and narrow it down. One contest I had five poems that I liked and wanted to publish, but there could be only one winner. It was difficult picking that one winner. As it turned out, all the other four were published later, which vindicated my difficult decision as well as the strength of the last five choices.

MHS: Again, I’ve had a similar experience. When I first began judging poems entered in the international writing contest sponsored by Writers-Editors.com each year, I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of honoring some poems at the expense of others! Deciding between good and good can be most difficult!

Martin: The selection process relates to a purely subjective view of the judges or editors, based on what they like.

MHS: That makes sense, of course, but when I first began judging, I was afraid of playing favorites, so I probably did the opposite: i.e., I became more critical, technically speaking, of the poems I liked. Now I judge poems according to the merit shown in use of technique or form, but I also look for readability or something to connect a poem with other people.

As a freelance poetry editor, I try to help poets improve their poetry, but I do not accept or reject poems for a publication, nor do I publish poems. So our experiences differ here, Martin, since you edited a specific journal and accepted poems that later saw print. But what about poems you did not accept? What word of advice would you now offer to those poets?

Martin: Sometimes it is a matter of sending your poetry elsewhere. For example, if you write rhyme, look for formal magazines, and make sure the rhymes are good. If you write experimental poems, search for places that accept them.

MHS: Thanks, Martin, for all of the helpful suggestions you have given to other poets. What do you hope for your own future work?

Martin: I would love to find another magazine to co-edit but would not want to expose myself again to negative feedback from rejected writers. I, too, have been rejected many times, and I, too, am willing to resubmit. I have even accepted an editor's suggestion for revision.

MHS: Yes, good editorial advice can help even well-published poets write with greater skill. But, oh, your poetry has such gorgeous imagery that you have been nominated several times for a Pushcart. And now that I have seen such exquisite poems as your “Swimming in the Whispering,” which recently appeared in Ragazine, I look forward to reading your poems again and again.

© 2011, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved

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