Sunday, March 29, 2009


VQR has gotten itself chastised, it seems, by the Net, for being a bit too frank about some visceral reactions to the slush pile. Make one tiny little joke about simians, and you end up having to apologize to... well, all of you.

The offending post has been removed, but you can see snippets of it in the comments here.

I think what we have here is a cultural failure to communicate. There’s the culture of the blog, which—like email—tends to reward immediacy and the cheapest forms of entertainment (i.e. glibness, snarkyness, confessionalism, even trolling). And there’s the culture of the literary magazine, which is more predominantly (and historically) Apollonian, genteel, the organizational equivalent of a tea cozy, where decisions and tastes are mutely orchestrated from behind the scrim of an editorial silence. Readers tend to come to literary magazines deliberately, whereas on the Net, one’s browsing interest (which may or may not touch the actual content of the work consumed) wars with the instant boredom and the latent velocity of any web consumer away from the page/blog/webzine.

VQR’s dispatches from the killing ground of the slush pile are no worse than anything I’ve heard of in editorial rooms, and after reading, I dunno, upwards of 100,000 poems in the service of various lit mags, there are several filters that drop into place over the years in order to make you not totally exhausted and self-loathing.

One of these filters is an instant amnesia that takes effect seconds after you finish a poem from the slush pile. (If indeed it is worthy of slush—good poems snag you, even if you’re in auto-mode, or the rest of the submission is abysmally bad. During my editorial career, I once selected a single poem (and put it first in the next issue) from an otherwise horrendous batch by a poet who seems to have never written anything else even remotely as good—and in fact has written some of the worst lines I’ve ever come across.) This way, you don’t take terrible poems home with you in your head.

Second, there’s... well several methods of emotional release. I have heard of editors reading especially dire poems aloud in a pirate voice (especially badly executed lyrical poems), of a wall of shame of the worst metaphors received, and in one case, the aerodynamic half-life test (meaning, the duration of time between opening a submission and flinging it across the room towards the recycling bin). Is this the apex of professionalism? No. It’s stress relief, and a way of convincing yourself that not all of the careerism, mediocrity, repetition, blandness, and misplaced optimism (and the fear of the aforementioned in one’s own writing) that is a constant note in all areas of the literary life does not, in the end, carry the day. The best editors I’ve known are those who can walk away from a few hours of reading submissions in thwarted hopes of finding something singular, and still be excited about writing themselves, rather than feeling dispirited and queasily afraid that a virulent form of verbal entropy has been gnawing at their brains from the inside.

I’m sure it’s the same in other subcultures, where one constantly questions the worth and relevance (not to mention the meager monetary rewards) of one’s activity, and the recurrent sensation of struggling for a small portion of an already small audience. Combine that with the headiness of the net (say, for instance, with Diagram’s claim of 160,000 monthly hits), and it’s not always pretty. But not out of the ordinary.

There needs to be an anonymous relationship with the submitter, for two reasons. First, because if you don’t have one, you enter into correspondences like this. And clearly someone’s professional, emotional, creative, and possibly sexual needs will not be met. Second, because the reader of literary magazines are going to encounter these poems anonymously, so the best way to model the suitability of the poem for an issue is to respond dispassionately (if not astringently) as an initial acid test. Despite common, underlying assumptions to the contrary, no one is forced to read poetry. Poetry has to make the case for itself, and to total strangers. This is what I try to remember when I sometimes receive puzzling comments on my 350-odd rejections. The editor or reader (who most likely is getting little or no financial recompense) may have just rejected hundreds of poems, and the last horrible one was about Crete, which my poems also references.

Perhaps it wasn’t the most professional thing for VQR to post what should stay secret inter-office cultural communiqu├ęs, but then again, how often do you encounter “professional” and “blog” in the same sentence? As a form, it tends to be, well, informal. The only “safe” form of institutional writing is a press release, and you’re not going to get a readership for your blog if all you post is essentially advertising (especially when, with the proliferation of blogs, one’s allergy to official communications and disguised solicitations only grows). In my experience, VQR’s flavor of snark is not a tremendous departure (if at all) from a great deal of editorial culture (and I’m not speaking here for Ploughshares, merely as a private consumer).


Maggie May said...

Interesting. In the future perhaps editors are going to have to sign confidentiality agreements for the magazines they work for. ' Will not repeat snark from workroom ' etc. :)

I'm not surprised at the reaction. Writers are notoriously thin skinned ( I should know, I am one ) and the thought of someone laughing at our precious poems or novels is...horrible. Some of us ( me ) do have the slightest grain of salt when it comes to the 'preciousness' of our work. I can see why and how you end up joking after reading a zillion poems.

Simeon Berry said...

Well, I think the same maxim about sausage ("You don't want to see how it is made") applies to literary magazines.

As for thin-skinnedness... I feel like writing demands such a substantial amount of self-disclosure that one needs a fair amount of masochism to really get your hands dirty in this business. I remember hearing a painter talk about throwing up in the bathroom before every gallery opening, and thinking that a creative life is not ideal if you're nervous about exposure. Even when you're not being autobiographical (or even narrative), you reveal inevitably your obsessions and fascinations.