Agon

First up: George Orwell

“Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless,’ while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.’”

We could easily substitute poem for book. (Poems via literary magazines.) The cause? Inadequate reading is certainly one factor. (I’m referring to self-serving historical perspective that contentedly champs on its own shortcomings.) Student readers, default editors, resemble deaf persons, unable to read lips, talking out loud to other deaf persons. It’s as though, even if one takes a course on poetry, gaining exposure to the mechanics and devices, the attributes of celebrated writing remain non-transferable: isolated from whatever writing the student produces.

Look where students look. Why, for example, would the Paterson Literary Review publish a poem beginning

After my grandparents moved into my

parents’ dining room in Omaha;

after they wound up in South Dakota

one evening after getting the oil

changed in their car;

after the police came and tried to reason

and ask questions about their whereabouts;

we packed their belongings again

and moved them into an assisted living home.

(Jim Reese, “His Secret Stash”) which is the farthest thing from poetry? It’d be more enlightening masturbating with a jagged beer bottle. How could this outshine all other submissions? What’s the catch? Quid pro quo. Trace the career. I recently received a rejection in which the editor had the audacity to claim that pedigree (his word) mattered not a bit in the selection process. Only a matter of taste (his taste). Yet almost every poet he publishes has a solid pedigree: one or more full-length collections, multiple awards and nominations, prestigious appointments (laureateship). Coincidence? Why bother accepting unsolicited submissions?

Business never personal. That rejection contained numerous typos. It goes beyond indifference, edging closer and closer to outright contempt. Reminds me of junk mail where the font is purposefully designed to resemble personal handwriting—so caring. Again, my point is that if someone truly enjoyed my work—couldn’t they at the very least take a minute or two to write a comment, speak directly to my work (even if that’s in addition to the form rejection)? Or this one, arriving recently: “Unfortunately this particular piece was not the right fit for —————, but we were very impressed by your writing. We hope that you will feel encouraged by this short note and send us something else.” Good for them. It’s no loss to me. Writing is the most difficult work I know. Selection for a magazine…I suppose that entails some degree of difficulty, when no standards apply.

What motive? Let’s skip heroics. We have a rampant poetic bloom smothering, choking, suffocating. Consider this: a dinky, non-ranking “national” literary magazine (published by a small college, featuring its own students along with outsiders) received 2,000+ submissions for its 2013 issue. Amazing. Or this: the form rejection in which a literary magazine refers to itself as a market.

Next up: Flannery O’Connor

“I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well.…They are interested in being a writer, not in writing. They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what.”

Why submit? Out of boredom.

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