friday roundup: listen and dictate, you can quit anytime, and the most beautiful thing

Dear Reader, today I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything until lunchtime. After a few weeks of nearly constant running, this feels luxurious and I plan to enjoy every minute of it. Let me assure you that there will be Poems, and there will be Tea (and later, if I am honest, there will be Cleaning Out the Refrigerator). But first, let there be a roundup:

listen and dictate  Several weeks ago, I read this interview at Oxford American with Rebecca Gayle Howell, whose poetry collection Render / An Apocolypse recently came out from Cleveland State University Press.

I always enjoy hearing about other poets’ writing processes, and Howell says this about hers:

“An early teacher of mine, James Baker Hall, advised me to “listen and dictate.” If I have a method I return to, it’s that one. I catch a line being uttered somewhere in the inscape, and I write it down. Then I repeat it to myself until I hear something new; I follow its lead.”

Of her book, she says:

“In the case of Render, my process led to an agrarian myth, an almanac for climate change, but I didn’t set out to write such an almanac. I set out to write an honest line.”

These bits have been echoing in my mind since I read the interview: “listen and dictate” and “I set out to write an honest line.”

Their appeal, for me, is in their simplicity. And perhaps in their speed, or lack thereof. If what it takes to write a poem is to listen for a line, write it down, and then wait for what comes next, that seems eminently doable even in the busiest of times. If the goal is not a book, or a Pushcart, or even a poem; if the goal is to write an honest line, well that seems doable, too. And both approaches strike me as slow. Slow in the best possible way. Slow, no rush. Slow, until the time is ripe. Which is not to rule out the words all coming in a rush, but if they don’t, okay, keep going.

you can quit anytime  Here is some encouragement for keeping at it with submissions: The Missouri Review says it plain: Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good. I’m glad to hear this, and particularly glad to hear it from TMR, because I plan to submit poems to them until the day I die. Also, Blackbird, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry Northwest, Southern Review, I’m looking at you.

Here’s the takeaway: “You can quit anytime. Why quit now?”

the most beautiful thing  As usual, I’ve strayed from the path of my assigned readings and into the pages of a book I just happened to bump into. This time, I bumped into May Day by Gretchen Marquette. These poems are about grief and loss and fear and also survival. They’re about keeping on, even if there is no “happy” ending. I fell for the poem “Figure Drawing” in particular. You can read it here on the TriQuarterly website. You can buy May Day here.

Let us listen and dictate. Let us keep on. Let us not quit now.

friday roundup: going to seed edition


It’s Friday again (and here I think of Robert Hass: “The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself.”).

I had planned to be at AWP this week, but Things Changed.

Today is April 1. I am not fooling about anything. Last year on this day, one of my darlings replaced the sugar with salt and I ended up with salty tea at 5:00 a.m. In case you can’t tell I AM NOT OVER IT YET, and therefore am boycotting April Fool’s Day. Forever.

Now, for the roundup:

going to seed  After my musings on a room of one’s own, a friend sent me an article by Annie Dillard in which she writes about her writing digs. She keeps things simple: sheds and tents:

“When you build a fancy study—a houslet—or add a room to your house, you lose the fun of the thing. A toolshed or a tent, like a tree house, lets you fool yourself into thinking you are not working, only playing. ‘Society’s norms be damned,’ you tell yourself, ‘I’m on the lam.'”

I can see her point, and I’m not much one for “fancy,” but I would not look down my nose at a study, a room in my house. I would not.

My favorite part of the article has more to do with the writing life than writing studios. She writes:

“In order to write books I spend fully as much energy ignoring what I was reared to notice as I spend working. The feats of discipline people think writers perform to drive themselves to their desk are easy evasions of the real hard work: not playing along with the rest of the world.”

Can I get an amen? And here’s the best line of the essay:

“Going to seed is an act of will.”

How I love this line! A friend pointed out that “going to seed” is such a nicer thought than “living in squalor.” I’m all in for going to seed. I wish I could link to this essay, but it is apparently the only thing in the world that is not findable on the Interwebs. If you are intrepid, you can go to the library and see if you can find it through EBSCOhost or something… it appeared in Architectural Digest under the title “Keeping It Simple.” Also it’s in this book.

the only thing we really have This week I stumbled upon and thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Blake’s article at The Rumpus, “Men Explain Submissions to Me.” She discusses some of the demoralizing aspects of submitting poems to lit mags, and the even more demoralizing feeling of getting mansplained in the process. But even better, she gives us a list of soul-preserving things to do (and not do), reminding us that “the only thing we really have is respect for ourselves and our art.” What I love about her list is that it is steadfastly committed to the writer keeping her agency throughout the submissions process. “Treat your work the best you can,” she writes; and, “Guard your energy at all costs. Your energy is best for your writing.”

You should go read the whole article / list here.

a poetry of shine  I’ve been spending a lot of time with C.D. Wright’s Steal Away: Selected and New Poems. Here’s a kind of ars poetica that I’ve really fallen for:



This isn’t the end. It simply
cannot be the end. It is a road.
You go ahead coatless, light-
soaked, more rutilant than
the road. The soles of your shoes
sparkle. You walk softly
as you move further inside
your subject. It is a living
season. The trees are anxious
to be included. The car with fins
beams through countless
oncoming points of rage and need.
The sloughed-off cells
under our bed form little hills
of dead matter. If the most sidereal
drink is pain, the most soothing
clock is music. A poetry
of shine could come of this.
It will be predominantly
green. You will be allowed
to color in as much as you want
for green is good
for the teeth and the eyes.


Wishing you a happy April 1, no fooling.


PSA: send your poems to Heron Tree


A quick note today to get the word out about one of my favorite online journals, Heron Tree (full disclosure: the good people at Heron Tree have published my work).

If you’re not already reading Heron Tree, I recommend it. I love their format. They publish one poem each week online, and then compile the year’s worth of poems in a printed edition. It’s a win-win: you get to live with one poem each week all throughout the year… then find the poems all over again in the bound edition. I often reach for my copies for inspiration before drafting… gathering a few words here and there, maybe using the map (or structure ) of one of the poems.

Heron Tree is open for submissions until June 1. They read blind (I love this about them). Send them your best! Guidelines are at this link.


on submissions: guidelines


Once I had this idea that I’d write a few posts on what I’ve learned about submitting poems. I imagined it would take me a few weeks. Then life kept happening and happening. Life is very life-like that way. Anyway, I think I’ve promised a post about guidelines, so that’s what today’s topic is, lo these many weeks months.

Refresher: For those who might not remember in the gaps between posts, or who are just joining us, my mantra for submissions (and all of poetry, really) is from Aristotle: “One learns to play the harp by playing.” Which inevitably means making mistakes and learning as one goes.

BUT FIRST: A reader wrote (thank you!) and suggested I clarify something about placement rates, which I touched on in this post. There, I wrote that even a 10% placement rate is considered very good. This reader suggested that using 10% as a benchmark sets people up for discouragement, since many people will have much lower placement rates. So, I want to emphasize that a 10% rate would be *very good* (and if you are there or above, you might want to think about submitting to higher-tiered journals). I myself have a 7.8% placement rate according to Duotrope, where I track my submissions. So, if you’re rate is below 10%, fear not—you are so not alone.

Now: Guidelines.

Guidelines describe the format in which a journal desires to consider submissions.

They might go something like this: 3-5 poems, no more than one poem per page, maximum of 10 pages, standard font, contact information on each page (or not), online only, or postal only (though this is becoming rare), or postal and online okay, simultaneous submissions* okay (or not).

Some want a cover letter, others don’t. Some read blind—that is, without referencing the contact information—in an effort to remain unbiased. This is especially true for contests. Others don’t read blind; this is what’s typical for regular journal submissions.

Since every journal’s guidelines are different (someday I’ll write another post on my one of my dreams: universal submission guidelines), it’s important to read guidelines carefully and format each submission accordingly.

My process for making sure I meet a journal’s guidelines is to print out the guidelines and one by one, manually check them off as I prepare my submission, then double-check. Painstaking and paper-intensive, but it’s what works for me.

Even with this process, I have goofed on guidelines. You will goof on guidelines. It’s not the end of the world. Some journals might read your submission anyway (don’t plan on this); some won’t. Although you don’t want to make a practice of it, you can always withdraw and submit again if you’ve submitted online.

WARNING: Many journals list their guidelines on their website, as well as on their submission manager webpages. I’ve found that these sets of guidelines sometimes contradict one another. When in doubt, I typically go for the more rigorous guidelines (e.g., if one asks for a cover letter, but the other doesn’t mention cover letters, I’ll include a cover letter). When in extreme doubt, I’ve queried the editorial staff (maybe once or twice).

Here are some examples of guidelines from a few different journals:

As you can see, guidelines vary widely from place to place. Follow them. Followed guidelines are your poems’ first foot in the door.

Yet to come in this series (I use the term loosely) on submissions: formatting and cover letters; being strategic. Previous posts are available here:

Thanks for reading!

*Note: Simultaneous submissions are when you submit a poem or set of poems to more than one journal at the same time. Some journals are fine with this, others aren’t. This is almost always stated in their guidelines, but Duotrope is a place to double check. Here is a helpful piece from The Review Review about sending simultaneous submissions strategically (and some other stuff). The gist is this: if you’re submitting poems simultaneously, send them to journals that you would be equally happy to place the poems with.


submissions: on being in the ballpark

now reading...

now reading…

In this post I said I’d write more about getting to know lit mags, with an eye to figuring out where to send one’s work.

(I confess, the song “Getting to Know You” from The King and I is now going through my head. You’re welcome for the ear-worm).

Here is a hurdle that kept me from submitting widely for years: that place in the guidelines where it says something along the lines of, “The best way to find out what we’re looking for is to subscribe and read what we publish, so that you’re familiar with our particular aesthetic.” Which is, of course, obvious. But I was hung up on getting to know journals because I felt like I’d have to read a journal for years to get the hang of each one’s particular aesthetic.

That’s when I took a class called “Getting Your Work Out” with the poet Molly Fisk and, regarding particular aesthetics, she said these magic words to me: “Just be in the ballpark.”

Knowing with confidence each journal’s particular aesthetic felt impossible; being in the ballpark felt possible.

And frankly, I’ve read many, many lit mags for many years and here’s what I have to say about particular aesthetics: Most journals publish a wide variety of work from the spare, highly lyric, near-fragment of a poem to the rambling narrative. Not all, but most. Or most that I read, anyway.

So, okay: just be in the ballpark. How do I know if I’m in the ballpark? (Note: these tips apply mainly to print journals)

  1. Yes, subscribe and read. But most of us can’t realistically subscribe to and read the, let’s say, 100 lit mags we’d have to send poems to each year to place 10 poems (see this post for the math). So…
  2. Subscribe on a rotating schedule. At any given time I’m subscribed to 8-10 lit mags, maybe a few more or less. There are some I subscribe to every year because I feel like one must know what’s going on in their pages (e.g., Poetry, APR). Then there are those who must take turns because I don’t have an unlimited budget of dollars or time. On the off-years for a given journal, I stay in touch with what they’re publishing by:
  3. Swapping journals with friends, and even coordinating subscriptions with them;
  4. Visiting a journal’s website, where many journals feature a few poems from each issue;
  5. Buying single issues, which usually cost less than a subscription;
  6. Tracking down recent issues through EBSCOHost (or other online content databases) at the library. This method is a bit clunkier, but it works and it allows you to say in your cover letter, “I particularly enjoyed (Name of Poet’s) poem, (‘Title of Poem’), from your most recent issue.”
  7. Pay attention to where your “kindred” poets are publishing–those who work in approximately the same aesthetic as you (again, be in the ballpark). If Journal X likes one of your kindred poets’ work, it’s probably a reasonable place to send your own.

(Of course, if you have access to a university library that subscribes to a wide variety of lit mags, OR an unlimited budget, you’re golden. These tips are for those of us who don’t.)

And don’t forget: One learns to play the harp by playing. You might, with good intentions, send your poems to a journal and later realize you might’ve been a bit outside the ballpark. It’s okay. Finding journals that are a good fit for your poems is a process like anything else.

Up next, Lord knows when: guidelines.

one learns to play the harp by playing: on submissions, part two


Technically a lyre, not a harp (wikimedia)

In this post I wrote a little bit about submitting poems, and the hurdles that might keep someone (or kept me) from submitting. I’ll cover a couple more points today, namely:

  • What do I send? and
  • Where do I send it?

I wrote a bit about figuring out what to send in this post. I won’t repeat myself in detail here, but the basic idea is to create mini-manuscripts of poems that play well together, with maybe one or two that show a bit of your breadth as a poet (so are somewhat, somehow different from the others). Yes, the same and different.

Poems that play well together might be related by subject matter, form, voice, similar images, tradition… you get the idea.

When I first started out making mini-manuscripts, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. Like everything else, I learned by doing it. There may be a certain amount of zombie-walking involved at first, but after a while you get the hang of it. Zombie walk: a technical term meaning “to walk around and put poems in small groupings until you have them in some kind of organization and order that only afterwards can you articulate your reasons for.” Or something like that.

If you’re just starting out, set an achievable goal. Try for three mini-manuscripts of five poems each, with no overlap (that way, when one packet gets rejected, you can simply send the next and the next to the same journal).

As for where to send your poems…. ay. I could write a book. Let me try to be practical instead and direct you to a few resources:

  1. Your bookshelf, bed-side table, end table, the stacks on and next to your desk, and similar environs. What are the journals you read and love best? You probably love them best because they publish the kind of poems you love to write.
  2. The acknowledgements pages of the poetry collections you love. Look at the collections you go back to again and again, and see where those poets are publishing.
  3. If you have access to a university library (O, how I wish I did!), visit their periodicals room (Most municipal libraries that I know of do not carry lit mags anymore. Bookstores sometimes carry a few.).
  4. This list of the top 50 print journals. This list of the top 20 online journals. These are only starting places; there are many excellent journals that are not on these lists, so don’t get hung up on the lists.
  5. Calls for submissions in Poets&Writers and Writer’s Chronicle
  6. New Pages
  7. Your poet-friends. Ask what they’re reading and loving, journal-wise.

If you’re just starting out, set an achievable goal. Identify 10 journals that you think might be a good fit for your work. Don’t define “good fit” too narrowly (like I did for several years), just be in the ballpark. Find journals that are publishing a variety of styles and voices (this is most journals BTW—more on this in another post) where your poems could join the chorus. If I were starting over, I’d aim higher than I did when I first started submitting. You can always come down.

Next up regarding submissions:

  • Getting to know a journal
  • Guidelines, guidelines, guidelines

one learns to play the harp by playing: on submissions

She looks serious. (wikimedia)

She looks serious. “Teika” by Janis Rozentāls (wikimedia)

That’s a paraphrase Aristotle up there in the title: One learns to play the harp by playing.

I have this quote forever pinned to the cork board above my desk. It’s how I learn to write poetry: by writing poetry. It’s how I learn to be a mom to a teenager: by being the mom of a teenager. It’s my comfort: knowing I can only learn to do something by doing it, which inevitably means making mistakes and picking up knowledge as I go. Which inevitably means looking back from time to time and realizing how much I didn’t know back then, back then, and back then.

It’s also how I learn to submit poems to literary magazines. O, by playing. Yes, by striking wrong notes, practicing till my fingers bleed, building up callouses and having them split open again. But after four years of submitting poems on a regular basis, I’m finally to the point where I can breeze through the scales, play some songs by heart, tackle more ambitious pieces. The callouses generally hold.

So I thought I’d write a few posts about submissions over the next little while, sharing a bit of what I’ve learned, am learning.

Today I’ll cover a couple of hurdles—those obstacles that kept me from beginning to submit poems at all—and how I eventually cleared them.

hurdle: how do I know when a poem is finished? (and therefore ready to send out)? I find it adorable that I ever thought a poem could be declared finished. I’m with Paul Valéry, who said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. (Frankly, I’ve often felt a poem abandoned me #justsayin). Over time, by continuously drafting, revising, resting, and re-revising poems, I’ve learned that a poem may never feel finished, but that doesn’t mean it’s not send-out-able. I’ve found it’s more helpful for me to think of “send-out-able” than “finished.” I’ve learned a poem can be revised even after it’s in print; not on the page where it exists in the published version, of course, but in future incarnations (perhaps in a collection, in an anthology, etc.). To wit, Marianne Moore famously revised her poem “Poetry” over the course of 50 years.

So clearing the first hurdle meant forgetting the idea of finished and embracing the idea of send-out-able.

(Note that I am not even wading into the waters of “How do I know if it’s good?” I am of the Merwin school of thought on this).

hurdle: fear of rejection  This was not a huge hurdle for me, since by the time I started sending out poems I knew rejection was just part and parcel of being a writer. However, having some data around rejection helped me to feel freer about submitting.

Shortly after I began submitting, I read an article in which a writer who I admired was quoted as saying that even a 10% placement rate is really solid. Knowing that for each submission I sent out there is (at least) a 90% chance of rejection makes me feel like there is less at stake for each individual submission.

Armed with the 10% statistic, acceptances became pleasant surprises rather than hoped-for results. It also helped me see that—as every seasoned writer I know says—submitting is a numbers game. The more you send out, the better your chances of placing something somewhere. Ten percent on 3 submissions could mean zero pubs; ten percent on 50 or 100 and you’ve got a much better shot at some publications.

So each time I send out a sturdy little pile of poems, I have a conversation with it: Sturdy Little Pile, chances are you’re not going to make it, but hey, we’ll give it a shot. And I believe in you either way. Very freeing!

Okay, that seems like enough for one day. The next hurdles I’ll cover (who knows when, but sometime soonish) are:

  • what do I send? and
  • where do I send it?

#poetrymonthfail and other news

Studies of Water Passing Obstacles and Falling -- from Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks via wikimedia

Studies of Water Passing Obstacles and Falling — from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks via wikimedia

I am forever learning new ways of speaking from my kids. My middle-schooler has begun saying “hashtag (fill-in-the-blank)” as a way of commenting on something. A frequent example is when I forget something or otherwise goof: “hashtag mom fail.”

Thank you, middle-schooler.

If I were to say anything about my poetry month this year, it would be: “hashtag poetry month fail.” I won’t be surprised if on my gravestone my survivors decide to put: “She had good intentions, but…” (also in the running: “She always started tomorrow’s dinner today.”).

In this post I wrote about four things I was planning on doing for poetry month: submitting, revising, trying out Scrivener (a writerly software application), and creating and sending out a The Handout.

The ugly truth:

I am still reading the instructions for Scrivener. In my defense, there are a lot of instructions, and they lead me to believe this could be a very useful application for poets and writers. But I haven’t taken the leap to using it, mostly because I feel like I still don’t understand it well enough to use it well. What I’d like to do is go to a class or workshop where they teach you how to use it. A quick search on The Google tells me that such workshops exist, so I’ll be looking for one in my area.

I have not finished the The Handout. I have started it! I will finish it! It will be mailed before June 3rd! This is all I can say about The Handout. This and: sorry.

I did do some (revising and) submitting, but I was not a (revision and) submissions machine. As I have always aspired to be. As I have never been. And now, I’m seeing advice from editors on Facebook to just focus on next fall at this point — the academic journals are clearing the decks and some submissions probably won’t even be read before getting rejected. This is an argument in favor of submitting early in the reading period. I think this is probably good advice especially regarding academic journals, but I’m also keeping in mind that there are many journals that read during the summer. Diane Lockward usually publishes a list or two or three on her blog (the links I just used are from last year’s lists, so double check guidelines for this year if you plan to use them, or wait for Diane’s 2014 list if she posts it).

Really, though, for a poet every month is poetry month. I just keep doing the best I can with the time I have. And I keep reminding myself that the obstacle in the path becomes the path (credit: Genine Lentine — to whom I am trying to link and getting an error — I will update later). Amen.

(By the way, speaking of to do lists…. if you want to see Leonardo da Vinci’s to do list rendered beautifully by one of my favorite Bay Area artists, Wendy MacNaughton (to whom I am also trying to link and failing but find her on The Google) until I can update this, go here).

Oh yeah, I almost forgot the other news. Many thanks to Kathleen Kirk and Escape Into Life for featuring my poem “Argument for Staying” in their Mother’s Day feature (Ugh. Ugh. I cannot link to anything today. And the truth is I won’t really have time to update it until at least tomorrow. So the obstacle in the path becomes the path. The path is The Google. Go look! Try: escape into life mother’s day). I’m in good company there along with Martha Silano, Sarah J. Sloat, Sandy Longhorn, and others. I’m happy to see that this is a Mother’s Day feature that also looks at the choice not to be a mother.


four things I’m doing for National Poetry Month


photo from wikimedia

photo from wikimedia

Happy April is Poetry Month, no foolin’.

(BTW, I’ve always found it rather hilarious that National Poetry Month begins on April Fool’s Day).

I’m not writing a poem a day for poetry month. I took a look at where my work is, and decided instead to:

submit — I have submissions out at only three journals right now. Only three! And before we know it, many journals will be closing for the summer. So my number one priority for poetry month will be to send out a few submissions a week to my list of kinship journals (an always-evolving list). And if I’m going to be submitting, it means I will also need to…

revise — Submissions and revisions are joined at the hip for me. I’ve always wanted to unhinge one from the other, but so far haven’t figured out how. Maybe someday. For now, to the revisions/submissions process I say: I accept. I’ll be looking through promising drafts and using these tips, these tips, these tips, and also these tips.

So that’s two things… . The third thing I’m going to do for poetry month is a 30-day trial of Scrivener software for writers. Scrivener is a software program that allows you to electronically organize your notebooks, index cards, drafts, notes, updates, jottings, etc. It also allows you to compile large documents — say a poetry manuscript — from various smaller documents within the program. I can see immediately that this would be useful for long form writers: fiction writers, essayists, academic writers. I have a hunch it could be a good tool for poets as well, but I’m not 100% sure. And I’m always a little nervous when leaving behind one process for another, so I’ll be shadowing my Scrivener adventure with my usual Word documents that contain background notes, free writes, early drafts, and each revision. I’ll use the 30-day trial this month both for poetry and for a book review I’m working on, and I’ll let you know what I think about its utility for poets. Stay tuned.

Lastly — and here’s where there’s something in it for you — I’m going to revive my unintentionally-abandoned practice of sending out The Handout (You will note if you read the link that this is not the first occurrence of unintentional abandonment. Mea culpa.). All month, I’ll be setting aside poems that I find in some way, and then I’ll cut and paste and copy and mail the poems to your mailbox. If you want them.

If you are already on my The Handout list, you don’t need to do anything. If you’d like to be on my The Handout list, send me your name and snail mail address with “The Handout” in the subject line to: mollycspencer (at) gmail (dot) com. I’ll add you to the list. The stamp’s on me.

Happy National Poetry Month!