Thursday, February 07, 2008

"All Is Not Light" - or "Why I'm Not in the Mella-Camp"

Occasionally people who know me, or who know my poetry, will ask me why I don't submit anymore. I've usually only got vague answers for them because I'm not really sure myself.

Today, though, I remember the real reason behind my lack of enthusiasm for poetry magazines and for the editors of poetry magazines wihch has, God help me, filtered all the way down to the way I feel about poetry itself.

It all started 6 years ago with the infamous, of course.

And then along came the now defunct Foetry with it's unending and irritating tales of poetry-publishing shenanigans, not the least of which was The Tupelo Press/Jeffery Levine (Send-me-$35.00-please) debacle and the Lehman/Best American Poetry Series with it's rather incestuous sounding selection process.

More recently, there's this and there's this just in case all that other stuff wasn't enough to convince us (meaning me) that there is very little honor and very much nepotism in the publishing world.

Just in case I was in danger of changing my mind, however, one of "the good guys" (in my mind, anyhow, since I had never heard anything bad about him or his publication - if fact, on the contrary, I had always heard very good, very fair and complimentary things about him) has now fallen from the clay pedestal I'd once set him and a very few other editors upon.

It all came to Light over on Eratosphere on this thread started by a poet from North Dakota named Timothy Murphy.

For those of you who don't want to waste an hour reading the whole thread, I'll do a quick recap:

The well-known Murphy said, about Tom Mella, the editor of Light Magazine,

,John Mella's been awfully good to a lot of us. He doesn't accept email, so I'll email this in.

This is true, of course. They do not accept email submission. If you read their guidelines, there is no email address for submissions given and all submission information is paper based only.

Please be neat, submit letter-quality typescripts or clean photocopies, and a stamped self-addressed business (# 10) or manila-sized envelope (no post cards). Submissions that do not have sufficient postage for their return will be destroyed unread. There should be only one poem on each page, etc etc
Send contributions, queries, subscriptions, correspondence to:
The Editors
PO Box 7500
Chicago, Illinois 60680

No email address or instructions for it's usage was given on the submission page - no where, no how, no way.

Five hours later, the following announcement was posted on the thread:

This just in from Light Quarterly:
INSTANT DECISION: I LOVE IT! AND ACCEPT IT.. I'm sorry about your wheelchair. I'm glad you can still keep the sight steady. Write when you will or can. Glad you like the facelift of the mag. Still kicking, the old girl.

And so, this is a rather long and tedious way of saying, "In order to get an editor's attention, it's not how you write, it's not what you write, it's not how carefully you follow directions or how neatly you fold each submission or how much blood and sweat went into your poem or your preparation - it's about how well you already know them."

I'll take the high road here and go out on a limb - editors like that, editors who have rules for one set of people which do not apply to other sets of people, I don't think I really want to know them or to waste my time submitting poetry to least is quickly up front about the way they do business - and as far as I know, they don't discriminate - they read all of the submissions the same way and they take everyone's money the same way - regardless of who they are - and they're not afraid or ashamed to say so.

I mean, fer God's sake, if you're going to make a practice of favoritism, at least have the decency to be quiet about it.


RHE said...

Laura, as a poet more frequently rejected by magazines than accepted by them, I sympathize. But it has ever been thus. I think most magazines are founded in the first place, not as neutral forums to serve the greater good of poetry, but so that poets and editors have places to publish their friends. The Kenyon Review was started so the New Critics could publish one another. When Ezra Pound wrote Harriet Monroe, bullying her into publishing the new poem by his friend T.S. Eliot, he wasn't relying on some blind process of dispassionate, neutral selection. Ford Madox Ford took up the editorship of two magazines to help promote his friends--granted, his friends included Conrad and Henry James and Getrude Stein and Hardy and Crane, but, still, he wasn't pushing a blind selection process.

I don't we need better magazine selection processes; I think we need more important friends.

Lo said...

Ack, Richard, God love ya, I'm afraid you're right.

That's probably why I get so irritated - because it's not so much my writing as it is my personality that's on the line, isn't it?

If this is true, then my utter lack of social skills must certainly be addressed.

On second thought, I think I'll go Dickinsonistic.

Quincy said...


There's corruption and there's corruption, and the Mella/Murphy dynamic here doesn't even strike me as being fairly corrupt. Tim is very much a known quantity with Light, and as such, knows Mella's personal e-mail. It's understandable and hardly a cause for alarm that the process would work somewhat differently.

The thing is, the slush pile is generally a fairly dodgy way of busting into publication. Wish it weren't, but it is. Editors, if they've been around for a while, do tend to promote certain writers--and sometimes even if they haven't. Hell, when Nemo and I started MM, we had some very specific ideas of what we wanted to do, and we have yet to even open the press to submissions.

The editor's primary job is to put out the best magazine he/she can according to his/her lights, and frequently, even usually, that means cultivating a favoured inner circle, with others occasionally breaking in through the slush. Tim happens to be part of Light's inner circle, is very much a known quantity to Mella, and that he has a far greater chance of getting in than either of us is unsurprising and uninteresting.

Were Light charging a reading fee, I might feel differently.

Lo said...

I dunno, Quincy, it might not be "corruption" but I'd still say it smacks of "favoritism" and even that's enough to set me off nowadays. Any time an editor has a "favored inner circle" it hurts the far larger population-at-large.

I don't disagree with you that it's wide-spread and possibly even the norm - I just personally feel that it sucks. Not just for me, but for everyone. Just as it sucks when a professor tends to choose his students over non-students, or favored students over un-favored students when the professor just happens to be the editor of a magazine. It's one of the reason magazines and editors are going more and more to "blind judging" for contests and "blind submissions" for general purposes - and the main reason behind those little paragraphs which say students and friends of the judge/editor are not permitted to enter contests. The inherent wrongness which becomes possible in "knowing someone" is always there. You can call it anything you want - unsuprising or uninteresting - it's still unfair.

BTW, what is MM, anyhow?

Quincy said...

MM=Modern Metrics.

Well, favouritism's a bad thing for the readers of a magazine when it leads to an erosion of quality. On the other hand, let's say I started a journal and wanted some of that funky Heidy-Halberstein style. I would probably drop you an e-mail and ask you to submit, including with the option of e-mailing in your submission--even if everyone else is going by snail-mail. This would not guarantee acceptance, but it would bump your sub up to a higher priority for reading.


Lo said...

Ah, Quincy, I've had editors do just that - make a request for a submission. Honestly, I hate it. It makes me uneasy, yanno? Sometimes I just flat out refuse - but if I know the editor well and I don't want to disappoint them or risk hurting their feelings, I sometimes just bite the bullet and submit.

Interestingly enough, several of those requested submissions were ultimately rejected. Which made me feel even worse - as if I'd violated my principals for someone and it didn't even matter. Or maybe it just hurt my feelings and made me feel like a bad writer. I guess maybe the only thing worse than not having a reputation is not living up to it.

Ack, who knows? Maybe it's just sour grapes because I've gotten the damn post-it note after 8 months of waiting which said, "Sorry, not quite Light."

I know, I know. I expect too much, I give too little. I gripe all the time.

RHE said...

But, Laura, the very use of the word "favoritism" implies that editors have some sort of disinterested duty to serve the needs of suffering humanity (as represented by poets whom they don't know--i.e., us). I don't see that. Where is it written that editors are duty bound to be neutral and to promote the interests of strangers? I suspect they have all kinds of agendas. Many of them are in the enterprise to publish the kinds of poems they like or to advance the interests of their friends or to make themselves feel important or even, from time to time, to serve the greater good of Poesy (which may or may not have anything to do with what I like. Usually, not),

There seems to me something fundamentally unreasonable in your feeling that they should all play by your rules, that they are obliged to be "fair," to serve the greater good of Poetrydom. Who said? I expect there are as many motives as there are editors. I do indeed wish that more of them were motivated by the desire to advance my career, but I don't think they owe me that.

Lo said...

who says?


I think I give up - Rhe and Quincy are right. My "prefect" world where poems (and poets) are judged on merit time and time again, with each poem being judged anew, does not now and will not ever exist.

I concede that a reputation is important and rightly carries weight.

Chosing what you know over that which you don't know applies in poetry as well as in hamburgers vs sushi.

Lord knows I'd never be brave enough to sample raw fish.

Human nature says that the familiar is always the most comfortable and that family and friends come first.

Editors are, after all, human. (Right?)

Apologies to Mella and Murphy.