On Editing:  A Modest Proposal for Poetry Magazines

Updated: Jul 23

Here’s something I don’t believe:  That the real purpose of editorial committees is to bring fairness to the process.  I think the real purpose of editorial committees is to spread the blame for failure so that no one has to take responsibility.

Any editor knows that every issue of every magazine is a testament to failure at some level—some wonderful but odd poem not published, some deserving author overlooked, some grand opportunity for comment or article not seized.  It comes with the territory.  If you can’t bear failure, and if you can’t understand that recognizing your failure is the price you pay for improving, then you’d best pick a different occupation or avocation:  you shouldn’t be an editor, you don’t have the nerves or the vision or the stamina for it.

What prompts this reflection is a note on one of the more prominent poetry magazines publishing today, that the editors are trying to speed up their response times, and expect to be able to respond to submissions within seven months.

Seven months!  Are you kidding me?

If seven months is your idea of good editorship, then let me say again:  Go do something else.  Really.  Become a trash collector, or house painter, where the object of your attention is limited to a single object for a specified period of time, and you get to go home at night and not worry about tomorrow until tomorrow; but get the hell out of editing.

I think an editor has several important tasks and constituencies, and that to fail at achieving any one of them is to fail at all of them.

I will, for the sake of this piece, limit myself to discussing editing poetry magazines, but the points made here can apply more broadly to other publications.

There are two main groups that an editor has responsibility to.  One is the readers and one is the contributors.  That’s easy enough to understand.  There are also the funders, the private donors and the grants foundations, and their needs can sometimes be a little eccentric; but by and large while their specific needs are narrower than those of the other two groups (a project, a mission, a celebration, a remembrance are not unusual), their general needs are the same, and those are:  a good product and good treatment of the people who create the content.

So, then, the first of the major editorial goals is the obvious one:  to publish the best work you can lay your hands on.  This may not be limited to what comes over the transom, it may include things you solicit, run into accidentally, see on social media:  source matters less than effect.  Your job is to find the best.

Second goal is to be varied.  In the old old days, when I first started writing and dinosaurs still roamed the planet, it was possible to parody the poems of certain magazines, because every poem in those magazines was basically the same:  same affect, same syllable count, line length, vowel sounds, almost the same metaphors and subject matter.  Everyone knew what a Field poem was, or a Poetry Northwest poem, and to some extent, even a kayak poem.  They had gone beyond the place where magazine poem selections end; they had become genres.

I count that an editorial sin, unless there is a point to the monomania: