Recently – belatedly some might suggest – I lost my Zoom Presentation Virginity. In advance of the event I’d been nervous for some time while also looking forward to it. I was going to be sharing my screen with a bunch of lovely women and I knew they’d be kind, but I still had performance anxiety. Friends kept telling me I’d be fine. In the event it didn’t hurt at all and we all had a very good time. Here’s hoping I get to do it again. With others.
There are many virginities we lose in a life – so many First Times – and Guest Editing Snakeskin 284 (May 2021) on the theme of ‘Breathe’ means I have now also lost my Poetry Editor Virginity too. I have sent many poems out over the years and will continue to do so, but it’s the first time I’ve been on the receiving end of being sent others’ poems for consideration and selection. If I was nervous it was of being deluged with submissions. The poets have been locked down. The poets have been writing a lot. One journal editor told me recently they had had over 500 submissions; another recently turned down my work with a reply saying they received “a staggering” 2706 submissions and could accept 25. I’m telling you this (a) to give some sense of how tough it can be to get poems accepted, and why you have to be prepared to get a lot of turn downs but please Keep On Trying; (b) to invite you to imagine what it is like as an Editor to be on the end of receiving hundreds, or even thousands, of poems; and (c) to encourage all of us everywhere to want to write the best poems we can, because there are a lot of Very Good Poems out there being submitted.
I suspect that themed issues actually cut down the number of submissions. I was wanting to hit a certain zeitgeist with ‘Breathe’, emerging as we are from lockdown, blinking into the sunlight and wondering who we are now. Some of us have stopped breathing, literally. We have become aware of the potency and urgency of the words “I can’t breathe”. Breathing is the most fundamental and basic thing we do, utterly ordinary and utterly vital. I received an in-the-realm-of-manageable 137 poems, from 64 poets. It was a pleasure and a privilege to read them. I read every one, often several times, and from that made a shortlist. I requested up to four poems from submitters. People sent me four, three, two and one. I accepted poems from people who sent me four, three, two and one. Often it’s helpful to send more than one. As an Editor I want to get a feel for your writing, your style. That’s not impossible from one poem alone, but that one poem has really got to stand out and do a lot of work to make the shortlist. I also wanted people to introduce themselves when they sent their poems and (though I didn’t explicitly request it) tell me a bit about who they are as a poet. You’re a human being; I’m a human being. Tell me about you. On occasions I looked people up (i.e. I googled “Josephine Bloggs poet”). On occasions people told me they’d looked me up (fair enough). Mostly people were friendly and wished me well losing my Poetry Editor Virginity (perhaps not using those words).
Snakeskin 284 blossoms into May 2021 containing 26 poems. I love every one. I have stared at some of them on my computer screen for long periods of time, wondering about capitals or not capitals, whether that comma should be there, is that line break right. At one point, in email correspondence with George, who has been very trusting at letting me loose on his magazine, he said “One of the roles of the editor is to be a friendly critic”. This is very good advice. I realised that in many cases I wanted to accept a poem (because it was good) but also make minor suggestions as to how it might be improved. Many years ago I submitted a poem to an anthology and in due course was told it was accepted, but the anthologiser effectively rewrote my poem, to the point that I couldn’t recognise it as mine anymore. In the end the anthology never happened, but that wasn’t a comfortable experience. So I was a bit nervous about editorial interventions. I didn’t want anyone to feel they just had to accept my suggestions otherwise I wouldn’t take the poem (that wouldn’t necessarily have been the case). On occasions (though not many) the poet pushed back against my suggested change and we had some dialogue about it. That’s fine. I was genuinely delighted when the poet told me my suggestion – which they would never have thought of – had enhanced the poem. The short moral of this story is always show your poem to a.n.other poetry reader/friendly critic before you send it out. Get that second opinion.
To return finally to my by-now-over-used Losing My Virginity metaphor, it didn’t hurt at all and I had a great time. I hope I’ll do it again. With others. The poems breathing away here are short, long, witty, funny, quiet, thoughtful, reflective, serious and all of them are formally dexterous. Snakeskin likes (inter alia) poems that use set forms well. I like (inter alia) poems that use set forms well. Snakeskin likes (inter alia) humorous poems on occasions. If a poem made me laugh out loud it’s probably on to something. I like poems where I can see the craft (poetry is – always – a craft) and I like poems where the form is absolutely the one for the content, right down to the level of the missed beat in a line falling after the word “breathless”. I like poems that make me think – really think -- and which work at more than one level. Several of these poems are telling us stories and many of the best poems will take the reader on some kind of journey, cliché though that almost might sound. At the end of the poem the reader and writer need to be in a different place.
So many thanks to everyone who submitted their work. I hope you enjoy Snakeskin 284.
May 1st, 2021
Any thoughts? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org