A Northwest Based Literary Journal

Submitting the Standout Poem: Notes on Content

In every submission period for each of the magazines I’ve read for in the past seven years, I’ve been surprised by the trends in content that arise in the submission queue. A few summers ago, everyone seemed to be writing poems about mythical monsters, and a recent fall gave the world droves of poems reinterpreting stories of the Old Testament. Right now, I’m watching a small trend in, of all things, phrenology (you’ll be seeing one poem on the topic in Volume 1).

How poets come to think and write en masse about some of these curious topics has always been a delightful mystery to me, but at the same time, it’s also been a frustration. What’s an editor to do when she has five great poems on a single theme before her? Well, she often has to reject four of them in the interest of keeping the journal’s voice and content fresh.

In fact, I’ve had to reject many very good poems over the years for no other reason than that I simply can’t fill all my pages with variations on the same few themes. While monsters, biblical characters, and phrenology all came in small enough waves, some topics dominate the submission queue season after season, year after year. When a poet submits work on the same topic as hundreds of other writers, she puts herself into direct competition with every other poet writing on that theme. Unfortunately, the odds of having her work declined rise sharply.

So what are those perennially overrepresented themes? Before I list them off, let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with writing poems on these topics. Many excellent poems have been written about each one, and I’ve accepted poems from several of the categories listed. Take this list not as a dictum on what can be written about, but simply as a list of what I and many other editors see more of than we’d necessarily like to:

  • My child said something amazing. Kids do say the darndest things, but it’s often more charming to the parent or to other family members than it is to the stranger who doesn’t already know and love your little one.
  • Someone I love got very sick. This one is tricky; there’s possibly no more compelling, urgent topic to write about than the matter of life and death, and it’s a topic that touches us all. I’ve printed many poems on this topic over the years, but no magazine can devote all its pages to the darkness; we need the light, too.
  • My garden is beautiful and meaningful. I get it. I have my organic garden, too. When you spend a lot of time and take a good deal of pride in coaxing radishes out of the dust, those little root vegetables start to look pretty meaningful. Unless you have something more to say than that the seasons change and we grow older, you may want to rethink submitting that poem.
  •  I visited exotic locations and ate amazing food. Sometimes, travel poems feel a little like looking at someone else’s vacation photos: it’s just not as thrilling an experience when lived vicariously.
  •  I walked on the beach or in the woods and had deep thoughts and/or I sat in the coffee shop and observed human behavior. Is there a poet who hasn’t written these poems? I know I have a few like this in the drawer. Just as with the garden poem, unless there’s something new and fresh to be said here, the drawer might be an okay place for these poems to rest.
  •  My childhood was awesome. That’s great! But maybe not something that gives a gift to the reader. Personal nostalgia poetry (I receive a good many submissions of 60s childhood stories) doesn’t always speak to the generalist audience; editors want to publish work with which people of all ages and backgrounds can resonate. Unless the poem has something unique to give to every reader, regardless of whether they grew up at the same time as you did, it may be okay to leave that one out of the submission packet.

 

So what’s left? What do we see too little of? Send me what’s surprising—what seems wholly unpoetic. I would love to see more poems about science. About ghosts. In the voices of obscure, long-dead historical figures. Persona poems. Funny poems and frightening poems. Poems about the apocalypse and poems about pop culture. Poems in invented forms. Poems as non-preachy social commentary. Poems in response to other poets’ work. Poems on religion or politics or the local news. Dare to be original, to be strange, to send your most unusual work: you’ll be giving editors a breath of fresh air.

 

–KD