One Reader’s Not-Quite-Manifesto on Poetry Selection for the Lit Magazine

Magazines have outlines for the kinds of work they want – format, delivery, length, and maybe a few general dos and don’ts (no genre pieces, no previously published, no rhyming, please do rhyme, etc.). Beyond that, the only indication anyone usually writers is to “read our previous issues” – which, while not bad practice, doesn’t always tell the whole story on what a magazine might be looking for, especially at the many magazines (like the minnesota review) which are run by MFA students and where the turnover of readers and editors is high.

Like any lit journal, the minnesota review gets a lot of submissions. And like any group of readers, those of us at minnesota all have pet peeves, preferred tastes in writing, and distinct (yet collective) editorial visions. What we do in selecting pieces is, ultimately, subjective. We do, and should do, all we can to make our selection process fair and equitable. But what we do ultimately does comes down to personal judgement calls.

With that in mind, and as a matter of full disclosure, I thought it might be useful for other writers to get a sense of what at least one reader at one MFA-run lit magazine considers when selecting poems for publication. Are my opinions indicative of the industry, or even of the entire staff at the minnesota review? Probably not. They may not even tell the full story of my own decision process, since so much of what we call taste really does come down to unconscious preferences and biases. But I hope that it might do at least some of the work of making submission a clearer, more honest space, at least for some of us. And so, the following points about my personal factors for selection –

Point No. 1: I read with identity in mind. No apologies.

Few people seem to like admitting that extra-literary factors play into what pieces of writing appear on the market. Most of us would like to imagine a publishing landscape free of bias, where all pieces are considered equally – with literary friendships, social identity, market stature (i.e. Writer X’s poems have appeared in Poetry and The New Yorker), and any litany of factors other than “did this poem/story/essay blow my socks off?” completely off the table.

But that simply isn’t the case. Factors other than the aesthetics of a piece do matter—and sometimes that’s even a good thing. We may cringe, of course, when we find out that yet another literary award has gone to a student from the same MFA program as the judge, but none of us would (or at least none of us should) cringe at the positive work of groups like Cave Canem or Persea Books, who create spaces in the literary market for voices still too often marginalized or minimized.

Cave Canem

U.S. publishing culture is still inherently inequitable, and some voices and some groups still have more power than others. I can say this, by the way, because most of those social groups are groups I belong to – white people, guys, Christians, straight folks, native English speakers, the college educated. So do I consider race, gender, age, and location when I read submissions? You’re damned right I do. VIDA counts matter. The voices of writers of color matter. The voices of writers from places off the MFA and New York publishing house literary map matter.

Does this mean I’m going to get it right, or that my own vote count may not remain skewed by my own unconscious bias towards people who share my identity? No, it doesn’t. Or does this mean that I have to give especial attention to writings from marginalized groups of writers because the quality of their work wouldn’t merit inclusion otherwise? No, of course not. What it does mean is that of the many quality pieces I receive, I know I’ll have a limited space to use to promote those pieces and the voices and writers they represent. And so I do my best to help my magazine produce a product that will reflect the best writing we receive and which will be inclusive of the diversity of writers we hear from.

Will I get it right? Maybe not. Will any issue of any magazine I help produce look like a true map of the U.S. or international writing scene? I hope so, but maybe not. Still, these things matter—and I do consider them.

Point No. 2: Please, get political.


W. H. Auden, noted curmudgeon

I love Auden’s poems, his model MFA curriculum, his erudition and curmudgeonly approach to form; but when he said that poetry does nothing, he was wrong. If Auden had been right, then why did Garcia Lorca get shot by the Francoists? Why was Lorraine Hansberry followed by the FBI? And how did Vaclav Havel ascend to the presidency of Czechoslovakia? It wasn’t because they had a Super PAC, I know that.

Writing poetry is an inherently dissident act. Because so much of poetry is about noticing the unnoticed, about making the unclear clear/making the unsaid said, and about establishing intimacy and comfort with abstraction, writing poetry moves us away from the status quo. As such, poetry lends itself to the political, and particularly to the politics of dissidence.

Not to sound stentorian, but we write too few, read too few, and receive too few politically motivated poems in the MFA world. We get more than our fair share of current event poems, more than our fair share of partisan dogma, and more than our fair share of well-intentioned-but-not-quite-there sympathy poems from people in dominant groups writing about folks in marginalized groups. But we don’t really get all that many poems that attempt to speak out and act out in the world, to change a mind or change a heart, or to offer a perspective on a situation that does beyond one side or one series of talking points.

Point No. 3: Stop trying to impress me. Start trying to break my heart.

I don’t give a good damn about a poem’s intelligence. I don’t care about its vocabulary, about its pedigree, or about the density of its allusions. What I do care about is that it is alive, human, and humane. As much as I think Auden was wrong about the doing power of poems, I think he was right as could be about another thing he said (I paraphrase here) – plumbers and farmers and welders, not just other writers, should be the audience for your work. These people may not know what flarf is, or the formal rules of a sestina, but they do know the architecture of heartbreak, what ambition is, and what it’s like to finally be in a room with someone who truly understands you after years of feeling alone. Give me a poem that speaks to those things, so that the poem will speak to them, and you’ll have something special.


Point No. 4: There is no right or wrong craft, but there is good and bad craft.

There are good avant garde poems. There are good post-confessional poems. There are good poems in rhyme. But what ties all of them together is that the choices in them feel deliberate, that they are designed and delivered with a sense of sound and a sense for the senses of the world. Please, give us poems with lines that pay attention to the way it feels and how it sounds to say it out loud. Include the specific things of the world. Be a formalist, or a free verser, or an avant gardist, or all of it – but please, be tactile, attend to sound and sight and feel both in the world and on the page, and make your choices of form and craft and content deliberate, whatever those choices are.

In the end, these thoughts may not be any more specific than any other set of submission requirements, but they do spell out what I think I’m looking for in the poems I read, in the poems we select, for our magazine: crafted pieces which are based in the heart as much as (or more than) the head, which are attendant to the issues and happenings of the world in nuanced and unexpected ways, and which come to us from a variety of people from a variety of styles and backgrounds.

Matt Prater is a poet and writer from Saltville, VA. Winner of the both the George Scarbrough Award for Short Story and the James Still Award for Poetry, his work has appeared in numerous journals, including Appalachian Heritage, The Honest Ulsterman, The Moth, Munyori Literary Journal, and Still. An MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech, he has taught literature and composition for colleges across the Mountain South. 


One thought on “One Reader’s Not-Quite-Manifesto on Poetry Selection for the Lit Magazine

  1. Matt, thank you for the effort to articulate what you are looking for in poems to be accepted, although you warn us poets that they are probably not indicative of the MR staff as a whole. As a poet deciding where to send poems, I would like to know if your judgment of a poem is one of two, or one of many, and whether you have veto power, but your not-quite manifesto is still a better start than most journals give. I am a little uncertain about this statement: “So do I consider race, gender, age, and location when I read submissions? You’re damned right I do.” You can know a poet’s gender and location easily enough from the return address, but I am curious about how you guess race and age, especially race? I might be missing something, but it seems that you would have to judge by the content or style of the poem. I certainly hope that you would not use the sleuthing once used by some colleges and employers to exclude various minorities (e.g. names that sound African-American or Jewish). If in fact you do guess a poet’s race and age (and maybe gender, if the first name is initials or unisex?) by the poem’s content, I am a little uncomfortable. But I applaud your call for more political poems, and think that too many poems are selfies.

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