Header image by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol, February 2018. It depicts me onstage with my mouth wide open, falling out of my dress, and provides an excellent view of the scuzzy tissue I have stuffed up my bra strap.
When I first started submitting to poetry journals about six years ago, I agonised inordinately about what to put in the covering letter. At that point, I did not know any published poets, either in real life or on social media, and I was terrified of making a terrible faux pas. If the editor was called Jane Smith, would opening my letter “Dear Jane” make me seem so presumptuous and overfamiliar that she would instantly disregard my submission? Would opening it “Dear Ms Smith” seem so stuffy and old-fashioned and provincial that she’d bin my poems without reading them? Or piss her off, as she preferred “Miss” or “Mrs” or “Mx”? Would “Dear Jane Smith” sound too bald or tone-deaf or too much like I’d just used Mail Merge?
It didn’t stop with the salutatory greeting, either. What should you put next? Would “I enclose five poems for your consideration. Thank you very much for taking the time to read them” sound too bland and generic and make them think I don’t give a shit about them and their journal – I’m just sending out the same letter to everyone? Would “I particularly admired Joe Bloggs’s poem in the last issue of your journal ” (even if true) sound too sycophantic? Would including information about myself make the letter more personal and human or just make me sound like a tedious attention-seeking egomaniac with a delusional view of my own importance?
Now that I know a lot of poets I have realised I am not alone in having been really, really worried about this. Most new poets, but especially those from working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds who have never met anyone working in the arts, those from the provinces, and older poets who took up writing in later life, are very anxious about getting it wrong and giving a bad impression of themselves from the off.
I felt very reassured a few years ago when several journal editors said in a Facebook discussion that they don’t really give a shit what people put in their covering letter – it’s the poems alone that they’re interested in and, short of outright deliberate rudeness, nothing in the covering letter is going to make them reject good work.
I am, therefore, quite concerned to see an increase in editors boasting on social media about how they bin submissions unread if the submitters do X, Y or Z in the covering letter. To be fair, the bulk of them have entirely laudable intentions and are adopting policies to protect themselves and their staff from sexism, racism or transphobia. A submitter who, when submitting to a journal with three co-editors of equal standing, inexplicably addresses their covering letter to the only one who is a white man, may well be being an arsehole and probably deserves to have their work rejected unread (although, even there, I can think of possible innocent explanations, too). Someone who deadnames a trans or non-binary editor can fuck off.
However, I feel some editors are being way too picky and are putting up needless and indirectly discriminatory barriers to the most vulnerable and underrepresented submitters. I especially dislike the policy of disregarding submissions that begin “Dear Sirs”. (I have seen at least three editors announce this policy on Twitter, so I am not passively-aggressively carping at any particular individual here).
When I was eleven or twelve, we had an English lesson at school devoted to writing formal letters and the teacher was quite emphatic that the only correct opening to a letter when you didn’t know the recipient’s name was “Dear Sirs”. Another girl in the class put her hand up and said, “What about Dear Sir or Madam?” and the teacher barked, “No! That’s not correct!” Admittedly, (a) this was circa 1980 (b) my school was an unusually starched and old-fashioned one, even then, but for some years I clung to that advice religiously, not because I held misogynist views, not because I assumed that the only people who open formal letters are men (I was already an ardent feminist), but because I’d been told that was the standard way of doing things by someone who knew more about these things than I did and I was terrified of looking stupid and uncouth and giving away my working-class origins. My father didn’t write formal letters – they weren’t necessary for applications for labouring jobs – and my mother, who only wrote them to the gas board or to my teachers, also clung religiously to what she’d been told was “correct” (in her case, in the 1940s), so I had noone to tell me that other opinions on this question existed.
Obviously, I know different now and I probably haven’t opened a letter “Dear Sirs” since the 1990s. But as both a student and a teacher of English language I have over the years constantly observed that students of working-class origin are most likely to cling to prescriptive and dated ideas about language, because they are constantly judged on how they write or speak way more than most middle-class people are, but are also far less likely to have got the latest memo. And it’s also unreasonable to expect someone born in the 1920s to use the same kind of language as a 20-year-old. I’m not suggesting we have to tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia etc because someone is too old to know better, but if you’re turning down a working-class older woman for using a “sexist” term, while accepting a middle-class young man who has jumped through the right “feminist” hoops, I think you’re probably missing the point of what feminism is for.
And, yes, I do take the points that (a) someone who insists on addressing you as “Dear Sirs” when your names, which are clearly displayed on your website, are Shivaani Patel, Jane Smith and Latoya Brown, is guilty of a lack of basic research which suggests that their understanding of the kind of poetry your journal publishes is likely to be equally deficient and (b) if someone’s knowledge of covering letter etiquette is fifty years out of date, it doesn’t bode well for their knowledge of contemporary poetry. I don’t blame you for rolling your eyes and fully expecting their poetry to be shit.
But don’t publicly shame them on social media and don’t try to mindread and assume deliberately sexist intentions. And at least give their poems a chance. Being cognisant with contemporary poetry conventions is an essential requirement for a contemporary poet. Being cognisant with contemporary covering letter etiquette is not. And if you’re going to insist on disqualifying submitters who commit one of your pet covering letters peeves, then at the very least, make sure you have given clear guidelines to this effect on the Submissions page of your website and don’t expect them to just psychically know what pisses you off. Otherwise, when you say “I won’t read the poems of someone who begins their covering letter ‘Dear Sirs’ “, just be aware you’re effectively saying “I only want to read poems from woke, young, middle-class university graduates like me.”