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.
I’ve been submitting to poetry journals for six years. In the first five years of sending off submissions, I experienced only two occasions when a journal failed to let me know whether my submission had been successful or not. Sometimes they took much longer than they said they would, sometimes they had their own method of informing poets which might be unpalatable to some (e.g. South, which does not contact poets individually, but publishes a list of successful poets on its website on a given date.If you’re not on it, you can assume you were unsuccessful. I know some poets who really dislike this approach, but I’m fine with it), but, other than those two isolated cases, I always found out eventually and was never left in an indefinite limbo of wondering at what point I should give up and just assume it was a rejection and send the poems somewhere else.
In the past year, however, I have had no fewer than five submissions vanish into the void. I’m not sure whether this is just a freakish run of bad luck, whether there is a glitch in my e-mail and/or Submittable account, or whether not responding to poets is now becoming viewed as acceptable.
I know editors sometimes experience life crises which make it totally understandable that they fall behind with paperwork. I know of at least two journal editors whose response times vary wildly depending on their level of mental health and of another whose normally impeccable punctuality was disrupted by a cancer diagnosis. I will not name and shame journals who haven’t replied, because some of those editors may well have compelling reasons for their silence. In two cases, the journal website hasn’t been updated in months, which suggests something bad is going on. Both these journals are small, unfunded operations, run by one or two people around a demanding day job, at a financial loss, for the sheer love of poetry, so are quite vulnerable to any shocks in the editor’s personal life. I’m quite understanding of this.
What is less easy to swallow is large, prestigious, Arts Council-funded or commercial profit-making journals with several paid members of staff failing to respond to submissions, not least because it takes me a lot to pluck up the courage to submit to those kinds of journals in the first place – I worry I’m being presumptuous, that obviously I’m not good enough, that they’ll think I’m an idiot for daring to hope my work might be the kind of thing they’re looking for, that they’ll think I’m Patience fucking Strong. When they can’t even be bothered to reply to my submission and a polite, tentative e-mail inquiry after more than a year is also ignored, it just seems to confirm my suspicion that I’m obviously not one of the Beautiful People and that they have total contempt for me.
Some journals seem to think that having a simultaneous submissions policy makes it all right – after all, they’re not stopping you sending your poem elsewhere while you wait for them to get back to you. But if it’s a big journal that you’d bite your own arm off to get into, you may not want to send it elsewhere until you know they definitely don’t want it.
I know it’s not all about me and that editors (especially those that run kitchen-table enterprises) have a thankless and difficult task and take far more shit from submitters than the stuff I’m complaining about here. I also know that if I had a properly professional writing routine this wouldn’t be so much of an issue – in an ideal world, I’d be churning out so much top-notch work, I wouldn’t need the poem I sent off to Z journal a year ago back, because I’d have so much else to send out.
Nonetheless, I don’t think the following expectations that I have of journal editors are unreasonable:
– If you say you respond to all submissions, make sure you do. If for any reason you find yourself unable to honour this commitment, switch to an alternative method (e.g. announce on your website that due to unprecedented volume you have stopped replying individually and anyone who submitted before X date who still hasn’t heard can assume they were unsuccessful).
– If you’re going to state an estimated turnaround time on your website, make it a realistic one. I normally allow the estimate plus a third (so, for example, if the website says they reply within three months, I expect to hear back within four) before getting pissed off. I do not feel it is acceptable for journals to publish wildly inaccurate turnaround times which they regularly fail to meet.
– If you’re running very behind schedule, update your website to let people know what’s going on and give a revised (and honest) estimate of when they can expect to hear from you. Ditto if you’re no longer accepting submissions.
– Have a clearly stated cut-off point, so if anything does go wrong, submitters know where they stand (e.g. “We make every attempt to respond to submissions, but if you haven’t heard within X amount of time – apologies. Assume your work is free to submit elsewhere”)
– If you advertise an open submissions policy, treat all your submitters with the same courtesy and respect. If you are only interested in hearing from well-known poets/poets that are part of the same trendy circle as you, don’t pretend you read and consider all submissions and switch to an overtly commission-only selection method.