Thursday, May 26, 2016

Blunder a boon for PASSAGES NORTH

Stuff happens. Mistakes are made. There are errors, glitches, boo-boos. Snafus. Bloopers, bumbles, and flubs.

What separates a responsible organization from the other kind is how it handles its blunders. And when Passages North experienced a boner yesterday with its rejection process—submitters received no fewer than three rejections because of a problem with their software—the journal took to social media to explain the error and to offer a sincere apology. 

Here is the note Passages North sent out today via Facebook:

Hey, friends, good morning! It came to our attention that some of our submitters received as many as three form rejections back-to-back from us yesterday. That sucks (no, seriously, it's the worst), and we're so sorry about it. Rejection is hard, and impersonal rejection is even harder. Rejection that makes you feel like the target of a spam bot is unacceptable. Obviously, rejection is the name of the game when it comes to publishing, but you always go into it hoping that the person on the other end will treat your work with care and compassion. When that doesn't happen, it's easy to feel discouraged or dehumanized, and that's the last thing we want. Our staff cares deeply about your work from top to bottom, and we're so grateful you trusted us with it. If anything we did made you feel like you were dealing with a gaggle of rude robots, we hope you'll trust that it was a result of very human error.

That said, have an excellent Thursday. Congrats on being a writer and doing the thing. You're doing a great job.

Jacqueline Boucher
Managing Editor

What I like best about this apology is that it contains an actual apology: “We’re so sorry about it,” the managing editor writes. So often, the apologies that we see in the literary world express regret for a thing that mysteriously happened, and often we see a distancing by editors—These views are not our own.

Occasionally, too, editors apologize not for their actions, but for our reactions—they regret that we felt a certain way in response to whatever outrageous action or statement predicated the apology.

It’s a treat, then, to see an apology that says both “We did it” and “We’re sorry,” and that’s what we have here in the Passages North example. Who knows why multiple rejections were sent (and possibly lots of them—I saw a reference to the multiple rejections in a Facebook writers’ group). Whether the software crapped out on them or a human editor pressed “send” three times, the thing happened, and it was not intended.

I received the apology because I’m a past submitter (a.k.a. bridesmaid) to Passages North, and I liked the journal enough to make my “like” Facebook official. Another appealing thing about the apology is that the managing editor connects to people like me—those who care about the journal, and those who have possibly been in these rejectees’ shoes.

This note acknowledges the unwritten contract between journal and writer. We send our work expecting respect in all of its forms—a fair shake at publication, a careful reading, a punctual response, and a respectful attitude. And a journal has expectations, too—that the work be original and unpublished, first and foremost, but that writers respect the opinions and efforts of the editors. There is give and take. We wait for each other. We give each other a chance.

My favorite part? These words: “Our staff cares deeply about your work from top to bottom, and we’re so grateful you trusted us with it.” I get very weary of journals that act like our submissions are a pain—just piles of crap to be shoveled away. There are editors who claim to have too many submissions (like that’s a thing). It’s very common for journals to close reading periods, sometimes without even informing submitters. Very few journals take the Passages North attitude—respect, care, compassion. Those that do are the ones that merit our support, with our work and our subscription dollars and our attention.

Thank you, Passages North, and thanks to you, specifically, Jacqueline Boucher—for keeping humanity at the fore, and for cementing your submitters’ trust while making us feel valued and respected. That’s just the kind of magazine I’d like to be part of. And that’s exactly why I plan to try again.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Poetry prompt: The pleasures of randomness

I get a little stalled sometimes, poetically. That’s when I like to invent little prompts for myself, just to give the imagination a shake and to make some new connections. That’s what poetry is to me—forging connections between unexpected ideas. It’s why a metaphor is the perfect building block for the art form.

I enjoyed the little exercise I played around with last night as I was poking around the Internet, looking at this and that. Because Google gives such a surprising and sometimes funny list of options when you punch in a few keywords, I decided to go exploring and see what came up, then write down the list.

My friend Heidi told me that she got a fun list when looking for a name for her child. She punched in “Is it legal to name your child …,” and Google helpfully offered options like “Lucifer,” “Hitler,” “Anonymous,” “God.” That is enough of a poetry prompt right there—the idea of a poem from the perspective of a person who wants to name her child “God” fires my curiosity. But these lists are little poems on their own, and I found them fun to play around with.

Actually, in trying to replicate Heidi’s results, I just typed in the phrase “Is it legal.” The results were pretty funny. “Is it legal to own a sloth? Is it legal to own a fox in Missouri? Is it legal to open carry in Missouri? Is it legal to own a wolf? To own an owl?” I like picturing someone rambling through the Show-Me State, a rifle strapped to his shoulder, and various leashes attached to a sloth, fox, wolf, and fluttering owl. I guess the sloth would set the pace, and as he inched along, he would totally piss off the rest of the crew.

That’s what I’m talking about—the imaginative possibilities of randomness. Randomness has the advantage of ameliorating calculation—and a calculated poem is seldom a surprising one.

I’ve seen this Google search strategy used for humorous purposes before, and I’m sure I’m not the first poet to see the artistic potential here, but the results probably vary a bit from user to user, and it’s fun to play with ordering. At the end of this post is the poem I came up with—there’s no rewording, other than the creative decision to occasionally remove the original word strand (mostly for sonic reasons), and there is limited reordering.

Incidentally, it’s fair to ask: What is the role of the poet in a piece like this? I suppose the answer is that I spotted the poem. Out of all the words the average person encounters in a day—and I found a source that calculated that figure at 54,000 (the number is probably much higher for avid readers)—I saw the potential for a poem in these particular words.

I have no doubt that poetry enriches our experiences and makes us more avid observers of the world. If you have a good poetry prompt to share—especially one that relies upon random connections—I’d love to see it in the comment section!

Suggestions from Google

would a person explode in space
choke on Saturn
choke on mars
choke on Jupiter
choke in the atmosphere on earth

should a person with shingles go to work
should a person with shingles be isolated
should a person upgrade to windows 10
should a person shower daily

will I die if I eat chipotle
will I die if I drink multipurpose oil
will I die if I have hiv
if I eat mold
if I drink bleach

how long will I live if I choose to stop dialysis
smoke a pack a day
don’t eat

do most mothers breastfeed
do most mothers work

what should I do if my child has a fever
has the croup
is breathing fast
is being bullied

how can I keep my child from his father
how can I keep my child from getting lice
how can I keep my child from getting sick
how can I keep my child from becoming an atheist

what should I do if I can’t sleep
have the flu
have the concussion
have a fever
what should I do if I lost my social security card

will I am
will I get married
will I see you again
will I ever be good enough

how can I save myself from depression
black magic
how can I save myself from hell

why should I save myself for marriage
why should I save myself

is there a man
is there a man in the moon
is there a man of steel
is there a man period
is there a man in that couch

I don’t want to go
I don’t want to work
I don’t want to do anything
I don’t want to be
I don’t want to live on this planet anymore

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Case study: The man-baby submitter

Last night I relayed to my partner an incident that had just happened to one of my editor friends.

This friend had rejected work by a male writer, and she reported that he replied immediately with an acidic critique of both her mental health and her hair.

My friend mentioned this in a social media post, and she included the name of the writer, himself the editor of a casually thrown-together online journal. The response was immediate.

Several editor and writer friends, all female, reported that this editor had corresponded with them to comment on their rejections. One noted that this writer withdrew his submission from her journal before she had a chance to reach a decision because he claimed she was a person of color who would not have the proper experience to understand his work.

And the writer’s bad behavior wasn’t limited to his actions as a submitter. Someone I know reported that she had submitted to this fellow’s journal, only to be rejected and told that her work was incoherent and possibly came from an unstable mind. And yet another writer reported that this person, in his capacity as an editor, had critiqued her appearance in her author photo, which he adjudged to be insufficiently “honest.” She subsequently withdrew her work.

My partner was shocked at all of the accounts of this writer-editor’s behavior. “People do that?” he asked.

No. “People” do not do that—but certain guys do. Ask around. Most woman editors have stories of men insulting or even threatening them upon rejection.

Why would a writer lash out at an editor because of hair color? The obvious answer is that he is a big diaperbaby—unable to take rejection, unserious about his art. But let’s be clear; this is also about a power dynamic—an assertion of male dominance, which is threatened by rejection.

I debated sharing the name of this writer, and I opted not to, since I received the information secondhand. But I did reach out to him for an interview, and if he gets back to me, I will provide his name and share his perspective. Indeed, I am curious. What makes a writer respond abusively to an editor? And what specifically makes a male rejectee pick on a female editor’s appearance? This behavior is beyond my understanding.

Critiques of hair? That sounds original, but it’s really not. Women who present themselves as anything but conventionally attractive may as well expect wrath and censure from males they threaten with rejection.

It’s also telling that this male submitter and editor offers assessments of mental health and competence, based upon the limited evidence provided in a submission. There is a long history of patriarchal claims of women being “hysterical” or weak-minded. It’s just an odd thing to see in 2016.

My partner admitted that he had heard of this sort of bad behavior, but he didn’t want to believe it was as widespread as my non-male editor friends know it to be. I don’t want to believe it, either—but the evidence presents itself, again and again and again.

Sometimes I write here about what I see as mistakes on the editor side of the submitting relationship. Frequently, I take loose rejection language to task; just yesterday, I wrote critically about a specific strategy editors often use to soften the rejection blow.

But it must always be noted that editors do vital work, and many do it for no more than a love of literature and the desire to contribute to the life of letters. I stand in solidarity with these editors—especially against whiners who can’t deal with rejection.

Rejection is part of publishing. Don’t like it? Be a better writer. Or do the rest of us a favor and step aside.

Monday, May 23, 2016

What rejection means: Go write something better

I’m coming off a long dry spell in submitting, and yesterday I experienced the rare treat of a two-rejection day.

Both rejections were for essays I’d submitted to some intriguing online journals that I hadn’t sent to before, and both rejections were extremely kind and professional in their approach. However, they were examples of a specific type that literary editors in general may want to rethink: the “It’s-Not-You-It’s-Me” rejection.

In this type of rejection, the rejection language is clear—the work didn’t make it—but the editors work perhaps a little too hard to assuage presumed disappointment. This is what they said:

Case study #1: “This is not a reflection of your work, but a reflection of how our current issue is unfolding.”

Case study #2: “We are currently receiving more high-quality submissions than we are able to publish, and I’m afraid we decided to pass on this.”

But let’s be clear about something: Barring a few exceptions (bias and prejudice come to mind), when a writer is rejected, it is the writer’s fault. The writer made the mistake of writing and submitting rejectable work.

When my work is rejected, It’s-Not-You-It’s-Me doesn’t apply. Of course it’s me. And honestly, it’s OK that it’s me instead of an editor. The knowledge that it is me, writing work editors can live without, motivates me to do better.

Were I a better writer, my essay would hit the (virtual) submission pile, and when it rose to the top of an editor’s queue, she would read it with breathless attention. She would then rip her clothes and begin crying and keening, holding her laptop tightly against her body. The rest of the staff would come running. “What is it, Louise?” they’d ask, all concern, and at her wordlessness—her complete inability to articulate the beauty she had just witnessed—they would wrest the computer from her hands and read the essay together.

At that point, I’m pretty sure the entire staff would run out of its basement or attic or academic office and start dancing in a circle, crying and strewing flowers and making love. Crowds would form, and everyone would join in, not knowing the source of the beauty, but recognizing it as essential and pure.

Somehow, that didn’t happen with these two essays. Instead, an editor encountered it in his queue and said, “Hmm, that was an OK essay, I guess,” and then forwarded me the “good” rejection—the one that asks the writer to send again. It’s not bad news in the broad scheme of things, but it’s not flowers and maypoles and parking lot sex, either.

I’m obviously exaggerating. The best essay ever written probably fell short of making everyone who read it fall in love with life and the Earth and each other. But maybe a great essay could. And maybe I need to write that essay.

What I wrote instead were two different (and, hmm, kind of similar) rejectable essays. It’s incumbent upon me to do better, and it’s incumbent upon editors to keep their standards high, because with these two kind and professional journals, I fully intend to try again.