How I Read a Poetry Manuscript Submission
by Tom Lombardo
Poetry Series Editor
Press 53 www.press53.com
Slowly for the first 3 poems.
At Press 53, we ask for a sample of 10 poems for an open submission. If I solicit a sample personally, I will ask for 15-20 poems or more.
As poetry series editor for Press 53, I’ve developed a three tier reading style. In the first reading, I’m looking specifically at three keys: Diction, syntax, metaphor. If the submission lacks excitement in those three key areas, then I reject the submission. Usually, I know after a page if the poet is competent in those areas, but I will read onward regardless.
I love diction. As the building blocks of poetry, words must be carefully selected, much more carefully than in prose. I’m attracted to uncommon diction. I like to see concrete nouns and active verbs. I don’t like overuse of verbs of the form “to be,” except in exposition. They slow a poem’s movement and pacing, and of course, that’s when they come in handy, when you want to slow the movement and pacing. But “to be” overuse causes me to reject. Oh, yes, I do understand that some poems do not have action and are quiet poems of thoughtful reflection, and I make room for those, too. Overuse of adjectives and adverbs turns me quickly toward rejection—I believe that adjectives and adverbs undercut the imagistic beauty of poetry. Nouns and verbs create concrete images, not modifiers.
Regarding syntax—I feel the same way—I crave carefully constructed syntax. I look for something that is not prose syntax. Syntax is the smallest unit for the compression that indicates poetry to me, the blinking lights that say “Here is poetry! Read on!!” You would not believe the proportion of our submissions that I reject as abject prose. I often wonder how people can delude themselves by inserting line breaks into their prose and submitting it as poetry.
In this essay, “metaphor” stands for any trope, OK? It’s easier to say metaphor than to say “metaphor, simile, synecdoche, metonymy, personification, synesthesia, allusion, irony, hyperbole, understatement, paradox, apostrophe, symbols.” They’re all metaphoric. Simply put, I look for language that moves the literal to the figurative, another hallmark of poetry.
If I arrive at the end of the submission’s first page without goosebumps from the diction and syntax or if the language does not transport me to the figurative, then I know this submission wavers on the brink of rejection. However, I do read on, unlike some editors, because my mission at Press 53 is to discover new voices, and sometimes the voice is buried in poem 3 or 5 or 10. If I see nothing of my 3 keys by poem 4, then I start to read more quickly, scanning only for metaphor, and if I find one, I stop, and I start reading slowly again, maybe go back a few poems and re-read. In content analysis, that’s called “stopping behavior.” Metaphor stops me. Saves the submission from rejection for at least another poem or two.
If I like the sample submission after tier 1, then I rock back in my chair that squeaks and think about the stories. For me, story is the second tier of analysis. What story or stories has the poet told. Small stories or large stories, either one, but some level of story is important to me. Press 53 has no interest in abstract poems or the faddish, clever anti-story poems stylish in many American journals now. These too will pass. But story lives on. Story is granite. Poetry can be faddish, and trends in poetry—some lasting decades—may obscure good poets. Think of Emily Dickinson.
Here’s the truth: The audience reigns supreme at Press 53 and other small presses. Not the poet. If the audience doesn’t buy our books, we won’t have a press next year to publish any poets at all. Arcane styles sell in academic circles. That generally means 200 copies or fewer. I’m looking for those kinds of poetry manuscripts, written by the kinds of poets who involve themselves in the sales of their collections. And I believe that good stories will move both Press 53 and the poet toward a higher sales level. To me, poetry with an intriguing story will set the reader dreaming beyond the final line.
A third tier of my reading revolves around aspects of craft that include enjambments and sound, and then their combined effect on the lines of the poem. Why? Because those appeal to me as fundamental to poetry. Individual taste is my only defense for this. I’m the editor, so that’s my prerogative. In this third reading, I ask: Are the line endings working well? If so, they show the skill of the poet. If not, then I must decide whether the poems might work with different enjambments, which interestingly takes me back to the diction. Good diction makes it possible to find new enjambments. If the enjambments are not working, but the submission appeals to me on other levels, I must decide whether it’s worth my time and effort to edit and then to convince the poet to make suggested changes.
I also ask: Is the sound doing anything interesting? Sound can demonstrate a high level of sophistication in a poet. For me, sound goes beyond the most obvious rhyme, assonance, alliteration. I’m looking, actually listening, for the use of acoustic energy to create and release tension, and this occurs mostly in the vowels, wonderfully hidden, though it can also occur, more obviously, in the consonants. I also like to read lines that block sound at each end—walls to make sound reverberate in the emotion of that space—or perhaps the ends of each couplet or triplet or stanza. I also look for sound that creates mood or tone that supports the poem
Stop: I’ve decided not to provide samples as most blathering essayists would. This is a blog with a word-limit, which I will surely exceed, not a Poetry magazine article. I will note that Emily Dickinson’s poems offer perfect examples for everything I have or will mention here. My favorite contemporary poets—the ones I keep going back to—are Douglas Dunn, Simon Armitage, Satyendra Srivastava, current British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and a host of Eastern European poets, only two of whom are Nobel Laureates. American poets? Contemporary? Too many to name, perhaps. However, I find many well-known contemporary American poets impoverish the story part of their craft, but I will mention current North Carolina Poet Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers as a particular favorite of mine with great stories, terrific metaphor, strong diction and syntax.
I have but one pet peeve: Rumi epigraphs. Automatic rejection. A particularly galling fad. In 2009 and 2010, every fourth submission had them. Call those “the Rumi years.” The Rumi epigraphs seem to be going out of style more recently, probably because MFA programs stopped teaching him.
My greatest fear: I don’t want to be an editor who would reject Emily Dickinson. In her era,
may have sold fewer than 10 books because her poetry operated on a plane perpendicular to the contemporary style. A century earlier, she may have been burned at the stake, even in Dickinson , for writing verse inspired by Lucifer! Amherst ‘s poetry did not come to light for decades and did not come to fame for decades more, which may mean that the rest of the poetry world caught up to her premature vision. She may be the greatest American poet. Sadly, good poets will go undiscovered in today’s world of poetry. We have our fads and our styles and our preferences just as any other era. So, before I read submissions, I pray to the Muses: If this is Emily, don’t let me reject her. Dickinson
Tom Lombardo: Poetry Series Editor
Tom Lombardo of Atlanta, GA, is editor of The Tom Lombardo Poetry Selections for Press 53. Tom actively reads journals, magazines, ezines, and anthologies in search of poets to bring to Press 53 by way of The Tom Lombardo Poetry Selection series. In 2008, Tom edited and published After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events (Sante Lucia Books), which features 152 poems by 115 poets from 15 countries. Tom is a widely published and respected poet, and is a graduate of the MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte, NC. His mission is to bring 4-6 poetry collections to Press 53 each year. To learn more about Tom and After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events visit www.poetryofrecovery.com. Contact Tom at Tom@Press53.com.