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Literary MagNet

Do literary magazine editors ever tire of answering the question, "How many submissions do you receive?" Probably not. After all, it's a chance for them to quantify a job that's largely subjective. Plus, it's a fair question. Writers are supposed to do that kind of homework, researching demographics and aesthetics and whatnot. But one has to wonder if there are other reasons for wanting to know the actual number. A matter of pride? If a writer is successful and her work is published, she can use the information to bolster bragging rights. Maybe for others there's a somewhat masochistic pleasure in knowing they've become part of an impressive statistic. Misery really does love company. But just how useful is knowing such a number? Does it really indicate one's odds of getting published? Maybe not, because what is so often left out is the x factor: the percentage of submissions received that are so far off the mark—a mediocre sonnet sent to American Short Fiction, or a dashed-off sci-fi tale e-mailed to American Poetry Review—that they are shuffled into SASEs or deleted faster than Bradford Morrow can say, "Conjunction Junction, what's your function?" (Although Morrow, who recently received the PEN/Nora Magid Award for Editing in honor of his work at Conjunctions, no doubt gives each and every piece a thoughtful read.) The x factor would be truly useful information, though, because knowing it, one could calculate the number of misfires, subtract it from the total number of submissions received, and get a truer sense of the scale of the playing field. All of which is simply to say that no one, not even the most egalitarian editor, would disagree that there's a fair amount of detritus at the bottom of the slush pile. And at least part of a good editor's job is to rake through it once in a while. But what about that lucky editor who can honestly forego that part of the job, the editor who is asked to pick the best of what has already been labeled the best? Take Max Winter, poetry editor of Fence, for example. One can imagine that like any other editor of a high-profile literary magazine, he is asked to deal with some pretty inappropriate—and just plain awful—material now and again. But recently he was invited by David Beaty and Mary Luft to peruse the first four issues of Tigertail: A South Florida Poetry Annual, each of which was edited by a different guest editor—Campbell McGrath, Michael Hettich, Emma Trelles, and Richard Blanco—and compile his own "Editor's Choice" issue. His introduction—in which he displays some fancy footwork in order to avoid stepping on any of the aforementioned editors' toes, not to mention the toes of those poets he didn't include—makes it clear that the task at hand is not as easy as it sounds. (Just think of how the guest editors of Best American Poetry must feel.) "I made my selection based on a search for the works that taught me something new, verbally, intellectually, or sensually," Winter writes. "This isn't to denigrate any of the poems in the previous four issues—this is to describe how I made my choices. Choosing is difficult, and an embarrassment of riches can make one feel extremely impoverished." In the end, he chose poems by Denise Duhamel, Michael Rothenberg, Jen Karetnick, and Rick Barot, among others.

There's something familiar about Cave Wall, the new biannual magazine edited by Rhett Iseman Trull, in Greensboro, North Carolina—and that's not a comment on the originality of the poems contained therein. On the contrary, the second issue of the magazine, which was published this past summer, includes work that certainly wouldn't be out of place in one of the "big" poetry journals. Cave Wall isn't big—not yet. Rather, it's a slim, minimally designed, serious-minded journal with roughly the same dimensions and card stock cover as the old Poetry, before poetry's most famous chunk of change changed it.

Kevin Larimer is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

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Literary MagNet (November/December 2007)
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