When I’m reading for pleasure or screening manuscripts for a book prize, I marvel at the many ways that a poetry collection’s images, themes, and conceits can work in concert with one another. But when I’m reading for Southern Indiana Review, with my editor hat on, I’m looking for a poem’s standalone excellence, freshness—the kind of work that announces itself within the first few lines.
In a book, I would love to read your extravagant, slow-burning ten-poem sequence that ends with a glorious crescendo. But when I’m reading submissions for the magazine, I’m usually looking for the crescendo itself. That’s why I would suggest leading your submissions packet with your best kick-the-door-in poem.
As a poet, I get it: It feels natural to arrange a packet of poems for journal submissions using the same logic you’d use to order a longer manuscript. But when you consider that each poem may be published by itself, without the context of the other poems, organizing by image or theme or narrative arc is not as important as securing the full attention of your audience with each piece. Sometimes writers feel compelled to place their best work at the end of a submission, for example, as a flourish or grand finale. But I think a better strategy would be to foreground your most explosive work so that the reader slows down and takes a more careful look at the whole packet.
I have found that the first few poems in a submission can color an editor’s excitement about an entire packet, for better or worse. During deliberation meetings, those lightning-rod pieces that quickly grab our editors’ attention are the ones that most frequently find their way into our pages. At Southern Indiana Review, we receive three thousand poetry submissions annually (more than thirteen thousand poems in total). And although thirteen thousand poems may not sound like all that many compared to what some of the larger literary magazines may receive, it’s a lot for the three of us on the poetry editorial team who also work full-time jobs. We do not want to overlook an amazing poem that is buried on the very last page after wading through five less exciting poems. We want that shiny poem up front!
The joy I receive from discovering a great poem I want to return to again and again is a singular feeling—one I can’t wait to share with our readers. Help us champion your work by shining a spotlight on it first.
—Marcus Wicker, senior poetry editor, Southern Indiana Review