Publication (for John)

by Jeff Oaks

Is the auction of the mind, sayeth Miss Dickinson, and yet she wanted to do it. She would’ve loved Facebook, I think, and blogging. As would Whitman and I bet a number of writers who took their time getting published, finally taking it into their own hands and self-publishing as letters or books. They might be among us now in fact, creating wild work in some corner of the internet where you can preserve your anonymity in many ways and still express yourself. My guess is that Emily would likely disable comments, whereas Walt would embrace the often nutty and reactive nature of his readers’ comments.

For myself I’m trying to wrestle with the need to publish. I have a couple full manuscripts out, have had manuscripts out at publishers for literally decades, and still I’ve not had a full book “taken”. For most of my life I thought that meant I failed, that I was a failure, either as a poet or as a promoter of my work (which I was always told was supposed to sell itself via its quality). So when work didn’t get taken, I assumed I was to blame.

Luckily I had other work in the world to do, mostly teaching, and there I have been amply rewarded with awards and opportunities and, best of all,
deep and important relationships between very smart, passionate, and humane colleagues and students. So, even though I didn’t really start to publish my work with any frequency until the last five years, I have had a lot to live for, much to be proud of. At some point in my forties, when it seemed to me I wasn’t going to be summarily dismissed from my present job (after, say, ten years of doing it), I relaxed about publishing work and just sent out the work I liked and sent it out to places where I liked. My particular job as a nontenureable but full-time lecturer isn’t based on publication at all, so I don’t have to worry about ever being published. I had nothing to prove, I said to myself, so I was free. With the invention of Submittable and electronic submissions, my publication record has gotten better and better.

My sense is that when I worried about publication, I probably treated the poems too much like a product and began smoothing them out too much, making them bland and forgettable to consumers. When I began to care less about their being published and only cared about whether I liked them or not, they began to be noticed by all kinds of editors, from newly invented online journals to more venerable print journals. What’s also true is that I became friends on Facebook with a number of literary folks, and so my name wasn’t entirely unfamiliar anymore. Some people I knew as graduate students had become editors and solicited work. Sometimes one friend at AWP introduced me to another person who was looking for work for a theme about an aspect of gay life, the natural world, or working in form, and I was asked to send that person some work. Very often, that person accepted the piece, which was sometimes poetry but was now also sometimes prose.

It seems to me that our culture generally likes to publish people who have in effect already auctioned their minds or names to a public. Publishers are nervous about reaching audiences, and it helps to be able to point to the thousand people who follow you on Twitter or your 1500 Facebook friends as a reliable promise of return on the publisher’s sometimes considerable investments of time and money and, not least, reputation. I’ve known more than a few publishers who have published a new writer with much excitement only to have that writer do nothing but complain that the publisher wasn’t doing enough to publicize his or her work. The social networks also give publishers a sense of the writer’s tone or development: does he only complain about things? Does she only post pictures of cats? Does he or she have a political identity at all? Can he or she handle the constraints of the status box with humor, agility, depth, and/or humanity?

I’d say for me that starting this blog last year has been an education in publication. Facebook has too. I get more comments on my work via social networks than I do when a poem appears in a traditional print journal or anthology. This week, when my newest chapbook is being launched (see here for details), I feel like a proud papa, not only because I like the poems I wrote, but because I met and became friends with an artist whose work I love and got him to create a cover for the chapbook. I got a lot of attention and support simply from posting the image and letting my friends know that the chapbook was on its way. It’s not incidental that I met Mateo online, as I met my boyfriend Michael, as I keep in communication with family and old friends who in the old days might have likely simply drifted away. Social media is powerful and flexible. You can use it for good, to do good.

Anyway, I’m going long on this one, so I’m going to end this post with basic advice about publication from my point of view:

1. Assuming you have work to send out, get it organized into electronic packets, then get on Submittable.
2. Find out about Allison Joseph’s incredible CRWROPPS. Although it’s on hiatus this month, it is a true gift to the creative writing world, one for which Allison should be given a MacArthur Grant. There are calls there for themed issues from many great literary journals, which you might have an easier time submitting to than open submissions calls, although these are also there. It was through a chance encounter on the CRWROPPS list that I found a publisher for a very particular (or maybe I mean peculiar?) piece I loved but nobody else seemed to.
3. Use the enormous list of literary journals, both online and in print, at Poets and Writers’ website.
4. If you’re not sure who uses electronic submissions, go to poet Diane Lockward’s blog. She is an incredibly generous maker of lists of new journals and journals who accept electronic submissions or who read in the summer.
5. Now go out a find a friend who won’t let you embarrass yourself by sending out awful work, and run you pieces by him or her over coffee.
6. Send them out! Don’t overthink it.
7. Then leave them alone. Don’t worry about it. Turn to writing more new poems. Write a poem a day for the next hundred days. Don’t revise in all that time beyond the initial time of writing. Give up the idea of their being good. Have fun, try tricks. Use postcards and every day send them away to people you know will hold on to them.
8. Find something to do with your life that will be absorbing and absorptive. Hopefully, one of those might pay the bills and get you out into the world where other people don’t worry about being published.
9. Start a blog, join Twitter, stop complaining that Facebook is evil and use it to spread happiness and beauty and weirdness and awareness of something you feel passionate about. Remind us all why life is incredible.