Retro Bizarro has been fun. I may pick it up again in the future, but as my first year as a published author draws to a close I find myself thinking more and more about how I’ve changed and how the friends who made this transition with me have changed. I speak to my fellow NBASers often, and the one thing we all agree on is that this experience has been transformative. I want to document how I have changed and what I have learned over the course of this year. My hope is to supplement my own observations with focused interviews. I’ll be calling on my fellow NBAS gang over the next few months to add their own thoughts to this. In the end I hope this will provide new authors with a look at how others learn the ropes and accelerate their immersion into the world of publishing, primarily small-press publishing. I’m going to try to keep this as linear as possible, and I’m jumping into it right now, starting with my experience being an unpublished writer.
On Being an Unpublished Writer
I didn’t really consider myself a published writer until I published with Eraserhead Press. I generally don’t talk about my publication history prior to that point. I had a handful of poems published with small magazines that later went on hiatus, probably because my work appeared in them.
I went through a lot of the same phases many young, unpublished authors go through. I didn’t have direction and was flying by the seat of my pants. I didn’t know what Writer’s Market was. The internet was the hottest thing at the time (because it was new. I’m a digital immigrant, a teen when the internet first hit) and EVERYONE had a damned poetry website.
I remember my first rejection. I can’t remember the name of the site but I remember it was hosted by a 14-year old girl and her father, and consisted primarily of her work. I was 15 or 16 at the time and still in school, had no plans of going to college, and probably hadn’t read more than a handful of poems in my life. My writing was atrocious. If I get brave enough I might share some of that terrible crap down the road.
I blindly submitted to the page, apathetic about the work featured there and concerned only with getting some exposure. She wasn’t interested in the material, and rightly so. In retrospect, that’s the best thing that could have happened. I wish I remembered her name or had access to the old e-mail account that was given to me by my family’s first internet provider. I’d thank her.
The first thing I learned many years later about being a “published” writer (perhaps it’d be better to call it pseudo published) is that when a zine or website does take your below-par work, it is going to haunt you for years to come. With websites like Way Back Machine, people can view the history of websites. Somewhere out there is one of my earliest attempts at poetry with the line I have been ridiculed for by my wife for years: “stop smells a pause.” How the hell, I ask myself as I think back, does stop smell a pause? If I could go back in time and ask myself, I’d probably just slap myself up and suggest not publishing anything anywhere online until at least 2002.
But I wasn’t going to listen, and even when I was revising Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals, I still had that driving hunger to just get something out there. It really obscured my notion of quality. But at the time I didn’t realize that the things I overlooked during editing and writing were going to come back to haunt me. Well, I knew they’d haunt me, but I didn’t realize how damned painful it’d be. I remember members of Metallica once saying in interview that they had a really hard time listening to their old albums because they caught little mistakes they wished they could have fixed. The only time they could listen to the albums was when they were heavily intoxicated. I also remember hearing the editor of a blues magazine years later in college say that if you feel this way about your previously published work, that’s a good sign. The pride and satisfaction of publishing is sometimes squelched by one’s growth. And you go through stages. Some days I pick up Uncle Sam and see “Again, Gary Nodded” on page 8. Then I flip back to page 1 and see that the protagonist never nodded before that point. I wonder how I missed it. When I see a minor error like that in someone else’s book I overlook it. Hell, a lot of the time I bet I don’t even notice things like that when reading other books. But this one is mine, and I’ve beat myself up over that one friggin’ error many times. I have a special copy of Uncle Sam’s Carnival of Copulating Inanimals where I have circled the errors I have found, for when I’m feeling masochistic.
Other days, I read through parts of the book and I’m very pleased. I can’t honestly track where some of the ideas came from. An emo Paul Bunyan? Really? A boy made of vitreous humor that leads a revolution of soul-imbued furniture? That makes me smile. Those are the days where publishing is worth it and I’m proud of my book.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re back in 1997 or so right now, and I’m crapping out poetry to publish on websites, writing more than I’m reading, and generally just making a mess. I got accepted, and that was validating. And for a long time (as long as I didn’t read anyone else’s poetry, especially the high watermarks) I was proud of what I had out there. Then I started reading, a lot more than I used to. I gave up the NES paddle for Philip K. Dick and started devouring anything strange I could get my hands on. I went to college, and started getting exposed to more literature. Then the shame hit. I think I may have actually asked a few sites to take my work down. That didn’t happen, unfortunately. The editors of these zines, some of which had grown, didn’t have time to take down archived material for poets who regretted their past mistakes. And even if they had, sites like Way Back Machine weren’t going to let the world forget.
I toyed with Creative Writing, and I was getting a little better. But I wasn’t reading modern poetry. I was reading classic material, and while I didn’t use “thee” and “thou” I was only one step ahead. I still used contrived rhyme schemes and form took precedence over content, which is probably part of the reason I decided “stop smells a pause” was a really cool line to throw into one of my shitty poems.
Somewhere during this time I discovered Writer’s Market. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest. Like many of the books on my shelf I started collecting, promising myself that someday I’d read them, Writer’s Digest for the most part collected dust on the coffee table. Writer’s Market, however, became my bible. Not the great articles in the beginning about pitfalls to avoid. I was interested in the publications. And blind submission was my approach of choice. After many MANY rejection letters, I acquired two acceptance letters. One was with a magazine titled Anthology. Later I acquired another acceptance from Anthology. My poem was featured in an issue that saw an editorial transition, and accompanying my poem was a terribly flattering letter to the editor about what a wonderful job she’d done with the magazine and how it had evolved since my initial submission. I’m still proud of the poem featured in my second acceptance from Anthology, because it showed a marked shift in my writing, and it was my first submission that wasn’t blind.
I tortured the editors of Kit Kat Review with many blind submissions. I wrote horrible poems in the vein of Margaret Cavendish’s “What is Liquid” and submitted those to Baby Bug. Oh yeah, I published with Poetry.com. You know it! Then people started posting poems dedicated to me on Poetry.com because they thought I was the Kirk Jones who wrote Waking Ned Devine. Boy did I feel special. Looking back, I feel oblivious. But the whole experience has been a great exercise in humility.
The horror doesn’t end there. Then I started to propose unfocused poetry collections to small press book publishers. I had a collection of form rejections that was probably thicker than the stack of poems I had written. But hey, Marianne Moore rejected Hart Crane‘s work and he did alright for himself, right? I wasn’t going to let all of those rejection letters get me down.
But I should have learned from it.
Anthology (it looks like they’re back in action!) was a one-time deal. I happened to get published on a blind submission in 2000. Then I read the magazine and had a better idea of what I needed to do to get accepted again. I was planning on submitting to them frequently, then they went on hiatus. The second submission I sent to them which was accepted was in 2002, Volume IX, issue 5. Here’s the letter I sent to the editor:
“I must say, Anthology magazine certainly has expanded its horizon since I worked with Ms. Tarter-Brewton in the November-December 2000 issue. I love the Website. You’ve got excellent resources for freelance writers. You’ve done great things for Anthology in the year 2001.”
That appeared on the inside cover. On the inside of the back cover, was my poem:
MOVEMENTS OF OSIRIS
The sun’s rays shingled
thrust against the slope of the mountain’s ascent,
and through the trees’ parallel pattern,
casting delineations of leaves,
mottled with the reminisce of Osiris’ descent.
Hopping down through rots and wormholes-
between the serrations of the Aspen,
the teeth of a Harlequin Maple-
he casts himself upon the ground,
and like a fermata,
the entity clings to the earth as sound to the air,
and backwards it treads,
not by its own will,
but by the steady rotation of the earth.
The poem is by no means perfect, but compared to my earlier works featuring lines like “stop smells a pause,” it was a big improvement. But still, I can’t help but see a correlation between the flattering letter and the fact that my poem appeared. Even then I felt like the letter took away from the joy of the poem being published. I felt like the material wasn’t included based on merit, but rather based on the letter I sent. It was a moderately painful lesson at the time: kissing ass can backfire. Being genuine is the best approach.
That about sums it up for my painful career as an unpublished or semi-published poet. After that, I found a niche. I started writing humorous articles for my college newspaper. I wrote a few things for my college’s lit journal, Grasse Roots, which I now edit. This was encouraging for me, and though I still get that Metallica-painful experience while reading the material I wrote back then, I also have a good time reviewing it once every few years. I see that at that point–after finally figuring out that blind submissions were a no go, and being exposed to a lot of good writing–I was on the right path.
There were some nasty hurdles along the way though, which I’ll discuss next time as I talk about making the transition from being a locally-published writer to being published for a wider audience. If you’re thinking of entering the world of publishing, stop by again. If my insights don’t strike you, chances are one of my friends in the NBAS crew will have something important to offer you. I’m starting at the beginning, at a point most of the writers I know today have the luxury of avoiding because they’ve already sought the advice of others, which is something else I didn’t always do. I had too much pride for that. I’d prioritize these mistakes in a list, but I know what is most important to me now, and it’ll likely be different for you.
And for those of you reading this to laugh at me or with me, welcome. I’m open to any discussions you folks want to initiate in the comments section.