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“Thanks for contacting me, redacted. There are in fact, numerous celebratory poems in the revised collection–in each section– that move from grief to resolution and/or are celebratory of life– hence the title of the book, Voluble Dusk, Stubborn Love, I deleted some that I did feel were weighing down the book, and I would say that redacted is in a minority of one in making such a blanket criticism (that my book is ‘rife with loss.’ }I

One knowledgeable reader of this manuscript has, in fact, said that this book is a celebration of “the Sublime,” and I have included only three or four poems that one might consider dark in theme-

So I must tell you that I believe Ms. Redacted has utterly missed the mark, that I feel her assessments reflect an unschooled sensibility and one that does not understand contemporary lyricism.’J

This in sum was my recent response to a publisher who has been leading me on since May regarding the publication of my beautiful new collection–  that I am sending around thirty years out from my last book, titled Voluble Dusk, Stubborn Love– a response, I should say, to the person he claims to be “helping him” select the poetry he publishes, whose perfunctory note on my collection he forwarded to me,  asking me to revise my book according to her opinions.

What folly to think for one minute. therefore,  it will be as easy as it used to be to get published if you’re an accomplished lyric poet.

Last spring I queried this press, as its publisher years ago accepted my work for a two-volume anthology. He invited me to submit: “I would be glad and honored to consider your manuscript.”

I was thrilled.  I sent him my book.

Then I got a note from this man, who has brought out several collections by women poets I go back years with, telling me he’d sent the book to someone “who helps me decide what poetry to publish.” He gave me this quasi-acquisition editor’s name.

I have never heard of her, and after googling her, learned mainly that she had been and perhaps still is the editor of a certain big deal literary organization’s newsletter, and that an old friend of mine had posted her work on his website.  Beyond that, there is little to suggest that she has any business judging anyone’s imaginative literature.

As I’m well aware of the fact that nearly every poetry contest in this country has screeners under the age of thirty, and it seemed to me that she is likely at least twenty-five years my junior,  my stomach immediately twisted into a persisting knot.

But, I put it all at the back of my mind, hearing nothing and then coming back to the book, undertaking a major revision in which I pulled many of the  poems I write when I’m feeling and thinking darkly.

I e-mailed the publisher stating that I’d revised and might I send the new version?

Yes, I could do that. Then, several days ago, I received two e-mails from him, one saying he’d again passed on the revision to his assistant, and that he was sending on her comments, what did I think?. The second e-mail was her comments, appended to a request from him that I revise my book according to her suggestions.

Her critique of the book constituted fewer than four short paragraphs, and several patronizing remarks about the “density” of my language, and that the book was “rife” with loss.

As I had just pulled the darkest poems and spent hours reshaping the book, I wrote to the publisher listing and limning the celebratory poems in the ms.—over half of them—and also listing the numerous high profile works concerning grief and loss in the canon—i.e. the work of Tess Gallagher, Franz Wright, Mary Jo Bang and company.

Most irksome was the editor’s neophytesque comment that the book should be “balanced,” that she wanted to see more of–I paraphrase– the sun on the speaker’s shoulders.

True to form, seized with anxiety, not long after I sent off my take on her comments—the publisher had asked what I thought, after all—I, in a low moment, dismantled my manuscript yet again, thinking that perhaps at the age of 63, at the top of my literary game, my work lauded by a host of worthy writers and fellow poets, she was right and I was wrong.

Then, I caught myself. I realized that I was literally shaking as I worked away, and that I was outraged at the system that ever had my work in the hands of someone with zero gravitas as an aribter of what constitutes a worthy/publishable collection of poetry, not one degree related to learning to properly and appropriately assess any given poem, much less an entire collection culminating years of a given poet’s pursuit of her craft.

I decided I wasn’t going to whore for this press, and I pulled my manuscript and sent the so-called acquisitions editor a terse note.

The person who needs to feel good about this manuscript is me. But mainly, except for my graduate workshop coursework for the M.F.A., I have never had an editor or mentor tell me to “balance” my work.

My first collection was edited by none other than Robert Bly and was published in 1973 before I ever completed a Bachelor of Arts degree and on the back cover, he writes, “The most valuable thing to me about these poems is their ability to look at pain and see it.”. My second collection and my first small press book, Reunion, was published by the highly regarded Lynx House Press, by the highly regarded Christopher Howell, poet-publisher-professor at Eastern Washington State University, who rifled through a weighty ms, pulled out what he wanted and published it in 1983. None other than Thomas McGrath wrote a glowing blurb for the back cover.

Both of these high profile poets turned publishers would know better than to turn my work over to someone whose background has only tangentially involved poets and their work, or to rely on the opinions of that novice, or to request a revision based on a general and ill-formed wave of the hand such as hers.

Some poets would have rolled up their sleeves, desperate to land a contract at any price.

Not me. What is this publisher thinking, that he would settle for such a cursory glance at a poet’s book and incomprehensibly, request revision based on her vague and clearly illiterate remarks—-a book he had clearly been interested in publishing?

At some point, we have to take a stand on what has happened in the equivocal, uncomfortable world of literary publishing. The same blight afflicting university presses with their student readers whose fledgling aesthetics are contaminating the publication award process, is a metastasizing soul-warp of the independent publisher’s time-honored mandate to trust his or her own judgment. . Publishers’/presses’ heads are swelling with unearned and undeserved pride, which makes them think they’re such goddam big deals they can wave off a book to an intern and not concern themselves with giving a worthy book a real shot.

By the light of day and after a good night’s sleep—about four hours for me, given that I have a dislocating hip, a deformed and always swollen right leg three inches shorter than the left, and a desperate need for general anesthetic dentistry, appropriately acronymed GAD, I don’t regret my decision.

I’m sending the now trebly revised book to someone very familiar with my work, whose judgment I trust. Then I will move heaven and earth to find it a home—it will appear and it will be my footprint on the cosmos ere more time passes, even if I bring it out under my own imprimatur.

Again, the person who has to be happy with this book, whose celebration of a lifetime of learning to be a good poet it is, is me. I—and you—deserve committed publishers who recognize that the very young are aesthetically challenged, and don’t have trustworthy opinions and don’t string those accomplished writers who approach them in good faith along.

 

–jra

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