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Gay-Man #17: An Editor’s Take on Literary Magazines | Eric Cline | Weekly Column

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Hey everybody, Gay-Man here. As you may know, the first several months of this column focused on comic books. Last time, however, I switched gears to talk about my personal experiences with writing and submitting poetry. After the success of that column, I’ve decided to regularly switch back and forth between different subject matter. It is my hope that by broadening the column’s scope, I’ll be able to provide more varied content that remains fresh and less predictable.

This week, I’ll be discussing a major concern for any indie or small-press-focused poet: literary magazines and journals. I have experience with them on multiple fronts. Through researching lit mags, submitting my own work to them, and even founding and curating one of my own, I’d like to think I have a pretty solid knowledge of the topic.

First things first: why does anyone read lit mags at all? Why do writers (both emerging and established) submit their work to them? A lot of lit mags don’t provide monetary payment, and even those that do have relatively small audiences. The literary community is very insular, and chances are low that having a poem published in any specific journal will in and of itself be a major career turning point. So why do we do it?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I love lit mags because I think they’re fun. I like to read. I’d describe reasons why, but you already know and agree with them—this column is published in a lit mag, after all. I like reading literary magazines because I never know what I’m going to find in them. Any topic is fair game, and even publications with specific limitations on what the publish can still contain a wide variety of different material. I don’t even know what I’ll find genre-wise. Poetry, flash fiction, and creative non-fiction are what I most often find, but there are also magazines that publish visual art and experimental forms that combine and defy the conventions of the major genres.

If you’re like me, a writer, reading literary magazines is especially useful. The top two biggest pieces of advice writers ever receive are to write and to read, and there’s a reason for that. Writing, of course, takes practice, and reading provides one with knowledge and influences to draw from. I have written poems I feel very proud of after reading someone else’s poem in a lit mag and having a light bulb go off in my head. Sometimes I realize that I’ve never approached a specific subject in a certain way, or thought to utilize a particular style of formatting choices. Beyond all this, as I said, reading is fun. Poetry and others forms of creative writing are all art forms, and their appeal is largely self-explanatory.

When it comes to submitting one’s own work for potential publication, things can get a bit nerve-wracking, especially for inexperienced writers. When I find a magazine that tends to publish work I enjoy, I consider whether my artistic aesthetic matches up with the editors. If I think there’s a good chance that my work will fit their tastes, I submit poems. Sometimes I get acceptance letters back, which provide feelings of joy and validation. Most of the time, however, I receive rejections. Submitting work to literary journals is a matter of determination and learning—rejection is inevitable, so you can’t let yourself get too bothered by it. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin. Most of the time when I see a rejection I’ll just move on with no problem. Sometimes, admittedly, I’ll feel sad briefly, or question myself more if it’s been a while since my work was accepted. In these cases, it’s important not to deny your feelings, but also to realize that rejection is not a big deal. When an editor tells you that they won’t be publishing your piece, it’s not a statement of their opinion about you as an individual.

Speaking of editor’s, I am one. My first experiences on a literary magazine staff were back in grade school. I served on my high school’s literary magazine staff for three years, and was co-editor my senior year. That experience was monumental in developing my love for literary magazines. Reading through submissions, I was exposed to a plethora of different writers and styles, all of which helped me reflect on and refine my own poetic aesthetic. On the “just plain cool” front, I got to discover great writing and share it with an audience. It was a great time all around: when the staff accepted a piece we loved, not only did we get the pleasure of reading it, but also of lifting up the author’s mood with an acceptance letter, and sharing the work with people who read the magazine. We were helping to put great writing out into the world where it could be enjoyed by more people.

Those experiences and feelings are largely applicable to my current editing work as well. Last year, I founded Calamus Journal, for which I serve as editor-in-chief. I had missed my literary magazine staff days from high school and, having experienced the joy of acceptance in my own poetry career, wanted to provide other writers with a platform for their work. Of course, any publication is a reflection of both its editors and its contributors. All art is subjective, and all magazines are curated to fit some aesthetic, whether it is tightly defined by specific styles or is as broad as “anything the editor likes.” This subjectivity is part of why writers should try not to let rejections affect their moods too negatively. Just keep trying and writing, and you are likely to find an editor who will connect with your work at some point.

Editing Calamus has been very rewarding. There are drawbacks (it takes up a lot of time, and I, like most editors, find sending rejections to be the worst part) but the overall experience has been fantastic. At the time I am writing this, Calamus has published six issues featuring work from over sixty writers. The journal has featured work on a variety of topics, crafted using various forms, and we’ve received very positive reactions from readers. This positive reception has made me very happy. As an editor, I choose to publish pieces that I believe to be of a high quality and that deserve to be read by many. That’s not to say that I think pieces Calamus rejects are necessarily bad, but as I stated before, subjective taste is a part of the equation. Nonetheless, it’s great to see an audience react positively to writers’ work. The aspect of the publication that I’m most proud of is that we give writers a chance to have their work recognized by an audience, and to receive that sense of affirmation that their artistic creations have value.

If me namedropping the publication I run hasn’t already come across as shameless plugging, I’m about to do some now. Calamus has no restrictions on subject matter, but there are themes that repeat fairly often in work we accept. Some of these themes were desired from the start, while others have been happy surprises. I knew when I founded Calamus that I wanted to publish moving work about social issues and identity. Imagine my happiness, then, when we get to publish great poems like torrin a. greathouse’s not gay as in happy, but queer as in the way a mirror warps your reflection & water-colors your face into something you no longer recognize. Another piece I think of often is Bailey Share Aizic’s If I Were a Lizard. Simultaneously thoughtful and humorous, it’s one of my favorite feminist poems that I’ve ever read.

As far as surprises go, I never expected to receive as many submissions of great animal poetry as we have. Besides Aizic’s lizard poem, we’ve also published Devon Balwit’s Dung Beetles, along with other poems about grasshoppers, octopi, etc. We’ve published poems that were almost sixty lines long, as well as a poem that was a mere three lines: Tom Montag’s brief but clever piece, The true. We’ve published work that analyzed sexism, chronicled poets’ experiences with death, and experimented with what poetry physically looks like on the page. This variety, and these surprises, are part of the joy of being an editor. Much like a reader, an editor never knows what they’re going to find. It is my hope that readers of the journal will find Calamus to be a place where they can kick back and have fun with verse.

That’s enough shameless self-promotion for now. I’m just trying to reinforce the point that literary magazines are fun. They are full of work that both hits the heartstrings in just the right way, as well as defies one’s expectations of what can be conveyed in a poem. Whether you’re an editor who curates your own journal, a writer or submits their own work to venues, or just a reader who loves poetry (and other genres), I can’t recommend literary magazines enough. And if you are a writer struggling with having your work rejected, don’t give up. Remember that a rejection of your work is not a reflection of your worth as a person. So what if an editor doesn’t like your work, or doesn’t deem it a good fit for their publication? The point of creative writing and art is to communicate something with others, and enjoy that experience. Sometimes your tastes won’t match up with that of others. No biggie.
I’ve seen a lot of think pieces about what a literary magazine’s role is. To me, the answer seems obvious: there are countless answers. The most common ones are likely that they provide writers with a place to have their work seen and loved by an audience, and provide readers with a place to find the newest and coolest in contemporary literature. The small-press and literary magazine world is filled to the brim with talented artists. In terms of specific recommendations, I’d recommend you check out Calamus, but hey, how shameless would that be?

Winking on my way out,

Gay-Man