Final Class! Writing on New York City & Last Words of Publishing Advice for Now

I have been procrastinating from updating you all on our final class last week because I can’t believe the Kaleidoscope Project is over for this season! For our final discussion, we had five readings on surviving in New York from five very diverse perspectives.

Returning from last year’s syllabus, the Kenyan poet John Mbiti and Pakistani poetess Fahmida Riaz, writing in Urdu, gave us new perspectives on familiar settings in New York: our skyscrapers and our underground trains. We talked about why it’s powerful when poetry defamiliarizes elements of our everyday lives.

Mbiti is also a Christian philosopher and retired professor at the University of Bern in Switzerland. I found his poem in an anthology on Modern Poetry from Africa (if you’d like to read more African poetry, you can check it out here and here at the Schomburg in Harlem).

Riaz has dedicated her career to progressive activism in South Asia, even though her political work has permanently exiled her from Pakistan. Although it is difficult to find her poems published in English, her nonfiction on the history of Pakistan is available at the NYPL.

JM-Servin-1One student, M.L., jumpstarted our thoughts on For Love of the Dollara brand new memoir by an undocumented Mexican immigrant, J.M. Servín, by informing us of just how effectively this new voice captured her home borough’s complexity. M.L. said it’s hard to write about the Bronx because the borough is so huge and changes so much from block to block.

In his dryly humorous, enlightened memoir, which makes a little fun of James Joyce’s Irish coming-of-age novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Servín recounts arriving in the Bronx, living undocumented, and struggling to make money in the service sector in the early 1990s.

Next to the immigrant, Argentine feminist Luisa Valenzuela‘s flash fiction, “Who, Me a Bum?” brought us into the mindset of another familiar urban stock character– the homeless person. (Much of her fiction is available in both English and Spanish.)

image439Her protagonist’s descent in social status, from a Spanish teacher to a proverbial “bum,” sparked an interesting conversation for us about the contradictions of public and private life in the city. Even though millions of people are in unimaginably close physical proximity all the time, almost everyone is visibly uncomfortable with the slightest emotional intimacy, like eye contact. In Valenzuela’s hands, homelessness becomes an ironic extended metaphor for loss of identity and privacy– everything about his life is public, yet his humanity is invisible to everyone.

We struggled a bit with another image-heavy, place-based poem, the late St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott‘s “Bleecker Street, Summer.” Together we worked through how and why poetry is an exceptional form for communicating feelings like elation, desire, and sorrow in abstract ways– language that often defies the logical conventions of narrative and storytelling. Poems can be frustrating for this reason, but as J.B., another student, mentioned, their uncertainty “multiplies their interpretations and meanings.” Thus poetry, even when aggravatingly opaque, is unique for reopening our minds to glimpse new ideas on each read.

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Considered the greatest poet laureate of the West Indies, Walcott died at the age of 87 this past March. The New York Public Library has many copies of his works for you to borrow.

Here is our final slideshow of chalkboard notes; you might also be interested to peruse last year’s class notes on New York.

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Walcott’s elusive poem allowed us to segue into the only craft talk on writing and publishing poetry this semester, which I led with my own experiences. Although I forgot to mention it in class, my poetry career officially started with winning the Kathryn Irene Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Competition. Those of you attending college in the Northeast (cough, J.N. at Smith and M.K. at Hunter next year!) should keep an eye out for it at Mount Holyoke College, the all women’s/Seven Sisters school where the competition is held every year. (Their winners’ list is the only Wikipedia page on which my name appears.)

My Mount Holyoke victory launched me into the most (to be frank, only) energetic period of publishing poetry in my short life so far. Here are the bare remnants: “Jazzmeen Autry,” a poem on Word Riot; “The Wrong Way,” creative nonfiction about my adolescence on The Cynic; and “Missing Persons,” the printed poem you read from Descant, a Canadian literary journal that, I just learned, officially shut its doors in 2015.

The fact that I have not lifted a finger to publish a poem in 5+ years is a mistake you yourself should not repeat. Here’s a recap of other advice for publishing poetry specifically:

  • Collect your poems in batches. Think in twos or threes or fives. Editors will often want to read/consider publishing multiple short poems at once, and the poems you send them should share a clear link– a theme, a stylistic device, and/or a tone.
  • Set quantitative goals to keep yourself on track. At this point, I would have been better off if I’d forced myself to sacrifice even one full day a year to formatting, printing, and mailing out poetry manuscripts to literary journals. For your stage in your careers right now, I recommended setting a goal that feels reasonable– sending out one poem (or set) every six months, for example.
  • Should I double dip? In other words, should (or can) you send the same poem to multiple editors? Technically, the answer is no, you shouldn’t. But in practice, it can take 8-12 months to hear back from a submission, and it seems insane to sit on a good piece for that long, right? So my advice is to keep track of any multiples you send out. Create a spreadsheet of dates, contacts, magazine names, and relevant details (formatting requirements, numbers of copies requested, etc.), so that you don’t forget when and where you sent work to. Then, be ready to either accept or reject a premature offer from a potentially lower-ranked publication. You should also be prepared to rescind that work from any publications that show interest in it after you’ve given the first journal the go-ahead; you are not legally allowed to publish the same work in two different magazines.
  • Reserve time for the post office. Poetry publishing is weirdly archaic; many print magazines (and even some online ones) still expect to receive hard copies of poems for review through snail mail.
  • Decide for yourself how much money you’re willing to spend on your early publishing endeavors. This is going to sound unthinkable, but some magazines not only refuse to pay contributors but also REQUIRE a “reading fee” (usually ranging from $10-20) to consider work. Yes, that means you’re not only paying them to publish your poem, but also potentially paying them to reject your poem. Why is the world like this? In short, because poetry is a poor industry, as we talked about in class. The genre literally doesn’t have the entertainment capital to generate any profit whatsoever, so publishers counterintuitively need to rely on impoverished poets, the source of all their material, for survival. It’s a vicious, cannibalistic cycle.
  • But don’t lose heart! Just don’t become a poet to make money. Thinking of poetry as your economic livelihood would be ludicrous; making money off poetry (at least, in a dignified fashion) is nearly impossible. Take, for example, this blog post on ways to make money on writing poetry, which enumerates some truly depressing suggestions, like exploiting your own talent at a greeting card company. But I think the lesson in all this is simple:
    • If you DO make some money, consider it a pleasant, humbling surprise– not a rule. I was unspeakably thrilled when I learned my publication in Descant came with $100 Canadian, and there ARE still magazines that pay poets to publish. You’ll be most eligible for publication in these titles once you reach a slightly later stage in your career (start trying in college).
    • Otherwise, think of poetry as art you must write because it nourishes your soulYes, the tendency to associate poetry with “high art” is a little elitist, but really, like I told you in class, I don’t write poetry because I want to be famous. I write poetry because I can’t not do it, and sometimes, a message that I wrote for my own consolation just happens to inspire someone else if I let it go public.
  • The best action you can take now is to start gaining publishing credits. The more publishing credits you’ve listed on your job resumé, the more likely you will be to get published more frequently. And the better known your name is in the literary public sphere– even if you made zero cash getting your name out there– the more likely you will be to land the actual book deal, which usually involves a monetary contract (here’s an exhaustive but trustworthy rundown of all that nitty gritty business stuff).

“But HOW do I get started?!” you ask. Tap into the resources at your fingertips!

  • Check out the Publishing Opportunities and Writing Awards for Teens pages on this website. The magazines listed here are purposely geared towards teen audiences (which means those of you who are under age 18 would have an easier time getting published even though you are not legally adults yet). Awards also amplify your public persona, even if they’re not tantamount to publication.
  • Email peers you know who HAVE already been published, like Rahat– your new peer mentor who just visited us a couple weeks ago! You can email her anytime for tips on how she got her writing resumé started. And if you know other published young writers at school, consider asking them to share their success stories with you over coffee. I know personally that it can be very difficult to replace jealousy (a natural feeling) with earnest curiosity, especially when you’re comparing yourself to someone high-achieving in your own peer group. But your equals know best how to help you succeed!
  • Choose ONE favorite poet, preferably one whose style reminds you of your own, and reverse-engineer his/her/their career. Where was this person born, and when? What schools did they go to? What kinds of life events did they encounter before they published their first book? How old were they when they first published their poetry, and in what magazines? Are the magazines still around today? Peering into the backstories of your favorite poet or writer might not only give you new ideas for where you want to go to college someday but also clue you in on titles of magazines and websites that might also be willing to consider your work. Less practically, gaining some perspective on how long it takes to become truly “successful” might calm your anxieties about whether it’s taking you too long.

Thank you all for such a magical summer. Here are the class pictures we took last week, and I hope to see you all at our closing open mic this Thursday, 6:30-8pm! Check your emails for details about the location.

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