The first time I went to grad school, my now-husband, then-boyfriend, Noah, went to all the parties with me. All of the professors and many of the students went up to talk to Noah about writing, asked him his genre, etc., often when I was standing right next to him. Noah’s a programmer. (He does love to read and he can talk a mean lit game but you know… sexism.) At the time, we laughed it off. I think it was easy for me to laugh about it because it was my first experience of a sort of casual, ingrained sexism. I’d been shockingly (and thankfully) sheltered from it in school and college. Anyway, if this happened to us now, I would probably…how should I put this… make a scene.
Since then many worse sexist things have happened to me. Some I couldn’t do anything about. Most have just taught me to carry my head as high as I can. But there’s one thing in particular that has been getting to me recently—I’ve had the submission process explained to me by male editors on at least five occasions. Here’s a set of emails about how non-simultaneous submissions work…
My submission was made on 11/5/2013. The magazine requests you not simultaneously submit for four months. They suggest this is not a long time to wait and, as writers themselves, they are respectful of this time. I first queried on 3/8/14 (names have been removed):
It’s been 4 months so I’m checking in on this submission. I would like to begin submitting the pieces elsewhere if none have been accepted.
I received a response within the hour.
We’re running behind schedule, but will hope to have all responses out in the next 2 weeks. We’ll continue to consider your pieces, unless you’d like me to pull them now. Just let me know.
Thanks for your continued patience.
I also responded within the hour.
I wouldn’t mind if you considered them for months and months except for the no-sim-sub rule. I was solicited for a themed issue this morning and sent them “The War’s Seduction.” I don’t know if that means you want to throw out that poem or my whole submission, or want to bank on there not being a conflict over that poem. I’ll leave it up to you. I just wanted to be honest.
To this I got no response. So I waited three weeks.
Did anything ever happen with this submission? Did you decide to not consider it?
Again, he responds within the hour.
I’m sorry if this wasn’t a clear exchange. We’re unable to consider sim. submissions & you indicated pretty definitively that you were sending one of the poems elsewhere so the submission was pulled.
My quick response:
Thanks for clarifying.
About a week later, on 4/5/14:
Thanks for sending some work for us to look over. We’ll pass, but we do sincerely appreciate you sending our way. Please be sure to keep us on your radar for submissions in the future.
What the what? An encouraging rejection? Why wasn’t I feeling grateful? I sent back a passive-aggressive email.
I thought my submission was thrown out?
I never received a response. I never submitted to them again.
Once the submission process was explained to me by a man who had submitted something to me when I was editing a magazine. I sent him a rejection and he told me that as a friend of the magazine it was okay for me to reject his work but not to do it without a certain amount of personalization. As an editor, I feel my job with rejections is to make it clear whether more work would stand a chance of being accepted under my editorial eye. If I personalize a rejection, I might encourage a second submission, which requires the writer’s energy and time. I would never want to waste another writer’s energy or time because I respect that too much. So regardless of whether this man was friends with someone or not, and I’m not sure how I would know that, I did my job as an editor.
But I also had this reaction—What if I’d been sick that day? What if I were busy? Why did my response have anything to do with him at all? Where was my agency in this situation? My rejection wasn’t rude. It was standard. This was my flat rejection when I edited for MiPOesias:
Thank you for considering MiPOesias for your work, but these aren’t a fit for us.
Perhaps he thought he was doing me a favor by explaining this to me so I might not get into further trouble. I’m afraid I have continued to get myself into trouble instead.
In the poetry world, there is little money to be made, steep competition for the smallest amount of press, and always the chance at being mocked (privately and publicly). The only thing we really have is our respect for ourselves and our art. My respect is often what sees me through to the next time I’m sending out submissions or applying for a fellowship. Even when I don’t believe in myself, I respect myself as an artist and I continue. And there are steps throughout the process of being a published writer where we can continue to seek that respect for ourselves. So here’s a list of things I do to remember that I have agency and control and respect in the face of constantly submitting my work to editorial judgment.
- Look up when you can query. If it’s been that amount of time and you want to query, query. Here’s an example: Dear editors, I’m writing to check on my submission from [date]. If my poems are still under consideration, I’m happy to wait. Thank you for all that you do. Best, [Name]
- Continue querying if you like. Maybe once per month, per week? Whatever makes you feel good about the attention you’re giving yourself as a writer.
- If anyone gets mad at you about this, they’re assholes.
- If you were told you’d hear back in a certain amount of time on a batch that was not supposed to be simultaneously submitted, and then you don’t hear back in that time, feel free to start sending those poems out to new places. Inform the first place if you want. Or don’t. You fulfilled your part of the deal. (Obviously inform them if pieces are taken elsewhere after that point. If they get mad from there, you can explain. You have to watch out for yourself first. Put your work first.)
- If an editor explains how submissions work to you, write back that you know how submissions work, or write back asking whether he would write what he’s written to a male writer, an older writer, a more famous writer, or don’t write back. Do whatever makes you feel good about that interaction. It’s about how you feel you’re treating yourself as a writer. You don’t want drama, but you don’t want to be condescended to the way you are in almost every other part of your life as a woman.
- If a submitter explains to you how submissions work, don’t write back. That person deserves exactly zero of your time.
- If a magazine asks you to submit again, you don’t have to. You don’t have to “submit like a man” if it doesn’t feel right to you. Sometimes you will find you are invited to submit over and over again to a particular place, but your work never seems to actually be what they’re looking for. Stop giving them your energy. That’s okay.
- Guard your energy at all costs. Your energy is best for your writing.
- It’s okay to write this as your cover letter on every submission: Dear editors, Thank you for considering these poems. Best, [Name] You don’t need to find their names. You don’t need to type out the titles of your poems. You don’t need to find a recent poem they published to compliment. You are not disrespecting them by respecting your own time. You’re only disrespecting them if you write a cover letter like this: Mr. Poophead, Accept these or weep. [Name] The worst part of that cover letter is that you assumed the editor is a man. You wouldn’t do that.
- If an editor has solicited you, then rejected you without personalizing the note, put them on a list of places you will never, ever send to again. Tell your friends about it. Do whatever you need to do to feel better about it without inviting drama into your life. Drama takes away from writing time and so does not respect yourself as an artist.
- If an editor has solicited you and never responded, put them on a list of places you will never send to again. You can always change your mind later, but it’ll feel good to put them there.
- If you don’t know how to respond to something, imagine yourself as the editor. How would you like to be spoken to? The answer for me is always—plainly, directly, and honestly. And ask yourself, what do you really want to communicate? Only say that thing. I’d rather fret over a poem’s wording than an email’s. I press send and move on.
- If a poem you love gets rejected by a mid-tier magazine, send it to a higher tier magazine. You don’t always have to work down. You just have to find the right editors. (This has worked for me with at least three poems, and I’m so glad I kept believing in them.)
- Do whatever you want! Treat your work the best you can!
Let me address some of the risks here. A magazine might never consider submissions from you again. I’ve heard rumors of “blacklisting.” But mostly I hear this from editors about submitters who respond violently to a rejection. I would hope no one gets “blacklisted” because they’ve asked for decency and an assumed base knowledge about submissions. But let’s say you do. That would suck. But you might never have been accepted by that magazine anyway. So you have to decide when it’s worth it. You can bite your tongue whenever you want. I’ve bitten my tongue. I’ve written back “Thanks for letting me know” to a hilarious explanation of submissions. My response probably seems polite to the editors but I hold it in my heart as a passive-aggressive gem that gives me great joy.
Also, in my ten years of submitting and publishing, I have only had confrontational email interactions on five occasions. That’s about 1% of my experiences submitting. Mostly only good things have come from being in touch with magazines. Often querying has led me to be in touch with managing editors, some of whom I’ve ended up sending notes of congratulations when I see they’ve had an amazing poem published, or whom I’ve otherwise ended up befriending. Sometimes it just leads to a silly email exchange that puts me in a good mood about my longer-than-their-website-stated wait, like this one:
I just wanted to check in on my submission. Thank you so much for your time.
All my best,
About a week later…
Your submission is alive and well! Sorry for the delay— it’s in the hands of multiple readers (a good sign). More very soon—
About a minute later…
Thank you! Keep her well-fed!
Nothing will be perfect, but taking these steps has made me feel better. They feel like taking a shower and clipping my nails—those are small things I can do to feel agency around my body in a world where it is often critiqued. Querying like a boss makes me feel agency around my body of work in a world where it is often critiqued. It might be bold. It might not be for you. But find things that do work for you. And remember, no one is keeping track of whether you do follow the rules, whether you patiently never query, whether you quietly accept how you are spoken to, and then rewards you for that behavior. No one. So good luck, good luck, my friends. You will no doubt come across some serious bullshit.