How I Started My Online Poetry Magazine and Made All My Editor Dreams Come True
I meant to write about this last week, but it's been busy. Gideon starting school, nearing completion of Rebecca Loudon's Cadaver Dogs, new laptop issues, planning for the intern, No Tell galleys -- you know, life stuff. That's something to be noted, often when you start these projects they generate recurring work and responsibilities that can go on into infinity.
For instance, a month after I first launched No Tell Motel, my dad asked what was new in my life and I excitedly started explaining all the things I was doing for the magazine. He cut me off and said, you already put out that website, like that was done and over with. Granted he's not a poet or an editor and there's no reason to expect him to know about such things, but I was a bit surprised that he didn't realize that publishing a magazine would be a daily endeavor. Consider my surprise later on when I realized that many poets haven't the slightest concept of the work that goes into publishing a magazine on a regular basis, let alone on a daily one. All of these projects I wrote about over the past few weeks take a considerable amount of work and if you take on more than you can manage, it can be a recipe for grief and stress. I have often whipped up that recipe and hence you see me in a position that until very recently I swore I'd never be in -- training an intern.
As an example, last summer a No Tell poet wrote and asked that I blurb his chapbook. He assumed that two weeks was plenty of time since I knew his work quite well. Well, I remembered the five poems published in No Tell, knew none of his other work, and was strained in a very bad way trying to publish three collections and an anthology by the fall, while keeping up with No Tell, proofing my own book that was being released that fall, scheduling a reading tour, running my own reading series and also raising my son, managing my household . . . if I was ever close to shooting up a post office, last summer would have been the time. I wrote back saying sorry, but I need 2-3 months to blurb a book and my schedule was overpacked. He responded to that by saying it would only take a couple hours. I didn't respond to that. I gave him my answer and if I started explaining how every hour was sacred and spoken for, I'd get really pissed and probably go off.
That's a bad place to be in and I don't recommend it for anyone. The last way you want to feel is that other poets aren't viewing you as a fellow poet, but as a work horse existing to take care of their needs. One must balance her contributions to the community with attention to her own work and life. The way it plays out is that the majority of poets give very little to the community and to make up for that, a handful of poets sometimes overcompensate by taking on a thousand things -- at their own peril. Or other times, poets have great ideas but no concept of how to finish projects. It takes planning and thought.
Five years ago was a very different time for me. I was almost 30, recently MFAed, married and childfree. I wrote poems, reviewed books and literary journals at NewPages and ran a small jewelry design business that actually made some money. I was restless and often felt hopeless. I noticed magazines like Octopus and Unpleasant Event Schedule started by poets my own age, some younger. My impression: who are these punks and who the hell are they to start a magazine? To be perfectly honest, while I admired (and frankly was rather jealous) of these young punks' magazines, I considered myself way more creative and was quite sure I could do a better job, if only I had the chance. My mind hadn't fully clicked that nobody gave these punks their opportunities, these punks created them for themselves. Fucking punks.
In April 2004 I got knocked-up. Sure, Chris and I planned it that way, but when it became a reality instead of just some concept we frequently discussed, everything changed. When I looked at that peestick and realized it was positive, the first thing I thought was Oh shit, I'm pregnant, I don't have a book, I haven't been published enough, nobody knows my work, now I'm doomed to being some lame mom. It's all over. Ok, that's a demented way to look at a planned pregnancy. It also was an extremely ignorant and misinformed view of what a mother can do in our current day. But it was what it was. My dumbass fear that I'd become some lame, boring mom was my motivation to start No Tell Motel. If you read the About page, it's pretty obvious. I recently re-read the first paragraph and was appalled. Maybe I'll have the intern rewrite it.
I must have been bursting with creation because I finally decided to start a magazine, but was too afraid to do it alone. A couple years before I almost started one with two male poet friends, but it became obvious they just wanted me because I knew how to do online stuff (and they didn't). They were going to make all the decisions and I was gonna do the work. That wasn't cool with me. Frankly, I'm kinda sensitive to that shit. It's why I like to do stuff alone -- that and cause everybody else does it wrong. So I knew for this to work, my co-editor had to be a woman. I wanted someone who was fierce, honest and smart. That was Molly Arden. Our tastes and style differ quite a bit. I was good with that. I didn't want a clone of myself, I wanted someone who I could work well with. When I came up with the name Skull Flicker, she told me that was totally stupid and thank God for that. When I said I wanted to publish on a daily basis, she said that sounded impossible which put me in the position to have to make a case to why that was possible. When a poet I solicited sent work that Molly absolutely detested, I had to make a case for the poems. Having to make all these cases was invaluable. It made me really think through every decision, every move.
Discussing the more technical aspects with Chris was also important. He stressed the importance of content management. I wasn't interested in content management, it sounded boring. I wanted to think about the fun stuff. Well, guess what, content management is really fucking important and if you don't have a plan for how you're going to manage all the content you're going to publish and if you publish any significant amount of stuff, it's gonna be a big mess. I wrote some last year about technical aspects of publishing an online magazine.
I worked all summer on launching the magazine. I had my college roommate do the design and set-up the content management using (blogging) software recommended by another friend. Molly and I approached poets we admired to send work. Many were quite generous and supportive. Some claimed not to have any work available, which I took to mean they didn't want to waste it on an unknown online magazine. One poet jerked Molly around for weeks, insisted she call him on the phone and send pictures of herself. Finally he got the message that she wasn't playing hard to get when she sent him a picture of herself with her newborn, several moments after giving birth. That's when he admitted he never intended on sending us work cause online magazines weren't "his bag." What the fuck ever, just because we're gorgeous doesn't mean we have a bunch of time to fucking waste dealing with that nonsense. NEWS FLASH: We're not flattered by obnoxious and inappropriate attention.
With six weeks of poems scheduled, we launched the magazine and held an open submission call that went through the rest of the year. The first year we accepted around 7-8% of the unsolicited work received, now we accept around 3-5%. I solicit work from about 5-7 poets a year. I don't take all the work by these poets. Sometimes they send work I don't love. It's the nature of editing a magazine. An invitation to send work is simply that, an invitation, not a guarantee or a promise. The rest of the poems published at No Tell are from the slush pile. From the pool of accepted work, I invite a couple poets to send manuscripts for consideration at No Tell Books.
Five years ago I started an online magazine and added an anthology, then a micropress and co-curated a reading series and wrote a monthly poetry column all while raising a small child, often on my own because my husband travels a great deal for work. That's too much for any one person to do, or at least do well. I had to prioritize. I don't do the reading series or the poetry column any more. The magazine has shorter reading periods and the press went from publishing 5 books a year to 2. I'm considerably happier now. My plans with the intern is not so I can do more work, but to better do the work I'm still doing. To give myself more time on my own poems.
I wrote this series of "making our dreams come true" posts for the following reasons:
1. To point out that nobody has to be victim to a completely screwed-up, terrible-for-poetry publishing system. It is possible to circumvent much of it, even if one is working in academia.
2. To point out that to fix this system, more poets need to actively contribute and support it. This means buying books and magazines, reviewing books and magazines, asking local libraries to order poetry books and magazines, providing venues to support other poets and their work such as reading series, magazines, presses, etc. Offering your home and a meal to traveling poets. Thinking of new ways to help promote and support other poets.
3. For more poets to appreciate (and not take advantage of) the efforts of poets who are already contributing to the community.
I hope my attempts were successful.