Contrary Magazine publishes commentary, fiction, poetry, and reviews. The editors "hope our magazine expresses contrarities that otherwise might go unexpressed." Learn more here.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a poem and why?
SB: The first thing that I look for is something surprising. That moment that you come to in a poem where, when you are reading it, your breathing changes or even your heartbeat fluctuates. It's very visceral. One of those poems you can feel.
The second thing I look for is a certain intelligence about the poem. The feeling that there is an intelligent, interesting person writing it. Someone you'd like to get to know. If I feel that way, readers will too.
The third thing that I can think of is that the poem is somehow different than what we've been publishing. Even though each journal has its own aesthetic, you don't want people to feel that you've been publishing the same issue over and over since your inception.
SQF: What are the top three reasons a poem is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to the above question and why?
SB: Some poems are just atrocious. I don't know what the writers are thinking, to be honest. Just because you have a quirky idea doesn't make it a great poem. For example, someone wrote an "a-b-c-d" poem where the first word began with an a, the second word began with a b, etc. This in itself is fine, if it were a good poem, but to write anything because of a quirky whim is horrible. One of the "y" words in the poem was "Yikes!" Yikes, indeed.
Other people think that shock value is what makes a good poem. A good writer can write about anything well, but just because something might shock or horrify doesn't make it good. There is a writer who sent in some poem called "Scratching my Balls," and I honestly can't tell if he thinks this is good poetry or if his M.O. is shocking editors.
The last thing I can think of is typos or just tiny errors or choices that take me out of a poem. A few poems this last round were beautiful, but they may have had a word that just wasn't quite the right word. At first these go into my yes pile with a note that says, "With Edits," where I'll publish it if the person agrees to make minor changes, but then when there are those perfect poems that have everything you want and don't need edits, the "Yes's with Edits" become No's.
SQF: What other common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a poem?
SB: Wordiness. I really believe in making sure that each word is the right word. If you're using an adjective plus a noun, maybe you need the right noun. If you're using an adverb plus a verb, maybe you need the right verb. Also, sacrificing meaning for syntax. Also, archaic language. If you want to be published today, you can't write like it's a hundred years ago.
SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a poem?
SB: I send small notes to Jeff (McMahon, our Editor in Chief) to send out when he sends rejections. Because of the volume of work we receive they are usually short notes. Something like, "please consider removing this word" or "please consider making the ending stronger." I also make a note of which poets should receive personalized rejections. Making it onto the "Yes" list even for a bit before I narrow down is quite a feat because we get a large volume of work and can only take a half dozen poems or fewer each issue.
SQF: Based on your experience as an editor, what have you learned about writing?
SB: I've learned that you have to just keep on trying. Even if you get rejected, because of the sheer volume of work that journals receive, that doesn't mean it's not a good poem. It just may not have been the right poem for that journal right then. I've also learned that there are a lot of great poets out there, which means a lot of competition. You have to make sure your work is at its best before you send it out for publication. I feel like a lot of people don't realize this or don't have their egos in check to realize this and send out a lot of half-assed work. It's helped me to take my work seriously.
SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't, and how would you answer it?
SB: Are there poems you wish you could have published that you didn't?
There are so many amazing poems that come in to Contrary, but the reality is that we're an online journal, and I feel that people's patience for reading online is shorter than it is for reading on the page. I've had great poems come in that I know are great, but they are three pages or longer, and I can tell that screen fatigue would set in and readers may not finish them. I don't say this to mean anything bad about long poems or readers of online journals, but these are poems that I hope will find another home (hopefully in print) where readers will appreciate them.
Thank you, Shaindel. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
NEXT POST: 09/08--Six Questions for Chris Speakman, Content Editor, MuseItUp Publishing