Letters from Editors

This weekend I received two emails from literary journals, one was a rejection and the other was an acceptance for publication. The two emails sent back to back got me thinking about my submission process and the way it’s changed over the year I’ve been consistently querying. When I started out my submitting process was random and sporadic, I was sending work off anywhere that caught my attention. But, as one might expect, that strategy didn’t really pay off.

Many writers like to hold onto their rejection letters as motivation, but if I did this I would be able to wallpaper my room. So instead I delete those emails, recycle those letters, and hang onto my acceptances because the truth is submitting sucks. The vast majority of mail that I get are rejection letters. This isn’t a unique experience, any writer out there with a blog could say the same thing, so rather than harp on that point I’d like to take a moment and say that while I’ve had to receive a lot of disappointing emails and letters, the pieces that are accepted make me feel accomplished. And while the cynic in me believes that most publications are about as meaningful as a gold star, I still find it worth wading through all the losses for that one win.

While I’m sure my process will continue to change as I develop more as a poet and writer I thought I’d share my process here in the hopes that it might provide some help to people beginning to submit their work and be open for critique from any wily veterans out there:

You’re going to get rejected-

Don’t take it too hard and don’t take it personally. This is easier said then done of course. When I spend so much time and effort with a poem and then have it turned away, it definitely feels disheartening. But I know I’m going to get rejected. I’m going to get rejected politely, with edits, with an automated response, any number of ways that all same the say thing: No. And that’s alright, in fact it’s better than alright, it’s necessary. It’s a part of the process and it allows me to test myself, and my work, when challenged.

Submit what you read and read before you submit-

When I was in Emerson I asked Peter Jay Shippy, a poet and professor I admire, for advice on submitting and he told me, “Submit where you read” which, as obvious as it seems, is an invaluable tip. If I read a journal I know what they look for stylistically which is a huge part of it. The fate of so many submissions are ultimately left up to the personal taste of the editors, so getting accustomed to what they look for helps my odds. A lot of journals and sites will also have a list of other journals they like, so if a journal I read has that I’ll check it out and see if their friends have a similar aesthetic. If they don’t have that kind of list, I’ll check out a place’s social media presence, as a lot of journals have started making accounts on Twitter and Facebook, to see who they follow. Also, when I come across a piece I really enjoy, I check out that writer’s bio or give their name a Google search to see where they’ve been published and if those magazines would fit my style as well.


I’ve heard and read it a thousand times, but it remains true that submitting is a number’s game. The more I submit the better my odds. I wouldn’t say this means blindly submitting to a bunch of different places or pulling names out of hat; I take the time to read some pieces, do the research and send as many quality submissions as possible. When I started out I was timid about simultaneously submitting certain pieces, feeling I should reserve them, but this resulted in those pieces not getting published until recently because of the waiting periods in between. So now I make an effort to submit with confidence to any journal I feel will be a good fit. Also, when I began I wouldn’t resubmit to magazines that had rejected me, but now I realize that was a petty feeling. A rejection once isn’t a permanent denial and an important trait of this craft is humility, and once I grow enough to have better or more fitting poems I’ll send my work to those places again!

Submit online and to local print-

It’s important to me that my friends and family can read my work. While obviously I want to grow a readership, I don’t want to do so at their expense. For that reason I only submit to journals that publish their issues online or print magazines in areas where I have friends or family. Another benefit of this is that it narrows the search, with so many publications existing today it can be hard to pick and choose and this self-imposed standard helps me thin the list down.

You will get published-

There are so many literary journals, magazines, zines, and small presses out there, from fancy publications funded by universities to one-person managed wordpress sites, that someone, somewhere is going to like your style. It’s inevitable. It might take a while, and it might not be the most renowned or critically acclaimed journals in the beginning, but there are definitely enough places publishing in the country and in the world for everyone’s work to find a home.

Have Fun-

This is the piece of advice my brother gave to me and I consider it paramount to all others. Have fun with it, have fun doing it, if you’re not then stop. I don’t mean stop permanently, but take a break. Between a full time job and long list of rejection letters it’s easy for me to get burnt out on submitting unless I keep it enjoyable. Even though it’s a number’s game, I find it an engaging numbers game, like walking into a casino every time I log onto Submittable. I’ve also found alternating between writing intensive and submission intensive months is incredibly helpful. Putting unwarranted pressure on myself to write and publish along with keeping up with my other projects and commitments can be a lot, so I like to give myself working vacations.


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We’ll Do It Live

Listening to music today, especially popular tunes, it seems that there are always chants in the song, moments where the audience or listener is encouraged to participate with a simple Oh, Ah, Hey or some other single syllable phrase. While this has always been a technique of bands and musicians for live shows, it seems more prevalent than ever before in recorded tracks. A great example of this is The Lumineers song: Ho, Hey. The Lumineers embody a style called “Hey Folk” (as my friend Dane Page informed me), but this technique is in more than folk music as every genre has taken to creating songs with these sections in them.

I’m not suggesting this is wholly a bad thing, I like The Lumineers a lot and I really like Ho, Hey. Also, when I saw the Lumineer’s live at FlodyFest last year, you better believe I sang along. I’m more curious about this trend in the music industry, and specifically the recording industry, right now. More and more often songs are written to be easily replicated live and, when performed live, to involve as much crowd interaction as possible. The benefit of this is that it turns concerts into unique experiences  for the audience members, making it something potentially more memorable because of their participation. While giving an audience a unique and compelling memory has been the goal of live music for a while, perhaps this contemporary trend is, in part, a response to the rise of downloading and the access to free music the internet provides. Artists aren’t making as much money off of album sales so drawing crowds to live performances and selling tickets for tours has become more important for survival and longevity in a competitive industry. While I acknowledge that many artists are finding creative ways around the necessity of record sales, but those methods could be a post all their own and I’m more interested in exploring this stylistic choice.

Along with altering Pop music this trend has had an impact on the indie scene. Even if a musician’s not selling out stadiums, there’s a strange pressure and expectation on an act to try and replicate the sensation that popular bands with large followings have. But trying to make a crowd of people in a coffee shop, or bar interact with you by clapping or singing is often difficult and awkward unless they become invested, which is rarely the case. But it’s important to remember, that these listeners are not necessarily there for a typical concert experience. If they wanted they could pay for a venue ticket and go watch bands in a music hall or stadium setting, but they didn’t. They’re in that venue to meet up with friends, have a drink, relax, or just do their own thing in a space where if there happens to be entertainment then that’s all the better. It’s important for indie and beginning bands to not create expectations that don’t really exist. Obviously it’s important to play a good show, but there’s no set definition for what a good show is supposed to look like. There’s this perception that a genuinely good show has to have a group of people chanting with you and that isn’t true. There’s success, albeit a humble success, in playing music for people and just letting them listen.


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Splitting the Bill

On the Green Sundress Tour, Penn and I traveled with Earl of Evenings who played as our opening act. And while it was great to tour with another musician, by the Indiana flat lands the monotony of shows took a toll on all of us. Though seemingly irrelevant, consistently having one opener and one headliner for multiple shows in a row can get frustratingly repetitive for everyone. As both a performer and audience member, I think split bills can be a way to create more engaging shows on the road. The split bill creates diversity for the musicians as acts can switch off who goes first and who goes second, third, etc. at every show. This little bit of variation helps keep every set fresh and when a group is on the road for a while every little thing is helpful.

As an audience member I consider the potential to see two indie acts of equal repute a more tempting ticket to buy or show to attend than one with a headliner and a band that I know isn’t going to be the same quality or, if they end up blowing the headliner away, have a full set. This could admittedly just be because I’m stingy and like trying to get the most out of what I spend, but unless I’m seeing a band with national or regional pull the differences in quality and preparation between the opening and main acts tend to be vast. Obviously, as with everything, there are exceptions to the rule, and I acknowledge that I’m speaking here in generalizations. Also, while  it’s traditional for someone to warm up a crowd and build up the anticipation for the main event, the access to music and music media now generates hype for shows and high expectations for fans before they even get in the door.

As a touring musician, split bills are easier to market and book for indie acts. When I’m traveling out of town people who have never heard of me are more attracted to a full night of music and performances, than a concert with one or two unknown performers. Venues understand this too and want to what will draw in the most business for them, so if I reach out to booking agents with a full bill, preferably including some local support, the likelihood of getting the gig goes up exponentially.

Split bills also breed a healthy competition that keep shows interesting for the audience. Music, like anything, can be competitive and when acts are swapping their slots it’s up to each act to play their best. There’s a story about Wu-Tang battling each other in practices to see who’d get to perform their feature songs, and I think something like this can be replicated by indie bands on their tours. Especially if bands are from different areas (this might be more specific to instate or localized tours like Mountain to Sea since getting bands from different states together to tour is out of most indie budgets) then the band without local draw has more incentive to put on a show that will hold the attention of people who have never heard their music.

There are obviously a lot of difficulties in creating split bills. Anyone who has ever tried to do anything involving multiple people, let alone booking, knows that the more people you add to the equation the more complicated it becomes. It’s much easier to coordinate things with one or two people. Another practical issue is that indie bands need money and creating a big bill means less of a payout per performer because there’s a larger split. For this, I admittedly can offer no suggestions or solutions. Money can be a point of contention, so my only advice is that when you negotiate the deal make sure everyone understands, there are a lot of people involved so assuming can quickly lead to conflict.

Then of course there’s always the perennial problem of split bills: keeping the crowd for the whole set. Audience retention is one of the most difficult aspects of this show arrangement since people will leave once they see the specific band they came to see. One solution to this problem, which really only functions smoothly with acoustic or lo-fi acts, is to have a round robin style performance where musicians switch off every two or three songs. Having done this a few times I think it has both advantages and disadvantages. While it’s nice to switch things up and keep the audience’s attention with fresh faces and fresh sounds, the determent is that no performer has the ability to create a set with a full arch. I know that whenever I make set lists I move through very specific themes and tones, but in round robins, I have to stitch together three pieces that fit as a package. While there’s still a small arch that can be made, and also a disjointed overall one, the grandiose is sacrificed.

But like anything in the indie scene, do it yourself. I want to advocate for a different way of doing things, especially if a band starts to feel they’re hitting a plateau in the performances. Don’t be afraid to switch up the way shows are organized, because sometimes little fixes like that can make the big picture so much more complete.


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Please Read Responsibly

One of the biggest arguments in contemporary literature is that author intent is irrelevant. No matter what meaning an author believes their text to have, once it’s out in the world the only thing that matters is the meaning the reader extracts from it because the reader is the one truly engaging with the text. I find this argument compelling, especially in regards to my on-going project @SocialLit because the potential exists, through retweets and shares, for a person in a different country and/or culture to read a poem I’ve tweeted and therefore approach the piece in a completely different context than I could anticipate.

If I take this idea to be true, that author intent isn’t as important as the reader’s interpretation, then I think it’s only fair to ask an audience to read responsibly. On social media sites, especially Facebook it seems, people are more apt to share and comment on articles or pieces that bother them than the ones they actually enjoy. And don’t misinterpret this, I believe this is important. Critique is evidence of a healthy literary culture, which is why when people lament the loss of literature or literary thinking in America my news feed, in a strange way, reassures me that it is alive and well. But critique is only one aspect. The potential exists for a news feed to be used as a kind of literary, and blogerary if you will, salon. It’s a space where people can promote the writings and ideas they feel deserve a platform for display. In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that a person shouldn’t read and comment on writing that challenges their own opinions or biases, because that would be ignorance, what I’m arguing for is balance.

It’s important that we, as an educated society, are talking both about what we like (pun somewhat intended) and dislike. It’s easy to take for granted how effectively emotions are expressed and shared through a social media presence. All those spiritual quotes about the energy you put out being what you get back have never been more pertinent to an age than ours. For example, if I tweet something out of anger or sorrow, I am literally putting that emotion and information out into the public for anyone, anywhere, to read. And that tweet, when read, can influence someone’s thoughts, even if only for a second or two. I make every attempt to be conscious in the way I use sites like Twitter and Facebook because even though what I write or say can be taken a number of ways, I want to do my best to keep my presence positive and productive.


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Midnight Musings: Crowd Surfing

I recently moved to New York City, Bushwick to be specific. After finally settling into my new apartment and finding a job, I decided it was high time to start exploring the open mic scene and finding places to read my work. Earlier this week I was slotted late on an open mic. I was tired after my first day of work and was ready to go home. I felt pretty low energy by the time I got on stage and since there weren’t many people left in the bar I didn’t think my stage presence, being visibly exhausted, was a big deal.

Then I remembered that old adage in performance: Perform for the crowd. This doesn’t mean pandering to the audience, what it means is that whether it’s one or one-hundred people listening, as a performer and entertainer I have a responsibility to give whatever audience is present my best possible performance. So I bucked up, drank some free water and opened with “Marathon Monday” which is one of my favorite pieces to do in a new venue.

The next morning I was thinking about the open mic. Beyond my feeling of responsibility, the advent of Vine and Snapchat, let alone the perennial power of YouTube, have made consistency even more important to a performer’s success. If there is only a single person in a venue that sole listener has the potential to reach hundreds of people. The audience of a video, or any virtual piece of information, sent out by an individual is limitless. It’s possible that it’ll make it to the friends of the person filming, then to their friends, and their friends and a few more friend circles out. And while this by no means implies that the video will go viral, it does mean that the work will have been viewed by a group people who, at a certain degree, are pretty much strangers to one another. The difference is that the crowd is in their own rooms rather than packed into the venue.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no delusions of grandeur. I don’t believe that my performance that night had any shockingly discernible effects on my career. But as a poet in today’s world I need be mindful and make every opportunity I have to read into a performance I’d want people anywhere in the world to see.


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The Southern Gothic Strikes Back

Southern Gothic is back and better than ever. The aesthetic is coming back into style on a national scope. The movement has begun to permeate all different forms of popular art and media. The ghost of William Faulkner is alive (in a manner of speaking) and well, reviving the literary tradition he perfected.

Like the classic Southern Gothic, this resurgence still plays on the decaying land and lineage of prominent families and the old southern aristocracy. But now the landscapes depicted are condemned manufacturing plants and massive oil refineries and the aristocracy are the dying wealthy or corrupt politicians vying for more power. While the original Southern Gothic was in many ways a reaction to reconstruction and the influence of carpet baggers moving into the south, this revival might well be a response to the current influx of Yankees, like my family and I, moving out of the New England and Mid-Atlantic rust belt in search of jobs and a cheaper cost of living. While obviously things have been flipped on their head (now the northerners are fleeing the north) the population statistics remain the same. Within a few years’ time the town I moved to in North Carolina had more north eastern transplants than locals living in it.

This contemporary Southern Gothic aesthetic shows the effects drug trafficking and gangs, of prostitution, unemployment and the consequences, especially in more rural areas, of rapid urbanization and a greater amount of centralization in the deep south. It responds to natural disasters and, subsequently, the crumbling infrastructure and variable economy of the south’s coastal, river, and delta communities. And perhaps most importantly of all, it continues to present and represent, albeit rarely in a positive light, a part of American culture that is often labeled as backwards by the American public.

In many ways, Hip-hop is leading the way in utilizing and reinventing the Southern Gothic with music videos. Take for example School Boy Q’s music video What They Want where viewers are led through one of the famous New Orleans above ground grave yards and confronted with the image of skeleton figures walking between the raised graves and modern day New Orleans. Or Earl Sweatshirt’s Hive music video where the images of nature’s perverse qualities, an important component of the Southern Gothic style, are manifested throughout by brief, verging on subliminal, images such as the two dogs getting it on in the middle of a desolate street. The visuals in these music videos are reminiscent of the grotesque and paranormal imagery in the classic Southern Gothic, but they recast the images in today’s world.

TV and film are also huge players in the Southern Gothic revival. This is due in part because the south, especially Louisiana and North Carolina, offer massive tax breaks and incentives for film crews, making the region a more prevalent setting. Television shows such as True Detectives which depicts occult killings in rural Louisiana and True Bloods which pits vampires in small town Louisiana epitomize the new Southern Gothic. Strange tales of horror set against failed bureaucracies, such as a state police department that still answers to evangelical leaders, and unsustainable or otherwise doomed institutions.

Films such as Mud set in Arkansas and Beasts of the Southern Wild set in Louisiana are contemporary examples of the strange mysticism, a kind magical realism if you will, that permeates Southern Gothic literature. Their events, characters, and setting aren’t necessarily out of the realm of possibility, but like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County the places and their inhabitants don’t seem entirely of our world.


Along with all these serious revivals the Southern Gothic is being parodied more frequently. We are seeing this aesthetic, as a classic cliché, being played upon and made light of more and more. As silly of examples as they might be, contemporary B movies like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, where the main villains are a society of vampires living in mansions on decaying plantations or Tucker & Dale VS Evil which creates a comedic flip of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s expectations. Movies like these are important as any valid movement needs a satire of itself.

Now I’m just hoping that the literary world follows suit on a wider range. I’m sure there are some works that are using and advancing this style, I just honestly don’t read enough contemporary fiction. If anyone reading this blog knows of any current authors who are writing in this style please leave me some comments or links to their stories or titles. All in all, I’m excited to see the resurgence of a literary aesthetic and the writing that it will create, like the eerie possibility of A Rose for Emily set in the era of Instagram!


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Poetry and the Private Sector

My good friend Bobby Crawford recently had his poem “Subaru Lover” go viral. His poem has found it’s way onto a lot of different blogs and news sites and has over 15,000 views. A comment on Jezebel, one of the sites that picked up the poem, suggested Bobby should pitch Subaru the idea of using his piece in one of their advertisements. I don’t think it’s a bad idea.

While Subaru, which traditionally has a very family oriented company identity, might not make use of the more sexual portions of Bobby’s poem, the overall message about the courage it takes to find your own identity would certainly appeal to their brand. And at the very least they could include Bobby’s mannerisms and energetic performance into sections of a stylized montage, similar to Honda’s #LoveToday campaign.

There’s recently been a trend of companies using poetry in their marketing campaigns:

There’s the iPad Air commercial which quotes from Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” and begins with a narrator discussing the importance of poetry.

Levi’s go forth campaign includes, Whitman’s “O Pioneers!”, Whitman’s “America”, and Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart

And while it’s more personal essay than poem, North Face recently ran an ad using a famous quote from John Muir’s “My First Summer in the Sierra.”

Though admittedly the poets these ads use, Whitman and Bukowski, are two of America’s most recognizable poets that doesn’t mean there isn’t a space for contemporary poets to get their pieces into advertising. In the same way many indie bands get their funding and break out success from having their music played on advertisements, so too could poets with their writing.

Poetry has started returning to the popular conscious, largely through the growth of the Slam Poetry scene, so it makes sense that advertisers are beginning to use pieces of writing in their commercials. And poets should reap the benefits of these advertisements. While the argument of “selling out” weighs on most artists minds, there’s nothing ignoble or degrading about making a living off of what you love doing. Business is the art of America and marketing is a persuasive art just like poetry, instead of selling a product though poets peddle emotion. Furthermore, it’s almost impossible for a contemporary American poet to avoid product placement when writing in a culture so inundated with consumerism. For example: it’s more vivid and telling for a speaker or character in a piece to be drinking a Sprite than a soda. When poets use specific products in their work they’re establishing a relationship, whether intentional or not, between themselves and the company that manufactures that item; a relationship that could be reciprocated and financially beneficial for both parties.

Another intersection of poetry and business is patronage. With everyone competing for residency spots and grant funds it makes sense to start looking elsewhere for money and support for a project, for example applying for the Amtrak Residency instead of a travel grant. A big argument against this is the corporate bias, having to compile work that the company can use at their discretion and that doesn’t tarnish their reputation. I agree that any amount of censorship or pre-determined agendas that go into a work seriously undermines its message and integrity, but I don’t think this bias is exclusive to the funding a poet can receive from industry. As a poet today, you’re either going to have to appeal to an institution’s (university, think-tank or otherwise) bias or the current government’s agenda to receive a grant so no matter what route a poet takes there will always be someone or some board of people, to appease. Dylan said it best, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody”.

Admittedly, not everyone is interested in having their work broadcast to people. Some poets write for personal reasons and are content with the private sense of accomplishment they find in their work. But for those who are invested in being heard and/or read, advertisements present the widest possible distribution for work. Not only does this have the potential to help a poet’s career, but perhaps it’s a way for poetry to truly impact culture as a whole. The biggest problem with advertising today is its hedonism and the culture of greed and mass consumption it promotes. But with more and more poetry finding its way into ads maybe the messages these works have will start not only changing the minds of people watching, but the people creating, writing, and filming the ads as well.


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