How We Select Poems to Publish

15 February 2019 on Blog, Poetry  

In order to shed light on one aspect of the submission process, the Barnstorm poetry team answers the question, “How do you select poems for possible publication?”

When looking at prospective poems for Barnstorm, I look at the language and how the writer makes their choices. I look for freshness, something that indicates a control over the diction being chosen. This is not to say language that sounds "smart" or "poetic," but rather language that plunges the reader deeper into an image, an emotional orientation, or clues us in to the speaker's voice and thus the mood of the poem. I look for something surprising or something that delights me in a way I wasn't expecting.

I look for poems with a sense of aliveness that feel as though they were written out of some real need or urgency. I pay attention when a poem speaks genuinely and can surprise me or reverberate in some way within my own consciousness.

In his book Writing with Power, Peter Elbow describes the act of writing as trying to coax a snake into a jar. The snake is a metaphor for raw energy, while the jar is whatever contains this energy. I suppose this is what I look for in poetry—some wildness made available to the reader. We need clarity—clean syntax and crisp images—in order to delve into the consciousness on the page. I am disinterested in predictable and overly familiar things (Elbow does warn against shoving a dead snake into a jar), just as much as obscure sentence fragments trying to be “poetic.” What I’m looking for (and of course, trying to create in my own work!) is both controlled/crafted/refined and deeply intuitive.

When choosing poems, I look for poems that surprise me. I like when a poem moves in an unexpected way or has unusual and powerful imagery.  I also am particularly drawn to poems with great sounds, that are begging to be read aloud.

If a poem knows what it’s trying to do, and does it, then I consider it a strong candidate for publication. That criterion is satisfied by an enormous range of work; there are poems that have had long lives and matured beyond the initial creative impulse, and others that are still raw and hot from the mold; there are formal, and highly experimental poems—the point is that the poem should have a true awareness of what it is aiming for, and then it needs to get there. This shouldn’t exclude the possibility of mystery and surprise—both are the necessary. Poems to be published should be both well-made and magical.

It's hard to put my finger on it exactly. In technical terms, I'm looking for varied line and sentence length, strong line breaks, maybe visual intrigue. I'm looking for novel diction, interesting turns of phrase, and original content. A good word used well attracts my attention and appreciation, and a turn of phrase that touches the senses just the right way does the same thing. As for original content, I don't want to read a poem, and get the sense that I've read it before. Now, that all, for the most part is rather technical, but if I'm being honest, I'm not actually thinking about them when I'm reading. What I want is the power of language, the music, the sense that “something important is being said here, and I want to hear it” whether it's important to you, or to me, or just for it to exist and be an experience out in the world. That's a little bit harder to put your finger on. I listed some techniques and whatnot, but if you can show me that wizardry of words, and violate every rule I laid out in the first half of this ramble, then all bets are off. That's another beautiful thing about poetry. There are rules and guidelines, but it's art! If it works, then the rules don't matter.




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