Submissions Etiquette by Fred Wilbur

Photo of sunset between two buildings
Photograph by Fred Wilbur

Sending simultaneous submissions is a fact of a poet’s life whether you practice the strategy or not. How such a maneuver began may be one of those mysteries of history, but it is acceptable to most literary venues these days. It may have come about by the eagerness and impatience of poets frustrated by the often long waits and by thinking that someone out there would just love their work. I suppose the more complicated recordkeeping of this doubling (tripling) up has been taken care of by sophisticated spreadsheet programs.

Simultaneous submissions is a strategy to speed up and thereby increase the odds of acceptance, to raise one’s acceptance ratio, so to speak. I am sympathetic to this earnest anticipation. And one can get terribly bent out of shape waiting month on month for a simple—without explanation—yes or no judgement (the black ink and white paper of our writing).

I rarely send poems to two journals at once, except occasionally by mistake.

It may be that I don’t like to be on the receiving end of a double-whammy—some poor poem struggling with TWO editor’s preferences simultaneously! I prefer to receive rejections one at a time—the comeuppance enough to prompt objective revision or to correct the damn typo which torpedoed its chances. I can easily sequence my 3 x 5 cards, though I confess to a duel (simultaneous) system by having a computer spreadsheet color coded with bright yellow for acceptance, green for pending (still hope) and white for languishing unsubmitted, perhaps unworthy. There are other programs and schemes for such tracking, I am sure.

Regardless, when I receive a rejection sent out only a few days previously, I wonder that the editor or their speed reading ‘front line’ reader, ever read them at all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer in efficiency, but is reading poetry meant to be efficient?

As poetry co-editor of Streetlight, I read poems as they are submitted, first come, first served style. My method is to write the poet’s name and the titles of their poems in a spiral notebook so I can make notes in cuneiform or hieroglyphics as the reaction, observations, analysis warrants. Sharon Ackerman and I both read all poems submitted—though not simultaneously!—and consult each other to create a list for the next quarter’s issue. This process, more often than not, requires some back-and-forth discussion.

Usually, we consider poems in batches of eight or ten as it just so happens, but we get back in a reasonable month or six weeks or sooner. We inform ‘acceptances’ and ‘declines’ pretty much at the same time.

We assume, though we are occasionally fooled, that after we accept a poem and inform the submitter of this decision that they would immediately inform the other venues to which they have simultaneously submitted. This is a condition of submission to Streetlight Magazine.

After acceptance, we spend time transferring text to our dashboard, plugging in and possibly editing biographical notes, and request (and insert) a biopic. In addition to these chores, we search for a feature photograph meant to provoke interest, enhance the invitation, stimulate the reader to read the piece.

After this deliberation and manipulation, it is disheartening and infuriating (simultaneously) to have some Bozo back out. I am extremely dubious that acceptances from two journals would cross the electronic finish line at exactly the same time. Maybe the submitter has judged that some other venue is “better” somehow or in career trajectory more advantageous or whatever. This withdrawal after acceptance is not only rude, but disrespects our time in reading the work and our effort to present the work on the submitter’s behalf. I remember these folks.

In my years of editing Streetlight, I have never received a Thank You from a ‘declined’ and only occasionally from an ‘acceptance’ for reading their work. In these instant and easy response times you would think that such recognitions would be common. I agree rejection letters can be impersonal and are a stock cliché, but I wonder why that is. It must be all those simultaneous submissions flooding every editor’s desk.

When we accept a poem for inclusion in Streetlight, we judge it to be ‘worthy’ of our magazine and we will stand behind our decision.

Frederick Wilbur
Frederick Wilbur received his BA from the University of Virginia and an MA from the University of Vermont. He has authored three books on architectural and decorative woodcarving. His two poetry collections are As Pus Floats the Splinter Out and Conjugation of Perhaps. His work has appeared in many print and on-line reviews including Shenandoah, The Atlanta Review, The Comstock Review, The Dalhousie Review, Rise Up Review, and Mojave River Review. He was awarded the Stephen Meats Award by Midwest Quarterly (2017).

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