Dispatches | June 17, 2004

[By Bern Mulvey]

From the Learning Research Institute (California State University San Bernardino) comes this disturbing bit of news: the average age of death for poets is 62, the earliest of all writers. Apparently, it’s not even close, with novelists living four, and nonfiction writers living six, years longer. Worse, another study by the same institute (which seems a bit obsessed itself with the topic) found poets “much more likely to suffer from mental illness (e.g., be hospitalized, commit suicide, attempt suicide) than any other kind of writer.”

Ouch. First madness, then death—not much of a future there. Judging from the institute’s statistics, I have probably only a few more months of (relative) mental stability to look forward to, not to mention 25 or so years of progressively intrusive, and ultimately fatal, insanity.

Bear with me, then, as I share my final thoughts as poetry editor of this journal.

First, the requisite offering of thanks. This position has brought me into contact with many wonderful people—colleagues, subscribers, readers—not to mention the work of literally thousands of talented contributors and would-be contributors. Furthermore, I think the next two issues will demonstrate an expanded commitment to poetry at The Missouri Review. There will be more features than before, and they will be longer, showcasing as well a broader range of styles and themes (not to mention two first-publication poets). Please look forward to them.

Finally, my experiences here have reinforced my belief that all writers—though especially the short-lived poets—need to ask for more from the literary journals to which we submit and subscribe. As editor, one hears a lot of complaints, and yes, I too would like to see new voices and styles—instead of the usual suspects publishing retreads over and over again—at more of the major journals. Also, too many journals forbid simultaneous submissions yet do not respond in a timely fashion (I’m still waiting on poems submitted last fall…), not to mention demand ‘all rights’ but do not pay. A simple rule of thumb—don’t subscribe or submit to journals who consistently publish work you don’t like, who make demands on writers you consider unfair, or who reply to your own manuscripts tardily (7+ months) or unprofessionally.

However, we as writers need to do more than just demand improvement; we need to support it. How many people reading this editorial support the journals they admire or appreciate with subscriptions? Heck, how many writers even attempt to read their target journals before submitting?

I am reminded of the woman who approached our desk at AWP this year to complain bitterly about “TMR‘s editorial policies”—when pressed, she admitted she’d never actually read TMR before (or any other journal), asserting haughtily, “I don’t READ poetry, I just WRITE it.” Judging from many of the submissions we get, not to mention the constant stream of “What do you guys want?” questions, this attitude is distressingly common. Despite over ten years of publishing only ‘features’ of 5-10 pages per poet, about one half of the five thousand or so poetry submissions we receive each year contain under four pages of poems. Worse, there is distressingly little attempt made to give us what we “want”—i.e., freshness of language and image, originality of thought, something to say that transcends merely personal angst.

See, what we—and all editors—really want is to be surprised.

Publication is not your birthright. TMR can accept only about twelve of those five thousand poetry submissions we receive, and hence, must turn away many good manuscripts. However, you can better your chances substantially simply by looking at our guidelines and FAQ pages, not to mention reading the sample publications online.

But most importantly, you need to support those venues open to new work and committed to responding expeditiously and professionally to it. Journals like Beloit Poetry Journal (which does not want author bios included with submissions), Poetry (which even before the huge bequest was extremely open to and supportive of new authors), and yes, The Missouri Review. Support them, or lose them.

Meanwhile, I think I’m taking up creative nonfiction…for my health.