Who Reads My Submission? Questions and Reflections from a Young Reader in the Poetry Factory

By Rosalie Moffett, Blog Editor

This is, in part, a response to Sean Bishop’s blog post for the VQR, “The Poetry Factory: On Mass Submission Culture”

It’s true. I was extensively vetted.

I graduated from Lewis and Clark College with an English degree. I wrote a cover letter. I took the bus to, what was for me then, an intimidatingly fancy part of town, where I was interviewed. My literary expertise and my knowledge of copy machines was thoroughly tested. For four months afterward, I was an intern at Tin House Magazine.

Three days a week I biked from my house in Southeast Portland to “The Pearl,” a neighborhood in the Northwest. If it was raining, which it generally was, I stopped by a coffee shop (one frequented by ladies still in their Pilates outfits, and men on phones transferring money from one bank account to another) and used the hand dryer in the bathroom to dry the butt of my jeans.

At that time, Tin House was just switching from paper-only to online submissions and over the course of my time there, my daily walks to the post office got easier and the flood of online submissions grew. The magazine, as a result, needed more readers, and I supplied my editor with some of my friends from college.

The slush readers were advised to choose two to four poems (out of twenty) to forward for consideration. As an intern, I read whatever made it through that first filter. In general, we rejected people.

All those rejection slips that I cut with the office pizza-roller paper cutter, all the times I forwarded the form rejection—I was undermining my karma as a future submitter to magazines, I knew that at the time. But sometimes, when I looked up from reading the work of accomplished writers, professors with impressive publications, people three times my age, I wondered what else I was doing at Tin House.

I was acquainted with most of the twenty or so other readers because, periodically, there were reader-parties at bars where we all got to have a couple of drinks on the T-house tab. I can say that with a couple of exceptions, they, like me, were twenty-two or -three, and fresh college graduates. Which makes sense. If not us, in our blank CV stage, in our joblessness or under-employment, in our eagerness to be a part of something as hip and prestigious as Tin House, in our willingness to be paid in beer for countless hours of work—if not us, who else? Who else would slog through the submissions from correctional institutions and high school students, from people who had been in magazines we’d never heard of, and definitely, occasionally from really, really talented writers?

I am not trying to ask whether we ever, in our youth and inexperience, made mistakes. Because, obviously, we did.

Instead, what I want to consider is whether it matters that the people who read the slush are predominantly young.

Yes, I know that some stalwart journals, sticking to their paper-only or non-simultaneous submissions guidelines, have their editors read every submission. In general, though, Tin House is not the exception but the rule; with the near-ubiquity of online submissions and the resulting mass-submission culture, magazines are receiving bigger haystacks, and they need a bigger team of readers if they want to keep the needle-search manageable. A shrinking percentage of work is read by editors, most slush is read by readers. I think it’s accurate to say that, by and large, the people who read your submission are under thirty.

Does it make any difference?

One of the super-powers of literature is its ability to allow us—to force us, even—to live someone else’s experience. That said, was a poem that took up the subject of having a child, of growing old, of the loss of a spouse going to hit me, at twenty-two, in the same way that it would someone who had been through any of that? Would it, in fact, hit me harder because, perhaps, at that time, I thought that poetry had to be some heavy shit? I don’t know. I’m still only twenty-six.

Would a poem about Grand Theft Auto and/or Pinterest and/or Kanye West and/or the Tanner family from “Full House” weasel through the initial filter better than one that references something… Well, something that existed before 1982?

Does a quiet formal poem about grief even have a place in a contemporary magazine because there are enough of those already but there aren’t enough about super-important issues facing real people today? For instance, sex?

I joke. But I’m only kind of joking. I am just trying to figure out what it all means.

I am not trying to dismiss the work of young readers—after all, I’m still one of them—or the model that Tin House and many other magazines use. Because having your poems read by someone hopeful enough to read each submission as if it might be the first publication of the next great writer, (thus gaining the lowly intern some recognition) or even that the poem might be chosen for the magazine (thus gaining the lowly intern some recognition) could be a good thing. It could be a good thing to have your submission read by someone who is not yet totally confident in her first impression, who feels it necessary to read the poems over and over, lest she miss something. Having your submission read by someone whose under-employment was such that she had nothing else to do on a Wednesday night but drink a beer, sit with your poems and try to learn something—perhaps that was good.

Having your submission read by an experienced editor who has a hundred poems to look at that day, and who is confident enough to make flash-decisions about what merits further consideration and what does not—this could be a bad thing.

So I am not saying that we are bad readers, only that we are young readers. And that means that, despite the fact that we are, to a certain extent, diverse, we all have something in common. The simplified question is, “What if all the people that read manuscripts are the same kind of person?”

The complicated answer would be a clear picture of who and what kind of work is getting sidelined.

I don’t have the answer.

But I tried to hazard some guesses. I guessed that young readers privilege the witty, the funny, the loud poems, the poems that verge on pretension, pompousness. That we tend to be comfortable with a degree of impenetrability, with non-sequiturs, with poems that build illogically and extravagantly, a la the ball in Katamari Damacy. I guessed that we like things that sparkle, poems whose weirdness is immediate and jarring. I guessed that we like poems about ourselves, I guessed that poems that didn’t fit these clothes would have a harder time getting through the slush.

Do we think this is accurate? If so, are we alright with it?