Harsh Poetry and the Purpose of Publishing

I received a submission recently from Eric Paul Shaffer, who included a poem called “Whales at Sunset” and who introduced the poem like this in his cover letter:

Because some editors have said that the ecological implications of ‘Whales at Sunset’ are too harsh, after reading ALBATROSS (#18), I particularly wanted you to see the poem. It was included in my recent book LAHAINA NOON, but has never been published elsewhere. I read your guidelines carefully, but I saw no mention of a policy on previously published work, so I thought I would include it, in hopes you might find it of interest.

Now I was pleased that he thought to send it to me, and pleased also at the thought that we publish poetry that is “too harsh.” Harsh poetry is the kind that needs to be given voice, given the state of the planet these days. When I read the poem, I thought it was perfect, but I did not accept it because it had already been published. I’ll try to explain my rationale.

My understanding of the purpose of publishing individual poems in journals is to build a record of publication to demonstrate that one’s work has been recognized and featured by other editors. Once one had enough credits, one could prepare a chapbook or book manuscript with the hope of finding a publisher for a longer collection of work. The hoped-for end result is to have a book published. If the poem is already published in a book, then there is no reason to then publish it in a journal, in my mind. This is why I didn’t see the need of mentioning this in the writer’s guidelines; it just seemed self-evident to me.

I can understand the desire to increase the audience for a poem, but once the poem has been published, it has its audience–the book.

There are a couple of other more selfish reasons for not accepting it, much as I liked it. First, I only have so much “real-estate” (i.e. pages) and so I guard it jealously. I often wrestle with a poem, reading a submission two or three times over a period of two to three months before accepting or rejecting, because the space is so scarce. Second, I hope that my poets will go on and publish a chapbook or book so that ALBATROSS can be listed among the credits. This gives the journal more exposure and demonstrates the good taste of the editor (after all, s/he accepted a poem by someone who published a chap/book!).

These are also reasons I am so adamantly opposed to receiving simultaneous submissions, because of this mechanics of publishing. If you have published the same poem in two journals and then publish a book, who will you credit? If you publish a poem in one or two journals, why stop there–why not publish it in 5 or 10? And then who gets the credit?

In my next post I will publish the poem in its entirety (I have permission of the author), so you can see how harsh a harsh poem can be…