A line on the rèsumè gets a line on the rèsumè. That's what my boss at The Humanities Foundation used to say. I didn't want to believe her, but it's hard to contradict the cold, hard facts. And the cold, hard facts are simply that the applicants who'd already had their share of grants got a healthy portion of our dollars, too, while the applicants with solid, even inspired ideas, but no prior support, seldom got our help.
"Does anybody ever make this stuff up?" I asked as I handed over the stacks of applications I had spent the afternoon copying and then stapling at the long narrow table in the workroom.
"Make up a phony project to get funding?" my boss stared at me as if I had suggested firebombing the offices of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the mother of all humanities agencies.
"No. Make up credentials on their rèsumès." I stared back.
"Is this everything?" Whether she ignored my question because it was preposterous or because it was plausible, I never found out. But after I left the foundation and went to work part-time as an administrative assistant for a small nonprofit theater company, where instead of giving away money, we were constantly asking, or I suppose I should say begging for funds, I remembered that conversation. And I remembered what my boss had said about how credentials beget credentials beget credentials.
I only needed to work part-time that first year at the theater, because despite my obvious lack of credentials, no degree, no publications, no fellowships, no sojourns to artists' colonies or retreats unless hard work, determination, and desire count as qualificationswhich mostly I believe they do not, I actually managed to get a small grant. The grant was from a local literary organization and I used it to buy that most un-quantifiable of quantifiable commoditiestime.
This reward of time made it possible for me to complete the poetry manuscript on which I had been working slowly, but arduously for years. And I planned to turn my "manuscript" into a "book." A manuscript of seventy-five pages, complete with title page (Movable Type, poems by Alexandra Robbins), a table of contents that spanned three pages, a page for acknowledgments (The poet wishes to thank the Twin Rivers Literary Center for generous support and Ellen Katz and Rita Lipovsky for invaluable assistance with several poems), a dedication (With love, always, for Ellen) and several pages of intricate, careful notes, was not, in and of itself, however, a sufficient credential to submit the volume to many publishers. Most of the publishers' guidelines were firm, if not downright adamant, about the credentials that would make a new manuscript worthy of consideration: some said they would return the submission unread if at least a dozen or more of the poems had not already been published in nationally recognized journals.
Small presses and independent publishers are not the only ways to get a book into print. There is a rather startling assortment of first-book contests and most of these do not require any publication credits. All they ask for is a minimum number of anonymous pages and a check, generally for somewhere between $15 and $30. I was earning about $15 an hour (before taxes) at my job at the theater, but in order to have time to write I only worked about twenty-four hours a week. So, from a purely economic standpoint, the first-book contests were impractical, if not entirely irresponsible.
While I was working on the manuscript I certainly understood it was preferable to try to publish the individual poems in journals and magazines and anthologies. Most of the poetry volumes I read did include long lists of publication credits. I just hadn't realized it was obligatory. During those long years of work on the manuscript, I'd also been working long hours on-the-job, and I'd had to choose between composition and submission. Now that I had completed the manuscript, I had time for submitting, time for what I called "the business," but it seemed the business was not to be about a book, after all. I loosened my grip on the book symbolically and literally and considered what to do with my five-dozen poems.
"You've been spending a lot of time at the Post Office lately," Ellen, (of with love always for Ellen) observed. In that remark I also heard "and an awful lot of money," although she didn't say it. The grant had long since run out, but I still wasn't working full-time and my income, or lack thereof, was a source of tension between us. The business of poetry turned out to be almost as time consuming as the creation of poetry, the theater didn't have the means to provide a full-time salary, and I hadn't yet found just the right second job, or so I told myself. And Ellen.
Instead, I spent hours and hours reading and researching poetry journals, carefully preparing packages of submissions designed to satisfy each journal's unique guidelines and specifications, and then tracking my submissions. Afterwards I spent time rerouting the sets of poems as they were inevitably returned, some with a few kind words scribbled hastily, often illegibly, in the margins of the mass produced rejection notices, others with no notice at all, just my three-to-five poems, folded carelessly, and tucked inside the envelopes I had addressed to myself months before.
After nearly a year without a single acceptance, I was almost ready to give up.
"Maybe the work just isn't good enough," I said, hoping to be contradicted.
"The work is brilliant," Ellen insisted. "The people at Twin Rivers thought so. And what about the Hugh P. Watson Foundation? That should tell you something. It just takes a long time to get something in print. Don't get discouraged."
I hoped she was right. I had, in fact, managed to land a second grant, competing with an even larger and more prestigious pool this time, writers with every manner of credential, including MFA's from high class universities and glossy volumes published in those expensive first-book contests. The panelists from the Watson Foundation who had judged the work said it was "strong" and "original." I spent a few more fruitless months sending the work coast to coast, slowly working on new poems, and watching my self-addressed-stamped envelopes rebound like a set of flimsy lyrical Frisbees.
A year in the world of poetry publishing is not the same as a year by any other industry's standards, if in fact the business of literary publishing can be considered an industry. Many publications only read poetry submissions during specific periods, September to March, or October to May; some only accept work postmarked between specified dates; and many don't accept simultaneous submissions. That first twelve months actually included a limited number of opportunities.
It was the rule about simultaneous submissions that proved most problematic, since it could take a journal up to a half a year or more to send its rejection notice for poems that languished in the "waiting-for-response" stack as the days and weeks and months passed. Most poems only managed to garner one or two rejections in twelve months, although a few managed to rack up four or five. I began to wonder how, with these constraints, any writer could produce enough work to build an impressive publication record.
Thinking about simultaneity, credentials, and the slow pace of this process is what eventually led me to the plan I devised as I headed, now nearly desperate to break into print, into a second acceptance-less year. By this time a group of poems from the manuscript had won first prize in a statewide contest, I had been selected to participate in a very competitive awards workshop at the Twin Rivers Literary Center, and I had received Honorable Mention (though no funds) in a national grants program. I was determined to get some of my award-winning work published.
"I am glad to see you writing new poems," Ellen encouraged me. "But, don't stop submitting your older work, O.K.?"
"I appreciate your your enthusiasm for my work," I smiled, "Im writing a lot, but its going slowly." With my poet's penchant for the metaphorical I had almost said "support," but then I thought better of it, since it was likely to lead to yet another quite literal discussion about finances and my income wasn't increasing any faster than the rate of acceptances for my work. In fact, in order to compose new poems and continue the rigorous submission process for the old poems, I had curtailed my search for a second job altogether.
And it's true, I was writing a lot. But crafting new poems wasn't the only creative writing that now engaged me. I was busy writing cover letters, too. Lots of them. Not like the straightforward cover letters I had written the previous year I am submitting the enclosed poems, etc., This work has received a number of awards etc., It would be an honor for these poems to appear in your publication, etc., Thank you for your consideration, etc. etc. etc. these new letters were more, I suppose I should say, imaginative.
My new system worked with the very first letter. By mid-year more than a dozen poems had been accepted by six different journals. By the end of that second year in the submission cycle more than a third of the poems in the manuscript were slated to appear in respectable, reputable literary magazines and a few had already made their way into print.
"You see. I'm not the only one who believes in your work," Ellen concluded when the day's mail brought more good news, the prestigious Rome Review had selected my work for an upcoming issue. "I'm glad I encouraged you to be patient and keep trying," she paused, "Any luck with the job hunt?"
I hadn't actually told Ellen (whom I do expect to love always, as least as much as I love poetry) that I'd cut back on my hours at the theater, not because the poetry generated income, most of these journals did not compensate the writers at all, while a few offered from $25 to $75 per page or per poem. (I always imagined this listing of fees followed by the phrase whichever is shorter.) I simply had to work less because tracking my new submission system was even more time consuming and complicated than the methods I had used the previous year, in fact I'd made a few errors and had decided to streamline my efforts yet again, and because I needed time to reassemble the book.
I was extremely pleased with the new Acknowledgments page (The poet thanks the editors of the following publications in which these poems, several in earlier versions, appeared: Poetry Northeast, The Salt Mountain Journal, Northwest Humanities Review, The Hudson Pages, The New England Poetry Magazine, The Beloit Poetry Annual, Swords & Ploughshares, Not-So-Sinister Wisdom, The Iowa Quarterly, Myth-Makers, The Gettysburg Reader, The Forest For the Trees, the special GLBT theme issue of Sun, Moon, and Stars, and Prairie Ship.) And I had to admit that two years of sending the poems out in discrete little bundles had helped me in ways I couldn't have predicted. Once editors began to take an interest in the work, they sometimes suggested revisions that, on occasion, did improve the individual poems. Thanks to editors' comments about the placement of certain pieces together, I had also begun to rethink the whole of the work, to perceive the relationships between the individual pieces differently, and to re-organize the manuscript.
I re-ordered the poems, re-numbered the pages, proudly inserted my lengthy new list of acknowledgments, and sent the book off to a very fine local publisher, Milestone Press, whose guidelines indicated a willingness to read first books, as long as, of course, the poet had substantial publication credits. It made sense to start close-to-home, I thought. Perhaps a regional press would be interested in promoting a local poet whose work had begun to appear with some frequency on the national scene. Naturally, simultaneous submissions were discouraged, but I could afford to be patient as I was receiving several acceptances a month at this point, for old and new poems alike.
A woman from the press who called herself a Manuscript Reader called me a brief six weeks later. "I'm calling to double check something with you," she said. "The editor has indicated some preliminary interest in your manuscript, and we want to make sure you haven't submitted it elsewhere." I assured her that I hadn't.
"Fine. Then let me explain the process," she continued. "Please understand that we're not making a commitment to publish the manuscript at this point. But, we are considering it. Were going to send the manuscript to several other readers and we'll get back to you one way or the other as soon as we have made a decision. In the meantime, we'd like to ask you not to submit the manuscript to anyone else."
"Are these local readers?" I asked.
"No, they're editors at leading journals around the country."
"I don't suppose you can tell me who they are," I said.
"No, I'm sorry," she apologized efficiently. "We'll be able to let you know within about two months or so if we plan to publish the manuscript. In the meantime, thank you for your patience with our process."
I was dialing Ellen's number at work to share the hopeful news and suggest she bring home a bottle of something bubbly for a little almost-something-to-celebrate evening when I heard Ms. Manuscript Reader's voice again explaining: editors from leading journals around the country. Which editors, which journals? Journals in which I had published my poems or journals in which I hadn't but said I soon would? I swallowed hard and hung up the phone.
It was truemy poetry had been published in The Gettysburg Reader and in the Northeast Poetry Review. My poems appeared in every single publication listed on that hard-earned Acknowledgments page. But it was also true that my cover letters had, well, predicted these publications. I had written to the Northeast Poetry Review that poems of mine were forthcoming in The Hudson Pages, and I had written to the Hudson Pages that poems of mine were forthcoming in Prairie Ship and The Iowa Quarterly, and I had written to The Iowa Quarterly that poems of mine were forthcoming in Salt Mountain Journal and The Beloit Poetry Annual. I was cautious and honest. I never said the poems had been "accepted," only that they were forthcoming. Which, in the end, turned out to be true.
I did however, as I mentioned a little earlier, make a few errors. It was a tremendously complicated endeavor. Once, quite unintentionally and carelessly, I had sent three poems, along with a cover letter to The Nebraska Journal, announcing that my poems were forthcoming in several journals, among them, The Ohio Quarterly, and sent three poems to The Ohio Quarterly, announcing that my poems were forthcoming in several journals, among them The Nebraska Journal, without realizing that the editor of The Ohio Quarterly had just left his position at this magazine to become editor of The Nebraska Journal. By the time his scathing and threatening letter arrived, I had already received several acceptance letters from a variety of journals, which I photocopied and sent to the editor with a note of apology and a brief remark about my sloppy record keeping. I kept his angry letter as a reminder of just how small and specialized the world I had finally gained access to truly was. And I did not, of course, submit to either journal again. Not long after that I had enough poems in print to abandon my speculative-cover-letters approach for good.
But, I knew that this man was a fairly prominent figure on the national scenehe judged a good number of contests and reviewed manuscripts for a variety of presses. If he got my manuscript from Milestone would he automatically reject it because of our little misunderstanding? Would he tell the editor at Milestone about it? Whom would she tell?
"You seem anxious about something lately," Ellen noticed.
"I'm just nervous about the manuscript," I said.
"I'm surprised you even get the least bit concerned about all that now," she said, "It seems as if you get an acceptance letter a week."
"Trying to get a whole book published is different. Its harder and theres more at stake. There might even be some money involved."
"Great! Don't worry. You're on a roll," she kissed my cheek, as excited, I am certain, about my potential earnings as she was about the prospect of seeing my name on a perfect binding.
The message from the Manuscript Reader at Milestone came two months to the day after her initial call, a curt, professional instruction on our voice mail. "Im calling from Milestone Press for Alexandra Robbins. I can be reached at 612-666-1212." I had just come home from the one day a week I now worked at the theater, so first I changed into comfortable clothes, opened the mail (two acceptances) and made myself a cup of tea. Then I sat down at my desk, picked up the phone, and with a lump the size of a self-addressed stamped envelope in my throat and trembling fingers, I dialed Milestones number.