Interview with Miriam Sagan at The Unprecedented Review

Excellent new e-zine–The Unprecedented Review.

I’m the featured poet for August, with an interview. I’ve copied a few questions here–check out the mag for all of it and more!

Question: What was the biggest challenge for you when you began publishing?

Insecurity, I guess. I was published young and frequently by the small press world, which has remained my home. But then I’d hate what I wrote, and would suddenly see its flaws once it was in print. And then I’d get an attack of shame and fear over how exposed I was. I once told my father he couldn’t read a book I’d written—I think it was DIRTY LAUNDRY: 100 Days in a Zen Monastery (La Alameda Press, re-issue New World Library) which was a joint diary kept by me and my first husband Robert Winson. It was pretty raw stuff. I told my dad—“I need privacy” and he retorted “You have a kind of odd way of showing that!” which was funny and true. It remains a problem to this day.
Rejection is an obvious challenge. I didn’t like it when I was starting out—I still don’t. But I got used to it. The self-loathing is harder—it still remains. I’ve learned to sit with a book when it comes out and have some emotional space before it goes public and the promotion begins.

Question: What advice would you give other poets trying to break into publishing?

You just have to persevere. Send out, send out, send out. Don’t get sidetracked by rejection—it doesn’t have much meaning. There are so many great magazines out there—and very lively e-zines. Try new magazines, but do read so you get a sense of the editors’ taste.
Also, build your community. Create it if you have to—start an open mic, a magazine, a writing group, a reading series, a blog. Promote yourself but with your friends and fellows—it is much easier and more fun.
And write a better poem. I recently was serving as interim Poetry Editor for The Santa Fe Poetry Review. I read 3000 poems. The majority were generic. Poetry is not a neat tidy art. Aim high, fail beautifully.
A fine poem will always get published if you send it out enough.

Question: If you could only write one more poem in your life, what would you write it about?

A perfect haiku that awakens the reader to the nature of the world and the nature of the self. It’s a great question, but I have to tell myself—dream on! It may not be possible.

How do you deal with rejection?

How do you deal with rejection?

I like rejection. I’ve taught myself to enjoy it, and you should too. Basically, rejection tells me I’m meeting my submission goals. To explain: when I was a very young writer starting out I heard a famous poet say he had a 10% acceptance rate from literary magazines. This seemed shockingly low, but it was encouraging. I figured I must have a rate, too, and guessed it was 1%. I realized that if I sent out 100 submissions I’d get published somewhere. So I started. Turns out, my acceptance rate was much higher. I saw getting published as just a numbers game, and have ever since.
A birth coach will tell a mother in labor—that last contraction is one you won’t have to experience ever again, each contraction brings you nearer the birth of the baby. Rejection is like a labor contraction—painful, but things are moving along.
I’ve read enough slush—unsolicited submissions—to know that most editors are just making a choice, their choice, which of course is their prerogative. Acceptances aren’t based on Platonic ideals—they are based on one person’s taste, or at most the decision of a few people.
A few years ago, my acceptance rate skyrocketed. My sister Susannah, who does a lot of coaching, said: “That’s a bad sign. You aren’t aiming high enough.” She was right. I set my sights higher and dropped back down to my usual rejection rate. (Which I try to keep at 90% these days—that is, 10% acceptance).
I also take an Indie approach. I’ve run so many magazines, e-zines, blogs, and presses that I don’t feel trapped in a world of other peoples’ standards. I’ve spent much of my life in literary collectives, artistic collaborations, and community groups. That support—and audience—counters the sting of rejection on the days I get irritated by the whole business.

The Long Slog by Devon Miller-Duggan–publishing a poem after decades of rejection

The Long Slog

I keep telling my students that it can take years for a poem to find a published home. The poem posted below is one I wrote in my early 20s and had put away a long time ago. Actually, I put a bunch of poems from my 20s away about 10 years ago—they’d been rejected by so many journals—both hi-end and mid-range—that I figured they were just drenched in Editor repellent and there was no point any longer. I pretty much lost track of them altogether and was vaguely befuddled when they resurfaced last year while I was re-ordering computer files. I kind of liked several of them—which is as good as it gets for most of my poems–so I started sending them around again, and they started finding homes. Weird. They weren’t cutting-edge back then, so it’s not like I can claim to have been ahead of my time. I find the whole business mysterious. There are journals I’ve been trying to “crack” for years. Occasionally, I figure out why my work doesn’t fit, but often when I’ve done that, there are poems in the next issue of the journal that are close enough to my aesthetic/subject material/voice to make me scratch my head. I scratch my head a lot. I’m lucky to have a scalp left, let alone hair on top and bone beneath. Sometimes I just give up after the 12th rejection. At some point in the distant past, one of my teachers mentioned that, on average, poems get sent out 11 times before they’re accepted. That’s the sort of statistic that tends to stay with you. Since I doubt Billy Collins gets many rejection letters, I figure that makes my math even worse. I could check my log and do the math, but I’m a poet, so I don’t.
Mostly I don’t care about rejections. They’re just part of the business, and I understand on a very concrete level that for most artists most of the time, rejection is the dominant experience of their careers. That being said, it’s impossible not to look at the other poems in journals which have rejected mine and go back to scratching my head. Poor head.
Most journals took the time, at some point, to compose a civil note that they then printed up in bulk. This is reasonable—very. I don’t think most editors are making a living at lit. journals, so they’re working for love and with hours they’ve carved out from the work that buys the groceries and their relationships and their sleep. Form rejections are fine. You just send the poems back out pretty much immediately and go back to waiting. This persistence is neither heroic, nor in the top 10 traits of character or virtue. Maybe it’s just the actual dues for membership in The Club (Serious Writers Stubborn Egotists? The Deluded? I don’t know what the club is—there are no meetings, unless you count the AWP convention, no benefits, no secret handshake, and certainly no golf courses, just dues.). And sometimes poems get accepted and published and no matter how small the journal, more people read your poem than would have read it if you hadn’t sent it out. Which, it turns out, is enough.
Oberon’s Law ( is a new on line journal, and I am feeling very warm-and-fuzzy toward start-up on line journals since I’m in the process of starting one with some friends (I’ll post here when we’re ready to start reading submissions). I found them on Duotrope and sent them three poems. Here’s the one they took:


I cannot die by heat or cold or blunt or sharp.
I cannot die in dark or light.
I cannot die starved. I cannot die gorged.
I cannot die bleeding, or pregnant, or hollow.
I cannot die by water.

I have cut a ribbon of skin from another man’s body,
Dried it by the full moon and made a noose to bind you.
But you slide in knots like a bursting child
From the broken seas of birth.
I slide from knots.
I would break around your body.
In the blackness between red skies,
I would be the opening of your veins.
I would carry your blood in my mouth
And drown like the moon
And never leave the sky.

I have grown white with cold.
I have learned the lips of devils.
My kiss is cold.

Tao of Publishing

I was recently asked to write an article on literary publishing for a magazine. The editor asked for “advice for writers. You know, tips on writing, submitting, and just general good, common sense advice about handling rejection, etc.”
So this is what I’ve put together. It is based on advice I give in my on-line fiction class.
I’ve love to hear from you readers, with opinions, more tips, or additional questions, before I complete the article.

THE TAO OF PUBLISHING–attitude and mechanics.

As a rule, if you are a writer, you are probably more at home sitting notebook or laptop in hand in than in hustle and bustle of the literary market place, trying to sell your work. However, today there are thousands of markets for even unpublished writers to explore. Trying to publish can either be a dejecting experience of rejection, or a much more positive–and ultimately successful process. To succeed you need both to understand how the markets work, and to bring an attitude to publishing that is not unlike the one you bring to the creative process itself–optimistic, flexible, and even playful.
The most important things to remember when you start off sending out your work are:
1. You will get rejected–probably a lot
2. You must send out your work to get published–it won’t get published out of a drawer!
3. The more you send out–the more you increase your odds of acceptance
One thought to keep foremost in your mind is that with each submission, you are increasing your chances of acceptance. That is because publishing involves playing the odds. When I was a young writer and just starting out I heard a well known poet and author of many books say that he only had an acceptance rate of 1 in 10. This really caught my attention, because I just assumed he had a hundred percent acceptance rate from magazines. I took this one step further–if his rate was 1 in 10 maybe mine was only 1 in 50 or 1 in 100. Not great–but eventually I would get published. So I started to send out in bulk, submitting everything I had ever written to a variety of magazines. Sure enough, my work was soon getting published.
To make this system work for you, have your work ready to go back out the very day they are returned to you. Concentrate not on the feeling of rejection but on the accurate belief that with each submission you come nearer to your goal–publication. This process will be made easier if you don’t view rejection as any kind of real editorial comment on your work. The truth is, the editor has rejected the work simply because she or he doesn’t want to publish it. This is simply a matter of taste–and taste changes from editor to editor. And so who are the editors of small and literary magazines that we give so much imaginative power to?

Editors are not Gods

The editors of most of the magazines you will be submitting work to are not very different than you are. Editors of small independent magazines are usually busy people who love poetry and publishing. Most of the time they go to work to earn a living, take care of the kids, cook dinner. In between all this, they read the piles and piles of submissions that have been cramming the mailbox–real or virtual. I have been a small press editor, and was married to one. My husband’s magazine received about 3-5 submissions a day, which really added up in a few months. So please realize that if it takes the editor a while to get back to you–it means nothing about your work. The editor doesn’t love, or hate it. The editor just hasn’t had time to read it! The readers of submissions at academic literary reviews are often graduate students as well as faculty–also genuine lovers of literature, also overworked. So the same holds true for these markets.
Often the editor is the founder of the magazine, who is publishing it for pure love off a shoestring, a small grant, or even off the household budget. As you continue to send out your work, you may find an editor or two who really loves your work, encourages you, publishes you. These relationships make much of small press publishing worthwhile. But until you develop a positive relationship with a special editor, try to keep a good attitude in general. The editor who rejects your work doesn’t do so from a sense of superiority or even particular criticism. Your work just isn’t quite right for that editor.
Also, rejection slips are not mysterious tests, open to esoteric interpretations. I have a good friend, a writer, who once called me from two thousand miles away, a note of hysteria in her voice. “This rejection slip says ‘send more,’” she wailed. “What do they mean?” Don’t get hysterical like my friend. If an editor asks you to send more in two months–do just that.
In the long run, the way to keep going, to write and publish your work, is to regard all these activities as part of the creative process. Don’t try and publish your poetry to impress your mother, become “famous”, or even feel good about yourself. This attitude will doom you to insecurity at each rejection. Sending out your work, and eventually publishing it, is simply the last step of the writing process. Keep as upbeat an attitude as possible.
Practical concerns
1. Keep good records. Some magazines, print or electronic, don’t accept multiple submissions. If you do use multiple submissions, notify every place the submission is out at if accepted. A site like Duotrope offers electronic record keeping.
2. For print magazines, use a self addressed stamped envelop for notification and return.
3. Read submission guidelines of individual magazines and follow them. If a reading period is August, don’t submit in January. If a magazine doesn’t accept electronic submissions, don’t e-mail.
4. Be forgiving. Over the years, an editor may lose something, or spill coffee on it. It isn’t your job to chastise–the volunteer editor probably already feels bad enough.
5. A cover letter is only necessary if pertinent. Don’t send one if all you have to say is–here are three poems. Do use a cover letter to mention mutual friends, follow up on meeting the editor, etc.
One last story–years ago I was giving a well attended reading at the public library. A pleasant seeming woman came up to me afterward and introduced herself as the “editor of X Magazine, who rejected your work.” She thought this would be significant to me, but I started laughing. “Take a number,” I said, “that makes you one of a thousand people!” I’m not sure if she was amused or irritated as she walked away.