Essay: “Back Then and Write Now” by Donal Mahoney
Back Then and Write Now
by Donal Mahoney
When I began writing in 1960, there were no website “magazines.” Print journals were the only place to have poems published. Writers used typewriters, carbon paper, a white potion to cover up mistakes and “snail mail” to prepare and submit poems for publication. Monday through Friday I’d work at my day job. Weekends I’d spend writing and revising poems. Revising poems took more time than writing them and that is still the case today, decades later.
On Monday morning on the way to work, I’d sometimes mail as many as 14 envelopes to university journals and “little magazines,” as the latter were then called. Some university journals are still with us. Some are published in print only and others have begun the inevitable transformation by appearing in print and simultaneously on the web.
“Little magazines,” especially those published in print without a presence on the web, are rare in 2012. One might say, however, that their format has been reincarnated in hundreds of website publications that vary in design, content and frequency of publication. Depending on the site, new poems can appear daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, semi-annually or annually. For many writers, these websites are a godsend. Some “serious” writers, however, still feel that a poem has not been “published” until it has appeared on paper.
I can’t remember what postage cost in the Sixties but it was very cheap. Nevertheless, it would often take six months or more to hear back from many editors of university journals and little magazines. Sometimes I would get no response despite my enclosing the mandatory stamped self-addressed envelope (SASE).
Submission etiquette at that time required that a writer send nothing other than the poems, usually a maximum of three, and the SASE. What’s more, simultaneous submissions were universally forbidden. I don’t remember any editor wanting a biographical note until the piece was accepted and sometimes not even then. All that mattered was the poem and how much the editor liked it.
Today, in contrast, some web editors want a letter from the author up front “introducing” the poems and/or some aspect of the author’s life. I’ve never been comfortable providing that kind of information in front of poems I’m submitting. I can’t imagine lobbying for poems that I hope speak for themselves.
In the Sixties, my average acceptance rate was roughly one poem out of 14 submissions of three poems each. Two or three poems accepted rarely happened but my hopes were always high.
The rejected poems I’d revise if I thought they needed it; then I’d send all of them out again to different publications. Often the poems would have to be retyped because the postal process or some editor’s fondness for catsup or mustard would result in messy returned manuscripts. I followed this pattern of writing, revising and submitting for seven years. I loved it because I didn’t know any other way. I had no idea that in 30 years there would be an easier way to submit poems, thanks to the personal computer. What a difference. No more carbon paper. No more catsup or mustard.
In 1971 I quit writing after having had a hundred or so poems accepted by some 80 print publications ranging from university journals to hand-assembled little magazines. I even made it into a few commercial magazines and received checks for as much as $25.00. I was on a roll or so I told myself.
The reason I quit writing poems is because I had accepted a much more difficult day job as an editor with a newspaper. Previous editorial jobs had not been that taxing. I still had enough energy to work on poems at night as well as on weekends. But the new job wore me out. The money was good and helped me deal with expenses that had increased as my responsibilities had increased. Other demanding jobs would follow in subsequent decades. As a result, I didn’t return to writing poems until 2008 after I had retired.
I hadn’t really thought about working on poems in retirement but my wife bought me a computer and showed me where I had stored–37 years earlier–several cardboard boxes full of unfinished poems. It took a month or more to enter drafts of the 200 to 300 poems in my new computer. It took longer to revise and polish them. Finally, I sent out the “finished” versions by email to both online and print publications.
It took a few weeks at the start but eventually lines for new poems began to pop into my noggin. Alleluia! I was ever so thankful to “hear” them because it answered an important question–namely, could I still write new poems after such a long hiatus?
I found submitting by email a joy. For a while I sent an occasional poem by snail mail to journals that did not take email submissions. But in six months I stopped doing that. I did not want to lick envelopes any longer. Looking back over the last four years, I’m thankful for the response my work has received from various editors in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa.
Since I am an old-timer writing and submitting poems, I’m sometimes asked if I notice any difference in the “market” for poetry in 2012 compared with the Sixties. I’m also asked if I would I do anything differently if I were starting out today.
Yes, I notice a difference in the “market” today, and, yes, I would do some things differently if I were starting out now.
If I were starting out now, I would revise poems even more than I did when I was young. I revised a lot back then and I revise a lot today. I believe strongly in something Dylan Thomas once said—namely, that no poem is ever finished; it is simply abandoned.
It’s taken four years for me to gain some sense of how the “market” for poetry has changed over the last 40 years. In preparing my own submissions, I have had a chance to read a lot poetry by young writers, some already established and many unknown. Sometimes I compare their work in my mind with the work of poets I remember from the Sixties.
Although Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, among others, had their followers back in the Sixties, and still do today, I find that in 2012 “confessional” poetry has become even more prominent. Some of it strikes me as good, both in content and technique, but that is a subjective assessment. Much of it, however, strikes me as “raw,” for want of a better word. In some cases I also find it difficult to distinguish certain poems from prose disguised in broken lines. I don’t remember “prose poems” as a category unto itself when I started out. Today prose poems seem to be very well accepted in some circles but I suspect they would have been a hard sell in the Sixties.
I suppose as a stripling and now as a codger I have written what some might call “confessional” poetry, both good and bad. Nevertheless, I think a young writer does well to write about someone or something other than one’s self. Observing other people carefully and writing about their mannerisms and aspects of their behavior can help to develop one’s craft. This is important because as most writers know, writing poetry or fiction is as much a craft as it is an art and without craft, writing may never reach the level of art.
Perhaps it is my imagination but it seems that over the last couple of years there has been an increase in poems written about broken relationships or other distressful matters of the heart. The writers of these poems seem to be primarily women who sound very angry and no doubt with good cause.
Apparently male poets find it easier to move on from a break-up and seek love or companionship in all the right or wrong places. I don’t think that’s a new development, men being who they are. I hope it’s not chauvinist of me to suggest that the power to motivate a man to behave better usually lies with the woman. I feel that a woman has a gift she should not unwrap too quickly no matter how eager a man may be to undo the ribbons. Not many ribbons were undone in the Fifties prior to vows. In that era, of course, women were old-fashioned by current standards. The ones who were not “old-fashioned” were called a lot of things but not “liberated.”
There are other types of subject matter common in poetry today that didn’t appear too frequently in the Sixties. Graphic sex, science fiction and horror seem to appeal to many male writers, although some females also like to write about these subjects today.
I’ve never been interested in horror and I doubt that I would have the imagination to handle it well. I never fantasize about anything that even borders on science fiction. Sex, on the other hand, is a different matter. But sex has always struck me as the easiest subject to write about. I could write about sex well, I believe, but why should I? Why should I make my wife angry? Even if I were single, I suspect I’d be restrained by a line from Emily Dickinson that I first read it in college. Ms. Dickinson wrote, “how public like a frog.”
In contrast with my early years in writing, I am never satisfied today with a poem even when it has been published. If I go back and re-read a published poem a year later, I am certain to find something “wrong” with it and I feel obligated to fix it. Sometimes I can’t fix it but in the process of trying, I occasionally find that I am suddenly in the middle of writing a different poem, an offshoot of the original piece or something entirely different. I’ve found benefits and problems in that.
Rodin’s “The Thinker” is set in bronze and marble and not subject to revision but few if any of my poems acquire that status in my mind. And if one of them does, I eventually come to feel the poem could be improved, even if at that moment I might not know how to make it better. Maybe in six months I’ll read it again and hear something errant in the lines that I will suddenly know how to fix. It doesn’t hurt, I believe, for a writer to listen to a poem the way a mechanic listens to a motor. Both want to get everything right.
My purpose in writing this piece has been to record “for the ages” what it’s been like writing and submitting poems in two distinct eras. I certainly like the ease with which technology today has enabled me to compose a poem. The “delete” key is wonderful. But there is something to be said for the anticipation caused by finding an envelope in the mailbox from an editor, the way a contributor might have done back in the Sixties. One knew immediately by the thickness of the envelope whether all three poems had been rejected or one or two of them had been accepted. That was a wonderful time for a young writer to cut his or her teeth.