It occurred to me that it might be useful to have a discussion about this subject, so I invited Karen Paul Holmes, who once asked me this question, to participate in a Q&A. Karen’s new poetry book, No Such Thing as Distance, will be published by Terrapin Books with a release date of February 1, 2018.
Diane: You submitted a manuscript to Terrapin Books during the first open reading period in January 2016. When it was rejected, were you given any actionable feedback? If so, what was it?
Karen: Yes, and I really appreciated it. You suggested that the manuscript should not be frontloaded with my childhood and parent poems, but rather, those themes should be braided throughout. Other suggestions were to enhance the music/dancing motif and to include more poems that weren’t in first person.
Diane: Did you follow those suggestions at the time? Why or why not?
Karen: I revised and re-ordered the manuscript many many times, and yes, I took the advice before submitting to other presses.
Diane: You did not resubmit to Terrapin for the following two open reading periods. During that year, were you submitting your manuscript elsewhere? If so, what was the outcome of those submissions?
Karen: I submitted to a few more contests and open reading periods. I had no feedback with the rejections except from one editor, who also said that re-ordering the poems was needed. (He had seen an earlier version similar to the one I sent Terrapin the first time).
Diane: What made you eventually decide to resubmit to Terrapin?
Karen: I had seen what a good job Terrapin had done to publicize its books. I admired your own poetry and The Crafty Poet books you edited. I also respected your dedication to publishing good poetry and looking after your poets. I knew you read the submissions yourself, and that was important to me, as well as the fact that you’d actually edit the book rather than just accepting what I submitted.
Diane: How did you revise the manuscript? Were poems added or removed? Were structural changes made? How satisfied were you with those changes?
Karen: I added and removed poems many times so that I probably ended up with about 15 versions of the manuscript. It continued to evolve as I wrote new poems and tried different approaches to the whole.
I totally re-thought the structure from many angles. I even tried to make it a chapbook at some point, but just couldn’t pare it down that far. I made a spreadsheet listing each poem’s voice, theme and subtheme, narrative chronology, and form (prose vs couplets vs no stanzas, etc), so that I could consider how the poems related to each other in different ways. I wanted a somewhat logical narrative flow without it being too predictable nor having jarring jumps between poems. I was using recipes as section dividers, so the order within the sections needed to make sense.
Diane: When you then resubmitted to Terrapin, what happened?
Karen: It got accepted very quickly!
Diane: Following acceptance, what process did your manuscript go through?
Karen: As you will remember, you and I went back and forth on some line edits and other specific changes. I can’t say this wasn’t somewhat stressful for me, because, you know, those lines were sometimes my darlings! But I wanted an editor like you and appreciated your dedication to making it as good a book as possible.
You deleted nine poems that you felt weren’t as strong as the rest, and I was okay with that. You also asked me to add a couple of my poems that you’d read in journals. The order didn’t change much, but you wanted the recipes to be in the back of the book, and I liked that idea. You also gave me written instructions on how to list and format the acknowledgments for poems that had been published elsewhere. While revisions were being made, I asked for blurbs, and three poets were willing to provide them rather quickly.
Once the edits were complete, it was time for the interior layout of the book. You were very quick, and I found very few errors when proofreading the formatted manuscript. I loved the font and style you chose. I also had a trusted friend proof it for me. You and I discussed cover art, and when I suggested a painting by my sister, you enthusiastically agreed. Then we went back and forth on the cover design until a final design was chosen.
As we were wrapping up final details, my beloved dog died. Then, even worse, 10 days later, my life partner had a fatal heart attack. Needless to say, I couldn’t carry on very well. You were kind and moved the publication date to almost two months later, so that I could have a chance to get my bearings. Needless to say, the launch of my book is bittersweet. My beloved was a huge believer in my work, and he was as excited as I was for my second collection. I will be buoyed up by his faith in me as I do readings and other promotional activities.
Diane: Given your own experience, what advice would you give to someone considering resubmitting to a press that previously rejected the manuscript?
Karen: I asked you whether Terrapin would be interested in seeing my revised manuscript, and you said yes. So asking the publisher is my advice to anyone who has been given feedback on a previous submission. And, of course, let the publisher know that the suggestions were incorporated into the revised manuscript.
If no feedback was given, I’d urge the poet to be sure to put strong and unusual poems in the front, but also to make sure there are strong poems throughout. Since poets often have a hard time determining which poems are strongest, getting feedback from others helps.
It’s also wise to have someone else read the manuscript, paying attention to whether the order works. The weaving of like-themes throughout the book is very important, because it adds interest and pulls the reader through. I think we poets tend to want to lump like poems together, and that was my first impulse, but I became convinced otherwise.
I have heard that poets should re-submit to presses that have different readers during the next open reading period or contest, because the manuscript might appeal to these new readers. Whether or not there are different readers, the competition will be different each time—a poet’s manuscript might stand out from the pack when it didn’t before, especially if it’s been revised with care. One hears stories over and over of writers who sent their books out for years before being published—perseverance definitely pays.
Karen Paul Holmes is also the author of Untying the Knot (Aldrich Press 2014). She is a past recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant and was named a “Best Emerging Poet” by Stay Thirsty Media in 2016. Her work has appeared in such journals as Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, and Poet Lore. She is the founder and host of the Side Door Poets in Atlanta and the Writers’ Night Out in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Following a corporate career in marketing communications, she now works as a freelance writer. She lives in Georgia.
Karen's book, No Such Thing as Distance, is now available for Ordering.
Terrapin Books will be open for submissions of full-length poetry manuscripts on January 22 and will remain open thru February 28. Please read our Guidelines and our FAQs.