Ashley Anna McHugh studies at the University of Arkansas, where she is currently pursuing her MFA in creative writing. She is the winner of the 10th New Criterion Poetry Prize and the 2009 winner of the Morton Marr Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Criterion, DIAGRAM, Measure, The Hopkins Review, and Anti- as well as other publications. Her chapbook, Become All Flame, will be published by LATR editions this spring. She is also a senior editor for Linebreak. Read poems by Ashley at Memorious, Able Muse, and Sixth Finch.
NOWW: How do you decide which contests to enter? What's your process of choosing?
AAM: Because the costs of submitting to contests can add up quickly, I try to do my research and to be choosy about which contests to enter. In an ideal world, the first thing I always want to know is who will select the winners - whether that's the editorial board of the magazine or a judge, or whether both will have a hand. Next, I usually do some research about the journal running the contest and the judge, assuming the judge is named. Finally, I admit it's the luck of the draw, flip a coin, and get myself to the post office depending on whether it lands heads or tails. Here's why:
Even if the contest has a particular judge, it's reasonable to assume that the journal offering the prize won't have that judge going through every submission. Instead, the editorial staff will probably narrow down the slush pile to a few entries they'd be happy publishing, and then pass those entries on to the judge. So, I try to look through an issue or two of the journal before I submit. Additionally, I read the journal's regular submission guidelines, which will sometimes include statements that try to summarize what the editors look for in the poem. It's an attempt to gauge whether or not I have a chance at getting to the final judge.
Sometimes, though, journals are open to work that diverges from what might appear to be their aesthetic, so it's not always the case that reading back issues of the magazine will give you an accurate perspective. For example, over at Linebreak, we’ve always been eager to publish strong formal work--but the truth was that we didn't get much of it until we started soliciting and publishing formal poets. We love the poems we did publish, but we were also looking to reflect a larger aesthetic than we were originally able to.
So, a second way to guess at the aesthetic of the journal is to look at the work of the judge. Chances are that the journal picked the judge because the editors appreciate his or her work, so reading the judge’s poetry is another good way of gauging what kind of work the journal is looking for. So, if the contest mentions who the final judge will be, I look up a few of his or her poems.
Reading the judge’s poetry is also a good idea for other reasons. Ideally, every judge is completely objective and appreciative of poems, even those unlike his or her own. In reality--at least in my experience--it seems like the majority of people tend to like poetry that sticks closely to their own aesthetic. Since that's my assumption, if I find out that the judge writes in a style completely different from my own, I'm less likely to enter into the running. Even so, it's worth noting that there are certainly some poets who are open to a variety of styles that depart from their own, so this isn't always a reason not to submit either.
Finally, I read the guidelines carefully and follow them word-for-word, then get out the checkbook and head to the post office. Then there's nothing to do but wait.
While I like to think winning a contest just takes skill, and it does take some, it seems clear that you still need a lot of luck. I'd really recommend that beginning writers avoid contests, and just submit to journals: Submitting to journals is free, and while only one person can win a contest, journals need to accept a lot of poems to fill an issue. Odds are you'll get into a journal more easily than you'll win its contest--and I think that publication alone can be encouraging enough at the start.
NOWW: How do you decide which publications to submit to?
AAM: Now that I read more journals on a regular basis, I just send to publications that publish poems I like. If I think the editors have good taste, I know I'll feel proud to be in the issue whether it's a small upstart journal or a big one. This is probably the best way to go about knowing where to submit, but you have to start somewhere, and it's necessary to somehow narrow down the field at the start. So, here's how I got going:
When I started sending out poems for consideration, I sent first to the biggest magazines I could think of. After all, the only thing they can do is reject you, and then you send somewhere else. No big deal: It's a process. I needed an ego to handle the slew of rejections that followed that first round, but ego's never been a problem for me--and I think you need an unfortunately large ego just to think you can write a valuable poem anyway. So, I imagine most people ought to be able to navigate this with some help from a kind bartender.
After sending to big-name journals, I looked at the acknowledgements pages in poetry books by authors I had admired, particularly in recent first books. If a magazine published that author before they had a book out, there's good chance they're interesting in finding new poets to publish in addition to drawing from solicited submissions. Also, I looked closely at the acknowledgements pages in books whose authors I thought shared my poetic aesthetic. This helped me learn which magazines might be interested in what I hoped my poetry was doing, and I had much better luck submitting to these journals than I had on my first round.
Also, if I found a poet I liked--through editing Linebreak, reading Verse Daily, or through other underhanded means--I googled them to see where they had been published previously and I read the poems that journal had published to try to gauge the editor's taste. Again, I found I was more likely to get published by a magazine if I thought I wrote similarly to the poet I'd looked up--but regardless, this helped me become more knowledgeable about contemporary poetry and journals at large.
Once I got oriented, I started to read a lot of journals--for enjoyment mostly, but also to see where I thought my poems could be a good fit, and that worked out the best for me.
Even so, it never hurts to take a chance on a journal you admire even if they might not publish poems in your style. As I said in my answer to the last question, sometimes editors are interested in finding poems that diverge considerably from the poems they've previously published, but they just might not be finding any in their submission pile. Personally, I've had reasonable luck at some journals with reputations for being experimental even though I usually write very traditional verse. So, really, it can't hurt to risk it.
NOWW: How do you keep your submissions records organized?
AAM:Duotrope offers a great submission tracker for free, and they also provide thorough information about submission guidelines like whether or not the publication accepts simultaneous submissions, if you can submit online or if you have to mail your submission, etc. Additionally, they keep track of how long a magazine typically takes to reply, how long it takes on average to receive an acceptance or rejection, and all sorts of other useful information for the OCD folk like me. Each entry also provides a link to the magazine's website, which can save a lot of time as well.
In addition to using Duotrope, I keep a paper chart of my submissions that lists the name of each journal I've submitted to; when I should query; whether I've queried and, if so, when I received a response; and some statistical information from Duotrope. I'm like that, but it's probably completely unnecessary to do both.
NOWW: How has being an editor of a poetry journal affected your writing and/or submitting?
AAM: As an editor, I know Linebreak is awfully interested in publishing poems that are different from those we've published before--we don't want to fall into a stylistic rut, to seem static as a publication. However, after we'd published a certain number of poems, some aesthetic did emerge. When we noticed that trend, we started trying even more to expand the styles represented in the journal. So, as I've mentioned earlier, it's made me more willing to take risks by submitting to journals even if their archives don't host a lot of poems that resemble mine.
As far as writing goes, I hope that editing hasn't had too deep an impact, and I don't think it has, but I'm sure it has had some subtler effects. For example, when I'm reading a lot of submissions, I start to notice trends. I often see words or images cropping up a lot, edging toward being hackneyed or overused, so I'll consciously try to avoid using those. I also get to see rhetorical moves and gestures that work--and those that don't--as I consider poems for publication, and some of the moves I like might weasel their way into my poems.
Finally, while this doesn't have to do with writing or publishing, it's been surprisingly helpful for me as a poet when my co-editors and I disagree on whether or not to publish a poem. The discussions of the poem's merits or failures sometimes get heated, but it's always useful to see other passionate perspectives, and I'm sometimes swayed--or at least forced to reckon with the assumptions and expectations I have for poetry in more concrete and articulate ways. I think having a carefully considered aesthetic is important to any poet as he or she starts to become more serious, to develop a voice. Editing Linebreak has been absolutely crucial to me in that respect.
Also, it's just good fun--and it's nice, if slightly egotistical, to imagine that the editors at Linebreak, including myself, have a small role to play in shaping the geography of the contemporary poetry scene, choosing some of the poems and poets that are represented--and it's very encouraging to read such talented poet, whether they're established or just starting out in their careers.