I wish I could remember who gave me the advice that you should never submit poems with a cover letter explaining what you thought the poems were about and/or what you wanted them to accomplish. To explain, this person said, was to apologize, and you should never apologize for your work. Never. No matter how preliminary the draft or experimental the form or unconventional or potentially disturbing the content. You should always let the work speak for itself, listening in the responses you get for clues as to whether and how you should think about revisions.
There is real wisdom in that. It’s one reason I believe, for the most part, that a writer, especially a student writer, whose work is being workshopped should not be allowed to speak while the workshop is going on. The point of a workshop, after all, and I include my own role as a workshop leader in this, is not (or ought not to be) to tell participants what they ought to do in revising their work. Rather, it is (or should be) a chance for them to hear honest responses to the work and to gauge how well those responses match up to what they think they are trying to do. If the responses match, that tells the writer something; if they don’t, that tells the writer something else. In each case, I tell my students, it’s up to the writer and no one else to decide how to respond, including the possibility of a non-response. Or, perhaps more precisely, a response that sets aside whatever was said during the workshop and addresses the need for revision—because 99% of pieces brought to a workshop are in need of some revision—from an entirely different angle.
I’ve been thinking about this recently, as I’ve been going through a third round of submissions trying to get my second book of poetry published. Some presses, especially those that run contests, want only a (sometimes anonymous) manuscript. They want, in other words, the work to speak for itself entirely. Others ask only for a brief CV and bio. They want to know a little bit about you, your publishing history, your involvement in the literary world, but they’re generally not interested in what you have to say about your own work. There are some, however, who want a full-on, if not necessarily formal, proposal. It’s this last group that got me thinking about the difference between explaining/apologizing for your work and being able to articulate why you think matters and is therefore worth a publisher’s, and a reader’s, time and money to pay attention to.
It may sound strange, but I first learned to do this for my poetry by writing a non-fiction book proposal. Around twenty years ago, I was working on a now-defunct collection of personal, mostly autobiographical essays about manhood and masculinity, for which people I knew in the publishing industry encouraged me to find an agent. To do so, I needed to learn how to write a query letter and a proposal. The book that helped me do that, Elizabeth Lyon’s Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, is one I still go to when I need to think through how to conceptualize and sell the idea behind a project.
What makes Lyon’s method useful for thinking about a book of poetry, if not one’s entire body of work as a poet, is that she focuses you first on defining the concept behind the nonfiction book you want to write and then leads you through the process of refining that definition so it can be stated in a single sentence, two at the most. In this way, you don’t get bogged down in dealing with the content of each individual chapter, or the intricacies of the narrative(s) your nonfiction book will contain. The same kind of thinking, it seems to me, can only strengthen the sales pitch for a book of poems. By helping you avoid the trap of focusing too narrowly on its content—which is nothing more than a way of apologizing for not being able to say clearly why that content matters—Lyons’ approach forces you instead to articulate the terms of your book’s (your work’s) relationship with your readers. To put it another way, the more clear you are about why you think your work matters, the more clear you will be about whom you think it should matter to. From a publisher’s perspective, this is not just helpful in deciding whether or not to take your book on, but absolutely necessary, assuming they do decide to publish it, in thinking about sales and marketing.
I’ve just done a quick assessment of how long I’ve been waiting for a response from the publishers to whom I have submitted my manuscript, only two of whom asked specifically for some kind of proposal. Some have been holding the manuscript for almost a year; others have had it for four, five, or six months. I mean by this no implicit criticism of them. I understand the economics and time commitment of small press publishing, especially when it comes to poetry. By way of comparison, though, of the two publishers to whom I submitted a query letter, one actually responded the very next day that he would like to see the manuscript, and it struck me that the odds of that happening in the absence of my proposal letter would have been slim to none. The letter, in other words, helped me get my foot in the door in a way that allowing the work to speak for itself almost certainly would not—which says anything, of course, about whether or not this publisher will accept my manuscript, or how long they will take to make a decision, or even whether the manuscript is truly worth publishing in the first place. What it has made me consider, though, is what might be lost when we place so much emphasis on allowing a poet’s work to speak for itself that we end up trivializing, if not entirely dismissing her or his ability to speak persuasively on its behalf.