Archive for February, 2009

Why we say yes

Hello and welcome to our blog!  

Rather than prattle on about why we decided to create one and what we see as its objectives, etc., we decided to allow the blog to speak for itself, from the start.

We’re kicking the great blog experiment off with this:

We were in Chicago for the recent Associated Writing Program’s conference, and sent our staff this e-mail:

“We’re doing a panel here at AWP and would like an answer to this basic question: When reading PBQ submissions, what excites you, what makes you say, ‘Yes?’ What have you seen too much of, what elicits a fast ‘no?’”

Below are all of the answers we received, which might give you a glimpse into why PBQ can’t really be pinned to one aesthetic; why the answer to that question—the one we’re asked most at conferences and other speaking engagements—is so hard to answer, and why we like each other so much.

Answers are in the order they came in and segregated by city of origin, for no reason other than Marion and I had to compile these sections separately.  Meet the staff:    


New York Staff:

Matt Longabucco:

This is an abstract answer, but what excites me–I think I’m talking mostly about poems, here–is familiar language made strange and strange language made familiar.

What feels overdone: trumped-up beauty, hiding behind hermeticism.

I’ll be curious to hear what others think…

I agree with Greg [below], so many interesting responses–it seems many of us are longing for a voice that can give a name to some part of the world around us.  The lack of a definitive voice–at least one we can share to some degree–is both the curse and boon of the very technologies we’re discussing.  And when I sift through lit mags online–not, of course, because I want to read them but because I want to see where I should submit my shit–I’m stricken with how few names stand out as absolutely necessary for me to click (when I’m not decrying the names I recognize as belonging to coteries I can’t penetrate, that is). 

“Hiding behind hermeticism” means that there are ways of making a poem sound good without saying much, and that those ways in fact seek to justify a not-saying.  I have no problem with difficult poems, but I do have an issue with difficult styles that don’t involve any risk or commitment, that don’t raise the specter of the poet looking back at the poem and thinking, “God, did I really write that?  Did I mean that?  Was I ever so naive/misguided/enthralled/derivative/earnest as that?”  The prospect of such a reckoning occurring lets me know something is at stake in what I’m reading…

Jason Schneiderman:

What excites me is that which moves me.  And I think this is true for all of us.  The study of art is all an effort to discover what it is that moves us– and while there are ways to predict what one will like– there have been times I wanted the lonely landscapes of Hopper and times when I’ve wanted the lush suggestions of fauvism.  But we always have to keep ourselves open to that spark of unexpected emotion.  We can make rule to save ourselves time, but we have to be open to the new, to the unexpected, to discovery. 

Nat Bennett:

I’m late, I know, but I’ll just add that for the most part, literary mags don’t excite me and so (and I know this confirms the paucity of my opinion’s justification) for the most part, I don’t read them.  I’m excited by someone inviting me into something strange or making me see something I’ve been missing all along.  I think I agree with Greg that too often we get the same old beauty dressed up in a different jacket or something that doesn’t challenge our sense of reading — at the same time the performance of one’s own difficulty seems well worn too.  I think what excites me most is when someone finds the precious stones that have been lying around in plain sight all along.  I like poems and stories that remind me that we’ve leaned too hard on the usual ways of getting the world onto the page.  I’m excited by an unexpected living mind, for a moment, filling up my own.

Greg Pardlo:

What I find frustrating is the sense that we are overly accommodating to readers. (Of course, I realize the dangers in the opposite.) The sense that poetry should serve as a form of entertainment as opposed to serving in any way as provocation. I’m excited by poems that suggest to me a new way of processing experience. I’m less enthusiastic about poems that present an agreeable world–whether that world is a crappy-as-we-know-it-to-be world or a world of sublime beauty only interrupted by the occasional death and subsequent period of mourning.

Passion disrupts the laws of physics and Reason. When passion is present in a poem (passionate Nature, passionate humanity), I like to think no conclusion can be foregone. I guess I’m saying something similar to what Matt is suggesting in that I prefer the lovely distortions that passion (not simply in the grandiose sense) brings to reason. I’m excited by the possibilities that passion, or the “irrational,” offers toward reconciling or short-circuiting or reconfiguring the tragic ambivalence of civil, moral and otherwise structured life.

Emily Gordon:

Poems that reference the writer’s real modern life, not just an idealized mode of poetic observation that’s dated and stilted–and not true to actual experience as it’s lived now. I think of Galway’s “The Avenue Bearing…” poem and its mentions of the names of stores, the prices of things, the way people really speak–that is, really speak in the year he wrote it. People speak differently now and can write differently now, at least some of the time. Whitman and Ginsberg and Nikki Giovanni and the rest of the folks we read and like–they tapped into the language and habits and products and transactions and storefronts of their time, and for some reason many submitters to literary magazines seem to be fearful that they’ll brand themselves as young or superficial or not belonging to the ages if they let themselves use the real idiom of their real lives, whatever those lives consist of.

Nicole Callihan:

Poems that feel like real poems; stories that don’t feel like stories at all.

Gaar Adams:

Although I appear to be a bit late in replying to this excellent thread, I’m going to throw my half-baked opinions out there, even if they struggle to stand on their own two legs.

During one of my first PBQ meetings, I remember Nicole semi-jokingly starting the argument that the short story was dead.  And while I wouldn’t put my full weight behind that sentiment, I do catch myself eye-rolling and yawning pretty frequently during short stories.  To me, the short story almost always feels like an unnatural length, an unnatural goal.  Far too many short stories fall into the unfortunately categories of:

1.) authors who aren’t talented enough to write a poem

2.) authors who aren’t ambitious/talented/put-together enough to write a novel

I don’t want to strip the short story of all of its value, though.  All I’m saying is that personally, short stories not only have to convince me of their merit as stories but also in terms of the usefulness and purpose of the form.  Authors have to make me believe that the short story is the only way for this story to be told successful.  Otherwise just write a damn poem.

What excites me most is to read the first three sentences of anything, knowing from this little bit that the author knows how to work with and mold the English language.  There’s nothing more frustrating than an author who can’t control their own language.

That being said, I miss you all!  Keep my seat warm until June.  If anyone has the inclination to follow my Yemeni/Middle Eastern adventures for the next four months, feel free to take a peek at my life/occasional thinly-veiled political rants at: yementravels.blogspot.com

Philadelphia Staff: 

Bryan Dickey:

When you’re competing for our space, it needs to grab , it needs to be immediate, and it should be as vivid and amazing as it possibly can be.

If it’s not awesome, why am I reading it? If I don’t feel like this person writing is really challenging their talents, why would I encourage their continued practice of the great art of writing.

The idle finger on the track pad has no loyalty to anything but the sublime.

Jen Fromal: 

When reading PBQ submissions, I am excited when I come across unique ideas presented in a well-written, concise, and creative way. Fiction and poems about tainted love, a death in the family, or other familiar topics often come across as trite if they are not written in a new and interested way – such as having the piece told from the point of view of the broken heart or the corpse. I’ll give a piece a “yes” if it holds my attention, makes me feel strongly a certain way (whether it’s hatred, sadness, etc), and if I keep thinking about the content after I’ve finished reading. Pieces that I have “yes’d” are memorable to me weeks later because of their strong imagery, characters, or overall plot. A piece will generate a “no” if it’s something I feel like I have read before a hundred times (i.e. going through a divorce), if it’s badly written, or if there are very weak parts (i.e. the ending is horrible).

Amy Weaver:

1.       The cover letter doesn’t matter at all, in my opinion. I never read it unless  a) I’m really impressed, or b) the writing is so horrible, I’m looking for more to laugh about.

2.       You should only attempt rhyming if you are REALLY good at it. Otherwise, you sound like you’re 4 years old.

3.       A fast no—anything that contains a cliché statement of any sort. 

4.       What gets me excited?

a.       Writing with movement, which occasionally might involve well-done rhyming/slant-rhyme, but it certainly isn’t a requirement.  

b.      When an author finds new words, new imagery for the millions of thoughts and feelings that have been expressed countless times before.

c.       When the author finds a way to make me care, because most of the time, I’m probably coming at the poem/story after already reading a few packets filled with 10 or so pieces of crap each and I’m ready to slit my wrists.

Dan Driscoll:

I used to think that good stories made me want to skip to the end, but I realized that I really only do that with stories that I don’t like.

I don’t really know what specifically makes me say yes, but it’s usually an absence of things that make me say no — and there’s no checklist, things that go wrong in one story can make another one great. 

A pet peeve is description that makes me think the author is focusing more on describing something than on the story, or putting a lot of energy into description that I imagine the author thinks adds up to the readers sense of the author’s cleverness or acuity but doesn’t do anything for how I think of the story. (Admittedly, I think myself clever and insightful for being able to perceive this about the author while I’m sitting at home holding a piece of paper.)

So a story usually becomes a “no” when I start to think too much about the writing. If description is bad or unnecessary, I start to think about how (or why) the author is writing instead of being wrapped up in it… or, if there are strange gaps or weird moves in the story or structure, I start thinking about why the author is making that move instead of enjoying being pulled through it.  But it’s not that stories can’t do unusual things — they just have to be made to work.  And I don’t think that really settles it, because there are a lot of times when I’m very much thinking about what the author is doing, but in a giddy way, or with a happy disbelief (“I can’t believe this is happening”). Maybe what makes a “yes” is a story that doesn’t let me think about how it’s written until after I’m done with it (or one that makes me feel stressed out because I want to think “how is the author doing this?” but don’t want to stop reading)?

I don’t know, and I think that’s something that’s nice about fiction.

Nice simple answer, right?

Paul Siegell:

I say yes when someone does something that gets me focused. When, for the moment, everything else is blocked out. When all I can concentrate on is what the writer has written.

It has to be somehow unlike anything I’ve ever read, and it usually take some kind of risk. I need to feel that the world just opened up a little, and that I can believe in that opening. And if it’s artistic, that doesn’t hurt either.

Unlike others, I do read cover letters. Just like a title, it helps me prepare for what I’m about to read.

Andrew Keller: 

The first sentence and paragraph in a fiction submission is key for me.  If something doesn’t hold my interest right off the bat, I put it down.  Time is short.  Cover letters don’t mean a thing.  Usually I think the author is trying to impress me with other publications, but I’m rarely impressed by that.  A good piece of writing is a good piece of writing.

Poetry is kind of the same.  If I read the first poetry piece in an envelope and I don’t like it, I’m not going to spend a lot of time with the rest.

A big thing for me is if a piece of writing sounds too “forced.”  If it does, then it’s out.  I think this goes back to what Dan said about the reader getting so into the piece that you forget about the writing.  Grammar is a big part of it, as well as diction.  Sustained voices that are coherent also help.  

Andy Segedin:

1.  I’m always looking for fiction that is fresh and has a definitive rhythm to it.  I, and this is just me, pride PBQ in being a somewhat alternative magazine with no singular voice.  Other magazines can do that.  I (we) want something different.

2. Recently, with the packet I have on my desk for instance, I get a lot of self masturbatory (can I say that?) work, generally involving a struggling intellectual who is either a.) hoping to find him/herself or b.) looking for love.  Chances are if you’re a writer, and I don’t mean to generalize, you’ve dealt with these thoughts before.  The worst part is, some of them are really well written – if only they harnessed those emotions and talent into something else.

3. Typical ” he said/she said” narratives sort of grind me down.  That being said, and I don’t know if you’d include this, I think it’s important to always to give it at least 2 pages.  You want the writer to get to the point, but you don’t want to bind them into doing it immediately.

Tracy Shields:

I am typically drawn to odd, but natural realities in fiction. Nothing perfect. But flawless in its presentation. I prefer short, compact, clear and unpredictable. I also love a subtle psychology in a character. A nervous tick. An insecurity. A regional idiosyncrasy. Some exposed ugliness. The more real and fleshed out the piece, the more likely I am to be drawn into its dilemma. I’m not always looking for something with a beginning, middle and end. I like glimpses of things. Parts of stories. But they need to make sense in some way. Like many of my fellow editors, I too am hoping to find that story that, when I read it, shakes me to my core, makes me feel vulnerable or alive again. Makes me feel connected. I read not only because I’d like to go somewhere, but because I am searching for a deeper understanding of my self. If a writer can give me that, I’d say “yes.”


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