Thursday, August 03, 2006


Yesterday, I took the day off. Aside from a few requisite emails inquiring about the status of a little freelance work, I did not write a single sentence. More, I did not read a single paragraph that was not associated with one of my primary obsessions: the NFL.

I'm waiting on baited breath for the football season to start and am even excited to see the first football game of the preseason this weekend. I admit it's a problem, but what a wonderful problem to have. I've spent the morning in what seems a dallying mood—despite a few important emails and a fair amount of time spent tidying the house as though I were a housewife from the 50s. In fact, while waiting for work that seems less and less likely to arrive today, I've been hanging out in the kitchen, watching daytime TV.

Aside from the soap operas, daytime television is populated with talk shows and a shocking variety of "real-life" court shows. There is a deep and abiding sadness that seems always near the surface when you watch daytime television. Former friends sue each other. Former drug addicts tell their stories before a studio audience. But the commercials are worse, far worse. Infomercials tout supposedly secret ways to make more money than you can imagine buying and selling real estate, but you have to buy a course. Technical schools for automotive repair, business administration, and medical administration offer shortcuts out of working class poverty. And every other commercial, of course, details how to keep you floors glistening or skin soft as silk. I suppose, in some ways, those hours while most of the world is meant to be working reveals much about what's important in our culture.


Lately, when I think about poetry, my mind wanders toward terms like marketability. I contemplate whether or not this poem or that poem can find a readership. I think about how to make Ward 6 an attractive destination to readers who might not otherwise spend much time perusing poetry.

As much as I hate to admit this, such thoughts aren't completely out of character for me. Working late one night at the computer clusters in college, I ran into a fellow English major and stepped outside for a smoke. At the time, I was working on poem about—of all things—the cruelty of some criticism. Alas, the poem was far from perfect in its execution, but that didn't stop me from showing it to my friend during that smoke break. Indeed, if I remember correctly, I somehow went from his comments on the poem into what must have been some sort of manic riff about my intention to be a famous poet who was unafraid to sell out.

This daydream plan, alas, has proven far more difficult to execute than I imagined. Perhaps there's still time.


When I first started sending poems out to various literary magazines, I simply let the poems speak for themselves. I never included the simplest cover letter, thinking that no editor could fail to see my poetic genius. Within a few months, I reasoned, my poems would be gracing the pages of The New Yorker, New Letters, and The Paris Review.

No such luck. Now, imagine for a moment that I actually was the budding literary genius that all young poets must occasionally imagine themselves to be. Would my chances of acceptance have improved?

Sure. But, to my mind, with all due respect to the above-mentioned magazines, my chances would not have improved by a great deal. You see, for all its noble aspirations, poetry remains a business. In a lot of ways, of course, it isn't exactly a viable business, but an editor must consider details like circulation, and for now, a name like John Tate or John Ashbery, is certainly more likely to sell a magazine here or there than my name—regardless of the quality of the poems. More, I doubt very strongly that those poems stood out from the rest of the slush pile. There was no glitz, no glamour, no high-budget special effects to interrupt the monotony of one of the assistant's days. Of course, given the format, no literary magazine genuinely has time to give a poem the kind of reading it deserves.


When I turned 30, fear of time prompted me to send out a massive flurry of submissions. That process, however, was entirely different. I included cover letters.

Now, most books on writing or poetry provide copious examples and details about how precisely to construct a cover letter. And they are, I suppose, functional, adequate, and most importantly, professional.

But, what if, your most professional letter says, in essence, I went to school, but I'm still sort of new at this whole poetry thing, and please publish me, so I can have some semblance of the career I aspire to?

Yeah. Good luck.

A cover letter is more than an extra sheet of paper to make you sweat your postage. A cover letter is an opportunity to open a dialog with whoever happens to be reading it. More, a cover letter is an opportunity to showcase those mad writing skills you've been honing.

Seize that opportunity. For me, I took a slightly off-kilter, vaguely manic approach to those letters with the primary intent of making whichever reader happened across one of them smile. And, I think it worked. Of course, it's vaguely possible that my letter is posted on bulletin board at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Hilda Raz, has scrawled across the bottom something like, "never publish this guy in Prairie Schooner."

But I'm comfortable with that risk. You see I had a blast writing those letters. They reminded me, for the briefest of moments, why I started writing and that, frankly, I'm not bad.

So, next time you submit, try it. Try crafting a cover letter that is a minor work of art in itself. Oh, don't agonize over it in the way that you would carefully consider each and every syllable of a poem, but use your voice and take advantage of your style. I suspect, that it might go a little way toward establishing the "brand name" of you.


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