3 Things I Learned from Publishing a Poem in the New Yorker
1) They really do accept poems from the slush pile (even when you’re not famous). My acceptance came ~6 months after I submitted.
2) They pay $350 for up to 25 lines, and $10 for each additional line.
3) I should trust my initial instincts more when it comes to my work.
More about item 3.
When I first wrote my poem “Strawberries” (which I did on the long flight home from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference last summer) I sensed it was good. I thought: This might be one of the best poems I’ve ever written. It was trying to do a lot (too much) at once, but I liked the too-muchness. It felt true to how my brain feels when I write, like it’s experiencing an electric and menacing too-muchness of memory, connecting images that have no business being connected except that they do. The epiphany at the end felt truer than just about any other epiphany poetry has ever led me to (except, perhaps, the “I too am dying of what I don’t know” which ends my poem “Judas Goat,” but that’s a digression...).
I very quickly shared early drafts of “Strawberries” with several poets I admire who were looking to do a feedback exchange. Nobody told me to scrap the poem, but nobody seemed blown away either. I began to doubt my original enthusiasm. They suggested cuts and edits, which I applied. I changed the title. I read the poem to audiences at several readings, hoping to see the spark catch. But again, nobody looked ablaze. I searched the poem, trying to figure out if it was good or not.
Looking back, I see that with my revision-happy scalpel I’d gutted the poem of what, for me, had been crucial to its heart: the part about the joke of language, the I love you . . . I like your faded shirt . . . I’d cut out the bleeding, the slit pigs, the mind sawing down into it all as if a tree. I’d snipped away all the parts that risked sentimentality and melodrama and all the parts that would encourage the reader to connect the idea of a proxy—B (the less true, less satisfying entity) standing in for A (the true, satisfying entity)—to spoken language. And so I started to despise the poem, to despise myself for thinking it was one of my best.
I withdrew it from journals. I pulled it from my manuscript.
Eventually, a dear friend (shout out to Catherine Bresner) encouraged me to put it (or, rather, the heavily revised version it had become) back into my manuscript, so I did, somewhat reluctantly.
Then I got an email from the New Yorker.
I’d forgotten to withdraw it. Forgotten because to Kevin Young, I’d submitted an early version of the poem, with its original title: “Strawberries.”
And so of all the good things that have come from this New Yorker acceptance, this is perhaps the most valuable: It’s reminded me to stand up for my work, to myself. From now on, while staying open to feedback and radical revision, I’m not going to be so quick to discount my own early intuition and excitement when it comes to my poems. I have good taste, dammit!
To all who have read and reached out with kind words about the poem since it was published: Your messages mean so much to me. Here's a delicious strawberry, just for you.
Click here to read "Strawberries" online, or to see it in print, check out the June 4 issue!