I began submitting to literary magazines when I was in graduate school. I’d published a professional article or two, gotten some poems into college publications, but it didn’t occur to me to aim bigger until I went to a meeting that some of the second-year fiction writers got going. My program’s fiction writers tended to be more worldly, more openly ambitious than the poets. They gathered in a lounge on campus, sat in a circle of couches and chairs, and one by one announced which pieces they were sending and where. Often they brought the actual envelopes—this was back when everything was print on paper—stiff manila packets holding their stories, cover letters, and return postage. Sometimes after each person took his or her turn we’d all head out together to the nearest mailbox, watch the writer slide it in and close the metal door, the sounds of hope that sequence of thump, creak, clank.
I was skeptical at first. Wasn’t it a little premature of them? Really, The New Yorker? But before long I got caught up in the spirit of things. It was a good habit to develop, to see your work as a potentially published thing. It was what writers were supposed to do. So I began, first with batches of poems, and then with portions of the essay collection I was writing for my thesis. I went to the library, bookstores, read and copied down addresses. The first ones rejected me, of course, but I kept trying. My first acceptance disappointed me because I didn’t care for the zine’s rough layout, the grainy photo they’d stuck on the page with my poem. Later I got excited when I made it into a hip political journal, even after they cut the last stanza to make my piece fit their cynical stance. But mostly I just felt grateful for the ones that made it anywhere, and unfazed by the corresponding mountain of rejections. For a while I’d tape the little slips onto my study wall to mark my progress, but eventually I tossed them out.
Before I settled on writing, I worked with a traveling theater company. We did residencies of several months to a year in small towns in Pennsylvania, touring schools and putting on collaborative productions. It was exhilarating, but it sometimes made me long for domesticity, stability, and routine, to lead the kind of grown-up life my friends had in cities, with proper incomes and apartments. In a poem looking back on a low point in my theater existence, I expressed a longing for junk mail. Moving every few months, I never got catalogs or polls, vacation offers or coupons delivered to my door.
I knew everyone hated the stuff, the bother of disposing of the piles of paper or, worse, leafing through it for the remote possibility of something interesting—You May Have Already Won! But to me those bright stacks were a source of envy, a sign the receiver belonged somewhere, was worthy of being marketed to, a solid citizen of the grid. When I moved to a new place for a residency I’d open my tiny checking account downtown, receive its statements and a few rare things from family in the company’s shared mailbox, and then pretty much erase myself from the place when it was ended, leaving only a few photos in the local newspaper archive, of me in a costume, or leading a children’s workshop.
Somewhere along the line, one of those streets and towns and states and roommates after graduate school, I finally, gradually started getting junk mail. I was at last a real grown-up, one that some mysterious authority decided might have money to spend. Store circulars, catalogs for clothes and flower bulbs and beauty products, crisp pages glistening with promise. And those fat, smug envelopes offering credit cards. Gold and platinum, Visa and Master Card, stores banks airlines, promising me security and wealth. I used to do a lot of collaging in those days, decorating folders and invitations with words and pictures cut from vintage magazines. Some of the junk mail went right into my collage materials file, odd pictures, breathless sweepstakes announcements with my name in all caps. But most of it I threw away.
To me those bright stacks were a source of envy, a sign the receiver belonged somewhere, was worthy of being marketed to, a solid citizen of the grid.
Except for envelopes, the long white ones that come with the credit card offers, marked No Postage Necessary If Mailed In the United States. Somewhere I read about a guy who got annoyed by these endless solicitations and encouraged others to follow his example: stuffing the entire contents of the offer—letter, application form, outside envelope—into these and mailing them back to the companies, making them pay twice for their unwanted pitch. I decided to use them another way: to mail off poems, the ones I couldn’t submit any more because they’d been creased, or because I’d revised them and marked them up, or because I’d written something else on the back that I’d subsequently typed. Sometimes one side was a poem and the other a page from an essay, or the terrible novel I was working on in those days. I’d fold one or two sheets, rough or polished or some mixture thereof, into the postage paid envelopes and send them out in the mail. Sometimes my name and return address were on the poem from a magazine submission, sometimes not. I didn’t care either way.
Of course nobody was going to read my poems when they arrived at the processing center in Delaware or South Dakota. Maybe there was even a machine that could detect that it wasn’t a real credit card application and stuck it straight into the trash. But I couldn’t help imagining a worker at a desk, bored and underpaid (as I’d spent a number of hours myself over the years), opening up the envelopes and seeing just for a second that it was something unexpected, maybe reading a word or two to figure out what it was. Reading for one second nothing about income or age or rates, just a sliver of a writer’s life, some words I was working on because that’s what I do. To me the action created the opposite of junk mail, using those bland envelopes for orphan poems. But the process was also the opposite of sending writing to journals, because I had no expectation, not even any desire for a response. It was the purest form of publication, like leaving a poem on a park bench in a distant city, or tucked inside a library book.
Now most of my submissions, and a good deal of my publications, happen online: no stamps, no ink from jet or laser, no fat envelopes traveling from Pittsburgh to L.A., Ohio to Michigan. Just fields to type in, files to attach, the occasional reading fee. Sometimes I forget to look up where the journal is based. It’s tidier, less wasting of paper, easier to do and easier to get published. With the addition of Facebook I get to share these micro-accomplishments, so friends (and “friends”) can read them instantly, many of whom would never click on a poetry journal otherwise. It all makes publishing less furtive and lonely, more of a real human connection.
It was the purest form of publication, like leaving a poem on a park bench in a distant city, or tucked inside a library book.
But I also keep putting poems into postage paid envelopes from banks. I get giant piles of scrap paper from judging a local middle and high school poetry contest, so I’ll often mail a page that’s got anonymous adolescence on one side, my draft on the other. I like imagining a reader at the other end enjoying these in particular, maybe even preferring the raw clichés of youth to my labored-over lines.
We write for a variety of reasons, and seek publication for another, usually somewhat overlapping set of reasons. My reasons are probably similar to most people’s, at least other poets’. But sending work to faceless corporations bent on exploiting hapless consumers? Harder to explain. It’s both defiant and useless, like shouting at a thunderstorm, or tossing a handful of petals into the wind. And it gives me a tiny jolt of pleasure every time. Take that, mean old banks. And that. Just an old poem or two, just because.
Margaret Young is the author of two poetry collections, Willow from the Willow (Cleveland State Poetry Center) and Almond Town (Bright Hill Press). She is on the faculty of the Global Center for Advanced Studies and lives in Beverly, Massachusetts.