From The Poetry Editor: What I’m Looking For

The door is open once again! FIYAH is ready to see more of your work this season! And if you’re like me when a magazine is open for submissions, you are boundlessly excited. You have words you have been passionately working at for what feels like ages, unpublished, waiting eagerly for their chance to be seen. It’s your fiercest, blackest work, and you’re proud of it. Surely it will be loved here, right?

But before you click send, I thought it would be more than useful for me to share some things about what it is I am looking for as poetry editor, based on what I’ve been seeing so far in the slush. Hopefully this helps you get a better sense of how you can rise to the top of the pile, because lawd knows it is hard out here to know what editors want sometimes.

Is it speculative?

I hate to be the sourpuss of the submissions window, but it bears saying directly. The editors have been witnessing a couple of entries that are observably not speculative. And I can speak for myself in particular when I say that a lot of the work that’s come my way has been strictly non-speculative. Which is a shame, because they’ve all been otherwise such good work, with clear and evocative language I wish more people would see! They’re just… not work for a speculative magazine.

I know, it is really coldblooded to aim to be the arbiters of what is ‘speculative enough’, especially in a genre that so often uses similar boundaries to keep the myth or culture of marginalized voices out of the canon. But… all we’re asking is that the work is speculative. Even if they do require me to dig deep into the work, be challenged by it or what it is doing with the ‘speculative’ definition, I’d love that immensely, and would jump at the chance to share more of it.

Now, speculative means a lot of things. The genre in general is deep enough to mean anything from vaguely fantastic layers of myth placed over real-world drama to clearly direct science-fiction extensions of the questions that existing technology asks of us today. So there is room to play with the meaning of ‘speculative’ in one’s work.

Your poetry can use the fantastic as a throughline for an otherwise human personal story, like Carlos Hernandez’ ‘In Lieu of the Stories My Santera Abuela Should Have Told Me Herself, This Poem’, or your language can frame a new and magnificent myth like Tlotlo Tsamaase’s ‘Constellations of You’. You can use an already existing motif, like fairy tales or alien conquest, or you can craft your own images and motifs to make magic out of the mundane through deft language. It doesn’t matter–I like them all! So long as those elements are there, it has already secured my attention.

Is it on theme?

Now, I’ll be real with you. I am not going to be looking for theme in every single work. If a very outstanding poem comes my way, I am prepared to go to bat for it, even if it isn’t in line with the theme we came up with for any one particular issue. Give me your very best poem, and I will see what it can be.

But trust and believe, if you give me a stellar poem that is also on theme, I will be over the moon. In an already challenging and tight-worded form such as verse, your desire to challenge yourself even further to craft something on-theme will get my attention immediately. If it’s on-theme and top-notch, I would be remiss not to consider it highly for inclusion.

It can still get beat by an absolutely outstanding poem regardless of theme, of course. But we don’t pick themes willy-nilly. We’re trying to hone in on as wide a scope of blackness as possible in general in FIYAH, through as many narrow lenses of the Black experience as possible with every issue. I want to see you challenge yourself to discover what your poetry can say about any issue’s theme whenever submissions are open.

That means digging deep to discover what your poem can say for the Sundown Towns issue. What it says about belonging, about the defense mechanisms Black people put up to stay safe in a dangerous world, about the idea of home, the threat of having to leave, or the fear of returning to find a frightening and deadly place. And so many things besides—those are just the things that come to mind for me.

Which actually gets to my next thing—

Is it unexpected?

This is the hard part, I feel. It’s hard enough to try being unpredictable when the whims and fancies of your editors are already so unpredictable to you. I’m not the only writer who has spent time trying to figure out what kinds of work an editor would like and trying to lean into it. I can sense you trying to predict what you think I can’t predict right now! Crazy, huh? Someone even asked me recently, “does a poem has to use the word ‘ghost’ in line one to get published?”

I promise you, that way madness lies. Don’t think about me. Don’t think about what I’ve liked before, what I’ve seen before, or even what I’ve written before. Do not concern yourself with what other poems have been sold at other places. And absolutely, positively, do not concern yourself with the assumption that speculative poetry has to exist in some overt way, that you have to be obvious about every element, that you cannot dance with nuance and intrigue with your words.

Write the thing that you’re aching to write. Write something at the very edges of science fiction and fantasy. Write something that speaks to or about you and the things that matter to you. Tell the most personal story you have to tell. Experiment with form and language. Be dramatic, be comic, be dark, be somber. Get in your work’s head, in its heart, and I will see it.

Don’t be dismayed. Give me your best and Blackest. I’ll be looking out for you in the slush. Yes, you! Bring it.