Friday, 24 June 2011

Friday afternoon with dotdotdash

As part of our race toward Fremantle Poetry Month, each Friday afternoon we’re speaking to editors and poets around Australia about the poetry climate in their city. This week we asked dotdotdash magazine poetry editors Sj Finch, Rosalind McFarlane and Elizabeth Tan what they look for in poetry submissions. They also discussed the work of the talented John Charles Ryan, who will be performing at the launch of Fremantle Poetry Month.

In the upcoming seventh edition of dotdotdash, twenty-two of its one hundred pages will be dedicated to poetry. The majority of submissions to dotdotdash are poems, accounting for about sixty percent of the work we receive. Because we publish more poems than any other dotdotdash submission category, the acceptance rate for poetry is reasonably high at ten percent (the acceptance rate for short fiction, for comparison, is closer to five percent). While almost all the short stories and creative non-fiction pieces published in dotdotdash have undergone structural edits, only about twenty percent of accepted poems undergo this process – meaning that, for most of the poetry in dotdotdash, not a single word has changed from when the poem was first submitted to us. In spite of this, we are accustomed to thinking of poetry as one of the hardest categories to judge. Very often, due to space restrictions, we have to reject poems that might have required only a little bit of editing.

Perhaps this experience is not very different to other literary journals. When there are hundreds of poems to read, it can only be expected that poems that have gone through multiple edits and that are carefully tailored to the publication have a better chance over poems that are submitted with less attentiveness (or simultaneously submitted to another publication – but that’s a speech for another day). Perhaps the characteristics we like are also not too different from other publications – an interesting rhythm, an ending which extends the ideas expressed in the body of the poem, an appropriate form. Originality as opposed to relying solely on common themes. Specificity (a personal spin, even) as opposed to the general. Letting the readers draw their own emotional conclusions as opposed to spelling it out.

In ‘Wheatbelt Pneuma’ – published in our sixth issue, Jukebox John Charles Ryan describes with specific detail an everyday experience of landscape, and occasionally interweaves this with metaphor that is both apt and novel, comparing ‘short-lived sparks in recalcitrant soil’ to ‘a star-struck choir nodding to God’. The use of pronouns positions the speaker’s voice as a nameless multitude: ‘you are the land’s augury, like us’, which, along with the references to choirs and congregations, draws the reader to consider how the plants are a multitude of beings living as one, and how nature invites one to exist with it in silence. The interplay between the four-line and single-line stanzas allows the insertion of pronouns to flow naturally. The single lines provide a lilting rhythm that periodically halts the driving enjambment of some of the more fast-paced stanzas. This does not necessarily have to come back to meaning – often there are elements in a poem that simply exist and are beautiful – but the rhythm of Ryan’s stanza structure is reminiscent of looking outside the window of a moving car, and in the multitude of images sometimes concentrating on one single image, and holding and savouring it in the mind’s eye. The small structural elements in Ryan’s poem add up to create a convincing poetic argument about the observed struggle and coexistence of humans and plants in Western Australia. It is a smoothly executed poem that we are most proud to have published.

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‘Wheatbelt Pneuma’ by John Charles Ryan in dotdotdash (Issue 6: Jukebox, 2011). Design by Cassie Cox. Available:

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