A song and dance, by Mario Petrucci. Or, a story-writer’s guide to submitting poetry.
Asked by a colleague to write some submission guidelines, but wanted to do it in a more interesting voice: hence, a kind of interior monologue.
So. You want to know what successful submissions are really all about? Font. That’s what it boils down to - Font. I read somewhere that some writer’s win-rate in competitions tripled when she started to send out poems in laser-printed ‘Garamond’ font, decorously spaced so as to occupy the entire page.
Paper’s important too. Now what have we here… ‘Courier. Oyster: Wove. 90 g per square metre’. ‘Copyliner. Multifunction. 80 g per square metre.’ Multifunction? Sakes alive, it’s a sheet of paper not a Smart Card. ‘Malfunction’ would be closer to the mark. All that rigmarole about having to store the paper close to the printer and not subjecting the ream to any shocks and loading only a certain number of sheets at a time and removing any crinkled sheets first and, even, riffling the air through it all before you load up. All over the globe, Personal Assistants and Executive Secretaries are developing a personal riffling style. I’d not be at all surprised if there were a Rifflers’ Weekly. And all of them intoning, “It needs air. Stand clear. The paper needs air...” as though some doyenne had just terminally fainted on stage.
Well, I don’t have to decide which paper now. I’ll come back to it.
Anyway, how do you shop for paper, of all things? Stride into the new multi-storey paper mall and say: “Excuse me mate, I’m looking for something a little out of the ordinary. Something zany to go with my new Oki-woki-page 10ex Multi-malfunction printer. No, not that sheaf - how about that one there... no, that one.” Did some ex-paper-chase addict at the Monopolies Commission have a bad dream or something? (Oh and by the way, was it Screaming Lord Sutch who asked: why is there only one Monopolies Commission?)
I digress. Back to business. Now - paper-clip, or staple? A staple has that feel of permanence, don’t you think? Staples say: “Not a three-year writer, but a three-hundred-year writer”. I always think of staples as assertive, resolved, definite. Yes, a staple. Definitely. One of those big ruddy copper ones, the type that has that ochre tinge. Iridescent and sure. Pressed into the paper like a bar of tropical copper melting into a crisp white sheet of Scandinavian snow. And on the reverse side, two perfect, tanned arms breaking through from behind to clinch the sheets in an amorous forever-embrace. Hmm. Maybe not copper after all. What about steel? Steel’s good. Classy rather than brassy. Until it rusts. Then it’s like seeping sewerage. Rubs off on the poems. Bear in mind that your submission might have to resist years of clammy revisitings by vacillating editors floundering in mid-career therapy. Can you get galvanised staples? Whichever type you plump for, the bonus with staples is that editors might take more than one piece rather than go to all the trouble of removing the staple. Got it?
On the other hand, what if the editor wants to make a rejection but would like to keep my biographical details on file, as I request in the cover letter? God, I can see him now - levering furiously away at my post-orgasmic staple, hacking at it with Stanley knife or a rusty scalpel-blade salvaged from his former brain-surgeon days, slipping horribly, spurting blood across the pristine desk, across the beautiful ivory paper, damning my name (well, looking up my name in the biographical details so he can damn it), cursing my pen and all its progeny, even unto the seventh draft. What if he got staple-poisoning? I can just imagine his Whodunnit lawyers tracing the staples to an obscure Highland manufacturer, thence to their one North London distributor, and finally to their sole customer - me. It wouldn’t occur to him, of course, to just read the header on the submission. God, what if he died? Much worse than that - what if, in a fit of spite, he shredded my SAE?
Ah. SAEs. The indispensable Stamped Addressed Envelope. All part of the writers’ jargon. And every business has to have its jargon. It’s like linguistic cling-film. Keeps out the undesirables - especially uninitiated writers. So when it comes to SAEs, does size matter? I’m never sure about that one. I’ve heard rumours of a size called Imperial Double Crown, or something like that. Sounds impressive, but also a mite O-T-T. C5 envelopes slip nicely through the letter-box - but you do have to fold the paper. Ah yes, that old brain-twister: one fold, or none? I suppose, on the one hand, you should never, ever give the editor an extra thing to do. At some tiny critical-mass of tasks their trigger-happy brains snap into reject mode. Ideally the poems should spring through the letter-box, dance up the stairs to the foot of the bed, sing themselves to the drowsing Literato in eight-voice choral harmony, typeset themselves on the PC and breathe their little Sorcerer’s-Apprentice last-gasps straight into the distributor’s mail-out bag. I suppose the web’s already doing something like it.
On the other hand, you want the arrival of your work to create a real editorial ‘epiphany’. So I pack the poems in, until the white envelope’s tight as Semtex. I want the postman to hold it up to the light - for several minutes; I want the pit-bull to scamper back into the kitchen whining like a pup; the snoozing editor to wake with an eschatological start to the resounding thud of gravitas on her door-mat, delivering itself like a single-stroke pile driver. I can see my poems rising to the top of that brown scree of unsolicited submissions, dazzling, like a missing link capping its brown sedimentary geology, like an ingot of frozen cream afloat in… well, something brown. Or does high density make things sink…? Shite.
Maybe not a staple, after all. What about one of those plastic-covered paper-clips, then? You know - the pretty ones that come in rainbow colours? No? I have to admit, those huge paper-clips are nice. Know the ones I mean? Pewter I think, or something like it, almost as thick as coat-hanger wire and with a crinkle-crankle running gorgeously through the metal. So dominating of that small white stage of paper, so suggestive of… well… clippability. Wonderful. Apart from the grey skid-marks they leave. Even steel clips mark the paper - a dead giveaway your poems have been playing around. Oh yes indeed - every editor needs to believe he or she is your very first. And God help you if you’re into simultaneous submissions. Worse than a vicar being caught in flagrante delicto with a one-legged ostrich. So, coloured clips then? Or is that a little too playful, not ‘eternal’ enough? Oh God. I’ll come back to that.
Blast. No white envelopes left. And what did I do with that sheet of submission do’s and don’t’s? Think I tore it up. I suppose I didn’t want to be too… influenced. After all, I want my submissions to be, well… distinctive. No - radical. Should I ditch A4?
Anyway, what IS all this business about g per square metre? I wonder, could you send poetry to magazines by the square metre? Should we write it by the square metre, serving it up like those small-time pizzerias in Italy? Just imagine - poetry sold like pizza for bulk family consumption. You order, then wait twenty minutes while the poet knocks it up right there, from scratch. You wan extra bucolics, signore? A littla versicle for da bambino? - onna da house! Ah yes. Served still smudgeable, to be read with a fizzy drink at a rickety white table under a big stripy umbrella. Having to listen to one of the kids moaning he hates villanelle, why do we always get villanelle, why can’t we have sestina instead? Now, there’s a world I could write for.
Which brings us to the most vital issue of all. Postage. That 60 g glass ceiling is such a bind. But you’ve got to respect it or your unit costs soar. For ages I was embroiled in the rocket science of converting A4 sheets into square metres, adding the two envelopes, and a bit extra for the cover letter (always something special for that - watermarked and logo’d, ideally, but never photocopier paper). Now that I’ve invested in letter scales (through a regional Lottery Capital Investments Grant) it’s got even worse. Yep, up at three in the morning trimming the bottom quarter-of-an-inch off poems, paring back the envelope flaps with nail scissors, trying to get the bloody thing down to 59 and three-quarters g.
Ho hum. Getting distracted again. What about a title page? You know: pastel sheet with suggestive epithet right across it. A title that somehow clasps your flailing poems together with all the tenacity of a three-inch bulldog clip. Some bold metonymic six-inch-nail of a word - plus, of course, your pseudonym. Gives your submission that extra zap, that wonderful air of a mini-book. That “It is finished” look. Could go for the high-stakes abstract noun. What about ‘Submission’? Nicely unambiguous. Or is it a touch pseudo-sadomasochistic? You know what these editors get up to. What about Intermission then? Manumission? Missionary Position…? God.
I’ll come back to it.
Okay, okay. Getting there. What else? Hmm. I’m missing something… Ha-ha! The poems! Won’t be the first time I sent out a cover letter on its own. Almost had one accepted once. Got mistaken for a Post-modern stand-alone experimental piece. Anyway. This hot little lot here was written when I was just seventeen. Can you believe it? Still unpublished, for some reason. Paper’s beginning to disintegrate a bit, but the crumples have evened out. Been through more hands than a ship’s harlot. Can’t bear to edit them though. They’re so… impromptu. What editors love. The grey sheen and coffee-rings might not look so great but they do give a real sense of something hard won. Isn’t that what literature’s all about? In any case, no time before lunch to retype. I’ll send six. Always six. Even though I’ve only got three. I just send two copies. After all, they never read past the first one or two. Oh, and of course, be professional - make a note of precisely what you send out, where and when. It’s pretty crucial when it comes to clarifying which of your poems, exactly, Steven Spielberg is after.
So there you have it. Six Parnassian gems, in condensed italic 17 cpi Garamond font (laser-printed, naturally), centred, in times-3 spacing to fill the sheet, laid out on 30 g per square metre beige A5 air-mail paper (I’m not made of money you know), embossed across a leading diagonal using my home-made DIY watermark-stamp, finished off neatly with a facing page entitled “Indisposition” (niiice pun) and devastating pen-name Kharisma, one corner sprinkled with hundreds-and-thousands glitter (pressed in with a thumbprint, or maybe chin-print, of Eau Sauvage), accompanied by six sheets of 180 g per square metre Foolscap sky-blue card, hand-written (for intimacy), listing alphabetically my writing-related activities, especially all the workshops I’ve ever been to, and the whole lot gripped together with a high-sprung bear-trap bulldog clip, then folded three times over into a petunia-pink C6-sized envelope together with a C7 SAE, stamps provided separately of course, all in small denominations so the editor can make up the correct rate herself at the Post Office counter - in fact, not a bad idea to make sure the stamps are paper-clipped - no, stapled - to the front (no, the back) of the cover note. Right. That should do it. Can’t help feeling, though, I’ve just wasted a morning. It’ll probably bounce right back. Just like they always do.
Copyright Mario Petrucci 2001