Titular rant

I was commuting south from campus when I realized I was annoyed.

In the null space that my brain inhabits while driving, I kept returning to a particular journal whose submission criteria include the statement “Poems must have a title.  If you haven’t named it, it’s not finished yet.”

When I originally absorbed the information, I was in execution mode: what work of mine overlaps Journal XX’s bent? When I’m acquiring targets, I quickly weed a long list but scrutinize a half-dozen or more publications. I’ve been doing this since October 2013, so the process has an operational tone: Fit/not fit? Do I have [three| five] aligned works (the maximum), or fewer? The works in one document, or separately? Do they want a bio? Do they want my contact details separately or on the submitted work?

In acquisition mode, I stop somewhere around the second question, and then knock out the rest on a different day. Or I stop at “Fit? Yes,” and toss the details into a folder. This publication made it into the folder, but then I later have to refresh myself on the details. Which for this publication I’d done the week before, now noticing, “If you haven’t named it, it’s not finished yet.”

Um. Yeah. About that…

I have stepped beyond my early allergy to titles, in that a fair proportion of my poems now have a word or phrase to go with their default title. I think more than half, in my recent work.

But when I started writing, I found titles vastly more difficult than the poems themselves. To me, a poem’s title needs to support the poem’s aboutness, maybe even amplify it, without either repeating it or being a spoiler. In my opinion, the bulk of poem titles are spoilers. I preferred e.e. cummings’ and Emily Dickinson’s approach: the poem itself is enough.

You might not be aware of this, however, since when you encounter them in anthologies the book titles them all. By repeating the first line. The practice appalled me at 14 and appalls me still; on the page it’s as if one is stuttering. But my librarian-self is sympathetic: how are you going to find the work in the book if there’s no attachment, no hook to hang on in the table of contents?

So young poet Kimbol came up with a bridge solution. All my work is titled with a unique number—the date it was first written. So everything has a title. And in my student publication life, that worked neatly.

In adult life, not so much. Mostly because I don’t push back when the publishers simply strip the number off the top. Perhaps I should be grateful: I’ve given them something to do, and thus far none have gone back and re-added my first line. But I am now clear that no one else thinks of that string as a title, even though I do.

(Confession: I haven’t figured out how to read that title aloud.)

More than my personal dilemma, though, I’m profoundly annoyed that this little web-zine in a corner of the Interwebs has thundered down their dismissal of two of my greatest poetic influences. <shakes head>

I’ll probably still submit there, though. They prefer short work, and I have a lot of short work.


PS: I have inadvertently proved something to myself: I have acquired a particular writing habit. SINCE I didn’t finish this in the morning of the 4th and SINCE I didn’t make myself a note, I didn’t write this post on the 4th, as I fully intended to do. Dagnabbit.

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