Every summer Portland Review receives hundreds of submissions, and our editors and readers diligently review each piece of writing and art with a careful eye for craft. In an effort to support our submitters, we have gathered a few of our reflections on the strengths and weaknesses commonly found in Portland Review’s submissions. Our editors and readers are describing submissions that, for different reasons, didn’t move out of our “Maybe” folder and into our “Accept” folder. To read the kind of work we accept, please check out our print issues or visit our online Prose, Poetry, and Art column.
“Thinking back on our poetry submissions, it seemed many of the poems set out with a specific intent and then accomplished it, rather than challenging the impetus of the piece and allowing the poem to exist outside the preliminary ‘goals.’ Pieces like this are not always hopeless. They just need more time and a release from constraint.
I also noticed poems that didn’t follow their own rules. Experimentation and manipulation of form is laudable and encouraged. But if the poem uses punctuation irregularly, for example, and then later in the poem uses the same punctuation in a different irregular way, the form begins to alienate the reader, and therefore undermines the language and content of the piece.
Poetry is by nature an oral tradition, so I noticed uncomfortable or arhythmic enjambment. And even if we are often reading poems silently in our head, the poem should have an undeniable cadence. It’s obvious if a poet has not read their work aloud, as the enjambment will feel unproductively halting or syncopated, ultimately distracting—and therefore detracting—from the piece itself.”
—Kathleen Levitt, Portland Review Co-Editor-in-Chief
“There were times when I would find myself scanning a poem looking for some hidden secret, something that I might have not noticed, even when reading it aloud. I was always hoping there was some kind of intentionality to the word choices, some hidden rhythm I had overlooked. Unfortunately, when I looked more closely, there often seemed to be no rhythmic purpose to those choices, and that was why a poem felt awkward to read out loud.”
—August Amoroso, Portland Review Reader
“What I found in most prose pieces that I did not mark for acceptance was needless explanation where drama would have been preferred. A lot of pieces did not get to the point of their story effectively or quickly enough to keep readers engaged, because the author was too concerned about forcing details into the story that were not necessary, at least in the way they were presented. At times it seemed as though these needless explanations, were they to be removed, could have provided a fun tension or mystery to the piece.
While some submissions relied too heavily on explanation, there were also pieces that contained awkward changes in psychic distance. Often in these instances, it wasn’t clear whether the author added a shift on purpose or rather had gotten lost. One piece in particular had a very intimate narration at the beginning, but toward the end shifted to an omniscient, unknowing third person, which cost the piece its pathos. This shift in psychic distance can be quite jarring for readers, so the affect should have a purpose or it will ultimately pull readers out of the story.”
—Massey Barner, Portland Review Reader
“So many prose authors have such interesting and strong beginnings and sometimes even super poetic and beautiful final paragraphs, but often the middle parts of the piece need work. It’s hard to carry momentum through a whole story, and the result is a middle that reads more like connective tissue between the first and last paragraphs where authors put most of their time.
Along these same lines, sometimes characters aren’t fully developed throughout the piece. This seems to be a common problem in a lot of writing by emerging writers. More often than not this is seen in the same stories that lack focus midway through the narrative, when the piece meanders to the end where there is no real resolution.”
—Triston Foster, Portland Review Reader
“I noticed poets often gravitate to clichés, such as the Garden of Eden. Clichés are better used when they serve as a way to introduce something new to the cliché, or if the author is flipping it on its head in order to get the reader to think about the cliché in a new way. Also, poets will repeat the same idea or lines throughout their poem in order to place emphasis. There is no issue in doing this, except when there is no new insight or revelation gained from this use of repetition. In this case, the poem is in danger of reading like a list. If the author is intentionally framing their poem as a list, then it is important that this intention is clear.”
—Tatum Francis, Portland Review Reader
“Voice was my primary judgment call for most submissions. Often while reviewing poetry submissions, I found myself feeling like I was reading the same sounding poem. The poetry that stuck out the most in my mind had a unique voice that immediately drew me in. It was also easier for me to hear the poem’s voice for itself when the poet followed Portland Review‘s submission guidelines. While a lack of understanding of the guidelines did not keep me from reading each poem, slips in formatting, especially when identifying information was included in the manuscript, was a distraction.”
—Gary Hall, Portland Review Reader