SOMERVILLE, Mass. This former blue-collar suburb has become “The Brooklyn of Greater Boston,” with more poets per square mile than any other zip code in New England. “You can’t throw a brick without hitting a poet around here,” says Marty Schloss, owner of The Tired Owl, a used book store. “I know, we tried last week, nearly killed a guy.”
Given the art form’s particularly unremunerative nature, a fair amount of angst is felt every morning when Sylvia Plath wannabes turn on their computers and find email rejection letters that mean their day of fame is further delayed. No one has been more vocal in her disappointment than Chloe Nath, who is so far unpublished while her roommate Siobhan Clough is building a resume that may soon land her a low-paying teaching job, in addition to her current low-paying job waiting tables.
The two women woke up one January morning to identical notices from bRoken sPoke, the student literary magazine of the University of Massachusetts-Seekonk, but their reactions were as different as their hair color, blonde in Nath’s case, black for Clough. “They send the nicest rejections,” Clough says as she reads the lit mag’s encouragement that she try them again. In Nath’s eyes, however, it was one more symbol of her failure and, after she allowed herself a remorseless little laugh, she turned her mordant wit on the publication that had just turned down her seven stanza tercet as “not quite what we are looking for right now.”
“Thanks for your prompt reply,” she wrote back. “I guess I’ll go take a warm bath and slit my wrists,” she added, then went to the kitchen to pour herself another cup of coffee.
By the time she was back at her desk, however, Nath had received a follow-up email from bRoken sPoke. “Dear Chloe,” the faceless editor said, “upon further review–like a football referee if we may be allowed a vulgar simile–we are accepting your ‘Gulls at the Town Dump,’ which will run in our Summer Fun and Despair issue. Congratulations!”
The budding poetess’s inadvertent success spread by word-of-mouth through coffee houses and craft beer brew pubs, and when imitated dramatically increased the acceptance rate of those who used it. As a result, a firestorm of controversy has broken out in the small but highly-competitive world of literary verse, with two camps taking opposite sides of the question “Should poets fake suicide in order to scare the crap out of lit mags and get published?”
Robert Ricciardelli, interim editor-in-chief of plangent voices, says no, pointing to the high cost of liability insurance he must carry in case a poet’s family or lover comes after them for staring down a suicide threat. “We have no way of knowing if someone is serious,” he says as inspects a poorly-written sonnet for symbols of desperation. “If I wrote stuff this bad I’d kill myself too, but you never know what reserves a person can draw on in a time of crisis–religion, philosophy, money.”
But Nath says the highbrow quarterlies are fair game for the pain they inflict on literary artistes such as herself. “plangent voices took two years to turn down Burnt Potholders,” a six-poem cycle on disasters that occurred in her kitchen as she worked her way through The Moosewood Cookbook. “I went through fifteen boyfriends in that time.”