Interview with Mike Burch,
22nd October 2021
I’m delighted to launch the Showcase section by interviewing Michael R. Burch, editor of The HyperTexts (THT) and an extraordinarily prolific writer: his poems, epigrams, translations, essays, articles, reviews, short stories, puns, jokes, and letters have appeared over 6,000 times in publications including TIME, USA Today, The Hindu, Daily Kos, Writer's Digest—The Year’s Best Writing, hundreds of literary journals, websites, and blogs. His work has also featured on CNN.com and BBC Radio Three. To read Mike's full bio, please click here.
Mike and I first met on a tiny online poetry site described as a global meeting place for webpoets. I liked his poetry immediately and I was astounded by the publication successes he listed after each post. We became acquainted via private messaging and not long after that I was astounded again when he invited me to submit to THT! Since then, we've continued in correspondence and throughout this experience I've been struck by his wit, wisdom, and kind heart. Before meeting Mike, I never imagined that I would be published somewhere like THT; just a few months later, I've enjoyed a few further successes and I have some confidence in my writing at last. But I know many writers who continue to struggle and I feel they could benefit from Mike’s thoughts on getting published. If you have any questions afterwards, please get in touch via the Contact section, accessed from the top menu.
So, Mike, welcome to the website and many thanks for agreeing to this interview! I'd like to begin by asking you about your own first publication. What was it and where?
My first publications came in my high school literary journal, the Lantern, then my college literary journal, Homespun, but those probably don’t count, although I still think of them warmly. Around that time, I had a bad experience when I submitted poems to a ‘major literary publication,’ but it turned out to be a vanity press, which I had no idea existed back then. When I received my issue of the ‘major anthology,’ it was obvious to me that most of the poetry was crap, and I was disgusted.
How frustrating, Mike. Did that experience put you off submitting for a while?
Well, in my late teens and early twenties, I kept writing poetry but didn’t bother to submit anything. I had been informed that ‘no one reads poetry’ and ‘rhyming poetry is dead,’ and so on. What was the point of submitting my poems, which mostly rhymed, if no one was going to read them? But then in my early thirties something curious happened. I discovered the ancient Celtic myths that predated our sanitized and Christianized Arthurian legends. I fell under the spell of the more ancient and darker Artos/Artur and Merlyn, and ended up writing a cycle of poems based on the ancient Celtic myths, which seemed pretty good to me. I decided to take another stab at getting published. But I didn’t know where to submit poems. I pulled journal names out of a hat. I wrote Romantic poetry, so in 1992 at age 34, I submitted poems to a journal called The Romantist. And voilà, ‘Lay Down Your Arms’ was accepted!
Yes! But, alas, I never received a copy, so I still don’t know if that poem was actually published. (Since I would later become a peace activist, and the author of a peace plan, it would be very nice if it was.) That year, 1992, I was dating a woman who had visited the pyramids of Giza, and I had written a poem titled ‘Musings at Giza,’ which mentioned Isis, so I submitted that poem to a journal conveniently called Golden Isis. That became my first confirmed publication outside my high school and college literary journals, and the vanity press publication, when I received a copy with my poem, later in 1993. So I credit my career as a published poet to Merlyn and his magic wand, since that is how I came to be published. But it was a hard slog getting just one or two poems published, so I needed to figure out a better path to publication.
Yes, an easier road sounds good. So, how on Earth did you progress from such a laborious process to having 6,000 publications?
In 1993 I was still using my ‘pick a journal out of a hat based on its name’ method, and I did get two poems published with The Poetic Knight: ‘Moon Lake’ and ‘In the Whispering Night.’ But I wasn’t having the kind of success I thought the quality of my poems deserved. For several years I stopped submitting out of frustration. Then in 1998 at age 40, I had a breakthrough when I discovered a book called Poet’s Market in which I learned that something like 95 percent of literary journals were deliberately discriminating against traditional poetry. So my lack of publication success had nothing to do with my work and everything to do with my poems having been submitted to the wrong journals. Around this time I had an experience that confirmed my worst suspicions. I had submitted some of my better poems to a journal. The editor took the time to write a personal response and told me, and I can quote his words from memory, ‘Your poems are fine, even beautiful, but ….’
Thank heavens for that breakthrough, Mike. I love traditional poetry and I'm disturbed to hear about that deliberate discrimination! So what did you do after receiving that personal response from the journal editor?
I decided to take a two-pronged approach. First, I would only submit poems to journals that didn’t discriminate against ‘my kind’ of poetry. Second, I would focus my energies on my own literary journal and break all the rules in existence at that time. That led to the flowering of The HyperTexts. While I didn’t publish my own poetry in the early going, and not for many years, I could help other poets avoid the frustrations I had experienced. One of the nonsensical rules I had chosen to break from the beginning was an all-pervasive one at the time (and still mostly prevailing in ours) that literary journals would only publish poetry that hadn’t been published previously. This resulted in what I call the ‘literary kiss of death,’ similar to the Mafia kiss of death before assassination. Journals with small handfuls of readers were insisting on unpublished work, meaning that, when a poem was published, a few people would read it, and afterwards it would be dead to the world. Poets were complaining about their work not being read, but the publishers were a big part of the problem.
That's interesting, Mike. Hooray for The HyperTexts! So I take it you'd advise against submitting to journals that insist on unpublished work?
I think it’s fine to submit poems to journals that only publish unpublished poems, as long as you don’t have plans to submit the poems to other journals with the same policy. But if you want to test the waters at the major journals with one of your better poems, you almost need to submit it in reverse order, starting with your favored journal, then your second-favorite journal, then your third-favorite, and so on. Of course that can result in serious ‘lag time’ before publication. What if you die in the interim? Another strategy is to publish with one ‘we demand first publication rights’ journal, then submit the poem to journals that accept previously published poems, like THT. Three decades ago, when I started THT, we were the only journal of which I was aware that accepted previously published poems. Today there are more, although the majority of journals continue to demand first publication rights. Another option is to bypass the journals and self-publish, which can be done for a few hundred dollars with a Print-on-Demand publisher, or for free using websites like AllPoetry, HelloPoetry, PoemHunter, PoetryNook, PoetrySoup, Quora, and WritersCafe.
Mike, this is such useful information! It seems a poet has to be pretty strategic about submissions if they'd like to be widely read. I do like your approach at THT; I'm also interested in self-publishing options and using websites for free. Now, do you have any personal favourites?
My favorite literary journal, unsurprisingly, is The HyperTexts. But it’s not just favoritism because we have had well over 14 million page views since we started tracking them, and we regularly get compliments from around the globe from professors, scholars, composers, musicians, artists, playwrights, and poetry lovers of all stripes. Other favorite journals include Borderless Journal, an international literary journal where I’m a board member and consultant, Better Than Starbucks, where I once served as editor of International Poetry and Translations, Asses of Parnassus, Bewildering Stories, Brief Poems, The Chained Muse, The Lyric, LIGHT, Lighten Up Online, New Lyre, Poem Today, and Setu.
That's a seriously impressive amount of page views for THT; congratulations! Nice to know that the compliments are flowing in too, from such a variety of people. When it comes to submitting to journals, is it a good idea to read a few previous issues before sending anything, to check whether one's poetry is a good fit?
Not for me. I’m not going to change the way I write to humor editors. I just need to know which journals discriminate against which types of poetry. If I know a journal doesn’t publish traditional poetry, I mark it off my list because I don’t like such discrimination. But that issue aside, I simply submit poems I think are publishable. If an editor keeps rejecting my work, I like to think I have better taste in poetry and don’t worry too much about it. There are tone deaf people who think they can sing. There are tone deaf poets who call themselves editors. No one can help the tone deaf, and I don’t bother to try. Once I know an editor is tone deaf, I accept the inevitable and move on. So for me it’s a pretty simple process: first, eliminate the prejudiced, then eliminate the tone deaf. Of course, such a system requires the poet to know when poems are publishable. That comes with having a good ear and with experience. The danger is that poets may assume they’re writing publishable poetry when they’re not. But I think the better poets become their own best critics, in the process of writing, evaluating, and revising their poems. Being able to tell a bad poem from a good poem is probably the most valuable skill a poet can acquire.
Mike, I rather wish I had your confidence; hopefully that's something that'll develop over time. It's very tempting to ask you to list the prejudiced and the tone deaf at this point, but perhaps noting your favourite journals might suffice! Let's talk about your future plans now, if that's okay. Do you have anything specific in the pipeline at the moment?
I think it’s best to name the journals that don’t discriminate or have tin ears, because we would quickly run out of trees if I named all the others!
My plan at the moment is to give my best poems the best possible chance of surviving me. I think poets, editors and publishers can sometimes be their own worst enemies. I try to keep things as simple as possible and not cut my own throat. First, write the best poems possible. Second, give the best poems the best possible chances of being found and read, which has little to do with traditional poetry books or traditional literary journals. I like to think of myself as the Johnny Appleseed of poetry. While some poets seem to be planting and watering a few tulips, I’m trying to create forests and change the landscapes of the future. I may not succeed, but at least it won’t be for thinking small or boxing myself into a flower pot. I always try to let my poems, and the poems I publish by other poets, flower freely.
What a brilliant plan, Mike. For what it's worth, I very much appreciate that analogy and I do see a pioneering spirit in you. I wish you every success with your writing; and thanks for this interview! I've learned a lot and I'm sure our readers have too.
It has been my pleasure, and thanks for the opportunity.
The latest issue of The HyperTexts may be accessed here.