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magnetic fridge poetry

HEY POETS, did you know that your spacing decisions can affect your chances of being published successfully in online literary magazines?
Most writers, poets included, create and distribute their work on word processing software such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs. It’s what we’ve always done. These programs are great for viewing work on our computers and for making print-outs, but they don’t play well with online publishing platforms like WordPress (on which our site is built), Drupal, Joomla, and others.

This is a software and design problem that many poets are unaware of. And it could be the reason certain poems you submit to online publications are rejected or end up being published in a different-looking format from what you intended.

What’s this ‘white space a problem’? The word processing programs we writers use to create poems make it easy for us to spread text across a page, just as we used to do on a typewriter. Just tap the space bar and voila! White space. But the most common publishing platforms, such as WordPress, use the programing languages CSS and HTML to produce the text and images you see on your computer when you log onto a website. Because these web languages weren’t developed with poetry in mind (what were they thinking?) they automatically strip empty space from text. As a result, it’s very difficult for litmag publishers to preserve white space in a poem.

What about workarounds? There are workarounds, yes, but they are ugly. Here’s why in fairly non-technical language. (If the answer seems too detailed, take my word for it and skip to the next paragraph.)

  • The <Pre> Tag. The most common workaround for WordPress users with spacing issues is the <pre> tag, which preserves the formatting from the original document. This is a fast and dirty way to publish poetry the way the author wrote it, but the problem is that most browsers present text tagged <pre> in an ugly monospaced font. If a magazine puts effort into its design, the <pre> command is not an acceptable solution.
  • The Image Solution. Someone recently asked me, why not upload poetry as a jpeg or png image created in a program like Photoshop? The answer is that image text can appear blurry in many browsers, and, perhaps even worse, image text isn’t searchable. One of the primary reasons that poets and other writers submit their work to online magazines is that they want their work to be searched and read.
  • (….) Another workaround is to fill the empty spaces with transparent images or with dots (…..) set as the same color as the background. While a page spattered with invisible dots might look fine on a typical computer screen, the poem will come up on search engines with all the junk text included, like so many pesky trails of ants.
  • &nbsp; The only canonical way to add empty space in HTML is the &nbsp; character entity. The way we do this is to type “&nbsp;” repeatedly (each one = a single space) to created the line with empty space. This work must be done in the HTML text editor. If the Visual editor (which is what we use for copyediting) is launched, all of our production work is stripped out in a second. And sometimes the spaces vanish even in the HTML editor. Much hair-tearing and weeping ensues. When you said you wanted to write poetry that would move us to tears, this is probably not what you had in mind.
  • Long Lines. Another issue for online poetry publication is the long line. People read websites on browsers of all different sizes, including small devices like iPads and cell phones. When a poet writes a long line, even if it fits just fine on his typescript of MS Word document, browsers will automatically break that line if it exceeds the width of the screen. Understandably upsetting for the poet, who put a lot of thought into her linebreaks only to have a mindless software program override her decisions! The workaround is a CSS script that inserts a slider at the bottom of the page. For an example, check out Kelly McQuain’s poem in our first issue. If you’re reading this poem on a large computer screen, shrink the browser to see the slider.

Have we ever successfully published poetry with empty white space? Yes. Many times. An example, from Issue No. 1 is an excerpt from Larry Eby’s wonderful poem, Flight of August. It took hours (about five) to set this poem up, and if it’s every opened accidentally in the visual editor the spaces will disappear.

As the production editor of an online magazine, I wince whenever the poetry staff selects a work with a empty white space because I know much work and frustration will be involved with setting that poem up for publication. And I know that my work will be for naught if a proofreader accidentally opens the poem in the visual editing screen. By contrast, it is a straightforward task to set up a poem without extra white space.

Here at Cleaver, during the past 18 months, we’ve received 922 poetry manuscripts through our submissions manager and another 60 solicited manuscripts. That is nearly a thousand poetry submissions to choose from. (We will have published 82 poems when Issue 7 launches on September 10.) With numbers like these, we now realize that, without reducing our standards, we can choose many fine poems that do not present us with a production nightmare.

Would I presume to tell poets how to set up their work visually? Not at all. But as poet myself, I’m glad to know that the presence of white space in a poem may decrease my chances of publication, or may mean that my work will not be set up as I intended. Because then I can better plan out where to submit stuff.

For your own purposes, it could make sense to send poems with extra white space to print journals or high budget online journals (who don’t use standard open source publishing platforms) and send standard-spaced poetry to the smaller online journals.

Happy writing!
Karen Rile
Founding and Managing Editor