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Navigating Poetry Manuscripts and Failure: A Week in the Life of Poet Elaina Ellis

Navigating Poetry Manuscripts and Failure: A Week in the Life of Poet Elaina Ellis

Author: Edit Team

September 26, 2016

“[…] I told my colleague Michael that one book in the queue blows my hair back every time I read it. Such energy. Indeed as I spoke the words, my hair was piled on top of my head. Clearly this manuscript put it there. Whoever said poetry doesn’t do anything?”

The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBT writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.

This month’s column comes to us from editor and poet Elaina Ellis.

Ellis is a poet and editor in the Pacific Northwest. She works at Copper Canyon Press and is the author of Write About an Empty Birdcage (Write Bloody). Her poems appear in Muzzle Magazine, Poetry Northwest, Vinyl Poetry, and elsewhere.


A finger’s worth of dark from daybreak, he steps
into his mother’s red dress.

Ocean Vuong

Doesn’t every day start with a step like this?

A red decision made somewhere between terror and light.


Yes again today I’ll step into my inevitable spectacular failure to be anything but me.

Just now in the kitchen, still in pajamas (me: ankle-length gray sweatpants with pockets and the red muscle T that I borrowed from her last night, her: long underwear, looking somehow sleek as always), we bantered about coffee and habit and my inability to do anything exactly the same way twice.

I’m very good at being inconsistent, which sometimes leads to bad coffee. It also leads to good pancakes.

Recently, my colleague George encouraged me to try on this line of thinking: When we’re very bad at something, we’re arguably very good at being bad at that thing. Hint: accidentally cut the dry ingredients in half. Voila! Thin, snowflake-like pancakes with edges that crisp in the oiled pan.


And on the 7th day, I made a small list of things I’m very good at being bad at:

  • Being straight
  • Meeting deadlines

This week-in-the-life column is about to start moving backwards or maybe kind of wobbling sideways because my relationship to time is what it is. Luckily my day-to-day work is in poetry, a landscape where time can tangle, cross itself, take the shape of air. Though—tell that to the deadlines, and the calendar marching angrily towards us.

This summer, my partner and I did some work defining the edges of our yard. We each took a shovel to a different section. I was very good at defining the curved line around our jelly bean-shaped rain garden. She was very good at creating a straight line that runs parallel to the fence. I am grateful for our differences.


I’ll always be indebted to poet Jenny Factor for introducing me to Jorie Graham’s poem “Salmon,” which starts this way:

I watched them once, at dusk, on television, run,
in our motel room half-way through
Nebraska, quick, glittering, past beauty, past
the importance of beauty,

The salmon of the poem proceed to move not only through the television set, the motel room, and Nebraska, but also through time, grief, and [spoiler alert] eventually the movement of two human bodies together in memory and light. All of this somehow capturing, mimicking, riding the gorgeously backwards-while-forwards image of salmon migrating and jumping upstream and into sight.


At Copper Canyon Press, we are deep in planning for The Essential W.S. Merwin, a forthcoming collection of the great poet’s best work, while simultaneously celebrating Merwin’s brand new book Garden Time, just out this week. The author turns 89 years old this month and is still writing poetry:

Is it I who have come to this age
or is it the age that has come to me
which one has brought along all these
silent images on their shadowy river

Time is moving in all directions and we are in the shadowy river of it. The boy steps into his age and the age steps into him. The salmon jump upstream.


As if waking from a nightmare, the 9 of Swords reveals our mistakes and consequences.

The 9 of Wands indicates a strength you never thought was possible.

The Ace of Swords brings freedom from confusion, and clears obstacles out of the way.

I am writing a collection of poems that respond to the biblical Book of Ezekiel. Today my friends Chris and Greg helped me pull cards from the tarot deck to better understand where the book project is going. The three cards revealed a trajectory from cruelty to strength to clarity:

Ezekiel the brainwashed and cruel, Ezekiel the strong, Ezekiel the ecstatic.

Wretched poet, poet in recovery, poet atop the mountain.

The book steps into the dress.


This day began with a walk alongside my dear friend Amber and our sweet dogs, and ended with a high ponytail.

After some hours spent reading poetry manuscript submissions, I told my colleague Michael that one book in the queue blows my hair back every time I read it. Such energy. Indeed as I spoke the words, my hair was piled on top of my head. Clearly this manuscript put it there. Whoever said poetry doesn’t do anything?

I wrote a few letters responding to submissions before the end of the day. I am moved daily by the intimacy of this exchange. As editors we read collections of poems before they’re books, while they’re carried in gestation, a vulnerable and powerful time in their life cycle. And I get to write to say, “Hi, it may have been a few too many months because of the bending swirling nature of time and what not, but: your poems reached us, and so we are reaching you.”


When a mountain appears on a Tarot card,

it encourages us to rise beyond our everyday routines.

Among her many other talents, my partner is good at being good at making coffee.

And I’m good at being good at going to meetings. I get to use my brain and voice and ears and intuition to connect with others, reach beyond my own fumbling towards the bigger picture.

On this day I attended a Copper Canyon Press board meeting. I’m grateful for the rare souls who value poetry enough to devote precious time and resources to its preservation. The board meeting is held on the 23rd floor of a downtown Seattle office building. Huge windows frame the jagged Olympic mountain range.

When a mountain appears, we must look beyond our own selves to find

purpose and transformation.

My partner buys green coffee beans and roasts them at home, monitors the time and heat as they darken, shakes off the husks. Measures and grinds, wets the filter, hand-pours the boiled water. I add my own cream. I spill on my way to sipping.



Small list of things I’m very good at being bad at:

  • Actually mailing anything

For months now I’ve had a gift waiting for a friend. Waiting meaning the gift sits folded in a cardboard box in my home office, and every six weeks or so I say to my friend, “I’m sending something to you!” But here it sits. An expression of gratitude, waiting under the cat, under the rain jacket, on top of the chest of drawers, in a slant of light, in the dark, through the seasons.

Dear Ocean,

Good morning. I hope Peter is well. And Ash sends her love.
I am not sending / am good at not sending you that gift through the mail.

I am sending you that gift instead through the sentence I’m writing. Delivered via the cold stream that inevitably winds all ways to the sea.
I’m giving this to you the way I actually know how to.

It’s wrapped in my failure, which I am learning to respect and choose.
Open the gift now if you’d like to. It is both—we are both—imagined and actual. I hope you like it. A red dress for actual you.

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