For many years I tried to read each lit mag that I saw from cover to cover, forcing myself to read each piece all the way through. As you can imagine this quickly grew into a gargantuan task as I began to learn just how many lit mags there are out there, and now with the advent of online lit mags, there are even more.
Each semester I take my back copies of lit mags to my creative writing students and distribute them. My students read from various journals and comment on them for class. I find that this really helps expose my students to current writers, although I caution them about trends & etc. Recently, I amended my directions so that I ask students to start each piece. If it is a poem, they should read the first line; if a story, the first paragraph; and so on. If something grabs them, they are to read it through. This highlights the importance of first words, which is a lesson I am always learning myself.
I changed my directions because I realized that I have changed my way of reading lit mags. As I've become more and more familiar with my contemporaries there are more and more names I recognize as people I like to read. I scan the table of contents first and then jump to those pieces. Finishing with the familiar, I find myself drawn to the front and back matter, looking at announcements, ads, guidelines, etc. and especially the contributors' notes. Being competitive by nature, I'm always checking to see how I measure up. The bios also provide great research into other lit mags for possible publication. Finally, I return to the bulk of the magazine and start plowing through. At this point, I revert to first lines. I no longer feel any pangs of guilt when I stop reading and turn the page before I've finished an entire poem.
I do recognize that this is how others might read me as well, and I'm cool with that. If I don't get the reader hooked right away, then that poem and that reader weren't meant to be. I can only hope that a handful of folks will linger there and read to the end. On my side, I think, is the fact that I write relatively short, lyric poems. I hope that they pack a big punch and that the compression works in my favor. I hope the images linger long after the page is turned and that the reader is drawn back for a second read, as I am drawn to dog ear certain pages in each journal and return to them again and again.