Getting Poetry Published: Notes for Talk

The following are notes for a talk I did for the Hudson Valley Writers Guild on April 9, 2011. I’m keeping it up here because I think it might offer some decent advice.  For another take on this subject, I highly recommend Lynne Barrett‘s “What Editors Want: A Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines,” published in The Review Review.

Where do you find good places to send your work to?

1. Look in anthologies. The Best American Poetry anthology series, for example, mentions in which literary journals the poems originally appears, along with their mailing address. Their website offers the tables of contents for each volume, linking to each journal’s website: 2010 edition |  2009 edition | 2007 edition | 2006 edition |2005 edition.

2. Acknowledgments sections of poetry books. The subtext of this, of course, is to seek out and read as much current poetry as you can, preferably poetry you love or feel a kinship to. In every book, you will see a place that mentions where many poems in a current volume previously appeared. This may be a standalone page you will see in the table of contents (“Acknowledgments,” it might say) or tucked away in small print in on the copyright page.

Here is the copyright page of poet Brian Henry‘s latest book from the great Ahsahta Press, Lessness. The acknowledgments appear at the very front of the volume, and names the journals where his poems originally appeared.

And here is another title from Ahsahta Press, from Susan Briante’s Utopia Minus. Her acknowledgments page appears at the end of the book.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule regarding where the acknowledgments page/area will appear, but there usually is one in any volume. Far from being a legally binding section of a book, it’s about the poet thanking and mentioning where his or her work originally appeared. It’s more of a professional courtesy.

Notice that, in both the Briante and Henry list, journals both large (American Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, Court Green) and small (elixir, effing). Also: publications in both print and online publications appear in both.

3. Print directories. Back in the olden days, before the internet, all a poet had to go by were print guides to journal and markets for publishing creative work: Dustbooks directory, The Poets Market, and other directories, are still published every year. These volumes include the name, editors, addresses and often representative poets, maybe advice for people thinking about their submitting their work.

Editors of journals will often say something general in their entry, such as “we look for poetry from all schools and styles,” but once you start to get to know the names and styles of poets who appear in the journals, you will get a general idea of what a journal is looking for. Sometimes an editor may show their hand entirely and say that they are “looking for experimental work that disrupts everyday language.”

The best print journal directory, for me at least, has been the CLMP directory. Published every year by the Council for Literary Magazines and Presses, that guide is now going fully online for members. Membership for individuals is pretty cheap. You should join.

4. Online directories. There are several online directories that are invaluable for getting to know new literary journals as well as keeping up with those you already know. My favorite is NewPages.com, which has an A-Z directory of just about every literary journal out there, complete with links, descriptions, as well as reviews of recent issues. Another is Duotrope, an anonymously run directory that replicates a lot of the A-Z directory, and also includes wonkish things, such as length of editor response times and acceptance rates. Still another is Spencer Selby’s Selby’s List of Experimental Poetry/Art Magazines.

5. Book fairs and festivals. Depending on the focus of the event, there is usually some presence of literary magazines at every literary festival. There are plenty in this area. The Empire State Book Fair has a focus on books, but then there’s the CLMP’s All Lit Up! Festival in Hudson, which will be held this May 21. If you can travel, the big one, the Mother Ship, is AWP’s annual conference, where more than 7,000 writers, editors, teachers, and lovers of literature convene in a city for a couple of days for panels, readings, drinking, and a bookfair that is to die for.  At AWP, you get to see both the latest issues of literary journals, meet editors, and really get a feel for what’s going on and what’s getting published.

6. Newsstands, Poets House, Libraries. The chockful-of-literary-magazines newsstand is getting to be a thing of the past. One such place on 8th Avenue and 13th Street in Manhattan is one of the last, and may already be out of business [update: it kinda is, as it's switched owners].  If you are ever in New York City, do make a pilgrimage to Poets House, a full-on literary center for all things poetry. There, you will find issues of just about every literary journal under the sun. Some college libraries have decent, basic holdings of literary journals.

7. Blogs or websites about or for writers. This is more of an immersion thing, and is an indirect process. You’re not reading blogs or websites to find out about where to send your poems as a primary concern; rather, you’re finding various communities where you might find inspiration, help, ideas, like- or not-like-minded people as it relates to your life as a writer. Poet Ron Silliman has a great website with links to poets and group blogs from around the world, and that’s a great place to start.  The Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, and the Poetry Foundation each have super websites with news, poems, and interviews with poets, all to feed your head.

8. Writer-type books, magazines and newsletters. Writer’s Digest, at least in print, is more for matters related to general writing and careers–with tips and writing prompts, as well as what we might call related to the “professional writer,” or someone who is searching for “markets” for such things as freelance writing and genre fiction, as well as the ins and outs of getting a literary agent.

Poets looking to find out more about the literary landscape have a couple other options. One is Poets & Writers, the magazine wing of the larger organization of the same name that co-sponsors readings and also has a great website with contest and grant deadlines. Another is The Writer’s Chronicle, which is the bimonthly magazine of the Associated Writing Programs (AWP). This is more of a trade magazine for creative writing nerds, with some invaluable information for the writer who is just starting out. There are others as well: The Saint Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter and Poetry Flash come to mind.

Books on writing poetry will include chapters on the practicalities of sending one’s work out and publication. There are many of these. My old friend Sage Cohen has a beautiful one called Writing the Life Poetic.

Online versus print: Do we really need to talk about this still?

Short answer: No, we don’t.

Long answer, complete with soapbox grandstanding: There are online publications that are excellent and are established and are anthologized just as much as print literary magazines. There is no “legitimacy gap.”

OK. I have found place where I would like to send my poems. What’s next?

The next step, it needs to be pointed out, after seeing an entry for a journal with poets’ names you like and an editorial description that looks to fit your style, is not to go ahead and send out work.

Not yet.

The next step is to take a look at a recent issue.  Although this was difficult to do in the past–a writer would send a check for $10 for a back issue, for example, and wait for it to be mailed–it’s not as hard these days at all. There’s no excuse, actually, for not checking out the actual work in any journal before sending it out.

Most literary magazine have at least a “teaser” website, where samples of issues will appear.  Examples: back issues of Cave Wall, Beloit Poetry Journal, and American Poetry Review.

What do you look for when you do find a website/sample issue/listing/call for work?

Usually you look for what is called the Submission Guidelines. This might appear in the front matter of a print issue–the masthead or copyright page, tucked away in very fine print.

Here, for example, is how it appears in Bellevue Literary Review, which mentions what kind of work the editors are looking for, and refers to their website. It’s in really small writing and appears on the copyright page.

Once you do get to a journal’s website, submission information usually appears on its own “submissions” tab, or inside an “about” or “masthead” section. For example, the journal Ninth Letter has their guidelines in their appropriately entitled submissions area.

What do you send to literary journals?

That depends on a journal’s submission guidelines. Overwhelmingly, journals ask for previously unpublished work, either print or online. Editors like to think, and rightly so, that they are in a sense discovering work by writers.

The amount of work you send varies, but averages in the 3-5 poems range.

What does “simultaneous submissions” mean?

When you send out the same work (submit) to more than one journal or magazine at the same time (simultaneously).

Why do writers do this?

Sending out work, poems or stories, takes time. After performing the due diligence in finding the right places to send work, there’s another period of time where writes wait to get a response from editors. And that takes more time.

I sympathize with journal editors. I did it for almost 15 years–Painted Bride Quarterly (1991-1994; 1996-2003), La Petite Zine (2000-2003), Unpleasant Event Schedule (2003-2006), McSweeney’s Sestinas (2003-2006)). I feel their pain and their joy.  Often, selecting poems for an issue means getting 5-10 people in a room to go over submissions that have already made it past several stages of reading work, and all this vetting and reviewing takes time.

Writers also need to be pragmatic about what the odds are regarding publication. Literary journals often receive hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions every month. Not every writer will have done the same legwork as you, that’s true. Some writers “carpetbomb” submit work to tens or even hundreds of journals at the same time, never paying attention to what that publications ethos or aesthetic is. There are also a lot of great, responsible writers out there, as well as well-meaning editors, who want to give work the full read it deserves.

All this takes time, and writers might not want to wait 4, 7, 12, even 24 months to wait for an editor to get back with a decision, which, odds are, will be a rejection.

So what do writers do? They send out the same work at the same time.

The risk in simultaneous submission is that your work–let’s call it “Poem”–accepted by Journal A, and in your happiness and joy of this acceptance, forget to contact or email the editors of Journals B, C, D, and E that the poem they have in their pile has already been accepted for publication.  Sometimes, “Poem” will have made it past stages of editorial consideration, which means maybe Journal B’s editors have spent time on a poem they no longer want to publish.  So there’s that.

The key to simultaneous submission, it seems to me, is honesty and organization. Honesty in telling editors up front, in the cover letter, that the work is “under consideration elsewhere,” and organization in getting back to editors if and when any of your poems have been accepted by another publication. There’s no need to tell the editors (let alone gloat) where a poem was accepted, although they might be curious; they just need to know.

How to send your work out

1. Old school letter and SASE. Lots of literary journals, print or online, still ask that you send a cover letter, copies of your work, and a SASE.  There are several schools of thought when it comes to the cover letter. Some say keep it as business-like as possible: tell people your name, what you’re sending, where your work has been published, along with a short bio in the customary third-person voice.  Others say mentioning what brought you to send work to a publication is a nice move; perhaps you enjoyed a certain poem in a recent issue, and that might indicate to the editors you know what their deal is and you’re a fan. Everybody likes to think they’re being appreciated, and it might provide some context for what work you’re sending.  Still others maintain that, in addition to this, you try to catch the editor’s eyes by saying something wacky or clever.

Thanking editors for their time is always a good idea.

What’s a SASE? A self-addressed stamped envelope is something you provide for response to your work. Make sure you provide enough postage for both your poems and a response.

2. Email. You send your work via email, either as a Word document or pasted into the body of an email.

3. Online submission managers. The internet is a lovely, lovely invention.  A lot of literary journals have moved their submissions operations to what is called generically “online submission managers.” There are several varieties.  The best one I’ve seen is one operated by Submishmash, where writers can manage submissions all in one menu.

What is a rejection slip?

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Ah, the rejection slip. Often a tiny slip of paper with a xeroxed, one- or two-sentence, generic response, the rejection slip comes in all shapes and sizes.  There are several varieties. Sometimes you might get what’s called a “handwritten rejection” from an editor.  This might mean an editor wrote something short and sweet–“sorry to pass,” for example–or it might be a full-on letter.  Other times, you might get a form rejection without any writing, but the slip encourages you to send work again.  It really varies.

But everyone gets rejected!  Collect them all and paper your bathroom with ‘em!

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