Friday, 27 October 2017

How to get your poetry published: 10 tips from a poetry editor

How to get your poetry published: 10 tips from a poetry editor

Last night I went to a mixer event with current MSc Creative Writing students at The University of Edinburgh. As with any good mixer, a lot of spirit was partaken, which inevitably led to two things: 1) A hangover the next morning and 2) Me going on long rants to students (and anyone else who would, or would not, listen) telling them they need to submit submit submit if they want to be published.

So I thought it might be useful to put some of my advice into tangible, and slightly less slurred, words online for any poets who are twiddling their thumbs and wondering: “How do I get my poems published?”

I preface my advice with a few credentials, primarily so you know I’m not just pissing in the breeze:
   1)      I’ve edited 2 successful poetry anthologies
   2)      I am poetry editor of a magazine (Shoreline of Infinity)
   3)      I have published 4 collections of poetry (1 full, 3 pamphlets) with another due 2018
   4)      I’ve had my poetry published in more than 100 different publications internationally
   5)      I’ve taught Creative Writing at schools, universities and other institutions for years
   6)      I have a PhD (from The University of Edinburgh) in Creative Writing (poetry)

There may be more, but I think my head’s big enough and it’s becoming a bit narcissistic. So, onto the advice, which I shall try to relay in some kind of chronological order…

  1)     Make sure the poems are good, and you’re happy with them
What makes a good poem? That’s pretty hard to answer. I can spot a bad one (or one which doesn’t suit me) within the first couple of lines. The important thing is that you are happy with how your poems function before you send them out. There’s nothing worse than seeing your poem in print and realising you hate it. Well, maybe war. And famine. And racism. Okay, there are lots of worse thing.

Anyway, I strongly advise sharing your poems with other poets whose opinions you trust. Ego-massaging is, frankly, useless. Find critical readers who understand what you’re trying to do in your poems, and aren’t afraid to tell you what’s not working.

Neil Gaiman has a great piece of advice when it comes to criticism. To paraphrase: “When someone tells you something’s not working, they’re almost always right. If they tell you exactly how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.”

There’s a blurry line between knowing when a poem’s ready to send out, and if it needs more work. Poets are pedantic creatures and will spend eternity moving commas or changing a single word back and forth. There must be a point where you say: “Fuck it, it’s done.” I think this point is when you feel the poem works as a whole, but you’re fiddling with things which are “pretty much there” and nobody else has a problem with. But as I say, it’s hard to pinpoint this exact moment in a poem’s life.

Go with your gut.

  2)     Keep records
Before you send anything out, keep a spread sheet of every poem you have which you’d like to send out to magazines/books/etc.

When you send a poem out, move its title to a separate sheet and make a note of where you sent it (and when you sent it). If the poem is published, after you’ve recovered from your hangover, remove the title from your spread sheet (and keep a separate list of publications for your CV). If it’s rejected, return the title to your ‘available poems’ sheet.

Why all the admin? Well, for one thing, it’s really annoying for an editor if they spend time looking at your poems and accepts them… only to find you’ve published it elsewhere. You could be blacklisted from any of their future publications simply because you (inadvertently) wasted their time.

And your spreadsheet will also be useful for keeping an eye on when you submitted and when you should expect a response.

Finally, if an editor hasn’t responded, it’s okay to nudge them! If they don’t respond for some ridiculous period of time, I think you’re totally within your rights to pull the poems from their lists and send them somewhere else.

  3)     Read and submit
I won’t go on about the virtues of reading poetry, except to say that editors will instantly spot a poem from a poet who doesn’t read much (modern) poetry. Look, Shakespeare and Blake were great, we get it, but we already have them to read and – I don’t want to be mean here, but – you’re probably not quite as good as them (certainly in the olde English vernaculars). We live in a different world, we speak differently, write something different. Okay? Sorted.

It is useful to be aware of an editor’s preferences, but I don’t think you should let that tie you down too much. In my opinion, a good editor should be flexible, able to identify a good poem whether or not it’s entirely “their kind of thing”. A publication filled with very similar poems is probably going to be a bit dull.

In short, just go for it. The worst that can happen is that an editor doesn’t much care for your poems, and you send them out to a different publication.

PS: the exception to this is with a themed call for poems. If an editor is asking for “poems about worms” and you send them “poems about space ships”, that’s just plain stupid. Doofus.

  4)     Follow the submission guidelines, and be nice
Submission guidelines are a bore, I get it. I hate having to reformat things and include passages about how my poems visited me in a dream on a whaling boat in the south pacific. But, if the editor wants you to jump, it’s a good idea to do so. Ignoring the submission guidelines may irk an editor, and they might simply delete your submission without reading it.

Also, be a decent human being. Editors are people, say hello, say how much you enjoyed their previous work or how you’re looking forward to reading the next issue. Don’t moan, don’t brag or belittle yourself. I’ve a few more thoughts on this in another article, here.

  5)     Embrace rejections
Notice how long this section is compared with the others…

I once kept my rejection letters in an envelope. Then in several envelopes. Then in a binder. Then I stopped keeping them (unless they were emails). For every poem I send out, about 80% are rejected, and this is quite a successful turnaround rate.

A rejection may have nothing to do with whether your poem’s any good. It probably is good, but there are a lot of reasons why it could be turned down:
  1)      They received loads of submissions and don’t have enough room for everything
  2)      It didn’t blend with the other poems they picked
  3)      It’s quite long or hard to typeset (lay out on the page)
  4)      They liked it but didn’t LOVE it
  5)      They were in a grumpy mood because they missed breakfast, then they missed the bus and your poem contained the colour red which subconsciously reminded them of the bus and they hate that bus they hate it and no your poem isn’t going in this publication not ever
  6)      Blah blah blah – lots of reasons

The secret to handling rejection? Get over it.

It’s hard advice to follow, because we all pour a lot into our art and part of us secretly (or not so secretly, in some cases) thinks we’re a goddamn genius.

Also, if an editor gives you feedback – even if you hate it – say thank you. Providing feedback usually means they liked your poem but it wasn’t quite right for them. Editors don’t bother offering feedback on poems which they think have little merit. You were nearly there, good for you!

After a rejection, edit it (or not, if it’s how you want it) and try it on another editor.

Oh, also… never argue or insult an editor because of their opinion (unless they’re obviously being a total arsehole). I once had a prose writer whose story we’d accepted (and written substantial editorial notes for them) under the proviso they edit it. They came back saying that they wouldn’t edit a word and if I changed any punctuation then I’d have to change it back on a reprint. Suffice to say, we didn’t publish them and they’re not on my Christmas card list.

  6)     Resubmit, resubmit, resubmit

Got a rejection? Boo hoo, it’s sad. But it’s just one opinion! Send it out to someone else, or work on it and then send it out again. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. Chances are, if it’s a half-decent poem, it’ll find a home eventually.

Some writers get really hung up on rejections and it stops them from submitting, but this is part of the life of a writer. If you don’t submit, you’ll never be published. Submit. SUBMIT!!!!

  7)     Attend (and organise) poetry events

Poetry began, and continues, as a spoken art. Editors go to poetry events, they listen and network, and offer their business cards, and ask you for poems if they like what they heard.

Go to events to share your work with an audience (it’s an automatic response, gives some immediate critical feedback) and to hear how it sounds and is responded to.

Poetry events also offer you a double whammy because you get to hear other people’s poetry, and to become part of a community of poets (collective noun: a misery of poets). You’ll be surprised by how many more poetry opportunities are presented to you once people actually know your face.

Poetry events are also incredibly important to publishers. Publishing a poetry book isn’t cheap, and poetry doesn’t sell very well. A publisher wants to make sure they’ll get a return on their investment, which means they want you to show that you’re willing to go out there and sell the books.

Where do poetry books sell, apart from online, in book shops and in charity shops? READINGS.

Readings are where many poets make their sales and spread the word about their work. A poet who won’t give readings is a big risk for a publisher, but a poet who has great PR skills and is known for going to events (and organising them) is much more attractive.

In short: a big part of being a published writer is ‘networking’. Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure nobody enjoys it, but it’s part of the job. We all suffer together.

  8)     Have something physical you can sell / give away
This is mainly linked to events again. If you’re giving readings at events, try to have some of your poetry available to sell or give away. This is like a business card and it’ll make sure people can read more of your stuff if they want to.

If you’re not published yet, you could print / design some postcards or pamphlets which people can pick up.

I often advise that poets without a collection should put together a pamphlet and submit it to any suitable publishers (and maybe a few pamphlet competitions). This is a stepping stone on your way to a full book because publishers want to know that you have a publication history, can sell your books, and other editors have trusted in your abilities before.

  9)     Have an online presence

I don’t mean Twatter and Facemuck, though they have their uses…

An online presence isn’t absolutely necessary, but it’s a good way to let people know what you’re doing, how to contact you, and to share some of your work for free. I advise starting a simple blog for free. Add your various details and a few samples of your work.

Note: only upload work which you’re REALLY happy with. You don’t want a publisher to visit your site and see a half-assed, unedited gush which you wrote when drunk. It just won’t give off the right impression.

Another note: preferably, upload poems which are already published and link it to the publisher (you may want to ask their permission, though it is your right to do what you want with your poems). They may share your blog post / page. Sharing previously-published poems also means that you’re not dipping into your “unpublished poems which I’m happy with” pool.

  10)Don’t give up
What are the main differences between a published and an unpublished writer? Resilience and perseverance. Poetry alone won’t make you rich (or even provide enough for you to live, in 99% of cases), you’ll have to suffer through rejections and self doubt, but it’s worth the effort. Publication is just the icing on the cake. Mmm, cake.

That’s it! Nice and easy does it.  

Russell Jones

Book Review: Announce This by Lauren Pope

Book Review

Announce This

Before the review starts, a confession (of sorts): I know Lauren Pope well. We have met practically every week for several years to talk about poems and restaurants and babies and everything else which isn’t poems and restaurants and babies. We, on occasion, lunch. So of course I’m very unlikely to trash her book (I simply wouldn’t review it). Anyway, in short: I’m definitely biased, but this book is superb.

The book as ‘object’ is worth noting here. Templar Poetry have done a fine job, producing an attractive, minimalist cover which captures some of the poems’ concerns and considerations, whilst also retaining an artistic ambiguity. The book is also square-shaped, which might seem a flippant thing to appreciate, but it means that it looks and feels different in your hand. The poems have more space to stretch their legs and – I’m sure all poets will appreciate this – the wider page means none of Pope’s lines are cut off early or spilling onto the next line. Also, the book has flaps. If you don’t love flaps on a book, you’re insane.

Announce This isn’t Pope’s first collection but it’s a new landmark for an incredibly talented poet. There are multiple themes and philosophies explored, from sex to family, the creative power of mistakes, and the world-shaping potential of language. Such topics could easily become worn, but Pope approaches them with a sharp knife and an unclogged ear. One of the great powers of this collection is its ability to synchronise conflicting tones and concepts. Where there is lust, there is danger. Where there is love, there is longing and pain. Where there is cephalopod ink, there is a healing crystal and a hippy. I was particularly struck and surprised by the exoticness of Announce This – not only in its scenes (it’s something of a globetrot) but in its engagement with varying languages and lingos. As good poetry ought, it makes the familiar feel new, and the new feel unsettlingly familiar:

how the first rain fell
during dessert
on a plate of pineapple
and a Milky Way melted
in its wrapper

-      -   From “Locusts”

For me, this is an example of Pope at her best. Each successive line challenges the previous one, retaining and evolving as they progress. “the first rain” (outdoors) becomes relocated by “dessert” (we assume, in a home or restaurant), which also retains a visual and aural echo of “desert”. The effect is double: a shrinking or domesticating, but also an expansion to the wider world, whilst also suggesting nourishment (the desert is nourished by the rain, the speaker is nourished by the food). Similarly, we take “Milky Way” at face value as our galaxy, imagining the breaking down of time and space, only for it to be reduced to a chocolate bar melting in its wrapper. Either reading ‘works’ to capture the grandiose in the minute, everyday observation. They balance, but they also unsettle the other, and the reader. I appreciate any poem which can turn a chocolate bar into a philosophic exploration.

“Unsettling” is a word which I think captures a lot about Announce This. It doesn’t rest on its proverbial laurels. The poems constantly surprise, turning corners to unexpected arenas. Individually, the poems sing and stun, but as a whole it feels like a journey. There’s a narrative thread running through the book, beginning with poems which (to me at least) seem to capture the verve and mythologizing qualities of ancient Greek poetry within a modern context:

I turn my head to better view our landscape. Gold grass hills
have beached around Vinci, and my mind goes to my hair –

bleached into brittle strands of straw, and obsession with light perhaps.
Still, like a niggle or a sting from a fire ant,

all I can think is that I don’t like the way you’re holding that fig,
the way that it unsettles the moment, and others to come

-       -  From “Proverb”

I love that unexpected swerve from gold grass hills, hair and ants, into the possibility of a fig altering life; the movement from unsettled beauty, to its impact on human existence. We are, after all, built by our obsessions and observations – once we see the fig, we are forever changed.

Early in the book, several family-themed and memory-based poems hold their emotional weight without becoming saccharine, sentimental, moany or preachy. Pope’s work tends to leave itself relatively open ended, rather than pushing a particular message. It’s an approach which, as a reader, I appreciate. It doesn’t undermine our intelligence, it asks us to listen and ponder in order to ascertain our own meaning. The narrative holds this together without overstating its place. It continues to unwind as the poems explore sexuality, at times with an underlying sense of aggression or dissatisfaction, at others through pleasure. I’ll just leave this here without comment:

though every time you yell
‘Out vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?’
and pierce me with your sword,
I hope you know my eyes are rolling.

 - From "Vile Jelly"

These poems function with deceptive ease, often conversational but with hidden depths and music which encourage reading, rereading and rerereading to fully appreciate. One of the most linguistically condense poems is also a sestina so well constructed and well realised that I hadn’t noticed the form until the end of the poem, despite its very unusual and specific repetitions. It begins:

Kebab shop, bric-a-brac stalls: she loops
between lapis-hued clothing lines, through
courtyards with fountains, trespasses riads
hunting out carved initials – any sign she lived there
during the comatose years when westerners
crossed the Strait to smoke and fuck.

[and ends…]

around my neck. At nightfall, we move west
past the withered stork nests on the walls of riads.
The clap clap clap of men fucking on loop.

- From "Petit Socco"

The poems' successes are not only linguistic, then, but in parts formal too. The majority of the poems are freeform, but the poet’s meticulous attention to the structure and implication of each word and line is always evident. Reader, you are in safe hands (although they might slap you about a bit).

The last portion of the collection hovers around adult relationships and pregnancy. One of the most affecting poems, “Miscarriage”, deals with trauma and grief, but also the fruitful potential of mistakes, nescience and ‘lacking’:

Sometimes things
that do not exist
are real –
the way my ears
hear Etta James
sing “Cadillac”
not “At last”


Announce this: today,
the colour of failure
in the robin’s
sanguine throat.

These combined, combative tensions are a standout feature of the poems in Announce This, and an integral part of Pope’s writing more generally (if I were to typify her work or pick up on a Pope-ism). The collection title (taken from “Miscarriage”) might first be considered celebratory, but it also captures grief, anger and hope which is finally born in “Metamorphosis”:

The moon squatting in my belly
dictates the tide
of unseen things

There’s a certain hint of fated determinism to Announce This, tracing the impact of images, events and lives on the speaker and – in turn – the reader. Are we really able to escape or control our own destinies? This is a question which sat with me after reading the book again. And Pope, quite rightly in my opinion, doesn’t offer answers.

Announce This is a spectacular collection of poetry, full of nuance and gut-punches, blending philosophy with the Everyday in an approachable, enjoyable and expertly crafted book with innumerable layers. Read it. Reread it. Rereread it. 

Russell Jones

Thursday, 28 September 2017

What has poetry taught me?

It’s National Poetry Day 2017, and I’ve not written a blog post for way too long. So, I thought I’d share my musings on a poetry-related topic, on how poetry has changed my life…

I’ll admit that I wasn’t always a fan of poetry, and even now it can irk me. I distinctly remember using the old “I just don’t GET it” line at school, and the true reason I came to write poetry is that it was short - I was applying to university courses fresh out of college, thought Creative Writing sounded fun, so bashed out a poem to send with my application. My first poem was about a cardboard box getting mushy in the rain. (Now I think about it, that could be a metaphor for… oh, let’s not.)

Skip to the end. I’ve since published 1 full poetry collection, 3 pamphlets, edited two poetry anthologies and am poetry editor of a magazine. With more to follow. So, what changed? Well, any poet will tell you that we’re in it for the huge wads of money (sigh, I’ve heard that joke a dozen times at poetry readings, and here I am regurgitating it). No, poetry must do something else for me, but what is it?

I like lists. Sometimes I make lists of lists. I’m not even joking. So, here’s a list of things which I think poetry has taught me. If you’re a writer, or reader, or just a fellow human being, maybe you’ll see some worth in giving poetry a second chance. It can be a cruel mistress, but also a kind one when it’s in the right mood…

1. ‘Success’ is overrated
First off, I’m not saying “I’M A MASSIVE FUCKING SUCCESS, BOW DOWN TO ME” at all. There, that’s out of the way…

Even the most well regarded, widely published, prize-winning poets, don’t really make a living exclusively from poetry (book sales and readings). They usually have to do other things, such as funding applications, or teaching, or butchery. So, if anyone out there is thinking of trying poetry for financial gains, you’re in the wrong game.

That said, I think in some respects this financial fissure keeps poetry somewhat “honest”. Of course, there’s the allure of an audience, of cooing reviews and prize wins, but on the whole I think the lack of financial investment encourages most poets to write what they want to write. There’s no big marketing team asking you to change a line or stanza because “teenage girls just won’t get it” or “sonnets aren’t in trend right now.”

There are other demons to battle, though. It’s easy, I think, to become swept up in other poets’ apparent success. They’ve had 10 trillion hits on Youtube, for a poem about How War is Bad, which you think is terrible. They’ve won a residency or a prize, but they’re just not so damned talented as you or your poetry pals. It isn’t fair! Waah. I’ve been there, I think any writer has been there. It’s a demon I still tackle, but on the whole I think poetry has taught me that the bells and whistles of ‘success’ aren’t all that important. I can be a little happy (and jaded, and jealous) about other writers’ successes, but ultimately it has zero affect on my own work. “Just keep truckin’,” I tell myself, trying to climb away from that abyss as the rocks tumble beneath my feet.

No, the real lesson from poetry to me has been: success takes many forms. Ultimately, none of them say very much about you, success is flippant, just keep trying to make good art. Keep on truckin’.

2. Work hard
Writing a crap poem is relatively easy. I do it a lot. Once upon a time, only around 10-20% of the poems I wrote ever ended up being half decent or publishable (not always the same thing). Now it’s more like 50%, but it’s because I write fewer poems. Potentially because I sort of know what I’m doing, so take fewer shots in the dark, but also because I have less time and inclination to write so many poems. I don’t think a half-baked poem is worth much now, other than the experiment.

Poetry has taught me the importance of refining my writing. One of my biggest tips to writing students is a pretty basic one, but I whole-heartedly stick by it: DELETE.

I’d say 9 out of 10 times, a piece of writing is improved if you start deleting things. Not sure if some image is quite working? DELETE. Is that phrase really pulling its weight? DELETE. It’s a brutal method, but (much like an Army Commander might break down their troops to rebuild them, or Gordon Ramsay might shout profanities at sobbing chefs), what you’re left with are the bones of something decent. From there, maybe you add or adjust a bit, but cutting out the waste is a great start.

I’d say that almost no poem I’ve written has been particularly good from the outset. This is true of prose, and – I imagine – any art. It takes craft, effort, refinement. Poetry taught me that, from the feel of an entire collection, to the appearance of a single poem on a page, to the concept of a stanza, to the point at which a line breaks, to each word, to each comma, to each sound and beat. For me, writing is a form of manipulation, trying to present something, or to evoke something in a reader, and you have to pull the strings very carefully to get it right.

And, I learned that becoming a published (in a book or on a stage) poet is hard. Editors have their own tastes, books and magazines are fighting for space, audiences are picky, poets can be good friends and terrible enemies (what kind of person wants to share their inner thoughts with the world? Maniacs, that’s who). I quickly learned that rejection would be a big part of my life as a writer, and I think that’s been a great lesson. A lot of the time, life throws you a turd sandwich. Sometimes you’ve got to just eat it down, and move on. That’s a good lesson for anyone to learn, I think, because (unless you’re some kind of prophet) life doesn’t always go to plan. In short: poetry taught me life’s not always fair, but that’s okay as long as you don’t get stuck on it.

3. It’s just a fucking poem
Love. Cancer. Friendship. Break-ups. Travel… there are so many more important things than poetry. Even in terms of artistic interest, the general public really doesn’t care about poetry very much. But as artists we pour and craft and worry. We think what we do is much more important than it actually is.

I don’t mean to belittle poets (that would be easy, and unkind) but poetry has taught me a very important lesson: it’s just a fucking poem.

What I mean is, it’s taught me to realise that most things aren’t all that important, I just misjudged their importance. I thought, “Oh if I get this poem/book published, it’ll make me happy.” It did, for a bit (literally a week, at most) but I was pretty foolish to stake so much on something which was actually relatively out of my control.

Honestly, I’m not entirely over this one. Poetry-wise, I feel less invested because I can’t make a living from it anyway. But prose? Well, the rejections still sting. Then poetry comes and grabs me by the wrist and says, “You’ll be no worse off than you are now. In fact, you’re better off because at least now you have a bit of art you’re proud of. And what’s that lump under your arm?” (I don’t have a lump my under arm – thanks poetry, you sly bastard!)


Poetry has taught me craft, to think of words and their contexts, to consider sound and image and blah blah. That’s all really useful to writers, and I do carry poems with me (in my head); they taint and colour things. But really, poetry taught me to “cut out the waste”, refocus the lens, to keep on truckin’. Beep beep.  

Russell Jones

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Signo Novella Prize Shortlist - Dating Superman

Roll up, roll up! The shortlist for Artificium's "Signo Novella Prize" has been announced, and my novella, Dating Superman, happens to be on it!

I'm most pleased because:
1) I really like the story (yeh yeh I wrote it big head whatever)
2) Novella publishers are about as common as fairy dust
3) The winner is published

So, without further ado, here's the shortlist. Good luck to them all of course, but perhaps a bit less than me:

Because We’re a Team
Tory Stosse

The House of the White Plague
Thomas E G Fleischer

Dating Superman

The Extraordinary Life of Señor Joaquin Álvarez de Albacete
Dimitra Rizou

An Echo of Blood
Lou Kaye-White

The shortlisted titles will now receive their final reading, and a winner and runner up will be chosen by March 12th 

Russell Jones

Monday, 9 January 2017

I'm an editor, get me out of here!

I get some weird emails as an editor. People telling me their life story, how they don't think their writing's any good but thought I might like it, how brilliant they are (followed unanimously by a totally pish poem/story), or just saying nothing at all or calling me by another name. Here are some tips, writerly folks: 

1) Say hello 

2) Keep it brief but polite

3) Don't put yourself down or big yourself up too much 

4) Follow the guidelines

(and preferably, but not absolutely: 

5) show some interest in the publication 

6) get my name right)

Here's an example of what I might send:

Dear X

Having recently read and enjoyed YOUR THING, I thought I'd send MY THING for consideration for publication in YOUR THING.

I hope you enjoy my work (brief bio below - if they asked for one) and look forward to reading the next YOUR THING.

Many thanks,