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.