Step 1. Adjust Your Attitude
So you’'ve written a sensitive poem, replete with reverberant images, layered emotions, and luxe sounds, and now you want other people to see it. I hate writing it as much as I hated reading it for the first time, but to submit that poem and get it published you have to leave the mental room in which you wrote the poem. You will get rejection letters, some of them cruel. You will go years without a publication. You will be published and not like anything else in the magazine. You will be published by a big name and feel ecstatic. None of that has any bearing on whether your writing is good. If you have instant success, you might be great or you might just fit in. If you get rejected, your writing might be lousy, or you might be original. Editors and their screeners (who are frequently inexperienced college students) are not gods, and cannot validate or invalidate your writing. Submission is a business, and it has nothing to do with writing—nothing, that is, except that publication is necessary for the survival of most writers, and submission is the way to publication.
Don’'t think you need publication? If you want to become a better writer, you will need more time in which to write. How do you get more time? Grants, residencies, faculty jobs. How do you get these? Publication. Or maybe you have the time problem licked (you’re independently wealthy or you like having the heat off in the winter), and you think real artists don’t market themselves, aren’t organized, don’t buy in to the system, etc. Think again: even Emily Dickinson submitted her poetry for publication. She didn’'t mean to die in obscurity. Your attempt to publish proves that you care enough about your writing to do what you have to to get it in print. This is the good news about publishing: it’s your way out of the mental room of writing. Through publishing, you will connect to the invisible audience of people who are out there turning pages and clicking web links. You become, in the eyes of others, a Real Artist, a working artist, and other real artists will respect you and offer you opportunities.
Step 2. Prepare Yourself
You will want to have a system of some kind for publishing. Feel free to change your system whenever it’s not working for you, but don’'t rebuild the whole thing each time you submit. Make it easy on yourself. Put your poems in a standard format: 12 point standard serif font, on plain white paper, titled, with your own information (name, address, email, phone if you like) at the bottom or top right corner of the page. Buy envelopes (standard #10 size) and stamps. If you can, print out a bunch of address labels for yourself. You may as well go ahead and prepare the return envelopes: stamp them and put your address in the “to” zone. I don’t think it’s necessary to fill in the “from” zone; most journals simply stamp their address in that corner.
Go ahead and write a tiny biography for yourself, fifty words or less. If you have no publishing credits, just give a few pertinent details (no pets!). My bio used to read, “I have lived in Tallahassee, London, and now Minneapolis”—. Silly, but since my poems used weather and location, it made sense. If you have publishing credits, use those, most recent and prestigious first. Same for major awards. My current bio reads: “I have been awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant, a residency at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota, and an AWP Intro Journals Award. My recent work is published or forthcoming in The Antioch Review, Permafrost, Quarterly West, and Cutbank.” Note that “published or forthcoming”: covers your tracks and allows you to cite your latest acceptance.
Now that you'’ve written the bio, write the letter. It goes like this:
Please consider the enclosed poems (x, x, x, and x) for publication in XYZ. [Your bio here.] I have enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope for your reply. Thank you for your consideration.
That’'s it. (With, of course, the date, your address, their address, and your signature.) Do not attempt to charm your editor. Editors want trouble-free letters. Also, you don’'t need to fill in the editor’s name unless it’s prominently offered on the website. Save the thing as your standard letter, and if you’re especially talented with Word you can make the blanks into active fields. Now you can just fill in the blanks and use the “Save As” function to write a new submission (remember to update the date).
Now you need to set up a database to keep track of your submissions. Some people use paper, but I think a computer database works best: you can update it easily and view it quickly. After years of a spreadsheet (poem titles as one column, followed by where I submitted them, the date, the result, and the date of the result), I switched to a pair of databases, which, if I were especially savvy, I would link together. Find your own system. Here’'s what you will have to keep track of: poem title, where the poem was sent (journal title), the date, and the result. I don’t think it’s too important to note the date of the result, although if a journal takes a year to get back to you you might want to remember that. Here are some potential questions your system will have to be able to answer quickly: What poems are available to be sent out now? What poems did I send to Cutbank last time? Which poem did Tin House like last time? How long ago did I send to Salmagundi? Consider these questions and create your database accordingly.
Note: don’'t skip this step or decide you’ll keep track on slips of paper. Journals can take a maddeningly long time to respond, and by then you may have lost the info on what you sent them. I'’ll cover simultaneous submission later, but right now just note that it’s not good, and you can avoid it by having a reliable database. The other advantage of a good database is that it can remember all the rejections so you don’t have to. When you get a rejection, enter it in the database and forget about it.
Which leads us to the last thing you should prepare: yourself. Don’'t agonize about submissions, either when you send them off or when you get them back. Don’'t feel sure that so-and-so will love such-and-such, don’t keep track, don’t get impatient. Learn to shrug at your rejections. “Field? What do they know?” “Ploughshares? Who do they think they are?” I am a sensitive person and yet I have cultivated a leathery indifference to responses. I once got an email which went something like this: “If you’ll consult the section about originality, I think you’'ll understand why I am not accepting these.” At the time it hurt, but now I wonder why the editor bothered to be so mean. Was his marriage falling apart? Did he have a toothache? Armor yourself with acceptances and personal notes. Having your work accepted should not make you think you can do no wrong and should not make you ignore comments and suggestions, but it should protect you against rejections. Store up any personal writing on a rejection note and consider it encouragement. You will need to feel that someone is on your side. Finally, if you get nothing but rejection, you can consider me on your side. Everyone has bad stretches.
Now that you’'re prepared, find out where you want to submit your poems. Writers differ on how much research you should do: some writers (and most editors) say you should read a sample issue or two before submitting, while others settle for skimming the website, and still others just send to anyone in the Writer’s Market. I don’'t advise the third course; in fact, throw that Writer’s Market away right now, before it gets you in trouble.
My ideal research goes like this: I pick up the journal at a library or bookstore, look at it (is it professionally bound and printed? what’s the cover art like? how many poems are in it?), read the editor’s note if there is one, look at who’s in it and jot down the familiar names (or make a note if there are no familiar names), skim the pages (what do the poems look like?), and read a few poems. Later I go to the website and look at the submission section for the latest information (address, open submission periods, any theme issues). I don’'t usually read a full issue and I’ve never paid for a sample copy. Often I don’t have access to a paper copy of the journal and look instead at the website for names, sample poems, etc (a great website for finding journal homepages is www.newpages.com). I do not submit to any journal I can’t find a website for, and I don’t submit blind, without at least getting an idea of what the journal is like.
So what am I looking for? Basically, a journal that will publish my poems, and a journal I wanted to be published in. If a journal publishes Jane Mead, I’m encouraged, because there’'s a similarity of style. If a journal publishes Carl Phillips, I respect their good taste. Of course, if a journal publishes nothing but Jane Mead, Carl Phillips, and other big names, it suggests they’re not open to emerging writers. I look for styles and have code-words for styles unlike mine: “inno” means language poetry, stuff all over the page, and word-play, while “trad” means metrical schemes, rhymes, etc. I look for thematic similarities too: if a journal publishes writing about emotion, the inner life, dreamscapes, the South, etc., I’'ve found a potential home. If I decide to submit to a journal, these notes also help me decide which poems to send. Finally, I check out how the poems are published; call me picky, but I want to be on my own page, in professional typesetting (apostrophes, not foot marks, etc).
A note about the relationship between writers and journals: please, if you can afford it, subscribe to something. After all, someone out there subscribes to the journal that publishes you. It shouldn’'t be pure altruism, though; you may discover a new poet whose work excites you. Publishing is not just about getting your work out there; you are joining a community of working artists. It’s true that most readers of journals are also writers, and this insularity is frustrating, but a first step toward changing the publishing system is understanding it. (If you have ideas for changing the publishing system, let me know.)
This takes us to the difference between online and print journals. Most guides tell you they have the same value and should be treated the same. I don’t find this to be true. I'’ve never gotten a thrill from seeing my name in an online journal, and no online journals are as prestigious as the highest-ranking print journals. And yet I’ve gotten far more responses from the poems published on line than from my print publications. I also detect a different popular style on the internet than in print (but that’s another essay). Internet journals form a community that’s at once exciting (the millennium salon) and suspicious (hmm, the editors of these two journals publish each other). I submit to both online and print journals and try to keep my credits balanced between them.
Finally, I don’'t submit to any journal that makes demands outside the usual. There’'s a system to this; any editor who asks for extra copies of your poems, only responds to accepted poems, charges for reading, wants you to write a paragraph about why you write, etc., has not been paying attention to how the submission system works and deserves to be ignored, just as any writer who sends submissions on perfumed pink paper deserves to be ignored. You do not have time to cater to the whims of editors who may or may not accept you. Be professional and expect the same of them.
4. How to Send
Which poems should you send? Poems you love. Poems you’'re done with. Poems that pass the shrug test: you look at them and shrug your shoulders. I don’'t send out poems that seem incomplete, and I’'m especially protective of my best poems. After all, I want them to appear in full bloom in Poetry, not as early drafts in a lesser journal. Since I’'ve several times had editors love poems I wasn’t crazy about, I give my completed poems the benefit of the doubt. I do, though, believe in every poem I send.
How many? I send four to each journal, unless the journal specifies otherwise. Four is a good number: four poems plus a cover letter and a return envelope can all fly for thirty-seven cents, four is ample but not piggy. I “stack” my poems: two good ones, two older or less exciting ones—unless I’'m sending to Poetry, which gets four good poems.
How often? I send a submission to Poetry every year. Every year they send back a polite rejection. I don’'t trouble them again until another year has passed; why spoil our potentially good relationship? If I’'ve received an encouraging note or had a poem published, I submit again in six to nine months. Although I sometimes fall behind on my personal submission schedule, I try to keep up with these notes and previous publications; I want to form relationships with editors and journals. In these second submissions, I refer to the note or publication, and try to find poems that match the note or previously published poem (the editor who found some of my writing “precious” but promising will get a slightly drier batch of poems next time). Don’t pester editors by resubmitting immediately.
A note on submission etiquette: editors don’'t like it when you send the poem they’re considering to other editors at the same time. Although that’s considered kosher for fiction writers, I don’'t think poets have an excuse for simultaneous submissions. After all, we typically have a lot more pieces to send out. You will probably double-submit by accident, but don’t do it intentionally (unless you really do only write twelve poems a year). I have never queried an editor about the status of a submission. Unless they’ve made contact with you (told you they were considering work, etc), what’s the point? You risk offending an editor only to have them tell you you’re still in the in-box. I consider a submission dead after a year and don’t resubmit to journals that never respond. If you’re panicked at the thought of leaving a poem with someone for a year, relax and write more poems.
Go buy a bottle of champagne (Piper Sonoma brut is nice). Be liberal about occasions for drinking it (you don’t want your bubbly to become a cruel reminder), but always have one in there, ready for your first acceptance. Drink and be merry, and then get back to work. Immediately respond to your acceptance and follow the editor’s directions about formatting, signatures, etc. Thank your editor. This is another chance to prove your professionalism.
Remember how I began this article: don’'t consider acceptance or rejection the final word on your poetry. Trust your own artistic judgment and find a few good readers. Publishing is only one part of the writer’s work, and you should congratulate yourself for mailing submissions, whatever the results.
I have a good publishing record (why else would I be writing this?), but I get plenty of rejections, and often feel discouraged. I rely on notes and my fiancé to cheer me up. I want so badly to be published in Field that I haven’'t submitted for fear of rejection. The first time I saw a poem of mine in print, I was in New York City, in a bookstore, on my way back from Prague, and I’d just picked up the journal to see if my poem might be there. I didn’'t know anyone in New York, so I had no one to tell. I felt that I’d stepped into a strange new universe or projected a new person, the author of my poem, from my mind. My first acceptance ever (hello, North Stone Review?) has not yet been published. I'’ve forgotten to replace fields in submission letters and asked editors to consider poems for journals they don’t work for. I once got an acceptance email and could not at all remember the accepted poem from its title. I’m ridiculously prolific and have more than one hundred poems out right now. Last year I earned exactly ten dollars from poetry. I published a poem call “Hand Job” online and now live in fear that my parents will Google me. I’'m jealous of other poets with better publishing records than mine, but this doesn’'t stop me from wishing you all the best success.