Once you have written and revised a small body of poetry, you are ready to take the next step in the writing process: publishing. A poem is “published” once it appears anywhere on the Web (even on your Facebook page or blog) or in print in a journal, magazine, or book. The word “publish” has the power, for some reason, to intimidate beginning writers. But don’t let feelings of intimidation dissuade you from sending your poems out to literary journals and magazines. Today there are more than ever, and so there are more opportunities to find a home for your work than ever before. You’ve read and written, workshopped and revised, and it’s time—in the natural life of a poem—for it to go off into the world. After all, why spend time and energy crafting poems for only yourself? Let others enjoy them, too! I guarantee you will feel quite satisfied seeing your poems in print.
Rights—Pure and Simple
As a beginning writer, it is only natural to be concerned about what will happen to your work after you submit it for publication. Beginning writers tend to fear that in submitting poems to editors, there is a chance that someone will steal their poems and claim to be the writer. But you really have more to fear from publishing mediocre or unfinished work than from having your writing claimed by another. Ask around in the poetry world and you will find that stolen work is so rare that you may never find a first-, second-, or even sixth-hand account of this type of thievery ever happening. I cannot name one.
Much of this fear stems from not knowing how copyrights work. So, let’s fix that.
If you’d like to understand the laws in depth, Wikipedia is a good source to start with. Looking up copyright as well as authors’ rights will give you a detailed account of the history and current status of laws. But for poetry, these laws—especially when you are just starting out—are much simpler to understand.
As soon as you put pen to paper, you have copyrighted your writing. According to the copyright law itself, any “original work of authorship”—a poem, a book, a letter, a song—is protected by copyright the exact second it is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” In other words, as soon as you write a sentence, a line, a stanza, a poem, you own the rights to it. Of course, the concern I often hear is, “If my work is stolen, how can I prove my copyright?” And the answer is that there are several ways. For example:
- A program like Microsoft Word keeps a dated record of your work.
- A written journal or notebook can also be dated by hand when you write.
If you are really worried about copyright, you can mail yourself a copy of your poems and leave the envelope sealed. The stamped post office date is legal proof of when the poem was written, or near it, anyway. I can tell you, though: I have never done this and know no one who has. In the world of poetry, there usually isn’t much at stake, especially monetarily. And poets tend to be respectful of each other’s art.
When a poem is accepted, it is usual for journals to request one-time publication rights and first North American rights. Basically, these permit the journal to publish the work once, and to be credited with having published the work before anybody else whenever the work is re-published. It is becoming more and more common today for journals to also ask for digital rights and future re-publication rights, as some online journals will collect their best work into a print volume. With all of these rights, the author remains the owner of the poem.
The Publication Process
The best way to ease feelings of intimidation and anxiety when it comes to sending out poems is to do three things:
- Create a personal routine and system of organization.
- Educate yourself about the market.
- Learn to love or at least live with rejection.
All writers have stories about pieces that were rejected X amount of times before winning Y or being published in Z. Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 121 times. The poet Gertrude Stein was rejected for twenty-two years. Billy Collins’ first book wasn’t published until he was thirty-five. Not being rejected would be like running a marathon without sweating: absolutely impossible—unless you’d prefer to trade your body in and become a robot. So, learn to embrace it.
Read famous authors’ rejection letters here.
Personal Routine and Organization
Like writing, sending out your work will go smoothly if you have a system that you can fall back on. Many writers like to keep writing and publishing independent of each other— psychologically and time wise. Try to designate time to submit work just like you set time aside to write. When you write, write; when you submit, submit. They use different parts of the brain. Of course, you may find yourself revising when you actually are supposed to be submitting, but like everything else, that’s okay. It’s all part of the process. If you do find yourself revising poems you intended to send out, either switch to revising mode or save that poem to work on later. When submitting work for publication, if you choose poems that you feel are truly finished, you will save yourself time and be able to concentrate on submitting—so you can get back to writing.
Organizing Your Submission Record
To set up a system of organization, create a Word file in which you will keep poems that are ready for publication. Save each poem separately and insert a header at the top of the page that contains your name and contact information. If a journal’s guidelines requests anonymous submissions, simply erase the header when you send. In my system, I call this file “Poems for Publication” and in addition to all of the individual poems, I keep an internal file in which I save a copy of all of the poems I send to each journal. Because journals usually request that poems all be submitted in one document, you wind up creating a document each time you send. Although it’s not necessary to do, I save that document as the name of the journal. For instance, if you opened up “Paris Review,” it would contain the five poems I sent to the Paris Review.
Once you begin to submit, I recommend using Excel to create a spreadsheet to keep a record of your submissions. In the top column, list the names of the journals. In the left column, list the names of your poems. In the cell where each meet, type in the date you sent the work. After you hear from the journal, you can click on the cell and make a note as to whether the poem was accepted or rejected. Sometimes editors will write notes on your poems or cover letter and let you know that they liked the poem. Whenever an editor writes anything in handwriting, this is a good sign, even if it’s just a “Thanks!” Most journals receive thousands of submissions and the editor is not obligated to respond personally. A note of thanks or a request that you submit again in the future should feel like success—because it is. Once you begin receiving responses like this, you can make notes in Excel and begin to see what poems of yours appeal to certain journals, better allowing you to make decisions about which types of poems to send in the future.
Keeping a record of your poetry submissions is necessary for a couple more reasons. First, it is a quick and easy way for you to track submissions. You can see where they are, see how long they’ve been somewhere, and, as mentioned above, see what poems you have sent to places in the past. It is not atypical for a journal to take six months or longer to respond to a submission. But if you see on your spreadsheet that your poems have been somewhere for longer than eight months, it is okay to send a small inquiry to check in. Sometimes poems are lost or misplaced and checking in allows you to avoid any of these mishaps.
Secondly, when your poem is accepted for publication, you will be able to see where it is a simultaneous submission, and withdraw it. A simultaneous submission (SS) refers to a poem that is being considered at more than one place. Some journals accept simultaneous submissions; some do not. You should never submit a poem simultaneously to a place that prefers exclusive submissions, which simply means that the journal wants to be the only place considering the poem at that time. Venues that only accept exclusive submissions do not want to take the risk of the poem being accepted elsewhere while they are considering it because in their eyes it wastes their time. Please be considerate of a journal’s guidelines. If you are not willing to wait the months it may take for an exclusive submission to be considered then only submit to places that accept simultaneous submissions.
One way to handle the decision about whether to submit exclusively is to only send only new or your best work to a place you really want the poem to appear. You can do a few rounds and once you exhaust your first preferences, you can simultaneously submit the poem. When submitting to a journal, you should always read the submission guidelines located in the front of a publication, or on the publication’s web site. Almost all journals and magazines have a clearly designated link on their homepage to information about their submission process.
In the past, all journals accepted submission by mail. Today, almost all prefer submission via email or an online submission system. Many use an online tool called Submittable, which is very easy to use. You simply set up an account and login from the website of the journal where you want to submit. Submittable will keep track of all poems submitted through their system. But because some journals prefer e-mail or snail mail, it is still good advice to maintain your own system of organization to track all of your submissions.
Thirdly, your system allows you to see which poems of yours have been published. Aside from knowing if a journal accepts simultaneous submissions, you will also need to see if a place accepts previously published (PP) poems. The high majority of places do not.
If Excel isn’t for you and you would like a system that is more hands on and physical, another way to keep track of your poems is to use good old-fashioned index cards. For each journal, create an index card that includes the name, address, e-mail, and phone number of the journal in the left hand corner. Then in the top right corner, indicate whether or not the journal accepts SS or PP. You can also jot down the average time it takes for them to respond. All of this information should be available on the journal’s website, or in a source like The Poet’s Market, which is a handy resource for finding places to submit (similar resources are listed later in this chapter). In the middle of the index card you can write how many poems the venue accepts at once, and you can also include a list of poets they’ve published so you can catch a quick glimpse of their aesthetic. When you submit poems to the journal, write down the names of the poems and the date on a Post-it note, stick the note to the face of the index card, and move the index card to the front of your card box or pile. This approach may seem old-fashioned, but for those of us who like to feel paper and need to interact with it in order to organize ourselves, the system works well.
Compose a Cover Letter
Unlike a job application, the cover letter for poetry submissions can be nearly the same each use. Its purpose is to organize the information you send and to enable editors to match the submitted poems with the poet if anything is shuffled or mixed up. The cover letter also provides editors with a reliable way to contact the poet. A good cover letter will contain the following:
- The poet’s name, address, phone, and e-mail address
- The titles of the poems sent
- Whether or not the poems are simultaneous submissions
- A short author bio (often optional)
Short bios are written in third person and may include where you were educated, your degree/s, the names of your books, awards, names of journals where you’ve been published, and where you teach or work. However, do not worry if you do not have any of these. Most journals love publishing work by new writers and the bio is really just a formality. In fact, many journals today opt for a much more casual and personal biography from their writers. Sometimes bios can even be humorous. So if you are not a PhD with ten books, saying where you live and that you like cats is usually perfectly acceptable. If you are uncomfortable including a bio, you may send in your work without one; if your work is accepted for publication the editors will request one then.
The following template may be used to compose your cover letter, including the bio:
Dear Editor’s Name or Editor,
I am submitting the following poems to be considered for publication:
- Poem one
- Poem two
- Poem three
- Poem four
- Poem five
All are simultaneous submissions, but you will be notified immediately if any are accepted for publication elsewhere. A brief bio should you need it:
(Name of poet) is a student at (name of college), where he/she is studying (subject). Originally from (name of town/state), he/she enjoys (something neat about you or another simple fact).
I appreciate your time and consideration, and look forward to hearing from you.
Name of poet
Once you begin to accumulate publications you may add them to your bio.
Study the “Market”
You do not need a degree in publishing to send out poems. Nor do you need to be a doctor of literature. What you do need is access to a journal, either by print copy or the Internet, so you can see what the venue publishes. The best way to select where to send your work may be the tried-and-true method of choosing places that publish work you like.
There are a couple of ways to familiarize yourself with the poetry market:
- The library
- A publishing resource
- Books of poems
Your college library and English department—especially if your college houses a literary journal or press—are great places to find journals and magazines, as well as publishing resources. In the library, recent poetry journals will be stacked with periodicals. Your library might even have older ones on the shelves. Asking your librarian for assistance and suggestions (that is why they are there!) will save you time and probably provide you with information for which you couldn’t have even thought to ask. Librarians often hold master’s degrees in library science—yes, science!—and know much more than you do about how to locate sources efficiently. Once you gather a stack of journals, most libraries have comfortable, private nooks and crannies in which you can tuck yourself away for a bit while you browse.
If your department houses a national literary journal or publication, you may have access to a small library of journals you can browse. It is a common practice for literary journals to do exchanges with other literary journals. That way the college acquires a library of current writing for students interested in publishing or editing. Many colleges also publish a publication that features work by students. If your college has one of these, you may consider not only submitting work, but becoming involved on the editorial side of the equation. These valuable resources can provide you with experience and skills that will not only help you when it comes to writing and publishing poetry, but may also help you as a future job seeker.
In addition to print journals, in recent years there’s been a boom of online literary journals as the Internet has made it easy for anyone to publish and maintain one. In fact, there are now so many that it is easy to become overwhelmed in pursuing the goal of finding respectable places for your work. Rather than browsing the Web randomly, it is helpful to use a publishing resource to locate potential places for your poems. The following is a list of resources that summarize a journal’s history and aesthetics, and provide a list of essential information for submitters:
- The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) Literary Magazine Directory (free)
- International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses (order or check your library)
- Poets and Writers Literary Magazines Database (free)
- The Poet’s Market (order or check your library)
- Duotrope (subscription based)
- NewPages Guide to Literary Magazines (free)
- Susquehanna University: Guide to Undergraduate Literary Magazines (free)
Whether you are reading a print or online journal, the following questions will help you locate an appropriate place to submit your poems:
- Do I like the work in this journal?
The answer here should be yes. Why would you want to publish work somewhere where you don’t like the writing?
- Do I know and/or enjoy the poets in this journal?
If the answer is yes, then this is good sign.
- Does anything in the poems this journal publishes remind me of my own poetry?
If the answer is yes, then the journal might be a potential place to send your work.
- Does the body of the journal (print or online appearance) look professional?
You want the answer here to be yes. Professionalism shows the editors care about the journal and your work.
- Are there any typos or errors visible?
Errors are usually a sign that you should not submit your work here.
- Aside from a small submission fee through the journal’s online submission system, do I need to pay money to submit work?
You should never have to pay a place to publish work. There are many scams out there, and this is one of the easiest tip-offs. You want to publish in places where your work is selected because of merit, not because of cash.
- Am I required to purchase a copy of the journal if I appear in it?
Again, not only should there be no obligation to purchase the text, but it is usual for you to receive at least one free copy and often a discount on additional copies of the journal in which your work appears. Most of the time that is the only payment you will receive, but this isn’t about making a fortune; it’s about ushering your poems into their next life stage.
Using Books to Find Places to Publish Poems
In most poetry books there is an acknowledgements page which lists journals where a poem first appears. It is usually located in the very front or very back of a collection. If you like a certain poet, or feel that a certain poet has influenced your writing, look at the poet’s acknowledgements page and see where his or her poems have appeared. There is a good chance that if you like a poem and the editors of a journal likes the poem, then the editor might like your poems, too.
Browse one of the free resources listed above and locate ten literary journals or magazines that you believe might be a good fit for your work. Include two to three sentences that explain the reasoning behind why you believe this is true.
Making Fun of Rejection
I’m not sure why the rejection slip has the reputation it does. Like any sport or art, poetry comes with ways of thinking that can assist you in becoming better. If you are a runner you know what I mean: those mind tricks you use to keep yourself going. For writers, rather than seeing a rejection slip as a sign of failure, view it as something more akin to a ribbon or medal. It is an indicator of persistence, confidence, and the seriousness with which you view your work as a writer. A constant stream of rejections bursts with potential. If your poems aren’t out, they’re not getting published! The poet William Stafford is said to have sent out rejected poems the same day they came back so that his poems were always under consideration.
It is a fact that any writer who publishes has received rejection emails and slips, and many of those writers keep a nice collection of those slips. A friend and I used to see who could collect the most slips the fastest. It was a way to make rejection a game, and a way for us to, like Stafford, continually keep our poems under consideration.
If you need a lift after some rejections, there are many websites and online articles that can help you shift perspective. Here are a few articles to start with:
- 20 Brilliant Writers Whose Work Was Initially Rejected
- 50 Iconic Writers Who Were Repeatedly Rejected
- 10 Rejection Letters Sent to Famous People
Learning to accept rejection is part of the process of many endeavors. Send your poems out enough and you will see; what twenty editors reject, one will reward with high recognition. Don’t ever give up on your poems.