In Part 1 of this post, I explained that writing good poetry is hard, and that the best ways to get good at it are to read a lot of contemporary poets, hone your craft, be your own worst critic, and consider taking some classes in it. In Part 2 I will explain some of the techniques for how to get poetry published in literary magazines, which is the first venue you need to set your eyes on.
No, Really: The Real Answer to How to Get Poetry Published Is “Work Hard”
I’ve had many students, colleagues, and random strangers approach me over the years to tell me how great their poetry is. Unless they’re in the local graduate program or undergraduate program in creative writing, it’s typically pretty rough, meaning unrefined. Many people write poetry as a hobby in the same way that other people journal: to record thoughts, feelings, and impressions of the world around them.
But that does not good poetry make. Good poetry, like all art, is highly refined, by which I simply mean “worked over” and “improved over time.”
If you pick up one of the many, many literary magazines out there today, you will see poetry representing a range of aesthetics: some more narrative, some more focused on inventive language, some surreal, some that make you realize you have no idea what is going on in the piece. The one thing all the poems you read will have in common, however, is hard work.
Every published poem you see has been refined for hours, weeks, or sometimes even months or years. Some good poems come more easily than others, or at least that’s always been my experience, but that is not the norm. Personally, I’ve been known to revise a single poem up to 150-200 times before I think it’s good enough to send out.
My point being: if you’ve found this post, and want to get published, you really should read that first post, and do what it says, before trying to send your work out.
Selecting Literary Magazines and Submitting to Them
While you’re reading all those literary magazines I told you about in Part 1, pay attention to the ones that seem to favor the type of aesthetic you’re trying to develop. As you hone your work, you may find yourself drawn more to narrative, for example, or to surreal imagery. Look for magazines that publish work similar to your own, which will most likely be the best venues to target.
To help yourself wade through the sheer number of literary magazines available today, make some rules for yourself about what kind of magazines you will submit to.
My rules of thumb for submitting to literary magazine are the following:
- I like the work I’ve read in the journal and would like to see my work featured alongside the poets I’ve read in its pages.
- The journal has been around for at least 10 years (this is a rule I’ve adopted in the past couple years as I have more publications under my belt – the age of a journal is not always an indication of quality).
- The journal is publishing poets that have published in other established journals (you can read contributor bios to find this out).
- The journal is not just publishing its own editorial board (yes, this sometimes happens at smaller journals, unfortunately).
- The journal allows simultaneous submissions (see below).
- Submitting to the journal is free.
These are my personal rules that I have developed over many years of publishing poetry. They are certainly not definitive, but may be useful to you as you consider where to send your own work.
Simultaneous Submissions and Reading Fees
As a rule, I avoid journals entirely if they charge a reading fee or don’t allow simultaneous submissions. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, a reading fee is a fee charged just for looking at your work, and allowing simultaneous submissions means you can send the same poems to multiple journals.
As far as reading fees are concerned, I find it very problematic that many literary magazines have started charging $2-3 just to read your work. Literary magazines have to stay in business to keep publishing, but if I had spent even $1 for every submission I’d ever sent out, I would be in the hole by thousands of dollars by now.
In my opinion, no journal should charge just to submit a batch of poems. Charging a reading fee for a poetry book contest is different, but submitting to a journal should be free. I also find that most of the journals that are now charging are the most established ones, which seems doubly unfair as they are the ones that are the least likely to publish you.
Some journals that are more established also do not to allow you to send your work to anyone but them. Given that journals can take up to 6 months to get back to you, this means you could only send poems to a handful of journals each year.
Like many poets, I would also probably never have been able to publish a single poem without simultaneous submissions. I have personally been known to send the same batch of poems to as many as two dozen different literary magazines in a given year. It’s simply so hard to get published, because journals receive such an overwhelming number of submissions, that the odds are always against you unless you’re already a famous poet, in which case you don’t need advice from someone like me.
Online Vs. Print Journals
When I was in my M.F.A. program in the early 2000s, the big debate was whether or not to submit to online journals. Online journals were relatively new at that point and many in the community were deeply suspicious of them.
For poets like myself who have embraced them, however, we have found a lot more publication venues than we would have without them. Over a decade later, most of my published poetry has appeared in online journals. As long as a journal meets the criteria I gave above, I say go ahead and submit to it.
Be Sure to Read the Editorial Guidelines
Once you have 3-5 poems that are as good as the poems you’ve read in literary magazines, and a collection of magazines to send to, start sending your work out.
Be sure to read the editorial guidelines of each and every journal you submit to, however. Not following guidelines is the best way to get yourself immediately rejected. Overworked editors often use not following guidelines as a (pretty valid) excuse not to accept you.
Thanks to technologies like Submishmash, which have been adopted widely, the editorial guidelines of many journals are becoming more standardized. They typically include:
- Submitting at least three poems and no more than five
- Submitting only one batch of poems at a time
- Submitting poems that are no more than two pages in length
- Including a cover letter and bio
That being said, every literary magazine reserves the right to include whatever guidelines they want, including limiting subject matter, word count, who can submit, etc. This is why it is essential to read the guidelines before submitting, as it saves everyone, including you, a lot of time.
Keep a List of Where You’ve Submitted and Learn to Love Rejection
If you’re going to send your work to more than one journal, which I highly recommend, then you need to keep a list of where you’ve submitted. Any journal that allows simultaneous submissions also requires that you notify them immediately if your work is accepted elsewhere. This enables them to keep track of who is still under consideration and who is off the table. If you fail to notify a journal that you’ve been accepted elsewhere, and they also try to accept your work, you will most likely get blacklisted from ever submitting to them again. Editors also talk to each other, so: keep a list!
In your list, keep track of the dates, locations, and what poems you have out at any given time. This is my own personal taxonomy, which I keep in a Google Doc so I can access it anywhere:
- Name of Journal
- Date Sent
- Poems Sent
It also goes without saying that if you’re going to try to get published, you’re going to have to learn to deal with rejection. I was fortunate enough during my M.F.A. days to take a workshop with Charles Hanzlicek, a contemporary of Philip Levine. Chuck told a bunch of young poets in his workshop that there were only about five poets at any given time that had it made and would achieve immediate success. The rest of us had to work at it.
I remember hating him for saying that at the time, but of course he was right. Certain poets, typically from certain schools, seem to achieve fame overnight. Most of the rest of us toil in obscurity and hope to get a bit of our work recognized through sheer determination.
Don’t be discouraged by rejection. It’s just part of your life as a poet. Learn to love it and use it as fuel to write more and send more work out.
But, I Have Enough Poems for a Collection Already!
Every once in a while an aspiring poet will approach me and say: “hey, I already have enough work for a collection. Where should I send it?” My response is always the same: I ask them what literary magazines they’ve published in. If they look at me blankly, I suggest they start there first.
Most poets start by publishing in literary magazines because it’s a key rite of passage in the community. Literary magazines are run by creative writers, as are presses and poetry book contests. If other writers don’t find your work to be valuable in small doses, no matter how good you think it is, your chances of publishing a collection of your poems is almost nonexistent.
The best reason to start with literary magazines, however, is that it will improve your work. If you work hard and refine your work, you will eventually get published. There are a lot of literary magazines out there looking for good writing by emerging authors. When (not if) you get rejected, you should check your ego at the door and ask yourself if your work really merits publication alongside the types of poets you’ve seen in that magazine.
If you want to achieve your goal of becoming a published poet, you need to be constantly doing two things:
- Trying to make your work better
- Sending poems out to literary magazines
In Part 3 of this post, however, I also will explain the process for publishing books of poems as I have experienced it over the years (with my one and only collection to base this on ;-).