Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Pearls of poetry reveal themselves through this impulse to say as much as possible in as few words as possible. And that in itself is enough. If we can thwart the chatter, the inner dialogs, the endless diatribes that arise out of our lives, for just one moment we have accomplished quite a lot. Content with the meditative self care poetry provides, many poets are not seeking publication, other than the occasional social media posting. I have a friend whom I’ve dubbed the queen of short little poems, which she posts on Facebook now and again. And I think, “These are like little gems that could become a book some day.” Little pearls.
Poets wanting to publish will more than likely not begin with a book; unless they self-publish, which is highly possible today with many online opportunities including various price breakdowns for buying the books in bulk once released. The problem arises that the writers are then completely responsible for their own marketing and distribution. I’ve met several poets who paid for a box of their self published chapbooks, which they’ve already given to all their friends and relatives, and they literally cannot give them away anymore. The books have lost the pizazz they had when they were “just released,” “recently published,” or someone’s “first book.”
More than likely, poets will begin by submitting to journals and publications that either focus solely on poetry, or include poetry in each issue. Publishers like these are often fleeting. Several of the ones that accepted my work are now “presumed closed.”
I’m relatively new to the poetry publishing world, but here are some things I’ve learned so far.
Learn a system of organization that works for you.
As you build your body of work you will want to keep track of where the poems are submitted, rejections, and acceptances. Most journals are only interested in reading “unpublished” poems, unless they ask for “reprints.” I have my poems divided up into folders by the years I wrote them. I don’t consider them “done” until they are published, and even then (depending on the publication contract terms) it is the poet's prerogative to edit them as they like. I have folders of “Submissions,” organized by year, which are the actual poem docs (in the format and version they were submitted) named as “PoetryJournalSubmission” (i.e. as in “OberonPoetryJournalSubmission.” Then, I have a document of “Acceptances,” which lists all the acceptances with their dates of publication. When poems are published I make a note at the bottom of the poem of where it was published and the date, so that I don’t accidentally submit a poem that has already been published elsewhere (more on that later).
What also helps me immensely in tracking submissions, acceptances and rejections is the online submission tracker called Duotrope (https://duotrope.com/). They list thousands of submission opportunities, and tell you percentages of acceptances for each, expected response times, and loads of other things like your “acceptance ratio.” It’s a yearly subscription, but the cost has been well worth it, just for the number of times it’s prevented me from failing to follow basic submission guidelines.
Follow the guidelines, so as not to give them a reason to reject your work without even reading it.
Choose carefully where you submit, and closely follow the guidelines.
Many journals have issue themes, focus on a particular subset of the population or a specific location, or a particular age group. On top of that they often require submissions to be in PDF, or Word, or in the body of an email, have a certain type-face and size they require, or each poem to be on a separate page, and other specifications. For instance, I rarely submit anywhere that will not allow “simultaneous submissions.” This means the publication does not want you to submit the poems you are submitting to them to any other publication, until you receive a status notification from them, which can take months. Most publications allow “simultaneous submissions” if you agree to withdraw any of the poems that are accepted somewhere else.
Though it might take time to find examples of their poems on their websites, especially when they are selling the final publications or asking for subscriptions, it’s in your best interest to read at least a few of the poems to see if your work might fit the flavor of it. Find the places that are right for you, and follow the guidelines, so as not to give them a reason to reject your work without even reading it.
Resist the allure to post on social media.
We all want our work to be seen, and what better place to show our work than to our most loyal fans, who are also our friends, or… “friends.” The problem with this, when going the journal submission route, is that when publications ask for “unpublished” work they most often consider poems posted on social media to be “published.” There are legal reasons for this I can’t explain. But once you post them on social media, it’s not easy to remove them. On several occasions I’ve submitted poems as unpublished, and all of a sudden Facebook suggests I re-post a poem that I inadvertently put up years ago. Oops!
As you begin getting your work published, you can then post them on social media, and give credit to that journal for being its original publisher. This helps these small presses, too, by giving them (and you!) some exposure.
Say yes to readings and poetry groups.
I studied acting at an early age, but somewhere along the way I lost my sense of confidence on stage. I started floundering in what I thought would be my life career. So, I understand the reluctance to share your work in person, unless of course your poetic genre is “slam poetry,” which is all about performance. Though it took me a while to say yes to opportunities to read my poems in public, or even in a group of other poets, what I learned was invaluable.
Never judge your work so harshly as to dismiss yourself as worthy of publication.
When you read your poems to others, you see how people respond, or not, to words you toiled over for hours, and for which you may have lost a sense of their ability to touch anyone but yourself. If you’re wanting your poetry to be published, you must get a sense of why anyone else would care about what you’re saying. Is it so abstract or personal as to be lost in translation? You can only find this out by sharing your work with others, in readings or in poetry groups. And in this process you learn which comments to take to heart, and which negative comments arise from an inability to connect with your style. Ultimately this mix of constructive criticism and support will make your work stronger, and increase your confidence as a poet.
Lastly, don’t fall prey to the rejection blues.
Here is the most important thing to remember: Never judge your work so harshly as to dismiss yourself as worthy of publication. You will receive hundreds of rejections among the dozens of acceptances. In 2018, 28 million Americans read poetry, a considerable increase over a period of years, indicating a possible new poetry revival. I wager that hundreds of thousands of people are writing poetry, and a large percentage of those submit poetry for possible publication. Many poetry and literary journals cull through thousands of poems a year, often with a crew of editors with different backgrounds, tastes, and considerations. The one day they read your submission may be the day they lost their pet, or the day after they read a book about what makes “good poetry.”
Don’t fret. Keep submitting. Your pearls will be revealed.