The other day, I received an email from a poet, I don’t really know his age, asking about what he could do to get his work published. From his message, I gathered he was submitting to magazines, but hadn’t been accepted yet, or hadn’t been accepted much. I thought I could use that as an opportunity to put together a blog post with some advice on publishing, and that I could allude to Rainer Maria Rilke’s book Letters to a Young Poet in my title. I also borrow some of Rilke’s advice in the end.
The first bit of advice I always give to poets who haven’t been published is to be patient. It takes time and perseverance to get your work seen by a magazine. As you know, magazines receive many, many more poems than they can possibly publish. The acceptance rate at most magazines is under 5%, and for some of the most well-established magazines, it is less than 1%. Poetry South, receives around a thousand submissions per year, maybe more. Since we only accept 4 poems at a time, that’s well over 4,000 poems. We aim to publish about 100 pages of poems per year. Some poems are more than one page, so there will be less than 100 poems in the issue, but let’s stick with 100 to keep the math simple. Each poem has a 1% chance of being accepted. If you send four poems, you increase your odds to 4% that one of them could be the one we pick. Of course, we do sometimes choose more than one poem by the same poet, but your odds per submission and per poem remain about the same.
Now let’s think about that. What are the chances that 96% of our submissions are not as good as your poems? Realistically, even for poets who’ve been around for quite awhile and are writing at the top of their game, there’s no way that their poems will be that much better than 96% of all the other submissions. You see that editors have to make a judgement call that is incredibly difficult. And you see that the decision has less to do with the quality of your poems, so you shouldn’t take a returned manuscript personally. I don’t like to call them ‘rejected poems.’ They simply weren’t chosen. Your poems may have been better than 50% or better than 80% of other submissions and still not have made the final cut or even the initial cut. As hard as it is to believe, you have to realize it usually isn’t about you at all.
It’s not just a numbers game, either. If you consider the odds, it is probably true that if you submit your work to enough magazines over time, eventually one of your poems will get accepted. Of course, quality does matter, so you could be submitting work that is consistently in the bottom 50% of submissions all of that time and never get an acceptance unless you send to magazines that really don’t care — are there any of those? Would you want to be in them? So how can you increase your odds and ensure you’re in the top 50% of submissions or higher? My best answer is to do your research.
This will help you in many ways. Not only can you get a better sense of what poetry editors are interested in today, but you will also learn that there are many different kinds of magazines and many different kinds of editors, and that they are looking for many different kinds of poetry when they read submissions. Poetry South doesn’t have one kind of poem that we want to see, but there some kinds of poems that we are a lot less likely to accept than others. We might surprise you, or we might surprise ourselves, but if you read our magazine (and back issues are available online for free), you’ll get a better sense of our aesthetic. If you do that with many magazines, you’ll also begin to develop your own aesthetic, and you’ll start to identify the magazines that align well with your aesthetic and are the places where you want to submit.
Then you’ll still need to get your poems to the right person at the right time, and there’s only so much you can control about that. You can’t tell who will read your work, and you can’t tell when they will read it, but you can influence that by choosing when to submit. Keep track of each magazine’s deadlines, and try not to submit right at the final bell or your poems will be there along with everyone else’s who submit at the last minute. That’s my best general advice about when to submit (early to the middle of the submission period), but it does sometimes work to submit at the deadline, so I wouldn’t avoid that entirely. Just know that you may have to be luckier to get accepted if you do. Yes, luck plays a part, which again is why you can’t take a returned poem personally.
It will take many, many submissions to get accepted—or maybe it won’t. I’ve had some poems accepted by the first place I sent them, and others, that I felt were just as good or better, returned by a dozen or more magazines before they found a home. A few of my favorite poems were never published until I put them in a book, at which point I stop sending them to magazines unless the magazine accepts previously published work. So never give up. Keep looking for new places to send your work that you think will be a good home for it, then send it at the right time, and hope for the best. I have a couple of recent blog posts that might help with this and provide some links to resources.
Besides researching and finding the best places to send your poems, of course, you should also take time on crafting your submission. Make sure to proofread it carefully. There’s nothing like a typo to get an editor to move on to the next submission. That may seem harsh, but when you have hundreds of poems to read in a night, there’s really no point in reading past a glaring mistake. There is such a thing as poetic license, but it doesn’t extend to misspelled words or misplaced commas, unless those are clearly intentional. Send clean, clean copy. Proofread multiple times and maybe get someone else to look at it who might see something you overlook because you’ve read it a dozen times. Also make sure to craft a submission for the magazine you’re submitting to. Choose poems that go together and poems that you think are a good fit for that magazine.
You asked about cover letters. I’m of the opinion that they really can’t help you much, but they can hurt. So don’t sound like a jerk and don’t sound pompous or egotistical. It’s fine to list some prior publications (don’t list them all if you have a lot), but there’s really no need to impress. Let your poems do that. Say one or two things about yourself if they might be interesting. Keep your cover letter brief, and keep it professional.
Don’t send the same cover letter to every magazine — or if you do, then keep it very generic and only about yourself, not the magazine. If you do say something nice about the magazine (which is common advice, though I don’t know how helpful it really is), then name the magazine you’re submitting to, and maybe say something specific about a poem or about an issue you’ve read. Nothing sounds more disingenuous than a sentence like “I’ve been reading your magazine for years.” Unless I know your name from our subscription list, I will believe you say that to all the magazines, and it will definitely turn me off. I’d rather you didn’t say anything than that you sound too generic if you’re going to give us a compliment.
Do follow the magazine’s guidelines. At Poetry South we ask you to include a short bio written in third person. If you don’t do that, you’ve just made it twice as hard to get accepted. If your bio isn’t short, you’ve made it three times as hard to get accepted, because I’d rather ask for a bio later than edit one that I know is too long. Read contributors’ notes in the magazines you submit to so you’ll know how they should sound. Every magazine has their guidelines and each one is a little different. They may seem arbitrary to you, but for the magazine they are important and they keep the system running smoothly — remember, we’re all overworked and usually not paid, so we need things to work the way that works for us.
Finally, you wanted to know what you could do to improve your poetry so it would be more acceptable. I will borrow Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice from his Letters to a Young Poet, and tell you to search within yourself for your answer. Rilke’s letters might not be bad to read either, but I would say you could start with what moves you in a poem and explore what you want a poem to do. Then weigh this against the poems you read in the magazines you research (or read current books of poetry). What other poets move you, and how do they do what they do in their poems.
Don’t just try to copy other poets, but allow those other poets to challenge you, either to write like them (but in your way) or to write differently but in response to what they are writing. You don’t have to like or even admire every ‘famous poet’ (an oxymoron if I ever heard one), but you should find the kinds of poets that you respond to, learn from them and challenge them. And learn about where they have published (acknowledgements pages and contributors’ notes can be invaluable) so you find the places that might be receptive to your work.
A graduate degree (MA, MFA, PhD in writing or literature) can help you along this path, but isn’t absolutely necessary unless you want to teach. Writing workshops, festivals, readings, open mics, or other venues can also help you connect with a writing community. The more connected you are, the more opportunities you will find for getting your work out there. And the more connected you are, the more you will be challenged to improve your writing, and if you are challenged by people you admire and respect, then it won’t feel like someone telling you what to do. It will feel like the natural evolution of your voice.
As long as you keep reading, writing, and growing as a writer, then if you keep submitting your work to magazines and keep looking for the magazines that will be receptive to your work, you will get published. It is only a matter of time, and of putting in the effort.