Meet me at #AWP23

Next week, I’ll be headed to Seattle for the annual AWP conference. If you don’t know that acronym, it’s the Association of Writers’ and Writing Programs, an annual gathering of thousands (often over 10,000) writers, teachers, publishers, etc. Virtually everyone is a writer, but we all wear a number of hats.

I’ll spend most of my days at the table for Poetry South, Ponder Review, and Mississippi University for Women’s MFA program, talking to people about what we do. We’ll have brochures, sample copies of the magazine, swag, and candy if I can get out to buy some this weekend and fit it in my checked luggage.

I always save room to carry some magazines there in my luggage, along with many of the other things we give away. That way, I’ll have room to bring home some swag as well. The best advice I’ve heard about AWP is to wear comfortable shoes and save room in your bags for the books and magazines you want to carry home, which is great advice, but do beware of baggage weight restrictions for your return flight! Come get Ponder Review or Poetry South first, in other words!

I always love the conversations I have at our book table the most. Yes, I will get away for a panel or two — thanks to our graduate students who will take over when I need a break! — and I will wander the book fair myself as well. But if you’re also traveling to Seattle this week and want to stop by to say hi, you can probably find me at T1221. I’d love to talk about our program, our magazines, A Writer’s Craft, or my latest poetry projects — and yes, I’d also love to hear about your latest projects or whatever else you have going on.

Did you know that I teach a class in AWP? It’s one option for our Short Residency in the low-res MFA program. We have been studying the schedule, pouring over off-site events, comparing notes, polishing our elevator pitches, and this week, four of my students (Seattle is a long trip for most of us) and I will be at the conference. I’m there to support them and to take most of the hours at our table, and the students will spend their time going to panels, roaming the book fair, and also taking their shifts at our table, so if you want to meet some of our grad students, ask me when they’re planning to be there. I also know of at least 3 of our alumni who will be at the conference, and I’m sure they will stop by and maybe even pull up a chair for awhile.

This year, I’ll also have some flyers for a special issue of Delta Poetry Review that my friend Susan Swartwout is guest-editing. She won’t be at the conference, and I’m happy to help her get out the news about the call, so ask me about it, too!

AWP can be an intimidating place — what place wouldn’t be intimidating when 7,000 – 14,000 writers descend on it. I like to remember that all of the “important writers” mus feel equally overwhelmed, or even if they don’t feel that way now, they did the first time they were at AWP. I’ve been going so many times that it hardly phases me anymore. I’m used to being part of that flow, and I try not to take myself or anyone else too seriously, but it is a great place to catch up with old friends and to make new ones. It’s also a great place to make connections and learn a few things. Taken with a healthy grain of salt, AWP is invigorating and inspirational. If you think you have to conquer AWP, you will more than likely leave disappointed, but if you take it for what it is and accept whatever experience you have, then you will undoubtely leave rewarded.

The only way to truly win at #AWP23 is to stop by table T1221 and talk to us about our magazines and our program. If you haven’t done that, then you lose; if you have, then no matter what happens, you will win in my eyes. Of course, I’m joking, but I do hope you’ll find us and stop by for a moment.

Submission Etiquette and Tiered Submissions

I had an email exchange with a student the other day about magazine submissions, and I thought that it would be good to come back to here. My student’s had the good fortune of being accepted at a small, student-run publication with a small distribution, and it caused her a bit of a dilemma, since the same submission was still out at a number of other journals.

The etiquette for simultaneous submissions is to let the first magazine who accepts your work have it, and to withdraw it from other places where you’ve submitted immediately. Unless you have serious qualms about the magazine that accepted your work, that is what you should always do. For my sutdent, this is a lesson that you should research magazines well before submitting and send to ones that are of similar caliber, so you don’t have any qualms about an acceptance when it comes.  

To be frank, though, my student’s odds of getting this piece accepted at most of the other magazines she sent to aren’t that great, so she shouldn’t feel bad about it. I haven’t read her submission, so this comment is no reflection on her or her writing. Top magazines can take a long time to turn you down, or they might accept the same piece eventually, but you’ll never know because you need to make a decision about the acceptance right away. The more well-known a magazine is, the more submissions they will receive, so the harder it is to get accepted, and the odds of getting the same piece selected by two different places are always going to be slim.

That’s no reason not to submit to top journal, but it can be a good reason to rank the places you’d like to submit and then send the same piece to places with similar rankings first. This is often called tiered submissions. Start with the magazines you think are a good fit for your piece and that you would die to get into. Then if none of them accept your submission, move on to the next level of magazines that you’d love to get your work in. Eventually move on to those smaller, quirky magazines that you’d be proud to be in but aren’t top on your list.

If you do want to withdraw a submission from a magazine after it’s been accepted, you need to do that immediately and don’t wait for someone else to accept it, which would be incredibly bad form. Withdrawing after acceptance is bad enough, but you should never wait to do that, and I would only withdraw my work after it was accepted if there was something in their terms that I couldn’t agree to, which rarely happens. You should have a good idea of a magazine’s terms and of the magazine itself so that you’re willing to see your work published wherever it gets accepted first.

Once a piece has been accepted by one magazine, you should always withdraw it from everywhere else. If you submit poems or flash and have multiple titles in one submission, it is okay to inform the magazine which title you’re withdrawing and ask them to keep considering the rest if they allow that. If you submit fiction or CNF, then you will likely need to withdraw the whole submission. Maybe the magazine will allow you to submit something else, if their deadline hasn’t expired, though your submission will probably move to the bottom of their pile. Occasionally, when you withdraw a piece, the magazine will ask if you have something else they could consider, though simultaneous submissions have become so ubiquitous and withdrawals so common, that that doesn’t happen very often anymore.

Using tiered submissions sounds good, but can also be a collossal waste of time. If you always send to the top journals first, that’s one or two rounds of submitting where you have very poor odds of getting in. That’s why I would suggest a tiered submission practice that is also targeted to the specific works in the submission packet. In other words, I consider where I think are the best places to send each packet and start there. I want each place I submit to be roughly equal in terms of how I will feel if my submission gets accepted, but I don’t always start at the top of my list of magazines. Some submissions are just more appropriate for that quirky little ‘zine that I want to support with my writing. Others seem to be more appropriate for a more mainstream audience.

And of course, the reality of submitting is that magazines have different reading periods and deadlines, so you can’t always send to your top magazines all at once. You will likely send to a mix of places that have open reading periods. Just make sure that you will be happy enough with any magazine that you won’t regret it if their acceptance comes first.

It’s never wise to sell yourself short, but it’s also unwise to always shoot for the moon. Be thoughtful about when, where, and how you submit, and you will always be thrilled (and rarely have regrets) when your work is accepted.

Do Your Research Before Submitting

Today I had another valuable reminder of the necessity of doing diligent research before submigging your writing, and of trusting your instincts. Becky Tuch, in her invaluable Lit Mag News newsletter and Substack, wrote about her research into C&R Press, which appears to have some shady business practices, along with Steel Toe Books, Fjords Review, PANK Magazine, American Poetry Journal, who all seem to be run by the same three people under a few different names. These publishers charge fees for submissions (not unheard of and not always a bad sign), take years to respond, and have been accused of offering dubious editing or other services.

I’ll admit that I’ve sent a manuscript to a C&R Press contest, though I’m glad to see that even Becky Tuch is only now finding out about some of their practices. When I submitted, back in 2020, I doubt I could have found out that they weren’t legit, but now that seems to be the consensus that is building. My first clue was that it took them over a year to respond to my submission and in the meantime, they kept sending me announcements of their next prize. On its own, that’s not enough to say they are definitely a scam, but it did give me pause, and I decided not to send again. Now I’m glad that I trusted my instincts, and didn’t waste any more time or money on them.

Becky Tuch cites comments on the Writer Beware blog for helping her tease out who was who at these presses and magazines and trace how they the publishers changed hands or the names of the players shifted. I recommend Writer Beware as a great resource for those who want to research publishers. Another good resource that Tuch mentions is Authors Publish, which has published a list of publishers that charge contest fees (which again, is not that unusual).

Try to keep up with industry news and search on any publisher you want to submit to, looking for potential issues. Even some of the lists of good publishers, like what you can find at CLMP or Poets & Writers, New Pages, or Reedsy can be wrong (they can’t know about everything). Ultimately, you may pay a contest fee or two (or more) for one you later realize wasn’t legit, but trust your instincts. If something looks fishy, it probably is. And even if it isn’t, you’ll be happier if you go with someone you have confidence in than if you take a risk on a deal that sounds too good to be true or where there are unexpected fees.

How to Write a Pantoum

Lately, I’ve been challenging myself to write more formal poetry. Not a lot, mind you, but I’ve tried out a couple of forms and with some success. Awhile back, I described writing a ghazal, and I thought I’d do the same for the pantoum.

This is a form that has stymied me for awhile, yet it is deceptively simple. In English, the lines often don’t rhyme, though in the original Malay form, they did (and I believe there were many more words with rhyming endings to draw on, so rhyme was less pronounced). The form does use repetition of whole lines, often with slight variation, and follows the pattern that the second and fourth line of each quatrain are repeated as the first and third lines of the next. That sounds easy enough, but it’s a little more complicated in practice.

I wanted to follow the original form and start with a quatrain made up of two couplets. Mathematically, that makes sense. The first couplet doesn’t have to be one complete sentence, but I didn’t want two write a couplet where each line was its own sentence. I went for a two-line sentence, where the second line could be the start of a new sentence (thinking ahead to stanza 2). I did the same for the second couplet of the first stanza. Because I had been planning ahead, it wasn’t two hard to start with lines 2 and 4 from stanza 1 as lines 1 and 3 of stanze two, and then add new lines to complete the couplets.

I don’t want to publish the full poem on my blog because I’d like to publish it in a magazine one day, but I know that talking about numbered lines gets pretty vague and hard to follow after awhile, so let me give you the first two stanzas as an example.

     The heavy, deadly scent of nightshade, hangs
     musky-sweet like the smell of the day’s first rain.
     It pervades the hedgerow where we pull invasive
     weeds, bright purple flowers with yellow stamens.

     Musky-sweet like the smell of the day’s first rain,
     the August afternoon hovers in the air, as my love
     weeds bright purple flowers with yellow stamens,
     deemed deadly poisonous, yet eerily beautiful.

You can see that in the second stanza, I chose to let the sentence flow through the entire stanza instead of keeping two distinct couplet sentences. You’ll also notice how the meaning shifts. The smell is now the smell of the afternoon, and “weeds” is no longer a plural noun, but becomes a singular verb for “my love.” This transformation of the meaning of words as the lines are recombined with others is something I wanted to consciously attempt. Pure repetition gets old, but repetition with some variation, even if the words themselves don’t change, adds meaning.

But this is where I got stuck for awhile. Planning ahead for the third stanza wasn’t really possible. I liked stanza two, but wasn’t sure how to connect “my love” and “deadly poisonous.” Nor did I really know what this poem was trying to say.

Incidentally, that is one of the joys of writing poems in form. They can be deliciously unpredictable. It is hard enough to decide where to start, let alone to predetermine where they are going to end. So I saw this as a good challenge, but one that took me weeks to figure out. I won’t claim that I came back to this poem every day during that time, but I did look at it periodically while working on other poems, and nearly got to the point where I thought I would never finish it. Then the insight hit me of a possible solution.

Rather than focusing on “my love,” I let the August afternoon come to the fore, which allowed me to let “my love” become “my love / for this place” and not a person. The deadly poison could still refer back to nightshade, though to mix things up, I focused on the dark berries of the plant, whereas before I had focused on the flowers.

Stanza three is a little more like the traditional pantoum in that the two couplets are not thematically very related. That was a quality of the pantoum that I had broken a bit by allowing myself one sentence for stanze two. Stanza three again had two sentences, and the connection between them was just the place and the plant and the memory of pulling weeds.

Incidentally, I’ve seen different varieties of nightshade. The ones we have in Mississippi are pretty, but don’t have the very strong, pungeant odor of the ones we pulled at my mother’s in Iowa. Those can overwhelm you, and they are very invasive, so we have to throw them in the garbage, not the compost. So if you don’t share my association with the smell, count yourself lucky!

Back to the form, though. I wanted to follow another convention of the form where the pantoum ends with a final stanza that includes lines 2 and 4 of the previous stanza as lines 1 and 3, following the pattern we’ve established, but lines 2 and 4 of the final stanza are lines 1 and 3 from stanza 1.

Sometimes you see the pattern reversed in the final stanza, so line 3 of stanza 1 becomes line 2 of the final stanza, and line 1 becomes the final line of the poem. I chose not to do it that way, but to keep the order from stanza 1 and have line 3 of the first stanza become the final line of the poem. If you look back at my example, you’ll see that this presents a problem, since line 3 would not be the end of a sentence. I allowed myself a slight variation on that line, changing “it pervades” to “pervading” and “we pull invasive” to “we seem invasive,” which allowed the sentence to end and also makes us more like the weeds.

I’m reasonably happy with the way the poem has turned out, though we’ll see if it continues to undergo revisions before it gets published. I’m mostly happy I got past that hurdle of stanza three, and that the poem took some unexpected turns on the way to its conclusion. I think if I write another pantoum, I will give myself a few more stanzas to get to the ending and allow it to wander even further. I’m intrigued by the notion that the couplets in each half of the stanza do not have to be thematically related (like in the ghazal) and the form is what holds them together. This could lead to a wider-ranging poem, though it may take me a few more tries before I let loose and give free reign to the form.

How to Write Your Third-Person Bio

This ought to be self-explanatory, but I’m always surprised at the number of submitters to Poetry South who either ignore the bio that we request or don’t write it in third person. There are times when I simply don’t read a submission if it doesn’t have a bio because I don’t want to have to ask for one later. If I do read it, your submission had better be fantastic because I’m less likely to vote for it if your bio isn’t there or if it doesn’t follow our guidelines.

Start with your name. Most magazines will use the bio in contributors’ notes and want to list them alphabetically. Though we can edit your bio to put your name first, we’d rather not. Start with your first name and end with your last name and or anything that should follow like “Jr.” list your name the same way you want your name to appear on your work and in the table of contents. If you write under a pseudonym, use that name here.

Pretend you’re someone else writing about you, and use he, she or they to refer to yourself, not I. It’s good to say something interesting about yourself, but you don’t have to get too personal. Maybe mention what you do for a living or a hobby or where you’re from. It’s fine to mention family or pets if you are comfortable with that. It’s also fine to mention if this is your first publication or if you are involved in any literary events.

Then list recent publications. Just don’t list every place you’ve ever published, and if you have more than a few books, you might want to only mention two or three, depending on the length of the titles. I like mentioning other magazines I’ve published in recently because I like to read about those in others’ bios. It’s a great way to learn about cool new or unusual places to publish. But a long list will just get ignored, or even more likely, edited down.

Don’t bother mentioning your Pushcart or Best of the Net nominations because so many writers have those. Do mention if you’ve won an award or been a finalist, especially if it’s a recent accomplishment. If you have a lot of awards, maybe just list a couple. This a bio, not your cv.

Stay within the guidelines. At Poetry South, we want a bio of 80 words or less. We’d probably like at least 30 words from everyone, but if you go over 80, we’ll edit it down, and if you go way over 80, we probably won’t accept your submission. Is that harsh? Maybe, but that’s the reality at most magazines.

Speaking of guidelines, some magazines will tell you what kind of bio they want. If they request a funny bio or a quirky one, then do your best to comply. They probably don’t want a list of other magazines and awards. If they don’t tell you what to write, then these suggestions will help you write one that looks professional.

Don’t stress too much about your bio, though. I don’t think anyone has been accepted solely on what they say in a bio, though they might have been declined because their bio was too wordy, too pretentious, or nonexistent. Just follow the magazine’s guidelines, be yourself, and know that we probably want your bio up front because we don’t want to ask for it later. It won’t be the biggest factor in our decision unless you don’t include it, or you ignore our guidelines.

Cover Letter Advice

Since we’re talking about submitting to magazines, let’s talk cover letters for a moment. As I said the other day, I don’t know that they help all that much, but the can hurt, so while I wouldn’t advise spending too much time trying to get it just right, I also would advise taking enough care to avoid some of the obvious pitfalls.

Many magazines still require or request them, but some do not, so my best first advice is to follow the magazine’s guidelines when submitting. If they don’t want a cover letter, then don’t send one. If they provide a cover letter field in their submission portal, then include a brief cover letter unless they say it is optional, in which case it really is up to you.

Unless the guidelines say otherwise, don’t include the cover letter in the file you submit. People do this all the time, and I try to ignore it, but it’s annoying. Many magazines want to read submissions blind, and even if we don’t, we usually don’t want to read the cover letter with the submission. We may read it first or we may read it last, but we want to see the poems (or fiction, etc.) by themselves. In part, this is because we will take the file of any submission we accept, and we will import that into the file we use to create our magazine. We won’t publish your cover letter, so we don’t want it in that file.

If the guidelines say to put it in the file, then follow those guidelines, of course — everyone has their own way of working, but typically the cover letter is separate.

In an old-fashioned postal submission, a cover letter was always a separate sheet, attached with a paper clip to the submission. It could be easily removed as a record of the submission, which would then be circulated among the editors. I suppose that’s why it’s called a cover letter. It listed the titles submitted, the name of the submitter, and the address. Those are all included in an electronic submission somehow, so cover letters aren’t as important as they once were.

The next best advice I can give is to keep your cover letter reasonably brief: no longer than my longest paragraph above, and that’s probably pushing it. You will not impress anyone with a long cover letter. You will distract them from getting to your poems or story, etc. Make every word count, but keep it short and to the point.

Have you actually read the magazine? If so, then it’s fine to mention something specific about it. But don’t pretend you read it when you haven’t. That becomes painfully obvious. Avoid phrases like “I love your magazine” unless followed by something that shows you know what magazine you’re submitting to. Flattery may not get you anywhere but false flattery gets you nowhere, and fast.

Don’t list every publication you’ve ever had, and don’t try too hard to impress with your publications. I’m of the mind that it can be a good idea to list a few recent publications, but if you sound like you’re bragging, you could turn an editor off. Be modest, but tell about who you are. Often, I don’t list publications at all, but I’ll tell a little about myself and maybe say something about the magazine. However, when reading cover letters, if I see a short list of publications, I don’t mind, and it can get my interest, especially if they are similar to mine.

If you’ve never published or if you only have a few publication credits, don’t feel embarrassed by that fact. It’s fine to mention that this would be your first publication or that you are in high school or college or are fairly new at publishing. Editors like to support new writers, and we also like to publish people who have good credentials. We’re looking for a good mix of seasoned and fresh voices. We often like to know a little bit about where someone is submitting from or what they do for a living. It won’t get your work accepted, but it does make you seem human and may add a little context to what we read, if we read your cover letter first, not last.

That’s really all you have to do. Follow our guidelines and act like a real human being. Don’t try too hard to impress, just be yourself and then let your submission do most of the talking. If we ask for anything specific, be sure to give us that, but otherwise just let us get on to reading your work.

Of course, a cover letter can be too brief. I still remember one of the worst cover letters I ever got. All it said was something like, “I hope you like my poems. If not, you’re an idiot.” I laughed out loud when I read it, but I still didn’t accept those poems. I might have, but they weren’t that great.

On that note, you should probably avoid humor in a cover letter unless you know the editors well enough to know it will work. And don’t be too personal, unless you know the editors very well. Keep it cordial, keep it professional, and keep it brief. Remember that the main thing the editor should care about is your submission.

Letter to a Young Poet

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.

New Year’s Resolution for Writers: Keep Better Track of Submissions

Often writers make a New Year’s resolution to submit more of their work to magazines. The goal to have 100 rejections in a year (i.e. to submit to more than one hundred places) is a good one, since it emphasizes putting and keeping your work in play more than judging yourself by how many acceptances this garners. Submitting to magazines can be a long game. As overwhelmed with submissions as most magazines are, any submission you send is more likely to come back than it is to be accepted. Simultaneous submissions have become the rule, and we all struggle with the sheer numbers of poems, stories, essays, etc. that are in the slush pile. From the writer’s side, it is important to remember that the competition is fierce, editing is subjective, and you can’t take a returned manuscript personally. I never say “rejected,” since I know it just wasn’t at the right place at the right time, and there are so many variables that are beyond the control of the writer.

Because of the number of submissions that you are likely sending out, though, an equally important New Year’s resolution is to keep better track of the submissions you’ve sent and the responses you’ve received. This will make your life easier when you don’t send the same thing or the same kind of thing to the same magazine twice and when you are able to track which magazines have given you a more personal response. Those really do mean something! And it will help avoid the bane of all magazine editors’ existence: the note from an accepted author that their work has already been accepted elsewhere — nothing makes us more upset, though if your response to our acceptance is at least immediate we are more likely to understand. Messages do cross in the mail. We require you to withdraw your submission as soon as it is accepted elsewhere, so keeping track of everywhere you’ve sent it is vital.

Fortunately, there are now many ways to track your submissions, which means it is also inexcusable not to keep good records. Submittable has a feature for logging submissions, even if they aren’t submitted on its platform, so you can keep track of everything in one place. I haven’t tried it, so I can’t vouch for how user-friendly it is. Duotrope is another service where you can track submissions, and if you pay for the service, you can see stats on magazines based on other writers’ submissions that are tracked on the site. The Submission Grinder is another online submission tracking service, though it is free, and you can also track submissions at ChillSubs, though it seems as if it might be limited to only tracking submissions to magazines they list. Poets & Writers also has their own online submission tracker, which is free once you set up an account on their site.

All of these online submission trackers can be convenient. I would pick one that works well for you and that you will remember to use, and stick with that for all of your submissions. However, all of these services store your data on their servers or in the cloud, so you may want something that you can access offline or that you can keep on your own device and back up regularly. I hate to depend on someone else to store my data, and I have a long history of submissions that predates any of these services by decades (entering that by hand would be cumbersome, and import options don’t seem to be available). I’m also a poet, so I send four, five, or even more individual titles to a magazine at a time, so I want an easy way to track multiple titles submitted to one place, which is why I developed SubTracker, a database for Libre Office/Open Office. I was also able to import my previous submission data from spreadsheets that I exported from my previous, homegrown solution. Something similar could be done in Microsoft Access, but that isn’t available on a Mac, which I use. SubTracker is free to use, so download a copy if you’d like to try it out. It does require Libre Office or Open Office to use, since it is not a standalone program, but is a template for a database.

Some people use spreadsheets or even index cards to keep track of submissions, but I’ve found that a system like that quickly becomes too complicated and hard to keep up with. A database is the better way to go, whether you use one of the many online resources or set one up on your own computer. A database gives you more ways to view your data. In SubTracker, you can get a list of all submissions that are still out, or all titles that currently aren’t submitted. Whichever database you choose, make getting a better handle on your submission tracking a priority for 2023, and every magazine editor you submit to will thank you!

My Wordle Strategy

I do not claim to be the greatest Wordle player ever, though my stats are pretty good: 98% win and a max streak of 45 days. I’d like to say that after 45 days, I skipped a day over the holidays, which I did, but in fact, it did beat me once before that. Oh well…

By the way, this is just a fun post to get my blog restarted in the new year. Happy 2023! I promise to come back to more compelling topics like poetry and MFA applications soon. But maybe this is a post about poetry in a way, since my Wordle strategy is more about exercising my brain than about winning. I play the New York Time’s Wordle nearly every day, and then move on to Dordle (I choose the one at Zaratustra because it has fewer ads). From there, I do at least one, sometimes two Dutch versions to practice my Dutch, and then switch back to Quordle and sometimes a Dutch Quordle just for fun. Switching languages feels like a good mental trick.

My goal (in each language), besides winning, is to stretch myself to try new words, so I don’t use the common strategy of choosing the same first word every time. That would probably bore me. Instead, I try to use a different starting word every time, picking a word at random, usually one with five unique letters and at least two vowels. One goal is to use all five vowels (or six if you count ‘y’) in the first two or three words, though I don’t always do that, especially not in Wordle. In Dordle or Quordle, usually my first two or three words are chosen only to use letters and I don’t try to solve the puzzle until row three or four.

I like to think of the game as a strategy game. Rather than just trying to find the right word (the ultimate goal), I try to eliminate (and reveal) letters. That sometimes means guessing a word that I know will be wrong but will use some letters that I want to test. Nothing is more frustrating than trying a string of words where you have all but one or two of the letters, yet there are more possibilities than you can get right. Rather than trying ‘right’ and ‘fight’ and ‘might’ and ‘sight’ (and running out of room to try them all), it might be better to try ‘first’ to rule out or reveal the ‘r,’ ‘f,’ or ‘s’ as a correct letter. If none are in the answer word, then ‘might’ could be the correct choice.

I don’t always remember to do this strategy in time, but the goal is to look for letter combination patterns, try words that will reveal most of the letters, and then consider the options that could form words with the letters that haven’t been ruled out before making my final guesses. This might mean I take a guess that doesn’t work, so it might mean solving the puzzle in one more try than it would take if I guessed right initially, but it improves my odds of solving the puzzle at all, assuming there are more possible words than remaining rows of the Wordle and that I still have at least two guesses remaining so I can rule out some options.

Especially with the Dutch games, my main goal is to come up with valid words, so I’m not terribly dissatisfied when I lose (though my stats on Woordle aren’t a lot worse than on Wordle with 91% wins and a max streak of 26). Even on English, thinking about how letters could combine to form words and trying not to use the same letter in the same location of a word while trying out different letters for the ones I haven’t guessed right can be fun. And I try to remember that a letter can be used two or even three times in a a word, so I should check for doubled letters as I consider all the possibilities. All of this makes Wordle a fun distraction that jogs my memory and keeps my active vocabulary active. The one potential downside could be that I would start using more five-letter words in everyday speech. Thankfully, there’s always the Spelling Bee or other activities (like reading or writing) to keep longer and shorter words fresh in my mind!

Don’t take Wordle or any of its variants too seriously, in other words. Play them for the challenge (if you enjoy it). Play to win, but also play to play with words and letters.

How to Write a Ghazal

I feel like I’ve finally had a breakthrough with the ghazal. Now, I won’t claim to be an expert—it will take writing many ghazals before I would begin to think I was even approaching that level—but I do believe I have the beginnings of a ghazal and a strategy for tackling the form. Ghazal’s don’t seem hard, though that might be deceptive. The form is easy enough to describe, and rather than repeat it here, I’ll point you to two of my favorite descriptions by Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation. The advantage to these is that they both provide good examples. It’s a form that seems easy to understand, yet challenging to wrap your mind around.

One of the facets of the ghazal that intrigues me is that each couplet is a distinct semantic, thematic, even emotional unit. That is to say, unlike most of the poems I tend to write, each couplet stands alone, yet they are linked together primarily by the repetition of a rhyme, followed by a refrain, a word or phrase that is repeated throughout the poem.

What has been the biggest stumbling block has been landing on a word or phrase I might want to repeat at the end of each couplet. It seemed necessary to decide on this, and then to choose a rhyme to preceed it, almost reverse engineering the poem from the outset. What helped me to decide that I had a good refrain was thinking about the rules for the initial couplet.

Once I came upon a phrase I thought I could dwell on for the length of a poem, I knew it could actually be the the beginnings of a ghazal once I could get the first couplet to work. Each line of the first couplet ends with the rhyme and the refrain, and yet I wanted that couplet also to be one complete sentence. That rule of mine isn’t a hard and fast rule for the ghazal, but it didn’t feel right to form the first couplet out of two one-sentence lines. I wanted the initial couplet to feel like one unit, not two separate lines, if that makes sense.

Once I had an idea of how I could write this initial sentence that included two instances of a refrain preceeded by a rhyme, then I had a good sense that I could write several more couplets, since the form relaxes and I just had to end with the rhyme and refrain each time. This allowed me to come up with pairings of rhyme and refrain, which I could then write toward. For this initial draft, I came up with six more pairs and began to look for ways to write towards them in their couplets.

Because each couplet is a distinct semantic and thematic unit, I can rearrange them later. I can discard any rhyme/refrain pairs that don’t work, and I can search for more rhymes that might be interesting with the refrain. I can keep tinkering with this ghazal, revising individual couplete, searching for more possibilities, expanding the thematic reach of the poem by exploring new ideas. I can include some off-rhyme or find ways to reimagine the syntax of the refrain to keep things lively. At some point, I will feel I ought to be done, and one way to know I’ve reached that point will be when I find a way to incorporate my name in a concluding couplet. Of course, I might find that final couplet long before I’ve exhausted my search for other ones to add in the middle of the poem. I might still rearrange and find interesting combinations of theme and of rhyme. It is a poem and a form that I can keep coming back to until I’m ready to move on.

This is one quality that has drawn me to the ghazal. It is not a poem that makes a single statement; it is a poem that ruminates on subjects linked by sound and repetition. By juxtaposing couplets that are distinct units, connections can be found between ideas that are made by association, not logic, so language gets pushed to discover new meaning. This and its formal complexity means the ghazal runs counter to my poetic instincts, making it a challenge that is well worth exploring.