A strange thing has happened in the past month or so, something that tickles me pink but that was entirely unexpected. And quite possibly undeserved.
People have started asking me for poetry advice.
Most recently, the question I got was “How do I get my poems published?”
Now of course, I’m no poetry expert—in any stage of the drafting or publishing process. Maybe one day, but at present I’m surrounded by so many other brilliant, passionate poetic minds that I know I’ve got a ways to go before I could even consider wearing that hat.
I’m just a guy who likes being a part of this world and who hopes to contribute in any way he can.
It was fun getting the question though, which came from a community college student in one of my friend’s classes. I remember being that age too (said the old man), and I remember having no clue how this process worked, so I thought it would be fun to give a short overview here.
Where does poetry get published?
Poetry is usually published in one of three ways:
- Literary journals (usually 1-3 poems)
- Chapbooks (usually 10-30 pages of poetry)
- Full-length collections (usually 50 or more pages of poetry)
Poets just starting off usually target the literary journals first. Lit journals collect creative writing (fiction, nonfiction, poetry) from a variety of writers and then present them in annual, semi-annual, or quarterly issues.
What’s nice about journals is that they place you in context, so to speak. You get to be showcased along with your poetry peers. Most people would tell you this is the way to start, and I see no reason to disagree. It’s how I started too.
It takes a while sometimes for poems to get published (sometimes up to six months for the journal to even read your work, and then up to a year for them to publish it), but that’s okay. While you’re working to get your first batch of poems published, you can keep writing more. It’s a very cyclical process this way.
How do I know where to submit?
There are a TON of lit journals out there, and more and more popping up each day thanks to the wonders of the internetz. Poets & Writers offers an incredible resource of journals, but aside from just finding journals it’s important that you find places that might match your aesthetic, whatever that may be.
Set your sites small at first. There’s nothing wrong with humble beginnings. Even superheroes have them. If you’re a student, start with your school’s lit journal. It probably has one. When I was an undergrad, I got my first poems published at WWU’s lit journal Jeopardy. If you’re not a student, look for places that actively seek work by first-time/unestablished poets.
Chapbooks and collections probably deserve their own post, as there are a lot of politics/protocols that can go into getting this guys done. But here’s the basics: once a poet has some individual pieces published in lit journals, they can collect them in what is called a chapbook, which is basically a short collection of poetry that a person can read fairly quickly—say in a half hour or so.
Eventually, once you’ve amassed many more poems and you’ve continued to get those poems out there, then you release a full-length collection (which can be comprised of all the individual poems you’ve printed in journals or chapbooks). The general rule before seriously pursuing a collection is to have 50%-80% of the poems published in journals or as a chapbook first. This isn’t hard and fast: when Joshua Young and I released The Diegesis, not a whole bunch of those poems were placed in journals first.
It’s like a band first releasing some singles or showing up on compilations before moving onto an EP and eventually a full-length album.
Screw politics. Why not self publish?
Hey, that’s an excellent question subheading! I’m glad you asked it.
You can always consider to bypass the submission process and go the self publishing route. Really, there’s nothing stopping you.
However, remember that the poetry audience is small, and that poetry readers have a lot of filters in place as to what they’re willing to read and what they’re not.
Poetry readers also have a strong sense of community, too. They want to know that the poet they’re reading is involved in poetry communities, which is why getting work published in lit journals looks much better than self publishing.
Where I’ve seen self publishing work is when the poet is a regular performer, constantly attending slams and other readings. This kind of poet can certainly benefit from self-releasing small chapbooks, because they know at least a few people will pick them up.
All of this can seem like a slow process, but of course one shouldn’t write poetry hoping for instant gratification—it’s a naturally slow process, one that of course does not lend itself to making money. But who writes poetry to make money?
What’s your experience with submitting poetry? Share your advice, questions, and anecdotes in the comments below.