By Jack Peachum
I cannot tell you how to write poetry – no one can do that. I honestly believe that all poets are self-trained – as are most other artists. Oh, someone can point out the essentials to you, but you must have the capacity in yourself to turn an inspiration into an art.
Do I believe in tabula rasa? Most certainly, genetics aside – and genetics seem to have little to do with art or poetry – human-kind is born a blank slate upon which we will write a message. We soon gain capacities within ourselves – for whatever – and by whatever prick of propinquity pains us. We are not all stirred by the same spoon, but we all stew in the same pot.
Pardon me while I get down from my exceedingly tall horse.
I don’t consider myself a poet – not in a professional sense. It is true, I have published a few poems, but to my way of thinking, poets are people who teach in universities and occupy a “chair” somewhere. They win prizes and get awards, grants and stipends. They are listened to at poetry societies and functions. They are invited to dine and somebody else pays for the meal.
I’m still waiting for that first grant. Or cash award. I’ll take either.
The only prize I’ve ever won was a door-prize necktie at a dance when I was a teenager. I was so shocked I was afraid to go up and claim it.
If I go to a gathering, I’m usually one of the people who buys the dinner. If anyone listens to me, I am pleased – and surprised. Even my wife and my dog won’t pay attention sometimes. I belong to no clubs and only one small poetry group. I have joined only one thing in my life and that was the U.S. Army – and didn’t God teach me a lesson. I pride myself on being ostracized by almost everyone.
In fact, I was turned down for even a general membership in the Poetry Society of America several years ago. I had made the error of stopping by their offices in New York and leaving a check to apply for membership. I also left a small booklet I had self-published – a terrible job, I must admit. Weeks later, at home, I received a nasty note from the PSA, signed by the director, informing me, “You are not the kind of poet the PSA wants.” Something to that effect anyway. He returned my check, but not the booklet.
This particular incident cost me several years of poetic silence. Criticism and personal slander is never easy to bear. Eventually, I got over it and went on – consider the source. I suppose that is what you must do.
I say this not to demean the PSA (they can do that for themselves) but to prepare the hopeful poet for what they can expect: Rejection. And more rejection.
The first question I’m asked by poets, young and old, is, “How do you get something published?”
I usually reply, “Well, I’ve been at this a long time – most of my life.”
Now, that may not seem like much of an answer, but what I mean by it is persistence. If publication is your goal, and I think it certainly should be, you must keep applying your best efforts.
If you have any talent at all – I’m assuming you do – listen carefully to what people tell you, but don’t stop poetizing because some dunderhead criticizes you. The libraries are full of books by poets who were taken to task by their “betters.”
As I’ve said before, Coleridge and Gray were damned by Wordsworth; Dr. Johnson considered Gray’s Elegy dull.
E.A. Robinson always had difficulty finding a publisher – as late as 1920, Macmillan Company turned down Lancelot. And, once, Robinson’s poems were left in a whorehouse by a publisher’s reader and saved only by the intervention of the madam, who had much better taste than said reader.
Harriet Monroe, at Poetry Magazine, despite what she said later, was not impressed by “The Lovesong Of J. Alfred Prufrock.” She kept it for nearly a year while Ezra Pound pleaded with her to get on with the publication – and meanwhile, poor T.S. Eliot was having a nervous breakdown.
A poet today has an advantage that poets and versifiers in previous generations could only dream of – I mean the Internet. I don’t think anyone has any idea how many poetry magazines and blogs really exist. But the number must be enormous.
Now, the first thing you need to do as a poet is to examine your writings carefully. There is a great deal of difference between the private poem and the professional one. Do your poems speak to a wider audience than you and your family and friends? Is the writing itself of a nature to make someone want to read it? Be honest.
Emily Dickinson may have been writing all alone, but her poems dealt with universal matters and belonged in the world at large.
If you decide that your work speaks to a wider audience, go for it.
How To Get Published
I shall attempt to be practical.
Study your markets. You can do this by purchasing one of the books that offer poetry markets – or by going to Duotrope’s Digest. This site is one of the most valuable you will ever come across for getting a lead into publishing your work.
Pay attention. Read the guidelines for all the different magazines and listen to what they want, what they’re asking for. If they say they don’t publish rhymed poetry or free verse, don’t send ‘em any of it. An editor – despite their diminished capacities in reasoning – can usually tell within a few words whether or not you’ve performed this bit of task work.
Be forewarned: It doesn’t pay to piss off editors. They read a lot of claptrap. If you want them to read yours, do as they ask. Despite the proliferation of Internet markets, the world of poetry is still very small. A word said somewhere can help or harm you.
Before you send anything out, go to the website or try to obtain a copy of the magazine and read their material. It may give you an insight into the editor’s mindset.
Forget about the “better” markets, the ones that “matter” – i.e. Poetry Magazine, Hudson Review, New Yorker, etc., and other paying venues. The money item should not even be considered here – you’re never going to make enough on your poetry to pay for your carfare, so put that out of your mind right away. Publication is what the poet wants, not financial remuneration.
You will be tempted to go for the creme de la creme – don’t waste your time. These are wonderful magazines, of course, but … let me put it this way, Poetry Magazine receives approximately 90,000 poems a year. Out of that number they accept about 300-350. A small percentage, eh? If, say, your poem comes across their desk – and a poem by a known poet enters the mail room that month – or even one by the editor’s 2nd cousin once removed (it’s been known to happen) – which one do you think they’re going to go for? And they’ve always got a huge backlog.
Be realistic or you’ll be at the bottom of the slush pile faster than you can say rejection slip.
Oh, I know, I know – you’re a good poet. But you’re not Homer or T.S. Eliot. You just need to get published.
Try the smaller magazines and unknowns. They may not have prestige, they come and they go, and they won’t pay you a kopeck, but there are people there who will appreciate your work. This is where the real effort in the poetry world is found. These little magazines operate on a shoestring most times and they are a business of love by editors and staff who do it so they can find that one gem out there crying to be published – your poem.
Your cover letter is the next most important item. Make it brief, a few lines: “I wonder if you might be interested in the enclosed poems–,” and include a bio of no more than three or four lines. Introduce yourself, your name and your e-mail. If you have been published anywhere, mention it – but don’t try to cover everything. Don’t tell them your Aunt Minnie loved your poem. Bastards that they are, they won’t care.
If the magazine or website says they don’t accept simultaneous submissions, you can only send your efforts to that one place for the time being. I try to avoid these markets because of the time involved in turn-around. If they don’t say anything about not accepting simultaneous submissions then you can send your work to several different places at once. But you must tell them in your cover letter that your poem is a simultaneous submission and if your work should be accepted elsewhere, you are obliged to notify them at once. Very important!
A word about the difference between the print word and the Internet. I myself am an acknowledged Internet poet – I find a greater and easier market here for my particular writings.
However, don’t write off the print media. I have been published in both places.
Here’s the thing – the Net has a worldwide reach. One poem at a site brought me a note of appreciation from someone in New Zealand.
Print media has a limited reach – most little magazines print two or three hundred copies at a time. That’s not a wide audience.
But when the electricity goes out at two in the morning, you can’t read your stuff on a blank computer screen.
Always, always include a SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope) when going snail mail. Not to do so is the mark of a rank amateur, a no-goodnik, a sap who won’t be getting any.
Beware of self-publishing scams! Before you go sinking your money into printing your own works, you might want to see what the reaction to your poetry is elsewhere. Amazon and Lulu offer wonderful set ups, but the goal of poets – as I’ve indicated – is to find readers. If you don’t have distribution facilities, you may have a hard time getting your book reviewed or read anywhere – especially if this is your only publication of note.
If you get that dreaded rejection slip, okay, it hurts. But don’t take it personally. The editor probably doesn’t have it in for you. And Lord only knows why editors accept or reject manuscripts. I have sent poems to magazines and fulfilled every specification they had in their guidelines, the poem was perfect for them, still, the poem was rejected.
I did take it personal once. At one juncture, I sent a note back rejecting their rejection! This happened when a magazine said they wanted narrative poetry. I forwarded them a narrative poem and it came back to me. I went on to their website and reread the poems printed there. What I found was only “confessional” poetry, and not very good stuff at that.
I wrote them a note explaining the difference and suggesting they change their criteria. I do not advise this as a course of action.
I think, instead, you should reread the poem – if it still sounds good, continue to send it out.
And one more thing: If an editor accepts your work at a magazine or website, write and thank them. This also means they might be watching for more of your poetry. But don’t bombard them with submissions – string it out.