by Brian Geiger
Setting the Stage
Many poets view editors with the same distrust and artistic frustration that musicians harbor toward their record labels. They’re often seen as little more than oppressive, even bureaucratic, barriers to creativity who, by some stroke of luck, became the gatekeepers of the larger artistic world that so many poets dream to be a part of.
This view is completely understandable. It’s frustrating to know that the fate of your work is in someone else’s hands, that something you’ve so carefully crafted must first be put on trial by a judge and jury whose credibility you may already doubt.
And there’s a feeling of invalidation there, too. Implicit in a rejected poem is a rejected poet, damning feedback from the professional world that seems to say that you’re just not up to snuff.
The world of poetry submission is nothing trivial. It’s uniquely brutish, with the power to violate some of the deepest chords strung within you: the sting of rejection, the stab of negative evaluation, the diminishment of hope, the realization that what you find beautiful or insightful others find disposable, that what you find complete others find lacking.
And that’s to say nothing of the lack of closure. You’re more likely to receive a copy-and-pasted rejection email — if anything at all — than a thoughtful explanation as to why your poem didn’t make the cut.
When this happens (and it inevitably will), it’s easy to grow hopeless, or even resentful. That’s nothing abnormal. It tends to happen when your hand is slapped when it was only outreached to share.
But I’d like to paint a different picture of poetry submission for you. One that doesn’t see the process as a necessary evil, yet another hurdle that bars you from the life you want, or a barrier to creative freedom.
It’s worth considering that poetry submission is actually a lot like poetry: difficult, vulnerable, and vague.
Tip 1. Take a Different Perspective
Over the past year as an editor at a small press poetry magazine, I’ve had a uniquely personal experience with publication and emerging poets during my run as a gatekeeper, the judge and the jury. And since I’ve found that editing is a profoundly personal thing, I plan to make this entire post personal. And that means subjective. And that means, frankly, of limited use.
That’s just the nature of poetry publication: the only significantly useful tips are so context-dependent that they wrought themselves useless for more journals than not. As you’ve probably discovered, poetry publications are so overwhelmingly dissimilar that there just isn’t that much common ground when it comes to submission best practices beyond the absolute basics of being mannerly and professional.
Beyond that, it’s up in the air. What one editor loves another will invariably hate. But that doesn’t have to be disheartening. In fact, it could be exciting. It could reassure you that no matter what you write, somewhere out there is a home for your work, a place that won’t just tolerate it but cherish it for all the reasons that you do.
So, treat this as a unique look into a single editor’s mind on the world of poetry publication. It’s going to be different. Maybe useless. But it might shed some light on the only certain thing there is about poetry publication: that it’s dreadfully uncertain — and that that’s ok because so is poetry.
Tip 2: Submit Poetry in a Way that’s (Subtly) Conducive to Forming a (genuine) Relationship with the Editor.
I’ve published veterans, professors, artists, plumbers, a major journalist, a truck driver, a scientist, a few mechanics, a small zookeeper, and some authors, to name a few. Some are retirees who are finally doing what they love. Others have lost their spouses and are finding ways to cope. Some have lost their children or their homes. And when you learn that, their poetry comes alive.
When I first interacted with them, none of these submitters were trying to stand out. They weren’t banking off of their novelties or using their interesting lives as leverage. Instead, our conversations were subtle, organic, and prolonged, often starting with a “Contact Us” message which turned into a submission. At first, I’d receive nothing but their name and poetry. A month later they’d come back, and I’d hear a bit more about them. A month later a bit more. And soon enough, we were on a first name basis. I learned about their jobs and some of their life stories, and we even check up on one another from time to time, with no talk of poetry.
That’s powerful. And our relationship often frames their poetry in a richer light.
I’ve even gotten to know some poets that I’ve serially rejected. One of them even wrote me a poem about submitting poetry to me — “Writing in the Void”. He rhymed Vita Brevis with “acceptance rarest”. It was horrible. And I rejected it. But I loved it. And we still talk today.
What I’m getting at is this: don’t force it. Sending a life story or directly inciting conversation in a submission email isn’t a good idea. A relationship is much more subtle than that, and a genuine one doesn’t need much prodding on. It comes naturally. When both sides are willing to receive, they each give a little. And that subtle harmony is reinforced as more submissions are sent in and the tiny personal discursive at the end of each email grows longer.
I’ve found that, at least for my publication, it’s useful to submit poetry in a way that’s conducive to a (very) slow, (very) steady, and (very) subtle relationship. Maybe start with the “Contact Us” portal and ask a real and substantive question that you actually want to be answered. Let whoever answers you know that you appreciate their time. Then head over to the submission portal and sign off with the same name, maybe thanking whoever answered your question once more.
And when you’re ready to submit again, use the same name and remark about how you were previously accepted or rejected. You’d be surprised at how much an editor remembers — let alone how appreciative they are when they meet respectful and professional submitters. With some time, it might just turn into something.
Tip 3: Put as Much Work into your Submission as you Put into your Poem
I can’t tell you how many promising poems I’ve rejected on the basis of a blatant disregard for the rules of submission. I’ve tried bold-facing them, numbering them, simplifying them, making them “required” input boxes — people still found a way to avoid filling them out. (And they were never excessive — we asked for a name, PDF, an optional bio, and a link.)
It seemed like these poets would compile one bare-bones submission email and send it out to as many publications as possible — which would have been more effective if they provided important details, like their names. Other people did this in a more sophisticated way that’s harder to detect, but there still tends to be a feeling that they just filled in my name after “Dear.”
Regardless, the reasoning that supports this kind of activity is misled:
Publication isn’t merely a numbers game. Flooding magazines with a lot careless submission is not better than sending a few careful ones. Fish with all of the solo cups you want — you’ll never land a big catch. You’d be doing yourself a favor, instead, if you did your research, took your time, and equipped yourself for specific conditions of each spot. That way you’re going out to sea with everything that you need.
So, follow the guidelines. Cut no corners. Keep it brief. And with complete clarity respond to every point that the editor’s ask of you. This approach isn’t too simple. It isn’t too boring. And it doesn’t rob your email of your personality. It’s perfect. And it speaks volumes about your character and judgment.
Ideally, you want some personality to shine through. But the threshold of being excessive is very, very low. Much like poetry, subtly in your submissions is indicative of talent. And if you don’t think you can pull off a more experimental submission, it’s better to play it safe and err on the side of professionalism–at least that won’t detract from your work.
Of course, sometimes people make honest mistakes — spelling errors or incorrect attachments to name the minors ones. And that’s ok. I’ve never held it against a poet for sending in an incomplete submission so long as they try again and fix it, and if the problem is obvious enough that I can figure out what they meant, I just keep it to myself. All of the editors I’ve spoken with have had a similar stance.
All-in-all, you can do yourself a big favor if you treat submitting poetry like writing it. Attend to it’s every nuance. Straddle the thin line between revealing too much and too little. Say a lot with few words. Be clear. And care about it.
Tip 4: Don’t Trust Online Publication Gurus. And Don’t Trust Me
It’s easy to confuse charisma with substantive content. Sometimes impassioned bloggers can make it seem like they’ve found a fail-safe publication formula. Sometimes the otherworldly success they advertise is more intoxicating than true. Sometimes all that bait that they’ve strewn about their impeccably search-engine-optimized websites catches a fish. And sometimes, that fish is you.
We’ve all been there. These people are experts at their craft and know how to keep you reading or watching or buying or downloading. But if it sounds like armchair psychology, it usually is. And if it sounds like wild speculation, proceed with caution.
There aren’t any mind games that you can play with editors that will increase your chances of publication beyond sending in your best work exactly as they want it. Don’t memorize hexadecimal values for a unique shade of blue that allegedly makes people more accepting. It doesn’t. Don’t use novel fonts that are associated with prodigious works (like heavily ornate serif fonts that seem lifted from the Constitution). Don’t send in YouTube video submissions if no one asked for them. Long words are rarely impressive and can almost always be avoided, so don’t use those either. And don’t enlarged text by 0.5 pixels because someone said it’ll make your work “pop.”
None of it will help, but it will hurt. It turns out the simplest solution is the best. Be genuine, respectful, and professionally casual — and let your poetry speak for itself.
Of course, the value of certain tips will vary based on the publication you submit to. But what’s universally appreciated is adherence to guidelines and a clear understanding of what the publication wants. So read a bit of the magazine, if you can, or extract whatever information you can from the website. You don’t need to be too thorough, just don’t go in completely blind.
The most useful way to improve an already concise and professional submission is by making it clear that you understand the magazine’s theme and have only submitted work that you deem relevant to that theme. It’s one thing to follow the letters of the law, but that shouldn’t be at the expense of the spirit of the law.
If you have a comprehensive understanding of the magazine you’re submitting to, it won’t go unnoticed. Even if your poem is still rejected, charming the gatekeeper is never a bad thing. Especially if you plan on coming back.
Tip 5. Picking the Right Frame
None of these tips will guarantee publication. But if you’re careful and thorough in both creating and researching your submissions, then you’ll give the editor’s only one thing to worry about: your poetry.
At the end of the day, everything else should be secondary. But though your submission is just a frame for your poetry, it has to be picked with care — though it can compliment your work, it can also ruin it.
So, don’t frame the Mona Lisa in neon pink. And don’t frame a Pollack piece in rich, Rococo wood. Though there are museums that would proudly display either, if you’re exhibiting it at the wrong place, you’re going to get shot down.
Next time you send in your work, remind yourself that you don’t need to go overboard to be impressive. The “right” way to submit your poetry happens to be the simple way. So, with a bit of care and thoughtfulness, you’ll do just fine.
And that means you can worry less about your submission and more about your poetry. So get writing and enjoy the world of poetry publication–it doesn’t have to be a frightful place!
About the Author
Brian is the editor of Vita Brevis, a popular online literary magazine that he founded in 2017. He’s studying to become a psychotherapist and is a freelance writer for numerous publications and clients. Some of his personal publications can be found here.