How To Submit and Publish Poetry in Journals, Magazines, and More
Magazines, Journals, Presses
Here’s the myth: if I get into The New Yorker or Poetry, I’m set for life. Now here’s the truth: the only reason these publications are as well known as they are is because they have the finances, press run, and rich history to land themselves in every Barnes & Noble and independent bookstore in the world. But it doesn’t mean they are the only worthwhile publications out there, nor does it mean that they are the best.
If you’ve ever taken a good look at the bottom shelf of any magazine rack at any Barnes & Noble, you’ll notice plenty of titles devoted to top-quality writing and poetry. Some of those include The Paris Review, Boulevard, Cicada, Tin House, and Crazy Horse, as well as magazines like Poets & Writers. These are the real trade journals you’ll want to try your luck at breaking into. Despite being on the bottom shelf, they are the topmost tier of contemporary American literature.
Another little known fact is that contrary to how the term ‘university press’ sounds, if you land yourself in a university press, especially a big one like Harpur Palate or The Chaffin Journal, it’s even more impressive than lighting up a tiny square in The New Yorker or The Atlantic. The reason’s quite simple: these university presses are staffed by students and professors who are studying the works of poetry’s greats, from Edgar Allen Poe to (gulp!) Billy Collins, and they’re looking over your work, too, and bringing to them all that intellectual baggage. If they select it, it’s because they’ve paralleled your work to the greats and have deemed it worthy of print. That’s a big deal, and it shouldn’t be underestimated.
Contests –– $25 and a Dream
Aside from plenty of print poetry journals and literary magazines, there are a ton of poetry contests all around the world, on the Internet, and included in a small section of The Poet’s Market. I’m personally not vested in the idea of contests, but I suggest that beginning poets try their words with contests that pay for top poem. Better-seasoned poets should strive for chapbook and/or book contests, for which in addition to winning a monetary award, you get your own chapbook or book printed by the publisher running the contest.
A word of caution, however: there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and with poetry, this is doubly true. Most contests you’ll encounter will cost you a minimum of $25 to enter. My advice is to thoroughly research the contest to (1) make sure it’s legit, (2) make sure your poetry matches the style of the publisher, and (3) find out who the judges are and what their poetic inclinations are. Again, it’s part talent, part numbers.
Online Submission Etiquette
While there’s a certain etiquette associated with submitting your poetry in the traditional mail-in manner, there’s not much right and wrong in terms of submitting your work online. My general rule is ‘what’s good for one is just as good for the other.’ Therefore, submit your poetry online in the same manner you would through snail mail, minus the SASEs and manila envelopes and all the costs that accrue. Submitting your poetry online is oftentimes as simple as sending an email with a Microsoft Word or PDF attachment. Other publishers prefer to have the poetry pasted into the body of the email. Further advancements have made it even simpler to submit via online submissions managers built into various journal and magazine websites. Then there’s the website Submittable.com, which makes it even quicker to submit your work to various publications in just a few clicks.
The only disadvantage is trackability, in that publishers can now track how many times you submit your work to them. For instance, with The New Yorker, I used to pull an Elizabeth Bishop and submit up to six or ten times a year even though they only want poets to submit twice a year at most. Now, the editors can hold poets to the magazine’s twice-per-year maximum. But that’s fine, since it’s another reason to send only your best work every time.
Self-publishing is a great American tradition dating all the way back to the granddaddy of modern verse –– Walt Whitman. It doesn’t get more DIY than self-publishing a print and/or electronic chapbook. For those of you who may not know, a chapbook is a small booklet (the size of an 8½ x 11 sheet folded) of about 12 to 16 poems, analogous to a music album consisting of 11 to 15 songs. I’ve been doing this since I wrote the first batch of poems I was proud to put my name on back when I was getting my MFA at Brooklyn College, and every year at Christmas, I release a new chapbook, saddle-stapled and simple.
All you need to self-publish a chapbook is money for printing – unless you’re fortunate enough to work for a university or print facility – and a copy of some desktop publishing software like Adobe InDesign. I used QuarkXPress for my chapbook, but its Adobe counterpart has recently monopolized the industry due to its ease of use. I suggest looking over a few professional chapbooks to get a sense of formatting, font size, and the other elements of style that makes someone want to pick up a book and read it. You should always have a running theme that interconnects each poem in your collection, much the way an album does for the songs that encompass it. If you want to sell your chapbook, you can probably get between $5 and $8 per book, depending on the number of poems you’ve included.
It’s easy to believe that a poet is a relic slowly fighting against the raging tides of a future teeming with emo song lyrics masquerading as poems. But poetry’s reputation has shifted into a DIY art form, and the truth is that it’s always been DIY. The act of submitting one’s work to publishers, packaging it properly, waiting for a response is something that no one other than the poet would undergo. Today, the tradition is the same, whether print or electronic, but the etiquette is what marks the difference between the professional and the amateur, and those who strive for the former will always stand out to reap the greater reward.