A Guide to Submitting Poetry for Publication
As the phrase goes — today, everyone and their mother can get their poetry published on a website like Poetry.com, and many post-modern poets quench their thirst for publishing simply by the knowledge that their poetry lives somewhere in the ether. But even in a do-it-yourself world, if you really want to make an impression with your words the way T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and all the others we learn about in college classrooms have, you still need to submit to journals, magazines, and other publications of note. And contrary to popular belief, this process is not as difficult and arduous a task as it’s made out to be.
The majority of big-name publishers still require poets and writers to submit manuscripts the old-fashioned way –– via snail mail. Today, this can deter many start-up wordsmiths from submitting because they believe it’s too hard. Here’s the skinny about submitting your work: if you follow the instructions and do it right, you’ll actually stand out from the thousands of others who are content to have their work exist as a series of ones and zeros. To get started, you’ll need the following items handy:
- The Poet’s Market
- Cover Letter
- SASE or SAE with International Reply Coupon (IRC)
- Manila Envelope
The Poet’s Market
First, snag yourself a copy of The Poet’s Market, which is a pretty thick book that lists all the major, minor, and most recent publications that accept poetry. I highly recommend paging through the entire book (a daunting task, truth be told), but you need to know your potential publishers before you spend $1 and chance submitting your manuscript only to have it rejected. The Poet’s Market is published by Writer’s Digest, comes out yearly, and offers practical information like whether or not the journal or magazine accepts email submissions, when the editors read submissions, and how many poems they prefer per submission. It is nothing short of a published poet’s bible.
Your Cover Letter
Your cover letter should be standard, but read a bit more impressively. Here’s my basic breakdown of a winning cover letter:
- The opening paragraph should always reference what you are submitting, listing each poem by title, and each title placed in quotation marks.
- Your second paragraph should give a little bit of information about you and your poetic inclinations.
- Your next paragraph should delve deeper into your background in poetry and include a brief listing of the publications in which your prior work has appeared. If you have not yet been published, simply skip this step. If you’ve been published online or in your high school’s literary magazine, mention it.
- The closing paragraph, which I affectionately call the “kiss-ass graph,” is where you end by reaffirming to the editors that “it would be a great privilege for [your] work to appear within the pages of [their] prestigious publication.”
Unless otherwise stated by the publisher in their submissions guidelines, your manuscript should include no more than five unpublished poems. I mention ‘unpublished’ because most poets think that if a poem was published online, it’ll be a shoe-in for print. This is seldom so. In fact, most respectable publishers frown upon receiving previously published work. In case you become as big as Silvia Plath or Allen Ginsberg, journals like to have bragging rights that “John Trigonis’ poem “Helvetica Road” appeared in the pages of Poetry first.”
Another common phrase you’ll notice in most of the entries in The Poet’s Market is “no simultaneous submissions,” which basically means publishers prefer you submit only to them and wait until they either accept or reject your work before you can submit it elsewhere. Since the very first batch of poems I submitted back in 1994, I have always submitted the same batch of poems to various publishers at the same time. Today, this practice is nonsensical. However, if your poem does get published by another publisher, the least you should do is send an email or letter to the others to say your work has been accepted elsewhere.
Okay, back to your manuscript and how it should be formatted. It’s standard practice to include on each page of your manuscript a header with your name, mailing address, phone number, and email address. Some publishers also like to know the line count of each poem; if they do, you should include that information in the header as well.
Never center your poetry, for it’s a hallmark of a true amateur. Always keep your text flush left. It looks more professional that way.
SASE/SAE + IRC
You always have to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) when submitting your work in order to receive a response from the publications (you can’t expect them to respond via mail to 1,000 submissions, after all). Some publishers like to send your entire manuscript back, which can cost a substantial amount more in postage, so I make sure to include a small disclaimer at the end of my cover letter letting them know that:
The enclosed self-addressed, stamped envelope has postage sufficient for a one-page response to the poems to let me know whether or not my work has been accepted. The manuscript is a copy made from originals and may be discarded accordingly. Thank you.
If you’re submitting to publishers overseas or in Canada or Mexico, you will need to include a self-addressed envelope (SAE) and an International Reply Coupon (IRC) which you can acquire from a post office or online. This is so that any non-U.S. publishers can exchange the IRC for proper postage with which the editor can mail your acceptance or rejection letter.
Sending Your Submission
I recommend that you always use a 9×12 manila envelope to mail your submission. It’s more professional than tri-folding your entire six-page submission and your SASE. Whenever possible, I also print out address labels rather than handwrite them. A publisher’s first impression of you will be the envelope, so the more professional it appears, the more professional you appear.
As with everything else, acceptance is a numbers game as much as it is about the quality of your work. That said, you shouldn’t simply submit one poem at a time, because you lower your chances for publication exponentially. In order to meet a good ratio between acceptance and rejection letters, you should be prepared to submit to around 50 or 100 publications at a time. Yes, that postage will add up (not to mention the return postage!), but no one said publishing was cheap, and if you want to be a published poet, you’ve got to be willing to put in the money as well as the time and the talent.
I suggest submitting once or twice a year as opposed to every time you have some new material to share. Submitting in large quantities and always submitting your best will be in your best interest. Anything less will only be fit for Poetry.com.