Robin Houghton advises newer poets on the best way to submit their work to magazines.
There’s no denying there are more opportunities for poets than ever. Communities of writers and readers have taken to social media platforms and ‘Instapoetry’ – bite-size poems posted on social media – has produced its own stars. ‘Spoken word’ as a genre of poetry is no longer confined to live events or YouTube appearances but has crossed into mainstream publishing. According to Nielsen BookScan there was a 12% rise in poetry book sales in 2018, and a 2018 survey by the Poetry Society suggests that poetry in its myriad forms is appealing to a younger, broader audience.
The traditional route to having a collection published by a major publisher has always been via magazine publication. It is still the most common route, as borne out by the advice given on the websites of poetry book publishers. Bloodaxe, for instance, states categorically: ‘If you have not yet published poems either in reputable literary magazines or in a pamphlet from a reputable small press, please do not send us your work.’
Getting published in magazines remains crucial for ambitious poets. But I know, from ten years of submitting, and from comments made by my blog readers during that time, that the magazine submissions process can seem difficult and opaque. So a couple of years ago I started keeping a spreadsheet of poetry magazines, their submissions windows (a way for them to keep on top of the rising number of submissions) and links to their guidelines, to help me keep abreast of it all. Then I offered it to my blog readers as a free service, updated quarterly.
It became clear that people wanted more specific advice about how to give your submissions the best possible chance of acceptance, so I researched and wrote a short manual, A Guide to Getting Published in UK Poetry Magazines (Telltale Press). I approached a range of experienced editors of reputable magazines, both print and online. One of the questions I asked them was why they reject work – and it became clear that too many poets are making too many elementary mistakes with their submissions. They are, in effect, ruling themselves out. The editors were generous and pretty much united in their advice, the six key points of which I summarise here.
1. Research the most suitable places for your work
It sounds obvious, but not all magazines publish the same kinds of poems. Some are upfront about what they’re looking for – take The Frogmore Papers, a respected journal that has been running for over 30 years. On the website, its editor Jeremy Page states that ‘Poems written by people who clearly haven’t read anypoetry since Wordsworth will not find favour.’
A bit of basic research, preferably involving reading a recent issue, should tell a would-be submitter whether their poems have a chance of being accepted. If you don’t write Fibonacci poems then there’s no point sending work to The Fib Review, for example.
Magazines would be delighted if all submitters were to subscribe or even buy a single issue. Agenda is another of the best known and longest standing poetry journals, having been founded in 1959 by Ezra Pound and William Cookson. Patricia McCarthy has edited it since 2003 and she (like many others) feels strongly that poets shouldn’t just be sending their work to magazines but buying them too. ‘I’d like to see more poets subscribing to journals instead of paying a fortune to enter poetry competitions in order, so they think, to get instant fame.’
Subscribing to every journal isn’t practical for most of us, but anyone can peruse magazines for free at the National Poetry Library on London’s South Bank. If that’s not an option look for sample poems on a print magazine’s website, or start with online magazines (generally free to read). Share and swap copies with fellow poets in reading or writing groups such as the Poetry Society’s many Stanzas across the UK and abroad.
The scattergun approach to sending out poems serves only to annoy editors by wasting their time. It’s also probably the biggest cause of the long response times that drive many poets to despair.
"The scattergun approach to sending out poems serves only to annoy editors by wasting their time"
2. Follow submissions guidelines
Every editor is adamant about this. ‘Please read and follow the submissions guidelines carefully for every publication you send to,’ says Claire Walker at Atrium; ‘there will often be different procedures for different publications.’ Guidelines may be brief or long, abstract or specific, but every journal has them. The onus is on the submitter to read them and stick to them as best they can. Instructions such as ‘send us your best poems’ might be open to interpretation but ‘please use Times New Roman, font size 12, single spacing’ or ‘send no more than four poems’ is not. A poet may hate using Times New Roman. But if they want their work to have the best chance of being accepted by that journal, it’s worth respecting the request.
Helen Ivory edits the longstanding online magazine Ink, Sweat & Tears whose submissions guidelines page tellingly begins with ‘PLEASE OH, PLEASE, READ THESE CAREFULLY ...’ She points out that ‘since most poetry editors receive many more submissions than they can publish, they are very likely to be looking for a valid reason not to publish.’
Any submitter needs to find the answers to these questions. This is not an exhaustive list!
- Is the magazine open for submissions? Some editors state that work received outside of the specified ‘windows’ will be returned unread.
- Do they accept previously published work? (Unusual, but possible.) How do they define ‘previously published’ (for example, does that include on a private blog or in a pamphlet produced in an educational setting)?
- Do they accept simultaneous submissions (work that has been sent to another publication at the same time)?
- How do they accept submissions? (For example, by post, email, or an online portal such as Submittable.)
- How many poems may be sent in one submission?
No matter how clearly the guidelines are spelled out, they are frequently ignored, even flouted on a regular basis. Prole’s Brett Evans asks, plaintively, ‘Surely writers are close readers, aren’t they?’ He cites the time when a poet sent him 278 poems in one submission: ‘their name haunts me.’
3. Be polite
Small courtesies go a long way. Martin Malone, who edited The Interpreter’s House for five years, wishes more poets would ‘remember that editors love poetry and they often put in hundreds of unpaid hours to provide a platform for your work.’
Finding out the name(s) of the editor(s) and personalising the cover letter indicates that the poet has thought about where to send their work and isn’t just copying and pasting the same email to 30 different publications. ‘Please don’t address me as “Dear Sirs”,’ adds Helen Ivory; ‘it says on the website I’m called Helen. “Dear Editor” would do though.’
When work is rejected, take it on the chin. Everyone knows not to let resentment get the better of them, and yet editors still endure snarky letters and rude emails. As Claire Walker says: ‘We know rejection is difficult. Fortunately, angry replies don’t happen very often, but when they do, we remember it!’ Which brings me to the next point.
"Finding out the name(s) of the editor(s) and personalising the cover letter indicates that the poet has thought about where to send their work"
4. Don’t take it personally
Everyone who ever sent their poems to publishers has had work rejected. We all find ways to deal with this, whether it’s by bouncing back and immediately re-sending poems somewhere else, or putting them in a drawer for a year and working on something else instead. The #100rejections movement on social media invites writers to collect rejections, celebrate them even, as a way of desensitising the experience.
It’s a fact that no-one can second-guess what a poetry editor will accept, because the reason isn’t always to do with quality. ‘Inevitably decisions are informed by personal taste and how the poems fit within the issue,’ says Jonathan Totman of The Fenland Reed. Helen Ivory agrees: ‘Things you cannot do anything about are when an editor has a theme of say, “Rejection”, for that particular edition of the magazine. This won’t necessarily have been explicit from the outset (and that’s the frustrating thing) but sometimes received poems fall into a shape or pattern that the editor finds pleasing, so they will group those poems together.’
5. Keep records
It’s easy enough to avoid certain situations, such as having the same poem accepted by two different magazines, or sending a poem to a magazine that has previously rejected it, by keeping records. A simple spreadsheet works wonders: track progress, keep sight of what you have out, spot opportunities.
Record-keeping also has a psychological function. If you have a system for recording submissions, acceptances and rejections, and a terminology of your choice, it can be helpful when dealing with rejections. Personally I prefer the word ‘declined’ rather than rejected, and I file said poems under ‘Failed Submissions’. A spreadsheet also makes it easy for me to calculate annual percentages of accepted versus declined poems – and it’s always better than you think.
Poet and author Jo Bell has published in detail her method for keeping track of submissions to journals on her blog, The Bell Jar, and notes, ‘This article is now taught in universities, and I’ve had many, many messages to tell me that people have increased their publication record, sometimes by 200% in a year.’
6. Write the best poetry you can
Editors bemoan the number of unfinished poems they receive. Rishi Dastidar is a consulting editor at The Rialto and says he would like to see ‘fewer poems that are obvious first drafts, not very polished or with spelling errors.’ And as Brett Evans says, ‘There will be editors who like your work if you work at your work.’
Persistence can pay off. Kim Moore had one poem rejected 13 times by various magazines. ‘I was about to give up on it, but needed an extra poem for my set of six that I was sending to Poetry Review so I shoved it in at the last minute. It got accepted. Then it won the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize for a poem published by a poet without a full collection.’
Poetry magazine editors do want to read exciting new work. They do want to discover a future Forward Prize winner. But they receive many more poems than they can ever hope to publish. Their message to poets is: read our magazine, follow our submissions guidelines and only send finished work. Then, and probably only then, your poems have the best chance of making the cut.
Photo © peshkov / Adobe Stock
This article was originally published in the summer 2019 issue of The Author.
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About Robin Houghton
Robin Houghton has had over 100 poems published in magazines including The Rialto, Poetry News, Mslexia, The North and Agenda. Her third pamphlet All the Relevant Gods won the Cinnamon Press pamphlet competition in 2017. She blogs at robinhoughtonpoetry.co.uk.