Welcome to repository of articles on the craft of poetry, launched in celebration of National Poetry Month, 2015!
Submitting Your Work, by Bruce Parker
If you write poetry to put in a drawer and never show it to anyone, this article is not for you. But if you craft words, sound, rhythm, image, symbol, metaphor, into works of art you want to send into the world, to contribute a grain to the great, ever-growing heap of poetry in English, then how do you do that?
- Find a market, that is, find a periodical, a literary journal or review, a magazine or online zine that seeks poetry to publish. These avenues typically acquire first North American serial rights, often without payment, for first publication; thereafter, copyright reverts to the poet, with the proviso that if the work is republished elsewhere, the first publisher be acknowledged.
There are several ways to find an outlet for your work. One is to look in Poet’s Market, which comes out annually, is widely available, and lists around a thousand outlets for book publishers, magazines, contests and other venues. Arranged alphabetically by title, each entry provides contact information, where to submit your work and how, guidelines and criteria, the needs of the magazine, any contests or awards, and tips on submission.
Another means to search for a home for your poems is Duotrope, an enormous data base that now lists more than six thousand markets for poetry and all genres of prose. Each listing provides information on what kind of work the publication is looking for, how long it takes for them to get back to you, what percentage of submissions are accepted, whether there is a submission fee, and more. Each listing also has a link to the publication’s website, where you can read their submission guidelines and hopefully some of the poetry they publish, and find out how to submit. Duotrope costs $5 a month or $50 a year, and is well worth it if you submit a lot, because you can keep track of all the poems you have submitted by title, where submitted, date of submission, in your own account. Duotrope asks that you update your submission entry when you have a result, acceptance (we always hope) or rejection, with the date of response, so they can update their data base. Personally, I have sent 221 poems out in the last 12 months, have 80 pending response, have sent 3 out this month, and have an acceptance ratio of 6.5%. I couldn’t possibly keep track of all this without this sortable data base. In addition, Duotrope lists which publications respond the quickest or slowest, and which have the best and worst rate of acceptance. (I keep a log book, as well, because not all the publications I submit to are listed in Duotrope.) A Duotrope account will also get the Duotrope Weekly Wire in your inbox with their latest new listings of paying and non-paying markets, fee-based markets, markets which have become defunct, and those which are open/reopened to submissions or closed, and themed deadlines.
Almost half the markets listed in Duotrope use Submittable as their submissions manager, and it is another good place to look for a home for your work. A Submittable account is free, and remembers your contact and payment information after you first use it. Many markets, but not all, charge a fee, to submit, usually two or three dollars, to pay their Submittable bill. Snail mail has largely gone away. Submittable also tracks your submissions, if they are through Submittable, and updates the status of each, “Accepted”, “In-Progress”, “Declined” and “Received.” Submittable enables a publication to move its usually very large number of submissions through their review and decision process electronically. And at the top of the Submittable window under “Discover” is a listing of markets seeking submissions (via Submittable), their deadlines, and links to their web sites. A Submittable account also gets the Sub mishmash Weekly newsletter which brings you still more opportunities to submit, and news of the “publishing and other creative industries.”
Every editor wants you to read the publication before submitting to see what they accept, what their tastes and interests are; actually, they want you to buy an issue or subscribe. If you submit a lot, that can quickly come to a lot of money if the publication does not allow at least some access to what they have published in past issues. One way around that is a free subscription to The Review Review, a newsletter whose premise is “we read the reviews so you don’t have to.” This is a cornucopia of news, advice, markets, interviews with editors, deadlines and more.
There is also a Yahoo group called Creative Writers Opportunities List (CRWROPPS-B@yahoogroups.com), which is just that, a listing of opportunities for writers of all sorts to submit work. Messages will resume January 8, after their holiday hiatus.
Finally, there is Poets and Writers Magazine, which always has lists of calls for submission and deadlines in the back of each issue.
And there’s always the public library, where you can find periodicals to read like their editors want you to, and books and magazines such as the above.
- Prepare your manuscript. First and foremost, follow the submission guidelines to the last jot and tittle. No colored ink or paper, no funny fonts; don’t send more poems than required, longer poems than allowed, genres or subjects for which there is no call. Guidelines vary from publication to publication, so read them carefully. Guidelines can be vague or leave out important details. When in doubt, use 12-point Times New Roman and you’ll be right. Most Submittable users want all your poems in one document. Unless it’s for a contest, put your contact information on each poem, preferably at the top right- or left-hand corner. The most acceptable formats for Submittable are .doc, .docx, and .pdf. Some markets have their own submission manager system, and very small ones may ask that your submission be an attachment to an email. In any case, Apple Pages users will have to export their document to Word or .pdf and go from there. If a cover letter is required, or optional, it should reflect some familiarity with the market you are submitting to, and it should contain your contact information. If you append a bio, a maximum of five previous publications is about the most an editor wants to see. Most cover letters are not read until the submission has been examined. When submitting by mail, always enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope (the industry calls it an SASE) for a response. Weigh your submission and affix appropriate postage; for the cost-conscious, a second ounce stamp is cheaper than two first class stamps.
- While you are waiting for a response, write another poem.
If you Can’t Lick ‘Em, Join ‘Em: Clichés in Poetry by Anita Sullivan
Poets want to write good poetry, and among many, many other things, we are told this means avoiding clichés.
What’s a cliché?
The dictionary says “a hackneyed phrase,” which is no help. A “hackney” was a horse for hire that ordinary people could ride without risk. So, the so-called “definition” requires immediately a poetic leap to figure out.
You might think of a cliché as a word or phrase for hire, one that ordinary people can understand, can relate to, without risk. For poets, a cliché can be a snare and a delusion (that’s a cliché), because it gives you the impression that you thought it up yourself, and you did not.
Poets usually want their work to be fresh, interesting, a bit unpredictable. But that’s not the same as deliberately weird, inappropriate, dramatic, silly, vulgar, etc. just to avoid being ordinary (hackneyed). Look at the ancient Hebrew poem The Song of Songs, for example. It’s packed with clichés, repeated from poem to poem (“your eyes are like doves, your cheeks like pomegranates”). Yet somehow it manages to remain fresh and exciting after some 2500 years of being spoken and read.
What, then, is the opposite of a cliché? Probably something that could become a cliché, but hasn’t yet. Therefore, shouldn’t we all aspire to write them? We want people to remember our poems, to hum them quietly to themselves, to speak them aloud to family and friends. We want our words to become famous, we want them to become household words, don’t we?
So, maybe it’s not the words themselves that define “cliché” but the situation around the words. The same words in one situation can be like a summer rain shower, while in another they can be like stale song lyrics.
So, again – What is a cliché? Maybe it’s just something tame and familiar in a place where we really want something wild and strange. Nothing wrong with “ordinary” in itself, but poets are supposed to be the ones who push the envelope (to use a cliché) in language, or at least in literature.
Poets, after all, use the same words everybody else uses, but they arrange them differently. And the reason they arrange them differently is because – or partly because – some kind of thought, feeling, image, or little knot of inchoate urgency precedes the word. Don’t rush over this little knot in your haste to get to the words. Linger here awhile.
All humans come into the world not speaking words. But we’re not stupid and useless during that pre-word period of our lives. “Heaven lies about us in our infancy,” said Wordsworth, meaning (possibly) that we come into the world blessedly free of the word-cords that later dominate our view of things. We still know something instead of being told. The first words we each say as babies are, in a sense, clichés, because they’ve been said many times before. But for us, they are like little explosions, rocking our entire bodies, hearts and minds. We enter the world already veterans of a previous set of experiences, that of spending nine months in the womb, and then the birth process itself, which is no picnic. A truly primal and forceful dramatic set of events takes its place in our bodies prior to words, and that set of events becomes part of our memory.
Writing poetry can be a way of recreating the non-verbal experiences of our lives, which continue from conception, all the way through until the moment we write the next poem. Poetry is a way of honoring and – to tell you the greedy truth, mining – this rich lode of voiceless experience. Good work, if you can get it.
Anita Sullivan is a poet, essayist, gardener, translator, and retired piano tuner in Eugene, Oregon. She earned an MFA in Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University, and is an emerita founding editor of the poetry-publishing collective Airlie Press, which published her book Garden of Beasts in 2010. She is on the board of the Oregon Poetry Association.
Three Great Things (and One Not So Great) about CreateSpace by Amy Miller
In the past few years, Amazon’s CreateSpace has become a popular self-publishing platform for poets and authors who have chosen to publish their book on their own instead of going through a traditional publisher. And authors aren’t the only ones using it—literary journals and small boutique publishers often print their books through CreateSpace for its affordability, ease of use, and convenient distribution via Amazon.
CreateSpace is actually a range of services, from low-cost printing for the DIYer to comprehensive design and marketing packages for authors who need more help and don’t mind spending some money. But even at its most basic level—simply printing a book that you designed, and distributing it through Amazon—CreateSpace offers a few perks that, only a few years ago, were luxuries the average self-publisher could only dream of. Here are a few.
Great thing #1: You get perfect binding
This little bit of bookspeak means the book has a spine, as opposed to being bound by staples. CreateSpace perfect-binds every book it does with a tidy-looking squared spine. For a chapbook, this is an elegant, professional touch; most local print shops can’t do perfect binding if your book has less than 100 pages. The average chapbook has a spine too narrow to get any type on it, but if your cover design can be extended to add a pop of color on the spine, that will look nice on the bookshelf.
Great thing #2: You get an Amazon page
CreateSpace is a subsidiary of Amazon, and part of the package is that you automatically get an Amazon page for your book, at no cost. This means customers can order your book from Amazon while they’re shopping for moisturizer and tennis balls. It’s also how you order copies of your book for yourself—say, 20 copies for an upcoming reading. As the author, you get them at a deeply discounted price: A chapbook will cost you about $2 per book, plus about a buck for shipping. That’s roughly what you’d pay a local print shop to do a chapbook for you, but to get that price with your local printer, you’d have to order about 100 copies. Which you don’t have to do with CreateSpace because…
Great thing #3: It’s print on demand
This is another bit of bookspeak, a technology that’s been around for several years and is finally hitting its stride. In the olden days, a printer would print a “run” of books, anywhere from 100 to several thousand, and the publisher—or author—would have to store all those books somewhere and hope they could sell enough to make up for the cost of the run. Today, with digital printing and machinery that can bind and trim books quickly and cleanly in small quantities, we have print on demand: When a customer orders your CreateSpace book through Amazon, the order goes to a printing facility (often in Charleston or San Bernardino), where a machine whirs to life and prints, binds, and trims just one book. Then somebody at the printer mails it to your customer in an Amazon box. Later, if you order 20 copies for yourself, the machine whirs again and prints out 20 books, and somebody mails them to you. And so on. No cartons of books gathering dust in a warehouse, no large print run that you have to pay for up front.
Not-so-great thing: It is Amazon
Of course, not everyone loves Amazon, a company derided for the death of the local bookstore and countless other retailers. But fear not—if you’re Amazon-averse, there are dozens of similar self-publishing programs. Some, like Lulu.com and Lightning Source, have been around for years. Others, like Penguin’s Book Country and Ingram’s Spark, are newer players, and more seem to come on the horizon every day. Shop around, but while you’re at it, you can sign up for a CreateSpace account—it’s free, with no obligation—and start poking around in the program, taking advantage of its easy interface and numerous online forums and tutorial pages. Then, armed with that experience, you’ll know more when you go out looking for a self-publishing platform that’s right for you.
Amy Miller’s writing has appeared in Nimrod, Rattle, Willow Springs, ZYZZYVA, The Poet’s Market, and other journals, and she won the Cultural Center of Cape Cod National Poetry Competition, judged by Tony Hoagland. A longtime editor and print designer, she works as the publications project manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Plotting in Poetry by Tiel Aisha Ansari
Plot development tends not to get a lot of attention in discussions of poetry. Partly this is because poetry tends to emphasize mood and emotion over the mechanics of plot, and because of the brevity of most poems compared to a novel or even a short story, there’s not much room for conventional plot development. However, even a short poem, a “moment” poem, can imply events that occurred before the moment captured in the poem, and which created that moment: what’s called “backstory” in the movie industry. In this case plot, like character, relies on the reader’s inferential ability.
The damn toaster’s on the blink again:
bitter smoke stains the kitchen ceiling black.
One day it’ll burn down the house
and then you’ll be sorry. Penny-pinching old bastard,
I went to school in the same clothes three years running.
I scrape black crumbs and choke on the stink.
Bitter smoke stings my eyes and makes me blink.
One of these days I’ll burn the house down.
Then you’ll be sorry.
The essentials of plot are pretty much all here, though implicit: characters (the narrator and the “old bastard”), situation, conflict. Since the narrator is a child, or leaving childhood (“I went to school…”), there’s also a sense of time moving forward. The narrator’s entry into adulthood will be marked by a liberating and/or retaliatory act. It’s like a Thomas Hardy novel in miniature.
The trick, of course, is to have the story in mind as you write the poem. View the poem as a slice of a longer story, and the necessary implications, backward and forward, will suggest themselves.
Of course, longer poems may have well-developed plots. Such poems are often referred to as ballads. “Ballad” means a couple of different things; there’s a specific poetic form called a ballad, but a ballad can also be any song or poem (rhymed, metered, or not) with a strong narrative element. A good example is Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Ballad of Orange and Grape,” which you can read at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/248090 .
Is plot necessary to poetry? Depends on the poem. However, we’re story-telling animals by nature, and an implied plot can be a good way to hook the reader’s curiosity and draw them into a poem.
Tiel Aisha Ansari currently serves as President of the Oregon Poetry Association.