How Poets Get Published: A Rhinoceros and a Thesaurus Walk into a Bar…

rhino Back in December when I talked about line endings, I mentioned the late poet Bill Knott. I never took a class with him while I was getting my MFA at Emerson College, because quite frankly he was strange and a little scary and I already had tons more confidence in my poetry than in my prose. But from him, though second hand, I got two of the most useful bits of poetic advice I have ever gotten. The first was on line endings. The second was about how to play the publishing game.

These days, cover letters (CLs) are not as de rigeur as they were before the advent of online submissions, but they still exist and they still look pretty much the same:

Dear Ms. Editor,

I enclose my poems “Nonchalance,” “Influences,” and “What the Pear Says” for publication in The Stoat Literary Journal. My work has been published in The Rat Vomit Review, Villanelles for Voles, and Most Impressive Poetry. Thank you for your consideration.

That second sentence of the CL is the part where Bill passed on crucial info to me without knowing it. See, editors really prefer to publish people who have already been published. So you start by getting published wherever you can (The Rat Vomit Review was Bill’s way of exemplifying the sort of barrel bottom journal where you would start, a journal that took maybe 40% of submissions*). Then you have your first credit to put into that second sentence. Then you get a second, then a third, and then you start for the next tier, journals that take 35% or 30% and you replace the three journals and work your way up.

This process reminds me of a subletter I had one summer, Estelle, who said she only had two criteria: will it make me gain weight and will it look good on my resume?

So, no, do not start by trying to get your work published in The New Yorker. They only take folks who already have books. Do not waste their time and yours. Start at the bottom and work your way up. I have found that it takes sending any poem out between 15 and 25 times before I get a publication. It gets easier as you go along, but not much. So when they say Read Our Journal Before Submitting, they really mean it, and it is not just to get your money (libraries are your friends here…). You need to understand who actually publishes the kind of stuff you write and who really does not.

For those of you who are coming to poetry from academia, where apparently they tell you to send your journal articles to the top journals first and work your way down, well, that is just a very different world. And this makes sense, of course, because there are Way More WannaBe Poets than WannaBe Doctoral Candidates.

The three keys to this process are simple:

1) Keep good records. Know what you have sent, where, and when.

2) Get a good Rogets Collegiate Thesaurus. The importance of specificity and the Exactly Right Word in poetry cannot be overstated.

3) Develop rhinoceros skin. You will be rejected repeatedly for years. For every acceptance, there will be two dozen rejections, easily. Learn to take it. Learn to put your heart in the stuff you are currently writing rather than the stuff that you have sent like orphans out into the cruel world. You will last longer.

*Writers Digest Market books (Writers Market, Poets Market, etc.) have this info in their hard copy and electronic versions.

Line Endings, Line Beginnings


I was first made aware of the importance of line endings in the mid-1990s, when a friend of a friend was taking a class with Bill Knott, a professor at Emerson College. Apparently, this young man was sitting in a workshop and Bill was reading his poem. Bill looked at him over his glasses and asked, “Why do you break your lines where you do?” Baffled, the young man just shrugged. Bill balled the poem up and bounced it off the young man’s head.

Whether or not that caused enlightenment for that student, the story of it sure did for me. I spent the next two years studying how different poets broke their lines. I read somewhere that the last lines of a poem should, on their own, sound like a poem. (Obviously, they were talking about free verse, since formal forms or even Hallmark Card Crap have their own logic for ending lines, whether with rhyme or with repeated words, etc.) Here is an example taken at random from one of my college textbooks, Beginning with Poems: An Anthology, the end words of Wallace Stevens’ “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man”:

baths soul clouds leaves gold white wind sky

suddenly rays myths gods grenadine occurs stars alone life life bronze

That is the easy part of line breaks. What took me much longer to realize is that, just perhaps, the first words of the lines might also be a poem, though they rarely are. Let’s take the first words from the same poem:

one’s one’s occur occurred of as came threw

could would around the to and and it has that that.

You see the problem. We get so caught up with our last word that our first words tend to be articles, auxiliary verbs, prepositions and conjunctions–grammar words, not sensory words. Now there is nothing wrong with grammar; we couldn’t very well communicate without it. But if I am going to put a word in a power position of a poem, I probably don’t want that word to be “of.” Or at least not often.

HOWEVER, having just looked at the few poems I have in a file on my computer here at MIT, I realize that I have not been paying very close attention to this lately. (Bad poet, go sit in the corner!) So I wrote a new poem.

“My cat is a poem with claws,” she said,

mopping up the blood that still spilled

from her arm where that fluffy ebony

ninja clung hard before leaping off the bed

and onto the dresser. “Most poems,” I said,

hesitantly, “do not draw blood.” But she

laughed and threw the tissue away. “Most

poems also do not eat kibble and poop in a small

sandbox. But some poems snuggle up to you,

tangled in the blankets of a Sunday morning. Some

poems see your hands resting on the keyboard and lie

down upon them, purring. Some poems will even

pat your face to wake you up at four in the morning

on a day when you didn’t need to rise early.”

Her cat watched me with narrowed, golden eyes.

Brower, Reuben A., Anne D. Ferry, and David Kalstone, eds. Beginning with Poems: An Anthology. New York: Norton, 1966. (Its date explains why the examples are mostly British with a few Americans and why, out of 62 poets, only 3 of them are women.)

Bonus points if you recognize the pun in the picture.