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.