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.

The Quiet Stories of Japanese Woodblock Art


I lived in Matsuyama, Japan from 1990 to 1992, teaching English and studying kendo, Japanese fencing. Since coming home, I occasionally find myself wandering in the Japanese section of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). While the kimonos and swords are works of art and poetry themselves, with their elegance and attention to minute detail, it is the woodblock art, ukiyo-e, which grasped my attention and made me want to learn more. Two of my favorite artists are Hokusai and Hiroshige. Today I’ll tell you about the first.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) made many different kinds of sketches and woodblock art, from portraits and still lifes to erotica and illustrations for humorous poems, but what he is best known for is his landscapes, particularly his two collections of Views of Mount Fuji. Most people are familiar with the “Great Wave off Kanagawa” (I even have a T-shirt of this!), but some of his less famous works offer me the opportunity for yet another Important Excitement/Small Obsession. And lots of poetry.

For me, the beauty of his landscapes lies not just in the visual beauty, but in the way he adds people to the scenes, villagers and travelers who are responding to each other, to the view, to the viciousness and beauty of nature. And when I look at these pictures in art books and draw on what I learned as an East Asian Studies minor at Middlebury College, I start to tell myself stories about what is happening, who those people are, what their hopes and dreams are, and what small epiphanies I can open up by telling those stories through poetry. Here is one from my upcoming ebook, Icons and Action Figures (Batteries Not Included):

Mount Fuji Seen from Eijiri

(Hokusai, 1823~29)

Typhoon season begins this way:

with a sudden gust

slamming travelers forward

blasting road-dust against their legs

hat papers leaves becoming birds

flutter and soar, tumble and fly—

the trees lean after their leaves

longing to follow

while the travelers stumble

cursing luck and wind and all

impermanence, the loss of letters

painted by hands of white silk,

the loss of a sloping straw hat that leaves

a poor man vulnerable

to the gushing rains

that wait, like Mount Fuji,

solid and irrevocable against the sky.

Spilecki, Susan. “Mount Fuji Seen from Eijiri.” Verve (1996) 8:1.