Sunday, November 25, 2007

Poetry Submission Guidelines

This is a non-comics post, inspired by the stuff that kept me away from comics this weekend.

Some of you may know that, in addition to my other jobs, I am the poetry editor for Confrontation, the literary journal published by Long Island University. I've spent the weekend reading unsolicited poetry manuscripts. I probably sent out two hundred rejection slips between Wednesday and Saturday. Lots of fun, that.

In the hope that this post will occasionally get hit by a googling, would-be-publishing writer of poetry, let me suggest a few guidelines for writing and submitting poems. None of these are hard-and-fast rules, and I can't claim that Confrontation uses them as strong criteria, much less that they are universally applied. However, sticking with these guidelines may get your poems read (instead of simply discarded) by more editors.

The packet:

1. A cover letter is not your autobiography. It's good to write a sentence or two about who you are or what you have done, particularly if that informs your poetry in some way. On the other hand, telling the editor every trivial aspect of your life story only makes you seem like you crave personal attention. We don't care if you take walks with your dog, or if you recently returned from a vacation in Belize.

2. Send only a handful of poems. If you send more than four or five poems, and the first two or three don't interest me, I'm probably not reading to the bottom of the stack. Send only as many as will reasonably fit in your return envelope.

3. Submit to each magazine infrequently. There are a few people who seem to send poems to Confrontation about once a month. Sometimes they send the same poems twice, a few weeks apart. These people get read less carefully than others. Some of them are now getting their work returned unread. My rule of thumb: no more than once a year to any given magazine. But at the very least you must wait until your first submission receives some response.

The poems:

1. Justify left. Some people get the idea (from greeting cards, I think) that poems should be center-justified on the page. It's true that a poem with short lines sometimes uses a left margin that's pretty far from the edge of the page, and it's true that indentations and other typographical devices can deceive the careless eye. But very, very few serious poets have ever centered their lines on the page.

2. Put more than one word on each line. In high school, when I was first learning about poetry, I wrote a "poem" where there was only one syllable per line. (At fifteen I thought that was clever: I could put the line breaks wherever I wanted! And each new line got new emphasis!) Now I realize that the way syntax plays with enjambment is much more graceful when a line gets a chance to build up some sentence-energy before it's broken.*

3. Exclamation points should be used sparingly. Again, it's a question of the varying music of your sentences. Rules of thumb: no more than one exclamation point per poem; no exclamation points except in dialogue; no exclamation point at the end of the poem's last line. You are not Walt Whitman, and even he didn't exclaim everything.

4. Don't graphic-design your poems. I can imagine instances where graphic devices would be necessary, but they're usually used by clumsy amateurs. Clip art on the same page as a poem is a bad idea. Fancy fonts do not make your words any more poetic. Sometimes I get manuscripts in which each poem is in a different font, implying (to my mind) that they were word-processed years apart and have been living on in xerox copies since then: not a sign of careful revision practice.

5. Write about something beyond yourself. I don't mean that you can't appear in your poems. I only mean that the poems really need to have a subject beyond the ordinary events of your day and the private emotions they inspire. Describe something in the exterior world; make claims about some subject beyond you. Use language that exceeds your first conversational impulses. Consider distinct subjects and explore them imaginatively. This is the hardest rule of thumb for me to employ quickly, but it's also the source of the largest number of rejection slips.

All of these rules of thumb are based on years (yeah, yikes: more than a decade) of reading unsolicited poetry manuscripts, and identifying the surest signs of amateurish, crummy, dull, dopey, and laughable work. Any editor has to develop an intuitive rubric for sorting the slush pile: a set of guidelines that will identify work that takes no further consideration. That's what I use these rules of thumb for. They let me identify the poems that won't require more than a couple of seconds of my time.

If you are an aspiring poet who was drawn to this blog post by Google or some other means, and you're feeling discouraged, I have one encouraging rule for you. (I mean, something that will help your poems get better over time.) Though the rule has corollaries, it's essentially simple: read poetry. Read the poetry printed in books and in major magazines that are still way beyond your reach. In particular, read work that is a little bit outside your "comfort zone": something a little harder, a little more obscure, a little antique, a little unfamiliar. Buy a new book of poems every month, and devour what you buy. Write imitations; write responses; write critiques. Living an interesting life will give you good material for poems; reading published poems will help you develop the craft that turns experience into art.

*Before someone calls me on this, I should admit that I have written a poem in which a single word occupies an entire line. The poem is in syllabic meter, and one of the lines in each stanza is seven syllables long; the one-line word in question is Chroococcidiopsis.

1 comment:

Jenny Blair said...

Great guidelines--at least one prospective poet found them, although having sifted through crappy poems myself in the distant past I think I can say I haven't committed most of these sins.

Have you ever had the pleasure (well, dubious for you, I'm guessing) of perusing a volume of poetry in which the "poets" all paid to appear? My younger sister Elisabeth (many of whose poems are excellent and some of which have been published respectably) began her published career this way. We dig into this book once in a while when we want to laugh so hard we cry.