The first thing needed for submitting poetry for publications is some poems--
some poems, not one poem. If you have only written one, or only one you think is any good, you are not ready to submit poetry. Besides, what if you did get your poem published? If you didn't have more to follow it up, it would simply vanish in the mass of poetry published monthly. Further, you should never submit one poem; editors immediately think amateur. You need to have at least a dozen poems you think are terrific, and a couple dozen more that you think are excellent. Some magazines say to send only your best stuff--yeah, right. (more on that later.)
The second thing you should do is find a poetry market book. Poet's Market is very popular, and offers a very large choice of markets. Do not use a book more than two years old. The book is becoming obsolete even before it is printed, and every day makes it less reliable. Once you have the book, read the entries very carefully. One short phrase can make sending your stuff to a certain magazine a waste of time. And, if a magazine says it does not want a certain thing, it is almost a sure thing that it doesn't, and won't take it. One magazine said "nothing over thirty lines," but the editor had liked and published my stuff when she was with a different magazine, so I hoped she would take a thirty-four line poem, since it seemed like something she would like. I got it back with a note saying that they took nothing over thirty lines. I should have believed my eyes in the first place.
Aside from editing a poetry magazine, I published around 160 poems over several years, and estimate that I have published about a third of all the poems I have ever written. Many people have published more than this, and I could have, myself, but I became involved in writing plays and a novel, and started getting a little bored with the whole routine. Poetry comes from its own particular part of the brain, and that part of mine is shut down for the time. Maybe I will get back to it one of these days. Meanwhile, here are some tips on what to do.
It is quite possible, of course, that you are already submitting poetry, and if so, it is quite possible that no one is accepting it. This makes anyone a bit paranoid. Common sense tells us that there is not some big blacklist that has us at the very top, or that there is not some elitist conspiracy dedicated to preventing us from ever getting a hearing. Common sense tells us that, but it can sure feel that way. Well, your common sense is right. There's not a conspiracy. I teach a sophomore creative writing class, and I often reduce submissions by various people and put about seven on a page and hand it out to the class. A couple of poems are usually ignored by everyone, and one or two others generally denounced. A couple usually are generally liked, and one or two are a matter for discussion and debate. After fifty minutes there is usually a near consensus. It's usually in favor of the poems I would have taken anyway, but not always. Sometimes I end by liking a poem better or not as well for the input. The point, though, is that with careful and thoughtful reading, a group of college sophomores can do a pretty good collective job of recognizing which poems are better. If people are not publishing your poetry, perhaps the suggestions below will help.
I really did intend this page to be all business, and you can see that I made a good start. The tone was so heavy though, I couldn't resist illustrating it with a pondering Felix,
Poet's Market Guide divides magazines into five categories, indicated by Roman numerals. "V" means the magazine is not accepting unsolicited poetry, and so don't send there. "IV" means "special interest" If a magazine is into vampires, for instance, and you have some vampire poetry it might be a good market. Such magazines give more weight to appropriateness of subject matter than to quality, and are often forgiving of archaic diction, heavy-handed meter and rhyme, and other faults that would be frowned upon elsewhere. "III" means a very selective market that is about 99.99% sure to turn down anything you send them. Poetry, for instance, rejected Frost's "Death of the Hired Man." Of course Frost wasn't quite famous at that point. "II" means general market, and that is where you establish a reputation. "I" is comparatively easy, but they won't take everything, so you can get rejections from there as well as from anywhere else.
Once you have found what sounds like a good market, find several more. It would be best to keep seven or eight batches of poems circulating at all times. You can't afford to send out a batch and wait six weeks, two months, three months for what is probably going to be a rejection. It is too slow, and takes too great a toll on the soul. You need to get to the point that, when a batch comes back, you can say to yourself, "Good--about time. I need a couple of these to send . . ."
Now you are ready to send poems out. Make stacks of 3-5 poems, fold them, bottom up, then top down, and place them in a business envelope. If you have a
cover letter, put it on top of the stack. Also, include in the envelope a SASE, in other words, a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Shouldn't the magazine cover at least this expense? We tend to think so, but remember, a poetry magazine does well to break even, and the editor is usually working for nothing. The amount of time and expense you save by doing this is often the margin between the magazine existing or not. Some rather anal retentive types find envelopes slightly larger than business size so they can place a business envelope inside it without folding. Ok. But who really cares whether or how a return envelope is folded? The important thing you do need to remember is which envelope goes on the outside, or you will be submitting your poems to yourself. Some people use envelopes big enough to hold an eight by eleven and a half sheet without folding. That costs more, is a general nuisance, and makes it a sure thing that your submission will end up on the bottom of the pile. (Stacks always have the largest things on the bottom.) Some people use a mid-sized manilla envelope. This, I have never understood. The poems are folded once, but then have to be refolded to send back in the business envelope that is usually sent with them--that makes more work for the editor, and makes a mess of your poems besides. What is that all about? Stick with plain business envelopes, and everyone will be happier.
What is a cover letter, and do you need one? Most people submit poetry with a cover letter, and most--not all--editors prefer cover letters. Basically, a cover letter is a letter saying that here are some poems, and I really wish you would publish them, which, of course, is already implied by the fact that you sent the poems at all. A cover letter can provide a list of the poems being sent; that is sometimes a good thing. Sometimes poems are taken from the batch to be sent to other editors, or for some other reason. In such cases it is good for the editor to know what and how many poems he needs to send back. You can say a little about your background and career, or careers. Four or five lines on this is about the maximum. Previous publications are good as well. Of course you may have no previous publications, but if you do, it looks good for you to have been published in one or more good magazines. Also, most magazines give a little information about the authors. If you send no information, then the only information about you may be your city and state. Some magazines, of course, write and ask for this information after accepting a poem. Finally, a cover letter implies that you have made a decision that you want to submit to this particular magazine, and have made a little effort to do so. Keep it short, though. Fifty to seventy-five words should be plenty.
Earlier I mentioned the matter of sending only your best poems. Unless you are a terrible egotist, you only have enough "best" poems for a batch or two. It is better to send two terrific poems, and two not quite so good. The chances are about fifty-fifty that one of the not-so-good poems will get taken. Send four poems that you are not sure about, though, and none of them will. This is odd. I think it is that if you send four less than great poems, the whole collection looks shaky. But if you send two really solid ones, they make the whole group look solid, and one that suits the editor's tastes and interests will look better than it probably deserves because it is in good company. Of course your not-so-good poem may be better than you think, but it's not likely. You are the best able to see its virtues, and if they leave you doubtful, then the poem is probably less than great. There have been several times when I have had poems that I suspected didn't work, but thought that maybe they really did. Every time I tried them out on someone else, my worst fears were realized.
Rejection slips--you will see more of these than anything else. Some will be because you're poems probably really are not as good as you think they are. Poets have tunnel vision; they see what they are trying to do, but tend to have a very poor eye for those essential elements of the poem they were less concerned with. Look at most of what you wrote two or three years ago. There are, of course, other reasons. Editors vary in what elements of a poem they value most and least, just as poets do. You and any one editor may be a poor match. Not all editors have good taste. Some editors are very narrow minded about accepting rhymed poems, standard forms, certain subjects, certain views on certain subjects and so on. If your poems really are good, though, and you make the effort, you shoud be able to find editors that are on your wavelength. Meanwhile, there is an endless stream of rejections--"you poem does not meet our present needs." What in hell does that mean? You should have sent it six months ago? When will it meet your needs? In what way? What sort of needs? There are four or five standard rejections and you keep getting variations of the same thing. You don't know whether they thought your poem sucked, or whether they almost accepted it. You don't know what it would require to make it satisfy them. You don't know anything. Many magazines have at least enough sense of shame to apologize, or maybe it's just enough hypocrisy. Their usual excuse is that there isn't time enough. Well, I don't really think for most magazines it would be that hard. The poet does deserve a little better than he often gets. Personally, I try to comment. In some cases, though, it is too difficult. Sometimes I think, this subject is ok and so is the approach. There is basically nothing wrong, except that these just aren't good enough. And, considering that the poet has been writing for several years, he will probably never be good enough. I really don't know any polite or tactful way to say this. If I can I do comment, or even make suggestions. Most of the suggestions I have made have been accepted.
Once in a while, though rarely, I get an indignant response from someone offended at my attempt to undermine his personal voice and style and to dictate to someone who is as qualified a judge of poetry as I am. He may well be, but I do have the advantage of coming to the poem as someone who has no personal stake in the matter. It is usually poets who are new to writing, or who have had little success who are so defensive. I once sent a poem to Lyric that I liked a lot, and the editor wanted me to cut a stanza that was very central to my whole sense of the event. I grudgingly complied to humor him, but later realized that he was right. The stanza was important to me, but not to the poem, which was simpler and clearer, and had greater impact without it. The editor later submitted it for the Pushcart Poetry Prize. There are a couple of morals here. First, be willing to listen; an outside perspective is good. If after mature consideration you decide the editor is merely full of himself, or full of it, you don't have to follow his advice. If he is likely to publish a revised version, though, I'd say go for it. In time, you may realize he was right. If not, you still have your original version anyway, and can change the title submit it elsewhere with a clear conscious, since it isn't quite the same poem. Second, remember that what you want to do isn't the final issue; ultimately it is more important for the poem to do what it wants to.
Finally, why do magazines take so long to get your poems back to you. That is a simple one--editors are lazy, feckless, inconsiderate, and irresponsible. Of course some magazines do get your poems back to you promptly, so they have to be left out out of the above description. Some get your poems back promptly most or some of the time. I'm not sure how to judge that--if they can part of the time, why can't they the rest? Ship of Fools falls into the second category. My excuse, which is probably true of others as well, is that editing a magazine is not a paying job. I don't have the normal obligation to do a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. Thus, I have to push myself, and do it around the press of my actual job, my farm, my other projects, and a tendency sometimes to turn into a vegetable and simply watch tv. And dealing with submissions has to compete for time with editing, doing layout, sending out copies, and other demands of the magazine. I really do think that editors should at least try to be prompt and to comment whenever possible, and I do think that too few of them do. I do both much of the time, though in an ideal world I would do much better than I do.
After a poem is accepted, I sometimes get little thank-you cards, or even letters. This seems to me a very polite gesture in an increasingly barbaric world, though it is far from necessary. I probably did not accept the poem as a favor, but because I thought it was good. And, I think the time and energy might be better spent in writing or revising than in sending notes. Still, such a gesture might (aside from its intrinsic virtue) be good if you, the poet, are hoping to establish a working relationship with the editor. If you are hoping he will publish a chapbook for you, however, you probably have a lot of work to do. Most magazines that do publish chapbooks have already turned down a number of proposals by poets they think highly of for the simple reason that they do not have the time or money to do it. Getting the magazine out in timely fashion is often challenge enough, and if there is any time or energy left for a chapbook, there are probably others in line ahead of yours.
That's about it. Put only one poem on a page. (You might make an exception for haiku.) Put your name an address on every sheet. Send 3-5 poems with SASE in a plain business envelope. Don't wait for results; send more batches--seven or eight at least. Don't wait for acceptances, wait to get your poems back so you can try out the next good prospect you've spotted. Keep the poems circulating, and keep writing. Don't copyright your poems--the magazine will usually do that collectively, then return the rights to you with publication. The chance of anyone stealing your poem is extremely remote. Editors have far less interest in finding a poem than in finding a poet who is going to do great things. An editor would rather say "I published him back then when no one knew who he was," than in stealing one lonely poem that by itself would fall into the vast pool of published words with hardly a ripple. ---Jack Hart
Should you read a magazine before submitting to it? Some magazines say you should; I disagree. Reading the magazine will only tell you what the magazine did accept, but not really what it will. I have had poems accepted by magazines that I would not have sent them to if I had read the magazine first, and I have accepted poems that I am sure the poet would not have sent if he had read Ship of Fools first. You can get a good general idea from Writer's Market. The only way you can know specifically is by sending. On the other hand, if you are writing poetry, it is a good idea to read poetry magazines. You are not so terrific that you can't learn from others. Sending for sample copies is a good thing in itself, but not a sure or necessary way of finding what will be accepted.