This article was originally published in the May 2018 Princeton Echo.
When acquaintances ask me about poetry’s practical details — how many poems to send, how long to wait for a response, what publication typically pays — they’re flabbergasted with the answers, especially people who work in finance, where money and the prospect of making a lot of it imparts a certain alacrity to their work.
Still sure you want to be a poet? Take a number, sit down over there, and wait until we don’t call you. Get used to that kind of reception, kid. And don’t get so melancholy (despite wanting to be a poet). I’ve been in this game since before you were born and I’m going to give you the straight dope.
Here’s what you’re up against.
Nepotism. There was a short-lived website (2004-2007) called Foetry.com that investigated all the cozy coincidences in big-name poetry contests. The site’s founder turned out to be a courageous librarian named Alan Cordle. You see, for a while there in the 1990s and early 2000s, a funny thing kept happening: the winner of many a poetry contest turned out to be the judge’s former student.
Or future husband.
That’s right. The most egregious scandal dealt the antiseptic of daylight was Jorie Graham’s judging of the University of Georgia’s Contemporary Poetry Series in 1999. She selected a manuscript by Peter Sacks. A year later, well . . . reader, she married him. Graham had also chosen former students in five other contests, including the National Poetry Series and the Walt Whitman Award. (There’s irony for you: a first-book award named after America’s greatest poet turns out to be rigged when Whitman famously self-published his first edition of Leaves of Grass.)
Foetry’s sleuthing had a salutary effect on poetry contests, at least for a while. By exposing unethical practices and outright fraud, many contest directors cleaned house. Jorie Graham, for one, is out of the judging racket. Of course, Foetry’s crusade may have simply taught the anointed ones how to cover their tracks.
Plan on living a long time. Forget the glory days when poets published voluminously and achieved fame before succumbing to tuberculosis or catching a bullet on the Western Front at age 25.
You better exercise, get adequate shut-eye, avoid combat, and eat plenty of kale because you’ve got to be in this gig for the long haul: the average response time after sending your poems to a typical literary journal is around four months, though there are many journals that will keep you waiting six or seven.
On top of that, many magazines insist on a “no simultaneous submissions” policy. Know what that means? While the editors at the Dust Mote Review are taking a third of a year to get around to rejecting your poems, you’re not supposed to send any of those poems to another journal.
So, you dispatch three to five poems, a sum which, unless you’re Auden, may be a 20th of your life’s work, and you wait. For four months your poems vanish. Then one day you receive an envelope in the mail addressed with strangely familiar handwriting: it’s your own. The rejection slip has arrived. Winter has turned to spring. You repeat the process.
Perhaps in a few years — five or six editors later, the birth of your first child, a new President — one of these poems gets accepted for publication. Now another waiting game begins: the queue. Many poetry mags claim a tremendous backlog of accepted poems, sometimes as much as a year’s delay.
By this system, Keats, who kicked at 25, would have been unknown to his contemporaries and perhaps to posterity as well. Yeats’ “Easter 1916” might have appeared by the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Dylan Thomas? Who was he?
So here’s a strategy for speeding up the process, some real nitty-gritty insider’s stuff. Begin your cover letter along these lines:
Enclosed please find five poems of mine. While I’m aware that there is normally a four-month response time, I was hoping you could give my submission your immediate attention as I am dying of a rare inherited condition and my doctors give me less than a month to live.
If that doesn’t melt the editor’s stony heart and earn you a rapid response, you probably don’t want to have your poems published in the Dust Mote Review anyway.
Of course, there are electronic submissions, either via e-mail or Submittable, an online platform that seems to be cornering the market. Admittedly, Submittable will save you the hassle of printing your poems, addressing envelopes, and buying stamps. Theoretically, the instantaneous aspect of electronic submissions should shorten the wait, to which I advise: don’t hold your breath, kid.
Another Submittable advantage is being able to easily track all your rejections in one place. An indignity that Submittable has inadvertently created, however, is a “reading fee” that some reviews will charge you, ostensibly for the convenience of an electronic system. Most of the journals that charge will tag you for $3 because, you know, they wouldn’t otherwise have computers, Internet access, or e-mail and all that stuff needs to be subsidized, especially if the editors work at a big university.
“Thank you, sir! May I have another?” The correspondence that will really twist the bodkin in your back is sending off a “thank you” note to the editor who tossed your hard-wrought work in the recycling bin and ordered an intern to slip a meanly mimeographed rejection note into your SASE.
Ah yes, S-A-S-E, the self-addressed stamped envelope: that’s the envelope with your handwriting on it and postage you pay for since the university where the tenured professors edit Tile & Grout Quarterly can’t afford its own stationery and metered mail.
Here’s a template you can use for a good follow-up upon receiving your rejection slip half a year later.
It needn’t be long, so your exercise in masochism can be sent on a postcard. Since many journals are based in the Midwest, I like using postcards from restaurants and hotels in New York City to subtly remind my rejectors that there’s a price to pay for being a literary thane in Iowa or Nebraska. Postcards are also cheaper to send than letters, your way of saying “two can play at this game!”
Dear Sir or Madam,
Thank you for rejecting my poems. I’ll be sure to send more of my work for you to reject in the future.
It’s the poetry world’s equivalent of saying: “Thank you sir! May I have another?” after having your hindquarters paddled. But it’s not entirely self-flagellation. The idea behind thanking your rejectors is that you’re being “professional” (even though their rejection note wasn’t written by an actual person) and showing how you’re genuinely interested in that particular journal. And maybe, so the hopeful delusion goes, the editor will be impressed and somehow remember your “classy” follow-up.
At least it’s pretty to think so, kid.
You can’t be in it for the money . . . because there is none. It’s no secret that there’s no money in the contemporary American poetry scene. To riff off of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s quip about academic in-fighting, the wheels of the contemporary poetry world move so slowly because so little is at stake.
Sure, a few prizes carry big purses. The Ruth Lily Poetry Prize annually drops $100,000 on some lucky bard, as does the Wallace Stevens Award. Naturally, neither of these plums has an application process.
But forget about big money, there’s hardly any little money. Just a handful of magazines pay their contributors. The New Yorker, once considered the acme of poetry placement, probably pays around $500 (they keep their rates a secret since it would only further anger their readers to know that the hacks who take up prime real estate with such yawningly bad verse actually get paid good money to do so.)
When last I checked, the Southern Review paid $125 per accepted poem, while Subtropics, the literary journal of the University of Florida, offered $100. The going rate at most paying concerns is $40 to $50 per poem. The majority of literary mags reward their poets with two free copies of the issue in which their work appears . . . or a free subscription . . . or a discounted rate on purchasing copies.
What the hell is a chapbook? If the word “chapbook” sounds to you like it refers to a collection of rodeo-themed pornography, get your head out of the clouds, kid! In the poetry world, a chapbook is sometimes a slim perfect-bound paperback but more often a mean little pamphlet of 20 or so poems folded or stapled together.
As a poor man’s way around expensive hard-bound editions, chapbooks had an interesting history, but that’s exactly what they are: history. You won’t find chapbooks, as the expression goes, wherever paperbacks are sold.
And yet the poetry biz abounds with chapbook contests wherein you can pay $25 to have a few dozen of your poems rejected. The real kicker is if you succeed in having your poems published in a chapbook you’ll have to sideline those poems for submissions to magazines or journals, as well as regular book competitions. Even though no one but a select group of friends and family will ever see your collection of 21 sonnets hand-pressed on acid-free paper, you’ll have to wait until you’re anthologized in Norton’s before you can get those poems back in circulation.
Don’t waste your time with chapbooks, kid. If you’re going to hand your Aunt Frieda a collection of your verse, make it a full-fledged book with a spine and a dust jacket. Sure, now you’ll have to shell out anywhere from $25 to $40 per submission in reading fees, but the payoff is a book, as in “yeah, I have a book.”
Keep your day job, the one at the fish cannery. Know what most successful poets do for a living? (OK, I know, “successful” in the poetry world is a rather low bar to clear.) They teach how to write poetry, most likely as an adjunct professor in a creative writing program at a community college. And they all hope to teach how to write poetry at a state university, get tenure, and then teach how to write poetry at an elite school, maybe even an Ivy.
Yep, just workin’ their way right on up to the top of that ‘ole pyramid.
For the good of poetry as well as your own mental health, don’t get sucked into a Ponzi scheme that makes Amway look like a hip and swinging lifestyle. Creative writing programs have sprung up at American colleges and universities like mushrooms on a dung pile. And for good reason. Schools love how profitable they are: no equipment outlay, no labs, just a few salaries. Hell, they could hold the “workshops” in a janitor’s closet and the students would think it’s somehow more authentic.
Aside from being a miserable ladder to climb with too many poets and not enough rungs, teaching in one of these mills will bleed your poetic juices dry. The proof of how deleterious the creative writing racket can be to poetry is strewn throughout America’s literary journals. Take this challenge:
- Go pick up any poetry periodical, whether it’s some rinky-dink review from Silo State College or Poetry magazine.
- Thumb to the back where they have the contributors notes.
- Pick any poet who teaches at a creative writing or MFA program (i.e. just about any poet in the journal.)
- Read his or her poem.
- See how long you can keep your eyes open.
Even if you have no intention of teaching others, you don’t need to shell out thousands of dollars or take on more student loan debt in order to receive the dubious validation of a degree in creative writing. It’s not like going to night school where, with a little hard work and discipline, you can earn an accounting degree or learn a new trade. You’re either a poet or you’re not. No amount of schooling or “mentoring” will ever change that.
William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman — none of them hung around waiting for the world to acknowledge with a parchment what they already were: they lived, they read, and they wrote. I suggest you do the same, kid.
* Leslie Marshall is a pseudonym because, the writer notes, “the poetry world is incredibly petty and partisan” and no one wants to burn any bridges. To meet the person behind the made-up name, plan to attend the reception for U.S. 1 Newspaper’s annual Summer Fiction issue, to be held in mid-August at a Princeton-area venue to be announced.
A place for poets
It doesn’t pay and it doesn’t even send out rejection notices, but U.S. 1 Newspaper’s Summer Fiction issue — an annual tradition since 1997 for the Echo’s sister paper — is accepting submissions of poetry and short stories through Monday, June 4.
The issue is not a contest, but space is limited, and we give preference to writers who live or work in the greater Princeton area. First-timers are encouraged, but submissions from children are discouraged.
To submit your work, e-mail email@example.com or send snail mail to U.S. 1 Summer Fiction, 15 Princess Road Suite K, Lawrenceville 08648.