Someone wrote to me recently and asked, How do I get my poems published? Man, I wish I could tell you. I wish I could say, just keep writing them, and honing them and, keep at it, and don’t give up; except that isn’t how it works. Poetry, nothing really, is that simple. It got me thinking, as someone who has had a few poems published, it’s a combination of three things as far as I can tell:
Craft: Read and write. Have a practice, the first entry in this series is about the importance of a regular practice to the evolution of a poet. Part of the practice is writing, the other is reading. Steal things from where you read, use them. Think of your craft in long terms. You are building a catalog of poems. Your craft is an evolving practice. You will never be done learning how to write poems, or editing them.
Share: To me, this is the hardest part. Talk about your poems with anyone who will listen. Have poems on you at all times. Enter contests, submit to magazines. Make your own little chapbooks or broadsides to give to people, or to sell from the streetcorner. Remain relaxed and flexible in the face of the near constant rejection you will encounter. Encourage and nurture those moments of curiosity and interest when they do appear, and to those people, be grateful and kind.
Service: find a way to promote poetry other than your own. To me, this was making books. To you, this might be hosting a poetry reading, starting a contest, writing reviews on your blog. Be of service to other poets and to poetry in general. Poetry is just like society, it works best when the individuals work toward the good of the whole.
OK, let’s back up a bit. A chapbook? A broadside? What are those? These are among the first ways many poets share poems. A Broadside is like a poster. Print out a poem, hang it on the wall, that’s a simple broadside. It’s a way other than reading aloud to share your poem. It was instagram before instagram. If you like the idea of sharing via a broadside, consider all the ways you might design your work; the way being viewed as a piece of art on the wall might enhance what you intend, and how this presentation differs from using your speaking voice.
A chapbook is just a little book. There are hardcover books, and paperback books, you are all familiar with those. A chapbook at its most basic is a collection of papers, folded once, then stapled at that spine. Most people can create a chapbook with very little expense, with easily obtainable items. They can be as simple as I described, with handwritten cover and handwritten poems carefully scribed within, or they can be elaborately produced with all manner of papers and binding options. Chapbooks are the bread and butter of sharing for most poets. I urge you to consider making one if you haven’t.
My first chapbook was terrible! I’d say it was the artistic equivalent of a Power Point presentation. I made about 50 copies and gave them away to anyone I thought would be interested. My next one included a letterpress printed cover I made in the printshop at school. I printed a few covers and other things there for a variety of student publications and events as well. Other students were doing the same, and we all began publishing each others’ poems, to a degree. This is one way to get your poems published.
The very first way I got my poems published was the way I’m least good at. From chatting up a stranger. I worked in a bookstore, and a regular customer got me talking and by the end of the conversation he’d given me his friend’s address. This customer’s friend was the editor who published my first poems in a wonderfully odd journal which included poems, correspondence to the editor, and transcriptions of chess matches. (What I know about chess wouldn’t fill a haiku.) I published a few poems in this journal over the course of a couple years, until it folded. Another contributor also edited her own journal, and some of my poems found homes there, as well. It’s all connected. Another contributor lived fairly close to me, and we organized a poetry reading at a local cafe. I had tons of energy for this sort of thing back then.
My favorite way to get a poem published was a result of all of those points above: craft, share, service. One day out of the blue I got a letter in the mail. Remember letters? This one was on masthead, typed, and signed in ink. The editor had come across one of my chapbooks at a used bookstore, in a town I’d never been to. She liked one of my poems, and wanted to publish it in her magazine. I was floored.
So to recap, the way to get your poetry published is to write and read and hone your craft and share it and be of service to others and never give up be obsessed with words and never ever give up writing and sharing poems.