What You Should Know|
If You're Going To Write Poetry
(and hope to get it published)
This is what we tell new poets who submit their work to us for royalty publication. By new poets, we mean unpublished poets (we don't count publication in anthologies where poets pay or are required to purchase expensive copies in order to gain acceptance). They are usually novices when it comes to knowing how to submit their work. We only publish one poetry title per year, though we receive more than five submissions each week. So, here's one view from a small soapbox:
1. Buy poetry books! Attend readings! One reason poetry is difficult to sell in the United States is that there are so few buyers and supporters. Also, if you don't know what other contemporary poets are "up to," you're at a disadvantage, both in your creative process and when you submit your poetry to a prospective publisher.
2. Check your writing (or have a teacher/writer friend help you) for basic errors in punctuation, spelling, and usage. Simple mistakes, especially when repeated, make it obvious that you are a new writer who is still honing the tools of his or her trade. We want readers to be carried along by our images, not wondering why we put punctuation in a certain place.
3. Read other poets' work. Contemporary poets, ancient poets, bad poets, good poets, famous poets, translations from other languages. Look at the poems as if you wrote them. Ask yourself why these poets approached their subjects they way they did. Why they used the language they did. When you find a poem you like, try writing a response. Carry on a poetic "conversation." Keep a file folder or journal of your writing.
4. Read about poets and poetry; you might like Donald Hall's Claims for Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser's work or Marge Piercy's essays (Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt).
5. Poets use punctuation and the shape of the poem on the page to help the reader. Be careful not to use a device unconsciously, just to "look like a poem." Your concentrated, imaginative and challenging use of language should tell the reader that it's a poem. When you write about important, powerful events in your life let the power of the moment shine through without resorting to something contrived. Decide how you want the poem to look on the page. Will you capitalize only when you begin a new thought or breath, or will the first letter of each line be capitalized? Line endings, stanza endings and punctuation are like musical notation (allegro, andante, staccato, etc.), they tell the reader how fast, how slow, how loud, what mood, etc. Use all the many writer's tools you have available to you.
6. Watch out for archaic language and ungainly, inverted word order. This device calls attention to itself and prevents the reader from diving deep into the words.
7. Join a writer's group. Enjoy the mutual support, cogent criticism and new ideas that a group can provide.
8. Read out loud, whether it's your poetry or someone else's. Tape record yourself. How do you sound? How does your poetry sound? What would you do to make it better?
9. Think about doing a reading. If you like the idea, but feel a little shy, remember that a reading can be performed anywhere: a library, a back porch, a living room, on the radio or in a theater.
10. Once you feel comfortable with your poetry on the page, in your ears and in the presence of an audience, you're ready to send your poetry out to poetry magazines and journals. With the background and practice you now have you should have good results. Make sure to research the publications you approach. Send only to those that are appropriate for the kind of work you do. And beware of publications or contests that charge hefty submission or reader's fees. There are a number of vanity presses out there ready to prey upon the unsuspecting.
11. After several of your poems have been published you can start planning your first book. Look at other poetry books to see how they're put together: what kind of paper they're printed on, how the poems are placed on the page, how many poems the books contain, and how the poems are organized (chronologically, by mood or season or subject, etc.).
12. Be sure to submit your work only to appropriate publishers. If you decide to self-publish, be aware that you are unlikely to recoup your publishing investment (this is also true for major publishers, which is why it's so hard to find publishers for poetry). Unless you have money to burn, don't print more than 1000 copies. Keep the page count under 150 pages, avoid interior color, and publish in paperback rather than hard cover.
If you have questions that aren't addressed here, consult with Cynthia Frank, an award-winning poet and the president of Cypress House. Phone (707) 964-9520 to schedule a paid consultation. Email:Cynthia@cypresshouse.com