"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
[This article is now taught as part of the Open University’s Creative Writing MA, and I’ve had many many messages to tell me that people have increased their publication record, sometimes by 200% in a year. It’s also included in our new book How to Be a Poet]
I’ve spent some time lately with poetry journal editors – and also with the poor beggars who, like me, send off work to them. It’s struck me anew that many people, especially those at the beginning of their writing career, don’t have much idea of how submission works and what time span is realistic for an editor to consider a poem. Also, they’re wondering how to keep tabs on the seventeen different pieces that they’ve sent out, in order to avoid the no-no of simultaneous submission.
What follows is the Jo Bell Method; the method of an immensely, award-winningly disorganised poet who nonetheless has managed to win actual awards. My vast and lofty experience teaches me that the key part of winning any prize or getting into a journal is this:
SEND THE BUGGERS OFF.
This is the only area of my life where such a streamlined system exists, but it has helped me to keep sending work out. It is Ever So Simple and it works for me. If you want to get into the habit of submitting to journals, it’s not too late to make this a New Year’s Resolution.
Make a table or database with four columns – Available. In Circulation. Published. Date When Available Again. Do it on the computer, because you will be cut-and-pasting from this for years. Put into the first column the titles of all your poems that you think are ready.
By the way, they are NEVER ready. You will NEVER send out a poem that you are wholly and perfectly satisfied with. Nobody does. Nobody does. Abandon that hope. Do your best.
January 30th (for instance)
Make a habit of setting aside one day a month for submissions. Put it in the diary. On the first occasion, take three ‘available’ poems and send them to Magazine A. Transfer their titles to ‘In Circulation’. Send three DIFFERENT ones to Magazine B, three different again to Magazine C, and two or three to Competition X. Put all their titles in the ‘In Circulation’ column. You’re in business. In the ‘Date When Available Again’ put a date six months from now, or the date when competition results are announced.
Astonishingly, you have not heard a word from Magazine A, B or C. You have been waiting by your inbox like Greyfriars Bobby every morning but still no word. How very odd. Never mind. Send three poems to Magazine D, three to Magazine E, three to Magazine F. Once sent, forget them. They are dead to you until they come back or get accepted.
Continue. NEVER send the same poem to two different magazines or competitions at the same time. This really does matter. I nearly lost a very substantial prize once, by doing it accidentally. Editors don’t want to slave through a pile of hundreds of poems and accept a handful which they are happy to stand by – only to be told that one of them has just been accepted by a rival magazine. The only reward for editors’ labours is that they get to put into print the work they believe in, for the first time. They want to do so without fear of copyright arguments or simple embarrassment. They may have chosen poems to complement each other (your sonnet sitting alongside someone else’s, or your theme contrasting with a different view of the same thing) – so if you withdraw yours, it may have an impact beyond your own poem and create a space which they have to fill.
Don’t ever do that smart-arse thing of sending an email saying ‘oh good heavens, I didn’t realise it was still with magazine Z because those clowns kept me waiting for so long – I do apologise!’ They have heard it before, and are probably about to have dinner with the editor of magazine Z. If your poems are good, they will be accepted eventually, so don’t rush it. If they aren’t, they won’t, so no point in hassling. Either way, don’t submit to two places at once. The poems will not self-destruct if they have to wait a while.
Etc etc. You are losing the will to live. You are running out of poems to send out. Fear not, you are about to get some back.
Four months is not unusual, six months not unheard of. You might get a response from Magazine A around now if you are lucky. Hurrah, they want one of your poems. It will always be the one you stuck in the envelope last, thinking it was a no-hoper. Send a brief mail saying ‘thanks, I’m delighted.’ Move the title of that poem into the ‘Published’ column, buy yourself a new pair of shoes, put down the deposit on that house. Tell everyone on Facebook.
And then put the poems that they *don’t* want right back into the ‘Available’ column. If they don’t want any of the poems, no need to reply. If you must, just send them a line saying ‘thank you for letting me know, good luck with this issue!’ Honestly. That’s all.
Send out some poems, as usual. If you get an acceptance, hurrah. If you get a rejection, hurrah – you now have some poems free for the next journal or competition, just when you were wondering what to send out. Those which come back, put in the Available folder again, and then send them to magazines that haven’t seen them before. Those which are accepted, put in the Published folder. Those which come back over and over again… er, may not be any good. On the balance of probabilities, if nine editors have rejected a poem it is likely not an undiscovered masterpiece, but a poem that needs fixing. Take that as a valuable piece of free feedback. Review, revise, put it back in the Available folder.
Keep sending the buggers off. The editor of Journal F, after all, has very different taste to the editor of Magazine A, and has not seen your poem before. It is fresh as a daisy to her. Remember however, that there is no shortage of daisies in her in-tray. She is eating and drinking poems. She is sick of poems. She wakes up in the night wondering why she does this. Cut her some slack.
Develop a stoical acceptance of the flow – some pieces coming back, some going out, and every now and then a little firework going up to mark a success. Eventually you will be so serene about rejection that you will be quite disappointed when a poem is accepted because this interrupts the endless recycling process.
Continue, ad infinitum. Check the dates in the fourth column of your table every so often. The competition results have been announced and you have inexplicably not won the National Poetry Competition (again)? Hurrah, those three poems are now free. Put them back in the Available column. Everyone you know who wins competitions, loses competitions too.
Do NOT (even, indeed especially, while drunk and discouraged) send journals a slightly tetchy email saying “I haven’t heard from you, and I should have thought that four months is quite long enough”. You *might* perhaps send an email (after six months, not before) saying “You won’t remember my poem On The Digestive System of the Hippopotamus – this is just to let you know that there is an RSPCA competition on Pachyderms at the moment, so I’m withdrawing the poem, in the unlikely event that you wanted to use it. Good luck with all your sifting, I know you have a lot of poems to wade through.”
Because they do. They have a heap of poems as deep as their desk and they mean no offence by hanging on to yours. They very possibly haven’t read it yet. They certainly have a lot of other poems (more than you imagine, and by better poets than you think) to consider. They have poems piled up in the lounge, the bathroom, the bedside table. Their partners already think they spend too much time on this. The work is not only unpaid, but they have to scrabble for funding to keep the magazine afloat at all. It is stressful and almost entirely unrewarding. They have day jobs, often running small poetry presses which make them just enough money to pay the bills if they are lucky. Like you, they have children and social lives and commitments. Like you, they are trying to write their own works of genius and (possibly unlike you) they are also putting something back into the poetry ecosystem. They get ten or twenty notes a week from sensitive souls saying “I sent you my poem last Tuesday and am exceedingly surprised that you have not yet replied to it. You will be sorry when I win the Pulitzer Prize.” They feel bad about this. They dread going to book launches because someone who has a grudge against them, for rejecting a poem which they don’t even remember, will say something snide about the time it takes them to reply. The only reward for all this is that occasionally they get to put into print someone whose work they love. It might be you. It might not. Hey ho.
I’m not putting the editor on a pedestal – but do remember that in this process, you are the supplicant. The editor has more poems than s/he knows what to do with. No matter how great your unrecognised genius, indeed no matter how great your recognised genius, editors are doing you a favour by considering your poem. They will not remember your name as one of the dozens of poems on their bedside table – but believe me, they will remember it (immediately, and for a long time) if you join the ranks of the narky, sarky and unpleasant who bitched about their response times.
So, set up that database or table and get started. Gradually you will start to accumulate titles in the Published column, but there will always be a lot more titles in the Available column.
If you’re disheartened by that, then it may be that you’re looking for an excuse to be disheartened. Really, it is not so hard to put a poem in an envelope or send it by email and then *forget about it*. And it really does get easier, the more you do it. So do it, huh?