Underdogs: The Poetry Publication Landscape

Copy, References, and Research: UCF Creative Writing MFA, online: 7/13/2016

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Centuries ago, poets were like rock stars. Homer, Li Po, Dante, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, and others left vast literary heritages that continue to this day. But somewhere along the line, poetry was pushed to the back burner—nonfiction and fiction began to boil atop newfound consideration and respect. Where did poetry go? Is it a dying art form? Does it matter? Yes, my friends. Poetry does matter. During my two years in UCF’s MFA Creative Writing program, I was able to convert a handful of prose writers into experimental poets (you know who you are) through writing prompts, in-class exercises, and general discussion. I always aim to highlight the literary worth of poetry in today’s world, but publishing poetry is a whole other science on its own.

If you want an inclusive way to track all of the submissions you send out as well as submission deadlines, consider purchasing an annual subscription to Duotrope, a fee-based service for writers that offers an extensive, searchable database of current fiction, poetry, and nonfiction markets, a calendar of upcoming deadlines, a personal submissions tracker, and useful statistics compiled from the millions of data points they’ve gathered on the publishers they list (over 5,000 journals). What’s important to remember is that Duotrope is not always right, but it’s pretty darn close— “acceptance rates are roughly within a 1% margin of error,” according to a test done by The Review Review. Of course there are other methods of tracking your submissions and discovering new journals that don’t break the bank. The method for submission tracking I would suggest is using Microsoft Excel. You can find helpful templates to get started from Neon or author Matt Bell. To discover new journals, learn where your favorite writers are publishing. Rent library copies of The Best American series, which include short stories, non-required reading, essays, and so much more. Ask your writer friends! Ask your professors!

I refresh my inbox at compulsive intervals, hoping to receive good submission news, but the bad news I’ve been receiving hasn’t been all that bad. For those of you that don’t already know, RejectionWiki is a fantastic source for discovering and differentiating the types of rejections you receive from journals. Starting out, you’ll get a lot of form rejections. Don Peteroy, author of Wally, offered similar guidance during a Q&A at UCF in November of 2012. He admitted to sending really bad stories to The New Yorker. When rejected, he took comfort in the fact that The New Yorker just “didn’t understand him,” but he continued to send his stories to the best journals out there. Perseverance not only goes a long way, but it teaches you a lot along the way.

Pay attention to the personal rejections you receive, which usually follow one of the three following formats:

  • It’s not you, it’s us: Unfortunately, the piece is not for us. This does not necessarily reflect the quality of your work.
  • Hollaback girl! Unfortunately, after much discussion, we ultimately decided we would have to pass this time around but we hope you will consider us in the future.
  • Tried & true: We wish you the best placing it elsewhere.

I treat the process of submitting my work like a full time job, because it is. If you take your writing seriously, journals will too. Do not limit yourself to specific markets, like genre-only, print-only, online-only, prose-only, rhyming-only, or non-simultaneous submissions. If you have a very niche poem or story, search for themed contests.

By following a loose set of rules, I’ve found great publishing success so far in 2016. My poem, “Blind Tomorrow,” was accepted for publication in print by Blue Monday Review, a quarterly Kansas City publication that draws inspiration from the works of Kurt Vonnegut. Then the title poem of my thesis collection, “The Gasoline Tree,” was accepted for online publication by Yellow Chair Review out of Waco, Texas. Then four of my poems were published online by The Galway Review in Ireland. I have two forthcoming publications to look forward to with Crab Fat Magazine and After Happy Hour Review. Of the seven rejection letters I received in June alone, five of them asked me to submit more work. What’s the secret?  I found most, if not all, of these journals by searching Duotrope’s database. Each journal profile page includes the following information: “Work submitted here was also submitted to…” and “Writers accepted here also had work accepted by…” Links are provided to the individual journals that fall under each of these categories. In this way, Duotrope makes it easy to see where other writers have submitted and received acceptances. It’s important to follow the trail of writers that are similar to you in style or content and keep a keen eye on what is publishing.

Brianne’s Submission Rules of Thumb:

  • Acceptance vs. rejection ratios: You have to have some kind of confidence to exclusively send your writing to markets with 1% or less acceptance ratios. You can find these ratios reported in the journals themselves or on Duotrope. Tough markets often take longer to get back to you too. I don’t necessarily want to wait 180 days for a NO, but that choice honestly depends on the poems being sent. I know my best poems and I usually always want to save them for more reputable journals. Just remember that all journals have a reputation. Do your research and explore their published examples. Do not be afraid of approachable or modest acceptance percentages, especially if your poem is niche or experimental. Journals with modest acceptance percentages are willing to take more chances than, say, Paris Review, The New Yorker, Tin House, or other fastidious journals.
  • Response time: As I mentioned above, journals have a variety of average response times. Some accept within two weeks or reject within four months while others reject within two weeks and accept in four months. Set realistic expectations based on statistics and proven success.
  • Print vs. online publication: Although your work is still as vital when published online as it is in print, I typically reserve my best pieces for journals that do publish in print. There’s always a risk of a website becoming defunct. This happened to me when I published my first poem online in Dead Beats, a UK literary blog dedicated to the Beat Generation. When I went back a year later to read new work, the site was nowhere to be found. Online-only journals cost less to run than those in print, and so many journals operate on volunteer readers and editors nowadays. Digital is unavoidable. Embrace it.
  • Pay vs. no-pay markets: We all want to get paid for our creative work. After all, I did spend five years in school earning my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. However, the likelihood of getting paid is very slim, and that is okay. In his March 2016 article, author Kevin Kruse offers 50 writing tips from his 15 years as an author, and his very last tip made a lasting impression on me: “Life is about making an impact, not an income. And writers who know what they’re doing make both.” You need to be smart. When my employer of three years had to close his company’s doors (a Friday, a week before my thesis defense, two months before grad school was done), I spent a single day moping and drinking before immediately taking to Facebook, which landed me an interview and a job that following Monday. I currently work as a Marketing Strategy Manager, and it’s not glamorous. I’m not writing creatively for a living, but I am developing an immeasurable amount of skills to help me succeed regardless of industry. With any downtime I have on weeknights or the weekend, I scour the internet looking for new journals. You can’t expect to be paid for each poem or short story you write, but you should always try. Why not?

Whether you’re a poet, an essayist, or the next Stephen King, the lesson I want you to walk away with is this: beyond the creativity and editing, remember to market yourself and your work. The publishing industry has never been fueled more by personal brand and self-promotion than today. Build yourself a website, an online portfolio, or mark your blog up with keywords to increase potential for traffic. Most of all, get excited about creative writing—it’s infectious.