My Advice to Poets, Part II- Getting Out There

Originally posted on Wednesday, ‎May ‎11, ‎2011, ‏‎11:03:00 AM

Once you’ve gotten down steps 1 through 9 on Monday’s post

1. Start thinking of poetry as professional in addition to artistic.

If publication is where you want to go (see Part I, #1), you need to start thinking of poetry as a job and not just a hobby. This might sound stark in comparison to the beauty and creativity of composing poetry, but it’s a reality of the field. Just like with fiction and nonfiction, when you’re not actively writing (everything from editing to submitting), you need to put your business hat on. Poetry is an art, but it’s also a professional field. Give it that respect. Which means…

2. Format correctly.

Some people swear they have to write their poetry long-hand first. Or center-aligned. Or double-spaced. Fine. Write it that way. But after you finish it, make it standard formatting. You might rebel; you might think that standard formatting ruins the “art.” Get over it. If you’re going pro, you really need to use standard rules unless the deviation MEANS something crucial to the poem. Poetry is cryptic enough without leaving out all of your commas and capitalizing the first word of each line. Punctuate as you would prose. The goal here is clarity, not obscurity. Aside from that: 1” margins, 12 pt. Times New Roman, left justified, title bold or underlined, single spaced, black font, white paper, end of story.

3. Start entering contests.

Not all contests cost money. Use credible resources like Poet’s Market and Poets and Writers to track down contests that suit your work. After a few dozen entries, if you’re not winning or publishing anything, reevaluate your progress and venues. Get more feedback. Don’t give up.

4. Submit to literary journals, magazines, and blogs.

Use databases like Duotrope to search out venues to submit to for publication of individual poems. Research each venue (read a copy or two) before you submit – this is not only professional courtesy, as you won’t be wasting editors’ time with material totally off base, but also heightens your chances of getting accepted. There really is no shortcut to this step.

5. Honesty is the best policy.

If a venue or contest says no simultaneous submissions, don’t double submit. Don’t enter previously published work in new contests. Even if you get away with it, it’s not a good idea. Your reputation is the most important thing about your professionalism. Don’t ruin it. Word gets around.

6. Don’t let your poetry expire.

This is just my opinion, but with individual poems, don’t worry about starting from the top. The wonderful thing about poems is that they’re short. You’ll never run out, and it’s much easier to work your way up than down. Small venues lead to publication credits that make it easier to be accepted at big venues. That being said, don’t submit to a venue that you would be ashamed to put on your resume.

7. Learn and experiment with both traditional forms and free verse, even if it’s not your thing.

Why limit the number of potential weapons in your arsenal? You’ll never know until you try.

8. Keep it fresh.

There are some things that have been done so many times they’ve become trite. Try to avoid writing about these topics:

environmental issues

I’m not saying you can’t discuss these things. For example, there is nothing wrong with love poems. But to keep it fresh, don’t talk about Love with a capital “L.” Make it specific – a story or minute detail that will stick with the reader and whisper your message instead of shout it. And occasionally, of course, it’s fine to include broader poems in your collections, but don’t expect them to be published as stand-alone pieces unless they’re really fresh.

9. “Playing to the judges” is really just improving your poetry.

I’ve judged a few poetry contests, and I critique poetry regularly. Editors are essentially judging your poetry as well. Is it good enough to appear in their publication? Here’s how I evaluate a poem – the things I look for:

• Emotional honesty. Does it “ring true”? Am I left feeling like someone just told me a powerful secret?
• Skill. Just like all arts, there needs to be some level of raw talent.
• Originality, also known as “freshness.” See #8.
• Content. Is the subject matter interesting?
• Cleverness/turn of phrase (part of skill).
• Professionalism/presentation. Is it free of typos and misspellings? Does it have standard formatting? (See #2.)
• Accuracy. Is it correct?

• If a poem states that it is a certain form, it needs to actually be that form and adhere to the rules of that form. If it is close to a form but not quite, label it a “___(form name)___ variation.” (I.e.: villanelle variation.) Also, you can’t just call a love poem a sonnet. A sonnet is a form with a specific rhyme scheme and meter requirements. A ballad is not just a poem that “tells a story.” It is actually a form. And you can’t enter a rhymed poem in a free verse category. You will be disqualified. Know these things before you submit.
• It drives me crazy when a poem uses a rhymed word pronounced incorrectly. When in doubt, look it up.
• If you have any checkable facts in your work, check them. I’ve read beautiful poems that have incorrect info as the basis. No one will want to publish that, because they’ll get 100 letters pointing out the mistake.

Best of luck, happy writing, and don’t give up.

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