A Poet's Double Life

For poets working outside the literary world.

Lessons from a Publication Virgin


I’m coming to the end of my first month of publication boot camp. Yesterday, I submitted 4 out of the 5 required submissions. Of course, I procrastinated until almost the last possible date. I could blame it on the Charlotte trip last weekend, but really it’s the intimidation factor. How can my poems compete with the likes of Marilyn Nelson, Billy Collins, and Kim Addonizio? Or even my previous VCFA advisers, Rick Jackson and Ralph Angel? But I faced my fears and sent my poems out in the world. I thought I’d share what I learned in case there are others out there like me, who want publish but don’t know where to start.

How to prepare a submission: To start, I printed out all of the poems I thought were ready and grouped them according to which poems complemented each other in terms of theme or style. I wanted poems that varied a bit in terms of length and form to demonstrate my poetic versatility (or so I hoped). During this process, I found myself tweaking line breaks, rearranging stanzas, and even, holding back some of those “ready-to-send” poems for next month. Then I needed to prepare the submission itself. Like any other workout regimen, there’s a learning curve in how to prepare poetry submissions. The best advice I read was on Poetic Asides: follow the submissions guideline to a T. This post also had sample cover letters, which I promptly copied and edited for my own purposes. Because I don’t have a long track record for publication, I kept the part about lauding my laurels in the cover letter short. Based on my own experience as a reviewer for Hunger Mountain, the cover letter is not as important as the poems themselves.

Where to publish: OMG! There are so many literary magazines and journals out there, it is impossible to keep up with them all. Luckily, I frequent the periodicals section of UNC Davis Library. Sometimes I just walk through the stacks in alphabetical order, grabbing armloads of recent issues off the shelves. I take about two hours to browse through literary journals to discover poets I’ve never heard of and keep abreast of what’s hot in contemporary American poetry (or at least what is getting published). For those “new-to-me” poets, I usually go up to the 8th floor to find their most recently published book to read other poems and figure out other places they’ve been published. Those lit mags go on my mental list to read the next time I’m browsing through the stacks. Recommendations also come from the places where my poet-friends have been accepted or rejected.

What to send where: Every lit mag says they want your best work, but not all of them take simultaneous submissions. So then you have to decide what to send where. This is where being familiar with the lit mag helps because it gives me a sense of which poems I could see published there. All guidelines state the maximum number of poems per submission. Again, I can draw upon my experience as a reviewer. Hunger Mountain accepts up to 10 poems, but I only need to read 3 poems to get a sense of the poet’s work. So each of my submissions contained 3 poems, with the exception of Cimarron Review, which got 4 poems with titles beginning with the letter T (not sure how that happened). I included the last poem, “Tour Guide at Río Camuy Caverns,” after reading the three most recent issues at the library.

The final step in this lesson is waiting—which I’ve just started learning how to do.

Author: poetsdoublelife

Poet and strategy/data guru living in Massachusetts.

3 thoughts on “Lessons from a Publication Virgin

  1. great post. I created a zines list for fellow writers, if you’re interested. I use it for reference when I’m seeking what mags to submit to. http://poetrycurator.wordpress.com/zines/

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