Tag Archives: submissions

Shepherds at the gate

The journey to getting poetry published is hard enough as it is that to suggest there might be some benefit to having your work turned down may sound perverse. Increasingly, though, I feel as grateful to the editors who say no as I do to those who say yes.

That thought was initially prompted by something I read the other day and now can’t remember, but I was reminded of it by two recent blogs in which poets offer sideways looks at the poetry-publishing-machine. In Beyond Submissions, Naush Sabah questions just how much store poets should put in the validation of an acceptance from an editor they know little about. Some poems might be best shared by other means, without all the hassle and anxiety. Or not shared at all: it’s not an exact comparison, but think of the number of sketches a painter produces before the final picture.

In (Avoiding) Poetic Ecological Collapse, meanwhile, Jonathan Davidson suggests that a constant rush for publication may not only be unsustainable for our own writing but a distraction from all the other ways of engaging with words which the art needs to flourish. What happens when we see ourselves as custodians of the ‘commonwealth of poetry’, rather than toilers in our own private furlongs?

Writers sometimes see editors as gatekeepers and it is easy to see why. Rejections feel like being held back: if only they would let us through into the green pastures of publication! (You can blame Jonathan for the pastoral metaphors). But editors – and, increasingly, arts administrators, competition judges, mentors and funding bodies – also decide when to let the poet through, and in what form, and this inevitably shapes where they go next. Less gatekeepers, more shepherds. It is a big responsibility.

Sometimes I think it is a responsibility we don’t talk about enough. I have come across several books in the last few years – highly-acclaimed first or second collections from prestigious publishers – where I couldn’t understand why the editor hadn’t encouraged the poet to slim the collection down, or even wait until they had a stronger set of poems to work with. Perhaps they already had.

I doubt anyone reading this is going to feel sorry for poets sitting on the shelves in Waterstones (perhaps we should). My point is only that the rush to publication doesn’t even serve those who might appear to be benefiting from it. Few things are more important than affirmation, especially early on, but perhaps as important is being able to explore avenues you don’t end up going all the way down. Who knows what some writers might have gone on to if they had stayed in their chrysalises a little longer.1

There is an awkward tension here with the fact that so many poets (more and more, it seems to me) are also editors themselves. That DIY attitude goes back long before the internet. It is why poetry is so exciting and it helps keep it open. And the best editors, of course, take their pastoral responsibilities very seriously indeed. But magazines and small presses all need a steady stream of material to maintain their profile. And if we’re not editing, then we’re running workshops, or mentoring, and the end point of these schemes is often, implicity or explicitly, to speed up a poet’s ‘arrival’.

More and more of us, in short, are invested in saying ‘yes’, when the answer the poet really needs might be ‘later’. And yes, I’m aware of what a hostage to fortune that is…


1 I’m afraid I ran out of ovine metaphors.

Detail from ‘Strayed Sheep’ (also known as ‘Our English Coasts’) by William Holman Hunt, 1852.

A Year in (Not) Publishing

Like more people than you would imagine, I once had a whole spreadsheet keeping track of the poems I had written, the outlets I had submitted them to, and the results. I rarely look at it now. I have not published many poems recently, either. Partly this is just life. Letting go of a poem – researching magazines and preparing submissions, writing cover letters – takes a lot of time and concentration.

The digital world, and the amount of opportunities out there, creates the impression that getting a poem published is easier than it is. That ever-growing number of opportunities is at least partly a function of magazines being able to find their own audiences and more people having the tools to put platforms together in the first place. The benefit for writers and readers, no longer reliant on a narrow set of outlets, are huge. The effect on how we think about our own work is more ambiguous.

On the one hand, it’s too easy to get unrealistic expectations about how much anyone can or should be publishing. On the other, rejection (the most likely outcome, when even small magazines can only publish a tiny percentage of what they receive) only feeds a desire for more rejection. Comparisons with social media are hard to ignore: for every tweet you put out which gets no likes you want to do another. For every poem which got rejected, I would submit another elsewhere.

I have got a great deal out of writing this blog this year. The feedback is as immediate as social media, and more fulfilling. There is always a chance someone will read it, so it never feels pointless. I write about whatever I want, however I want: that anyone is listening at all is a luxury!

Yet having had a month or so away from blogging, I can see how my relationship with blogging might have some things in common with submitting poetry to magazines, or using social media: that feeling that I need to just keep publishing; that fear of rejection, which only feeds the desire to publish more.

Is there a solution? Jonathan Davidson suggests we broaden our understanding of what sharing poetry entails to include different kinds of reading, and to reach more non-poets – for instance, out loud, or at special occasions. I agree. Davidson is mainly talking about collections, but the insight can be extended to individual poems too. Why should the default ‘end point’ be publication in a magazine?

For most people I know, poetry is a marginal art, so it’s a fair assumption that by placing a poem in a magazine you will have a greater chance of finding an appreciative reader than sharing it with someone you know. But the end result of this way of thinking isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy which keeps poetry on the margins: it has implications for our idea of what a poem even is.

There are ways of rethinking how we share poetry among regular writers, too. I suspect a lot of writers engage with poetry groups and workshops, at least in part, as steps towards publication. But there is no reason why they have to be. I attended a regular poetry evening when I was at uni. None of the poems I wrote then will ever see the light of day, but I have rarely felt so much like I knew why I was writing.

My own solution over the last few years has been to try to publish less poetry, and more writing about poetry. I can see this wouldn’t appeal to everyone. It may end up with me not publishing any of my own poetry at all. But I’ve also found that I appreciate poetry – writing it and reading it – more, not less.