Saturday, June 30, 2007

Legitimate Famous Poet Semi-Finalist

Now I understand the need to aim advice at beginning poets, most of whom are still learning the basics of publishing. It makes sense to at first teach the general rules before getting into more complicated stuff. So you start off by saying "Before submitting read the magazine -- become familiar with the style and content of what they publish. If you decide your work is a fit, follow the submission guidelines." You can repeat that 100 times and still a significant percentage will ignore that advice because they're too busy or can't be bothered or aren't interested in reading. Those people will send out massive quantities of submissions and will almost always be rejected because:

1. They didn't follow the guidelines.
2. The work wasn't appropriate for the magazine.
3. The poems suck because they're written by people who read very little poetry and don't know the first thing about it.

It's just the way things are -- and when editors are asked for tips/advice on how to get published they often go into a crazed tirade about people not following the guidelines and not being familiar with what their magazines publish -- because they get so many of these types of submissions, over and over, every single day, it's maddening.

This is the way it will always be. People joke about starting a Poetry Idol. Every magazine's slush pile is Poetry Idol -- minus the TV airplay and telephone voting.

It's also important to warn the unsuspecting of scams where they could potentially be bilked out of money or explaining that their self-published book is unlikely be stocked at any bookstores. Of course, few poetry books are stocked in bookstores period.

There's so much basic information about publishing that people don't know. I remember the difficulty I had explaining to my dad what I was doing when I started my own micropress -- how yes while I was publishing one of my chapbooks, I was mostly publishing other poet's works. He didn't understand, why was I doing that? Why weren't they doing it themselves? Were they paying me? I found myself taking books off of his own shelf and pointing to the spine, "See this? This is the author. He wrote this book. See this? This is the publisher. They put the book together, they're marketing it, they're arranging for distribution, etc."

It's like when I was 17 and my dad was teaching me how to to drive, explaining how a car engine worked, how I was going to be responsible for making sure my oil was changed regularly and not driving around on a flat tire.

I was all "I don't care about any of this. I just want my driver's license. Stop bothering me with these annoying details! I just want to drive. Stop holding out and tell me the secret to passing the test. I'm ready already!"

Back when I was a kid and my aunt wrote a book and somehow she hooked up with an agent that said she wrote just like Tom Clancy (somebody she never heard of at the time) -- and she liked to brag about how this agent was very successful and wore a lot of big gold chains. I was a kid and I'm not remembering everything, and I'm not sure if she paid him anything, but it sounded pretty fishy at the time (she was even talking about it being made into a movie). I have another aunt who paid several hundred dollars for children's writing correspondance course and they sent her a certificate that she hung on her wall.

Did they get scammed? Probably. But those experiences gave them validation and made them feel good. On the other hand those experiences never got their work into any kind of print or to any readers. So I guess the question did they get what they wanted?

We can apply this same criteria to the "legitimate" options out there. I paid to attend two different MFA programs. The first one something along the line of $9k in out-of-state tuition. Did I get what I wanted? Hell no, that's why I left. The second I paid $20k. Did I get what I wanted? Somewhat. I have my *terminal* degree. I received a pretty good education. Made some dear friends. But it really didn't teach me much about publishing, well it tried, I was given advice -- advice that wasn't particularly applicable to my situation or interests, but "legitimate" advice nonetheless. To be honest, I learned more about editing and publishing from working four years at AOL. I didn't realize it at the same, didn't appreciate it, but I learned a lot there *and* they were paying ME. Also, I've learned WAY more about contemporary poetry, different styles reading poetry blogs and online magazines. Was I scammed? No, but any ideas I had of the program/degree "making me a poet" were extremely naive. I was already writing poems -- already a poet. Did I become a better poet? Sure. The opportunity to have other poets read, discuss and give critical feedback can be very helpful. Were there other ways of becoming a better poet? You betcha. Did I become a master poet or a master of the poetry field? No. And I hope I'm never considered a "master" of anything. As far as I'm concerned, that's a pretty offensive concept.

The first couple years out of grad school I spent around $1000 on first book contest fees. Did I get scammed? Well, I feel really foolish for doing so. It was a poor way to spend my money. I could have bought a lot of books with that money. I could have put out a lot DIY books with that money.

But I wasn't as foolish and naive as my aunts were, was I? I mean, sure I spent a heck of a lot more money than they ever did -- but I did it "legitimately" -- didn't I?

Legitimate Poet hah hah hah

No wonder this is all so confusing to people new to publishing.

No wonder so many one-time contest enterers, post-MFAs are saying This stinks. I'll do it myself.

But aren't I encouraging hoards of awful, untrained, unskilled people from writing and self-publishing mountains of dreck?

I don't know, what does it matter? Do I hang out at tennis courts and tell the crappy players to get off the court? Do I shout "Get off the stage!" at Karaoke bars?

Maybe if I'm drunk.

I'm not drunk now.



At 5:04 PM, Blogger Mom said...

Hi Reb,

I think you're three reasons for not getting accepted are good, but I don't think they're the only reasons. Often the "guidelines" just say that the poet submitting should buy the magazine, send so many poems, and so on. Most magazines are not very cohesive, so it's hard to pin down a real style. Also, don't you think most editors will publish someone known or a friend before they resort to the slush pile? Do you think that editors read all the work by a certain poet or just one poem?

I am not big on self-publishing. I guess I'm old fashioned. I feel the work is more valid when some else chooses to put it out into the world. I also am not sure I would tell a young poet not to send out massd submissions. I think this is the only way to get work accepted. It makes more work for editors...but that's our job!

Jen B.

At 5:35 PM, Blogger Reb said...

Oh Jen, I never said those are the only reasons why work gets rejected, heavens no. But they're common beginner reasons -- NTM gets a ton of them every week. And those submissions are very quick to spot and reject, so I'm not complaining about the work as an editor.

As a "young" poet I mass submitted a lot -- that never worked for me and I'd strongly recommend against it. I wasted a heck of a lot of time, paper and postage. Years and years worth. I didn't start placing my work until I started reading more magazines and found suitable places for my work.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger K. Silem Mohammad said...

This post should be required reading for all aspiring poets. Not that it would do any good.

At 6:17 PM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

I submitted a manuscript to contests regularly for five or six years. Got close a few times, but spent a lot of money and got no book out of it. (And postage for me is higher, from Switzerland.)

In 2006, I decided to stop submitting my manuscript for a year. I still haven't started again. Individual poems to journals, yes. Manuscript, no.

Because it was frustrating? No. Because it was expensive? No. Because it was boring. I simply got bored with the whole process. No feedback, no nothing. With individual poems, one does actually get some feedback -- acceptance, of course, but also (more often than guidelines imply) rejections with comments about which poems the editors were leaning towards.

With the manuscript-submission "system" that has evolved in the U.S. these days, it is almost impossible to get any feedback on a poetry manuscript. And after a while, that's just boring.

At 6:28 PM, Blogger DeadMule said...

I'm shopping a book manuscript now. I'm starting with places I can submit free. If none of them pan out, I guess I'll spend a bit of money. Self-publisheing is years down the pike. Why? I haven't paid a penny to publish tow chapbook, although I've given away a lot of copies I've paid for. I want a publisher who will pay me. I want someone to choose my poems. I want someone who will put my book in Barnes and Noble for me, not leave me against the world.

At 7:51 PM, Blogger jeannine said...

I think the best publication education I got was volunteering as a reviewer at In a year or two, I had read hundreds of journals, journals I would never have found in my local stores. And then being told to start writing book reviews - that was what made me think about what makes a book good, or well-organized, or whatever. These things were done outside of my MA (English - where I learned a lot of interesting feminist theory) or MFA - (where the best part was just chatting with the faculty writers and getting their advice about the regular-every-day stuff of being a writer.) But "learning to get published" was sort of an outside project for me. I highly recommend both book reviewing and literary magazine reviewing to folks starting out. It will force you to read critically - piles and piles of reading you might otherwise blow off.

At 9:04 PM, Blogger Ross White said...

To answer Jen's comment that editors are more likely to choose a friend over the slush pile, I don't think that's necessarily true. Editors aren't generally so mercenary that they publish work that scratches the back of someone important. They publish the best work available. If that comes from the slush pile, so be it. Otherwise, why would anyone allow unsolicited work?

I also believe that reading just one poem in a submission would be foolish. But I can't speak universally here-- my magazine publishes only poems of nine lines or less, so if the work is hideous, there's not much of it to suffer through.

Reb, to address a question you ask at the end of your post, "But aren't I encouraging hoards of awful, untrained, unskilled people from writing and self-publishing mountains of dreck?" -- sure you are, but wouldn't you rather that the work rot unsold on Cafepress or Lulu than grace your desk?

I'm going to start telling new poets the following:

In addition to publishing, I'm thinking about becoming an agent just for poets, and I'll say up front that I won't shop your book around, just your poems to various magazines. I'll charge you a $25 reading fee just to see if I want to shop your work. Then, since you'll never make any money off of the individual poems, and I can't charge 10%, I'll actually charge you $10 every time one of your poems is accepted. So what do you get for that money, new poet? Well, you'll publish your work a lot faster, because I actually read the magazines where I'll be sending your work, and can match your work with a publication that is likely to take it.

Is my poetry agency a scam? Hell yes! I bet some people would still hop on board, just to pay me to read for them.

At 9:16 PM, Blogger Reb said...

Ross, I think there are already submissions services out there -- and from what I've heard, they're not particularly good. But don't let me discourage your scam dream!

At 9:22 PM, Blogger Glenn Ingersoll said...

Reb, your post is very good. I know because I agree with it. That means it's totally excellent.

And Ross's idea isn't a scam. It's a service.

At 12:03 AM, Blogger Ross White said...

Well, if none of these services has figured out, "Hey, I have a bunch of clients, so now I'm going to start a magazine to feature them, and get paid $10 for every poem I feature," then my scam is intact.

Oh, and no free contributor's copies. But family and friends can buy a hardbound copy of the newest issue for $38.

At 8:40 AM, Blogger sam of the ten thousand things said...

Enjoyed this discussion and comments, Reb. The whole process is mountain and a multitude of canyons.

At 11:20 AM, Blogger Mom said...

I don't think poetry is something people should be in for money, fame, or even publication. I think that poetry is something one does because they have no choice.

At 12:42 PM, Blogger Robert said...

I love your tennis comparison. It reminds me of William Matthews' wonderful poem "Mingus at the Showplace," about being a 17-year-old poet going to see Mingus. Here's an excerpt; you'll see the connection to your post!

And I knew Mingus was a genius. I knew two
other things, but as it happened they were wrong.

So I made him look at the poem.
“There’s a lot of that going around,” he said,

and Sweet Baby Jesus he was right. He glowered
at me but he didn’t look as if he thought

bad poems were dangerous, the way some poets do.
If they were baseball executives they’d plot

to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game
could be saved from children ...

At 1:22 PM, Blogger Reb said...

Jen, exactly! Which is why it makes no sense to treat poems like commodities and follow some kind of scarcity market model.

Robert, yes, very true. Thanks for sharing the poem.

At 4:49 PM, Blogger JimK said...

Reading the magazine is extra
importance with every one having
different preferences. I think
a great deal of poetry gets wasted
that could have been appreciated somewhere else, assuming it's above
a certain quality level. I know
that's a subtle point, but it's a
positive one. It also seems that
looking at the editor's poetry is
invalid. What they like and what
they do are two different things.

At 2:16 PM, Blogger shann said...

excellent discussion!!!

At 9:53 AM, Blogger NancyB. said...

This is a great post, Reb. It's gotten to the point that I jump to telling poets to self-publish pretty swiftly, especially if I sense they're going to have a hard time placing their work in journals to start with. I use my own experience with chapbooks as an example--that I've had two published but have spent so much buying author copies that I could have published them myself and had a bigger print run besides. I don't have the time or energy (or talent) for self-promotion, so I don't sell many; I wind up giving them to people I want to have them.

I don't think you're unleashing a tidal wave of bad writing, necessarily. The kind of poets I often talk to are playing to their "base," so to speak. I encourage them to schedule readings at their churches and community centers and have their chapbooks on sale there. I get the impression that some of them do pretty well handselling to their own circles.



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