Poems & Essays

24 Mar

Your Name Here

The 25th Hour No Response

Print. Print. It’s an awe-inspiring word—at least it is to me. After a career in magazine publishing, how could I not think print was the be-all and end-all of a writer’s life? A stack of literary magazines including—oh joy—poems of mine! A couple of small books of—yes—my own verses!

But once I started writing poetry seriously and sending it out to the wide world, suddenly I was on the other end of the rejection letter. As a magazine editor, I’d turned away lots of writers, so I knew a form letter when I saw one. Oh, there were rays of hope: “Your poems were among those we retained for serious consideration, so please be encouraged,” wrote one thoughtful editor. But there were many more of the brusque “sorry, we can’t use your work” replies.

Fair enough. Every other person on the planet seems to be writing poems, and we can’t all make it into print. Actually, I never expected to be published. For me, just having an absorbing new pursuit was enough—new writers to discover, new groups to join, new classes to take. I was working at becoming a poet and enjoying it. I told myself I didn’t care if anyone ever read my poems—I just wanted to write them, and rewrite them, and rewrite them again. And if I coaxed out a striking image or a strong line, I was thrilled.

It was sheer serendipity that led to a slender volume you could once get on Kindle for pocket change. Some years ago, I put together a little batch of poems as a Christmas trinket for friends I could count on not to laugh. I took it to a nearby independent print shop, and when I went to pick the copies up, the owner had a message for me.

“Call this publisher,” she said. “I showed her your work when she came in with a job of her own, and she wants to talk.”

In the annals of How to Get Published, this constitutes a footnote called Blind Luck. But beneath the surface was a thread of connection. The print shop owner was a woman whose small business had not (yet) been snapped up by a big chain. The publisher was a woman who had launched her company from her house. And I was, like many writers, working alone in the spare room. We were all, in some way, women on our own, following something we believed in, something with no guarantee of success, something that mattered to us.

Granted, I came at things a little backwards, lucking into a publishing contract before I had done much more than dip a toe in the roiling waters of submitting. But I’ve been swimming in that sea ever since, and I’ve learned a few lessons I hope make sense for writers of any genre:

  1. Online is just as good as print. I’ve changed my tune. Sure, it’s nice to hold that journal in your hands, but when you’re published online, your mother, your best friend, your boss—just about anyone who cares—can read your stuff. More to the point, so can journal editors if they want to see more of your work.
  2. Know the market. And that includes knowing which journals are right for you. I came up before MFA degrees were common, but now a large proportion of lit mags (and writers) are associated with MFA programs. And many of them (it seems to me), have a strong preference for Modernist or Postmodern writing that is more imagistic than narrative. Is that your style? Then go for it. But don’t forget there are plenty of other journals, both print and online, that have a more eclectic approach.
  3. Submit often and widely. I find it’s helpful to set aside one afternoon a week to check calls for submissions and polish up groups of poems that seem right for the journals at hand. Good sources of info are the classifieds on New Pages, The Review Review, and Poets & Writers. For a small fee, you can also get tailor-made monthly lists of deadlines and calls for submissions from Literistic. And be sure to browse a journal before you decide whether to submit. Even print-only journals often include a sprinkling of poems and stories online that will give you a feel for what the editors are looking for.
  4. Keep careful track. Now that most submissions are made online, many through Submittable, you’ve got a head start on tracking which pieces you sent to which journals and when. But that might not be enough when a poem you’ve submitted simultaneously to a bunch of journals is accepted by one of them. Keeping some sort of searchable database—the subscription-based Duotrope, for example, or even a simple Word table—lets you quickly find who you need to contact about withdrawing the poem. (You were going to do that, right?) Sure, it’s just one more step, but withdrawing a poem gets your name in front of an editor again and carries the subliminal message that, hey, somebody really likes your work.
  5. Follow the guidelines. Well, of course. But it’s easy to miss the fact that one journal only accepts .doc documents, not .docx, for example. Or the fact that, unlike journals that only read blind, this one wants your name and contact info on the first page. Or, my personal favorite, the chapbook contest that wants no page numbers on the contents page. Huh?
  6. Don’t give up. It’s a numbers game. Some say about 90 percent of submissions are sifted out by readers before even reaching an editor’s desk. Add the fact that the editors of most literary journals are unpaid part-time volunteers, then add the hundreds of submissions they receive every month or so, then add the highly subjective nature of editorial decisions, and your chances aren’t, let’s face it, all that good. That’s why you need to cast a wide net with your submissions. In a recent post on The Review Review, poet Ralph Monday recommends sending the same group of poems to at least five different journals at the same time. “But,” he adds, “10-20 simultaneous submissions seems to produce the most favorable results.”

Case in point: A poet friend just won a prestigious award for a poem that hadn’t found favor with other editors. “This poetry stuff is a fickle business, n’est ce pas?” he said in an email.

To which I say, oui, but read widely, submit wisely, and carry on. If you believe in your craft and keep honing it, you’re bound to see your name in print. Or, of course, online.—Sally Zakariya


Columnist Sally Zakariya’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Tishman Review, Apeiron Review, Broadkill Review, Edge, Emerge, Third Wednesday, and Evening Street Review, and has won prizes from Poetry Virginia and the Virginia Writers Club. She is the author of Insectomania (2013) and Arithmetic and other verses (2011) and the editor of Joys of the Table, an anthology of poems about food and eating. Zakariya lives in Arlington, Virginia, and blogs at www.butdoesitrhyme.com.

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