Poetry markets are thriving
Published: August 10, 2003
|In literary journals and small presses, from seasoned poets and new, verse is vibrant|
According to one poetry editor, the current market for poetry is competitive yet thriving. "There's a broad range of poetics being published and flourishing, anywhere from formalism to language poetry," says Thom Ward, editor and development director of BOA Editions, Ltd., an independent, not-for-profit poetry publishing house. In addition to small presses such as BOA and Copper Canyon Press, which focus exclusively on poetry, many literary journals and magazines publish large numbers of poems, spotlighting the work of both established and emerging writers.
For example, BOA Editions introduces up to 10 new titles annually, and reprints 10 to 15 of their bestselling titles each year. Current titles include Smoke by Dorianne Laux,
Tell Me by Kim Addonizio and Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 by Lucille Clifton, which won the 2000 National Book Award for poetry.
One bimonthly publication, Poetry, publishes an average of more than 30 poems--by approximately 20 poets--per issue. Poetry Editor Joseph Parisi says the publication receives more than 90,000 poems a year, out of which it can publish only about 350.
However, he offers this encouragement to new poets: "Every famous author began as an unknown. We're in the business of discovery. One-third of our authors are first appearances, and many are still in school." Parisi says that even though Poetry is one of the better-known poetry venues, it is still one of the publications most receptive to new talent.
Several small presses are continually looking for new talent, and sponsor yearly contests seeking poetry manuscripts from writers who have not yet published their first books [watch The Writer's "Contests" section inside the Writers wanted department]. Additionally, many literary journals and poetry publications offer respectable sums for poetry--anywhere from $2 per line to $250 per poem or group of short poems--but poets need to search out these markets. "A writer just has to do their research to find those venues that are publishing the kind of poetry that they may be writing," says Ward.
The tricky part for even prolific and dedicated poets is finding markets that pay for their work--and finding the time between writing and, often, another full-time job to submit, submit, submit. Only a few writers in the United States, such as Lyn Lifshin, make a living solely from writing poetry.
Poetry editors are busy, and may receive thousands of poems each month. To ensure that your work receives proper consideration, make sure it's the best it can be before submitting it. Following are some more tips.
Read. Read poems you like, poems you dislike. What works? What doesn't? How is language used? Even if you ask, "How did this hack get published?", at least you're reading. "You should be a reader of poetry long before you're a writer of it," says Ward.
Especially read the publications to which you plan to submit. Get a feel for what they publish. This not only will assist you in submitting your material to publications that publish work similar to yours, but will help support the poetry market in general, including those particular publications and your poetry colleagues. "It may seem like common sense to read the magazine, but it's amazing how many people send in stuff that's not appropriate to the publication. See if you're on the same wavelength as the publication by reading it," says Parisi.
Examine. Look at your own work closely. Ask the same questions of your own work that you have asked of others' poems: What works? What doesn't? Then ask: Did I say everything I wanted to say? Is it understandable? Finally, look at your work objectively in terms of markets. Ask, "What type of people might enjoy my poetry?" Compile a list of publications or book publishers that publish work somewhat similar to yours. Again, read those publications and books.
Share. Some newer poets consider their work to be private. Don't. If you plan to submit your poetry, get feedback from a trusted critique group, class, teacher or even knowledgeable friends or relatives. If your poetry is published, many people will read it, so set it free among friendly readers first.
Revise. Any problems in your verse should be solved before you submit it for publication. Edit your work until it's perfect. Walk away from it for awhile, and then go back and revise again. "Poetry is a marathon, not a sprint," says Ward. As with all writing, if an editor doesn't stumble over typos while reading your work, it increases the chances that it will end up on a published page rather than in the circular file.
Request. Contact your intended markets--whether small poetry presses or publications--with a written request for guidelines, and send a SASE with your request. Some publishers won't even look at your manuscript if it doesn't adhere to their specific guidelines.
Compile and connect. Collect the number of poems requested in the poetry publication's or publisher's guidelines. Publications will list how many poems they prefer to receive from each poet, and book publishers will spell out how long your manuscript should be.
If you're submitting a book manuscript, make sure your poems connect in some way. Ward notes that a collection of poems is not necessarily a book manuscript. The themes of the poems should touch on one another, like parts of a symphony, he says. "The poems need to have a relationship with each other. If we receive 100 poems and 50 of them are good, it's still a collection of poems, not a manuscript. We don't have the time to pull out the good ones," he says. The poet should do that before submitting, he advises.
Present. When compiling your poems--whether just a few or a collection for a book--present them as both readable and appealing. "With a staff of only three, we have so much work to do; editorial duties are a small amount," says Ward. "If a writer gives us a chance not to read their manuscript--poor presentation, hard-to-read dot matrix type--we'll take it."
Submit. Following the publisher's guidelines, send in your poems. It is essential to include a SASE for a response, and indicate whether you would like your manuscript returned or recycled. For poetry, queries generally are not necessary--just send a small sampling of your work.
Parisi recommends sending no more than four poems to publications. "Editors can always ask for more," he says. "If you're sending huge batches, you have to think of the psychological factor--it's oppressive for the first readers to face." Parisi says that despite the large volume of submissions Poetry receives, its first readers do read every submission that comes in--and often write comments on them, unlike most other magazines today.
Your chances are also better if you address your submission to the correct person, says Ward. "We're very visible, but we constantly see manuscripts addressed to our publisher, who died five years ago. People are still writing letters to a dead man," he says.
Continue to polish your writing skills and edit your poems until they're the best they can be. If pay is not a primary issue, go ahead and submit your work to even nonpaying venues you admire. Many excellent and much-acclaimed publications have budget constraints and can only afford to pay their contributors in copies or a subscription.
If you'd rather hold out for pay, see the latest edition of The Writer's Handbook. While poetry may not be the most lucrative type of writing, many publications are more than willing to pay for stellar work.
--Posted Aug. 10, 2003