Poetry submissions: a cautionary tale

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One thing I’m looking forward to over the summer is seeing some of my recent poems appear in journals and anthologies. It’s always a thrill, even after all these years, to have my writing published – whether it’s features for magazines, short stories or poetry.

However, getting published, after all this time, can still feel rather arbitrary – unless of course you’re a paid-up desk writer, or regular contributor who can expect to be in every issue of whatever publication you’ve built your relationship with.

If – as it is for many poets – getting published is about sending a small group of poems to the poetry editor of a journal that you think suits your work, or chancing it with a prestigious publication because you’d just love to be included, then you’ll know that it can feel like closing your eyes, crossing your fingers and making a wish.

Some people talk about hit rates. Send out 10 and see if one gets published. “My hit rate is about 20 per cent,” you’ll hear someone say. Is that good, or bad? Who knows. What’s clear about hit rates, however, is that over any given period of time it’s unlikely to be steady. Seemingly easy-won success can be followed by a real, arduous drought.

My own recent successes have come at the end of such a period. It’s been like crossing a desert. How come?

Write, write, write

I’ve done so much writing over the past year. It’s been a rollercoaster. It’s been like chasing my tail. It’s been a brick wall, a mountain, a river. It’s been a cliche.

I’ve submitted to so many places, too. Poets may recognise that the weekends are the worst. That’s when the editors of journals get a quiet moment to send the rejection emails.

I moaned to Ella, my wife. I moaned to the poetry crew on social media. I moaned to my local poet friends. And my other friends. I couldn’t get arrested, is what I said.

I was doing something wrong. It must be my subject matter. Maybe I was in some kind of artistic transition period, and it showed. Or it must be my poetic diction. It must be my reference points, my influences, my peripherality, my humour, my intellect, some oddball nature, my clothes, my haircut, my cat. And I don’t even have a cat. Was that the problem?

Something was in the way. Some barrier, some mark that I couldn’t see but which was stopping all and sundry from taking on my work.

And then the advice: change your style; re-work; go to a workshop; be more sociable; approach different people; just keep sending it; believe in yourself; don’t change a thing; trust what you do; you’re your own best critic; keep at it. Or maybe just stop.

And the thing is…

…the thing is that ultimately it is, was, and always will be, only ever about me and the words.

And so I settled into some kind of post self-psychotherapy stage of acceptance, where I could come to terms with the fact that what I was doing was niche, or difficult, or at least not for everyone. Whether I was ahead of the times or behind them, up to the mark or wide of the mark, or if I didn’t even like the whole generalised notion that there WAS a mark, well, whatever.

You know – THAT stage of acceptance: outwardly, accepting; inwardly, seething.

Nothing happened. Nothing happened at all.

The meaning of success

So why am I sat on a small pile of acceptance emails? How come some editors recently said ‘yes’ to a bunch of poems that other editors had rejected? How come I sent out some poems which I’d previously sat on for months, and they were immediately accepted?  Had I been wrong to hold them back?

Why? Why now? Why these poems? What changed?

The answer, like I say, is nothing.

I’m an editor, too, with Dunlin Press, and we’ve recently sent a tranche of acceptance and rejection letters out. Sometimes we’ve accepted one poem from a writer, but rejected others. Sometimes we’ve loved a poem but had no space for it. You have to see beyond a single piece of work and think about the whole, the bigger picture. Except… sometimes the individual poem somehow demands to be used.

Is there a methodology? Are some poems simply ‘better’?

Of course not. Some poems do work better: there’s more depth to them, or they say something fresh, or say something freshly. Some use language unexpectedly and it seems to work. Others do similar but are maybe judged not to work so well. Some poems you just like. Some poems remind you of other poems and excite you because of it. Some poems remind you of other poems and feel stale because of it. Really, it’s unpredictable.

In any case, I’m really happy to be having some poems published in a few different places over the next few months.

Just don’t ask me how it happened. It’s still crazy after all these years.

MWB