Want to be published? Four painful facts and a morality tale
Want to publish your poetry? Go for it. But first read my Four Painful Facts and a Morality Tale.
This article hopes to elucidate a few of the more world-weary truths around the publishing of poetry in 2012 (almost 2013) with various bits about Robert Frost thrown in for good measure. First, the Painful Facts.
Painful Fact 1
According to that source of all wisdom Wikipedia, the American poet Robert Frost was paid today’s equivalent of about $400 for his first poem. With respect, it’s not gonna happen. If it’s money you’re after, choose another art form/profession. Write commercials, take up banking, invent the iPod.
Even the few known names that can reliably expect to get their work into high street bookshops (Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Sean O’Brien) have to do the lecture circuit and appearances at Southbank/Hay/Aldeburgh and judge endless competitions in order to put food on the table. Being lauded and applauded on a series of literary festivals around the country? So exhausting! But that sort of suffering we can do. Bring it on.
Painful Fact 2
There are comparatively few readers of poetry and therefore the “target audience” is very small. It follows that there are only a few small press publishers and their lists quickly fill up. Mostly they operate on a shoestring budget and what they really need – and would love beyond anything - is more people to buy their existing books before they worry about taking on new poets. There are a few big boys in the poetry publishing world: Faber, Carcanet, Enitharmon, Bloodaxe. If you get a collection published by any of these guys, let me know your secret.
Painful Fact 3
Assuming that someone agrees to publish your work (you lucky thing) most publishers will only publish original work. That means that no matter how carefully you have crafted your Keats-ian sonnet – even if the work is indistinguishable from that of the deceased master himself, with not an iamb out of place – once it has appeared in print, that’s more or less it. However, poems that have been published in individual magazines may still appear later in another publisher’s full collection.
Which brings me to publication on the internet. In theory, this should be easier. However, it’s worth remembering that poetry appearing on a website is still considered published; if you put poems on a personal blog etc most paper publishers will not want them, because the work is no longer considered original. Nor will the poem be eligible for entry into competitions. This is fine if you have dashed off your masterpiece in five minutes, but less so if you’ve spent two years working on something. On the other hand, if your personal blog has thousands of readers then your poem will be seen by many more people than would ever see a paper copy. It’s all a question of balance.
Apply to those publishers who interest you, and whose work you like to read. Do read existing publications from a particular press before applying to send your own work. There are two very good reasons for this – well, hundreds of very good reasons – but two main ones. There are many different types of poetry, and publishers tend to lean towards particular categories. The poetry that you connect with as a reader is likely to be kin to the poetry you are writing. This is important when seeking a publisher. Take our perfect Keats-ian sonnet (indistinguishable from the work of the deceased master etc ) mentioned above. There is no point in sending this to a magazine that publishes edgy, post-modern work. Similarly if you have a piece of installation poetry which has moving parts and requires a space the size of Southbank … you get my drift.
Painful Fact 4
All these poetry mags and publishers need our support. If you can’t afford a regular subscription, buy one copy of something. Usually it’s the same price as a cup of coffee. Next time you’re walking past Fifty Shades, keep walking and buy a book of poetry instead. Think of giving poetry books as Christmas presents.
For lists of ezines and magazine publishing opportunities and contact details, the Poetry Library is the place to start. The Poetry Kit is a great resource, too. Between these two you can find all the information you will need about small press publishers as well as magazines. Remember you need a record of publication in paper magazines before you will have a snowball’s chance of getting a collection published.
It is fair to say that most people who write want to perform and/or publish their poetry. It seems logical to want to do that rather than just writing for oneself. Most poets dream of winning a prize, be it money, recognition or publication - or preferably all three. Remember that it’s the art form itself which matters. The rest is just stuff.
Cue the morality tale of the title. (This story first appeared in an essay by Maitreyabandhu in Poetry Review (Vol.101.1, Spring 2011, p. 51).
The story concerns our Famous American Poet Robert Frost, the gentleman of “the road less travelled” fame. During his lifetime Frost received over 40 honorary degrees for his writing, including ones from Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge. He won the Pulitzer prize four times and was awarded the US Congressional Gold Medal. Yet according to a biography “he had always secretly hoped for more recognition than he ever received”.
Go for it and good luck! But bear in mind that the law of diminishing returns says that, eventually, even the Pulitzer won’t be enough.