When I first started writing all I wanted to do was to have one poem published. Just one, I told myself, and then I would be happy. I didn’t think beyond this because I didn’t really believe it would happen.
It was the poet Jennifer Copley who told me about poetry magazines and persauded me to submit to a magazine called First Time, edited by Josephine Austin. It doesn’t have a website and it was and still is postal submissions only, addressed to ‘The Snoring Cat’. I didn’t do any of the things you are meant to do, like read the magazine first. I just sent the poems off. I remember it was probably the first letter I’d posted for years that wasn’t to do with bills or boring stuff – I remember thinking – does this really happen? Someone will read these poems and write back to me?
I haunted the postman for weeks. If I wasn’t at home when he arrived, I would ring my husband and ask if any post had come for me. When the envelope did come back, with a lovely handwritten note from Josephine taking two of the poems for publication I danced around the living room with my husband, and then carried the letter with me everywhere. I remember that I went and worked on some poems with a new-found confidence. It wouldn’t have made any difference to the way I felt whether it was First Time that had taken a poem or The Times Literary Supplement. I was so naïve that I didn’t know the difference.
Just one more poem
Of course, getting one poem published or even two wasn’t enough – I was hooked. I started to subscribe to magazines – at this time I was working full time as a teacher so I could afford to. I made it a rule not to submit to a magazine until I’d at least read one issue. I developed a complicated system of folders. I bought a folder to keep my acceptance and rejection slips in. I bought a folder to keep all my poems in – with all the previous drafts stored behind the most recent ones. I carried both folders everywhere with me – they would sit next to me on the passenger seat of my car as I drove round to various schools.
Thanks to the wonderful Smiths Knoll magazine, which has since ceased publication, I had quite a few rejection slips to look through – Smiths Knoll used to have the quickest turnaround for rejections – I would often get a reply within a week from Michael Laskey or Joanna Coutts. They were never blank rejection slips – they always had a short handwritten comment – usually singling out a poem that they had enjoyed more than the others but not enough to publish. This gave me confidence in the poem they had picked out, so thank you, Michael (although he must have been getting one submission a month from me at least – I didn’t think he would notice).
Sometimes I would get to a school and the children would be on a trip or doing an exam so I would sit in the car and work on my poems. If I’d just arrived early and only had a few minutes I would read through my rejection and acceptance slips. This is embarrassing to admit now – but surely there must be someone else out there who does this – not only obsesses about hidden nuances in a one sentence rejection, but also likes the different size and colour of rejection/acceptance slips, who piles them up and reads through them so that when an acceptance comes after a raft of rejections, the heart skips and does a little leap, in a smaller and less dramatic echo of what it did when you first opened the envelope?
My most important coping mechanism was my spreadsheet. I didn’t really see it was a coping mechanism at the time – I just thought I was keeping track of everything. It’s not really a spreadsheet – it’s a table divided into columns and rows in a Word document with magazines and competitions along the top and poems down the side. Every time a poem was sent out, I would outline the box that corresponded with the poem and where it was in black pen. If it came back rejected, I would colour the box in red. If it came back accepted, I would colour the box in green and colour the rest of that row and column in black.
When I was in infant school, before I could read, I remember looking at the bookshelf and thinking ‘I’m going to read all of those books’. I don’t remember if I ever managed it. In the same way I decided I wanted to colour all of my spreadsheet in, even if it was all red boxes.
You may be, by now, slightly worried about my obsessive nature. Well, this next bit gets worse. I didn’t just have one spreadsheet that I kept in the front of my folder with all my poems in. I also had the spreadsheet replicated and Blu-taced to the wall. And I had an electronic version on my computer. So when the poems came back, there was a lot of admin to do (immediately) which took my mind off the rejection as I busied myself keeping my spreadsheets up to date. I was compelled to send the poems straight out again, because I wanted to outline more boxes.
Perhaps the strangest thing I used to do was decide that the spreadsheet wasn’t neat enough or had too many mistakes and I would redo the whole thing. I used to pretend that I had to do this, that it needed doing, but secretly I loved doing it. I loved refilling all the boxes
Submitting poems to magazines and competitions was a huge part of my development as a writer. When the poems came back, I always looked at them again and thought about what was working and what wasn’t. Sometimes I decided to ignore the opinion of the editor and send them straight back out. Sometimes the poems returned in an envelope with my handwriting on the front and it felt like somebody else had written them and it made it easier to look at them cold and edit them.
Subscribe, subscribe, subscribe!
Submitting poems is not just about being published. In my quest to have a poem published in a magazine, I started to read poetry magazines. I learnt that Poetry Review has the nicest smell of all (go and get your copy from the shelf and try it if you didn’t know this already). I learnt that I loved the feel of the paper that The Rialto used. More importantly, I discovered new poets that I liked – I found Hannah Lowe in The Rialto and Maitreyabandhu in Poetry Review this way – and started to search for their names in the biographies section. I searched for where else they’d been published and then looked up those magazines.
Subscribing is an expense but I don’t drink or smoke so poetry magazines are my little addiction – and if we, as writers, don’t subscribe to some magazines, eventually they won’t be able to keep going and there will be nowhere to send poems. If you are waiting for your poems to come back, getting a magazine through the letterbox is almost as exciting.
I often see poets asking on Facebook or Twitter where they should submit poems to. Have a look at the Acknowledgements pages in pamphlets and first collections that you admire. They can normally be found right at the front or right at the back and are a list of magazines that some of the poems have been published in. If you like that poet, they are a good place to start.
Find your level
Andrew Forster, a wonderful poet and Literature Officer at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere said to me recently that he thinks the key to happiness as a poet is finding your level and being happy with it. He was talking about publishing a collection and finding a publisher, but I think the advice holds true for submitting to magazines as well. I started with small magazines, and when I use the word small I don’t mean in quality or ambition – I mean small in terms of subscriptions and submissions, which means they are logically, slightly easier to have poems accepted in. I did this by mistake really, but I think it was lucky. If I’d started with Poetry Review or The TLS, which get thousands of submissions a year I would have had rejection after rejection. Maybe this would have put me off, maybe it would stop me writing, or at least slow me down. If you know you cope with rejection well, then start with the big magazines and see what happens.
Just 13 rejections
My most-often told story is when one of my poems was rejected thirteen times, by both large and small magazines. I was about to give up on it, but needed an extra poem for my set of six that I was sending to Poetry Review so I shoved it in at the last minute. It got accepted. Then it won the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize for a poem published by a poet without a full collection. I nearly put the poem in a ‘no hope’ folder which I was just about to construct and start carrying round with me. I’m obviously glad I didn’t.
Once I accidentally got into a mini-argument on Twitter because somebody said that if a magazine rejected you more than twice then you should take the hint and not bother submitting again. I know for a fact that this is not true – lots of magazines have rejected my poems more than twice and before I was accepted. I must have had four or five rejections from The Rialto and Poetry London before they took anything. If you really want to be in a particular magazine then I say keep trying. What have you got to lose but a little time? Here is a list of magazines I’ve been published in and those I’ve been rejected by. As you can see there is quite a lot of cross-over.
Magazines who have accepted my poems:
The Frogmore Papers
The Interpreter’s House
The New Writer
Obsessed with Pipework
Magazines who have rejected my poems:
The Frogmore Papers
When I was running a workshop on ‘Starting to Publish’ one of the participants said that he never put a cover letter in because he didn’t want to waste the editor’s time by putting in another thing they had to read. Sending your poems in without a cover letter is the equivalent of just walking into someone’s house without knocking, putting your feet on the table and trailing mud into the kitchen and then shoving your poems under their nose while they’re trying to cook dinner. Saying that, a cover letter should be brief and to the point, no more than two paragraphs. Some rules for cover letters:
1. Always address the editor by name – yes, you will need to find this out. ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ isn’t going to cut it.
2. If it’s your first submission, say so. Editors like to discover new writers.
3. If you’ve been published elsewhere, say so. But keep it brief – just two or three examples – not a whole raft of every single thing you’ve ever had published, including that anthology you were in when you were 11.
4. If you’ve read the magazine – tell the editor what you liked about the latest issue. Name a poet or a poem and say what you liked. This isn’t sycophancy – this is being interested in what other people are doing. Editors are only human and they will be happy that someone is reading and appreciating their hard work.
5. Tell the editor an interesting fact about yourself – if you’ve worked as a mental health nurse for ten years, say so. If you are a musician, tell them. You get the idea – this is the part that most people really struggle with – because they often think their lives aren’t interesting.
6. Always be polite and brief. Thank them for taking the time to read your work. Most of them will be doing this for free.
Some further practicalities
- Always check the submission guidelines for each magazine you submit to – they are all slightly different.
- Treat yourself to some nice paper – your poems are worth it!
- Don’t play origami with poems to fit them into an envelope. A4 envelopes are the way to go. Your poems are still worth it!
- Always include a self-addressed stamped A4 envelope. Send poems in a stamped A4 envelope. Check you have the right amount of postage.
- Be patient. Expect to wait up to six months for a reply. I’ve waited a year for a rejection. Don’t complain. Write some more poems instead. Never write back to an editor and complain about being rejected. Be gracious. Try again.
If anyone would like to ask a question about submitting to magazines, please do. As you can see from the above, I quite like talking about it.
I agree with all of this. Think of all the rejections some novelists have of certain manuscripts, J.K. Rowling being a case in point. Never give up. it’s hard. No-one likes rejection. Fact. All writers face rejection time and time again. Another fact. we can only learn, improve, write better by reading other people’s work, comments from editors, and our peers, and then making our own decisions of whether we want to alter our poems or not. I like your displacement activities i.e. spreadsheets. There’s no magic to it..keep writing, keep sending out. Or don’t. You are entitled to have a break from it all too. I have only fairly recently started to send out work again after a gap of two years or more. The rejections will come, but some acceptances too, hopefully..
Kim, I’m so glad it’s not just me! I also have a Word document with all of the poems I’ve submitted to different places. Although mine is a list rather than a spreadsheet. I’m liking the sound of your colour-coded table though…
Oh, and I also have two plastic folders: one for acceptance letters, one for rejections. I’d like the acceptance folder to be fatter than the rejection folder, but that might be a long-term goal!
Loved this article and it is very helpful. I didn’t really know where to start to send out poems, so thanks.
Hi @pamthompson – completely agree. I’ve slowed down quite a bit with my submissions recently – I’m not writing as much – but having said that – all unpublished poems are currently out and winging their way around the place.
Hi @halekatie – nice to see you here! I can show you the spreadsheet if you like 🙂 My folder with my rejection/acceptance stuff has actually split now so I’ve started a new one…much more rejections as well.
Hi @ahamlett – glad you found it useful. It sounds like you are at a very exciting stage – just starting out – nothing to lose apart from whatever it costs for a stamp and an envelope! Good luck
Thanks Kim, good read and it made me feel I wasn’t completely barmy myself! I have a list that each time I start a new notebook I religiously copy into the back page. I’ve also had a couple of decent rejections of Smiths Knoll!
You are an inspiration KIm – thank you
I was also very heartened and elated when Josephine Austin accepted an early submission. It wasn’t quite my first, but pretty close. I wonder if you knew this sad news of her death …
Kim, brilliant and timely article. I admire your system for keeping tabs on accepted/rejected submissions (mine has always been much more haphazard, sometimes embarrassingly so!) You make the very necessary point that unless poets subscribe to poetry magazines, those essential platforms for sharing our work will fold.
Helpful post and encouraging and fun to read, Kim. I’d be interested in seeing how you have your spreadsheet set up. Thanks.
Hi @carolinegill I had no idea that she had died. Thanks for letting me know. That is really sad – I hope her family are taking comfort in all the wonderful things she accomplished…
Hi @emmasimon – I love lists 🙂
Hi @elainenobbs if you send me an email I can maybe scan it and send it? kx
I like the clarity of this…it’s clear, it’s structured, and it’s succinct. And thank the lord for the spreadsheet. The only thing you’ve left out is what happens when you set out to submit poems for a comp. online, and your paypal payment goes through. And then nothing. I await a reply from Fermoy.
Hi @catherinesmith thanks very much. Yes – I think it’s really important to subscribe – I try and rotate my subscriptions – but I always keep The Rialto and Poetry Review. At the minute I also subscribe to Poem and Modern Poetry in Translation as well. Ps…I really enjoyed your new collection by the way!
When should you have heard by @johnfoggin ? Have you tried posting on the facebook page? They will probably be quite late with announcing the results…
Wires Xed, Kim…..I didn’t yet get to send the poems. Just the money. And then the page stopped. Paypal says: you have paid. Subsequently, nada. What I’ll do is post paper copies with a payPal printout. Just for the alliteration
Thanks for sharing your experience and your ‘systems.’ I’m much more organised with my submissions since I made myself a spreadsheet back in January. Mine lives on the desktop of my laptop so I notice it every time I switch on. And I use the red and green colour code, too! All my poems are ‘out there’ or on their way back. It’s been a more fruitful year so far, too 🙂
I had problems with their PayPal facility last year John. Email Gene Barry and ask if it went through. In the end last year I think I put a €10 note in with the poems!
Kim, I live this article. I also have a useful spreadsheet for submissions. If I could actually remember to fill it in when I sent stuff out it would be REALLY useful! 🙂
Thanks Kim 🙂 I take The Rialto, The Poetry Review and The Frogmore Papers (highly recommended outlet for short pieces of prose as well as poems). I went to an MPT event in Brighton and really enjoyed it, and bought the latest edition of the magazine, which was an eye-opener – all these poets I didn’t know about, in my insular little bubble….. I will try Poem as well. Having been the Poetry Ed for The New Writer for six years, (retired four years ago) I know how much time and effort goes into selecting poems for a publication, and that magazines that take new work are the life-blood of the poetry scene. I’m so glad you wrote this article, because you expressed (in a very generous, accessible, humorous and articulate way) what needs to be said about the relationship between writing poems and finding them loving homes.
Excellent advice all round. Could I also add a plug for the ever-widening selection of online magazines – again, do your homework, find ones that have the type and quality of poetry you admire. As editor of Antiphon, http://www.antiphon.org.uk, my best advice would be – read the guidelines and follow them, and yes, I’m not too impressed when called ‘Dear Sir’!
Hi Kim just read your ‘Just One Poem’ and find it very helpful. I find rejections make me look at a poem again and there’s usually something I can improve or lose and if not then try another home. I haven’t had enough experience yet but my rejects are stacking up but also having acceptances is reassuring and yes, keep going. As a songwriter I had plenty of rejection before cracking through. I try to look at poetry mags and subscribe to Rialto, Mslexia and Poetry London, but it can be expensive and probably to rotate subscriptions is a good idea. I haven’t a sophisticated spreadsheet just a list of work/where/when sent/boos and hurrays. I’ll look at your mag lists again and keep sending out. Thanks for this.
Thanks @kimmoore. I’ve now added another layer to my submissions organisation, involving colour-coded post-it notes…
Practical question, though: how do you go about submitting sequences / parts of a sequence to magazines? Do you divide them up, or just send in the whole sequence? I’ve never been able to figure that out!
Hi @catherinesmith that’s exactly how I felt when I first read MPT as well – I got into it after going to Poetry Parnassus last year and coming across all these poets that I’d never heard of. Ashamed is too strong a word – but I did feel embarrassed that there was all this amazing poetry going on in other countries – some of the poets were like rockstars in their own countries! And I hadn’t heard of any of them – so after that subscribed to MPT, and started reading a lot more translated poetry. I really like on the MPT website for every issue you can have a go at translating a poem from a literal translation – it’s quite good fun and then you can post it up on the website…I sometimes have a go at that 🙂 I think Catherine, you might have accepted one of my poems for publication just before you left The New Writer 🙂
Hi Kerry – glad you found it useful. Double check before you send to any of the mags on the list as well – that is a list from when I started six or seven years ago so some of them – like Smiths Knoll and First Time (as I learnt yesterday) are no longer functioning…how did we all cope without the internet to look these things up?
Hi @halekatie I can answer this with some authority because I’ve just done it! I’ve been working on a sequence of 21 poems and about 18 of them I thought would stand on their own so I’ve been sending them out. In the cover letter I explain that they are from a larger sequence called ‘How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping’ exploring (in this case) domestic violence. I think I put at the top of each page ‘from How I….’ etc. I had three rejections and was beginning to worry that they weren’t working as a smaller group but then had three accepted in Poetry Wales – which might be a good place to try actually – Nia Davies has just taken over editing and she is looking for submissions and is keen on supporting young writers as well – I don’t think I count as young anymore but you definitely do 🙂 The other one you could try is Long Poem Magazine and then you could send maybe the whole lot – but they have a submission window and I don’t think it’s open yet.
Thanks @kimmoore – fantastic advice! Will get onto it this evening.
(I currently have poems spread all across the kitchen table, covered in coloured post-it notes, with my submissions list open at the side. This is the monster you’ve encouraged in me…)
Hi @kimmoore. I have really enjoyed reading all your posts during your residency. This one is no exception: funny, heart-warming, useful and inspirational. I have shared it on my FB page, hoping it will help my poet friends too.
Hi @halekatie let the monster run free! And let me know how you get on 🙂
Hi @clarehepworthwain thanks very much for your lovely feedback. And thanks for sharing it as well 🙂
Hi Kim, this is a great article and you’ve been so generous with your time, help and advice. I love your blog and some of your antics with teaching music make me laugh and laugh. Thank you.
Enjoyed reading this, Kim. Honest, and heartening too because of that. Really admire your organisation and determination.
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Thanks Olivia and Sarah
Thanks to you and your advice, @kimmoore, I now have a spreadsheet with titles down the left. As of yesterday three are outlined in black and on their way out there. That in itself feels like a major step forward — even if they come hurtling back to me, I’ve started a journey.
Wonderful article, and I couldn’t agree with you more about subscribing/buying literary magazines. However, I would recommend writers save some of the time you’ve spent compiling a spreadsheet and spend about fifty dollars a year to use Duotrope (duotrope.com), a fantastic online resource that helps you find and assess new print/online markets and track your submissions. It even nudges you when it’s time to query. It also keeps track of what markets have the quickest turnaround time and which ones have the longest wait. Heck, it even has a “friendly markets” section that highlights markets that send more personal rejections and acceptances. And if that weren’t enough, it nudges you when you’ve simultaneously submitted to a market that doesn’t allow this. And if you’re into the look of a spreadsheet, you can print it all out to display in your work area. Poetry is hard work, and the time saved in using this resource will be better spent revising, or sweating over a line break 🙂
Really insightful read Kim, particularly found the overlap of accepted/rejected submissions by magazines interesting, as there are a few that I would like to get into so must keep plugging away! Like you I also rotate my subscriptions, need to spread the money around 😉 And sad news about The New Writer ceasing, really enjoyed that one. I used to keep a spreadsheet but it got a bit unruly, so now have a to do list and folders, and also delight in the admin involved! :0
Hi @Carolyn – that sounds like a really useful resource – although must admit part of the point of it for me was taking up time because I’d obsessed about line breaks too much and needed something else poetry-related to do with my time – I don’t know how I actually found the time now 🙂 Is Duotrope geared more towards the USA or is it an international resource? I’ve always wanted to submit to some American magazines but need to do some research first on where the best place is to start…
Hi @jvbirch – I think it is First Time that has finished – I don’t think The New Writer has finished – they just have another editor, Abegail Morley I think. Yes, lots of overlap with rejections and submissions. My favourite rejection note was from Ambit – it said ‘We read these with more than the usual interest’. I thought that was a brilliant sentence. They eventually took two poems and it was that rejection that made me think I was in with a chance – I think I submitted three times before the fourth came back accepted – perseverance is definitely the key – and you need to increase your failures or rejections if you want to increase your acceptances…
Love the Ambit response, bet that made you smile! No, it’s definitely TNW that’s finishing-got a letter from the editor with the last issue, think it’s on their website too-a sad loss of a good resource. Yes Abegail’s in London now I think, she was a great mentor for me when I was starting out 🙂
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Hi @jvbirch – that is sad about The New Writer! It just shows how quickly things change and become out of date with poetry magazines…
Yes, I heard about The New Writer too, very sad.
Thank you! Your article has changed my writing admin life. You’ve written on a journey so many of us relate to and so clearly and warmly. I am embarrassed to think about my lame tables and although I haven’t mastered the colour coding I am loving my new Excel spreadsheet. My only problem is when I printed it out, it lost its columns. I’ll Google. I’ve been enjoying your poetry and blog too so thank you for your generosity. If any of you poets are keen to branch out we have some excellent online journals in Oz that accept international submissions. Cordite, Plumwood, Mascara, foame:e, Blue Pepper and Otoliths among others. Thanks again, Kim
Hi Kim, thank you so much for this incredibly helpful article – it’s reassured me that I’m going about things in roughly the right way: my cover letters need improving/expanding, but I’m doing well with subscriptions – I went a bit mad this year and am now subscribed to seven magazines! I’ll definitely have to start rotating next year… Can I also second Rosemary Badcoe’s comment upthread about keeping an eye on online magazines? There are some great ones out there – I particularly like Ink, Sweat and Tears (http://www.inksweatandtears.co.uk/) and Antiphon (http://antiphon.org.uk/). The latter gave me my first acceptance – and my first rejection 🙂
This was so interesting to read. I was particularly pleased learn about covering letters. I’ve always struggled with these. I love to read about how other poets work and how they got started. Always inspirational. This kind of article is what keeps me going! Great advice overall. Thanks for sharing it.
Hi Julie – I just do a table in Word and then it prints fine 🙂 Am glad you found it useful and thanks for the tips r.e australian magazines. Thanks for the reminder about online mags as well Charlotte – probably a whole other essay on its own – I decided to avoid rather than half tackle it – also previous poet in residence Alex did a whole residency on online poetry – but yes, I like Antiphon and Ink, Sweat and Tears. Also The Lampeter Review and B O D Y as well…
Thanks to Heather as well – am glad you enjoyed it – I agree – I always like hearing about the little quirks and things that happened to people when they were first starting out that then led to other things…
Thanks that is very useful and certainly has encouraged me to up my game. It is clear that you got where you were through hard work and discipline – it’s always good for those of us who are semi-struggling, semi-working to remember this and to take on board the example rather than get caught up in jealousy, bitterness and carping when my few poems I have sent out to the few magazines (only the best obviously) are not accepted!
Can you tell me the magazines you think one absolutely must subscribe to at a minimum in order to “keep up.” It’s not like I don’t know the biggies (not that I read them, yet), but I’d be interested to hear your take.
Michael Willoughby (who writes as Takooba)
hard work disciple and talent (“not the comfy chair!”)
Hi Michael – it depends what you want to ‘keep up with’ I guess! I would say subscribe to the magazines you want to be published in. I really like The Rialto and Poetry Review and The North. For smaller magazines – in terms of distribution and possible poetry submissions, not smaller in terms of quality, I’ve been hearing good things about The Interpreter’s House and Butcher’s Dog. It depends what type of poetry you like as well though..
Kim, a beautifully written article, so helpful and personal…and energising. I loved the detail of practical advice (A4 envelopes). This felt like you were addressing a topic that was somehow a bit taboo. Thank you.
Hi Kim, Such an inspirational article with loads of advice for one who is quite new to writing. Thank you.
Hi Kim, Heidi Williamson recommended your essay and she was so right. It’s really encouraging, and I’m glad I’m not the only one with coloured spreadsheets! Thanks, Liz
Hi – thanks very much Liz. I’m really glad it was useful for you!