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.