I have been moaning about the submission process in poetry for a while now in little bits and pieces. I’ve been doing some reading up on it and really searching my heart, and now I want to elucidate some of my thoughts.
My heart is simply not in submitting anymore, at least not to individual magazines. I found one magazine, through Facebook, that excited me in recent months and I submitted to them and got accepted. But beyond that I have not seen a magazine that excites me in ages, other than what I already read. There are many magazines which I can recognize as good, but most of them are not particularly interesting to me. Technically proficient, but not exciting or inspiring. And it’s hard to go through all the work that is involved with submissions – from selecting the poems to send, to writing a cover letter and a short bio, to searching through hundreds of magazines to find where those poems go, to tracking everything in a spreadsheet – to have a 2% chance of getting into a magazine that doesn’t even remotely excite me. I’m not completely jaded. There are a few Publications that I enjoy reading, whether my work would even be accepted there or would even fit in there or not. I enjoyed reading them for the pleasure of reading them. Lit mags are important and some of them are extremely well done. I certainly don’t hate literary magazines. In fact I successfully ran one and I’m on Hiatus from running another one. I believe in them. But most magazines leave me cold, and there are so many thousands of magazines listed that it stresses me out try to even wade through the pile.
I know if I was smart I would do these things just for the publication credits. But I’m just not somebody who does things to have bragging rights. And since I didn’t end up going into Academia like I had always thought I would, I’m not in some sort of publish or perish environment that some of those people are in. For me publishing my writing is a choice. I can publish or not publish. Self-publish or go through traditional publishers. I can submit to magazines or I can keep my writing to myself or on this blog. I have total freedom, which I like and I wouldn’t trade for anything.
It seems like anymore the only way to get a book of poetry published is to go through book contests, the cost of which really adds up and the reality of these is that the judge will often pick somebody they know or somebody whose writing they recognize from an MFA program that they attended or taught at. I am not in that inner circle. And it seems like more and more you have to be to get anywhere. I’m sure this is not completely true. There are and have always been poets that exist outside of academia. But the odds are not good. Overall a lot of it comes down to who you know and where you go, and I know nobody and I stay at home. And I don’t want to drop 25 and $30 at a time to submit to something I have almost no chance of winning. Pretty much I’ll just be funding whoever wins and getting nothing for it. Most of these contests don’t even give you a copy of a book. I submitted to one along while back and they did give you a copy of a previously published book, and that was nice and I felt like I got something good for my money. But most of the time you pay your fee and you get absolutely nothing in return. And I don’t call having some first-year MFA students who are no better than me scrape through my manuscript as quickly as possible, and without giving even the minimal feedback that they would be capable of providing, as getting something in return. Essentially, for the vast majority of these contests I feel like I would be wasting my money.
I guess I could self-publish, but I’m not really sure how I feel about that. If I did I would want to shell out the money to hire someone to look over my manuscript. I don’t mean to look at the nuts and bolts like typos, although as you can probably tell from this blog I do a lot of my writing with voice text on my phone, and it does make mistakes and miss things too. But I would hire someone to really look through and give me an honest assessment of what poems were working and what poems were not, and for the poems that were not working what could help them to work better. I want to improve my writing and although I think the key is learning to sharpen your writing yourself, periodically having feedback would be wonderful. Just someone to keep me sharp and critical. And if I was going to put a book out in the public sphere with my name on it I would want the book to be completely ready. It may not have fancy cover design or anything else elaborate and artful, but I would want to make absolutely certain that the poems inside were worthy to be printed. Another poet work with me before to go through some poetry for a manuscript and his feedback was invaluable.
At the end of the day though, without all those fancy graphic design skills and without a lot of heavy promotion, a self-published poetry book is just not going to sell. It’s hard enough to sell poetry books that come through traditional publishers. Something self-published, let alone something that is self-published and looks like it’s self-published on the cover, is not going to sell. And there’s so much work involved in promoting writing. I don’t mind blogging, obviously. However, I used to have a Facebook page where I would post little fragments of poems, but I didn’t like doing that and felt like it was a waste of time and way too self-promotional for my personality. I was told time and time again that I should do things like that -create a Facebook page, start a Twitter- but it just wasn’t me at all. I guess you could chalk some of that up to laziness, being unwilling to do whatever it takes to succeed. But me having a Facebook page to promote my poetry was about as futile and inauthentic as it sounds.
The truth is I hate to promote myself, which might be one of the reasons I hate writing those stupid bios in magazine submissions. A few magazines have enough personality, including some of the ones I’ve been featured in before, that you can write a fairly casual and quirky bio. And if you like a ride or it could be interesting to see a bio and get to know them a little bit. But most of them want something very starched and stuffy and filled with publication credits that are listed more to make you sound good than they are to serve any practical purpose. It’s all about name recognition and posturing. I have been published in several magazines, magazines I found years ago when I was still finding publications that I liked. And I am proud to be in each and every single one of them. But I also don’t like attaching a byline to every single thing I write that essentially screams look at me look at me look at me! If the poem I have written is good and deserves to be in a magazine, it should be there whether I’ve been previously published or not. I shouldn’t need to attach resumes to my poems to get into a magazine. Look at my poem for its own merits. Maybe it doesn’t have any merit. But if it does I shouldn’t need to drag up a list of every place I have been published to either convince you to accept it, or to convince the reader to give my poem a try.
I ran a magazine, a good one, in conjunction with a really talented web designer for a few years, until he had to quit and I could not find anyone else to update the site as a labor of love. I was always more than happy to include whatever bio the person had written, including their publication credits if that was something they wanted to put in there. But I never requested or required it, and truthfully I didn’t really care. If I thought it was good I printed it. If I didn’t then I didn’t print it. No pretentious list of publication credits ever convinced me to like something I didn’t like, and a lack of publication credits never turned me against something that I did like. And in my humble opinion that’s the way it should be.
Maybe if I come back to looking at duotrope and give it another chance I will find something I really love where my work would fit. Or at the very least if I don’t find any place that seems like a good fit for my writing I might find something that I enjoy reading. Literary magazines are very important. But right now I’m too stressed out by the very thought of going through those thousands of magazines to find the right ones that I am just avoiding it altogether. I tried logging into duotrope just the other day and truthfully I got anxiety. I just felt overwhelmed. If I can’t deal with sorting through these magazines without stress then I may never submit to a magazine again. I am totally going to keep reading things from my favorite chapbook publishers, and from the few magazines I already know of that I really like. I will always be a devoted reader. I just may not submit to magazines anymore and maybe that’s okay. I can always try submitting more chapbooks, since I like chapbooks better than full-length books. I would be excited to get my second chapbook published. And maybe the excitement of that will keep me going, something that I really care about. I’m just not ready to handle a lot of stress, and I don’t want to submit to a magazine again until I find more of them that I am really excited about and when I can handle the process. And I know that the good ones are out there. Not necessarily the famous ones or the ones that have been around forever or the super popular ones. I mean the magazines that are publishing really interesting stuff that you don’t see anywhere else. Or the ones that just have a voice that I really really enjoy listening to. It’s not that I’ve come to hate literary magazines. Quite the contrary. I have been known to swoon over literary magazines. And I have run one successful magazine myself and have another one in the wings that is on Hiatus right now. I believe in lit mags. I’m just getting overwhelmed at all there is and having a hard time finding my niche. And I just don’t want to submit to any place that doesn’t excite me ever again. I have freedom, and I want to exercise that freedom by focusing my time on things that I really connect with. I don’t want to feel stressed out at the process of going through magazines. My anxiety issues get so bad. The next time I approach duotrope I am only going to spend about 20 minutes on there, and I’m going to only look for something good to read. I will not look for a place that seems to match the aesthetic of my writing at all. I’m going to look for good magazines to read and if one of them happens to seem like my writing would be a good fit for them then maybe I’ll send it. But I am over the submission process. Never again will I wade through hundreds of magazines trying to find a good place to submit a poem. I admire people who have the heart to do that, but that just isn’t me. I’m going to go at it from the perspective of a reader and if once in awhile I make a serendipitous find of a perfect place to send my writing then wonderful. If not, at least I will have read some good poetry. The stress and anxiety I feel trying to cope with the submission process has caused me to miss out on reading things that I love, and time spent engaging in the mass submission culture is time I could better spend writing.
As I gather up and revise more more of what I have written and put together some more cohesive collections of what I have written, I may put together more books and try to find a publisher that doesn’t do contests and has an open submission period. I don’t think there are many of those but when the time comes I’m going to look. I do not think I will ever do another book competition.
I am also going to consider publishing a digital copy of one of my books for free. At the end of the day I am lucky that I am not trying to make money in any way out of poetry. So I have the freedom to put something up for free just like I do on here. And my ultimate goal is to connect to readers, even if it is only one or two. I’m not convinced that I will ever go the self-publishing route, but I will at least consider it. If even one or two people download my book and like it I will be happy. But who knows. I may never take that leap. If I do I will just keep it quiet and let whoever wants to download it download it and if no one does, oh well. I’m not doing that crazy social media promotion. That’s just not me, and that’s not how I want to spend my time.
I know I have been ranting and sorting out my thoughts for quite a while in this post. I’ve been trying to work out my opinions and feelings. And in summary, it comes down to a few things. Literary magazines are important and some of them are really good, not all but some, but trying to submit to all these places is so stressful that I walked away from it a couple of years ago for good reason. It gave me nothing but anxiety. Furthermore, I don’t want to submit places that don’t interest me, and some of them just don’t interest me. And I want to get back to reading magazines as much or more than I ever submitted to them. I am against book contests and will not waste my money on one ever again. Luckily, unlike some people who are equally as jaded, I have not wasted that much money on them at this point. There are some people that spend $2,000 before they’ve arrived at the conclusion that I have. I will focus on blogging and chapbooks, the reading and writing of them.