Writing Poetry

By: Magdalena Ball

Poetry is an esoteric art isn’t it? There’s no point in getting caught up in base things like publishing or pandering to an audience – it’s only the work that matters, right? Wrong. Writing superbly crafted works of art full of gorgeous rhythms and intense insights is a magnificent thing to do for oneself, but if these works aren’t shared with others, they will disappear into the vacuum of our certain death without trace. Of course there is always the chance that, like Emily Dickenson, your masterpieces will be found in the desk drawer post-mortem, but the chance is higher that if and when they are found, they won’t be that good, since you won’t have gone through the wonderfully stringent process of refining, grouping, and structuring that publication involves, not to mention the opportunity of working with a professional editor. The poet has a responsibility not only to his or her art, but to the world, to publish, and to have publication as an end goal for the work.

That’s easy to say, but how do you get your poetry published as a collection? Getting a chapbook or full length poetry book published isn’t easy, but it isn’t that hard either. Because small collections like chapbooks are cheap to produce and often have a small price tag, it isn’t all that difficult to sell them either. There are a few tricks though.

Group your work into a common theme: In his great guide to publishing poetry, Poet Power Thomas A. Williams (Sentient Publications, 2002) says that poems “should treat a subject for which there is a market". On a worldwide basis, there is likely to be a market for almost anything as long as it is thematic. One of the key ways to get a collection published is to work within an overall unifying theme. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write to a theme at first. But you might find yourself attracted to a specific area which will ultimately form your framework. For me, I found myself increasingly making use of Quantum Physics and Astronomy, and a number of my poems seem to pivot around that. For example, one of my poems, “Betelgeuse" used the impending (in star terms) and dramatic explosion into a Supernova of our closest star after the Sun for an impending nervous breakdown in a loved one. Once I had decided to produce a full collection, I began to read journals like New Scientist and whenever something caught my eye (and many things did), I would use that as the basis for a poem. I set myself a goal of two poems a week and before long I had enough poems for a collection.

Find a publisher who is looking for work on a theme and write to it. If you don’t seem to be naturally gravitating towards a theme, look for one. What hobbies do you have? Since getting a pool, I’ve become so “smitten" with swimming that I bought a wetsuit to keep going through the winter. When I saw a publisher calling for sports poetry, I wrote a couple of swim poems, and then sent them a query with those poems, asking if they would be interested a book which involved me interviewing professional sportspeople and then writing an original poem for each sport to go with the interview. I haven’t heard back from them as yet, but it’s a concept that could work for any publisher, on any topic. Just find a call for submissions on a specific concept and build a query or series of poems around that. Another publisher friendly theme is to write about where you live, and submit the work to a local publisher. There are probably a lot of poems about Paris or New York, but what about Morebath, or Poughkeepsie? You’re sure to find something historically interesting, and the local council and libraries will probably buy up your first print. Periods in history are also good. I read a wonderful book of poetry based on Walt Whitman’s Civil War Years -- Karen Knight’s Under the One Granite Roof. Pick a period in your own history and write a series of poems around that topic. The possibilities are limitless, and its so much easier to let your creative flow rip when you’ve got a theme to work to. Finding a publisher is also much easier, as the market for your work will be ready made.

Get Out There. Or get your work out there. Go to poetry slams; read your work, talk about your work, network. One of the nice things about publishing poetry is that pre-published poems are much more likely to be accepted in a collection than poems that haven’t been published, so you can submit each poem immediately when you finish writing it, even as you are pulling poems together into a collection. Publishers of collections prefer poetry that has already been published. You get double benefits for your work, and increase your odds of getting a collection published every time you publish a poem. Publishers are much more likely to take on your book if they recognise your name, so make sure your name is being bandied about.

Create a Market Database Research the different poetry publishers and create a little database of those that are likely to be right for your work. Build your manuscript to their requirements and once it’s ready, following their guidelines to the letter and submit your queries. Does this sound basic? It is! Local Writer’s Market yearbooks are excellent sources of publishers and guidelines as is the Internet – just do a Google search on poetry publishers (and watch out for the many sharks—never pay to have your work read, or published and be especially careful about anthologies!). Just remember that most legitimate poetry publishers are small and won’t be offering advances, or big margins on your work. Nor are they likely to have a big publicity budget – you’ll have to do all that yourself, which is where your experience at reading will come in handy. One of the many upsides of being with a small house is that you get a lot more attention editorially (and the whole process of having your poetry edited is well worth the trouble of being published – it will make you a better writer). There also isn’t the dramatic time pressure that you get with a large house. You can expect to continue selling your book for years, rather than months, and since most small publishers use POD (print on demand) technology, you don’t have to fear the dreaded pulping machine.

If all else fails (and even if it doesn’t), you can always self-publish. Get a good book, like Peter Bowerman’s The Well Fed Self-Publisher and do your own thing. Again, chapbooks are inexpensive to produce (most are around 32 pages) and can be done primarily with a good computer and colour printer and if you keep your costs down and use an easy payment system like PayPal, you might even make some decent money along with your good name. Two key points with self-publishing – don’t sacrifice the editing step – good editing can make or break a collection and a badly edited collection won’t do your name any good at all. Hire someone to knock your good poems into great poems and help with the ordering, structuring and linguistic power. The learning curve is a bonus, since a good editor will most certainly improve your writing for future collections. Don’t sacrifice quality either – get good paper, good staplers, a beautiful cover, or use a good printer to get a nice looking collection. You will certainly be judged by the look, and feel of the collection, so the output is something you shouldn’t skimp on.

That’s it. Don’t let a fear of failure stop you. The only way to publish a collection of poetry is to set a goal and work towards it, at whatever pace your schedule allows. Poetry is particularly suited to this method, as it doesn’t take that long to write a single poem and the satisfaction of completion comes regularly as you’re building the collection. Good luck!


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