A Year in (Not) Publishing

Like more people than you would imagine, I once had a whole spreadsheet keeping track of the poems I had written, the outlets I had submitted them to, and the results. I rarely look at it now. I have not published many poems recently, either. Partly this is just life. Letting go of a poem – researching magazines and preparing submissions, writing cover letters – takes a lot of time and concentration.

The digital world, and the amount of opportunities out there, creates the impression that getting a poem published is easier than it is. That ever-growing number of opportunities is at least partly a function of magazines being able to find their own audiences and more people having the tools to put platforms together in the first place. The benefit for writers and readers, no longer reliant on a narrow set of outlets, are huge. The effect on how we think about our own work is more ambiguous.

On the one hand, it’s too easy to get unrealistic expectations about how much anyone can or should be publishing. On the other, rejection (the most likely outcome, when even small magazines can only publish a tiny percentage of what they receive) only feeds a desire for more rejection. Comparisons with social media are hard to ignore: for every tweet you put out which gets no likes you want to do another. For every poem which got rejected, I would submit another elsewhere.

I have got a great deal out of writing this blog this year. The feedback is as immediate as social media, and far more fulfilling. There is always a chance someone will read it, so it never feels pointless. I write about whatever I want, however I want: that anyone is listening at all is a luxury! Yet, having had a month or so away from blogging, I can see how my relationship with blogging might have some things in common with submitting poetry to magazines, or using social media: that feeling that I need to just keep publishing; that fear of rejection, which only feeds the desire to publish more.

Is there a solution? Jonathan Davidson suggests we broaden our understanding of what sharing poetry entails to include different kinds of reading, and to reach more non-poets – for instance, out loud, or at special occasions. I agree. Davidson is mainly talking about collections, but the insight can be extended to individual poems too. Why should the default ‘end point’ be publication in a magazine?

For most people I know, poetry is a marginal art, so it’s a fair assumption that by placing a poem in a magazine you will have a greater chance of finding an appreciative reader than sharing it with someone you know. But the end result of this way of thinking isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy which keeps poetry on the margins: it has implications for our idea of what a poem even is.

There are ways of rethinking how we share poetry among regular writers, too. I suspect a lot of writers engage with poetry groups and workshops, at least in part, as steps towards publication. But there is no reason why they have to be. I attended a regular poetry evening when I was at uni. None of the poems I wrote then will ever see the light of day, but I have rarely felt so much like I knew why I was writing.

My own solution over the last few years has been to try to publish less poetry, and more writing about poetry. I can see this wouldn’t appeal to everyone. It may end up with me not publishing any of my own poetry at all. But I’ve also found that I appreciate poetry – writing it and reading it – more, not less.

While I’m Here

  • Poetry Brum is one of the best new poetry magazines in the UK and one reason for this is the space and encouragement they give to prose. Also editorials like this.
  • Full disclosure: I have a piece in the latest issue, on what a lockdown homage to Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal tells us about the original poem. Some of the issue is available online, including this essay by Mona Kareem on the politics of translation. I also recommend the piece on ‘music lost in translation’ in the print edition by Khaled Hakim – who writes like a dream.
  • The editors at The Friday Poem publishes one poem, and only one poem, a week – and explain why. They also have a lively blog: Emma Simon’s recent piece on rejections inspired me to finish this one, as did Matthew Stewart’s piece on reaching ‘beyond the bubble‘.
  • Matthew very kindly featured me on his round up of the year’s best poetry blogs.
  • I watched ‘Don’t Look Up’. It was mostly bad, although I was glad they followed through with the ending. I also watched ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ for the first time, which was completely surreal and unexpectedly brutal – mostly in a good way.

The header is from a print by Cyril Power called ‘Whence and Whither’ (c.1930). I have just moved out of London after almost six years and am feeling nostalgic about escalators.

3 thoughts on “A Year in (Not) Publishing

  1. catherinetemma71

    I saw this in Dave Bonta’s round-up of poetry blogs and it resonated with me. In the pandemic, poetry has come to mean more to me than ever berfore; I’ve started a weekly group with other poets in the Exiled Writers Ink community; I read more poetry, and the poetry I read pierces me more deeply. I am writing poetry, but the energy to send it out in the world is lacking, though I try sometimes. I appreciate this insight from another Davidson about sharing poetry in other ways. I don’t know why but poetry as a practice seems more and more an antidote to the insanity of our times – its ability to help us pay attention, its insights, its stubborn honing to a truth that feels earned. Publication can feel more part of an earlier life – of striving and aquisition. Mostly I appreciate connection – so am sending this response with gratitude.

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    1. Jem Wikeley Post author

      Thanks Catherine – I’m glad it resonated and you put the whole benefit of poetry as a kind of practice, as a slowing down (which is also a kind of worthwhile work) very well. The whole issue is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but the pandemic, awful as it has been, has definitely pushed me to make more of a real change in my own relationship with writing.

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  2. Carol J Forrester

    I’ve worked towards getting more poems published in magazines/journals over the last few years, but I’ve always found reading at open mics and creative events far more rewarding. On the one hand, getting a piece published has that rush of being ‘a proper writer’, but I think for me the community that comes with poetry has always been the bit I value.
    Your comments about the fear of rejection, and the need to keep publishing hit close to home. This week I’ve managed to post on what would have been considered ‘a regular schedule’ before I gave birth to my daughter. The posts have been received quite well, but I’ve almost immediately sunk back into that headspace of ‘is it enough, and could I do more?’. You’ve given me some interesting bits and pieces to mull over. Thank you for the interesting read.

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