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.
Modern technology, and the amount of opportunities out there, creates the impression that getting a poem published is easier than it is. The 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 them 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 it 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 a greater focus on different kinds of reading (e.g., out loud, at special occasions), and on reaching more non-poets. I agree. Davidson’s focus is largely on collections, but I think the insight can be extended to individual poems. 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 (i.e. another poet) 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 effects 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 university. I have never produced so much rubbish in my life, 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 (which isn’t necessarily a disaster). But I’ve also found that I appreciate poetry – writing it and reading it – more, not less.
While I’m Here
- Prose – appreciation, explanation, provocation – is one of the best ways of growing and sustaining an audience for poetry which is why poetry publications which value these things are so important. Poetry Brum is one of the best (and newest) in the UK and one reason for this is the space and encouragement they give to essays and reviews. 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. 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).
- Another new-ish outlet I’m enjoying is The Friday Poem. Their innovation is to publish one poem (and only one) 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 has 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.