Saturday, July 27, 2013

Prompt #156 – Submitting Poems to Journals

Back on December 3, 2011, I posted “Submission Etiquette,” which included some general guidelines for submitting poems to journals. Since then, a number of readers have asked about a “re-run” of that prompt. Summer seems a good time to step back and think about “submission etiquette,” so, I updated a bit and here’s the info requested. I hope you find it helpful and, yes, there is a prompt this week—be sure to scroll down!

Many poets think that the ultimate litmus test of their work is whether it gets accepted or rejected by literary magazines. The truth is that good quality work is often rejected purely because of an editor’s style and content preferences, and even works of innovative genius are frequently returned. By the same token, mediocre work is often published. Selecting poems for publication is essentially a subjective process: what one editor rejects, another may accept. As an editor myself, I can tell you that most of us work hard and earn little or nothing for our efforts. Most do it for the same reason that poets submit—love of the art. So be sure to respect the editors to whom you send your poems. This does not mean that editors are the definitive arbiters of what is and isn’t good work. If your poems are rejected, don’t take it personally. Move on. Send the poems elsewhere. It isn’t uncommon for poems to be rejected before being accepted. So, persevere.

Let’s say you’ve read your poems at open mic sessions and have not been booed off the stage. Maybe you’ve participated in poetry writing workshops. If you are convinced that your poems are ready for publication, what do you do about submitting them to journals? Be aware that you have the option of sending your poems to print journals (hard copy issues) and/or online journals. There are plusses for both.

First, you need to research your market. You need to find out which magazines would be suitable vehicles for your work. The best way to conduct your “market research” is to start reading poetry journals and Internet e-zines. Buying poetry journals can be an expensive proposition, but many journals now have strong web presences, so check out their web sites. You’ll usually find submission guidelines and information about editorial tastes; and many magazines post sample poems on their websites. Reading these poems is an effective way of assessing the suitability of your work for particular journals.

When you’ve decided which journals you’d like to target for possible publication, check their submission guidelines and follow them without exceptions!

Following are some general guidelines; if they don’t conflict with specific journal guidelines, they may be helpful to observe. (Please keep in mind that every journal has its own submission guidelines, and you should read them carefully before submitting your poems).

1. Always present your work in a simple 12-point font like Arial, Times New Roman or Courier. Fancy fonts will not impress editors. On the contrary, they may suggest that the sender is a novice writer.

2. Poetry should be single-spaced with the title at the top and your name, address, phone, and email address in the upper left or right hand corner. Setting this info into clever text boxes at the top or bottom of the page isn’t necessary and can look amateurish.

3. Type one poem to a page. For poems longer than one page, paperclip the pages together if submitting to print journals.

4. Poems should be left-aligned (unless the form dictates otherwise). Don’t center all the lines simply because you think a poem looks nice that way.

5. Be sure to spell-check and to carefully proofread before submitting.

6. If you include a cover letter, it should be short, including only your name, contact details, and titles of work submitted. In general, most editors do not want to read your life story, know your hobbies, or hear about your marital status. It isn’t necessary to include a bio. Most editors are not impressed by previous publication credits and prefer to judge submissions on their own merits. (Should your work be accepted for publication, the editor may invite you to send a bio, but only include it if asked.)

7. Always retain a copy of any material you send. Most editors receive hundreds of submissions, and it’s possible for submissions to go missing.

8. Some print journals will not accept email submissions.  There are good reasons for this: the potential transmission of computer-destroying viruses among them. Many journals, however, do welcome email submissions. Some journals will accept submissions in attachment form; some require the poem text to be copied and pasted into the body of an email. Make sure you know the preferences before submitting!

9. If you submit via snail mail, use a plain #10 envelope and always include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (s.a.s.e.) for the editor’s reply. This is a basic courtesy—most journals will not reply to a submission if the s.a.s.e. is not included.

10. Many online journals use electronic submissions managing programs. Some online journals ask you to send your submissions via email. Be sure to follow the directions carefully.

11. Be careful not to over-submit. Journal editors are usually more dismayed than pleased when they receive large numbers of poems from a single poet. Unless otherwise specified, send no more than five poems, and DON’T follow up with another batch during the same reading period.

12. Simultaneous submissions (sending poems to multiple journals at the same time) are often allowed, but check guidelines carefully to be sure. Given the response times of many magazines, this means that a poem may be “away from home” for many months before you know if it has been accepted or rejected.

13. Many journals will indicate response time in their guidelines—if that response time has long passed, then and only then might you query an editor about the status of your poems.

14. You should also not expect editors to make individual comments on your poems, accepted or not. While a few editors might, most aren’t critiquers in that sense—they simply choose the poems they wish to publish. Occasionally, an editor will suggest edits, which, if made, will result in publication. As a poet, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you agree to the changes.

15. Beware of vanity publishing in which you pay a fee for your poems to be published. There are unscrupulous people out there who will happily fleece you if you are desperate enough to be published at any cost. Do not be fooled by their flatteries. If you have to pay to be published, think again. This is not the same as paying an entry fee for a contest, which is not only credible but often necessary to fund the prize monies. To learn more about vanity publishing, you may want to check the following website:

And … here’s the link to an interesting article in which several journal editors were asked to answer the question: “What is the worst thing a creative writer can do when making a submission?” (You’ll see my response under the entry for Tiferet). 

Your prompt this week?  No, I didn’t forget, and here it is!

This week write a poem about getting (or not getting) published.

Some Things to Think about:

How did you prepare the poem?
Where did you send it?
Did it get accepted or rejected?
How are dull opening lines, stale language, clichés, and weak endings part of the “recipe” for rejection?
What’s the funniest rejection letter you’ve ever received?

For a little added fun, try writing a poem in the form of a rejection or acceptance letter.

Sylvia Plath once said, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” What does that mean to you? How about using that quote as an epigraph for a poem?

If these ideas don’t work for you, consider wiring a poem about any kind of acceptance or rejection.

You might enjoy this article by Major Jackson, poetry editor of The Harvard Review.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Prompt #155 – Had We But World Enough and Time

This week, our prompt is about things you wish you had time for (past and present). Think in terms of things for which you didn’t or couldn’t make time or things you just can’t fit into your schedule right now.

The “inspiration poem” for this prompt is “Something I’ve Not Done” by former U.S. Poet Laureate W. S Merwin. Read the poem a few times and reflect on what it “says” to you. How do you relate to the poem? What’s something you’ve not done that “follows you?” Notice how Merwin’s poem begins with a slightly lighter tone and then becomes “heavier” at the end.

Following last week’s prompt on epigraphs, when you feel ready to begin your poem, use Merwin’s first two lines as an epigraph to get you started: “Something I’ve not done / is following me …” But don’t rewrite Merwin’s poem. Be sure to move away from the inspiration poem in ways that are unique to your own style and content.

Remember that the poem you write this week won’t be about things you have done but, rather, about things you haven’t done. Do you have regrets about a specific something for which you didn’t or couldn’t make time? A relationship that needed more time? A chance that needed time you didn’t or couldn’t spend on it? A kindness that you didn’t make time to extend? An opportunity that you didn’t have time to pursue? A place there wasn’t time to visit? Any of these might provide the content of your poem. 

Notice that Merwin doesn’t name the thing not done. You may want to try that in your poem or you may want to go in the opposite direction and tell exactly what you didn’t do. After writing a draft or two, think about what your poem suggests about regrets. How is the thing not done the subject of your poem; and how is the way you feel about not doing it the “second subject?”

Inspiration Poem:

Something I’ve Not Done
By W.S. Merwin

Something I’ve not done
is following me
I haven’t done it again and again
so it has many footsteps
Like a drumstick that’s grown old and never been used

In late afternoon I hear it come close
at times it climbs out of a sea
onto my shoulders
and I shrug it off
losing one more chance

Every morning
it’s drunk up part of my breath for the day
and knows which way
I’m going
and already it’s not done there

But once more I say I’ll lay hands on it
and add its footsteps to my heart
and its story to my regrets
and its silence to my compass

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Prompt #154 – Back in the Day

It’s amazing how quickly an old photograph, a song from the past, the shape of a hand, or the curve of a smile can take us back to times and places that only exist in our memories. In our post-modern culture, the phrase “back in the day” has become a catch-phrase for “remember when,” and we all long for little bits of the past. We see it in the popularity of older collectibles and the ways in which objects from the past are valued. Each of us has experienced wistful memories of childhood, and the emotions that arise from our reflections on the past have an inherent meaning that’s unique to each of us.

Trivia: Did you know that the phrase “back in the day” has been noted as far back as in The Blood Remembers, a 1941 novel by Helen Hedricks (publisher Alfred A. Knopf’s wife): “I was back in the day when his father was buried, and the bright sun was killing the purple asters in Sam’s bent hands.”

The past is often a rich source for our poems, and I thought that this week we might spend some time in reflection about the past with a few pre-writing questions:

1. What is it about the past that’s so compelling?
2. How were things better in the past?
3. How were things worse?
4. What do you miss most about the past?
5. Is there something in the past that you dwell on?
6. Nostalgia derives from two Greek words: nostos meaning “homecoming,” and algos meaning “pain.” How does nostalgia figure into your feelings about the past?
7. In a culture of fast-paced and rapidly changing technologies, how can nostalgia help us feel more grounded and stable?
8. What’s one thing about the past that you’re glad has changed?
9. If you could bring back one thing from your past, what would it be?
10. Sometimes, we remember the past as better than it really was. How are some memories more about “the way we never were” than they are about “the way we were.”

Now, begin drafting a “back in the day” poem. Focus on one specific memory/event.

Be sure to avoid the pitfall of sentimentality.

A straight narrative poem may be a good place to start, but work toward making this poem one that will have universal meaning along with the personal.

How do the details of your specific memory touch or “have meaning” for readers?

What is it in your memory that might make the reader think, “Oh, that reminds me of ….”?

How does your memory connect you to a larger memory pool, i.e., experiences to which others can relate?

Is there anything you can think of from back in the day that’s back in style? Can you work that into a poem.

And here’s something to try: I read that poet Stanley Kunitz often directs his students to end a poem on an image without explaining it. Try for a “punchy” ending by concluding your poem with an evocative image that’s left unexplained.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Prompt # 153 – Epigraphing

I’m sure you’ve noticed that many poets choose to include a quotation (epigraph) beneath the title and before the text of their poems. By way of definition: an epigraph (not epigram or epitaph) is a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book, a chapter, a story, or a poem that’s borrowed from another writer and included to suggest the theme or to give the reader a hint of what’s to come. Epigraphs are often from classical (Latin, Greek) or Biblical sources and call to mind similar themes or thematic contrasts. Typically, epigraphs are no more than a line or two, but may also be more lengthy.

Among numerous other poets, T. S. Eliot adopted a kind of signature element in using foreign language quotes as epigraphs (as in “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). In addition, Chaucer opened “The Knight’s Tale” with a quotation from the Roman poet Statius; Alexander Pope began the 1743 version of the “Dunciad” with an epigraph from Ovid; and Keats prefaced his “Poems” with a quotation from Spenser. Today’s poets seem to use epigraphs with increasing frequency.

For this week’s prompt, let’s try some “epigraphing.”


1.  Remember that the epigraph you choose should suggest the content of your poem, should be insightful, and should be a source of inspiration for what you write. Feel free to search the Net and to use quotations in any language you wish, including English. If you speak another language, or know someone who does, you might find that helpful in finding a foreign-language epigraph.

2.  The quotations you use don’t have to be from poems; they may be from any source. Spend some time looking for quotes that inspire you.

3.  Once you’ve found a quote to work with, begin free writing to get some ideas going.

4. After free writing, read through what you’ve written and see where your ideas take you.

5. If you draw a blank on this one, here’s an alternative idea: look through your already-written poems and see if you can find an epigraph for one or more of them.

6. Another option is to choose an epigraph from a poem that you like. For example, lines from Phyllis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” form the epigraph for Alfred Corn’s “Sugar Cane” (

8. To format the epigraph for your poem, be sure to insert the quotation (with quotation marks or in italics) between the title of the poem and the text. Immediately after the quote, be sure to credit your source. (If your quote is in a foreign language you may include the translation immediately under the quote and before the source. This isn’t usually done, though, and readers may find it interesting to discover the meaning of your foreign-language epigraphs on their own).

9. For formatting, Here’s are the epigraphs from Eliot’s “Prufrock” and “Waste Land”:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Click Here to Read the Poem

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi

in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent:
τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.

For Ezra Pound
il miglior fabbro

10. And, by way of sharing, here’s an example of how I formatted an epigraph for a poem in my book What Matters:

Of Feathers, Of Flight Click Here to Read the Poem

 … if I look up into the heavens I think that it will all come right …
and that peace and tranquility will return again.
—Anne Frank

Before Writing:

Feel free to search the Net to find quotations that work for you. Here are a few that might be helpful.

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
     (From “Separation” by W.S. Merwin)

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
     (From “Hold Fast to Dreams” by Langston Hughes)

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
     (From “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver)

One less hope becomes
One more song.
     (From “Song about Song” by Anna Akhmatova)

Within the circles of our lives
we dance the circles of the years,
     (From “Song (4)” by Wendell Berry)

Hope is the thing with feathers
     (From “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson)

Latin: Veni, vidi, vici.           
     I came, I saw, I conquered. (Julius Caesar)

Latin: Minus solum, quam cum solus esset.           
     Never less alone than when alone. (Cicero)

French: Comprendre, c'est pardoner.
     To understand is to forgive. (De Stael)

French: Le plus grand faible des hommes, c'est l'amour qu'ils ont de la vie.
     Man's greatest weakness is his love of life. (Molière)

French: Du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas.
     It's just one step from the sublime to the ridiculous. (Napoléon)

Greek: ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα
     One thing I know, that I know nothing. This is the source of my wisdom. (Socrates)

Greek: Ανδρν γὰρ ἐπιφανῶν πᾶσα γῆ τάφος, καὶ οὐ στηλῶν μόνον ἐν τῇ οἰκείᾳ σημαίνει ἐπιγραφή, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐν τῇ μὴ προσηκούσῃ ἄγραφος μνήμη παρ' ἑκάστῳ τῆς γνώμης μᾶλλον τοῦ ἔργου ἐνδιαιτᾶται.
     What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others. (Pericles)

Greek: Πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει
     Everything changes and nothing remains still. (Heraclitus)

Examples of Poems with Epigraphs: