Sunday, October 12, 2008

Handicapping poetry

I've been asked to speak to a group of students this Wednesday as part of a symposium on "Writing for Publishing." They want me to talk specifically on poetry, so I have to figure out what to tell them. Well, I pretty much know. You can't write poetry with an eye toward getting published. If you try to, you might get published, but you'll never write anything any good. You write for the poem -- to fulfill your obligation to that poem, to find why it matters and bring that out, So the real question is -- what do you do with the poems you've written? Writing poetry is inspiration and work, technique and passion, and that's all that should matter. What comes after is strategy and marketing, and at that point, these are virtues. You're not betraying your art in the slightest by being good at selling yourself, or your work.

If you're a slam poet or a performance poet, the path is basically the same as that of a musician. Start in small clubs, build up a reputation, go on to bigger venues.

If you're a printed word poet, you can submit work to magazines, you can enter contests, you can network whenever you have the chance, and if you have the temperament, you can make more chances. If you go where poets are -- writers conferences, summer workshops, elite graduate progams -- you'll meet more poets than if you don't, and people will start to know who you are. You can start a poetry-related blog, and try to get links to other blogs -- you'll be more successful here if you have something to say than if you're just making an online place to self-publish.

Submitting work to journals that publish poetry -- you need to know what the field is. There are a couple of good annual directories of poetry markets -- Poet's Market and Dustbooks Guide to Poetry Publishers. There are also a lot of good web sources, but these two books are the best and most complete. I read Poet's Market like the racing form, looking for clues to help me in picking winners. First, bloodlines. Many magazines list a few of the poets they've published. Are these poets you like? Poets you'd be pleased to get between the covers (of a publication) with?

Second, stamina. If the magazine has been around for ten years or more, it's likely to have a more substantial reputation, and less likely to fold between the time you send work to them and the time you get it back.

Third, class. In the racing form, this means the size of the purse the horse is racing for. In poetry, there's no purse. It's a strange profession in which you give away your primary product in the hope of ancillary revenues -- teaching jobs, fellowships, reading circuits. So class here means circulation. How many people might actually read your poem? Pick a magazine that has a circulation of 1000 over one with a circulation of 200.

Contests are very popular these days, and they can be a good way to go, although I haven't done it myself. You'll have to pay a small entry fee to most contests, so think about whether you want to make that investment. If a contest is sponsored by a legitimate magazine or organization, and if it has judges with decent credentials, you can assume it's probably on the up and up. A few years ago, there was a scandal about contest prizes all being won by friends or former students of the judges, but most places have now been shamed out of that. Many of the contests are chapbook contests, and if you have a body of work you're pleased with, look into them.

A book of poems? That's for later. Start with the first steps.

Wow...well, I guess that's what I'm going to say.

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