I see a lot of posts here about how to start publishing in journals. Usually, from people who admit that they just got into poetry and want to hurry up and start publishing. My advice to these people is always to wait a while. Spend a few years reading everything you can get your hands on, experimenting with different forms, styles, images and ideas. Get involved with your college’s undergrad CW journal if there is one. Read for them and start publishing there. Take all the workshops you can. Minor in CW if it’s an option. If you’re not a student, get involved with the local poetry scene. Find a local open mic and read there every week. If there isn’t one, start one. Chances are, there are poets in your area and they might just need a way to reach out to one another. And if that’s not an option, either, then just fall back on reading and writing. Read 100 times more than you write and even think about publishing until you’ve written your first few hundred bad poems. That said, if you’ve done these things, or even if you haven’t and you’re determined to put your poems into the world, here’s my advice.

I’m offering some perspective from the other side of things — as a reader for both a poetry journal and a press. I work as part of team of three-to-four readers working on an annual poetry prize for full manuscripts at an established Midwestern university-based-press. It was my third time doing so, and we’re currently assembling a team for the next round. For the past few years I’ve also served as a poetry reader for a B-level East Coast literature journal. Along the way I’ve also filled in half a dozen other journals, both print and online. Given this experience, I have some advice that most people usually don’t give: Spray and pray.

Get a Submittable account, sort by “no fee,” and submit to every single journal on that list. Don’t bother with reading through a journal to get a feel for the poems. Don’t spend a lot of time wondering what journal is best for you. Especially not when you’re starting out. I’m at the point where I have around 70 individual publications and a book out, so I now work from list of higher tier journals two which I submit exclusively. I have a monthly budget for that. For newer the poet just trying to get their work out there, though, that’s not realistic. Let me tell you why. Journals are absolutely *drowning* in submissions. So are presses. The odds of you getting published are so slim that your best bet is just to submit to as many places as possible and get accepted through the law of averages.

For this year’s manuscript contest at the press, we received about 400 submissions (paid, mind you, it got our budget back into the black after we lost some department-level funding due to budget cuts) and we had to narrow down to an initial short list of 20, then 10 for the finalists. Then one person won. I was rejecting well-known poets after reading through just 10 or so of their poems. We’re talking about poets with their own Wikipedia pages and biographies on the Poetry Foundation. Poets who came out of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Poets with 10 collections out. We didn’t reject them because their manuscripts were *bad* as much as because we could tell right away that they weren’t going to be a finalist. So, there was no reason to continue with it.

The journal I read for is similarly slammed. Hundreds of submissions for every issue and we published between 20-30 poems per, depending on length and on the fiction and visual art pieces that get chosen. Once we hit that number, we stop reading for that cycle. There are simply too many submissions to give each one a thorough and fair read. You can thank two entities for this: Submittable and WordPress. They’ve both expanded the number of poetry rags out there and expanded the number of submissions.

Ten years ago it was so different — many, many fewer journals, and many of them still took paper submissions. So you’d do what people still say to do — read journals, find ones you like, submit to those. The editor of the press I read for said that they used to get maybe 50, 60 submissions for their annual prize. Now they get around 400 each time. The same is true for journals. Submitting poems used to take a bit of effort. Now it’s as simple as clicking a button. Everyone can submit everywhere at once.

Now, the vast majority of submissions I see for the journal are just fucking awful. Every undergraduate who takes one poetry class and puts together their ten poems for their end-of-year packet can now go onto Submittable and hurl their little opuses at every journal on the internet. However, even though 90% of submissions are just outright trash, there are still far too many good submissions to publish. The journal I read for publishes around 1 percent of all poetry submissions. The press I read for picks one winner out of over 400 submissions, many of whom are established names in the community. What chance does the average person have by selecting two or three dream journals from a carefully considered list and sending out their work? Almost none.

There are of course some pros to complement this list of cons. Submittable has certainly lowered the bar for entry into poetry, made it more accessible. It’s also made it so the entire submission process is just a numbers game. My Submittable account currently sits at 518 rejections and 49 acceptances. Less than 1%. The rest of my pubs came from invitations to submit as I got more involved in various poetry scenes, read for journals, completed grad school and got to know the editors of journals personally.

Which brings me to another issue: Journal editors frequently solicit submissions from people they know. Established poets whose work they like, former classmates at their MFA programs, people who have published with them before, people working at journals the editor is probably looking to submit to in the future. Of the 20-30 poems published a decent journal issue, chances are a few were invited submissions, meaning they actually got the full and considered treatment. Even a back and forth with the editor, asking if they had anything else to submit, as that first batch wasn’t quite a good fit. That makes the odds for the average submitter even worse.

So, get a Submittable account. Click discover. Search for poetry. Then select the “no fee” tag. Those are your journals for submission. Then, get together your five best poems. Save them in five different documents. The first with just one poem, then two, then three, etc. This is because most journals will ask for 3-5 poems per submission. Some will only allow one. As you’re going through the submission list, the guidelines will tell you how many you’re allowed to include.

I’m fully expecting a fair amount of indignant responses to this post, from people telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about, I don’t know a thing about poetry, etc. And I don’t really care. You can take my advice or not. I’m not here for a debate. As a reader of both individual submissions and poetry manuscripts, as someone who has sometimes approved submissions from novice poets and rejected submissions from MFA teaching faculty, this is how it looks from the inside. And as someone who has published a fair number of poems, this is what has worked for me. Yes, many were lower-tier poetry mags while I was just getting any pub I could. And occasionally I’d get something accepted in such a journal and then have to turn down a better acceptance later. However, I’ve also published in some in some upper-tier journals. This site journals ranks them by their Pushcart Prize performance, and I’ve been accepted by a dozen journals on the list. Sadly, none in the top ten.

And there it is, my two poetic cents. Forgive the many typos you likely found. I didn’t proofread this before hitting submit, as I didn’t expect it to be this long, and it’s late. Goodnight!

submitted by /u/lickin_possum_butt
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