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Getting your poetry published

THAT PESKY READING WINDOW

READING-WINDOW

So yes, for HappenStance subscribers, there really is an offer of detailed feedback on up to six poems twice a year. And the first window used to be December.

But look at the picture.  I believe the window is shut. That's because the reading window month has changed. It's now January, which gives you all of December and the beginning of January to think about it.

Please don't send poems early. The reading elf (see last week's blog) is knackered.

Of course, January is a cold month for having the windows open, but never mind. I have a log stove, several really warm pullovers and super-thick socks.

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CLOSING THE READING WINDOW

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July has been busy. Probably the busiest reading window ever. I think I have just about reached the limit of what it is possible to manage. I was away twice for two days, and each time the whole thing got out of hand and I returned to a small mountain. During the windows, it's necessary to be at home with several hours each day to spend on nothing else.

This window closes on Saturday 28thJuly, when I will also be at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh taking part in a pamphlet fair. Envelopes that arrive on Monday, July 31st are out of luck. I am packing and leaving. Literally.

How does it work during a reading window? The post here arrives between 11 and 12, so that sets up the workload for the day. The largest number of reading envelopes this month has been 11 in one day. It has averaged about 7 i.e. roughly 42 poems of varying shapes and sizes. A couple of years ago, during reading windows, it used to average 3 per day. So quite a big difference.

Each set takes about an hour. Some a little less; some quite a lot more. (I can't do eleven in a day. I can manage up to six if I work the whole day with no interruptions.) I sharpen the pencils, open the first envelope, read the poems carefully (starting with a short one), scribble in pencil on each one, get out my fountain pen, write a reply to the poet (lengths of this vary: some are quite short, some two sides of A4), then I log the name of the author, the number of poems, and a brief summary of my thoughts on my laptop. 

Most poets remember to include an SAE so that bit is quick. Occasionally they forget, or just send stamps, so I need to get up and find an envelope and write out the address etc. Even the ones with SAEs usually need a bit of sellotape since the quality of stickability is highly variable.

I am not reading the poems in order to find new work to publish, though very occasionally the process indirectly leads to that. I read the poems to see what's going on in them. I'm very interested in poems, their authors (I like the covering letters) and also the trends – what seems to be going on in the poetry in general. One can't help noticing trends.

This year I commented on punctuation a lot. The whole business of punctuating poems seems to be causing increasing problems. Should we do it sometimes? Always? Never? There are no absolute rules, but if I start to notice the punctuation (or absence thereof), there's usually an issue. I call this snagging and I've written about it before.

The leaning verb is not quite so ubiquitous as it used to be, I think, but I come across poets who are apparently unaware how often they use this style feature. Yes – you see it in published work too. Trends have to come from somewhere.

More 'new' subscribers sent me poetry to read than ever before. So most of those people didn't know that I don't like villanelles, hate sestinas, and would really rather not read pantoums. I am starting to find prose poems increasingly hard to warm to, as well – the more they arrive, the less I like them.. C'est la vie!

This July, certain features particularly stood out for me, because of their frequency. So I'll list them, for interest in a separate blog entry (tomorrow). There is no necessity to agree with what I think, of course, or even to read this list.

It is the frequency that is the problem. For a poem to work well it needs to sound fresh and new, and somehow surprising. If it sounds rather similar to most of the poems you read lately, well ...I rest my case.



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OPENING THE WINDOW AGAIN

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Sometimes the catch sticks a little. This window hasn't been open in a long time. A bit of tugging and scraping may be involved. Gently ... gently ...    

Lord knows – I don't want to break the window.                       

But what, as a friend in peril wrote recently on FaceBook, is the point? And what is this 'window' anyway?

For me, it's a publisher's reading window, and it serves two purposes.

First, I spend a lot of time in the house, producing poetry publications, editing this and that, brooding over current poetry hype, drowning in emails, trying not to be depressed by social media and so on. I want to keep my finger on the pulse of what's happening out there among the extraordinary unhyped writers. What poems are you writing and why? What's really going on?

Second, this small press (HappenStance) values its subscribers almost above all else. They are a unique reading resource. Many of them are also poets. So for the poets, it is a kind of payback. I ask them to read some of the publications I make. In return, I offer to read some of their own poems as well as I can. 

Do I ever offer to publish a person's work on the strength of six poems encountered in a reading window? Hardly ever. But that's not necessarily the reason people send them, and certainly not the reason I read them.

It's more likely that a relationship develops over time, over several windows. It could be a publishing relationship. It could be a friendship.

And in that time, the poet tests whether I am a good reader for them. My feedback is constructive and heartening for some. But there are also people who (quite reasonably) think 'what planet is this woman on?'

This is absolutely not just about publishing. Nor is it a secret and fiendish way of making money out of you (the HS subscription costs at most £12.50 and I spend at least an hour on each person's poems – twice a year).

But if you are thinking of publishing your work, perhaps you need to risk the feedback of an honest reader, a critical friend, and here is a low-risk, toe-in-the-water test.

You might not think you have any choice of publishers. Wrong. As I said in my book How (Not) To Get Your Poetry Published, 'Consider all your options – there are invariably more than you think'.

But publishing poetry is not the most important thing. It's simply a means to an end.

What is the most important thing? First: writing the best poems you can, the poems that (as Larkin said) only you can write. Second: finding a few good readers for them.

Precisely one week from now, I'm opening that window so I can see to read. 

It will be absolutely wide open. Let the light come in.

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HOT CROSS PAMPHLETS

My last blog entry dealt with the ‘post-pamphlet process’. I’m mid-pamphlet this week so thought I’d share a bit of that too, rather than writing about hot cross buns. (I may write about the first stage one day, and even the buns, but not today.)

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FOURTEEN TIPS FOR DEALING WITH REJECTION

I don’t mean in love, or in life. I’m talking poems here.

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What makes a successful poet?

Or should I put it another way: what makes a poet successful?

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