I made two firm offers to poets during July's reading window. What did they have that the others didn’t?
There’s no straightforward answer. All the same, sending poetry to someone like me is not like entering a raffle. I want specific things, and I try to tell people what they are.
But not everybody looks on the web or finds out much about the publisher before they pack up their poems and post them. Not everybody reads blogs like this one. Why should they? I was the same myself once, so it’s something I understand. But in terms of getting published, it’s a mistake.
If I offer to do a publication for a poet, I’m committing to spending several hundred quid and two weeks. That’s a big commitment. It’s invariably a privilege to work with a poet, so I don’t want to suggest I’m totally noble. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t get an incredible buzz out of it. But the buzz is not about money or glory or fame. It’s about poetry.
So yes, there are specific things I look for.
Namely, poems I want to carry in my head and then type out word by word. That’s my way of trying them on, like a dress or a jumper. This won’t apply to the whole submission of course, but there’ll be at least a couple of poems I’ve fallen for and want to share.
Behind the poems, there’ll be someone I like the sound of. I’m likely to get that impression from the covering letter. It will be personal and it will tell me something about them. I’ll have the feeling I’d like to work with that person.
The person will be dedicated. This is a hard thing to measure. Raving about poetry in your life is not the same as dedication. I think dedication is less showy. It’s about reading and learning, studying poetry and absorbing it, drinking it in, thinking about it in depth. Not your own—other people’s.
The person will have chosen to send poems to HappenStance for a reason, not just as one of a lucky-bag of publishers to apply to. They’ll have read some of my publications and noticed something about the enterprise and the values. They’re likely to be a subscriber. Not everyone would want a publication handled by me: I can be really annoying.
The person will have been interacting in the poetry business for a while—sending poems out to worthy publications, noting the feedback, learning. They’ll welcome constructive feedback. They’ll understand a bit about how things work these days, including online things, and they'll have given some thought to the matter of readership (sorry to talk HORRIBLE jargon) and sales.
But there's no perfect formula, only various routes up a modest little hill. It isn’t Mount Parnassus: that’s a myth. And sending poetry to me is not a one-way journey with success or failure at the end. Mostly I give some feedback, which I hope people will think about. If they feel what I've said is inappropriate (which it's bound to be in some cases), they’ll know I’m not the publisher for them. There are other imprints, and new ones keep emerging. I update my list regularly (free download in the HappenStance shop).
And if I like the sound of the poet, I hope they’ll keep in touch. Not necessarily because I’ll ever publish their work, but because I’m interested – interested in poets and their activities, interested in poetry and what it’s up to in the second decade of century number 21.
So if you’re thinking of sending me poems in December, which will be on us before we know it –
- The beginning of the month is better than the end. By the end, I’ve run out of steam and I'm in process of struggling to shut that window. And sending the work early, so I can save it till the reading window opens, is a Bad Idea.
- Please don’t include recommendations from other poets. I’m beginning to think people must be advised to do this by some experts somewhere because it’s happening increasingly. Stuff the experts. If your covering letter tells me Seamus Heaney thinks your poems are ‘remarkable’, it will only put me off.
- If some of the poems included have been published in magazines already, it’s useful to know what was printed where, and useful to know the range of magazines you’ve had work in. I don’t need a complete list of every poem you’ve ever had printed.
- Avoid mentioning numbers. I don’t care how many poems you’ve written or had published. I only care whether you’ve written three good ones. Besides, I’m biased in favour of people who write fewer . . .
- Keep the type-face plain. Make it big enough for me to read but not huge (take a look at one of my pamphlets and go for something similar).
- Keep the type-face the same size and spacing throughout, not bigger on some pages and smaller than others.
- Name and address on every sheet, not stapled, not bound. If there’s a particular order you prefer, that’s fine. I will read them in the order you present them.
- The submission guidelines suggest I’ll read between 12 and 20 poems. Twelve is better than 20, unless your poems are very short. If I like them, I’ll ask for more.
Please don’t think I am a Poetry Person of Power. I am small beer doing my best in straitened circumstances. While I’m reading my way carefully through your submission, I’m also worrying about sales. If the current pamphlets don’t sell well, I won’t be able to publish yours anyway. . . . so if you want to help keep things going, buy one now!