How to get your poetry published
Previous New Writer Awardee and Reading Champion Claire Askew is as busy as a poet gets, but luckily she's got time between readings and launching her new book This Changes Things to tell us her key tips for travelling the road to poetry publication.
Write lots of poems. And I mean lots.
One thing I wish I'd known before I started publishing my work: you have to write way more poems than you technically need. In theory, to get a poem published in a journal, you just need one poem, right? I'm afraid not. You stand a much better chance if you send the maximum number of poems that journal accepts in a single submission – which for most journals is somewhere between three and eight. While those three-to-eight poems are being considered by that journal, it's bad form to send them anywhere else. So if you're like me, and not that great at being patient, you need another three to eight poems to send to the next journal on your list. And so on.
Know that many of your poems will never be published… and that's OK.
The point above is as true of poetry books as it is of magazines and journals. My poetry collection, This Changes Things, has 41 poems in it. Those 41 were whittled down from a pile of around 150 contenders. Although a few of the pieces that were left on the collection's cutting room floor have subsequently appeared in magazines or journals, most of them feel old and musty now. I've moved on to new writing – writing I feel is better, stronger, more interesting. I've had to make peace with the fact that some of my poems will never be read by anyone.
I've had to make peace with the fact that some of my poems will never be read by anyone.
Concentrate on the writing for as long as you can stand. Focus on getting better: learn what you like to write, learn what works and what doesn't, and try new approaches. Don't send your work out for publication before it's ready. I did, and now I look back at poems of mine that are immortalised in print, and cringe. There's nothing quite like getting your first poem published… but make sure it's a good one, or years later you'll find yourself hiding back issues of literary journals in the darkest corner of your local indie bookstore.
You can only have a first book once.
The same goes for publishing a collection. 'You can only have a first book once,' is one of the best pieces of writing advice I have ever received. Rightly or wrongly, a poet's first full-length collection is considered one of the biggest milestones in their writing career: there are loads of awards that are given only to first collections, for example. In light of this, you need to make sure that your first book is as good as you can possibly make it… and if that means it takes years to write, then so be it. Take your time.
It takes a village to create a manuscript.
Had it been left solely up to me, I might never have published any of my poems. Luckily, I've been encouraged by a lot of brilliant fellow writers and sensible mentors. My first ever published poem appeared in a German magazine called New Leaf, because I went along to a writers group that was also attended by poet and academic Julia Boll. She was their (then) editor, and asked me to send some work. My 2011 pamphlet collection, The Mermaid and the Sailors, was published after Red Squirrel Press' Scottish editor Kevin Cadwallender heard me read poems at a local live literature night. And the MS of This Changes Things would never have existed without the help of Scottish Book Trust, who gave me a New Writers Award in 2012 and set me up with some invaluable mentoring from poetry editor Sarah Ream. TL;DR? You can't do this on your own. You need to go out and find a community: join a good workshop group, sign up for open mics, meet other writers and find out what opportunities are out there.
The writing is the main thing.
With all of that said, the main thing is to read as much as you can, and then write as much as you can, as well as you can. There are poets I know who always read the same four poems when they perform in public. It's easy to learn what people like, and just keep producing that – it feels safe. But resist that urge for all you are worth! Read a new poem by someone you've never heard of before. Take that poem apart to see how it works. Then write whatever it triggers in you. Repeat.