Putting the Poetry Submissions Process Back in Its Place
You can’t allow one rejection to represent your whole life as a writer, nor can you try to tackle all your writing goals on a given day. But when you begin submitting your poetry to literary journals, you know you’ll encounter rejection, delayed gratification, and judgment (or what feels like judgment) of the things you’ve created from your most tender self. The experiences and emotions associated with literary submissions can feel like the kind of grist usually reserved for therapy. And yet, so many of us stick with it because literary publishing is a world we want to be a part of.
I’ve been submitting my poetry to literary journals since 2011. It didn’t take long for me to start thinking that success in the submissions process requires playing a mental game, just like what it takes to make headway on any large project. Over the years, I’ve learned to deal with putting the anxiety-inducing aspects of the submissions process back in their place through organization, contextualization, and keeping long-term goals in mind.
Let’s start there: What are your goals as a writer? No, really, have you written them down? How do you want to be connecting with audiences in a year? In five years? What kind of impact do you want your writing to have? What might be some potential homes for your writing?
Create a future-focused timeline or a list of goals or an imaginative version of a contributor’s note (your future bio) you’d wish to have five years from now. You could also create a “mission statement” for yourself as a writer. This might seem more MBA than MFA, but as a writer, you know better than almost anyone that writing something down is the best way to identify what you haven’t thought through yet.
Once you’ve figured out what it means to you to “get published,” you can figure out how to get there. Do you want to self-publish your book? Do you simply wish to connect with other writers? Is advocacy fueling you? Is performing your work as important to you as publishing? Do you want to see your work in print, have it evaluated by editors, and publish with a small literary publisher? There are so many ways to live a life in writing.
For the last few years, I’ve created a vision board for myself each January. A vision board doesn’t need to feature cheesy stickers or motivational slogans (though it can if that’s your thing!). I just use 8.5”x11” cardstock and colored pencils. It’s a straightforward visual list of things I want to accomplish, say, “Send out 20 submissions a month” or “Complete full draft of the haibun project.” I even include a few generatively minded goals, like “Keep a dream journal” or “Plumb last year’s notebooks for new poems.” The vision board helps me view the submissions process (cut-throat and devoted to gatekeeping as it often is) within the context of my entire writing life, which for me ranges from writing to publishing to teaching to book reviewing. My submissions are just one ingredient of something much larger.
One of the ways I deal with rejection is to get involved in (and sometimes lead) community poetry projects because they sustain and nourish me. Is your city or state poet laureate doing an interesting project that involves elevating the work of local writers, i.e. you? Is a local micro-publisher doing a broadside project? If you live rurally, there may be a statewide poetry society that puts together yearly anthologies or poetry calendars featuring guest contributions. Rejections from distant editors seem to matter less when we’re surrounded by communities of poets who practice mutual encouragement. You can pour into your local poetry community and have your eye on getting your work published nationally.
Attending open mics, virtual or in-person, is also motivating. You get to hone your performance skills and receive positive feedback in real time. When I was getting started, I used to create zines (DIY booklets) of my poetry and sell them for a couple of bucks at open mics. It proved I had an audience! And I was starting to publish in places like Painted Bride Quarterly and The Boiler Journal at the same time. I’ve heard of poets engaging in groups where, instead of workshopping each other’s writing, they share stories about the submissions process and cheer each other on. I’ve also heard of writers who meet up with laptops at the library (or on Zoom) to send out submissions while sitting in the same room. Celebrating the act of submitting instead of worrying about an editor’s response feels empowering.
Submissions are part of the logistics side of writing, but luckily, most of being a poet is not about that. (We’d do something else if “business” was what we liked best, right?) What publishing can do for us is help hone an audience-informed relationship with our own creativity. This is a satisfying aspect of the writing long-game, developing a loop that consists of imaginative invention, an editor’s close reading of your work, the affirmation of seeing your poetry in print, an audience—even one person—who shares what they think, and the ways that this intensive attention can spring you into the next idea. Reconsidering submissions as just one ingredient within the rich menu of your writing life can help you get more in touch with the joy of all of it.