Saturday, March 12, 2016

Ask the Moon: What to do with our less-accessible poetry

My friend Michelle writes with this question:

You talk a lot about finding an audience for your work. When I consider submitting to various litmags and contests, I look at my work and ask myself: What is most accessible? Then I have a bit of a crisis because I've spent so much time reading poetry that isn't immediately accessible. I think that one can only tread the line of poetry-you-have-to-work-for once one becomes an established poet. So, I keep what in my eyes seems less Billy Collins and more Gertrude Stein in my we-will-wait-until-we-have-an-established-audience portfolio and submit the poems I think are more Billy Collins. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s an interesting conundrum—do we have to earn the right, build the readership, before we can allow our work to be complex, intuitive … hard? Will editors tolerate dense, difficult work from a relatively unknown poet?

But in reading between the lines, doesn’t it seem as though Michelle feels that her best work is among the less-accessible stuff? It’s what she reads and it composes a good portion of her portfolio of work, and it seems that she wants to send it out.

My gut says that Michelle should stop thinking in terms of accessible versus inaccessible, and start thinking in simpler terms: good versus less good. I feel as though our best work, not our easiest, will likely have a better chance with editors, who are, after all, editors—they see a lot of work, and they know how to approach all kinds, if they are worth their salt at all.

By presuming that her readers won’t “get” her dense work, Michelle is both selling readers short and depriving them of a whole body of material. Obviously, some readers can’t handle work that isn’t straightforward and simplistic—that’s very true—but those aren’t the readers that matter, on any level, and while I talk a lot of smack about editors behaving badly, I do believe that most people who feel called to the field are receptive to work that they have to, well, work for.

When sending out poems, I use this strategy: I put together a packet of about five poems. Two or three of those are the best work I have, regardless of the journal (for the most part). The rest are filler—work that I’m not ashamed to publish, but that doesn’t strike me as quite so strong.

Of course, editors snatch up the filler right away—it’s just the nature of the game, sort of the Murphy’s Law of publishing. The good poems take a few trips sometimes before they get picked up, and that’s OK. It just proves that the idea of what’s “good” is pretty subjective, even (especially?) for the poet. It also proves that we don’t know what is going to speak to an editor—what she has a lot of, what she needs, themes that are happening organically with an issue, an editor’s personal preferences.

By the way, here’s another submitting trick: I often work in series, and when I send a few poems from a series in the batch, editors often take two or more, just to showcase the fact that the work is part of a larger project. That’s a nice way to get a little range in an issue of a journal, and I’ve found that it has been a quick way to get a lot of poems into print.

One caveat for Michelle and anyone else in this situation: Her question was about submitting work to litmags and contests. The advice I’ve offered thus far is for general submissions to litmags. With really risky work, I don’t think contests are the way to go. Editors want to feel confident with their contest picks (and of course they typically winnow down submissions to send only the top five or ten to a named judge). While the judge might choose risky work, I suspect the editor may be less likely to send it. There’s a lot riding on contest choices, and editors usually try for a winner that is a sure thing.

In a larger sense, why submit to contests at all? If I pay a submission fee or enter a contest, it’s a deliberate effort to support a journal I like—I’m participating in a fundraiser. But contest fees keep rising while prizes stay static, and I tend to avoid them. (With that being said, as a screener for a number of contests over the years, I can attest that the work submitted for contests is much, much weaker, in general, than the regular submission pool. There are always a few standouts, enough to have some finalists to pass along to the judge, but most of the work is pretty bad. I actually think most regular submissions are pretty good—could it be that beginning writers are the ones who think contests are a good way to get published?)

I’m digressing quite a bit from Michelle’s question. The tl;dr answer: Michelle, send your best work, and trust the editors to know how to receive it. Editors aren’t looking for easy work; they’re looking for great work, and they’re also looking to give their readers a unique experience. Your difficult poems may offer the difference they’re hoping to find.


  1. I am generally suspicious for contests for a lot of reasons I don't need to go into here, but it might be worth mentioning to your friend (even though it seems like obvious advice) that knowing the venue you wish to publish in is still important. If I had, say a less "accessible" manuscript I wanted to place, I'd know to send it to presses that tend to publish more of that kind of thing, right? A couple places that come to mind immediately are Ahsahta and Fence, though those are just two examples. If one has equally strong work that one considers more accessible or "conventional" there are plenty of places that are more amenable to that kind of work as well, right?

    1. Yes, good points. Sort of depends on what's meant by "accessible." Found poetry? L = A = N = G = U = A = G = E-inspired stuff? Or just dense and philosophical? The latter could potentially be placed anywhere, as could experimental content in a mostly tradional poem. May as well submit your best work to the journals you like, though, unless your favorite mag is Narrative. :)

    2. By the way, I'm suspicious of contests for a lot of reasons, too. You should write a guest post on the toic! I'd be interested to see it.

  2. Oh my goodness...the editors snap up the poems I feel are "less strong" in the packet...yes, yes, yes. Always.

  3. Awesome! Thanks so much, Karen. This is incredibly helpful. You are right - I'm selling my readers short - as well as the poems. If I don't think the work to read them pays off, transcending the why-am-I-working-for-this, the poems need more work. Otherwise, its time to find them an audience.

    1. <3 The world needs to see your poems! I remember them! They're good! :)

  4. Thanks for this down to earth, uncondescending advice. I agree with you and Anthony regarding contests. I'd ratherjust buy the magazine or donate.


  5. After riding the whole thing i really appreciated with the author. he describe every step in details. It is so tough to find such a informative article like this.

  6. I smiled when I read this article. I had a houseguest last night who said that she'd seen some of the poems I'd had published in zines etc. and that she hadn't commented to me as she 'didn't understand them'.

    I know how difficult it can be for people to get published but I always send out my 'difficult' poems, I just send to zines that I believe will cope with the subject matter. Yes, I make shaped poems, poems about political / gender etc. issues and ones that are simply not vanilla enough to be described as 'nice' but you are SO right, trust the editors (who you have researched :-) ) and if some prefer the vanilla flavoured then you'll still have the difficult ones for those that find them a fit.

    Thanks for the article, it was very interesting to read your thoughts on this matter.