The Beginner’s Guide to Journal Submissions

Occasionally people ask my advice about how they should go about submitting to journals, so I thought I’d do a blogpost about it. I don’t claim to be an expert (I have been serially rejected by some of the biggest journals) and am happy to be corrected by anyone who knows more than me, but, based on my (limited) experience, this is my take:

Why should I submit poems to journals?

You don’t have to and it doesn’t make you a lesser poet if you don’t! If you’re happy writing purely for your own pleasure, there’s no need. If you’re a spoken word artist, you really don’t have to, as promoters don’t usually care about page poetry success and the specialist spoken word publishers, like Burning Eye and Outspoken Press, also take on poets on the basis of their performance record, not their publication record. Also, most of the journals are looking for poems that are written in a very different style from that popular with spoken word audiences, so you may find that you have to write in a way that’s alien to you to get accepted. It can sometimes be very disheartening for performance poets when they try to move into page poetry (and vice versa), as success and praise in one sphere counts for very little in the other, and it can sometimes feel like you have gone back to square one.

However, if your main poetry goal is to have a book published, journal submissions are important as, other than the specialist spoken word publishers, most poetry publishers usually only take on poets with a proven track record of publication in reputable journals.

More importantly, the process of researching, reading and submitting to journals can really help to make you a better poet, as it forces you to engage with what other people are writing, to understand current trends and poetic schools, to be a more prolific and disciplined writer (there’s nothing like a looming submissions deadline to force you to write) and to set yourself ever higher goals. Rejection is also good for you (if painful), as it shakes you out of complacency and makes you reassess your work from a more objective standpoint and identify how you can improve it.

Finally, if you’re a performance poet looking for gigs, a track record in the journals can potentially help you double your number of bookings, as you can target page poetry nights, as well as spoken word nights.

How do I find journals to submit to?

There are a number of online lists of reputable literary journals. The poet Robin Houghton keeps a list which she regularly updates and will e-mail to anyone who asks. The poet Abegail Morley has a great one on her blog. The lovely pamphlet publisher Happenstance Press has a really helpful one on their website (with more excellent advice, besides). These blogposts (here and here) by Tim Love are really helpful, too.The godfather of journal lists is the Poetry Library’s list and online magazine database, which also includes free, online copies of back issues of most magazines, so you can see what kind of poems they publish.

The only downsides to these lists are:
(a) the ones I’ve linked to really only cover the UK and the Republic of Ireland. There are also numerous reputable journals in the US, Canada, India, Australia etc that English-language poets can submit to.
(b) sometimes the sheer number of journals out there can be daunting and confusing (especially on The Poetry Library site, where there are so many magazines listed, many of them now defunct, that it can be hard to find the wood for the trees)
(c) they can quickly go out of date, as poetry journals (especially online ones), frequently close or start up. Always check that a journal is still in existence before sending poems to it and keep your ears open for new journals that are making an impact
(d) no list can ever be complete and there will be excellent journals they’ve somehow missed

Anything I should bear in mind when submitting?

Read the submission guidelines carefully and adhere to them. If they have a submissions window and you send your poems outside it, if they ask for a maximum of five poems and you send them 20, if they ask for postal submissions only and you e-mail them, they will almost certainly ignore your submission and may actually remember you as that annoying moron who can’t read.

In particular, check the rules on previous publication and simultaneous submissions. Many journals do not want you to send them poems that have already been published elsewhere (this normally includes on Facebook, Twitter,your own website etc, although if your privacy settings are tight and/or you delete before submitting, how will they know?) or which you are sending out to other journals at the same time.

Many poets are inordinately worried they will get the covering letter wrong, but no reasonable editor will expect you to be a mind reader and no reasonable editor will reject excellent poems just because you called her “Ms” or “Jane” when she prefers “Miss”. Do write some kind of covering letter. If it says anything in the submissions guidelines about what kind of covering letter you should write, follow those instructions. If the editor’s name is clearly displayed on the website, I’d use it, rather than opting for “Dear Editor” or “Dear Sir or Madam”, but don’t lose sleep over the letter – it’s not that important.

Expect a lot of rejection, no matter how good you are. Even the top poets encounter more rejections than acceptances. If you can’t deal with rejection, journal submissions probably aren’t for you.

Don’t wait for a response to your first submission before sending out your second one (just make sure you don’t send the same poems).

How do I keep track of what I’ve sent where?

The poet Jo Bell has a now world-famous system for organising submissions. It is designed to be so easy that even poets, who, let’s face it, are not exactly known for their organisational skills, can keep on top of it. It is so easy, even I can manage it. I cannot recommend it enough.

Does it matter which journals I submit to? Is there a big difference between journals? Are some better than others?

Yes and no. Yes. No, but yes, but no, but yes, but no…..look, it’s complicated.

There is often a big stylistic difference between journals. Some hate metrical and/or rhymed verse, some favour very academic, difficult poetry, others favour a more accessible, populist style, some have particular subject matters they encourage or discourage. For this reason, it is a mistake to submit to a journal you have never read or to one that you don’t particularly like.

A common error many novice submitters make (well, I did, anyway) is to choose for their first submission a journal where they think the work is nowhere near as good as theirs. “This should be easy!” they think. “If this is the standard of the best work they’re being sent, they’re going to fall over themselves to accept mine!”. But either the work in that journal really isn’t very good (in which case, why on earth would you want to be associated with a shoddy journal?!!) or (and this is the more likely reason and it was what happened in my case) you just think the work isn’t very good because you don’t even understand the type of poetry they like, so you and they are unlikely to be a good fit.

My view is that the best journals to submit to are ones where you feel the work is very much like yours, but a bit better.

Going back to the question of “Are some journals better than others?”…

Yes and no. The line between “reputable” and “non-reputable” journals is an important one. Anyone can start a journal and some of the ones around have zero quality control and/or no reputation within poetic circles. If it looks like it’s been put together in someone’s back bedroom, if no-one else you know on the poetry scene knows about it and the contributors are all people you’ve never heard of with unimpressive biogs and the poetry is crap, then it’s not actually going to do you any harm being published in it, but it’s probably not going to help you at all, either.

Beyond the “reputable”/”non-reputable” distinction, well, most poets, if they’re honest, have a league table in their heads. They will not usually speak about this out loud, because they don’t want to offend the editors of journals they haven’t assigned to the Premier League, but most of us have one. Some journals think they are better than others. Some journals, rightly or wrongly, have more cachet with publishing houses etc. Some journals have been around for a very long time and have made a bigger name for themselves, some attract more submissions than others, so have a bigger pool from which to pick, some publish the famous poets, the ones that are on GCSE or ‘A’ level syllabuses or on the telly, some just have an outstanding editor. All of these things and more can influence how good a reputation a journal has and it would be naive to suggest that none of this matters. The more journals and modern poetry books you read, the more poets you engage with, on the page, on social media, in real life, the more you’ll get a feel for which journals have higher status than others.

But it’s not really something to get too hung up on, as any reputable acceptance is something to be pleased about, reputations can be misleading or outdated, and connecting with journals that are on the same wavelength as you is more important than working your way up any notional ladder. Sending your poems out there and to a mix of journals is the main thing. If you are more obsessed with being published by the “right” journals than with writing poetry you feel proud of and supporting journals that publish poetry you love, you may have lost sight of what poetry is for.

Don’t be put off submitting to a “top” journal because you think it’s out of your league, either – nothing ventured, nothing gained, and I know several poets who chose a “prestige” journal for their very first submission and got accepted.

When I first started submitting to journals someone told me that online journals are not as prestigious as print journals, but I really don’t think this is the case anymore. Admittedly, I can’t think of an e-zine that has the clout of the very top print journals, but how many of us get accepted by them, anyway? Certainly, there are some very well-regarded e-zines and some only just about reputable print journals, so you can’t generalise.



Me Going On About My Book Again

So, my book’s been out a month now and some people have even been delightful enough to give me (so far – positive) feedback on it. Many have also told me what their favourite poem is and, surprisingly:

(a) So far, only two people have singled out the same poem (“Uphill”)- the poems chosen have been incredibly diverse

(b) Some of the poems going down best with readers are ones that kept getting turned down by journals.

We’ve had two votes for “Uphill” (got turned down by everybody and his dog, although did make the shortlist for one journal before failing to make the final cut. In a way I can see why – it’s a bit niche, being about a village on the outskirts of Weston-super-Mare, and has a slightly religious theme which won’t appeal to everyone [both the people who chose it were practising Christians]- but I always rather liked it), one vote for “The Chatterton Room” (also unpublished and again the fact that it has a local focus – a room at the church of St Mary, Redcliffe, in Bristol – and is about the poet Thomas Chatterton, with whom not everyone will be familiar, may have been the reason for that), one vote for “Hope” (was published by Snakeskin), one vote for “Unrequited” (published by Amaryllis),  one vote for “Manilla” (published by Clear Poetry), one vote for “Hamelin” (published by Ink, Sweat & Tears), one vote for “Bluebeard” and one vote for “The Gingerbread House” (both turned down by the entire planet, although they have been quite successful as performance poems).

(c) Nobody has chosen my favourite poem yet.