Submitting my work to journals always seems like declaring war on my writing. It takes a completely different brain set to read journals, get a sense of what they publish, see who takes simultaneous submissions and who doesn’t, edit work, print off work, write a bio, put in an envelope, address both the main envelope and the SASE, mail off, wait. A lot of times the submission process sucks me dry to the point that I don’t even want to look at another poem. I submitted yesterday to just 5 journals and I don’t feel like writing anything this morning (I could also blame this boggy Memphis rain).
Winter break of my first semester in my MFA program, I was so dead-set on getting my first publication that I submitted to every journal possible that accepted online submissions. I probably sent that first set of poems to over 50 journals. Lo and behold, I got a hit. My first poem published was in Touchstone, the literary journal of KSU. I hadn’t written much good that first semester (I think I was still reeling from the fact that I wasn’t the top dog in poetry class anymore), but I did write a fun poem about the first date I went on with my now husband. My husband had these eyebrows that were phenomenally huge. I had been friends with him for several months and had liked him for several of those, but on that first date, I couldn’t stop focusing on them. In the poem, I made them mythically huge, they “shadowed my coffee cup,” and fought for territory of his forehead. Touchstone accepted that poem. A few months later, I convinced him to get them waxed.
After that first publication, I didn’t submit so insanely (I had never even heard of half of the journals I submitted to.), but I still wasn’t respectful when I submitted. I didn’t write cover letters, nor did I even look up the staff at a journal half the time. I again submitted to several journals, some of which had sent me nice rejection letters (the ones that said they wanted to keep seeing some of my work), others which I just thought I’d take a shot at. The Los Angeles Review liked one of my poems and helped me revise it, a big deal in the literary journal world. Working for a literary journal myself, we reject a lot more poems than ones we work with the poet to revise. A poem has to be just nearly there at least for me to consider taking the time to e-mail the poet and work with them.
Today, both working for a journal and submitting myself, I realize the importance of developing relationships. For a journal I really want to be published in, I write a personalized cover letter. I look up the staff, and I address it to the current poetry editor. If I know someone at the journal, I mention that. I try to make it clear that I’m not bombing the literary journal world, while also not bombing the literary journal world. I instead focus and try to be respectful.
Always notify the journals you submitted to that one of your poems has been accepted elsewhere. I did not do that with one of my poems, thinking, “Who else would want it?” and also because I hadn’t even kept records of what journals I had sent what poems to. Big literary faux-pas. Hard to recover from with that journal. Learn from my mistake: keep records of what poems you send where and notify them immediately with the joyous news that some of your work was accepted elsewhere. This also isn’t so hard if you aren’t bombing the world with your submissions. Send to a few at a time. Keep records. When you hear back from all of them, send those same poems or another set out to other journals. Try submitting hard copy submissions to some while online submissions to others. We at The Pinch just started accepting online submissions, and it is a different ballgame. I prefer reading hard copy submissions, but the way of the world is online.
Don’t overrun a journal that has published you before or you really want to publish you with your submissions either. There is one writer or poet or essayist that has submitted to The Pinch at least twice a reading period for the now 3 years I’ve worked for the journal. He or she has even submitted during non-reading periods and repeatedly does not follow our submission guidelines. At The Pinch, as soon as we read his or her name on the submission, we start groaning. Do not become this writer or poet or essayist. Don’t try as hard as you can to make a journal hate you.
I see submitting to journals as similar to applying to colleges: You have your fall-back journals (which may not work out ever or rarely too), your reach journals, and your dream journals. Sometimes I have poems that I’m just in love with, that if they came in as a submission to The Pinch, I’d publish it in an instance, but those poems sometimes never get published, like they’re meant to stay with me. Other poems I’m okay with, they feel complete, but they’re not my favorites, and they get snatched up quickly. You never know. It’s always a shot in the dark. Good luck!