Apr 14

“My Poems Used to Get Published. . . But Now, Nothing”

The following is a recent  exchange between myself and a poet acquaintance, used here with her permission.


I’m looking for some advice from an expert.

I’m working on a manuscript and, in doing so, have submitted the poems to literary magazines. I’ve gotten a lot of rejections. Also I’ve lost contests when I thought my poems should have at least gotten an honorary mention.

So what to do? If I can’t get poems in magazines, I’m surely not going to get a manuscript or chapbook published. Should I just write because that’s who I am and give poems to friends or what? I don’t have an MFA. I’m 66 and don’t have the desire to get an MFA.

Very confused as to what my next step should be, if any. As you know, I’ve self-published two books. Should I try for a third and to what end? I’m not requested to do readings, and I have more than 50 of my second book sitting on the floor of my study.

If you have time to answer this e-mail, I’d appreciate your advice. I know you’re probably pretty busy. –E.

Dear E.,

Your poems are very good but like mine are not contemporary or spectacular. Nor are they the snow-globe type that wins more conservative contests. It is okay. I am thinking of going back to writing what I really think with no holds barred now that no one cares.

Eff contests that will only make you sad and mad.

No accounting for tastes.

Why not volunteer to read more often, or ask organizers who are always looking for someone, and then you will be asked.

Publish a third book because you are made of stars and God wants you to.

I have dozens of unsold books! So does every writer! Love. -Catherine


I love that you think we’re all made of stars and God wants us to publish.

I didn’t think about my poems being contemporary or not. Back in 1983-1986 everything I sent out was published. Now, nothing. And I think my poetry is a lot better now than then.

Well, I think I’ll take your advice and just write “my thing” and not worry about submitting. No, no one cares.
Organizers say they really like my poetry, but never ask me to read even though I continue to tell them I’d like to.

Shown below is a recent poem, “Answer,” and attached is another, “Directions for My Funeral.” I don’t understand why they’re not contemporary.


Dying at home
in her hospice bed,
mother asked for her
Conservative Lutheran Pastor,
wearing cross, carrying Bible.

Pastor, she whispered,
I believe in evolution.
What he said into her ear
wasn’t heard by any of us.

Then she slipped away

into the answer.

Didn’t you win Poetry Center first place? Congratulations. -E.

Dear E.,

I really think “Directions for My Funeral” is outstanding, especially the first stanza, but it and the “Answer” poem break three laws of contemporary poetry publishing:

-Don't write about writing.

-Don't write about aging.

-Don’t write about old people dying.

Forbidden phrases: “my mother,” “my father.” Overused, and no one really cares about other people’s parents, especially if dead.

Most editors are in their 30s and 40s and don’t see themselves aging, and in their view only old people die and old people don’t count. Your poems in the 1980s got published because editors were around your age and you probably didn’t write about aging.

Poets who write nostalgia about the barber chair and The Parkmoor restaurant—it is so sad no one wants their poems although I like them. Younger cannot appreciate them.

I won Poetry Center’s 1st in 2010 or 2011 with poem about submarine war movies. It also had a masculine pseudonym on it. Anything that could possibly be labeled as “women’s poetry” is devalued. Try new subjects. -Catherine


I really appreciate hearing this. It makes a lot of things clearer. Again, thanks for your time and advce. You’re the best! Thanks for letting me bend your ear and patience.

What poets should we be reading to get a sense of what they are writing? –E.

Dear E.,

Read not poets but litmags. Many are online free or have online samples. I have Rattle magazine deliver me a daily poem. They’re pretty good (except for the children’s poems) and they are what let me know my work doesn’t meet the current standards. Read River Styx to see mid-level poets and poetry. Read Midwestern Gothic to see high-level regional poetry. If they ask for money, invest a few bucks, the education is worth it, and you write it off as an expense.

My favorite poet I wish I wrote like is Cate Marvin. Look up online her poem “A Windmill Makes a Statement.”

Good luck, star person. God loves poetry. -Catherine

Jun 27

Dont' Be Modest

The most overrated virtue in a writer: modesty. Especially when opportunity doesn't just knock -- it clubs you upside the head.

Last time I sent my latest book ms. out was February; the rejection (fourth) came in August. I sighed and let the manuscript rot. This past week I had lunch with a publisher. We weren't there to talk about my books, but the publisher described books the press was looking for, saying, "But who has a book like that?"

"I do," I boldly ventured for the first time in my life, "and it's finished, about 35,000 words; it has this, and this. . ." Mmmm, let me see it, said the publisher. I hate to think I almost said nothing -- out of misplaced modesty. It needed only to be printed out (pat myself on the back). Off it went into the mail today.
Jun 13

Outsource THIS!

Saw an ad for an editor who can do three things, mostly what I do:
  • Copyedit a manuscript, meaning: correct the grammar, punctuation and spelling, and establish consistency throughout. "Line editing" means the same.
  • Copyedit a manuscript and provide feedback on its contents, readability, publishability, tone, and so on.
  • Do the above, plus reorganize and possibly rewrite portions of the text.
Corporations may have outsourced their customer support, but nobody can outsource expertise in the English language, the foundation that supports the creation of American literature. That, the creation of American literature, they can't outsource either. A most cheerful thought!
May 08

Talmudic Interpretation of "Poetry Cover Letter Protocol"

"Poetry Cover Letter Protocol" (below) is valuable new first-hand information. It's "new" because it supersedes information disseminated for 30 years. Take it serious.

It was once bandied about that editors cared about the work, not the cover letters -- so cover letters for poetry and fiction weren't needed unless your submission had been solicited, or you were sending it for a special issue, or if it was a simultaneous submission.

Listing recent publications in cover letters helps editors score and pigeonhole the poet before the editor sees the work. Such a list is also a clue to the poet's economic and social position, because if I'm systematically pursuing a career as a poet, working my way up through the lit journals year after year, my parents probably left me a trust fund or I married a lawyer. Thus the editor can see himself in the author, and perhaps sympathize -- because the editor is a poet as well.

Prizes prove that the poetry is the kind that currently wins prizes. (See Juvenal's Satires or St. Augustine's Confessions for a more holistic view of prizewinning poems and poets.)

Indicating that the poet is a college teacher, an editor, a curator, or librarian -- and omissions of anything else-- telegraphs the poet's educational level (master's level; probably MFA) and that the poet has leisure enough to read and to track literary trends. It also proves beyond a doubt that the poet is white. Thus the editor can see himself in the poet, and perhaps sympathize.

Enclosing an SASE implies that the poet wants the poems back, but I guess it doesn't hurt to spell it out.

Thanks, poetry editor, for your time. We apologize for impinging upon it by sending you poems. Please accept the coveted Artificial Difficulty Prize for March 2008.