How to Become a Publishable Poet - Notes from a Talk at My MFA Residency, with new updates for 2019

how ot become a publishable poet notes from a talk bridget eileen
How to Become a Publishable Poet

"How to Become a Publishable Poet" - Notes from a Talk at Stonecoast MFA Residency Winter 2007

Updated in 2019 by Bridget Eileen
Many years ago, I attended a talk during one of my residencies at Stonecoast MFA. I took detailed notes and posted them on my old blog, "Bridget Eileen's Commonplace Book." I have since merged that old site with Vintage Bridge.

Today I have decided to look through this old post and revise it with my own notes, incorporating new venues with which to connect to others. The following are notes from a class given by Kate Gale of Red Hen Press and updated, now, to include whatever new knowledge I've gained on the subject since I attended the talk 12 years ago.

On Being "Publishable"

Before you can consider publishing, you need to make sure the most important things are attended to. The following information is provided to those poets who have already gone through the polishing and training that is necessary for their work to be considered publishable.

The most important stuff:

  • Learning the craft
  • Understanding the importance of revision
  • A thorough awareness and exposure to classic and contemporary poetry
  • Reading reading reading
  • Writing writing writing

These fundamental things should be done before considering publishing.

On Publishing Your Poems

Of the genres of writing, it is hardest to get poems published. Agents in place like Boston and New York are looking for fiction and non-fiction because that sells well and can potentially be optioned as movies. Agents in LA are looking for (not necessarily good) screenplays.

Nobody is looking for a poet.

This occurs for the same reason a tall, gorgeous, bombshell doesn't necessarily look for dates: dates find her. There are so many poets out there that publishing companies never go looking for poets. The "discovery" of poets doesn't happen.

So what do you have to do? You have to find a publisher.

Who Will Publish Your Work?

The big publishing houses are not looking for poetry. They rarely publish books of poetry unless it is from a very well-known name. Because they can't make money off of books of poetry, for the most part, they're not interested in publishing books of poems.

Some medium sized publishers do exist, but they're mostly getting crunched out by the big publishing conglomerates, which continue to eat up all the little ones. What that leaves for poets are small, independent presses and university presses.

University presses are good routes to go because they have more funding than independent presses. Plus, their presses are a form of publicity for the university.

Making Yourself Appealing to an Independent or University Press, Part 1

So, how do you make yourself appealing to the independent and university presses?

If you use a very small press, make sure they have a reputation that is respectable. You should avoid vanity presses. If the press has a reputation for printing anything, the more reliable presses that you are trying to impress will be skeptical of your talents.

Here are the best routes to take:

I.) Meet people--other writers, publishers, editors, etc. This is an important aspect of becoming a publishable poet because editors are looking for poets who are willing to get out into the world and sell their work. Publishers seek out writers that are willing to go out into the world because most small presses do not have anyone working on sales. It is also important to know other writers because if their work is published by a press you would like to be published in, you can get recommendations from the people that know you.

  • Being in an MFA program is a good start
  • Going to big things, like the AWP conference and meeting people there, especially at the after-conference gatherings, where the real connections take place
  • Other places, like the Book Expo of America, may be too large for a poet, but is worth considering
  • Go to smaller conferences like the New Orleans Poetry Festival or to Whale Prom
  • Go to festivals, like the Boston Poetry Marathon or Boog
  • Go to poetry readings in your area. Some are curated by an independent person, others by libraries or universities. Keep a look out by searching postings, blogs, social media, mailing lists, etc

Making Yourself Appealing to Presses, Part 2

II.) Find places to submit poems to literary journals/ reviews/ contest

  • Writer's publications, like Poets and Writers, often have lists of calls for submissions and contests.
  • Groups on Facebook, like "Call for Submissions"
  • If you want to submit to contests, for now, you should make sure they're "first book" contests, as opposed to the ones that well-established poets will submit to.
  • The Poets' Market isn't the best source for places to submit. They do, however, have good tips and advice on craft and on the submission process, including how to organize yourself and how to create a cover letter.
  • In addition to Poets and Writers, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) Literary Press and Magazine Directory is a good source
  • Find out where the contemporary poets that you enjoy reading are publishing their work. Most often they're publishing in smaller and bigger presses, magazines and journals. If you like their work, and their publishers like their work, there's a chance the publishers will like your work.
  • Search social media, like Twitter, for "submission" call posts and investigate the press to see if they might be a good fit for you

How to Decide Where to Submit Your Work

People have different ways to approach submitting work. Kate Gale described her steps during the class

1.) Look through the directory to find potential places to submit work

2.) Go to your bookshelves to see if you have a something from their press or publication

3.) If you don't own anything, explore their website to see if your work goes with their aesthetic

Supporting the Presses and Publications you Admire

It is very important that, as a poet, you constantly invest in the purchasing of literary publications for two reasons:

1) You should be familiar with the publication that you submit to and make it clear in you cover letter that you are familiar with them

2) The poetry community is one of give and take. We are responsible for supporting each other. Being a poet is a labor of love and not a money-making profession. We should always plan to invest and learn from and support other publications.


Beware of contests. For reportage of various literary contests. Steer clear of contests that don't have strict rules about not picking someone the judge knows or has not chosen a first place winner in the past.

On-line publications are gaining more and more respect in the literary world, so you can consider them. Question you should consider are as follows:

1. how long the publication has been around?
2. are they publishing anyone you know of?
3. do they not take previously published work? (this shows more credibility on their part)

The Submission Process

There are various approaches to the submitting process. Some challenge themselves to send out work every day. Some once a week or once a month. I've read in "How to Become a Famous Writer Before You Are Dead" by Ariel Gore, that she recommends just sending work out all the time. If you can handle a lot of rejection, that might be a good strategy. If you're more sensitive to rejection, then you might want to make sure you feel very comfortable sending your work to that publication.

If you submit to a contest, it is standard for them to ask for a small reading fee.

  • You should have copies of the literary magazine you are submitting to & they may ask that you subscribe to the publication as part of the submission process.
  • Ask other writers if you can see their cover letters in order to get a good idea of how to craft one.

Cover Letters

Cover letters should not be very long. Most people go straight to the contents and then, if they're interested, go back to the cover letter for some more interesting information.

Cover letter outline:

  • section about them and why you like them
  • section about yourself, perhaps connections you share or other publications your work has appeared in
  • section about the work you submitted (specific and brief)

Other Things to Make You Appealing for Publishers

Chapbooks - if you produce a chapbook and tell a potential publisher that you've been able to sell a significant amount, this information is appealing to them because it means you feel comfortable selling your work in public.

Many publishers want to know if you have a platform other than the regular poetry audience. For example, there is a doctor/poet who goes to medical conferences about writing or art therapy and is able to sell her work at those places

If there is something that makes you uniquely publishable because you are eligible for grants, that is something that should be included in your cover letter. Publishers are looking for grants to publish your book.

If you are affiliated with a university, that should also be mentioned because if your work is published, that reflects well on them. As a result, they may be willing to partially fund your book.

Final Thoughts

This collection of advice is for those people with no experience with submitting work for publication. Anyone who is already published or well ensconced in the world of writing may well be aware of these things. The advice here is for people just getting their feet wet.

Thanks for coming and I hope you found this useful.