I must respectfully disagree…

A lot of folks know that, because of the way I go about the practice of writing poetry, I rarely submit work to literary journals. Today, after receiving email from a list I am subscribed to, I was reading a submissions FAQ when I came upon the following:

We like seeing that numerous poems in the manuscript have been published in reputable journals and magazines. This tells us that you take your work seriously, and that others in the literary community advocate for your poems.

I understand their position—but this line of reasoning is fundamentally flawed.

For starters, there is more than one way to ‘take your work seriously’:

  • Make writing a practice, a routine.
    In my case, I write on as close to a daily basis as possible. Even if I don’t write any poems, I write one of my ‘love notes’ to that day of the week.
  • Find ways to challenge yourself as a writer.
    I give myself a new writing challenge each month, the idea being to explore new forms and try things that might not otherwise occur to me—or, as I often put it, to write things that don’t sound like something I would write.
  • Make connections with other writers.
    Whether you connect in person or online, and whether or not you write the same kind of material, engaging with other writers will lead to valuable exchanges of information. That’s right, exchanges—you also have things to offer. In the process, if you keep at it, you become part of a community.
  • Read your work in public.
    Reading for an audience can be intimidating at first, particularly if you are shy and/or introverted, but it is valuable on so many levels—not least of all for the immediate feedback you can get. I regularly read my poems at open-mics; this has helped me with everything from determining whether a given poem is ready for public consumption to making small changes to improve flow and/or impact. It has also helped me to become part of the local community of writers and poets.
  • Self-publish.
    If you ask me, nothing says you’re serious about your writing more than self-publishing. Even if you limit yourself to posting your writing to a blog, you are still putting your work out there—and, most likely, to a much larger audience than most literary journals can claim. If you opt to publish a book—chapbook or full-length—not only are you putting your work out there, but you are committing serious time, effort, and money to doing so.

So yeah—there are other methods besides publication in ‘reputable journals and magazines’ that show you take your work seriously.

The latter part of their assertion is also flawed. It’s great to have the respect and support of your fellow writers—but we all want readers. More specifically, we all want readers outside of our immediate circle of fellow writers—and those readers do not have the same concerns that writers do. Unless something stands out as particularly good, readers don’t want to worry about the mechanics of your writing; they just want to read and enjoy it. Not to mention that poetry (with the possible exception of slam poetry) already has a reputation of being too academic, too precious, too impenetrable—a reputation that is only reinforced when we focus on pleasing other writers instead of the readers we want to reach.

Speaking of which, there’s the matter of the circulation of the typical literary journal (if such a thing can be said to exist). Google lists of literary magazine circulation numbers, and you’ll find more with circulations of 1,000–2,000 copies than you will with 10,000–20,000. Regardless, very few will be familiar to anyone other than the writers who submit work to them for consideration—and even fewer are likely to adorn the shelves of your favorite bookstore. How, again, does publication in ‘reputable journals and magazines’ prove you ‘take your work seriously’?

So, to get back to the point, the notion of the ‘literary community advocat[ing] for your poems’ feels limiting to me. Yes, I want other writers in the community to like my work—it’s always gratifying when someone who has been doing this for a lot longer than I have comes up and tells me they like my work, or that they think I’m a good writer. But, when it comes to ‘advocating’ for my poems, I want people who would normally have more interest in a bout of intestinal flu than they would in poetry saying to their friends, ‘you should really check this out.’ Because that is how you build an audience.

(17 March 2017)