for Poetry Submissions

Write SF Poetry for Fame and Fortune
(Success Can Be Yours as a Vogon* Rapper!)

by F.J. Bergmann

Science-fiction poetry—even the non-Vogon flavor—has frequently been mocked as the dregs of the literary universe. After all, no one reads that stuff, just as no one reads speculative fiction—the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter books were dismal failures, quickly forgotten....

As a reader, speculative fiction has always been my favorite form of entertainment. “Speculative” is a catch-all term incorporating science fiction, fantasy (these two frequently lumped together as F&SF), horror, and the uncategorizable works in between, frequently referred to as “crossover” or “interstitial.” “Magic realism” seems to be what it’s called only when the imaginary element is not too obtrusive for general consumption, or when “real,” i.e., mainstream, authors write speculative fiction.

Largely because of the lurid pulps of the ‘40s and ‘50s, the SF genre, like mystery, fell into temporary disrepute and was seen as non-intellectual entertainment. Unlike a good deal of literature today, SF is still entertaining--but the intellect is there. It’s one thing to base your writing on what you know, where events, circumstances, and characters are there for the plucking; it’s another to have to conjure up something that no one has imagined before. A relevant article is at http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/16-02/st_thompson/. As it states, "Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas."

I began seriously submitting poetry for publication around 2002. Initially, I didn’t write much SF poetry, and was disappointed by the quality of poetry I saw at the time in the SF journals—it seemed to be as out-of-date in style (compared to poetry being published in literary journals) as speculative fiction was ahead of its literary counterpart in originality. As time went by, I began writing more blatantly SF-themed poetry—and getting it published in mainstream literary journals. At this point, it occurred to me that I might take a look at the SF journals again, print and online, and begin submitting there as well.

I have enjoyed a fair amount of recent acceptances by these journals. I did not initially realize, however, that so many of them pay. Not a lot, but some of them run to $10–20 per poem; and cumulatively, I’ve taken in nearly $150** in the last two or three months (early 2008). While this won’t cover the bills, it’s way more than the total sum I’ve been paid for nearly 200 poems published in literary journals in the last 5 years. I’m not including contest winnings—which are a different animal—or contributor’s copies in either figure (contributor’s copies are a normal perk of publication, and are not appropriately considered to be payment). Why are SF journals paying markets for poetry? Why are most literary journals not?

The answer lies in the word “market.” SF is consumer-driven. For years, its writers, whose work has received little academic recognition, have had payment as virtually their only incentive to publish. MFAs or PhDs don’t generally rest on these publications, nor do academic positions or tenure. An SF editor’s selections are ultimately made by which writers become popular with readers, as the number of readers (determined by subscriptions or online visitors) drives the advertising that is the main funding for non-academic—non-”literary”—journals.

I’m not saying that the quality of a publication is in any way commensurate with what it pays its writers; just that it seems to correspond with the presence of “real” readers, rather than insiders and competitors from the writing world. And while I was extremely honored to have Billy Collins pick a poem of mine for an anthology, I got a special glowy feeling from an online post that said “usually I hate poetry, but this Bergmann....” Why don’t more poetry publications make an effort to reach the general public? At present, many "literary" journals appear to be preaching to the choir.

Literary journals did pay, once upon a time. And there were far fewer of them, and they included many more non-academics and non-writers among the number of their subscribers. What happened? It seems that as MFA-in-Creative-Writing programs sprouted everywhere, so did the journals that appeared to be associated with them, directly or indirectly. Publication has become increasingly desirable—and essential—to the disparate number of applicants for the few available academic jobs in the field—as has editorship of a journal, however short-lived. The soaring ratio of graduate MFAs to positions available shows no sign of diminishing, and the proliferation of online journals, coupled with their acceptance as publication credits, put the kiss of death on any necessity for academic journals to pay contributors or even to bother maintaining a subscriber base.

“Aesthetic standards” and the we-don’t-have-to-grovel-to-filthy-lucre concept seem to be increasingly used as a justification for a) inept or nonexistent marketing, b) ditto for solicitation of advertisers, c) ditto for grant-writing [that contributors might be paid], d) laziness as a substitute for all of the above, and e) who cares what a non-academic reading public might enjoy? Sadly, academic funding is supporting these practices, rather than pulling the rug out from under unmarketable publications. The main marketing ploy these days is to try guilt-trip submitters into buying the journal in question (and just for the record, I subscribe to several literary journals that have never accepted my work).

Many academic literary presses make little pretense of attempting to sell their publications to anyone outside of the ranks of their submitters or literary-conference attendees (a.k.a. preaching to the choir). The bulk of literary journals appear to be the equivalent of trade journals, read only by practitioners within the field. What happened to writing poetry for an appreciative public? A paying public. Of non-writers. SF is doing it. Rap is doing it, fercryin’outloud. Why has literary academia grown a soul above marketing?

And it's getting worse. At one time, charging a reading fee to be considered for publication was considered absolutely unethical, and no reputable press would engage in it. Ominously, that is changing—perhaps in self-defense, as journals and presses are buried in an avalanche of more submissions than can be dealt with by the personnel available. It’s sad to produce—and sadder still to allow the use of—creative works without compensation; it’s as if you were an artist with beautiful paintings, contenting yourself with standing on the street corner and giving them away to passersby. It’s appalling to be expected to pay to try to give away one’s creative work.

I met another poet at a science-fiction convention a couple of years ago, and we began chatting. When I mentioned with some pride a rather well-known literary journal in which I’d recently been published, she looked contemptuous. “I would never send them anything,” she said.

“Why not?” I said, puzzled.

”Because they don’t pay,” she replied. “I’ve been published in ...,” and she rattled off a few names. Curious, I looked them up: although these places paid, the sums involved were small, and the publications were either not-at-all-respected or unknown; many have since gone under, frequently due to their inability to sustain contributor payments. At the time, I thought she was shortsighted and foolish to waste her efforts on bottom-feeder publications that would garner her little or no credible recognition. Now, I think she may have a point.

What would happen if all poets stopped sending submissions to any place that doesn’t pay them something to use their poems? Would poetic academia implode under its own weight? Would the world miss us?

* * *

*According to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Vogon poetry is the most execrable in the known universe, and can be used as a torture device. Perhaps future employment for poets will be available at Guantánamo.

**For the curious:

$33 Aberrant Dreams
$10 Helix
$2 House of Speculative Poetry
$5.06 Illumen
$5 Mythic Delirium
$20 Paradox
$20 Serpentarius
$20 Strange Horizons
$14 Tales of the Unanticipated
$15 Weird Tales
$144 Total

© 2008 F.J. Bergmann

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F.J. Bergmann
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