for Poetry Submissions

Dominance & Submissions

by F.J. Bergmann

    Distressing tales of poor judgment, simple ignorance, bad manners, and other contributing factors to editors’ horror stories continually surface. There are protocols for submitting poems anywhere, from WFOP publications to national literary journals. Etiquette standards apply to handling rejections (or, for that matter, acceptances) graciously. Part of the problem comes from variable procedures across the editorial spectrum; much of it comes from unreasonable expectations on the part of uninformed poets.

General No-nos
      Stuff which will cause your poems to be looked askance at from the get-go:

  1. Ignoring the stated guidelines, no matter how idiosyncratic (supersedes items 2–6).
  2. Anything but plain white paper (also omit clip art , fancy letterheads, and colored ink—and NO emoticons! :< ). While ornamenting the surroundings may not change the quality of the poem itself, it will affect the editor’s perception of the author’s judgment and experience.
  3. Weird fonts. Pedestrian serif 12-point fonts such as Garamond, Palatino, or Times New Roman are recommended for readability (while sans-serif fonts are more legible on the web than in print, the confusion between lower-case L, capital I, and the number 1 tends to persist. And Helvetica is just plain ugly). Never put your entire poem in italics or bold type. Don’t even dream of submitting anything handwritten, other than your signature on the cover letter!
  4. Misspelt words. Run the damn spell-checker (which is no substitute for owning and using a dictionary). What message does an editor get from seeing that you can’t be bothered to proofread your work?
  5. Bad grammar. Have someone else, preferably with a better education than yours, go over your poem. Note that this does not necessarily apply to a poem where diction is used to create the voice of a specific persona; but be consistent.
  6. Centering the poem for no good reason, lower-case I, unnecessary ellipses (…) and em-dashes (—), and archaic diction tend to annoy some editors. Double-spacing is also counterproductive. Did I mention emoticons? Be warned.

     Single-space only; no giant font sizes (it can easily be enlarged if necessary). Disable ornamental signatures, quotes, backgrounds, etc. Do not copy-and-paste from a document with page breaks or indents. If indents or large white spaces are necessary to your poem, use the space bar, not the tab key. If you are worried about losing formatting, indicate italics with an underline _ on each side of the word or phrase_.  Symbols like smart quotes, em-dashes, and ellipses frequently mutate; substitute plain quotes, double hyphens, and 3 periods instead. If necessary, line breaks can be indicated by /, stanza breaks by //, and the end of the poem by *  *  *. Unusual formatting aspects can and should be indicated by the submitter, e.g. "My poem should be typeset in the shape of a fanged bat."

The Poof is in the Pudding
     Sadly, about 80% of the 2006 Poets' Calendar submissions (I did the typing and layout for that year’s editors) had grammatical, punctuation, or spelling errors. Presumably this is typical of the quality of submitter proofreading capabilities. It is a dictum that once you have looked at your poem more than once or twice, you will no longer be able to spot any typos that remain. Get someone else (if possible, several someones) to proofread your submission before sending it. Don't depend on editors to spot something you will regret when it appears in print.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Directions
     If the guidelines say “three poems” don’t send five. Or, heaven forbid, a dozen. If they say “no attachments” don’t send any. If they say “MS Word .docs only” don’t attach WordPerfect or Quark files. Not including a SASE when directed to do so (many editors prefer to respond via e-mail) will ensure that your submission goes straight into the trash, unread, at some publications.

All About You
     Send the length of bio requested. Or shorter—no one will reproach you for taking up less space than anyone else. A word of warning: many Calendar bios achieved a clone-like similarity. No accusations of plagiarism are being made, but individuality would be best achieved by omitting any mention of:

a) one’s love of nature, enjoyment of gardening, or inspiration by Wisconsin’s beautiful outdoors.
b) children or grandchildren (although details of the activities used to produce them will definitely capture an editor’s interest). 
     The portion of the lay public still unenraptured with rap expects the average poet to be a sweet old lady who gardens and writes poems about nature. Shatter the stereotype by mentioning something completely unexpected or intriguing about yourself!

Becoming a Hissing and a Byword
     While most poets do not need to be told this, there have been a few episodes of bad behavior that desperately need to be suppressed. Be aware that editors, in general, are unlikely to comment on your work and have absolutely no obligation to do so. Since the Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar editors change every year, their opinions are not useful with respect to future submissions, in any case. It is the height of arrogance and immaturity to demand explanations following a rejection. This is an excellent way to blacklist yourself with editors that do not change every year—and even when they do, the word gets out.

     Many editors and writers are more than willing to critique for money (e-mail me to discuss my oh-so-reasonable rates), but unless you have paid or otherwise arranged for the service in advance, no editor owes you a rationale or explanation of any sort. The Calendar receives close to 10 times more poems than are published; some journals get hundreds, or thousands, of poems for each one they accept, and  could not reply individually even if they wanted to. For an extended discussion of rejection protocol, see nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004641.html.

     Strangely, many aspiring contributors who claim to want feedback on their poems, or rationale for a rejection, are just as displeased when they get it....

Inquire Within
     Reputable publications indicate what their response time is. It is perfectly appropriate to send a polite letter (again enclosing a SASE) or e-mail of inquiry, once that time has elapsed. If no response to your inquiry is received within two weeks (assuming that it is not the off-season for an academic press), you have several options, all correct: you can send off yet another inquiry, with another SASE, mentioning that the first inquiry received no reply (ideally, this would be sent to the general editor, naming the original editor to whom you submitted); try e-mailing instead, if the original submission was by snail-mail (or vice versa); telephone, if the number is available (and for academic journals, their institution’s English Department always seems to have this information); or continue to wait patiently (the record in response time, for those who are interested, is 17 [yes, that’s a two-digit number
] years).

     If you receive no reply to an inquiry or inquiries, it is also appropriate to send one last letter or e-mail, summarizing your correspondence and informing them that you are withdrawing the submission unless you hear from them in two weeks. And then you’re free to send it elsewhere. Editors don’t owe you an explanation of why they rejected you; they DO owe you, always, a response to your submission, provided you have complied with their guidelines. Always double-check these at the journal website if possible; the Poet’s Market is, of necessity, at least a year out of date, and other references may also no longer be current.

How to Be Good
     Useful feedback on your poems is best obtained by asking other poets to read them or listen to them. Go to open mikes and readings; join critique groups; attend workshops; read other poets’ work in journals and books. Read contemporary poetry, i.e. poetry that is being published now. Familiarity with poetry from other eras is both valuable and instructive, but a stylistically accurate imitation of, say, Lord Byron or James Whitcomb Riley is unlikely to be publishable anywhere. A staggering amount of poetry and writing information is available on the internet, as well as many communities of writers, in a full spectrum of skill levels. Try to get help from someone who is being published and/or whose work you admire.

© 2006 F.J. Bergmann

Even More Horrible Stuff It Never Occurred to Me Anyone Would Actually Do

DO NOT SUBMIT POEMS IN ALL CAPS. Do Not Capitalize Each Word As If Even An Article Were Some Kind Of Obscenely Valuable Commodity; Metaphorically, It's Like Bronzing A Discarded Jock Strap. Do not, do not, do not submit poems as a spreadsheet file! I've seen all these things actually happen—for the 2008 Wisconsin Poets Calendar, one person submitted their poem as an Excel file, and another submitted poems in some out-of-date Microsoft spreadsheet application. What on earth were they thinking? It is also thoughtless, because the file sizes are so large, to submit poems as .pdfs without good and compelling reason—and prior notification and approval.

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F.J. Bergmann
W5679 State Road 60
Poynette, WI 53955

(608) 566-9087