Adventures in poetry magazines

I remember a conversation with a good friend about poetry magazines. Said friend is a poet of boundless energy, has had a couple of collections published and regularly submits to magazines with a fair success rate. I’d decided it was high time I should try and get some of my own work into print – as a relative novice I knew about the importance of magazines as a first step to building a poetry ‘CV’ before trying to get a pamphlet or larger collection published; even the great and the good cite magazines in which their work has appeared. But I was struggling to understand how this particular world works.

Twelve months on and so much has become clear, thanks to advice I received following that conversation (thank you Sarah L Dixon!), from other poetry friends, plus a good deal of research online and elsewhere.  I’ve even managed to get poems published in a magazine and a couple of anthologies, so I must be doing something right! Anyway, I thought it might be worthwhile sharing my journey so far, in case any poets reading this are still as baffled as I once was.

In the beginning, it felt as if poetry magazines (or literary magazines, as some seem to prefer) existed in a bubble far away from the general public, and were even a bit elitist (most don’t and aren’t, though I reserve judgement on one or two titles), but the fact remains that they’re not as easy to get hold of as, say, the more popular magazine titles such as Writing Magazine or Writers Forum. It’s very unusual to find poetry magazines on the shelves of WH Smith or John Menzies, although not completely unheard of – by chance I did manage to find a copy of Popshot in a WH Smith branch once, which I suppose counts. Truth is, most poetry magazine editors would be happy bunnies indeed if their lovingly-created publications could be picked up as easily as Take-a-Chat magazine, but that’s not how the world works; not yet, anyway.

The first advice was to look online (or ‘JFGI’, as a colleague once put it). Not surprisingly, there are plenty of helpful websites out there. In terms of a definitive list – or as close as you can get – The National Poetry Library appears to have one of the most comprehensive lists available; their site appears to have undergone a good spring-cleaning recently, so I imagine details are quite up to date. Other useful online resources I could mention are The Poetry Kit, Neon Books and HappenStance Press (more about them later).

From a starting point of zero knowledge, once I discovered these websites I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume and diversity of magazines and their imaginative, often arcane titles. There were far more than I ever expected, but how on earth could I tell which were ‘better’ than others – or more importantly best matched my particular tastes, both as reader and poet? The simple answer is, of course, to peruse them…

Except it’s not so simple; or rather it is simple, just potentially rather expensive, because we need to buy, not borrow. Not even the central library of the third-largest city in the UK (by population) keeps copies of poetry magazines – not even the posh ones – which I found rather surprising; they seem to have just about everything but in the reading room or accessible online. You might be luckier where you live, but municipal libraries seem to have been cut back so much over the years they’re no longer the same reliable source they once were, despite their many other benefits. As far as I know the only library with a comprehensive range of copies available for public perusal is the aforementioned National Poetry Library; great if you live near London, but a bit of a trek for most folk – though I imagine a visit would make a nice way of passing a pleasant day in the capital.

Nothing for it but to put my hand in my pocket and buy a few then…

Which is as it should be, of course. If no-one bought poetry magazines then they wouldn’t exist, but with an estimated 100+ titles in the UK alone it’s going to get a bit expensive to buy one of each let alone subscribe, as is encouraged. So to begin with, I had to use a bit of guesswork. Certain titles kept cropping up on my social media newsfeed, most likely because friends and respected fellow poets had had work accepted by them. So that’s where I started, trying just a few so as not to break the bank too much. When they arrived I was impressed. ‘Magazine’ is actually a misnomer; these publications are more like books, professionally printed and which one wants to keep rather than pop in the recycling once it’s been read (back to Take-a-Chat again..!). I realised this is one of the reasons why there’s so much kudos associated with getting work into these magazines, which in turn made me want to redouble my efforts in getting some poems sent off.

At this point I should mention online magazines, or e-zines.’ At first I thought these might be a poor relation of the printed publication, but quickly realised this was more to do with being ‘of a certain age’ and preferring my reading matter to be inky and papery, rather than electronic. But in the world of poetry, online magazines have acquired an equal standing in many poets’ eyes – in fact they hold a number of distinct advantages, not least a) you can read as many as you like from the comfort of your own laptop and b) they’re free. Also, the chances are the better-known ones have a far wider readership than their printed cousins, on the basis that they can be accessed from anywhere in the world at any time. Significantly, it’s possible to browse a wide selection at zero cost to assess type and suitability of content, as mentioned earlier. No excuse for mismatches, then.

The world of poetry magazines was beginning to become clearer. Then I discovered a number of wonderful books (proper books!) that completely and comprehensively demystify the process for the beginner – amongst many other things – and which I can heartily recommend. In no particular order these are:

How to be a Poet
Jo Bell & Jane Commane (Nine Arches Press)
As the title suggests, this covers far more than just submitting work to poetry magazines. Jo and Jane’s style (and that of their guest contributors) is down-to-earth, thoroughly readable and thought-provoking (just like their poetry, really!). The book is packed with sorts of hints and tips, both creative and practical – I confess to having adopted Jo’s ‘patent method’ for keeping track of work sent off…

How (not) to Get Your Poetry Published
Helena Nelson (HappenStance Press)
Interspersed with writing exercises, the focus is predominantly about getting work published in general – however, Helena suggests that a track record of magazine successes is highly desirable for any poet thinking about pamphlets and/or full collections and offers plenty of good advice on making this happen, with plenty of writing tips and exercises thrown in for good measure.

A Guide to Getting Published in UK Poetry Magazines
Robin Houghton (Telltale Press)
This is the only book I found that focuses exclusively on poetry magazines and how to get work into them, and which filled in most of the remaining gaps in my knowledge. It contains excellent advice starting from pre-submission research right through to what to do when your work’s finally accepted… or indeed rejected (which realistically will happen far more frequently). As a bonus, when you buy a copy Robin very kindly adds you to her mailing list to receive regular lists showing which magazines are accepting submissions and when, and much more (thanks Robin!)

There may be other, similar books out there but these are the three that I’ve discovered and enjoyed. I mentioned earlier that things can get a bit expensive but believe me, the money spent on these three books is well and truly worth it, in my opinion.

By this point I decided I’d done enough research and was at risk of what we used to call in business ‘analysis paralysis‘; time to stop prevaricating, dig out some poems and actually start ‘sending the blighters off’ as Jo Bell puts it so wonderfully. So that’s what I did. To find out what happens next, you’ll have to wait until another day…

Thanks for reading, and happy poeming.

Here we go again…

The last time I started a blog it changed my life in ways I could have scarcely imagined, to the extent that sometimes it felt as if writing my ideas down and posting them online actually helped turn them into reality. That particular project is now consigned to the virtual recycling bin of history but after a bit of a breather I’ve decided to start a new blog, this time mostly about my take on the world of writing and poetry, and my experiences of inhabiting it as a non-academic but enthusiastic poet…. though a few more topics may creep in as well.

My intention is to write about the world of poetry as I see it, from the perspective of someone trying to cast years of self-doubt aside, putting her poetry out there into the world to see whether it sinks or swims, and my exploits in submitting work to magazines or other forms of publication – be it accepted or otherwise (I suspect mostly otherwise!).

I’m fortunate to live in an area with a vibrant local poetry and spoken word scene. From what seemed only a handful of events not too many years ago when I started writing poetry in earnest, we’re now spoiled for choice, often having to decide between two or more events on the same day. I’m hoping these pages will include plugs for and the occasional review of such events – the average open mic night offers an amazing window on the world of poetry, not to mention a rich seam of anecdotes, opinions and characters.

I’ll also try and share any useful hints and tips I happen to come across on my travels, and may even post some of my own poetry occasionally, though I’m aware I need to be a bit careful about this. Rightly or wrongly, a number of magazine and book editors consider work shared online in any form, other than closed groups, to have been published. Given the explosion in social media in recent years (and indeed blogging). I can see their point, though personally there’s still something sacred for me about the printed page, and the heft and scent of a real-life book.

One final thought for now: as my friend and poetry tutor Rommi Smith explains repeatedly at her excellent workshops, we’re all on the side of the poem. In other words, although we may all hold different opinions as to what is good, bad or indifferent poetry, and possess varying levels of intellect or qualifications, most poets and writers genuinely want to help others in the same endeavour to succeed, and to create the best art we possibly can. I intend to write here in that spirit, and hope it will be read in the same way.

So I’m under way again! I know there are few rough edges I need to work on in terms of the way this site is designed and presented, so please bear with me as I get to grips with the technicalities. And do come back soon.