Submitting poems to literary journals.

Sooner or later, everyone writing poems sends them to a literary journal. Without fail, editors or readers at these journals stuff the vast majority of these poems into an SASE and return them to the poet with a cursory and, often abrupt, rejection. Long live poetry.

Today I received a rejection in the mail. At least, I think it was a rejection. The envelope was clearly the SASE I sent with my poems. The same rubber stamp was used to address both the recipient and return address. But there was nothing inside. The editor returned an empty envelope.

Perhaps this would be a good time to ask yourself why you write poems. Perhaps the empty envelope was a code. I wasn’t trained as a code breaker in the army but I’ve read enough spy novels to attempt deciphering the emptiness. And I think I’ve figured it out. It works something like this. If the SASE contains an actual rejection note, the message is clear. He doesn’t want the poems. If the only thing in the envelope is a short length of green yarn the editor is undecided and is asking for an additional eight months to make a decision. If the yarn is blue you’re expected to send five more poems. Opening an envelope only to discover nothing inside is code for “I love your poems and will publish all that you sent.” I’ve gotten empty envelopes from literary journals four other times over the years. With these others it turned out not to be code for “I love your poems and will publish all that you sent.” This time I’m being optimistic.

Consider Van Gogh’s sales record. If he was a poet he would have published only two poems. Do you feel better?

Don’t take this as complaining. As far as being published goes I haven’t been as lucky as some but have been luckier than many. The word luck causally isn’t being used casually.

I sent a manuscript to one of the better-known presses. Five weeks later. “… finances prohibit us from publishing anything else for the rest of the year … send it back next year we’ll read it with an eye on publishing it …” I set my computer to remind me to send it back to them exactly one year to the day. And exactly one year to the day I dropped it in the mail. “Your voice no longer fits our editorial vision.” It took about a month to get that reply.

Before any of my poems were published I was happy simply writing and sharing them with the poet community I surrounded myself with. I thought it would be nice to be published but that wasn’t a deal breaker.

I stuffed five poems in an envelope with an SASE and cover letter and sent them off to a journal somewhere in the middle of the country. One week later I put the exact same poems along with the exact same cover letter in another envelope to the exact same journal. This gives me meaning to the term simultaneous submission. I printed out two copies of the cover letter, one remained on my desk. I made about a dozen other submission the day I sent to the journal that would soon hear from me again. Making it somewhat understandable how I might have forget that I sent to them when a cover letter remained on my desk. Five weeks later I got a reply. A standard, impersonal-good-luck-in-your-future-endeavors. No comments about the duplicate submission. A week later. The SASE from the second submission and an enclosed letter, “thank you for thinking of us … we would like to publish three of your poems.”

Has there ever been a group of people anxious to work for free like today’s poets?

Inside the SASE was a small torn piece of paper, roughly two inches by one, seemed to be the top left from a larger piece. The name and address of the journal was faintly rubberstamped there. Hmmm. I wrote and asked if the rest of the page was mistakenly torn away. Of course, I sent an SASE with my question. The reply was quick. Inside the standard number ten envelope was another small, very small, torn piece of paper with a scribble of an answer. No, what I originally reviewed was not a mistake. It was his way of saying he “didn’t want the poems.” I sent him 500 sheets of high-quality paper, twenty-five pounds, ninety-four brightness, with a note saying that I understood the economics of publishing a literary journal and the paper was a donation.

The list of journals that treat poets with respect and I am grateful to for publishing me is much too long to include. That so many poets run the gauntlet and continue to submit to is testament to our need for attention or our desire to share. Either way, I’m happy you send them out. I subscribe to about a dozen journals on a regular basis and often try others on a rotational basis.