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by Hedgebrook Guest


I began sending my poems out to journals in an age before Submittable when a couple of postage stamps and an SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) were the well-trodden pathways to an editor’s desk. I loved each ritual, each step of the process handled with care.

First I’d choose the watermarked paper, then the poems, and finally the best looking commemorative stamps. Everything had meaning; even the anonymity of the mailbox, even the lipstick kiss with which I’d seal the envelope, wishing it good luck on its journey. Several months later, when the return envelope arrived through my front door slot, I would hold it up to the light looking for evidence of the impending acceptance or rejection.


Mailing my poems into the world was an act of faith. I imagined a stranger, just finishing her (or his) afternoon cup of coffee, sitting behind a desk stacked with half read books and unanswered letters. Would my poem make a good first impression? Had I done enough revisions? 9? 18? 54? Fingers crossed. But what really mattered was that I believed in my own work, believed enough to send it into the world.

For me, the process needed to be enjoyable rather than angst ridden. Early on I recreated a game. I transformed the license plate challenge into a poetry project. As a child, my parents had kept me occupied on long car rides with license plate scorecards thanks to the American Automobile Association. In the backseat of the Pontiac, I fell into deep observation looking for the wine-colored plates of Missouri or the “Live Free or Die” slogan of New Hampshire. I was seven and I remember this as my first experience of prolonged and focused attention. Perhaps the keen study as the cars flew by, the tracking of colors and phrases, were the beginnings of my poetry practice.

GlobeEventually, I sent submissions to states I’d never seen. If I couldn’t travel to Alaska, my poems would be there to represent me. I went by way of SASE to Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington State. My poems kept travelling, traveling. I don’t remember when I started tracking my poetry map but I do know that twenty some years later, I’ve published in 50 States and 1 District; everywhere from Maine to Montana, Vermont to Oregon. Now I’ve started on a world map: Ireland, Lebanon, Slovenia…

But something different happens when sending out a manuscript of poems. Instead of a sampling of three or four pages of my work, I needed to figure out how to compile 50+ pages. As an undergraduate, I had been lucky enough to work with poet Madeline DeFrees www.madelinedefrees.com. She taught me to spread my poems out across an expanse of floor as if they were a large set of playing cards. Together, we moved pages around her dining room, in-between table legs and chairs we’d look for patterns; clusters of poems that could talk to each other: the first line of one poem serendipitously responding to the last line of another.

We’d look for the poems that would introduce the obsessions and themes to put in the first section; and for every grouping, we’d make poetry sandwiches where the strongest poems were situated like slices of bread at the beginning and end of the section. This is an exercise I still use today when I work as a “poem doctor” with clients.

I’ve also added a color-coded note card exercise with each section of the manuscript a different color. This visual allows yet another way to see one’s own poems anew. I ask the poet to divide their poems into sections, three is a good number although any number (depending on the manuscript) could work. Sections can be thematic, braided, or chronological. Each note card has the title of a poem at the top of the card followed by the first line of the poem and the last line. This travel ready ordering game allows poets to work on ordering without using an entire floor but instead you can pick-up the note cards anytime, while running a bath or waiting for the popcorn to pop.

No MFA program or poetry class I know of teaches the art of compiling a manuscript or how to send poem packets to journals for publication. More and more, poets are hiring poetry doctors (a tongue in cheek title for sure) to help them navigate the business of poetry. In a letter to William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov wrote that it was her job to write poems – the rest she’d leave up to her editors. For most of us writing today this is not a viable option.

There are resources on the internet to help poets think about different strategies for sending out poems and sending out manuscripts. I’ve recently outlined different ways to order a manuscript on my blog, The Alchemist’s Kitchen. http://thealchemistskitchen.blogspot.com/2015/12/poet-tip-101-how-to-order-your-poetry.html There is also a free downloadable copy of Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems by Susan Grimm that I highly recommend. https://books.google.com/books/about/Ordering_the_Storm.html?id=M6JhE4jItTAC

Before April ends and National Poetry Month recedes for another year, why not commit to sending your poems into the world? Create a game; try my poetry map, or poetry bingo or poetry scrabble. One poem, two poems, three poems, or more.


About the Author:


Susan RichSusan Rich (Owl) is the author of five books; her awards include a Fulbright Fellowship, Artists Trust Fellowship, and PEN USA Award for Poetry. She is cofounder of Poets On the Coast: A Weekend Writing Retreat for Women and the WordsWest Literary Series. She teaches creative writing and film studies at Highline College. Learn more at http://susanrichpoet.net





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  • Elizabeth Austen
    12:10 PM - 30 April, 2016

    Thanks for this, Susan – I love the idea of making the submission process into a game (structure, whimsy, acknowledgement of the role of chance). Just what I needed to read before sitting down to send new poems out into the world.

  • Mary Sojourner
    2:25 PM - 12 May, 2016

    I was 45 when I first began sending out work rpofessionally I had been raising kids by myself for over twenty years. I made a submission journal from a line notebook. Each time I sent writing out, I noted date and where. When a story or essay was accepted, I highlighted in color. When the work was passed over, I drew a think black line through the entry. Over time, I saw pages go from lots of black and a little color to almost all color. That was lovely, but what was most important, I saw a record of my finally working as a writer. Here’s one of my more recent pieces: http://matadornetwork.com/notebook/the-map-of-how-to-write/

  • Mary Sojourner
    2:26 PM - 12 May, 2016

    Oops, make that a thin black line.

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