Posts Tagged ‘ tips ’

Ten More Tips for Poets

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Poetry in ink with spatter

Last week I shared my take on an old handout that I found my filing cabinet titled “Facts Every Poet Should Know.” I promised that at a later time I would share my own thoughts on what poets should now, so here is my list.

1) Be wary of scam artists. Let’s face it, there are possibly millions of poet in the world, and many people who would like to take advantage of them. The most important guideline to keep in mind is that, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be wary of poetry anthology sites that publish any poem, provided the poets will pony up $50 or more to pre-order a copy. Be wary of self-proclaimed “agents” who request upfront fees just to review your work or offer writing advice. Agents earn their money from a commission on sales and should not request a dime until they’ve made a sale. Be wary of companies preying on self-publishing authors with excessive prices for editing, book preparation and marketing services. To weed out the worst offenders in the above categories, visit Preditors & Editors as well as WinningWriters.com.

2) Read extensively. Just like it’s important for a musician to listen to music or for an artist to study works of art, it’s essential that poets read poetry. Read not just poetry but other sorts of writing, as well, because the more you expose yourself to, the more you learn about what works and what you’d like to emulate.

3) Pay attention to line breaks. Unless you are writing in a form which dictates when a line will end, you should use line breaks to direct the reader’s attention. Consider the end of a line to be a very short pause, like half a comma, as the eye drops down to the next line. While it is tempting to break lines solely for visual reasons (such as making each line roughly the same length) or to break according to grammatical phrases, I’d encourage you to read your poems aloud and listen to exactly what the line breaks do to the poem. You may find that changing line breaks can turn a drab poem into a fab poem.

4) Know your markets. Before you submit any work to a publication, read a sample issue or two. If the magazine frequently publishes theme issues, drop a quick, professional e-mail to the editor to ask about the upcoming themes. That way you can send your work that has the best chance of being accepted by that publication.

5) Follow the rules, and then break them. If you are writing a form poem, remember to use what Shakespeare called a “prosp’rous departure from form.” This meant he would throw in a couple extra syllables or skip a rhyme if it added to the piece’s impact. If you’re writing in form, stick to the form as much as possible, but look for ways to change it up, because  that can often raise a poem above the mere adherence to form and into true artistry.

6) Kill your babies. Of course, I don’t literally mean to harm your offspring, but you need to keep an open mind when it comes to revising your poem, even if that means cutting a line you love. For the sake of the poem, you might find  a certain line doesn’t belong, or actually detracts from the rest of the poem. But take heart: you can always keep an “outcasts” file where you stick phrases and lines cut from earlier works. I once used such an orphan as the title for another poem, solving two problems.

7) Write what is hardest to say. This was particularly good advice I learned from my grad school instructors. Often we dance around the truth, or we take two or three stanzas to get to the meat of what it is that we really want to say. That’s fine for a first draft, but when you revise, be prepared to cut those intro paragraphs in order to get to the real emotional heart of your poem.

In the same vein, many poets stop poems before they truly reach what they need to write about. In the revision process, it can be helpful to push yourself further and see where that takes you.

8 ) Avoid clichés. This is true for any writing, but for some reason it tends to come up more often in poetry. Perhaps that is because most poets know to avoid using the hackneyed phrases themselves, but they still fall back on overused ideas and phrases. If something sounds too familiar, change it.

9) Nothing is too small or too large to write about. You can find inspiration anywhere, so don’t sit around waiting for the “big idea” to hit you. Take a walk around the neighborhood and make note of what you see. What are your neighbors doing? What does the sky look like? What thoughts emerge, based on what you see? Some of my best ideas come to me while I’m on the move.

10) Be bold. Take chances. Learn. Stretch yourself. Be it subject matter or form, be willing to try new things and see where it leads you.


I would be happy to hear anybody’s thoughts on this list, as well as suggestions for other things that poets need to know. Did I leave anything out?

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Facts Every Poet Needs to Know

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

I’ve been going through papers in my filing cabinet, and I came across a handout called “FACTS EVERY POET NEEDS TO KNOW.” No author or publication is listed, and on the back is a relatively outmoded listing of poetry markets, including mailing addresses but no web site information. The list includes such established literary journals as Carolina Quarterly alongside less expected magazines, such as Cat Fancy and the United Methodist Reporter. I no longer remember where I acquired this handout, but it’s folded in thirds and likely came tucked into an envelope along with some other writing-related book or magazine purchase.

The handout has both good and (in my opinion) quirky/bad advice. Without quoting it in its entirety, I’ll share the main points and my take on them.

  1. Copyright your poems to protect them from infringement. The author advises poets to put a copyright notice on each poem, as follows: © 1990 Author’s Name (The date used is a hint, I suppose, at how long ago I acquired this sheet). The truth is, this is not necessary, since your work is considered copyrighted the minute you write it, without further action. You can register the copyright for an entire manuscript, if desired, by going through the U.S. Copyright Office. However, since it costs $35 per document, it’s better to send a complete collection than to send individual poems. Again, it’s not necessary in order to defend your work in court, provided you can prove in some other way that the work is yours. Moreover, if you include a copyright notification on a poem submission, it will immediately paint you an amateur. After all, by doing so, you are implying that the potential editor is likely to steal your work!
  2. Always follow submission guidelines. This remains good advice: to always read guidelines carefully and understand that different publishers have different rules.
  3. Unless specifically requested, a cover letter is not necessary. Again, I concur. I rarely look at cover letters until AFTER I have made a decision about a work for Wild Violet. However, I do prefer that submissions include a biographical paragraph, which is stated in our guidelines. That makes my work easier when I do opt to publish a poem.
  4. No matter how much a poem is rewritten, it can usually be improved. I completely agree. Like Walt Whitman, who spent his whole life reworking his collection, Leaves of Grass, I constantly revisit old works. If you do the same thing, it’s probably a good practice to date each draft of a poem, so that you can easily track changes in the future. If you work primarily on a computer, you might save each substantially different new version as a separate file name, i.e. DogPoem.v1, DogPoem.v2, DogPoem.v3. Why keep different versions? Because sometimes wordings included in previous drafts may be useful to reinstate or to put in a new poem.
  5. Don’t expect to make a living writing poetry. Sadly, I’d also agree with this statement. I take exception to the author’s advice, though, to “enter as many contests as you can afford.” Although you can count the contest fees as a business expense, think about it like buying a lottery ticket: The likelihood of contests paying off is rather remote. You might actually be better off investing that money towards promoting your craft in other ways, such as buying advertising for your self-published poetry chapbook. A more practical way to make a living through poetry would be to pursue an educational path that would allow you to teach either poetry workshops or classes (or become successful enough as a published poet to be able to secure speaker’s fees — again, a very remote possibility).
  6. There is nothing arrogant about displaying your poetry, whether in the form of a book, a magazine, a framed display or some other art form. The anonymous author of this list says that “Modesty will get you nothing but obscurity,” but I can’t imagine how s/he imagined this point would help promote your poetry. Sure, hanging a framed copy of your poem in your home or office would make a few associates aware of your work, but it’s unlikely to lead to a major awareness of your writing. Perhaps if you have an artist friend who would be willing to sell illustrated poems at craft shows, you might increase your audience, but few people can follow through on such ideas. Personally, I think it’s a little tacky and desperate to hang a framed work of your own poetry in your home or office. A better idea might be to create framed works to give to friends and family as gifts, and let them decide whether to hang them.
  7. A thesaurus is a poet’s best friend. The author suggests using a thesaurus to “increase your word power” and also suggests a rhyming dictionary. I have mixed feelings about this advice, since some of my earliest teenage poems were what I’ve termed “thesaurus poems.” To write them, I thought about a feeling or other words I wanted to include in the poem, and then perused a thesaurus to make a list of words I could use. The resulting poems were cerebral and obscure, and to this day I’m not sure if even I totally understand them. A thesaurus can be useful, however, to find the right word, and I recommend bookmarking both Thesaurus.com and the rhyming dictionary Rhymezone.com.
  8. Punctuation is necessary and important! The author states that the majority of poems can benefit from the proper use of punctuation and even suggests purchasing a handbook on grammar and punctuation. I’d say to take or leave this advice. While using a period to end a thought can be useful, many poets choose to let line breaks substitute for commas, mostly for aesthetic effect. I agree that most poems require at least minimal punctuation, but the exact use still falls in the hands of the poet.
  9. The most common writing error is the improper use of “its” and “it’s.” The author states that “its” is possessive,” while “it’s” is a contraction for “it is.” While I agree this is a common error, I don’t feel it’s enough of a problem to warrant its own bullet point on a list like this.
  10. A long, self-addressed, stamped envelope is a welcome sight to an editor. This is, of course, true for all mailed submissions and inquiries. Many editors won’t reply if you do not include a SASE. Nowadays, most literary magazines accept submissions online via either e-mail or a submission service like Submittable, making SASE’s unnecessary. So if you are pinching every penny, save the postage money and submit online.

Overall, the list remains fairly useful, if a bit quixotic. In a future post, I’ll share my own tips for poets.

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