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FAQs: Is It Hard to Get Published?

By Camille Dungy

I want to answer a question I’ve been asked quite frequently by young writers. They tell me they’ve been writing for a little while and they love writing and they want to know if it will be hard for them to publish their work.

Yes, publishing is difficult. Or at least, publishing well can be difficult. And by publishing well, I mean publishing good poems in venues other people think are important, the kind of venues that can garner you literary cache. One of the first things you have to decide as a writer is how much that matters to you, literary cache.

I remember one time, when I was living in Cambridge, MA, just out of graduate school, I was delighted that a poem of mine had been picked up for publication by the Emerson College magazine. It was maybe only the 4th or 5th time I had been published, and one of the first times I had been published completely on my own initiative, not because I was in the college literary magazine or some professor had suggested I submit to a particular place or hand walked my poem to an editor’s desk. The mail came with the magazine inside, and I was doing something close to dancing in the street when a neighbor asked me what I was so excited about.

We called that neighbor Tony the Tiger because his name was Tony and because he had a kind of out of proportion enthusiasm for necessary but mildly irrelevant things like breakfast cereal (the original Tony the Tiger) or the Harvard University Philosophy Department (Cardwell Avenue’s Tony the Tiger). Our Tony the Tiger came bounding across Cardwell Avenue (which was really only a tiny little alley, and so was the perfect place of residence for a man with out of proportioned enthusiasms for necessary but mildly irrelevant things). “Where’d you get published?” He wanted to know. And when I told him, Tony the Tiger looked at me as if it were I whose enthusiasm outweighed the circumstance. “Oh,” he said. “I thought you were going to tell me you’d been published by a journal that mattered.”

What he meant was he’d assumed that given my glee I should have been pulling out a copy of Poetry or The New Yorker or The Tri-Quarterly Review. He wasn’t interested in some university journal with relatively small circulation. He only wanted to hear about it if I hit the big time.

But how was I to hit the big time when I was just a new poet myself? What are these expectations we set up for ourselves? What is it you are writing for? Fame? Fortune? Or are you writing because language and poetry are important to you? Are you writing because you want lots of people to read every word you say, or are you writing because you want to become as good a writer as you can learn how to be? Do we need to be the writer whose work is on every newsstand kiosk? Do we really want to be the writer whose work is on every newsstand kiosk? Yes, I suppose. And also no.

What I want to be is the writer who gets better with every poem, and better with every book. I want to be a writer who lasts, whose work will touch my readers as deeply 10 and 20 and 70 years from now as it does today. And rushing work into publication doesn’t tend to achieve that sort of lasting effect. One thing that I like to tell younger writers is that they ought to ask themselves if they would be willing to see the poem they’ve published in 5, 10, 15 years. If so, will it matter much if you keep it on your own computer for a month so you can check in and see if you still think the poem is strong before you send it out into the big bad world? (As a side note, I recently rediscovered the poem Tony the Tiger poo-pooed and like it well enough that it’s been given a place of privilege in my newest manuscript, without even an edit, nearly 15 years after it was published in that “little magazine.”)

With the internet the stakes are very different than they were back in the days when I was published in that university magazine. That magazine went out to perhaps 10000 alumni, and I’m thinking in generous terms because it happens to be a relatively large university. Most of my early publications had circulations of under 500 or 800 readers. Now, with the internet, the things we publish can be accessed in perpetuity, by countless people. The Academy of American Poets site got 14 million visitors in 2011. Not that the poem you write in college is going to be published on the Academy’s site right now. I’m mentioning that to suggest the scale of access that online publishing platforms have over many print platforms. I’m mentioning this to suggest that maybe it’s not a bad thing that publishing can be difficult. Maybe this can help you, as a writer, hone your craft to the point that it will be ready to be seen by such a potentially large audience some day.

In the meantime, ignore the part of you that is seeking fame and fortune from poetry. If you want fame and fortune in America, there are far more promising routes. America doesn’t even consistently recognize poets who have achieved international recognition. Consider the case of Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan who has been denied a two-week visa to visit the US for a book tour that had been scheduled for the month of April. Is publishing difficult, you ask? So difficult that people lives and freedoms have been at stake because of it every day.

As readily as you ask if it is hard to be published you might ask if it is hard to promote your work, or if it is hard to gain support from your country for the work you do, or if it would be hard for you to safely speak your mind in your work here or anywhere in the world. Poetry is not an easy undertaking. No aspect of poetry is an easy undertaking. We do not practice poetry because it is easy. We practice poetry because it is necessary. For us, and for the world.

So write your poems. And revise your poems. And read other people’s poems. Read poems from around the world. Read the poems of people like Ghassan Zaqtan and Anna Akhmatova, Federico Garcia Lorca, Chris Abani, and Hung Hoang, poets who faced the penalties of exclusion, imprisonment and death because they wrote. Read poets whose imperatives weren’t to get into the fanciest possible magazine, but to write the most necessary poems they could.

In the 1980s my mother had a book on her shelf whose title was Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow. Even the cover of the book was optimistic. The ideas sound corny, and in the real world the advice can only be partially true. But a kernel of truth is there, and is one that we poets should heed. What we should love to do, if we are practicing poets, is read and write, write and read. Do what you love. Write and write and write better each day. Then read and read and read. The more you read, the more you will know how to write. The more you write, the more you will know how to read. And as you read you will begin to learn things about publishers and other public forums where you can share what you write with people who will want to read what you write. Find journals and websites whose work you admire, and after you have read several issues, maybe you will find you are ready to try sending them some work of your own. You may start out small, your college journal, a local newspaper, a literary journal with a smaller print run. As you write more and more and read more and more, your work will improve, and your scope will improve, and you will be able to publish in more and more places, and from those opportunities will come even more.

Writers don’t wake up one morning and send their first (or second, or tenth) poem to the New Yorker and have it accepted. Writers work and work and read and read and get better and better and better. They start small and get bigger, but all along the way, if they can be proud of what they write, they should be able to say, like Tony the Tiger would say, “That’s Great!”

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, April 11th, 2012 by Camille Dungy.