#105. Read a poetry or literary magazine; write and submit something of your own

IDEA #105. Go to a library and read from cover to cover a poetry or literary magazine. Granta would be a natural choice, but there are hundreds “little” magazines, some “important” and others less so, that publish poetry and short fiction, sometimes along with photography and other visual art. If you want to submit something that you have written or created, pat yourself on the back. If it’s accepted, get someone to take you out to dinner in celebration.

For all that we read that the people of the United States  are low on literacy and debased in their cultural interests, the fact remains that Americans are a manically active people when it comes to writing and publishing poetry. Many universities publish august “reviews” containing poetry, prose, and literary commentary, and a glance at the section of poetry magazines on the shelves of any large bookstore reveals many, many independent reviews, poetry magazines, and literary quarterlies. Poetry is being written, and poetry is being published.

For the youngster with an interest in poetry, the discovery of these magazines can be a revelation—a window into a world of creativity and verbal dexterity and, more importantly, a whole choir of new voices to be heard. A typical IMG_2010periodical—and Granta is among the better known—rewards a slow and careful reading, with some contents requiring deep and immediate concentration while others can be set aside for another time. Even the little biographical blurbs on the writers can be of interest—who are these people, and where do they come from?

While it is true that many published poets are university-affiliated academics, there are enough unattached citizen-poets to remind the reader that poetry has been a popular and democratic art form since the days of Homer. A number of the smaller of the “small” magazines that specialize in poetry are themselves distinctly demotic in form, with production values taking a back seat to the sheer cramming in of contributed work. Here is poetry at its most raw, and here might lie the opportunity for a young poet to take a first step into the world of the aspiring poet—to complete the “final” draft of a poem or two.

In the past and still in a few cases, the poet’s next steps were to write the cover letter, to fold the obligatory self-addressed stamped envelope, and to stuff them all into an envelope in the form of a submission. Nowadays most poetry magazines solicit and receive submissions via email; it’s even fair to say, despite the “hands-on” urgings of this post, that there are as many online poetry and literary ‘zines as there are ones still in print.

The fortunate young poet will receive the overwhelmingly gratifying news that a poem—or two, or three—has been accepted for publication. As anyone who has ever read a literary autobiography knows, the arrival of one’s first acceptance is often the event that inspires a career.

It might also be happy case that the young poet’s school sponsors its own literary magazine, creating the opportunity not just for submission and publication but also to engage in editorial work—selection and curation, copy-editing, and preparation for press. Many famous writers got their start by publishing in and then working on school and college literary magazines.

#101. Write seven poems. Six just aren’t enough.

IDEA #101. Write seven poems. Six just aren’t enough. Go back and revise them at least once a week for a few weeks, at least. Do they get better? Submit your favorites to your school newspaper or literary magazine.

Committing oneself to write a series of poems has the effect of committing oneself to be, at least for a time, IMG_1636a poet. Half a dozen poems or more constitutes a serious endeavor, with the attendant issues of both content and quality.

There is no reason that the poems could not consist of a series on a particular topic, for example, or a group of portraits of friends or family members, like the Spoon River Anthology of Edgar Lee Masters. The poems could even, together, form a single narrative. While poems tend to be taught piecemeal to students in school, as if each were unconnected to any other, poems are often grouped around certain themes when they are collected by their authors into book form, and the aspiring poet might turn not just to Masters but to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel or Robert Frost’s early North of Boston collection by way of inspiration.

Much of the exercise here is not just the writing but also the continuous editing and polishing that poems require. One poet of our acquaintance refers to his collection of poems in progress as his garden, always in need of pruning or other care, sometimes ready to bloom in publication but more often requiring more work before being set out before the world.

Should the young poet complete the poems and find the enterprise congenial, perhaps a poetizing tendency may take root. At the least, the poet should try to submit the work to whatever publications are handy, usually through a school but sometimes through a local or even national poetry contest. Beware, however, any poetry “contest” that offers publication for payment. While most are legitimate in their way, some are scams, and to be truly a “published poet” one should not have to pay for the privilege.

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