Reality Check?

A young man holding his face in his hands.

In the January/February issue of Poets & Writers magazine, poet and critic Reagan Upshaw delivers four pages of put-downs (disguised as advice) devised to dissuade poets from stepping on the literary playing field.

Upshaw begins “Reality Check / A simple self-publishing plan,” with a reminder of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s rapid rise to fame, and says a story like hers would be fantastical today.  He attributes the change to reasons his readers are likely aware of: a shrinking poetry audience, ever-increasing number of MFA programs and increasing number of poets.

Upshaw writes, “I recently served as one of the readers in a national poetry contest. I did my job conscientiously, though I was only helping winnow the submissions for the final judge… The experience left me with an appreciation of the work that readers for poetry magazines do each day, not to mention a sympathetic shudder at what they have to plow through.”

I highly recommend Poets & Writers, but an article about reality should require straightforward insults from the author at all times—something like, “The increasing number of abysmal poems are wasting our time.” (And you, dear reader, are probably creating them.)

The author didn’t mince words when he offered this advice, “Write the very best poems you can and get them out. Some of you may track down my street address and send me your chapbook. It’s unlikely to wow me, and I probably won’t have the time to respond. Unless it’s patently offensive, however, I won’t throw your book away; I’ll toss it into the box where I keep the books I donate each year to the local library’s book sale. Maybe someone will buy it there for fifty cents and be moved by a poem or two, maybe even moved enough to contact you.”

Upshaw’s local library won’t receive a copy of The Glass Sponge, but they can purchase one from Finishing Line Press, and they better order quickly because thirty-five percent of the print run—hundreds of books—sold during the advance sales period. (I admit each time the author allowed his emotions to overrule his professionalism, I did the same; picturing a new fracture in a leg of his high horse.)

Upshaw believes “The hierarchy of prestigious literary magazines” complicates matters for poets. Prestigious magazines like the Paris Review, the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker (likely) screen cover letters. “Did the submitting poet have previous publications in prestigious magazines? Where and with whom did she get her MFA? ”

Upshaw fails to acknowledge practical, tenacious poets with myriad degrees, who have books accepted and poetry published in a variety of reputable journals and magazines. Does he know  there are successful, intelligent poets who don’t waste time submitting to the New Yorker or the Paris Review?

“At times, while pondering a pile of rejection slips, every poet feels hopeless, particularly those who do not have an insider’s perspective on the industry.  If you didn’t get your MFA* from a major program, if you don’t have a mentor who can open doors for you, if you’re not part of a group that engages in mutual log-rolling, what chance do you have of being published in one of the dozen magazines from whose pages more than half the poems are later selected for the Best American Poetry series? Slim to none apparently…”

Oh, for Shakespeare’s sake, what’s a poet (standing on a ledge) to do?

Upshaw admits he was full of grandiose expectations. “A decade before the personal computer, I used a hand press to print fifty copies of a chapbook and sent them to people I knew and to poets whose work I liked. I don’t remember any responses from the big names, but the last time I looked, two of those copies were in university libraries…”

How does the old saying go…the higher you are, the more naïve you are? Sending an unsolicited chapbook to poets you admire is like sending a clip of your junior college performance of “I Will Always Love You” to Celine Dion.

Before Upshaw gets to his “Simple self-publishing plan,” he takes a crack at poets who get their books published via book contests. “I’m not so sure, though, about entering book contests. Michael Odom…calls this ‘vanity publishing by contest’ and notes that small literary publishers in our time seem to keep the doors open by selling chances to publish, not by selling books.”

Yet, the author encourages readers to read poetry and buy their favorite poets’ books because “It won’t destroy your budget, and God knows that poetry publishers need all the sales they can make.”

Why include an all inclusive quote belittling poetry publishers? (Twenty-five people named Michael Odom came up on my Google search. Odds are he’s the painter and art critic.) There are numerous listings for book contests in the Deadlines for Awards & Grants section of Poets & Writers. How would the publishers of Sarabande Books, the Southern Indiana Review, the Georgetown Review Press, Pen Open Book Award and the National Poetry Series respond to being called vanity publishers?

The author’s self-publishing plan for a professional-looking chapbook is simple: use desktop publishing, good-quality paper and a nice illustration. He says it will cost less “than the fees for a few of those contests you’ve been entering.” (Unless you don’t enter contests.)

The type of software required for a “professional-looking” chapbook depends on your definition of a professional print job and graphics. Desktop publishing software like Adobe InDesign costs several hundred dollars. Even if you use a free version of software such as Google Drive, you’ll need high quality cardstock for the cover, quality print paper and at least one four-color ink cartridge. A nice illustration from iStockphoto or Big Stock Photo runs from three to fifty dollars. Minimum cost would be around ninety-five dollars for however many chapbooks could be printed from one ink cartridge.

Poets who aren’t concerned about the route their poetry takes or think they’ll get discovered via self-publishing, may have found the article helpful. I don’t think it’s a coincidence two of the four ads for self-publishing services were placed in the pages of Upshaw’s article.

If you weren’t leaning towards self-publishing, don’t change your mind in a desperate response to articles like “Reality Check / A simple self-publishing plan.” Upshaw doesn’t recognize the vast literary middle ground where the majority of poets and writers live and write.

At the end of the article, the author writes, “One of your poems, perhaps only one phrase, may be all that survives, and the chances are that you won’t be around to see it. Are you looking for a teaching job or are you looking to connect with another human being, even if it’s someone you’ll never know? The quest is crazy, but it’s what drives real poets. Write the best that you can, get it out there, and then get right back to writing.”

By the end of the article, the author’s high horse had fallen to its knees. You’re quest doesn’t have to be crazy for you to be a real poet. The quest and creative process will endure; the joy of acceptance is fleeting.


*There are forty plus ads for MFA programs in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers.

Tips for sane poets seeking middle ground:

Submit Smartly: Don’t waste time familiarizing yourself with the pieces published in an unfamiliar market until you read the authors’ bios. If ninety-nine percent of the submitting authors have a “prestigious MFA” and “prestigious publications,” move on to your next pick. I look for a mix of roughly sixty percent prestigious authors and forty percent non-prestigious, successful authors.

If you don’t have one, purchase a subscription to Duotrope for five dollars a month or fifty dollars a year. You gain access to a submission tracking system and over four thousand detailed market listings, including acceptance ratios, editor interviews and number of submissions received, to name a few.  (Use their tools to set your parameters for success—I submit to reputable markets with acceptance ratios between three and fifteen percent.)

If you haven’t already, subscribe to Poets & Writers. Purchase a copy of Poet’s Market.

The Best American Poetry series isn’t the only pony at the birthday party. Hundeds of literary magazines nominate for the Pushcart Prize each year. One of my middle ground goals is to be nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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Jules Jacob

julie ginkgoJulie "Jules" Jacob is a contemporary poet who often writes about dichotomous conditions and relationships among humans and the natural world. Her poems are recently featured or forthcoming in Plume Poetry, The Tishman Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Rust + Moth, Yes Poetry and elsewhere. She is the author of The Glass Sponge chapbook with select poems featured at the Colorado Gallery of the Arts and Le Moulin à Nef where she was a resident of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Poetry Workshop.

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