May 1, 2019 -

As told to , 1236 words.

How to enter the poetry community

Tips for finding your place in poetic circles, building a community, and (eventually) getting published.

My professors never told me to join Twitter; for that matter, they couldn’t name many of the literary journals making waves online. I don’t want to diminish those professors’ impact on my growth as a writer, or the value of my education, but there’s a dramatic distance between the academic approach to poetry and current poetic culture—and today’s writing students can sense it.

When I emerged from my M.A. program with a manuscript I hoped to publish, I was guided only by my advisor’s printed list of chapbook competitions. Though I did go on to publish my thesis through one such contest, there was a world of other publishing options that didn’t make it onto her list. Just look at Sibling Rivalry Press; Glass Poetry; the Adroit Journal. The smaller publications dominating Pushcart Prize nominations — “the most honored literary project in America,” which has annually published a book of creative writing since 1976 — now are often only a few years old, and often online-only. There are few Self Addressed, Stamped Envelopes left in the game.

Young poets sometimes slide into my DMs and ask: “How do I get published?” While I do my best to advise in the tight margins of a Twitter message, I often withhold my more honest, less gracious answer: That it’s not the right question to ask. Not just because the question is unwieldy, unpredictable, and a dissertation to ask of a stranger, but because the true question they should be asking is how to enter the larger poetry community, and find their answers through that engagement. Only through interacting with other current poets, especially those outside your own experiences and social circles, will you gain the awareness necessary to address that publication question for yourself.

If you’re entering the literary world post-education, or just without guidance that feels up to par with today’s literary community, read on.

Caitlin Wolper

Tip 1: Get online & find your peers

I’m so sorry to tell you this, but having a Twitter is fairly unavoidable. For poetry, I think of it as a message board, a scrolling collection of poets’ stray thoughts and journals’ newest issues. Start off, of course, by following poets you admire. Then, other poets will pop up on your radar. Hit follow on some people you don’t know, or have only heard of tangentially, who mention poetry in their bio. You can always unfollow them if you change your mind.

Now, your feed is curated to some degree. Poets you follow will share where they’ve published; journals you follow will share work they’re publishing. Like someone’s poem? Tell them! Share it! Not only is this a lovely thing to do in general, but it’s a great way to start conversations and grow your community. I’ve built a small coterie of online, remote friends who’d be happy to edit a draft for me over email or chat about poetry in DMs because we made a connection. It’s so much easier than it seems to forge friendships this way — just showing someone you love their work (honestly, of course) helps build real relationships that will benefit both of you.

I could list people or journals that I prefer, but that defeats the purpose — you should be following people and journals as an act of discovery, because they’re in line with your own interests. If you like a poem or a poet that you discover on Twitter, jot down the journal for later, or vice versa.

Tip 2: Read, make lists, & submit

It’s not enough to just follow all these accounts: You have to actually read what they put out. Every literary journal is different, and only by reading each can you get a sense of what their “thing” is. If you have poems ready to submit, you want to send them somewhere where the voice or inclination is in line with your own — whether that entails form, topic, or something else altogether. You also don’t want to send work to a journal designated for a specific community (e.g. women-only, POC only, etc.) that you are not a part of.

Read the journal’s submission guidelines, too. Between the very abstract rules (“We want poetry that dovetails our eyes from the pool of existence’s twisted martyrs,” or whatever) are important details. If they hate rhyme, don’t send them your Shakespearean sonnets. If they hate free verse, bring out your sestinas. Of course, pay attention to poem limits, line limits, and formatting — you don’t want a rejection because you feel so passionately about Helvetica.

Personally, I keep a Google Sheet that records everywhere I submit: Journal, Date Submitted, and Poems Submitted, along with Notes. That way, I don’t send new work somewhere that’s still considering an older submission, and can keep track of the myriad journals that have piqued my interest in the past. It’s worthwhile to have a separate list of aspirational places you’d like to send work to, too. This should become a personal resource that lengthens over time.

Tip 3: Get offline & hear some peers

Scary, right? Obviously, meeting other poets is a far easier ask in some places than others. All the same, most towns have their own gathering spots, whether it’s a local coffee shop with a weekly slam, a library’s corner, or a conference room. Check your local library, bars, and coffee shops for any sign of poetry; if you live near a university, that’s your best bet. Lectures and talks, of course, are worth attending.

When you hear poetry versus reading it, the impact differs wildly. Not only does work take on new life, but it’s shaped by the reactions of others around you. Not to mention that there’s also far more community-building to be done when some of your Twitter followers become real-life faces.

I understand that not everyone can go to readings, meetings, and workshops as easily as others — if that’s not possible, several communities that offer writing classes host classes online as well, whether the “school” in question is an extension of a university or hosted by a writing group/publisher. To that same token, a writers’ workshop can be an informal video chat made up of those Twitter friends you found.

In conclusion…

Even the best poetry education is mired in the past: You may study contemporary poetry, but is it from the past two years? The past ten? Literature moves quickly. As you build your portfolio, you need to keep your eyes on how other poets are navigating the landscape. And you won’t catch everything, or read everything, or know everything! I sure haven’t, and don’t. But engaging is so important, for both your growth as a writer and as a submitter of work.

If you find poets you love and admire who are building their careers in the present, you can watch as it happens and understand how they get it done. I don’t advocate imitating anyone else or their path, because everyone’s is different: But if you’re drowning in feelings of confusion, for not knowing where to start, you can look to Twitter and see where all the poets congregate.

Publication isn’t the end-all, be-all of a poet. Focus on finding poets you love, journals you admire, and writing what words come to you unbidden. The rest will follow whatever course you let it.