As we see more and more poems submitted to markets like The 3288 Review, it’s worth offering a few tips from a publisher’s perspective about the best ways to get your poetry in front of a larger audience.

First, please think carefully about structured poems. Because most writers compose in word processors, with a default letter-sized canvas, they tend to treat that canvas as if it were a printed page. Indeed, when you press “Print” from your local computer, it is a printed page. But in the publishing world, very few works release at printer-paper sizes and margins. The interior page width for The 3288 Review, for example, is roughly 5 inches. Poetry books can run smaller — even at a 5-inch-by-7-inch trim, leaving perhaps 3 inches of interior space to work with.

In the context of text layout, poetry that relies on spaces generated by a press of the spacebar will almost never align as originally intended, given changes to fonts and point sizes. And tabs will differ, too; a standard 0.5-inch tab in Microsoft Word might be compressed to 0.25 inches in Adobe InDesign, for example.

The structure of a poem matters for two reasons. First, a publisher has to do a lot more heavy lifting to force-fit a poem formatted for a sheet of printer paper onto whatever page trim the poem will appear. Second, changes to interior margins might mean that the structure as originally intended cannot be replicated at a smaller trim size.

By all means: Write, and submit, your structured poems. But keep your “what would a publisher do?” hat on while you create. (Pro tip: Use tabs at a consistent spacing — instead of hanging indents, paragraph padding or embedded spaces — to effect your poem’s structure.)

Second, recognize the inherent confusion that follows from prose poetry. Prose poems often look and feel exactly like a short essay or opinion column. Some authorities consider them not as pure poetry, but some sort of fusion between poetry and journaling. People who are poets and converse frequently with poets will understand what a “prose poem” is. But casual readers — unlikely to be conversant in the theory of poetry — are less likely identify a prose poem as anything other than an essay. Most prose poems distinguish from essays by very heavy reliance on metaphor or imagery. They’re a valid form, to be sure, but one that must be handled with care. A careful publisher, being an agent of both the creator and the reader, should push back on prose poems indistinguishable from short essays. As with many things, the publisher’s need to classify content cleanly and in industry-standard ways trumps any one creator’s right to fuse genres at will.

Third, consider the package of poems that you submit to publishers. If you know that Magazine X or Anthology Y pays $Z for poems, you may find a varying response pattern to your query depending on whether your poem runs five lines, or 50, or whether you submit one poem or a package of three or five or 10 works. It’s useful to query the publisher before submitting to ask about the relative quantity of work that’s appropriate for the market’s identified price point. Some places might not care, but others would find it more rewarding to pay for small collections or single, larger works. From a purely financial perspective, it’s sometimes a tough to evaluate a single, exceptionally short poem in the same price range as some other poet’s much longer work. Poetry should always be a function of quality over quantity, but vast discrepancies in quantity competing for the same price point ….

Fourth, don’t try too hard to be edgy. A free-form lyric stream-of-consciousness poem is really, really hard to pull off well. Most poets can’t pull it off well, as it happens, but this style nevertheless constitutes a significant chunk of what we see. Perhaps the two biggest hurdles with edgy poetry are incoherent imagery and a lack of semantic cohesion. To be clear: Stream-of-consciousness poetry is a valid, and sometimes sublime, form of literary art. But it’s also damned difficult to execute without coming off as pompous or inaccessible. It’s not unusual for us to see stuff like “The translucent opaqueness of the cerulean soul/chains for the adolescent making/my clock strikes blood/Cheerios for dinner.” When art and parody become indistinguishable, there’s a problem afoot.

Re-think the value of litanies of images that are genuinely incomprehensible as stand-alone concepts — e.g., if you can’t pull any dyad or triad from the work and grasp its meaning as an idea distinct from the work, then your risk increases that you’re on the wrong track, especially if this test fails again and again for the same poem. And understand that a poem that has no obvious overall meaning will not be greeted with affection by more conservative editors. And further understand that most editors are more conservative than you’d prefer.

Poetry, done well, is a delight; poetry that delights publishers will be more likely to receive a broad audience.

The Four Perils of Poetry
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