Your first poetry submission is the hardest one of them all

In the winter of 2007, I knew a man who kept his rejection letters taped to both sides of his bedroom door. At the time, I thought it must be utterly disheartening, to be faced with your own failures, day in and day out, coming and going.

Four and a half years later, I’ve come to realize that this was just his way of approaching the submission process. It isn’t just about the acceptance or rejection, it’s about putting your work out into the world.

As a poet, there are few better or more rewarding feelings than being published — or, so I’ve heard. Two years after earning my BFA in creative writing, I’ve finally gathered enough courage and information to make my first submission.

If you feel inspired to join me in this venture, here are some things to keep in mind that I learned along the way:

1. Follow the submission guidelines. It doesn’t matter if you’re the next W. H. Auden, if you don’t follow the rules, your poems won’t get published.

If the journal doesn’t accept previously published material, that means they won’t publish work that has been made available for viewing by the public in any online or print form. Did you post the submission on your Tumblr account? That is considered previously published, and therefore out of the running.

If you did submit that perfectly polished prose to a different journal last week, just be sure they accept simultaneous submissions.

2. Find out where your favorite poets and writing peers have been published. If you think your audience is the same as the ever-edgy Kim Addonizio’s, do some research on the journals that have published her work.

3. Attend events like WriteByNight‘s “What Poetry Can Do For You,” where you’ll have the opportunity learn firsthand how to find journals that are suited to your creative sensibilities. There are also websites like Literary Austin that have up-to-date information about calls for submissions in your own neighborhood.

4. Have faith in yourself and your work. The worst thing that can happen is that you get rejected. Brainstorm ways to keep yourself motivated, to reward your hard work and celebrate every little victory. The act of submitting is an accomplishment in itself.

With this knowledge in hand, I’m ready to submit. For the sake of time and money, and because my printer is out of ink, I decide to send my work to a journal that accepts online submissions. (Plenty of publications still accept standard mail submissions.)

I do a little research and find out that one of my favorite Addonizio poems, “The First Line is the Deepest,” was published in Poetry in 2009. Because this is my first time submitting, a journal like “Poetry” can be a little intimidating, but the thought of my words being sized-up by such esteemed eyes is incentive enough.

Now for the hardest part for the critical poet: deciding which of my babies to present. Submissions to “Poetry” are limited to four poems — one file — so I scour my manuscript for my most worthy works and format them as a rich text format, or a “.rtf,”  file, per their guidelines. This is, by far, the most time-consuming part of the process.

Overall, though, the whole online submission process is relatively quick and painless. In fact, up to this point, it feels rather anticlimactic. That is, until I realize that my cursor is hovering over the “submit” button. Once I tap the “enter” key, it feels like the click heard ’round the world.

My poems are out in the universe now. In six to eight weeks I’ll hear back from “Poetry” about whether or not my words will join the ranks of today’s most celebrated poets. The outcome doesn’t matter as much though, now that I can say that I’ve taken that first and largest leap towards achieving my poetic dreams.


Erin Coffin received her BFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in 2010. Someday, she will be able to list the hundreds of journals that have published her poems. For now, you can find her on Twitter (@PWA_Poetry) and anywhere that serves coffee, bourbon, or poetry (preferably all three).