Writing poetry sounds intimidating. It brings to mind the genius of tortured poets like Sylvia Plath or Henry David Thoreau, who famously retreated into the woods to write secluded in nature. Thankfully, writing (and submitting) modern poetry has a much simpler process. Anyone can become a poet — all you need is an idea, story or message you want to tell, and you’re off to a great start!
Here’s how to start, if you have never written poetry before:
Keep an idea-book
Everyone has different writing processes, but it’s a good idea to have a go-to place to jot down quick lines or ideas that come to mind. It can be the Notes app on your phone or it can be old school with a composition notebook. You can even use the end-pages or leftover pages of school journals and old novels. Keeping a journal can help you catalog particularly striking images and thoughts as they occur to you throughout your day. Part of the power of poetry is the lyrical language and poignant imagery that conveys our shared human experience.
Read the work of a variety of poets, including modern poetry
The simplest way to get inspired and to improve your poetry is to read poems, especially from a variety of sources. Part of becoming a better writer is constantly finding new poetry collections and reading contemporary literary magazines to expose yourself to new and diverse voices. Many of us remember reading the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Percy Shelley or maybe Emily Dickinson throughout high school, but there are incredible modern poets such as Ocean Vuong, Amy King and Nathaniel Mackey who present singular perspectives, diverse cultural experiences and vibrant contemporary aesthetics in their depiction of life and all its forms. The benefit of reading modern poetry is not only understanding what currently prevails in poetry circles, but encountering new styles and forms of expression that might resonate with you more intimately. And on that note:
Experiment with different forms of poetry
Don’t be afraid to be experimental once you have the basics down. In addition to expressive forms like long free verse, you can also experiment with more conventional forms like nursery rhymes, limericks or haikus. Even if there is a specific type of poem that you consider your bread and butter, it’s worth playing with different poetry forms. Write a few quick nursery rhymes. Construct a concrete poem. Visit a museum and be inspired to write an ekphrasis. Playing with form and structure can help you build your poetry writing skills and find new types of poetry that fit your personal style.
Play with rhyme
Simple rhyme schemes like AABB or ABAB are the forms that most people have been exposed to, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to rhyme! With the aid of a handy rhyming dictionary or websites like Rhyme Zone, you can vary your poetry through how you incorporate and structure rhyme scheme.
Try out a different meter
Meter refers to the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables from line to line in a poem. Including different types of meter in your poetry adds layers of intrigue to your work. Try writing poems in iambic pentameter (à la Shakespeare) or the rare trochaic octameter, as Poe did in his poem “The Raven.”
Explore new poetic devices
One of the most exciting aspects of poetry is the many literary devices and poetic techniques available to you. Applying alliteration or assonance can bring a variety of nuanced layers to your work. Exploring extended metaphors and working in synecdoche or metonymy can even add depth to your writing.
A great resource to discover new poems, learn about different types of poetry and enjoy the illustrative beauty that is poetry is the website The Poetry Foundation, which also accepts submissions for publication.
Explore the other types of creative writing
Writing poems doesn’t prevent you from exploring other forms of writing. Supplement your poetry writing with nonfiction essays and short stories in your free time. Do a writing internship. This will help your writing stay fresh and active.
Remember, there are no set rules
Give yourself the freedom to explore and play with meaning and form. Don’t hold yourself back or worry about sounding “good” or “real.” Some of your best work will come when you feel free to express yourself as you like, no matter what stage your writing is.
Revising your poetry
As with other forms of writing, good poetry is forged in the edit. Review your work after some time has passed, in order to look at it with fresh eyes. Perhaps you have gained a new sense of clarity since you last looked at your poem, and taking this mental refresh is a great way to begin the rewriting process.
One key point to remember is that you absolutely do not need abstract words and flowery language to write on complex issues or convey a deeper meaning. Sometimes the simplest language combined with clear, concrete images can make for the best poem. Some of the best poets like Emily Dickinson or e.e. cummings used concrete words and simple language to construct poignant and affecting poetry. A thesaurus is great for finding that precise word you needed, but make sure to avoid exclusively using bombastic language.
Where to submit your poetry when you feel confident and ready
You did it! You’ve now written a poem (or a book of poems!) and are ready to begin the submission process to a poetry publication, literary magazine or poetry contest. However, it’s rare to get published on your first try, especially for a large literary magazine. Some poets wait years for their poems to be accepted. But don’t be discouraged! There are a couple of steps you can take to increase your chances of publication:
Familiarize yourself with the general rules of where and how to submit
Each publication, magazine or contest has different rules on when they are taking submissions — some are year-round, some open up during a fall, spring or summer issue, and some only take submissions during a certain month in the year. Make sure you don’t miss any deadlines!
Some places only take submissions online through online platforms like Submittable, and some only accept physical mail-ins. In current times, most places usually accept both or prefer online submissions.
Watch out for fees or memberships. Many of the places you can submit poetry require you to be a member of their magazine or pay a submission fee (a reading fee) in order to submit your poem for their review. These are usually small ($1-$5), but they can add up, especially if you are a new poet and are submitting to a variety of places. Of course, there are places that have no submission fees to encourage new writers!
One great place to submit poetry is Rattle Magazine, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote the practice of poetry. They publish unsolicited poetry and translations of poetry, with submissions open year-round. Submissions are free, and they actually pay well for individual poems ($200/poem for print and $100/poem for online contributors), which can be rare for new writers.
Palette Poetry is an organization that endeavors to uplift and engage emerging and established poets at any level. Their submissions are open year-round, are always free, pay $50/poem and encourage marginalized and underrepresented voices of all colors to submit.
Understand the rules of publication, especially the “first” publishing rights and/or simultaneous submissions
Most journals will only consider unpublished poems (poems published on blogs/social media usually don’t count as “published”). When a journal accepts your poem for publication, they usually have “First Rights,” meaning they get to be the first publisher to present the poems to the public. This means that publishers usually won’t consider poems that have been published in books, magazines or newspapers, in print or online. Violation of submission rules can result in an immediate rejection of your poetry submissions, so ensure that you have read the submission rules of each publication carefully!
Many publications will accept simultaneous submissions, as they understand poets want to maximize their chances of being published, given the low acceptance rates. Since it can take months for publications to get to your submission (many publications receive hundreds of submissions a day!), it’s practical and recommended for you to send your work to as many appropriate literary journals as possible. If your poem does get accepted and you have submitted your poetry to other places, send a courtesy email or letter to those places to let them know that the poem is no longer available. Simultaneous submissions respect your time, and you should extend that same respect to the editors reading your accepted poems that are no longer available to be published.
Another great place to submit poetry or other forms of writing is The Threepenny Review, one of the most original literary magazines, that publishes high-quality writing, poetry, fiction and criticism that features many individual writers’ voices. It’s one of the friendliest places to submit, charges no fee, and pays $400 per story or article, $200 per poem or Table Talk piece. However, they do not accept simultaneous submissions and only accept poems from January to April.
Research where you’re submitting your poetry
If you have a specific literary publication in mind, flip through the magazine to get a sense of what kind of poetry they accept. Look through their past collections of poems. Some publications may only publish individual poems, while others might accept larger works. A publication might be looking for poetry that fits in with its current theme or season. Read some sample poems to get a feel for the style of the publication and to help you make a better selection of your own work.
For example, Arc Poetry Magazine and 32 Poems, both great places for new poets, accept only short form (usually under a page) poems. The Common seeks poems, stories and writing that “embody a strong sense of place: pieces in which the setting is crucial to character, narrative, mood, and language.”
Finally, be patient (and hopeful!)
You’ve made it this far. Many publications will try to keep their response time short. But because publications receive thousands of submissions, sometimes all year round, there will likely be some waiting involved. As you wait, keep writing and improving!
More great places for new writers to submit:
Try submitting to magazines and journals that are affiliated with universities and colleges, especially if you are a student yourself. Oftentimes, they are open to publishing student work and will work with you to revise and provide feedback on your pieces.
Some examples are:
The New England Review, under the sponsorship of Middlebury College, and has a long and distinguished history of publishing writers who have gone on to receive wider recognition.
Glass Mountain, an undergraduate literary journal from the University of Houston, provides a platform for “previously unpublished fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, art and everything in between.”
Iowa Review, publishing “fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, translations, photography, and work in emerging forms by both established and emerging writers.”
Reed Magazine, “The West’s oldest literary journal” publishing fiction, nonfiction, poetry and art annually out of San Jose State University.
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