When I began writing in 1960, there were no website "magazines."
Print journals were the only place to have poems published. Writers used
typewriters, carbon paper, a white potion to cover up mistakes and snail
mail to prepare and submit poems for publication. Monday through Friday
I'd work at my day job. Weekends I'd spend writing and revising poems. Revising
poems took more time than writing them and that is still the case today,
On Monday morning on the way to work, I'd sometimes mail as many
as 14 envelopes to university journals and "little magazines," as the latter
were then called. Some university journals are still with us. Some are
published in print only and others have begun the inevitable transformation by
appearing in print and simultaneously on the web.
"Little magazines," especially those published in print without
a presence on the web, are rare in 2012. One might say, however, that their
format has been reincarnated in hundreds of website publications that vary in
design, content and frequency of publication. Depending on the site, new poems
can appear daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, semi-annually or annually. For
many writers, these websites are a godsend. Some "serious" writers, however,
still feel that a poem has not been "published" until it has appeared on paper.
I can't remember what postage cost in the Sixties but it was
very cheap. Nevertheless, it would often take six months or more to hear back
from many editors of university journals and little magazines. Sometimes I
would get no response despite my enclosing the mandatory stamped self-addressed
Submission etiquette at that time required that a writer send
nothing other than the poems, usually a maximum of three, and the SASE. What's
more, simultaneous submissions were universally forbidden. I don't remember any
editor wanting a biographical note until the piece was accepted and sometimes
not even then. All that mattered was the poem and how much the editor liked it.
Today, in contrast, some web editors want a letter from the
author up front "introducing" the poems and/or some aspect of the author's
life. I've never been comfortable providing that kind of information in front
of poems I'm submitting. I can't imagine lobbying for poems that I hope speak
In the Sixties, my average acceptance rate was roughly one poem
out of 14 submissions of three poems each. Two or three poems accepted rarely
happened but my hopes were always high.
The rejected poems I'd revise if I thought they needed it; then
I'd send all of them out again to different publications. Often the poems would
have to be retyped because the postal process or some editor's fondness for
catsup or mustard would result in messy returned manuscripts. I followed this
pattern of writing, revising and submitting for seven years. I loved it because
I didn't know any other way. I had no idea that in 30 years there would be an
easier way to submit poems, thanks to the personal computer. What a difference.
No more carbon paper. No more catsup or mustard.
In 1971 I quit writing after having had a hundred or so poems
accepted by some 80 print publications ranging from university journals to
hand-assembled little magazines. I even made it into a few commercial magazines
and received checks for as much as $25.00. I was on a roll or so I told myself.
The reason I quit writing poems is because I had accepted a much
more difficult day job as an editor with a newspaper. Previous editorial jobs
had not been that taxing. I still had enough energy to work on poems at night
as well as on weekends. But the new job wore me out. The money was good and
helped me deal with expenses that had increased as my responsibilities had
increased. Other demanding jobs would follow in subsequent decades. As a
result, I didn't return to writing poems until 2008 after I had retired.
I hadn't really thought about working on poems in retirement but
my wife bought me a computer and showed me where I had stored--37 years
earlier--several cardboard boxes full of unfinished poems. It took a month or
more to enter drafts of the 200 to 300 poems in my new computer. It took longer
to revise and polish them. Finally, I sent out the finished
versions by email to both online and print publications.
It took a few weeks at the start but eventually lines for new
poems began to pop into my noggin. Alleluia! I was ever so thankful to "hear"
them because it answered an important question--namely, could I still write new
poems after such a long hiatus?
I found submitting by email a joy. For a while I sent an
occasional poem by snail mail to journals that did not take email submissions.
But in six months I stopped doing that. I did not want to lick envelopes any
longer. Looking back over the last four years, I'm thankful for the response my
work has received from various editors in the Americas, Europe, Asia and
Since I am an old-timer writing and submitting poems, I'm
sometimes asked if I notice any difference in the "market" for poetry in 2012
compared with the Sixties. I'm also asked if I would I do anything differently
if I were starting out today.
Yes, I notice a difference in the "market" today, and, yes, I
would do some things differently if I were starting out now.
If I were starting out now, I would revise poems even more than
I did when I was young. I revised a lot back then and I revise a lot today. I
believe strongly in something Dylan Thomas once saidnamely, that no poem
is ever finished; it is simply abandoned.
It's taken four years for me to gain some sense of how the
"market" for poetry has changed over the last 40 years. In preparing my own
submissions, I have had a chance to read a lot poetry by young writers, some
already established and many unknown. Sometimes I compare their work in my mind
with the work of poets I remember from the Sixties.
Although Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory
Corso, among others, had their followers back in the Sixties, and still do
today, I find that in 2012 "confessional" poetry has become even more
prominent. Some of it strikes me as good, both in content and technique, but
that is a subjective assessment. Much of it, however, strikes me as "raw," for
want of a better word. In some cases I also find it difficult to distinguish
certain poems from prose disguised in broken lines. I don't remember "prose
poems" as a category unto itself when I started out. Today prose poems seem to
be very well accepted in some circles but I suspect they would have been a hard
sell in the Sixties.
I suppose as a stripling and now as a codger I have written what
some might call "confessional" poetry, both good and bad. Nevertheless, I think
a young writer does well to write about someone or something other than one's
self. Observing other people carefully and writing about their mannerisms and
aspects of their behavior can help to develop one's craft. This is important
because as most writers know, writing poetry or fiction is as much a craft as
it is an art and without craft, writing may never reach the level of art.
Perhaps it is my imagination but it seems that over the last
couple of years there has been an increase in poems written about broken
relationships or other distressful matters of the heart. The writers of these
poems seem to be primarily women who sound very angry and no doubt with good
Apparently male poets find it easier to move on from a break-up
and seek love or companionship in all the right or wrong places. I don't think
that's a new development, men being who they are. I hope it's not chauvinist of
me to suggest that the power to motivate a man to behave better usually lies
with the woman. I feel that a woman has a gift she should not unwrap too
quickly no matter how eager a man may be to undo the ribbons. Not many ribbons
were undone in the Fifties prior to vows. In that era, of course, women were
old-fashioned by current standards. The ones who were not "old-fashioned" were
called a lot of things but not "liberated."
There are other types of subject matter common in poetry today
that didn't appear too frequently in the Sixties. Graphic sex, science fiction
and horror seem to appeal to many male writers, although some females also like
to write about these subjects today.
I've never been interested in horror and I doubt that I would
have the imagination to handle it well. I never fantasize about anything that
even borders on science fiction. Sex, on the other hand, is a different matter.
But sex has always struck me as the easiest subject to write about. I could
write about sex well, I believe, but why should I? Why should I make my wife
angry? Even if I were single, I suspect I'd be restrained by a line from Emily
Dickinson that I first read it in college. Ms. Dickinson wrote, "how public
like a frog."
In contrast with my early years in writing, I am never satisfied
today with a poem even when it has been published. If I go back and re-read a
published poem a year later, I am certain to find something "wrong" with it and
I feel obligated to fix it. Sometimes I can't fix it but in the process of
trying, I occasionally find that I am suddenly in the middle of writing a
different poem, an offshoot of the original piece or something entirely
different. I've found benefits and problems in that.
Rodin's "The Thinker" is set in bronze and marble and not
subject to revision but few if any of my poems acquire that status in my mind.
And if one of them does, I eventually come to feel the poem could be improved,
even if at that moment I might not know how to make it better. Maybe in six
months I'll read it again and hear something errant in the lines that I will
suddenly know how to fix. It doesn't hurt, I believe, for a writer to listen to
a poem the way a mechanic listens to a motor. Both want to get everything
My purpose in writing this piece has been to record "for the
ages" what it's been like writing and submitting poems in two distinct eras. I
certainly like the ease with which technology today has enabled me to compose a
poem. The "delete" key is wonderful. But there is something to be said for the
anticipation caused by finding an envelope in the mailbox from an editor, the
way a contributor might have done back in the Sixties. One knew immediately by
the thickness of the envelope whether all three poems had been rejected or one
or two of them had been accepted. That was a wonderful time for a young writer
to cut his or her teeth.