How to get your poetry published


Having had my own book of poetry published, I’m often thought to be party to the secret handshake of publishers everywhere. When people ask me how they can get theirs published, I tell them it’s a tough road, full of complex choices and lucky turns. Actually, it’s a simple process. The tough part is writing poetry good enough for publication. Once you’ve got that sorted, it’s useful to know how poetry publishing works. Read what I’ve said here, and also read the Centre for the Book’s advice on publishing poetry.

Before you read the proper explanation below, this is the bottom line: first, find and read a few poetry magazines. Then send them about four poems at a time for them to consider publishing. Once you have had several poems published in magazines, then you can approach publishers who publish books of poetry. Now, here is how and why.

Very few people who write poetry know how to get it published, especially in South Africa. It’s just one of the drawbacks of growing up in a country where literature has not been a high priority. So the first thing is to understand the basics of how poetry publishing works. The principles are similar for short stories.

Firstly, there is a very big, important difference between “publishers” and “magazines”. Publishers publish collections of poetry by one or more people in book form. Magazines publish poems by different people (usually one to five poems per writer), and are published on a regular basis. Most magazines that specialise in poetry and short stories sell most of their copies to subscribers, who pay in advance and get their magazines in the post. Books and magazines both sell through bookshops, but they are usually marketed badly and stocked irregularly.

(There are also websites that publish poetry, and act as online poetry magazines. I’m not going to talk about them here, because they all have very different ways of working, and you can find hundreds of them online easily enough. In most cases, they are not as choosy about what they publish, because they are not limited by space. This means they have a reputation, sometimes unfairly so, for publishing poor poetry.)

It often seems as if no one cares about poetry. The simple reason for this is that there is no money in poetry. This is not a tragedy, it’s just the way it is. Really good, popular poetry is exceptionally hard to write, so it’s not surprising that there is very little of it, and that most other poetry doesn’t sell. A very successful collection of new poems in South Africa will sell about 500 copies. There are probably less than five publishers in South Africa who are willing to publish it at any one time, and their willingness to do so changes all the time, depending on their financial position. Those who are brave enough to publish collections of new poetry will publish about one a year. These will usually lose money and be cross-subsidised by other publishing.

There are more poetry publishers overseas, especially in the US and the UK. But they will almost always only consider publishing your work if you’ve already published a collection in your own country, and a few poems in magazines in their country.

Every writer starts by getting poems published in poetry magazines. No one ever, ever, ever starts with a collection. Well, unless they publish it themselves, but then you’re missing that stamp of approval, evidence of the quality of your work, that having someone else invest in it brings.

You need to find good literary magazines that publish poetry (and other forms of writing). If you’re thinking of submitting work to any of them, there are a few golden rules to follow. As a poetry editor, it’s very easy, and very annoying, to see when someone hasn’t followed these rules. Annoying the poetry editor is the best way to reduce your chances of getting published.

  1. Always read at least one whole issue of a magazine before submitting work to it. If you can’t find the magazine in a bookshop, write to the magazine and ask for a copy, or at least for the price and their bank account details. This will prevent you from wasting your time sending them the wrong kind of work. For instance, don’t send love poems in formal metre to a magazine that specialises in alternative theory and experimental literature.
  2. Don’t send too many poems. Each magazine has different guidelines about this. If you don’t know how many poems to send, don’t send more than five (or fewer if they’re longer than a page). Also, don’t include a long explanatory covering letter. The poems are what matter, they should speak for themselves.
  3. If the magazine does not take submissions by email, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). When you post your poems to a magazine, make sure you include a self-addressed envelope, and put a stamp on it. Poetry magazines can’t afford hundreds of stamps. Remember you want to make the editors feel good about you so that they take your work seriously. Remember too that the whole point of submitting your work is to get a response, so make that as easy as possible for the editor.
  4. If you’re submitting by post to a journal overseas, include International Reply Coupons instead of stamps. You can apparently get these from the post office, though you’ll struggle in many developing countries. And if you can’t find them, apologise profusely to the editor of the magazine, and try to make another plan. Even if it’s including a memento of your far-flung country by way of sentimental compensation, and an email address. Oh, and if you’re submitting overseas, mention how you know about the magazine, and that you’ve read it. Magazines with websites get thousands of submissions from people overseas whose idea of poetry-magazine research is quality time with Google or the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook.
  5. Be absolutely sure about the quality of your work. If you aren’t certain that it’s good, it probably isn’t. If you haven’t read a lot of other poetry written in the last hundred years (at least the equivalent of an entire 400-page anthology of different poets; what you read at school doesn’t count), then you won’t know how your work relates to modern poetry. If you don’t know modern poetry, it is impossible to write with confidence. Lack of confidence shows up easily (in clichés, a poor sense of rhythm, slavish adherence to rules or an adolescent ignorance of them, clunky rhymes, overuse or lousy use of line-breaks, archaic language, a tendency to moralise, and so on).
  6. When you receive a rejection letter, send another submission to another magazine as soon as possible. Everyone gets rejected at some stage, and the disappointment can stop you in your tracks. You need to keep moving.

Those are the golden rules. In addition, there are a few things to keep in mind about submitting to magazines:

  • Don’t expect any feedback on your poems, editors don’t have the time.
  • Don’t expect more than a standard, mass-produced rejection or acceptance letter.
  • Don’t expect to get your poems back.
  • Don’t expect to be paid anything (though you’ll usually get at least one free copy of the magazine in which you appear).
  • Expect to wait a long time for a reply to your submission (though feel free to inquire after about two months).
  • Expect it to take even longer from when you are accepted to see the magazine in print.
  • Don’t expect to see page proofs or to be updated on progress before publication.
  • Expect magazines from time to time to make mistakes when typing up your poems; it sucks but it happens.

Some reflections on writing and reading poetry, by Robin Malan

Robin Malan has been helping poets, writers and playwrights grow for many decades. As the Editor of English Alive, he has seen a vast amount of poetry from young people over the last fifty years. In the latest issue of the magazine, his introduction is addressed to those who were not published. It is some of the clearest, most practical advice I’ve read on writing poetry – and, therefore, on getting it published. It is reproduced here with his permission.

This is probably the wrong forum as I really want to talk to those students whose poems were not selected for publication. I hope what I say reaches them somehow.
Most of the poems submitted weren’t really good; in fact, they weren’t really poems. They were prose accounts of things in your life, with the lines just chopped up at various points – sometimes quite arbitrarily – to look like a poem.

Poetry is more than that. You must offer some insight you’ve had into an experience in life. You must have seen, heard, smelled, thought something that was quite extraordinary, what people like to call a Wow! moment.

‘That was amazing!’ you say to yourself. ‘I want to tell someone about it.’ That’s the beginning of a poem. You use words, sounds, rhythms, lines on a page to transmit the experience you have had to someone else. But you do it in a different way from writing everyday prose. You tell them about A not in a literal way, as scientific truth, but in a non-literal way, as imaginative truth, by comparing A to B: ‘A is like B because they have this in common’ or even by saying ‘A is B’, and then our imagination has to see the common ground.

My favourite example is Humbert Wolfe’s little poem called ‘The squirrel’, in which he describes the squirrel as a ‘little grey coffee-pot’. The reader’s imagination finds what’s common to the two things: their shape. There must be something we can all relate to. It wouldn’t work if the line was ‘Little grey lamp-post’: there’s just nothing in common.
Let’s use an example of how poetry works from the English Alive 50 anthology. In 1999 Chris Honey of St John’s College wrote this poem (I’ll quote it in sections just for the sake of making my point; I’d never do that otherwise!):

Poetry ain’t easy

But it’s not as easy here
By the sea, and poetry ain’t easy.
In a stuffy room with music it’s easy.

Today the sea taught me a lesson I want to tell.
But in the presence of reality
I feel underqualified for this grand task:
To put the taste of the salt
And the sound of the wash
And the fiery Berg wind
And the scalding sea-sand
On to the paper.

So that’s what he wants to do: he wants to tell someone about the taste of the salt and the sound of the wind and the feel of the sand. (He’s already started to do that: the fiery wind, the scalding sand.) He decides he can’t do it using any easy ready-made formula:

Mind to the grindstone
Hand to the style guide
Pen to paper
Is not how it should be.

So, look at what he does, instead:

Instead I sprint across the beach
Which seems ignited by the sun,
Carries me to the closest lick of a wave
And lets me ice my feet.

Now, that’s poetry! The beach is ignited by the sun – there’s the closest lick of a wave – and that lets me ice my feet.

You’ve had an experience that’s so special that you want to tell it to someone; then you have to find an imaginative way to put it across to a reader or listener.

Then you look at the form of the poem: Is the structure right? Does it need stanzas? What sort of line-lengths? Is the rhythm appropriate? Is anything gained by using rhyme? (There usually isn’t, so don’t get hung up about rhyme.)

How do you learn to do this, and to do it well? Well, like anything else, you have to practise doing it: write, write, write. And then re-write, re-write, re-write.

Look at one of the most polished and professional poets of his generation, Philip Larkin: there are 21 drafts of his poem ‘Church going’, carefully filed and dated, between April and August 1954. He worked on it, changed it, revised it 21 times over three months.

But also – and this is the real point of this editorial – you have to read poetry: read, read, read.

It sounds, from much of the poetry that was submitted, that you’ve never read any other poems. Why’s that? One reason is that ‘in the old days’ education departments or schools prescribed a whole anthology of poems and each student had a copy of that anthology. It contained not only the poems prescribed but a whole lot of other poems by a wide variety of poets. So, students could read lots of different kinds of poems by different poets. I can’t prove what I’m going to say next, so let me hide behind the phrase ‘it has come to my attention’ that teachers/schools now buy one copy of the anthology and then photocopy just the prescribed poems. So students never see any other poems.

That’s sad, because it’s by reading poems that you discover (nobody tells you – you discover) which poems are good and which are not so good and which are plain bloody marvellous! That’s how you develop ‘taste’.

The more good poems you read, the more good poems you will write. So, read, read, read, and write, write, write. And … enjoy it.

(Oh, btw, I see that much of what I have said about poetry is also true about the kind of prose we like to see from you.)


If you are a school teacher or learner, see the English Alive website to find out how your school can submit poetry and prose for publication.


Call for entries: English Academy Awards 2013

The English Academy has put out a call for entries for its prestigious literature prizes. If you’re very, very serious about your poetry in South Africa, these are the awards to aim for. However, note that you cannot enter yourself. Your work must be entered by the editor of a journal. This is another reason it’s important to get even one poem in a magazine or journal. That way, you’d be in line for these wonderful awards.

Olive Schreiner Prize

The Olive Schreiner Prize is presented to honour new talent. It is conferred for excellence in prose, poetry and drama, and devoted to one of these categories each year. In 2013 it will be awarded for POETRY (an anthology by a single author) published and/or produced in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Sol Plaaitjie Prize

It is awarded for excellence in translation of a literary text of at least 1 000 words (except in the case of poetry which is, of necessity, exempt from the length criterion) in one of the other official South African languages into English. The English text must represent a reasonably accurate translation of the original, while standing as a well expressed literary text in and of itself. Translations published in 2011 and 2012 are eligible.

Thomas Pringle Awards

The awards are for various achievements, attention being turned to different categories each year. Below is the area for achievement which will be honoured in 2013: Education articles published in 2011 and 2012. Poetry in journals or magazines published in 2011 and 2012.

How to enter

The English Academy of Southern Africa invites entries for these prizes from Editors of Journals.

Entrants are asked to submit three copies of their entries to the Academy’s Administrative Officer at P O Box 124, Wits, 2050. Entries must be received by 31 May 2013. Works submitted will be acknowledged but cannot be returned. Each winner receives a cash prize and a certificate. For more information, please contact the Administrative Officer, Sebastian Matroos, on 011 717 9339 (weekdays 09:00-15:00) or at


Colleen Higgs on getting poetry published

Modjaji Books publisher Colleen Higgs has written a useful post on how to publish poetry on BooksLIVE. From her article:

1. Buy and read the work of poets who have had their work published. Do this regularly. See what is hot and happening. Subscribe to AT LEAST ONE literary magazine.
2. Attend live poetry readings – Some South African examples: Off the Wall in Cape Town, Poetry Africa in Durban, the Jozi House of Poetry and the Melville Poetry Festival and the Reddits monthly poetry reading sessions in Grahamstown. Also attend the launches of collections of poetry. You will hear about these by joining the mailing lists of independent bookstores, such as The Book Lounge and Kalk Bay Bay Books in Cape Town; Love Books in Joburg and Ikes in Durban.
3. Send your work to the literary magazines. Google the following names to find their contact details: New Coin, Litnet, New Contrast, Carapace, Dye Hard Press, Incwadi, Baobab Literary Journal, Kalahari Review. There are other literary magazines, and sometimes you can find lists online.

There’s lots more, go read the full piece here.

Writing poetry: “there’s a mission, there’s a goal, and there’s an objective”

Inc magazine has a fascinating piece about William Roetzheim, a very successful serial entrepreneur, and a poet.

Retired at 50, in 2005, Roetzheim made a list of all the things he hadn’t done “because they didn’t pass the litmus tests of, Will this help me in my business pursuits?” First off: writing poetry. But he didn’t want to waste time wandering lonely as a cloud. “I treated poetry the same way I treat everything,” says Roetzheim. “There’s a mission, there’s a goal, and there’s an objective. I even had Microsoft project plans for it.”

For a year, Roetzheim spent six hours a day reading books of and on poetry. He eventually self-published a volume of verse and compiled an anthology, The Giant Book of Poetry, which is taught in colleges across the country. That anthology underwrites the small press Roetzheim founded to publish his work and the work of a dozen other writers.

I like his approach to writing poetry. He takes it seriously, focuses, researches and reads before committing himself, and invests his own time, money and energy into self-publishing before he expects others to invest in him. I think this is a model for most poetry-writers today – and perhaps always has been.

I also don’t think it’s necessary to have his money to do the same thing. Your first self-published collection could be eight poems neatly laid out on two A4 sheets, folded and stapled, and sold for a rand to your family and friends. Start somewhere, but take it seriously.

Read the whole article here.

Allaboutwriting online courses

No matter what kind of writing you’re doing, I’m a big believer in courses. You get the feedback and the pressure you need to do better work. Today I heard about Allaboutwriting, which is run by some very accomplished writers. From their Facebook page:

Allaboutwriting is a partnership between Richard Beynon and Jo-Anne Richards who are passionate about good writing, and have devised their courses to help communicate that passion – plus the skills that make it much more than an academic exercise.
We invite you to join one of our courses either online from anywhere in the world or face-to-face in South Africa.

The face-to-face courses offer you the chance to interact with like-minded writers intent not just on improving their writing skills, but on having fun while doing so. There is nothing quite as collegial as discussing solutions to literary problems with a company of people engaged in the same frustrating, exhausting, exhilarating quest to tell an engaging story as effectively as possible.

The online courses offer you a one-on-one relationship with Richard, Jo-Anne or Mandy which includes personal feedback on all assignments.

We love running these courses for quite selfish reasons. The fact is, during each course, we learn something we didn’t know before – or have insights confirmed by one or other of the participants – or are reminded, repeatedly, of the quite astonishing levels of talent that exist even in people who deny they’re capable of framing a well-balanced sentence.

Which is why we’d love to have you on one of our next courses as you learn the delicate arts of enticing the genie out of the bottle.

Go to to find out more.

Poetry in my postbox: English Alive and Carapace

Two poetry magazines I admire greatly both arrived in my postbox today: English Alive and Carapace.

English Alive is an annual anthology of writing by South African school-goers, and this is the last issue edited by the legendary Robin Malan, who is retiring from the editorship after many years. Robin deserves several lifetime achievement awards for his contribution to South African literature, because for many writers, English Alive is the first place they are published and recognised for their early work.

Go and order your copies on the English Alive site. If you’re at school, you can also find out how to submit your work to English Alive.

Carapace is edited by another giant of South African literature, Gus Ferguson. I believe for consistently high-quality poetry Carapace is unrivalled in South Africa. My subscription to Carapace costs me R200 for six issues, which is ridiculously cheap. (To subscribe, write to PO Box 12020, Mill Street 8010, Cape Town South Africa.) This month’s issue includes writing by a range of top local writers, including Mike Alfred, David Attwell, Sue Clark, Patrick Cullinan, Gail Dendy, CJ Driver and others.

If you aim to one day be published in Carapace, read every issue you can get hold of. You’ll learn a lot from these amazing writers. And, a bonus, Carapace always includes lovely drawings, too.

Self-publishing guidance from the New York Times

I’m a big fan of self-publishing, especially for poetry. Alan Finder in the New York Times has some useful guidance on this. From the article:

Digital publishing and print on demand have significantly reduced the cost of producing a book. The phenomenal growth of e-readers and tablets has vastly expanded the market for e-books, which can be self-published at little or no cost. Writers who self-publish are more likely to be able to control the rights to their books, set their books’ sale price and keep a larger proportion of the sales.

But one thing has not changed: most self-published books sell fewer than 100 or 150 copies, many authors and self-publishing company executives say. There are breakout successes, to be sure, and some writers can make money simply by selling their e-books at low prices. Some self-published books attract so much attention that a traditional publishing house eventually picks them up.

I highly recommend reading the article.

African Poetry Book Fund, The Brunel University African Poetry Prize & Prairie Schooner’s Fusion

I received some interesting news by email recently that you might find useful. It was sent from the Prairie Schooner, where the poet Kwame Dawes is editor: collaborations with African artists, poets, and publishers. Taken straight from the message:

…you might be interested in the establishment of the African Poetry Book Fund, which will allow African writers in English and in translation an unprecedented audience and place of publication.

In addition, we are announcing the Brunel University African Poetry Prize, in association with the African Poetry Book Fund. We also want to note an important collaboration “WOMB,” curated by our managing editor, Marianne Kunkel, and Batswana poet Tj Dema, featuring Batswana artists and poets in the Schooner’s literature and arts series entitled Fusion. …

You might also check out the APBF website: or the Brunel University African Poetry Prize website at

Three kinds of poems

Masonwabe said here recently that he writes lots of poems when he’s hurt or sad. Writing poems is a great way to think through difficult times.

I believe there are three kinds of poems:

  1. Poems we write for ourselves to work through our feelings;
  2. Poems we write to be performed aloud, like on stage; and
  3. Poems we write for other people to read in books or magazines.

Each one requires a very different kind of writing style.

When you write a poem for yourself, you can write using phrases and images that only you understand, or only meaningful to you. Other people reading this poem will see that you are struggling with something, but they won’t feel the same as you do, because your phrases and images are just for you. If I write “She left me feeling like a toffee apple”, you don’t know what I mean. Is it good or bad to feel like a toffee apple? Who knows. I know, because in my mind I know what “toffee apple” means to me and my history. But you have no way of knowing. So my poem will not make you feel anything that makes sense. This poem may be important for me. But I don’t expect you to want to buy it in a book.

When you write a poem for performance, you are writing down the words of a script that you will add to with your voice and your body language when you perform it. These poems are like song lyrics: lyrics written down often don’t make sense. Sometimes they even seem silly when you read them on paper. Only when they are performed do they come alive and make sense. If I’m on stage and I whisper, smiling with my eyes closed, “She left me feeling like a toffee apple”, now you have an idea of what I mean: I felt happy and sweet and maybe even tasty! Performance poems also tend to rely a lot on rhythm and repetition and the poet’s real-life personality.

When you write poems for others to read, you have to write in phrases or images that mean something to other people. You don’t have your voice and body to help you. You can’t use an image that means something to you only. You have to use phrases and images that your reader will identify with; things that they have experienced in their lives; things that everyone feels the same way about. You have to tell a story in your poem that has a clear beginning, middle, and end, so that your readers can follow what you’re trying to explain. If you want your reader to feel sad when they read your poem, you can’t just say ‘I am sad! Really sad!’ Who cares if you say you’re sad? Everyone gets sad. Instead, you have to draw a clear picture in their head that makes them remember something sad in their own lives. Like this: “The Ferris wheel tickets crumpled in my hand. She left me melting in the crowd, dust under my sticky eyes, like a chewed-up toffee apple.”

If you want to get published, you have to write poems intended for others to read.

Before you plan to publish poetry, think carefully about what kinds of poems you are writing.

On taking a course

Acclaimed editor, writer and academic Helen Moffett has some excellent advice for aspiring writers. In a post on BOOKSA, she begins:

Everyone in the book business is familiar with the Sidle Query: you’re at a party, lecture, bar mitzvah, wedding or memorial service when someone sidles up to ask if you have any ideas on how they can get their novel/poetry/memoir published. There are a number of responses: one writer asks, “What are you reading right now?”, and if she gets a blank look, she makes a hasty getaway.

My preferred method is to ask what local authors the Sidler reads, and which local publishers they see as a good fit for their MS. Nine times out of ten I get either the blank look or a frank demurral – “Oh, I don’t read local stuff!”, at which I become very stern, and the unfortunate Sidler scuttles away.

Read the post. Really, read it now.