More thoughts on success.

After I had achieved some publication ‘success’ recently, a poet friend sent me an e-mail of support and congratulation, saying that the recognition was well deserved. I wrote back and thanked him, saying that it made me grin to receive such thoughts and good wishes. He replied with these words.

‘You’re my mate but even if you weren’t I would be pleased for you as I admire your work. Your success does not diminish mine.’

This seems to me to be a very wise position, a reflection of a state of mind that is not, perhaps, easily obtained or maintained.

Here an alternative, and I suspect, common response;

You see, it should have been me.
It could have been me.
Everybody knows, everybody says so.

Morrissey, We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful

I suppose it might be easier to feel magnanimous towards the achievements of others if one has achieved some measure of ‘success’ oneself; I’ve written about what might constitute success in poetry before, but to summarise, this is generally taken to mean publication in a magazine, placement in a poetry competition, an invitation to read, acceptance of a manuscript for a pamphlet or book.

All these rare and wonderful things can externally verify, at least temporarily, your existence as a poet. And when none of the above individual or combined confirmations of your poet-self are happening, one response might be to envy the ‘successes’ of others.

‘A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.’
Proverbs 13:40

Envy and jealousy are understandable human responses, and I’m sure we’d all rather be immune to the occasional encounter with ‘the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on’  when someone else in our sphere does ‘well’ .

But when considering the nature of external success in poetry (as opposed to ‘internal’ success another matter which I’ll try to pin down later in this piece) there are few things it might be worth bearing in mind.

Firstly, if all or most of the work you are sending out is being returned to you without offers of publication, you are in the majority. There are a lot of people submitting work and only a small minority can be published. That doesn’t mean that this will always be the case. And there are many possible reasons for this. One possibility (and a difficult one to accept) is that perhaps your work isn’t ready yet. Perhaps your poem needs a tweak or even a re-write. One or two clunky lines or even a word could be enough to put the editor off. There is also the question of originality. Editors read thousands of poems and many are adept at spotting something they have seen before and possibly done better. I imagine the only way to know if this is the case is to read as much poetry as you can.

Secondly, you may have sent your poem to the ‘wrong’ publication. If the editor doesn’t favour the sort of work you write then you have reduced your chance of publication. It is their prerogative to publish what they like, so you might check that a magazine takes the sort of work you want to send.

Another thing – the editor may have been inundated with quality work and already has enough to fill three issues. Your poems may well have found a place but for the sheer number of quality submissions. That’s the way it goes sometimes. And even when one success or milestone is reached, it doesn’t mean the poet’s trajectory of success will continue ever upward until they are a household name. Each poets engagement with publication is surely undulating and unique.

When it comes to publication, it seems persistence is essential. I’ve written about some of these things in more depth before .

‘Anyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The later takes a good deal more stamina and persistence. ‘
Margret Attwood

The successful poet

The ‘successful’ poet has also, at some point, experienced frustration over not finding a home for their work. They will also have gone through periods of having work returned and in terms of writing, of not being able to write what they want to write. I imagine all good poets are subject to insecurity. And once success is achieved, what then?  The award-winning poet may be wondering, at this very moment, how they wrote their award-winning collection. They may not have written a single poem for eight months. They may be wondering if they will write another poem.

Here is novelist J.K Rowling in a recent interview in the Guardian newspaper

JK ‘…success never feels the way you think it will be. Some people would assume that you’re sitting around feeling simply marvellous and shining your baubles. But I remember, a week after I got my American deal, one of my very best girlfriends rang me and said, “I thought you’d sound so elated.” From the outside, I’m sure everything looked amazing. But in my flat, where I was still a single mum and I didn’t know who to call to do my hair, everything felt phenomenally overwhelming… I now felt: “The next book can’t possibly live up to this.” So I managed to turn this amazing triumph into tragedy, in the space of about five days…You did the thing that felt natural, and then you’re put in this position where it feels very unnatural. You’re trying to reconnect with this thing that felt normal five minutes ago.’


The audience for poetry is not on the same scale as the audience for other forms of literature. Even award-winning poetry collections are often not stocked in bookshops.  Hundreds or maybe thousands of fine poets are not widely known or celebrated, even by other poets. I’m not sure if it helps to remember this when one is feeling un-noticed- but it might.

I know a brilliant, articulate woman who reads the entire short list for various book prizes. She is never without a novel or set of short stories in her bag. When I told her my poetry book was short listed for a prize she was delighted for me, but said she really isn’t into poetry.

If one measure of success is reading to audiences, then few poets are able to regularly command a packed house in a large auditorium or theatre. Reading poetry to an audience, in my experience, often involves travelling, sometimes large distances, usually on a pitch black evening of torrential rain in February to read to ten people in a church hall or a room above a pub. That’s not to say it isn’t a privilege and a joy to read to anyone who will listen – on the contrary, once one has learnt to enjoy reading, it is a wonderfully affirming experience. And some of the more intimate readings I’ve been involved in or attended have been the most memorable.

Internal Success

This, for someone who writes poems, could be defined as writing a poem and being, at some point in the shifting and sifting process,  pleased that this poem has chosen you to set it down; the feeling that you have done the emotion or idea some justice, that an image, a line break pleases you. It might be knowing that this is the poem you want to write, the poem you are trying to write. It might be the moment of surprise when you find you have written the poem you didn’t know you were going to write and perhaps needed to write. Internal success could be defined as losing and maybe finding yourself in writing the poem that is, for now, as good as you can possibly make it.

However you may define it, I wish you success.

Maya Angelou








Where can I send my poems? Part 2

Yes, you are a brilliantly creative person who writes wonderful poetry.
We both know that.

You're Awsome

But if you want anyone to see your work  (and there are many good reasons for having work published, as expertly pointed out by Helena Nelson here,) you must approach the submissions process systematically and methodically.

Here’s a few more words on submitting poems to magazines. It’s fairly basic information but I  hope someone might find useful.

Find out what’s out there.


This will take some time but the internet has made research fairly easy. For the UK and Ireland,  The Poetry Library has a good list of both print and online magazines. They also publish a list of magazines they have received in any given month, and I like to have a look and see if there are any titles I don’t know, and to see which poets are being published where. The Poetry Kit also has a good list. Poet bloggers produce lists of current magazines. You can find a really good one  at Abigail Morley’s blog. Poets also post lists of places they have been published on their websites.

Bear in mind that no list can ever be absolutely inclusive or right up to date since editors’ change and small poetry magazines come and go. The good news is that while some magazines disappear, new ones (both print and on-line) appear all the time. Look at the acknowledgements in the books and pamphlets of the poets whose work you admire to see which magazines have taken their work. If you are lucky enough to be able to visit the Poetry Library on the South Bank or the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh you will find a massive range of magazines.


University libraries often keep a good selection. You might have friends who subscribe to poetry magazines. If you see something you like, borrow, buy or better still, subscribe. You might also find a good selection in your local independent bookshop (Five Leaves in Nottingham deserves a special mention here.)

If you live in the middle of nowhere, most magazines, even the small ones, have a website where you should find some of the basic stuff you need.  You can also keep an eye out for new magazines on social media.

Where would you really like to be published?

Have a closer look. Identify magazines that look interesting to you.
Are the poems the kind you write or aspire to write? Are the production standards high? Does the whole outfit strike you as well run and serious? Was the website last updated in 1998?  Does the magazine have clear submission guidelines?  Is the information attractively laid out and clearly written? Does the language put you off (eg. too formal/ too informal?)  Are there examples or indications of the type of work the editors prefer to see?

poetry  magazine

Make a list of magazines you are really interested in . It is not always easy to decide if the magazine is right for your work. If it’s not immediately obvious to you what sort of work they prefer
then  don’t spend too long in trying to figure out a particular editor’s preferences; look to see what they generally publish, and if you like the look of at least some of the work in the magazine, have a go, even if it’s a really ‘top flight’ magazine.

Some people advocate a ‘start at the lower end and work on up’ approach. By ‘lower end ‘ I mean the smallest magazines as opposed to the ones most established. Again, established is debatable term, but in this in context I mean those that most poets would like to be featured in.   But it might be an idea to spread your submissions across a range of publications. It seems reasonable that if you only send to the ones that everyone want’s to be in, you will receive more returned poems than if you aim a little lower. With the advent of the internet and the seeming increase in the number of people wanting to publish their poems,  small magazines can become bigger magazines very quickly. But you will never receive an acceptance from a magazine you love and aspire to be in unless you submit to it. And you can sometimes learn from having your poems returned, particularly if the editor takes the time to write something in response to your work (see below.)

Sometimes, it will be obvious that a particular publication is wrong for your poems. There is no point in getting rejections from ‘The Journal of Experimental Boiled Egg Related Verse’ if your poems are neither boiled egg related nor experimental. Editors are allowed to have preferences. Their taste may well differ from yours. That’s OK. They might even like different TV programs and types of sweets to you. Do you like the magazine? If you don’t like what they publish then don’t send them your stuff. Send it somewhere you do like instead. But revisit magazines too. They change and get better.

 Be good at the basics

Check guidelines with care. Find out the editor’s name. If it is available use it in your e-mail or letter. Does the magazine have a submissions window? Do they specify a maximum number of submissions? Any special requirements (font type, SAE only, e-mail subs, poems in the body of the e-mail or attachment?) Is there some indication of how long a response might take (for various reasons, these are not necessarily accurate reflections of the response time, and in some cases are rather optimistic estimates.)

Review your poems and put them into groups for submission.   You might select poems that some your versatility or put sequences together. I can think of one or two magazines that state that they like sequences, but generally this is up to you. Reread to make sure they are as you want them and free of mistakes.



A covering  letter should be brief. I understand that editors have preferences. Some are interested in and enjoy reading personal information, others do not. I think it best to keep your biographical details short.  Ending the letter with ‘Yo, big up to you bro’ is probably not appropriate (particularly if the editor is female.)  I always end with something like ‘Thank you for your time and consideration.’ If you truly like something in the magazine you’ve seen you might want to mention it briefly. Everyone likes positive feedback.

If you have publication credits, don’t list them all. Maybe two or three of the ones you are proudest of. You want the editor to focus on your poems. A commended poem in the East Flitwick poetry competition matters a great deal to you. It probably doesn’t matter to the editor.

Before you seal the envelope or send the e-mail make sure your records are up to date. I keep a simple list with the title of magazine and poems submitted and date of submission. Other people have more sophisticated systems such as spread sheets,  and you can’t go wrong with a system such as Jo Bell describes here.

Keep your poems out there. They won’t get published if they are not circulating. And don’t give up on getting into the magazine’s you love. If you are happy to keep your poems at home, fine. If not
set aside a little time every so often to concentrate on the business of sharing them.

Never Give up

But try, if you can, to concentrate on reading and writing new poems while your old ones are away. It is hard to be patient while waiting for responses. The best thing to do is not to wait. (I have just broken away from writing this to run to the front door. Junk mail and bills instead of a response from the editor of ‘The Amazing Singing Machine.’ I sent them may best poems seven months ago. Back to the writing..)

When you have an offer of publication you should be in a position to immediately respond with something like this;

‘Thank you for your letter.  I’m delighted to be able to accept your kind offer to publish my poems in Bottoms up Review.”

Simultaneous submissions can make things complicated. If a magazine doesn’t specifically state that they take them I think it’s best to comply in order to avoid the awkward possibility of telling the editor that your poem has already been accepted elsewhere and that you have wasted their time. It’s a personal choice, but even if a magazine states that they take simultaneous submissions, I tend to avoid them.

Acceptance and publication

Not all magazines send proofs. It’s great if they do. It is probably inevitable that one or two of your poems will not appear as you intended. The editor didn’t leave out the space between your first two stanzas to cause you pain. Mistakes do occur. Humans make them.


Enjoy the moment.  Support the magazine if you can afford to subscribe. Share the news on social media if you feel inclined. If you do share your news, you will find that there are plenty of people who will enjoy and celebrate your success with you.

And success leads to success. Editors read magazines and notice poems and names. Meeting editors at readings may also lead to requests to submit poems (but don’t expect publication to result).

Dealing with rejection (or the ‘returned poem’)


If your poem comes back send it out again. Burn the rejection slip or use it as wallpaper. I’ve thrown all mine away, but I know some people like to keep them. I remember the encouraging ones. I wish I could advise you on how to be good at accepting rejection. I’ve said something about this subject on the Poetry Submissions page of this blog.  There’s probably quite a few books on the subject. I think a little (or a lot) of disappointment is inevitable. Send the poems out again.



Suggested changes and rewrites

There is no obligation for editors to comment on your work. They might have taken a little time to write to you and they see promise in your submission. If your poem is returned with something encouraging like ‘Enjoyed these, please do try us again’ —then don’t ignore this. Try there again. Not everyone receives these comments and they suggest that your work was near to being accepted. If you don’t have other poems ready, wait until you do and then send again, perhaps starting your cover letter with a little reminder such as; ‘thank you for your encouraging response to my last submission. I have enclosed further poems as per your suggestion.’

Different versions

I have, a few times, re-drafted a poem between submission and acceptance. I might then write in my acceptance reply to say I’ve made another version in case the editor would like to consider it.  If they prefer the original, fair enough, that is the poem they accepted.

One of the first poems I submitted was accepted on the proviso that the first two lines were deleted. I agonized over the proposed change and decided I couldn’t do it so politely declined. A year or so later I realised that the editors suggestion had been a good one.

This has to do with how quickly you send your work out after ‘finishing’ it. I have got a little better at putting a poem away and waiting before sending it out.  When you are certain that a poem is as good as it can be, it often pays to wait and come back to it. You will nearly always discover things that can be cut or changed to improve the poem. There are no rules for this. How long this takes depends on the kind of writer you are.

Hare and Tortoise

Some poems will never be exactly as you want them to be. But an editor might like or even love them just the way they are. You won’t know unless you send them off.

Whatever the merits of your work, the chances of it being published in the manner in which you would like it published are improved by organisation and research. Presentation and persistence are vitally important. The choices you make in submitting your work and your responses to the highs and lows of the process, will be, like your poems, unique. But remember, in facing the frustrations, uncertainties, pleasant surprises and triumphs you will encounter,
you will not be alone. It’s all part of the job.