I’ll be your poetry agent, if you’ll be mine

Dana said on Facebook (no idea how to link to Facebook posts):

Rather than clamoring to get our own work into journals, we should clamor to get other people’s work published.

I responded:

I totally agree with you, Dana. I’ve been thinking about this very issue recently. I’m not sure we are the best submitters of our own work, for a variety of reasons.

Why aren’t we the best submitters of our own work? Because it’s hard for us to see past it. We easily become overly-enamored and overly-identified (or, sometimes, overly-disenchanted) with our own work and therefore don’t always assess the publication we are targeting as a home for our work realistically. Because we are stressed, overwhelmed by ever-burgeoning possibility, blindly optimistic, or just humbly (and crazily) always hoping for the best, letting the chips fall where they may, since one never knows, after all… etc, etc.

I submit that it’s much easier for a third, more detached, person to accurately gauge the connection (or lack thereof) between a submission and the target journal. Of course, you would want that third person to have the skills & knowledge necessary for such gauging, and you would want them to have a demonstrated understanding of what you are trying to accomplish with your work. But find all that, and I predict that your publication rate will soar, if someone else starts submitting on your behalf.

This is what poets should do: poets should pair up. You submit my stuff and I submit yours. I steep myself in your stuff, and you steep yourself in mine. I scour the field with your stuff in mind, and you, vice versa. At the end of 3-6 months, we compare notes. What’s the publication score? Is this partnership working for both of us, or working at all? Should we continue or call it quits?

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12 thoughts on “I’ll be your poetry agent, if you’ll be mine

  1. dana says:

    I was actually thinking of this in a different way in my post on Facebook. I see many poets who are so caught up in their work, their careers, their advancement — maximizing their own distribution. It would be nice to see a shift in focus to the work we love, the work that energizes and nourishes us. And to act accordingly by submitting those people’s work without any suggestion, pretense or expectation that they would in turn submit ours.

    The “I submit yours, you submit mine” model — while valid and perhaps effective as you state — isn’t what I was getting at because it is as self-serving, in the end, as submitting one’s own work.

    I also don’t know that I would be any more effective when submitting other people’s work than when I submit my own. I would be making those submissions out of love and gratefulness, not because of my stellar sense of pairing their work with a potential journal.

    Having said that, my own success rate on my submissions hangs around 80 percent or so. I don’t submit often, but I try to be thoughtful when I do. I would like to think I would give that same thought to submitting the work of others.

  2. Many thanks for the clarification, Dana – it’s an interesting topic, with myriad potential approaches. I’m glad we’ve identified at least two! Best, Nic

  3. Rose Kelleher says:

    True. The challenge is finding the right person to swap with. The poets I most admire are so often feckless and disorganized when it comes to submitting, and I wouldn’t want to rely on them for that. Also, they don’t necessarily admire my work as much as I admire theirs.

    Last year I was one of a several people who collected and indexed the poems of the late M.A. Griffiths (http://ramblingrose.com/grasshopper/) a brilliant poet who rarely sent anything out. Her posthumous collection will be published by Arrowhead Press this fall. It gives me great satisfaction to think that I helped in some small way to bring that about. You don’t have to be a great poet to serve the Muse.

    • Yes, the matchmaking would be the hardest part. Maybe someone should start a Submissions Swap website, where clear minimum expectations for a swap program are laid out and interested poets indicate their willingness to participate and work with a submissions partner. (It occurs to me that having responsibility for someone else’s submissions may be just what those feckless and disorganized submitters need to mend their ways!)

  4. rosekelleher says:

    p.s. I can’t believe I said “serve the Muse.” That sounds SOOOO pretentious, and now I can’t edit my post. Somebody shoot me.

  5. What a wonderful discussion!

    I teach a little poetry workshop in a bookstore and relentlessly encourage the participants to read the literary magazines before they submit, etc. But when I see a good match between a poem and a journal, I write it on the poem itself, as part of the critique. They know they should order a sample copy or read the journal online, etc., do the homework, but it’s nice to be able to guide them to the right place. I love it when somebody guides me, too! And I love the generosity of spirit expressed in your discussion.

    But I do think there’s a fine discipline and responsibility in sending out one’s own work, and in knowing where to send because we are actually reading those journals. That’s an important reciprocity. Send to a journal you read! Read the journal that publishes you.

    Also, if we have worked hard writing the poems and seeking out their proper homes, we can feel so good about having our poems live there!

  6. I like it when anybody serves the muse

  7. Totally fascinating idea!

    We could all invent alter egos and be our own literary agents (I’m thinking of Carolyn See’s “Making a Literary Life), complete with faux-branded stationery.

    But anyway to promote eachother and share the small but very bright spotlight…count me in. There is enough room for everyone, and because of this, it is good to cheer extra loud for what resonates with us.

  8. James says:

    You raise an interesting point about the way we as writers see our own work. I’m frequently surprised when I send the standard 3-5 poems to editors and then they chose the 1 or 2 that I thought were the least likely to be chosen. Sometimes, they’re even the ones I added as “filler” just to round out a submission. It makes me realize I often don’t have a clear idea of which of my poems is most likely to resonate and the ones about which I’m least excited may be the ones that best speak to someone else.

  9. [...] 1, 2010 at 10:05 am (whale sound) (Part 1; Part [...]

  10. [...] been interested in the question of third-party submissions. I remain convinced that we as poets are not the best submitters of our own work for a variety of reasons, which is partly why I instituted the practice of accepting third-party [...]

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