Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Little Love Letter to the Poet’s Market

The other day I got my contributor’s copy of the 2018 Poet’s Market. I’ve had articles in the past six editions on topics like chapbook design and the “anatomy of a book*.”  In this new one I have an article, “Coming Unstuck: 10 Techniques to Break Out of a Poetry Rut.” It’s basically 10 prompts to trick yourself into writing poetry by springboarding off news stories, stolen dialogue, and torrential floods of words to shake yourself loose from old conventions, topics, and voices that might have you bored or stymied. I’ve written a lot of how-to pieces for writers over the years, and I can honestly say that this was the most fun I’ve ever had writing an article.

There’s this book
Writing for the Poet’s Market always feels a little surreal because that book was such a fixture in my house when I was a young writer. Back in the 1990s, when I began to get serious about sending my writing to literary journals, the internet wasn’t quite a thing yet. So to research journals, I’d visit local bookstores and scour their magazine racks. Even then, the “literary” section was usually small**—maybe a couple dozen journals and zines, some letterpressed, some tiny and odd-shaped, along with the big ones everybody knew about, like The Paris Review and Ploughshares. I bought as many as I could afford, took them home, and studied them. If I thought one might be a good fit for my work, I’d mail them a request for their guidelines, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope, and wait.
            Around that time I was also taking a series of creative writing night classes. One night the teacher mentioned that there were many, many other literary journals out there that I’d never find at a local bookstore. But, she said, there was one place that listed hundreds of them: a thick book called the Poet’s Market.
            If you’re a writer my age, you probably remember this drill: I bought a copy of the Poet’s Market and pored over that thing, night after night, dog-earing its newsprint pages and penciling stars next to journals that looked right for my work. (I still have a muscle memory of turning those pages and drawing those stars, and I can picture the bedroom where I sat up and did it, my cat asleep in the sock drawer.) Then I started sending away for sample copies—because, again, in those pre-internet days there was no way to get a good feel for a journal other than buying a copy and looking at it. That cost some money, but I had a job and I figured it helped support the journals.
            Over the next couple of years, I amassed a bookcase full of sample copies. I studied each one carefully and came up with a rating system using colored labels*** that I stuck on the spines:

• Blue = blue chip, top drawer, probably too good for the likes of me.
• Red = mid-tier, decent quality, niche-y or regional, well worth trying.
• Black = dreadful, amateurish, offensive, needlessly baffling, and/or hastily bound by brads****.

Of course I tried for some of those blue chips, but I pretty much lived in the red zone. My first few publication credits (for the record: Rattle, Faultline, and, strangely, Asimov’s Science Fiction) were a direct result of all that Poet’s Market research.

Where’s the “find” on this thing?
So…fast-forward 20+ years. Now that we have the internet, an actual physical book listing all those literary journals—something that can’t be updated daily and has no “search” field—is obsolete, right? Well, not in my house. Although I always check a journal’s website for their most current guidelines, I still keep a copy of the Poet’s Market on my desk and grab it whenever a little niggling question comes to mind, like whether a journal is quarterly, or whether it’s the one associated with that university, or whether they regularly nominate for Pushcarts or whatever. I like having all that info in a book that I can quickly leaf through without having to turn on an electronic device. I also like seeing the stats that some journals put in their Poet’s Market listings, like response times, reading periods, and acceptance rates. There’s so much about the poetry biz that can’t be quantified (and indeed, most of the “stats” are only ballparks at best), but my numbers-loving brain likes to compute stuff like that. Of course, there are online sources for such things (Duotrope, notably, and the Poet's Market also offers an online database you can access with a code inside the front cover). But in my quiet office, I like to commune with a big book now and then. And the browsing can’t be beat; when I’m looking up the Brown Spot Quarterly, I may stumble across the Brass Knuckle Review or Bruin’s Lunch, which I might never have found otherwise.
            I admit that I don’t send away for as many sample copies as I used to, and that’s a sad result of the internet age. Although I still pick up literary journals wherever I find them—bookstores, writers’ conference, book fairs—I imagine those journals don’t make much revenue anymore from sample-copy sales. And of course the whole landscape is changing, the old paper/subscriber paradigm morphing into online journals and—well, I don’t know what will come next. I used to be in the magazine business, and we had a hard time figuring out how to stay afloat with advertising dollars shifting to digital. And now there are a lot of great online journals, with editors seemingly working with the goodness of their hearts and little else. Change, change. The Poet’s Market now includes listings for many of those web-only journals as well as print ones.

Full circle
So it was only natural when, a few years ago, I responded to a call for articles for the Poet’s Market. (In addition to all the journal/publisher listings, the Market always has a section of useful articles on everything from formatting your manuscript to sniffing out scam contests.) By then I’d been doing a lot of writing for writers, as well as blogging, and I had notes and ideas for articles on all sorts of topics. I pitched a few to the Poet’s Market editor, Robert Lee Brewer, and he accepted one called “10 Chapbook Design Tips Every Poet Should Know*****.” I had a blast writing it, and I’ve got to say, it was a special thrill to see my article in that book that I’d turned to for help for so many years. This year marks the sixth edition I’ve had an article in the Poet’s Market. It’s still a thrill, every time.

* I got the idea for the “anatomy of a book” article when a friend’s publisher asked her to check the galley proofs of her upcoming book. She called me in a panic because she had to turn the proofs around in 24 hours, but she’d just received the package and was surprised to find that it was a big pile of loose papers. She couldn’t tell what was a left page or a right, some pages were blank, and she had no idea whether the legalese text on the copyright page was correct. Having worked in book publishing for many years, I’d probably checked 100 sets of proofs of like that, so I drove over and went through the pages with her. It had never occurred to me how confusing a loose galley like that might look to an author who’d never seen one before.

** The exceptions were Kepler’s in Menlo Park and A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, both of which stocked an amazing array of literary journals. God bless them both.

*** I made these from cut-up address labels, hand-colored with magic markers, which gave them that faintly poopy smell of old felt pens. Later I found some metallic colored stars that teachers stick on students’ papers. I used those for a while, but I missed the down-home, smelly, hand-colored ones. I also stuck a Post-It note inside the cover of each journal with general impressions (“Brilliant,” “Too show-offy,” “Great poems on pgs 57 & 128,” “Would gaze at its navel if it had one”) and, if I liked it, titles of poems of mine that seemed like a good fit.

**** To be fair, “held together by brads” isn’t necessarily bad. I’ve seen some kick-ass journals and zines bound this way, as well as an excellent chapbook by Eugene poetry legend Erik Muller called Cinema of the Steady Gaze.

***** That idea, I’m sorry to say, was spawned by seeing a lot of bad choices in chapbooks, like maddeningly small type, cramped back covers, and scary author photos.