Saturday, 12 March 2011

Advice on getting poetry published

I spent the afternoon at the Discovery Centre in Winchester (library to me and you) listening to an immensely helpful talk by Neil Astley, the editor of Bloodaxe Books. They have a new anthology out called Being Human, which looks excellent, but he was really talking about how the poetry publishing world works and how it's evolving in the digital age. First, he quoted Adrian Mitchell who said
'Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people' 
As he started out in the poetry publishing world he found most poets being published were the same group of mostly male, mostly Oxbridge educated poetry. After the explosion of European and American creativity in the 1960's, the 1970's had closed down into a very small, insular world. In 1978, Neil founded Bloodaxe Books. The company has gone on to publish more female and ethnically diverse poets than any other imprint: and more than 1000 poetry books in total. The 2002 anthology Staying Alive has sold a staggering 200,000 copies to date. Being Alive, the sequel, was published in 2004 and the last in the trilogy, Being Human is published in March 2011.

Bloodaxe publishes 30-35 new titles a year and receives 100 poetry book submissions a week. They have to balance supporting their existing authors with developing new talent, a tough job. Astley still reads at least a sample of every submission, and the best ones he reads a number of times. Many published books start as unsolicited manuscripts arriving in the post.

He approaches a new submission as a reader first, looking at:
  • Subject matter - he suggests that life, death, earth, love and humanity are good starting points.
  • Breadth of vision
  • Creative use of language
  • An original, consistent and authentic voice
  • A lively communication between intellect and emotions.
Then he looks at the technical writing skills in the collection. Too many poets haven't edited, honed and polished their writing.

He suggested that sending in a complete book was the last thing you should do. Instead, consult with the Poetry Library and read online samples of magazines. Start sending batches of poems off. He suggested you can't send a poem off to more than one magazine at a time BUT if you have a large collection, you can make multiple submissions of 'samples' to different publishers for them to follow up if they like you.

He suggested four main reasons for poets not getting published:
  • They are not widely read. Poets need to learn by immersing themselves in a  variety of poetry. Many submissions are rhymed, for example, with little attention to whether they scan. Or they sound like they were written 100 years ago. He suggests reading widely in contemporary poetry.
  • The submission is premature. the poems are still raw, and untested in the world of magazines and chapbooks. Poems need time for you to see all the areas for improvement. Get people to read and critique your poems before sending them out. Don't send brand new stuff out.
  • The poet didn't research the publisher. Read magazines, read books. Approach the publishers of poets you admire and perhaps have informed your own work.
  • The poet didn't learn the craft of poetry, however inspired he/she is. Many poets need to learn their craft and test it against feedback. He recommended courses, groups, the Arvon courses, Ty Newydd, university study. Many poets have been helped by being mentored by poets who also teach.
He also talked about working towards having a pamphlet or chapbook published, which is easier and is probably the next step. If you are reading and promoting your own book, you can also consider self-publishing and he warned against getting confused with vanity publishers. No-one gets rich writing poetry. He pointed out, few poetry books sell over 1000 copies and the poet makes little money out of the whole adventure.

I found the whole talk inspiring because he was so pragmatic about the process, emphasising that he wants to hear that new voice, those new poems, and encouraging the poets in the room to progress with their writing. More than anything, I was left with the impression that he's still, after more than 30 years, passionate about poetry.


  1. Yes, I would have found the talk inspiring too, my first love is poetry, have had some published, but sadly don't have time to write this any more. Maybe one day.

  2. I believe poetry should be read and understood by everyday people too - if it's too highbrow and most people can't understand it, why write it?I write poetry and stories too and love to read. Found your blog very interesting indeed - thank you.
    BC, Canada

  3. Absolutely Vi, some poetry does come across as so obscure it can only have some meaning for the poet! And thank you for the kind words.

  4. As a British American who has done a reverse immigration and become an American Brit (sorry, Canadians, really I should say British US person and the other way round), I find this article extremely interesting and useful. There is another aspect, which is that some of us (yes, I am in this group) love writing and editing and reading or performing our poetry, and though we would like to publish and get our poetry out there for others to enjoy, our dominant thinking style doesn't really enjoy the systematic, repetitive monitoring behaviour involved in submitting. It would be great if we had people who like doing this to do it for us, but that doesn't seem likely. So, what I do is submit when I feel moved by a particular publication or competition and I don't do it regularly. I have won two regional poetry competitions in excellent areas with really good poets (Cambridge Mass and Santa Fe NM)and published in unusual places (see below) Self-publication of a book really appeals to me as a way of having control over the cover and layout, typography and so on; however, you have to want to do that work and also the distribution (more repetitive monitoring behavior, argh!) I am a member of Fire River Poets in Taunton ( so we have a few poems each online. I like to publish in places where non-poets can read my work. For example, recently one was published in Wise Brain Bulletin December issue p 17 ( because it was inspired partly by the person who does the website, Rick Hanson and I sent it to him as a matter of interest; he actually asked me if he could publish it, which I was not expecting. It's for people interested in mindfulness and neuroscience. I received an email from someone saying that she'd been suicidal and my poem helped save her life (still don't understand why)! That sort of "making a difference" is a good feeling. I'm going to keep checking back on your blog. It seems really helpful. Thank you. Hannah S. Wiseheart

  5. Hi Reb - am just re-reading your blog - my poetry is on hold while I have a go at writing books - writing them is a good way to hone my skills and I've learnt a lot - getting them published is another problem! Anyway, I wanted to say I used to live in Ilfracombe! I love Ilfracombe and still have good friends there. I hope to come back to the West Country in the next few years. I hope your course is going well and soon you will be home with your family. How many cats do you have? I currently have 9 cats and a dog! As I can only bring 5 back into the UK I can't come home yet! I have to wait for a miracle! I love your blog and wish you all good things in life. Vida

  6. Thank you, Hannah, and congratulations on getting your work out there. 'Guerilla publishing' seems like the way to go, get poetry out there where people don't expect it as well as the all the establishment places. I'm still conflicted about self publishing but I can see the appeal of having some control!

    Hi Vida, I do love Ilfracombe, my four cats love it too, we're out towards Lee bay so the cats just pick a sunny spot and vegetate! Hope you get your wish to come back to the West Country, North Devon needs creative people!