one learns to play the harp by playing: on submissions

She looks serious. (wikimedia)

She looks serious. “Teika” by Janis Rozentāls (wikimedia)

That’s a paraphrase Aristotle up there in the title: One learns to play the harp by playing.

I have this quote forever pinned to the cork board above my desk. It’s how I learn to write poetry: by writing poetry. It’s how I learn to be a mom to a teenager: by being the mom of a teenager. It’s my comfort: knowing I can only learn to do something by doing it, which inevitably means making mistakes and picking up knowledge as I go. Which inevitably means looking back from time to time and realizing how much I didn’t know back then, back then, and back then.

It’s also how I learn to submit poems to literary magazines. O, by playing. Yes, by striking wrong notes, practicing till my fingers bleed, building up callouses and having them split open again. But after four years of submitting poems on a regular basis, I’m finally to the point where I can breeze through the scales, play some songs by heart, tackle more ambitious pieces. The callouses generally hold.

So I thought I’d write a few posts about submissions over the next little while, sharing a bit of what I’ve learned, am learning.

Today I’ll cover a couple of hurdles—those obstacles that kept me from beginning to submit poems at all—and how I eventually cleared them.

hurdle: how do I know when a poem is finished? (and therefore ready to send out)? I find it adorable that I ever thought a poem could be declared finished. I’m with Paul Valéry, who said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. (Frankly, I’ve often felt a poem abandoned me #justsayin). Over time, by continuously drafting, revising, resting, and re-revising poems, I’ve learned that a poem may never feel finished, but that doesn’t mean it’s not send-out-able. I’ve found it’s more helpful for me to think of “send-out-able” than “finished.” I’ve learned a poem can be revised even after it’s in print; not on the page where it exists in the published version, of course, but in future incarnations (perhaps in a collection, in an anthology, etc.). To wit, Marianne Moore famously revised her poem “Poetry” over the course of 50 years.

So clearing the first hurdle meant forgetting the idea of finished and embracing the idea of send-out-able.

(Note that I am not even wading into the waters of “How do I know if it’s good?” I am of the Merwin school of thought on this).

hurdle: fear of rejection  This was not a huge hurdle for me, since by the time I started sending out poems I knew rejection was just part and parcel of being a writer. However, having some data around rejection helped me to feel freer about submitting.

Shortly after I began submitting, I read an article in which a writer who I admired was quoted as saying that even a 10% placement rate is really solid. Knowing that for each submission I sent out there is (at least) a 90% chance of rejection makes me feel like there is less at stake for each individual submission.

Armed with the 10% statistic, acceptances became pleasant surprises rather than hoped-for results. It also helped me see that—as every seasoned writer I know says—submitting is a numbers game. The more you send out, the better your chances of placing something somewhere. Ten percent on 3 submissions could mean zero pubs; ten percent on 50 or 100 and you’ve got a much better shot at some publications.

So each time I send out a sturdy little pile of poems, I have a conversation with it: Sturdy Little Pile, chances are you’re not going to make it, but hey, we’ll give it a shot. And I believe in you either way. Very freeing!

Okay, that seems like enough for one day. The next hurdles I’ll cover (who knows when, but sometime soonish) are:

  • what do I send? and
  • where do I send it?

6 thoughts on “one learns to play the harp by playing: on submissions

  1. Pingback: one learns to play the harp by playing: on submissions, part two | the stanza

  2. Pingback: submissions: on being in the ballpark | the stanza

  3. I think it’s extremely unlikely that any poets submitting through the slushpiles will approach a 10% acceptance rate. Once you’re well-known enough that you’re being accepted as much for your name/reputation as for your work, maybe. Of course, it depends a lot on what types of markets you are submitting to. Most of us could probably submit 1000 poems to Poetry/The New Yorker and never get an acceptance. And many other places receive hundreds (or more) of submissions PER MONTH…the math doesn’t work out for everyone to get a 10% acceptance rate.

    Just wanted to put this out there so that anyone reading wouldn’t get disgusted and discouraged if their acceptance rate falls well below 10%…

    • Yes — 10% would be a very good rate. Many of us can expect to have lower. Thanks for pointing this out– I’ll go back to the original post and clarify. And thanks for reading and commenting!

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