Publishing: is there a right (or wrong) time to begin?

The other day, Michael Dumanis visited my MFA Craft & Theory class to talk about My Soviet Union. We asked him lots of questions that weren't related to the book. Students seem to be hungry for information about professionalization, especially publishing. Michael said something to the effect that it's much easier to get a poem published than it is to write a good poem. I think that boggled more than a few minds.

Students are asking me when they should begin sending their poetry out, and when I started sending mine out, and how that worked out for me. I feel like my experience isn't the most valuable or relevant here, because I didn't send out much while in my MFA program. I didn't like the poems I was writing, or some of the classes that made me write them. I wasn't prescient enough to wonder if the older version of myself would be deathly embarrassed by the poems in print (though I did feel that way when I recently saw my thesis again--yuck). I just didn't do it. But I wasn't the only one. Rabid submitting just wasn't part of the culture yet.

I've written about grad student professionalization in the past, and how abundant publications and other accomplishments are somehow becoming de rigeur. But I think that this question goes way beyond the debate over whether a first-year MFA has more of a right to be published than a third-year. Many people who write spectacular poetry are not in degree programs, and are perhaps not even thinking about this question.

So I ask you, dear readers. Is there a "right time" to begin sending poetry out? Should a writer wait until the poems are good enough for top-tier journals (if ever)? Is it too risky to send work out if it may not be your best? Is it just as valuable to publish work in a local 'zine, or other smaller market, on your journey to fame?

Did you have a right time, or a wrong time?

I don't think that there's a one-size-fits-all answer to this, but I'm interested in hearing what you have to say. I am personally glad that I waited. I look back at my first "bigger" publication, in Indiana Review, and I still like that poem. It doesn't make me want to go vomit in a garbage can. I do, however, wonder how I was ever wild enough to have such a ragged line. Apparently I have become more neurotic over the years, and it may be time to regress. And then send that regression out somewhere.


Jay Robinson said…
Some poets are 'ready' sooner than others, so whether you're a 1st or 3rd year student it shouldn't matter. Sometimes, however, editors publish poems that aren't very good and reject ones that are. In general, MFA programs have increased anxiety over questions of publication and professionalization while making the achievement of such things less and less possible. Horace, I believe, advised we should sit on a poem for ten years without sending it out, or whatever the equivalent in his day would have been. That might be a bit extreme. But I believe it's better to wait, to be frugal rather than saturate the market, and to start small before you try for the big places. I'm glad I didn't try to publish much of what I wrote as an MFA student. It was rather crappy stuff.
Penultimatina said…
I like the idea of sitting on a poem for ten years.

Maybe I will tape one to my chair...
Jay Robinson said…
What kind of poem? A Horatian Ode? Something like, "Lucretius, who misplaced his clavicle"?
Nin Andrews said…
I am the worst judge of my own work. I remember reading that Madeline L'Engle discovered that when she was SURE a story was great, so sure she was smug about it, she was usually wrong. I don't know if she actually said that, but I know I have that experience over and over. I fix stuff up and send it out, and then read it later and cringe. Waiting doesn't nec. help me. I had one editor accusing me of sending him my worst work, and the truth was--it was. Awful. But I had thought it was my best. Add to that, I've published some of my worst stuff, no doubt about it. So I don't know what to say when asked those questions. Publication doesn't prove anything now. Maybe once it did.
Justin Evans said…
I started to submit my poems when I was 19 and in the army. I would sneak into one of the offices and type up my poems on an electric typewriter and make photo copies then send them out to addresses in my 1989 Poets Market, which I thought was my gateway to fame and fortune.

If I hadn't of started then, with my dreadful poems and buick-sized ego, I don't know if I would have ever started sending them out. I mean, I learned the hard way about craft and getting my a** handed to me by an editor.

I received my first acceptance (2 poems)in 1994, and then it was a full three years until I received another (3 haiku and two poems), and then a full three years after that when I started to get my work accepted on a semi-regular basis. For the year 2007, I had exactly three poems accepted. In 2008, I am up to seven.

However, it was the process which forced me to get my craft in gear. Without my rejections in the publishing world, I would have been lazy about craft. I would have never thought I needed to get better and being confronted with the reality of being told to my face (letter to letter, that is) that my poetry was simply not good enough.

Tell your students they have a wonderful opportunity to get their poems out there while they are in school. Thety can learn by both means---workshops and rejections. Tell them to start high and not just where they think a poem will get accepted. In fact, send them out to places certain to reject them. Learn the feel of that sting and get past it.
Justin Evans said…
I know, I know, but this is a genuine concern I have now that I have had a little more timeto think about all of this.

Are your students afraid of rejection? This comes on the heels of my reading and discussing the new generational trends. Are your students afraid to hear from strangers that their poems are not the best things ever written? If so, that is an entirely different conversation to be having with them than the timing thing.

I get the feeling they don't want to be criticized by strangers who have the option of being completly honest. In fact I think it's strange that your students aren't already sending out mountains of poems to make it or break it.

I don't know if I am stepping over some line, but maybe you should ask them about why they aren't already sending poems out; about what is stopping them. If it's a matter of feeling not ready, they should be strapped to a parachute and shoved out the door, kicking and screaming. If it's because they are afraid of criticism, kick them out without the parachute.

Those first 20-30 rejections did one thing for me: They crystalized that my poetry was not ready. I have gone with longer rejection straks than that, but those first were worded in such a way that I knoew where I stood, and it wasn't a matter of finding a fit.

Even today I can sniff out the difference, and while I may be hurt for a few moments, disappointed, part of what makes me a poet is the ability to accept and then look at my own work from an objective (or more objective) point of view.

After 20-30 rejections of crappy poems, your students will start to get a sense of what their best work is and what level they are writing to, and what it's going to take to start getting accepted.
Penultimatina said…
Justin, I think the students are reacting to all of the job market talk about publications, and thinking that they should be publishing, even if they don't feel ready to send their work out.

I always promote rejections as a sort of badge of honor, so hopefully they aren't daunted by that. I received hundreds of rejections when I was just starting out, and I make that pretty clear.

I think it's just all of this pressure in the universe...

Thanks for your thoughts!
JB said…
I graduated from my MFA program over 9 years ago and am now just sending out poems on a "regular" basis. I'm also finally at a place where rejections don't bother me like they used to. It's taken me a long time to get to this place, though. But even though I'm comfortable with sending poems out now, I'm not saturating the market-- only sending out 2-3 submissions a month so that I'm focused on writing rather than publishing, which is ultimately the most important thing to me.
If you don't feel ready to send out work yet, for God's sake don't.

If you do feel ready to send out work, you probably aren't, but nothing I can say will slow you down, will it?

(I was in group 2 early in my writing, and I surely do have the rejections to prove it.)

Aim high, and have a minimum level you won't go below. If you've written enough to get into an MFA program, even if your work is eminently unready for prime time, there are plenty of places that will publish it right now. Don't be tempted.

If professionalization is your concern, get involved in things before you send out. It's tons easier to publish when you know people or work for a recognizable journal. Just sayin'.
Nic Sebastian said…
One thing to consider may be the role publication plays in the creative process, if any. For me, it sometimes feels as if publication has been/is a way of getting over or getting beyond particular modes of writing, or feeling, or obsession. When I get far enough beyond one or the other, I lose interest in persisting in submitting any remaining pieces from that 'period' -- as if publication helps with severing connections and allowing a creative movement forward and beyond...? Or something like that.
Collin said…
I began seriously writing poetry in 1988, but did not begin submitting until 1993. I submitted to small 'zines and journals who I thought were publishing my esthetic. The first poem I ever had published was in the University of Baltimore's "Welter" literary journal. When I look back at that poem, I'm still happy with it.

I sensed a shift in my own writing in 1993, that I was finally finding my own voice and I thought I had a small clutch of poems ready for submitting. I had a few poems published every year in various lit mags and smaller zines up until about 1998 and then I took a break until 2001 and submitted nothing, while I felt my voice was undergoing a second transition. In 2002 I started submitting again and my first book came out in 2003, collecting many of those poems written over the last decade.

I still have some poems I wrote 15 years ago that have potential. One of the poems published recently in MiPO was originally written in the summer of 1993 and finally gelled into something I thought was submission-worthy.
Rachel Dacus said…
I have poems I will never send out, yet I keep them "in the trunk." Sometimes never is the right time. But publishing is an important part of the cultural dialogue of literature. Students and beginning poets need to engage in that real world dialogue. I know some poets who never send anything out, and their poetry never changes.
Jordan said…
Just to echo Nin Andrews: Poets are almost never the first to know about their own work. A close reader can let you know when you've got something.

For me, it's my name on the poem - I want to believe in it (at least) without taking someone else's word for it.

It's never too early (in life, in the history of the poem) to send a poem out, that is, if someone you trust has seen and liked it, and you're sure you can live with everything it says out in the world.
kristy bowen said…
I've always approached publication as audience building, pure and simple--getting those poems out there and finding readers. So really, the sooner the better. I'm a bit wary of the idea one has to wait until the poems are just perfect, just right, as if any of us can reach a definitive voice that is exactly us and will cement our work in some sort of literary strata. I am still working toward some sense perfection in my head, and if I waited to get there, I would never publish anything ever. Like the other arts, a poet's style shifts, it changes, any poem (or book even) is pretty much only evidence of the poets work at that very moment. And I also firmly believe it's alright to start out small, little magazines and online journals, and then grow as your work grows...
Keith said…
There's so much good stuff that has already been said here, but I feel like for me Kristy hit the poetical nail on the head multiple times. From where I am right now, I couldn't have said it better...
Erika said…
Mary's post seems particularly timely to me, as I just gave my yearly "Life After Your MFA" talk to our MFA students here, and each year I find it so hard to strike just the right balance between hope and despair--that the academic road is a really, really difficult one for writers, but sometimes it works out, and the key (fortunately or unfortunately) to tipping the scales in your favor is that elusive publishing thing.

I wrote in a strange bubble for 2 years of my MFA and never sent anything out to publish until I graduated. Everything felt sort of half-done until I had to put it together in thesis form, and no one else in my program was really sending anything out. And it was only 7 years ago at what's now considered an uber-competitive program. I suspect the students wouldn't say the same thing now. When I finally did send some stuff out, I managed to place one of my poems in The Southern Review. The acceptance letter was waiting on the mantle in my new apartment in Wisconsin the day that I walked in. It was this very strange, sort-of quasi-mystical experience.

But I too never seem to be a good judge of my own work. I had such trouble placing some of my favorite poems. I wonder, though, if a) all the sending out that's happening now is taking place at the expense of my students' writing time (because it sure cuts into mine), b) if it leads to weird competitiveness in programs, between students, c) if it leads to letting other folks decide what your best work is (which is sometimes wonderful when they help you discover things about your own poems that you never knew, or sometimes detrimental). I mean, my whole first book was (to be crass) mostly narrative vagina poems. Due to the subject material (ok, female bodies/sexuality) many editors passed me over. If I had let that totally define my sense of my work/self I'm not sure I'd have kept writing.

But how can I tell my students that the key to succeeding in academia is publishing, and then also tell them that I think (for most of them) that they should wait a little to send stuff out--let themselves have that bubble to create in before they have to send their poems out into the (often cruel) world? I wonder if this would be solved by flat-out reinstating the studio mode in MFA programs. What if we just told our students that this degree isn't meant to lead you to teach college (which is what I tell my undergrads anyway who are thinking of applying to MFA programs, because the market is so crappy)?

I do find (perhaps moreso than my students) that my writing life is bifurcated into two modes: writing and send-out. Writing happens usually during breaks, while sending out is a semester thing. One fun thing I've done with a friend, when I've been particularly heel-draggy about sending stuff out: we've switched packets of poems, and sent them out for each other. I gave her my generic cover letter, which she tweaked for each place she sent the poems--places that she picked for them to go to. That way I didn't have to go through the final-step ouija-board agony of figuring out what to send where. Sorry so rambly tonight....
John Gallaher said…
I'm of so many minds about this I become almost a blur when conversations I'm in turn to it.

My quick answer is no one's ever really ready to publish, since most poems we ever write aren't going to raise rocks into the sky. Therefore, go ahead and send things out whenever you fel like it.

If you're interested in going into academia in some fashion, publications become a line on your resume, so the quicker you can get those lines the better. As long as you don't, in your own mind, get that confused with art. If it's the greatness of the art you're thinking about, well, you know, so many things come into play when you send things out that there's never going to be a perfect moment.

Or at least that's how I've come to think of it. Or to not think of it!