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.