June 10, 2015 by Jaimie Gusman
My husband, another couple, and I sat in the living room of an eco-designed concrete and wood constructed cottage on a vista in Molokai. We looked out at the shadow of Oahu resting upon the vast Pacific Ocean while sipping homemade Dark & Stormy cocktails in celebration of New Years Eve.
This was unlike other New Years Eves because we were vacationing on a remote island, legs burning from an epic hike to Kalaupapa the day before, and watching the Waikiki fireworks 66 miles away from the place we call home.
But it was also like every other News Years Eve in that we all reflected on the year’s quick passing and verbally set our goals for the future (because when you say something out loud, no matter how drunk you are, it becomes an oral pact, something others can remind you that you’ve promised to yourself).
The four of us all have English literature backgrounds. My husband is a brilliant software engineer with an MFA in poetry. One friend is a PhD student—we met at the University of Hawaii—and a talented fiction writer who just snagged a great teaching job at a private high school. His wife has a B.A. in English, is a wonderful editor and thinker, and a lawyer. I hold a PhD and an MFA, and work as a freelance copywriter.
The four of us dished out our 2014 accomplishments, and shelled through our regrets. Some of them domestic: I will do more dishes. I want to garden everyday. Some recreational: I’m going to hike more. I want to go camping every 2-3 months. And some of them professional: I’m going to stop working so hard. I’m going to find a more challenging job. And for the three of us who are actively writing poetry and prose: I’m going to submit more work.
When I got back to Oahu, this goal stuck with me. Or to me. In the form of bright blue post-it notes.
The reminder: Oh, right. You’re supposed to publish! Or be okay with perishing from the literati’s coveted print and digital worlds.
I admit that when a month goes by and I still have no poem or review to share or post on my Facebook wall, I feel a little bit like a failure. Real poets publish all the time. Real poets win prizes. Real poets have many many reviews of their books.
And when a month turns into two months and I start to ask myself why my timeline is cluttered with pictures of my cute but defiant dog instead of poems, I realize that it’s because I haven’t been doing my part.
The solution is pretty simple: submit. It seems like a no-brainer, especially for a writer that has a decade’s worth of rejection notes in a folder somewhere (ok, I know exactly where that folder is). The steps are easy:
- Tailor your standard cover letter to the literary journal/magazine to which you’re submitting.
- Include 3-4 poems or 10-20 pages of prose.
- Simultaneous submit.
- Wait for rejection or acceptance.
But sometimes it’s hard to get going. My husband must have at least 2 or 3 poetry manuscripts in his filing cabinet that might never see the light of day, even though they’re good. Like, really good.
I’m a prolific writer. But not a prolific submitter. So 6 months into 2015, I figured this would be a good time to reflect on whether or not I’ve at least made steps to submit more.
Here’s the breakdown:
Coconut Magazine – Still waiting
The Feminist Wire – Acceptance
Ostrich Review – Rejected
Tupelo (Book Prize) – Nice rejection
Boat Press – Rejection
The Collagist – Rejection
The Bleeding Lion – Accepted (forthcoming)
Tar River – Rejection
The Rumpus (essay) – Rejection
Black Lawrence Press (Book Prize)- Rejected
Action Books (Open Reading Period – Book Length MSS) – Rejected
Cleveland State University Poetry Center (Book Prize) – Still waiting
Finishing Line Press (chapbook) – Still waiting
Ruth Lily Prize – Still Waiting
Zyzzvya – Still waiting
Saturnalia Books (book prize) MSS #1 – Still Waiting
Saturnalia Books (book prize) MSS #2 – Still Waiting
YesYes Books (Open Reading Period Book Length MSS) – Still waiting
1913 Press (First Book Prize) – Still waiting
Crab Orchard Review – Rejection
Boston Review – Still Waiting
Brooklyn Arts Press (Open Reading Period Book Length MSS) – Still waiting
James Franco Review – Still Waiting
Two Sylvias Press – Still Waiting
This seems like a lot – 24 submissions in 6 months seems pretty good (I could have definitely done better in February and April.) Of course, that breaks down to be only 2 Acceptances, 8 Rejections, and 14 Still Waitings.
I’m kind of proud of this. Even though my acceptance rate is at 25%, this isn’t unusual for writers. In my MFA program, one of my professors said to expect 1 acceptance for every 20 submissions, a 5% acceptance rate.
Something people (like my parents and the guy at the post office) don’t know: submitting your work comes at a real emotional and financial cost.
Almost every prize I submitted to has cost between $10-$25, which puts me in the hole about $130-$325, so far this year. And honestly, the money I’ve spent is probably closer to around the $300 mark.
The good news is that I won $1000 because I submitted to the 2015 Rita Dove Poetry Prize in September 2014, but the win was in 2015. So I am up about $700 in profits for my work. (Well, I do have to pay taxes on the $1000, so, realistically, I’m maybe $500 above water.)
I give props to poets like Dena Rash Guzman whose 2015 goal was to submit more unsolicited work to paying markets and to Jessica Piazza who took that idea further and started the amazing blog Poetry Has Value in 2015, which documents, in financial detail, her journey to submit only to reviews and journals that pay for work (plus she also has great guest bloggers and interviews!). Jessica has also graciously posted a running Google Doc of markets that pay.
Even though there are magazines and reviews that pay, if exposure means more to you than money, it’s difficult to confine your submissions to paying markets.
Even so, the conversation that’s happening because of projects like Poetry Has Value is an important one. Is the poetry market so flooded that magazines don’t feel like they have to pay for work? How are magazines and journals funded anyway? Do they make money? Who supports these markets – are writers ultimately paying for their own publications either through subscriptions, book prizes, and/or donations? Is there something wrong with this? Are some art forms more financially *valuable* than other art forms? What different forms can value take? How are women, POC, and LBGTQ represented in paying and non-paying markets? Who is winning the prizes – how much does race, gender, and sexuality matter (short answer: a lot)?
I estimate that I will spend about $500 this year submitting my work, and get a few more acceptances. Of course, I am hoping for more, especially a first book publication. I’ll catch up in another 6 months to see what happened.
Until then, I’m going to try to add 5 paying market submissions to my summer submission roster because 1.) why the hell not, and 2.) submitting to these markets is not going to be any scarier or any more emotionally draining.
Part of my 2015 submission goal was to “submit up,” meaning, submit to places I think are out of my reach. (For me, this was The Feminist Wire, and LOOK WHAT HAPPENED!) But really, there are so many factors that go into whether or not a submission is immediately slush piled, seriously considered, or accepted. And right now, I’m more interested in submitting to presses that openly support women writers.
Here is a list of some of my favorite women-friendly presses that are on my radar:
Adana Literary Journal
Dancing Girl Press
Finishing Line Press
Four Way Books
Kelsey Street Press
Les Femmes Folles Books
Luna Luna Magazine
Women in Judaism
The hope is this that this list keeps on growing, and that submitting becomes an act of self-worth rather than a search for validation. Because the way I see it is this: we writers are so lucky that there are so many people who love art, that they are willing to volunteer to run a literary magazine, small press, or reading series with no monetary compensation. These believers are the reason why there is so much good work floating around, and why we all want to take part in the hovering.