When Fiction Sells, Why Write Speculative Poetry?
I learned early on that if I wanted to make money—make a living—being a writer, I needed to write fiction and nonfiction: novels, short stories, craft essays, how-to articles, etc. There is some money in teaching, too, which is great because I always wanted to be an instructor, but the problem is I’ve always been drawn to poetry, which historically, makes no money.
So why write it?
I’ve written a lot of articles and personal essays on how poetry has saved my life, a few of which you can read here and here, but I want to talk to you folks today from a business perspective because I think there is a lot of confusion and misinformation about poetry out there, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to put together my book, Writing Poetry in the Dark. With that said, there are a lot of ways that poetry can not only strengthen your writing career and author brand, but also your bank account.
My first writing acceptance ever was a poem: “The Necklace.” I remember getting my contributor copy in the mail as a sophomore at Seton Hill University and running up to my dorm room feeling like I was a real writer. I don’t think I was actually paid for that poem, mind you, but it did give me the confidence I needed to keep submitting and working on what would be my first collection, Hysteria: A Collection of Madness.
After Hysteria was published, I saw more direction and possibility in my career. I was in a MFA program studying fiction, and while I was working on my novel, I was simultaneously writing and selling poetry, and working on collecting pieces for my next collection, Mourning Jewelry. I’ve since kept that sort of multitasking routine in my life, and it’s allowed me to constantly produce and publish while working on larger projects (I’m a slow writer when it comes to fiction). Something else to remember is that poetry opened the door for me into an active membership with the Horror Writers Association (HWA), and it brought my name into a community that I was eager and excited to be a part of. After all, nothing feels better than being surrounded by people who share and celebrate your passion, and the more I worked and produced, the more I felt I was earning my seat at the table and contributing to a genre I had long loved.
Writing quickly lead to editing (with a focus on poetry) and that helped me make some money while I looked for a full-time position. Poetry also helped me pad my CV along with presenting workshops, participating in readings, etc. It gave me both experience and a voice, and because I could read it and write it faster than novels, it helped me work in the business world at a faster pace while still focusing on long-term goals. In the end, I ended up working in higher education (in more ways than one) but poetry still tends to be my focus, even though I primarily teach fiction and literature.
I say all of this because I oftentimes think that poetry is either put on a pedestal as something strictly elite and pretentious, or it’s kind of shrugged off because it’s not a money-maker, per se. First things first—poetry can be what you want it to be. It can be structured or experimental, satirical, or serious. In a lot of ways, it’s a playground full of endless possibilities, so even if you think you can’t write it (or if you’re afraid of it) I encourage you to pick up some collections, read diversely, and then try your hand at it. Furthermore, there is money in poetry. It might not pay your mortgage every month, but it’s also not a for-the-love-of-it craft either. Realistically speaking, most speculative poetry magazines pay between $5-$15 per poem, but there are other places where I’ve been paid between $50-$300+ for poetry, too. There are also poetry prizes, chapbook contests, first-book awards, etc., all of which are available and that I strongly consider you to explore.
If you’re thinking about what to do next, here is my advice:
- Read poetry and read all kinds and forms of poetry. I don’t and have never only read speculative poetry. In fact, I read strictly classic and contemporary literary poetry for most of my life, and there is so much beauty and inspiration there about the human experience. I cut my teeth on Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and I still frequently read and study their work to this day. In a lot of ways, I credit them with teaching me how to write horror poetry.
- Keep a notebook or journal on you. Write down observations you have throughout your day and be sure to record all those weird thoughts and phrases and word pairings that come to mind. It might look like a list of gibberish, but more often than not, patterns will emerge, and you’ll start to find lines in there that might spark something later on.
- Make a list of the top five magazines you want to publish with, and then continue to add to that list as you research and work with other markets. This will give you a reference list as you continue to complete work and start looking for places to submit.
- Create a submission log that includes the date you submitted, the magazine, the poem, and whether it was accepted or not. Also be sure to have a note section present, too, so you can write down any additional information you learned in the process, such as: the editor gave specific feedback, it took three months to hear back, encouraged to submit more work, etc. This will also help you when it’s time to put together a collection because you’ll already have a log of where everything was previously published and when. I try to keep all my poetry contracts in a separate folder on my desktop, too, for easy reference.
- Have a cover letter and your author bio saved and ready to go so you don’t have to write a new one each time you submit. I encourage all writers to have multiple-length bios at their disposal: 50-word, 100-word, and then a longer one if there isn’t a specific limit. It’s also a good idea to have your website and social media handles in your email signature, and I would recommend having a headshot on file, too, should one be requested.
- Lastly, submit! Shoot for the moon first, and then work your way down your list. Don’t assume something won’t sell or give into imposter syndrome before you even try. Be professional, kind, and take feedback if it’s given to you. Don’t respond to rejections. And don’t get frustrated. The publishing business tends to be slow-paced and it’s filled with highs and lows, so keep your spirits up and know that your words matter and it’s all a matter of finding the right fit for your work.
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