A lot is going around the internets about the difficulties in publishing a book of poetry. so, really, it's only in the small, fragmented world of on-line discussions about poetry where these conversations are taking place, but you get the idea. A lot of the people I know are talking about it and I have conflated it with any number of issues which take on real-world significance.
My book publishing experience begins some time in 2000, when my first chapbook, Four Way Stop, was accepted for publication by an editor in Canada then promptly dropped off the face of the earth for 18 months. To say I was lost in some sort of limbo would be a gross understatement. For 18 months I did not hear from this editor, who regularly spoke with my wife in a chat room on at least a weekly basis. Well, she was friendly enough until my wife or I would try to talk to her about my book in said chat room. Then she would drop out of sight for about a week and then reappear, pretending nothing had happened. I lost a lot of sleep wondering what her intentions exactly were since they obviously did not include actually publishing my poems. For those 18 months I did not get any kind of response out of her of any kind---not even to tell me she would not be publishing my book. I finally ended our relationship with an e-mail and moved on.
Four Way Stop was finally published in 2005 by Mark Sanders and Main-Traveled Roads. He had students format the book (along with two other winners) and I was thrilled. The books were far from perfect in their construction, but I did not mind. This was my first book and I had been wanting it for so long I was just thrilled I could hold something in my hand. For the first time in a while I knew the world of poetry could indeed make some sense. Then something strange happened. My second chapbook, Gathering up the Scattered Leaves, was picked up by Foothills Publishing on my first submission. I has sent FWS out so many times I was certain I would be in the process of submitting it for a coupe of years, minimum. But I was wrong. This wasn't the first lesson I learned in my education of getting books published, but it was an important one: When in comes to publication, finding the right fit is just as important as writing good poems.
You see, I have a lot of success publishing my poems on an individual basis, considering I write a lot of quiet, nature themed poems about my home town. Oh, I write other poems, too, but my real strength lies in the rural images of the places I knew as a child. People like those sorts of poems when they only have to read one or two of them, but when you give someone a whole chapbook (or full length manuscript) of them, they run back to Wendell Berry, William Stafford, or Ted Kooser and they call it quits. Because of this, I learned to do my homework. I am not saying other poets don't do their homework, just that I learned early on, ten well researched submissions beats 50 contests I have no chance of winning. The way my wife puts it, I write poems which are not in style. I'll take that kindness.
With Gathering up the Scattered Leaves being published in 2006, I had the basis for what I knew would be my first full length book, I went about writing and shaping poems for hat manuscript and putting together a manuscript of poetry of more contemporary themes. I sent t along to a few places (and also to Foothills) and was pleasantly surprised when Foothills wrote back within a few weeks and gave it the green light. Now, for those of you who are not familiar with a Foothills book, you really should, because they are beautifully made hand-crafted books in material and construction. That book was Working in the Bird House, and came out in 2008.
Two things happened in 2008. I started to send out my first full length book, primarily made up of my first two chapbooks, and I began writing a manuscript of poetry which did not fit into either of my two main categories of voice/theme. For two long years I sent out my book, Town for the Trees without relent. I did not send it to Foothills because I did not want to take advantage of my relationship with them and also because I still had some ideas about 'who' should or should not publish my books. After two years, my hard work paid off. I found a publisher because of my past in the military. Unfortunately the good times did not last because my editor and I came to see things differently. She wanted to put the book out as an e-book only, and I needed (yes, needed) to have an actual hard copy of the book. we split amicably and went our separate ways. I sent it in to Foothills and Michael accepted it. It came out in 2011, and I could not have been more please with how it came out. I was also finished with the manuscript I previously mentioned and another chapbook. I mentioned both manuscripts to Michael, who told me to send him the chapbook, which ended up being Friday in the Republic of Me, 2012.
This left me with a shape shifting manuscript which had been primarily written at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. I also had begun to write another Springville manuscript while I was trying to find the format of the earlier manuscript. After completing the format of the earlier manuscript I came to the conclusion t would never see the light of day unless I was the one to publish it myself. I had sent it out to all of the places I thought it might have a chance and received nothing but rejection. I was convinced it was dead in the water (slight intent on the pun, seeing it is named, Sailing This Nameless Ship) and I began to concentrate on my Springville manuscript. Right as I had finished Hobble Creek Almanac, a miracle happened. My friend and wonderful poet, Jeff Newberry, told me his book had been accepted by Aldrich Press, and he wanted me to check out a few things for him. What eventually happened was I became convinced there was no other press so well suited for my Springville manuscript, and it became the object of my obsession as I started the final polishing process for my book. I sent it to Karen at Aldrich, and it was accepted within a week and published earlier this year.
Shortly after, BlazeVOX contacted me and told me they would like to publish Sailing This Nameless Ship as an e-book. I was thrilled, and I started to prepare for that eventuality, which later became a real book project some months later.
A lot of bragging, right? Well, yes, if all you do is look at the surface. What I see beneath all of this is a singular message: I have been profoundly lucky to be published like I have been. four chapbooks and what will be three full length books. I tell this story to emphasize my luck. I am never going to be the poet who wins prizes---I do not write that kind of poetry. I will never be invited to be a part of an AWP panel, nor will I ever be the subject of serious poetry related discussions. I write my poems and I get lucky whenever I find someone who likes my poetry enough to invest their time and money in my poetry. But even that isn't the whole story.
You see, I have given up on the poetry contest. I have seen the errors of my way. I support presses by buying books. I support poets by buying books and writing reviews and recommendations. I support poetry by publishing what I like in my very own on-line journal. (I must also take one moment to express my anger towards other poets who receive my support and the support of others but do not express gratitude for such support and do not return the favor. You guys suck.) I see dozens of poets I admire getting passed over for publication and I cannot explain how I have been so lucky and yet they have not had the good fortune I have had. All I know is that when I was the one not getting published (and I'm about to enter into a drought of publishing because I am out of new poetry and will be for quite some time) I could not see what I do now. It's something Collin Kelley has been saying for years. Poetry is a matter of taste, not just quality, and so long as editors try to say personal taste is not a part of their decision, they will be liars. The first part was Collin. The part about editors being liars is me.
So what do I do? I have come to believe I do best when I send out my manuscripts to those who I feel will appreciate them---name publisher or not. And when that means I do not get a book published for 10 years, it's because I know I have written a sub-standard manuscript. Of course, if I know I have written a good manuscript then I will keep looking with intensity for a place to send it, but I will not be shelling out $30-$40 to anyone with a contest and an address.
Here then, after all of that stupid rambling is my formula:
Research for the right places to submit
Avoid contests at almost any cost
Repeat as needed.
Again, let me be absolutely clear on this. I know more than any of you how lucky I have been to have the success I have had, and those feelings of inadequacy still exist for me. I still wonder why I can't crack some publishing eggs. I still wonder why I will never be asked to read somewhere where I wasn't the one who asked first. I still do not comprehend why some people in academia embrace m while others actively (yes, actively) snub me. The only answer that makes sense with all of these things? It's all a combination of hard work and dumb luck.