On originality and getting published


hi there, i am an unpublished poet, been writing for some time now... i was wondering if you could help meet or maybe give me some contacts of publishers who will be interested in my works...i dont know why they say you've got to be original, after all poetry is poetry, and we can choose whichever way we like to write...so please let me know, and are there places where poets like us can meet and share our works with one another? {extracted from an email}

Your feelings about your writing are understandable and more common than you might imagine. As you say, originality is in some sense overrated. Many good writers owe debts of style, tone, theme, technique and form to writing they have read, studied or otherwise encountered over the years. But quality and good writing, however, are often underrated.

I'd define original writing as writing which provides a new insight into an issue; a new and useful way of looking at things differently or more deeply. A poem which alerts the reader to something small but important in his life which he'd forgotten and manages to move him, might be considered as original as a 100-stanza poem without the letter "T". Good sonnets have been written and continue to be written well before and after the age of Shakespeare; each, however, suggests a fresh perspective. "Fresh" is hard to define, and a sense of it tends to emerge with years of reading and experience, although it may not, after all that. But it has to do with the feeling, after reading a poem, of having learnt or understood something, or of seeing more clearly. It's also often relative to the reader's age, culture and frame of mind; what may seem fresh to a 16-year-old student in Manchester might be familiar territory to a 60-year-old woman in Beijing, and vice-versa. Nevertheless, there is a generally agreed sense that if one is adopting a known style or form, one's work tends to get compared to the best traditional examples of that form, for better or worse.

Without getting into a debate on what constitutes "good" or "bad poetry at this point, I'd also like to point out that it's quite one thing to write good poetry and another to expect it to be published, read or even paid for. Publishers are commercial entities whose purpose is to market and distribute a given work -- for profit, usually but also sometimes because they believe in the value and quality of the work. Publishing -- getting a work to print -- is an expensive and time-consuming business. Understandably, many publishers are reluctant to publish poetry and those that do are quite selective of the kinds of work they do want to publish. Their considerations can range from the quality (and yes, sometimes originality) of the work to the expected size of its audience, its historical/cultural/social importance, the reputation of the poet etc.

Because the market for poetry is woefully small at best, hardly anyone is going to be doing it for the money; poets (even "good" ones) therefore are always at the bottom end of the stack when it comes to getting their works published. C'est la vie.

There are really two broad ways around this, assuming you've been actively rejected by all the publishers you can find (and many publishing houses will NOT take manuscripts that have not been referred to them by a professional reader or agent). The first is to self-publish: basically fork out the money and pay someone to design a book cover, print and bind the book and put it in bookstores. Many famous publishing houses were in fact founded this way, by the leading writers and literary activists of their time (including City Lights, where the Beat poets emerged).

Don't forget self-publishing online: nowadays, the web represents a cost-effective and efficient way to get your work out to as many people as possible: in theory, far more than you could reach with any printed book. In a sense, getting web-published offers you a much better chance of reaching a receptive audience because you overcome natural barriers to readership such as distance, time, cost, stock availability and habit. And if your main intent in getting published is to be read, this is a good way to go.

The second, more conventional and frankly under-valued route, is to get your poems published in as many credible literary journals, magazines and anthologies, on and off the web, as you can find. Yahoo or a search engine will direct you to a list of journals easily. Journals offer a great way to get your best poems published (it may surprise you which of your poems turn out to be the most well received). They also offer a ready audience of readers who are already keyed in to poetry -- and, if your work is accepted by journals -- likely to be receptive to your style of writing.

Getting published in a respected journal with experienced and well-read editors is no small feat, and you can proudly show it off as an achievement. If you're unsuccessful, try and try again. But if you succeed time and again, you can be sure that you have a body of work that is of some value and you can then bring it to the attention of a publisher, citing all the journals/magazines/anthologies in which your work has been accepted for publication. Indeed, that's how professional poets in many countries earn their wings.

When approaching publishers and also anthologies/magazines/journals, be sure to provide a short bio and if possible a sampler of your work (10 to 20 pages but nothing more unless it is requested), history of writing and contact details. Be patient (don't expect instant responses) and be prepared to take no for an answer. Not all publishers are willing to give comments or advice on your work but it may still be useful to ask for it. Again, be gracious if you encounter a rejection.

Poets have a reputation of being loners and individualists (a reputation pretty much started during the Romantic era, even though most of the famous Romantic poets were part of a tightly-knit clique of classically trained scholars). But to be a poet is also to be part of a community and a tradition of thoughtful writing, thinking and language use. You are quite right to point out that sharing your work in a group and getting to meet other writers is probably a good way to get started and to figure out where you stand. Sometimes, online literary ezines (eg. http://www.qlrs.com/forum/ <http://www.qlrs.com/forum/ ) will host forums and mailing lists; these are where many working writers hang out, share and discuss work, without actually meeting face-to-face. You may want to test the waters there.

If you are based in Singapore, you might want to look up the following reading events, publishers and journals for starters:


1. subTEXT Reading (next one is tonight Thu 6 Feb 2003), 7:30pm, The Book Café, Martin Road

2. QLRS news (http://www.qlrs.com/news.html). A great place to find out about literary events and news in Singapore.

3. Singapore Writers Festival (August 2003) - watch for news of the National Arts Council's bi-annual literary event)

Local Publishers that have released poetry (in alpha order)

1. Ethos Books

2. FirstFruits

3. Landmark Books

4. Times Publishers

Some local literary journals / e-zines


2. the2ndrule: http://www.the2ndrule.com

3. The Poetry Billboard: http://www.poetrybillboard.com

(NB: Do look further afield; there are literally hundreds of journals around the world that accept open submissions. Get a copy of POET'S MARKET or check on the web)

Some highly respected foreign journals (simply off the top of my head)

1. Poetry

2. Ploughshares

3. Atlanta Review

4. Paris Review

5. Atlantic Monthly

Most of all, good luck and keep writing!

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl