Welcome to POEMHACK, a column that examines why reader-submitted poems aren’t getting picked up by journals. Enjoy this special addition to our regularly scheduled programming.
Every poet has spent at least one afternoon oscillating between theory and worry over how to craft a cover letter. How to address it. How many prior publications to include in the bio. What salutation, and what signature. Does the submission need context. Does any of this even make a difference. Will they hate me if I do this wrong.
And in my experience, this shit is not really covered in grad school.
I imagine most everyone has their own theories, and every editor their own taste, but as I was debating why this poem hadn’t been picked up for publication, I wondered if maybe the submitter’s cover letter was partially to blame. I mean, who knows? But I thought to ask a couple editor friends about what they love and hate in cover letters, and Michelle Sinsky of Matter hit me back with a large scoop of THE STRAIGHT DOPE.
If you don’t know, Matter is for sure one of the smartest journals publishing today. It’s a soylent green of sharp poetry, interviews, commentary, essay, experimental fiction, art – basically, if you’re reading this you nerd, all the stuff you like. It’s one of the real lights of Chicago for me, in part because it’s an independent and ambitiously “experimental” endeavor in a city more often lauded for The Poetry Foundation or its Slam scene. In nerdier terms, Matter is kinda the leftfield-lit stiletto to The Volta‘s broadsword, or Lana Turner‘s battle-axe.
A thousand blessings on Michelle for breaking this down for us, and a thousand thanks for getting me to realize I’ve got to up my own cover letter game.
So this is a composite letter from real cover letters I’ve received as an editor, much like a composite sketch of a petty offender: they could be a juvenile with no idea they’re offending, or a seasoned submitter with a long rap sheet. Some of these cover letter examples are from first-time submitters, some are from letterhead and names I recognize immediately from P&W top ten MFAs, and a handful of them have followed with great submissions attached which we’ve gone on to publish. Everyone talks about that guy, emails their readers to watch out for him, brings him up at readings not knowing he could be in the room. As editors, an awkward cover letter submitter is an archetype we’re trying to catch and rehabilitate, so he doesn’t end up with potentially great latchkey poems stuck in Submittable, perpetually.
Dear Matter editors,
Guten Tag! I’ve enjoyed reading the first several issues of Matter and I would like to extend “Lady Cop”, “Bees Knees”, “Sex on the Breach (for Julian Assange)”, “Crows on a Tuesday”, “Pantoum 4 Change”, “Boehner? Bummer!” and “The President and His Cabinet Walk Into a 4 a.m. Nightclub in Dubai Seeking Lapdances” for consideration in upcoming issues. I’m also sending these out to The New Republic and Lana Turner Journal.
I am the 45-year-old owner of two shetland sheepdogs, a teacher, social theorist, activist, sales professional and freelance writer. I’ve been writing since I was four. My writing covers poetry, essay, short story, novellas, and several unpublished crime novella. “Crows on a Tuesday” explores my personal relationship with Lacan, and was written after Zizek’s response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I’m inspired by sound poetry, and this piece is first in a series of ekphrastic villanelles based on Ke$ha’s choruses, this one from the Pitbull song “Timber.” I am also a Pushcart Prize nominee.
Looking forward to your feedback!
p.s. Were you that blonde at my AWP reading in 2012? ;)
Bio: John D. Submitter is the author of “1001 Publications to Submit to Before You Croak” and “Wow, That’s a Big Cookie.” A native of Alexandria, Virginia, Submitter has been published in the Daily Pennsylvanian and Pleiades.
First off, here’s what I like: I like that you’ve read our masthead and greeted all possible parties reading your submission at our publication. It’s perfectly fine to be general and address your cover letter to “editors” and acknowledges we’re all taking a look, and the decision doesn’t rest on me. You also won’t have to worry about accidentally misgendering one of us on the masthead going by a neuter name or initial. When you just address on person on the masthead, it reads as if you’re not familiar with our publication, haven’t read previous issues and don’t know what we’re looking for.
Thank you also for indicating the titles of the attached poems in the body of your email. This way, we can make sure everything’s been received and email if you’ve left anything off. If you’ve sent us more than five pieces, keep in mind that we’re all reading your cover letter thinking we’d rather read one or two submitted poems you feel confident in than six you wrote that don’t fit, but when doing simultaneous submissions, try to give us a few adhering to the issue’s theme. We’re aware we might lose the poem we want in the voting process. Just consider the submission in total and the theme of a niche issue before prolifically shooting us in the dark with eight long pieces that may not reflect the nature of the subs call.
I do want to know where your work lives, where you’ve been published before. This isn’t to establish or confirm your credibility based on the rank or volume of those publications, but so I have a few places to find your prior work, get a feel for your style and concerns, and better read the context of what you’re submitting to me. If you’ve ever been in a workshop you probably know the feeling when someone doesn’t “get” your work. Maybe they warmed up to your style after seeing more from you, or cracked the reading of a particular work after a few tries with other excerpts from previous rounds. Or your work evolved over time or improved from feedback. In my experience moderating workshops and as an editor for a subject-specific journal, I’ve had to sit for a week or so with some of the work I’ve ended up being the most excited about. So I’m glad you’ve pointed me in the right direction, that I can find your previous installments from a series you may be sending me, that it all makes sense now since that science publication you listed gives me an idea why your poem “Quasars and Quark” fuses about your day job with atomic nuclei and your husband’s work as a chef (with that weird final line calling the moon “space cheese.” It almost makes rhythmic sense now?)
“I’m an editor, translator and graduate of the low residency MFA at University of Halifax.”
The same goes for relevant positions or associations. If you edit something, if you can mention you have a link floating elsewhere to your work, do let me know in the cover letter before you send your acceptance bio so that I can check out you sensibilities for other poems, flash fiction writing, your architecture blog, or another artistic medium. Of course you want your submitted work to stand on its own, but again, maybe there’s something else you do or have done that helps the reading, or my co-editor or reader thinks could work in lieu of your submission for the solicitation of our next guest-curated issue. I’d love to see your perspective if you want to make your other projects known to us, if you’re comfortable with disclosing past connections or projects. It helps us to know if you’re a native speaker or translator if you’ve included lines in another dialect.
I also want to know what else you do outside of submitting day in and day out to get into the publications you did list in your cover letter. By that I mean I can take a bio-format cover letter with the name of your pet rat, university employer, MFA, your geographic location, your favorite pizza. I’m not making my decisions based on that. You’ve already humanized to me when you submit your work and if you’re doing it right, you listed your address in the heading so I can see you’re in the Midwest, Middle East, or studying in the English department where the beat poets who influenced you have taught. So you can send all of that now, but I’ll need it most later when you want the rest of the world to know. I’d rather come away from your cover letter knowing your bio was less labored over and perfected than your actual submission.
“This is my first time submitting to your publication. The poem is being considered for publication elsewhere.”
Personally, I don’t need to know you’re submitting simultaneously to make a quicker decision. If it’s what we’re looking for, I’ll advocate for it and try to approve it quickly with the rest of the staff, so you can mention it’s a simultaneous sub when it’s accepted elsewhere and you have to withdraw it. I think most of us assume you didn’t write your poem for us specifically, and know you’re trying to place it.
“This is my first time submitting to a publication.”
If you’ve never been published, if this is the first time you’re sending out work or you’re work has never been accepted anywhere I can look up, don’t stress over it, because this publication could be the perfect fit for whatever you feel positive or completely unsure about. If you’re published everywhere, you can include a few of those publications or all of them in your cover letter. Whatever you would like me to see, I’m going to choose based on time and what your include. Don’t expect me to read everything you’ve published previously due to submissions volume, though I probably will if I have questions about the context and you’ve made the first cut or so.
“Please consider my poem, (which I am submitting to your personal email).”
We will know whether you’ve submitted before or not, unless you’ve submitted to an email that isn’t the one specified. I’ve had self-disqualifying cover letters submitted to my personal email, or DM’ed via Twitter, which I can’t forward with my co-editors because they didn’t come in to our shared platform. Out of fairness to everyone else, we can only consider submissions we receive per directions on our site.
“Hey again guys! I submitted poems for your publication in the past and while they weren’t accepted, you did encourage me to re-submit in the future, so here’s my poem again.”
Hey yourself! I do remember “Fear and Loathing is Goth Vegas.” Sorry we didn’t hit it off last time, and I hate to reject it again but I appreciate that still want to be involved with our journal. Could we see something new? Mention if it’s an updated or edited version in your cover letter so we can tell that it’s not a duplicate and file it away.
“I thought you might read my work for the Fall / Winter issue after seeing you read in Denver last month. I wrote it one night with no edits so pardon the length. I don’t know if you publish anything this long…”
Editors often dislike when we can tell you think in advance we’re not going to consider your submission, and everything in your cover letter reads as if you’re trying to send us that message. Despite some publications inviting scandal by not keeping up with their duty to consider all submitted works, you submitted work to me, and I’d like your confidence that I’m personally going to read it. Stay professional in your over letter and keep calm if only about this fact. I want to know you’re confident about what you sent me, or I may worry you won’t be able to confirm our acceptance or request for edits. If you’re nervous about exposing imperfections, know I am too in curating this, we all are. I need your confidence that you believe in what I believe in getting behind, or else one of us editors will read your submission in the same tone.
“Subject: SUBMISSION***Dean Errol Katz’s ‘No Love Deep Democracy’: Updated!!!!”
Your submissions email subject line and the body of your cover letter don’t need the caps lock or Wingdings to get my attention, either. One of us may filter or mislabel your cover letter as spam.
“I’m a friend of Rachel, and she mentioned you were accepting subs and you’d love this one– here’s another from the series she put out in print!”
Additionally, I might not remember your work from a publication we were both in, your attendance at the same reading or AWP event many years ago (and yes, that’s probably my fault, that conference was a blur). I’m not considering that as part of your piece, but that’s nice of you to mention. Know that I might not have the time to reply personally (co-editors and interns often send out replies when we’re rushing to promote and format). If you know someone, list your relevant professional capacity. We might know another journal extremely well, just not their new reader or assistant editor who may not be Internet-searchable if the masthead’s not updated.
“I wrote this poem on a boat, seasick and drunk on Yellow Tail shiraz-grenache, during my divorce from poet Deborah Spieler, that hound, which came after reading Ginsberg’s collected.”
Be careful telling me in more than a sentence or two the intent of the piece, how you were feeling when you wrote it, what the title alludes to, et cetera. I need to be able to fill in the gaps a little myself and readers will too, so be brief when you can and only include this when it’s absolutely necessary to the piece and the theme of the publication. Is it a Ginsberg birthday issue? Great! Is it a piece for our standard monthly issue? I might not want to consider these specific details in the reading, or its chronology in your personal life.
Some more general guidelines to keep in mind for us while writing your cover letter:
- Though I may email you if I’m feeling your submission, assume I will be able to translate all the Inuktitut / Czech / Spanish / Haitian Creole / urban dictionary stanzas pulled from Dante as well as any other reader with Google might. I don’t need the translation in your cover letter if it follows the piece within the attachment.
- Likewise, if you pulled quotes or borrowed text, asterix that also and explain at the end of the submission, or you can tell me in the cover letter if it’s a foundation of the piece.
- Unless it’s explicitly stated to be a part of your submitted or ongoing work, I’m not going to check you out on Instagram.
- Or Facebook, or Tumblr, or Twitter.
- Assume I am, of course.
- But also assume I probably won’t.
- Unless you don’t reply to an acceptance email, and you’re active on another platform. We might contact you after a few tries to make sure your filters aren’t on.
- Don’t send anything you wouldn’t be comfortable knowing could be bcc’d or Wikileaked. I can’t believe I’m confirming that this happens, but as a female-identified editor, please don’t send anything that looks like a sext or doesn’t otherwise adhere to the submission. I’ve experienced this. Most likely I don’t know you personally, and if my co-editors and I are trying to decide whether to blacklist you on inappropriateness or harassment grounds, it may be because your emoticon definitely made that closing statement sound a little too friendly for comfort after sending the graphic degradation poem we unfortunately received. Writing a cover letter for a job or for a lit submission can feel a little ruleless and disorienting, but please adhere to the fact that we’re receiving this in the real world: “butIwasjustkidding / it’sartwhyareyoucensoringmypoemaboutharminganex / lookIgotyoutonoticemysubmission” doesn’t work so If you do this, you’re just a troll. I can’t guarantee as an editor that a co-editor, reader, intern or graphic designer isn’t seeing you cover letter, too and confirming terror threat level creepfactor.
- A bad cover letter is better than no cover letter. Attachments with no human words make us delay opening your submission when you look like spam.
- Whether we want to or not, consumers and editors are going to take whatever you disclose into the reading of your work as well as our subjective perceptions. That’s just an inextricable part of how art is consumed by audiences and exposure decided by curators. You can help or hurt your presentation to an extent with your introduction, though other artists are not saints of objectivity even. I may exercise my right to exclude it from my publication because that’s my right as a curator. Editors choose what they choose, and just as readers must exercise their right to choose what they read or don’t read, recommend or boycott. Don’t take it personally if it’s not a good fit for this particular publication when there may be somewhere else it’s best suited. Only interact with us like we’re gatekeepers of taste or your career, if that’s what you need to do to take the process seriously.
- And again, be professional, be sure to include a cover letter and make sure to attach your work. We’ve had Ivy League instructors submit potentially beautiful cover letters they just forgot to attach, along with the poems named in the body of the email. It happens.
Thanks a bunch, Michelle!
WHO HAS AWESOME stories?
When I edited Sonora Review, I would occasionally read a cover letter that left me unable to read anything else for the rest of the day I’d be so horrified or fascinated. My favorite was a guy who straight up listed Poetry, Ploughshares, and Alaska Quarterly Review – traditionally mainstream journals with long histories of publishing highly regarded writers – as places that had published his work. I was very doubtful. Poetry, Ploughshares, and Alaska Quarterly Review have easily searchable databases of past contributors. I wrote “lies” on his cover letter and sent it back in the SASE.
Also, the time I had to withdraw a poem because I’d forgotten it’d been published.
Please tell me yours: