When is a Poem Published?

NB: the article below is intended as a guide only. Always check the submission guidelines of any publication or publisher you wish to submit poems.

As a general rule, competitions and magazines look for previously unpublished poems. No one wants to see the same poem win several competitions. Poetry magazine readers don’t want to see the same poems popping up in different magazines.

Anthologies may consider previously published poems and, if you’ve retained copyright on previously published poems, you can include these in a pamphlet or collection. It is a courtesy to mention where the poem was previously published if you do republish a poem.

However, when exactly does a poem become published? It might seem obvious that a poem included in a magazine is published, but what about workshops, online forums or social media?

Generally, a poem is considered published if it has

  • appeared in a magazine/journal/anthology/publication either online or in print
  • appeared on a blog that is open to view (e.g. one like this)
  • appeared in an open forum, such as an online workshop or Facebook group, where anyone can browse the forum contents and posts not just members of the group
  • appeared in a Facebook/Instagram/Social Media site status which is open to anyone to browse and view

Generally a poem is considered unpublished if it has not appeared in a magazine either online or in print and not:

  • appeared on a private blog open only to subscribers (e.g. blog articles don’t show up in Google searches and browsers have to apply to follow the blog before they can read the articles)
  • copies of a poem have been distributed amongst participants in a workshop for use during that workshop only
  • appeared in a closed forum where only forum participants can see posts and participants have to apply to join
  • where copies have been distributed or the poem read to a writers’ group where only members of that group (and guests) can attend and any copies are for the group’s use only
  • appeared on a social media status which is set to private and only viewable by a select number of people (the real life equivalent might be a writers’ group or poetry workshop)

Therefore, before posting works-in-progress or final drafts of poems on social media, stop and consider whether you might be preventing yourself from seeking later publication of the poem you want to post.

Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge

Over Land Over Sea poetry anthology for refugees book coverAvailable from Five Leaves Bookshop.

“Once again, men, women and children cross continents by foot and risk their lives at sea. Many are driven from home by war and catastrophe. The 101 poems in this anthology offer a range of responses: from grief to hope, from satire to anger. Above all, this book reminds us that those who seek refuge are our fellow humans – people much like us.

“Many of the contributing poets live in the East Midlands, others further afield. Some are well known, others at the start of their career. Some come from migrant families; others have campaigned or raised funds for refugees. Contributors include Chrissie Gittins, Ziba Karbassi, Joanne Limburg, Sheenagh Pugh, Mahendra Solanki, Lydia Towsey and Rory Waterman.

“Proceeds from the sales of this book support the work of Leicester City of Sanctuary, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum and Médecins Sans Frontières.


Launch Events

Tuesday 1 December 2015 from 5pm

Room 0.01 Clephan Building DeMonfort University, Leicester.

Monday 7 December 2015 from 6.30pm

Secular Hall, Humberstone Gate, Leicester LE1 1WB.

Free entry and all welcome to come along and hear some of the poems from the anthology and meet some of the poets and editors involved.

A5 launch flyer


A Poem Dragged into Orbit

This was inspired by some of the issues in last week’s post. It has nothing to do with the people involved and is not intended as a comment on individuals but as a creative response to the scenario described.

Dragged into Orbit

1. A Son’s Story

My looks went.
That was fine: people ignored me.
That’s how I wanted it.
Being popular’s pressure.
Couldn’t do it without a drink or a toke.
Pot became skunk,
ecstasy, heroin.
I died between fixes.
No one cared who I was
or what I did, I felt free.
I could move
in my invisible cloak
but no one cared
and I stopped caring.
People tell you to stop,
but I couldn’t face that.
My cloak turned black
with self-loathing.
I pray to end this life
that is no-life.

2. A Mother’s Story

I fret. I nag and I know I’m nagging,
but he shouldn’t be lying in bed.
He should be working,
dating, settling down, happy.

My blue-eyed boy.
Where are you now?

In this morose stranger
that’s replaced my son,
that’s somehow still my son?

He’s turned in on himself,
can’t see his mother’s love.
Can’t break from the centripetal force
that drags him to orbit himself.

I pray for reunion,
but it won’t come in this life.


How Real Life does Poetry have to be?

Last year a competition asked for poems in response to photos showing the immediate aftermath of a disaster and again after four years of re-building work.  One of the poets involved commented that they had hesitated before writing their poem because they hadn’t been there or known anyone directly involved.  They felt awkward and worried about the authenticity of their poem.  There have also been discussions at Magma Poetry about how poets can make it real despite not directly experiencing events and whether we should let our knowledge of writers’ biographies influence our reading of their poems.  Does it matter?

No one expects crime writers to have committed the crimes they are writing about.  Readers expect crime writers to have done their research and create empathetic characters so the readers can ‘experience’ the crime alongside the victims and try and figure out who the murderer was before the end of the book.  Generally novelists are not expected to write autobiography although there is an understanding that some events or characters that end up in novels may have roots in the writer’s life.

Poetry is also fiction.  So why should poetry have to be real?  Why does the question of “how do poets make an event they have not experienced authentic” even arise?

Most contemporary poetry is written in first person, whereas novels are generally written in third person.  There are exceptions, but most poems use an “I did/ felt/ saw/ dreamt/ experienced…” narrative and it is easy for readers to therefore assume that the poem’s “I” is the poet.  The assumption then becomes that the poet is writing directly from autobiography and poetry is no longer fiction.

This creates two problems.  Firstly it can create misunderstandings.  I know of someone who read Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” as taking place in the aftermath of a suicide attempt because he knew the poet had attempted suicide.  What he didn’t know was that “Tulips” was written after a routine operation to remove an appendix, which puts the poem in a completely different light. 

Secondly it shifts the focus from the poem to the poet and encourages the view that poems about, say, the war in Iraq are only authentic if the poet has served a tour of duty.  Or that knowing a poet has served a tour of duty in Iraq makes that poet’s poem more authentic than a poem written by someone who’s never been to Iraq but done their research.  This takes us backward to the view that crime writers should have committed the crimes they write about, which has already been dismissed.  Surely the poem matters?

Poems need to be able to stand on their own merit.  It doesn’t matter whether the poet has direct or indirect experience of what they are writing poems about.  What matters is whether the poem is any good or not.  Good poems can come from indirect, researched experience and bad poems can come from direct experience and vice versa.  Incomplete research will show, but poets with a distance from the event they are writing about have the advantage of being able to put the event in context and focus on making the poem.  The key focus has to be on the poem, not the poet, doesn’t it?

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Why Writers need Best Readers

You’ve drafted your latest piece of writing, edited it, polished it, re-edited it and, several drafts and sleepless nights later, arrived at your final draft (for now).  It’s your latest masterpiece and it’s brilliant, best thing you’ve ever written.  You’ve got a market in mind for it that’s a dead cert for an acceptance… Now stop.  Don’t send it anywhere.

Before you submit it to an editor, you need your best reader, sometimes called trusted reader or beta reader, to read it and not just for proofing either.

What’s a Best Reader?

You may have more than one.  Essentially a best reader loves your work but isn’t blind to your faults and isn’t hesitant about pointing them out either.  A best reader will point out the flaws in your masterpiece and constructively make suggestions for improvements.  A best reader may also proof-read, but their primary job is to constructively comment on anything you write with the aim of making genuine improvements to it.  That is improvements the writing actually needs rather than improvements that pander to their own individual prejudices or tame your piece so it’s exactly the same as the last piece you wrote.  A best reader gives your work the final polish before an editor sees it and prevents you rushing off your latest magnum opus to certain rejection because you inadvertently overlooked the fatal flaw in the second stanza.  Sometimes you don’t get a second chance with an editor so the best reader’s comments are necessary. 

“The best reader is crazy about your work but doesn’t love all of it,” W H Auden

How to pick a Best Reader

A best reader is someone who:-

  • can constructively criticise without making you feel an inch high,
  • can tell you what they love about your work as well,
  • you respect and trust,
  • knows when to back off because you’re too tired, too involved, too caught up in the initial “hey, I’ve done it!” enthusiasm to listen,
  • is supportive of your writing and wants you to succeed.

A best reader is not someone who:-

  • unconditionally loves all your work, even pieces you know are flawed, and can only tell you what they love,
  • can only tell you what’s wrong with your work and doesn’t care how you feel about what they’re saying,
  • is a competitor and could be raising doubts to sabotage your submissions in favour of theirs,
  • isn’t supportive of your writing,
  • always finds the same flaws – either you’re not improving or the reader is looking for their own prejudices and not closely reading your writing.

Why you may need more than one Best Reader:-

  • even Best Readers have prejudices – I have one who thinks my best poems are free verse therefore whenever I write a poem using a rhyming scheme, he dismisses it not because it’s a poor poem but because it rhymes,
  • you may write in more than one genre so need a best reader who is specialist in the relevant genre,
  • not all Best Readers can proof-read or correct grammar – and some writers are so keen on getting the story or poem on paper, the technical stuff can get in the way,
  • your writing’s developed and your best reader hasn’t moved on with you,
  • you know what your best reader is going to say about your writing before they’ve read it.

Having more than one Best Reader is an advantage: it enables you to grow and develop your writing, allows you to break free of genre straitjackets and challenges you to keep producing your best work instead of churning in the same old rut.

What if Best Readers are in Conflict?

You’ve shown your new piece to your partner, your favourite writers’ group, your on-line writing forum and a good friend.  Your partner’s usually good at homing in on the weaker parts, your writers’ group is good at constructively suggesting ways of making weaker parts stronger, your on-line writing forum good at listing your strengths and a good friend is a brilliant proof-reader.  But on this new piece, they’ve all got an opinion and all want you to re-write it differently.

  • Make a list of their comments and group by elements, eg all comments on stanza one or all comments on character A,
  • Look at each element and list the common themes, eg your writers’ group want to reorder line two so it rhymes with line four and your on-line writing forum want to rewrite it to rhyme with line one and your partner thinks it shouldn’t rhyme at all, then the common theme is that line two needs a rewrite,
  • Ignore solo comments on one aspect unless it’s a grammar/typo, in which case, correct it.
  • Re-read your piece and remember what you were aiming to achieve when writing it, eg “I wrote this poem to highlight this theme.”  Treat this as if it were a mission statement,
  • Take the comments on each element in turn and circle the ones that comply with your mission statement, eg if comment 1 wants you to drop your main theme and promote a subtheme, ignore it.  If comment 2 wants you to promote your main theme and drop a subtheme, circle it.
  • Now you have a clear plan of action for your rewrite (I’m afraid you can’t escape the rewrite; writing isn’t about getting ideas down on paper, it’s about getting the best words for those ideas in the best order and the real writing is in the rewrite).

How to Choose Poems to Read at a Poetry Reading

You’ve been invited to read your poems: fantastic.  Now ensure you get invited back… especially if you’re being paid to read. 

If you’re organising your own reading, the following tips are still worth bearing in mind.

Where is your poetry reading and who is your audience?

An open-microphone event in a bar will have a different audience to a poetry group meeting in a library.  An audience at a magazine launch will expect to hear the poems in the magazine.  A literature or local festival may have a theme to it.  Will your audience consist of casual readers or poetry readers, people expecting a performance or people more comfortable with a straightforward reading?

Find out as much about your audience as possible.  Also find out what the format of the reading is – just a reading of the poems you select or a reading with a question and answer session?  Will the audience be able to request you read a certain poem?

How long will your poetry reading be?

If it’s over half an hour allow ten minutes for introductions.  If it’s less than half an hour allow five minutes for introductions.  Of the time left after those five/ten minutes have been taken off, allow a minute for each poem or part of sequence that is 40 lines or less as a rough guide to how many poems you will be reading.

 As you select poems consider:-

  • Is there a theme emerging and it is a theme appropriate to your audience – a younger audience in a bar is not likely to engage with family themed poems, a library-based group may not engage with your space opera sequence.  If you have been asked to read poems based around a theme, do accommodate the theme otherwise you may not be asked back.
  • Lighten the load: put a humorous or light poem in amongst a run of more serious ones or vice versa.
  • Think about introductions and spread the poems that require longer introductions amongst poems with shorter introductions. 
  • As a general rule ensure your introduction is shorter than your poem.  Focus your introduction on giving the audience a handle on the poem rather than the poem’s form (unless the audience need to know the poem’s a sonnet so they get the joke).  If your audience is familiar with your poems, they won’t need much in the way of an introduction.
  • Don’t say the poem’s title until you’re ready to read the actual poem.  If you say the title and then introduce the poem before reading it, your audience may think the introduction is part of the poem.
  • Tempting though it is, don’t just read already published poems.  Include one or two that you feel are ready for an audience but are unpublished – your audience will appreciate an ‘exclusive’.
  • Plan to end on a crowd-pleaser – a poem that goes down well at readings or a poem you’re particularly known for.  It may be tedious repeating a poem that audiences like but you’ve become bored of, but if you leave an appreciative audience wanting more, you’ll be invited back.
  • Reading a sequence can be risky if the audience don’t like it.  Try mixing a sequence with other poems or only use a sequence if you’re sure you’ve got the right audience for it.  An audience made mainly of other poets is more likely to tolerate listening to a sequence they don’t like but can appreciate.  A casual audience will be less tolerant.
  • If reading at an open microphone event or an event where you are one of a number of poets reading, remember that your audience will consist of others waiting their turn or rehearing their own reading so pick a variety of styles and poems that build towards a punch line rather than quieter poems that will fade quickly.  The more distractions available to your audience, the more compelling your poems and reading have to be.
  • If there will be a question and answer session, include a couple of poems that may suggest questions later – such as a poem on a current news topic or a poem about a local person or place or a poem that asks questions.  You can kick off the question and answer session by referring back to it.

Rehearse your Poetry Reading

  • First read through the poems and introductions to check your timing – aim to keep within the time rather than be spot on.  Do not run over: not only will you create headaches for the organisers who now have to work out how to keep everything running to time, you won’t be invited back.  Live literature event organisers do talk to each other and poets who gain reputations for being awkward will find that reading opportunities dry up.
  • Get a feel for volume – not all venues provide microphones and you need to be heard by the back row.  One way of doing this is to put a tape recorder the distance of room away and tape yourself reading, checking that tape’s picked up your voice and how loud it is.  Then move further and further away from the tape until you’re two rooms away or the length of a small hall.  Get used to reading at that volume.
  • Pace yourself – your voice needs to last for the whole reading.
  • How comfortable are you with how you’re holding the poems as you read?  Some poets like to hold books or magazines and use numbered book marks.  Other poets prefer holding printed sheets, sometimes adding bullet points or keywords to prompt introductions.  Whichever feels more comfortable, check the poems are printed on matt paper so you’re not trying to squint through reflections from strip lighting as you read.  Bear in mind too that some venues will not offer a lectern or table for you to place books or paper on whilst reading so practice managing without.
  • If you want to learn your poems off by heart, it’s still advisable to have a printed version handy.  Even experienced actors use a prompter and it’s reassuring for the audience too.
  • If you’re reading your poems from your book or sheet, remember to look at the audience when introducing the poems.  The book or sheet can become a barrier so use eye contact to engage the audience between readings.
  • Always signal your last poem.  It helps the audience and any master of ceremonies to know you’re coming to an end.
  • Finish by saying “thank you”.  A reading is about your interaction with an audience, not you.

At the Poetry Reading Venue

You’re prepared, rehearsed, got your poems and reached the venue early.  If poetry reading organisers are truly organised you will have been given a name of the person who is responsible for meeting you and they will show you around and ensure you have what you need. 

If the poetry reading organisers are less organised, assess the actual room/bar/venue you’re reading in:-

  • Are you expected to walk “on stage” from the audience or sit in a chair to the side of the stage until you read?  If the former, select a chair next to the aisle.
  • Check your path to the stage is free of obstructions – tripping up is not a good way to start a reading.
  • Is there a microphone?  If so, has it been switched on and can you do a brief rehearsal?
  • Is there a hearing loop? If so use it.
  • If you would like a table to put books/poems on, check there is one or improvise with a chair if not.
  • Are the audience seated in rows or a horse-shoe shape around the stage?  If in rows, you simply stand at the front.  If a horse-shoe shape, draw an imaginary line between the two points at the ends of the crescent and stand in the middle of it.  If you stand forward of the imaginary line, some of the audience will be behind you and won’t hear you.  If you stand too far back, the audience in the curved section will struggle to hear you.
  • Are there any traps that could interfere with the audience’s ability to hear you?  Heavily stocked bookshelves can sometimes create odd echoes.  Noisy air conditioning or heating units can provide distractions.  Low open windows can let in noise.  You may have to compensate for these.
  • If you can, stand up to read.  You’ll find it easier to project your voice and the audience will be able to see you.  Avoid sitting behind a table – it might be easier for you but it’ll be harder to project your voice and the table creates a barrier between you and the audience making it harder to engage them.
  • If you are one of several poets reading and a poet reading before you has overrun, don’t assume that you will be asked to shorten your reading.  The event organisers should have prevented the poet overrunning and/or should cut back on intervals and breaks to get things back on time and in any case good planning would have included some slack time to allow some flexibility.  You have prepared and rehearsed to the time you have been allocated: it is simply not fair for the organisers to ask you to make sudden last minute changes to accommodate someone else’s overrun and take away a fair distribution of time for every poet reading.  You have been professional and it is reasonable to expect the organisers to be equally professional.

Quick Tips on choosing Poems for a Poetry Reading

  • Know the time you have been allocated to read and ensure you keep within it.
  • Select poems appropriate to your audience.
  • Keep introductions brief and vary poems that need a long introduction with poems that have a shorter introduction.
  • Rehearse.
  • Ensure you can hold your poems without needing a table to put them on and that the poems are on matt paper so you won’t be squinting through light reflections.
  • Use variety: vary the pace and tone of poems.
  • If you can, stand up to read and remove any distractions or barriers between you and the audience or compensate if it’s not possible to remove them.
  • Rehearse
  • Behave professionally and you’ll be invited to further poetry readings.