Things learnt while Editing a Poetry Anthology

I’m on the editorial panel for the Poems for People Anthology in Solidarity with Refugees. The submission guidelines are here and the crowdfunding project to raise printing costs is here. The anthology will be printed by Five Leaves Publishing and is looking for poems and micro-fiction that sheds new light on the refugee experience, is specific rather than general and isn’t unremittingly gloomy, harrowing or preachy. The closing date is 28 September. Writers can submit up to 3 pieces as a Word attachment and pasted in to the body of an email with a writer’s biography of 50-100 words. Postal entries are also accepted.

Entries started arriving from 2 September, when the project was launched and the following observations have been made:

Submission Guidelines

  • Not everyone reads them. If there’s anything in the guidelines you’re not sure about, by all means query it, but the guidelines are provided for a reason. If you don’t follow them your work may be rejected unread.
  • Fortunately, no one has sent too many pieces (so far).
  • A number of people sent only one piece, which implies the poet has the excellent discipline and sense of discrimination to send the one best poem on the theme that they had. Either that or there are plans to send further submissions nearer the deadline and hope the editors aren’t able to count the total number of pieces submitted over several submissions so won’t notice that someone’s sent a total of six pieces over three submissions. My previous experience in organising and/or judging competitions tells me this does happen.
  • Some writers have included their name on their attached documents, some haven’t. The guidelines didn’t ask for anonymous submissions so individual pieces should have been named. It’s a good idea to do this because individual documents can get separated from the email/covering letter they were sent with and, without a name, it’s difficult to trace the poem back to the poet. However, no one’s entry will be rejected just because they didn’t put their name on it.

Writers’ Biographies

  • Performance poets don’t like writing biographies. Poets who write primarily for magazines are used to writing a short biography which gets published in the magazine along with their poem. It’s a valuable habit for performance poets to acquire so that they have something handy when a compere asks how to introduce them or wants something written down to use for publicity. In this case, poets whose work is accepted and who haven’t sent a biography will get chance to send one, but not all editors will do this.
  • Check the guidelines and, if given a word count, stick to it. It’s fairly easy to cut a handful of words from a piece that’s a couple of words too long and shorter biographies are fine. But if you’ve sent a biography that’s ten times longer than everyone else’s you look a) greedy b) arrogant c) risk the editor ignoring your biography altogether.


So far all submitters have stuck to using black type on a white background in a standard font. This makes it very easy to read the poems and see the poet’s intent on how the poem is laid out.


The editors asked for poems of up to 42 lines or micro-fiction up to 100 words.

  • On a couple of occasions, poets had sent a poem over 42 lines long, apparently unaware that they had done so. With the deadline still over a week away, it was possible to return the submission and ask the poet to edit their poem or send another. With entries close to the deadline, it won’t be possible to do this. This is why it’s a good idea to check the guidelines.
  • A couple of writers were guilty of “this piece is over the length. I can cut it if accepted,” i.e. knowingly breaking the rules. An editor can’t accept a piece of work that’s going to be changed before publication and it’s not fair on the other submitters for the editors to consider work that’s not followed the guidelines. It’s the writer’s job to ensure their work conforms to the guidelines, not the editor’s.


  • In the very early stages, most poems were ones that the poets had already written (and in some cases were already published) that the poets felt fitted the theme.
  • New poems written to the theme are also being submitted. There is a mix here of poems which have been written by poets who’ve been thinking around the theme and found a new angle, taken a specific approach and taken a compassionate view. There are some pieces written from first thoughts on seeing some of the media reports and pictures and as a result some don’t feel as if they are fully-realised poems yet.
  • All pieces submitted have loosely kept to the theme of refugees.

Poets in Solidarity BookThinking of Submitting?

  • This is an opportunity to have your work read by an experienced editorial panel and, if accepted, published by a highly regarded independent press, Five Leaves Publishing and to help raise money for registered charities working in support of refugees.
  • Read the guidelines: up to three poems of 42 lines or under or micro-fictions up to 100 words submitted as a Word (.doc) attachment and pasted into the body of your email along with a writer’s biography of 50-100 words on the theme of solidarity with refugees.
  • Submit by midnight on 28 September to Entries after the closing date will be ignored.
  • Postal entries to be sent to arrive by 28 September to Poets in Solidarity, 36 Leybury Way, Scraptoft, Leicestershire LE7 9UB. An extra day will be allowed for receipt of postal entries.
  • Check length of work and biographies before submitting.
  • If you can, please pledge to the crowdfunding project too.
  • All contributors will get a complimentary copy.
  • All funds raised above printing costs will go to registered charities working in support of refugees.

Why following Submission Guidelines is a Good Idea

Imagine you are an employer. You have a vacancy. You don’t need to advertise to fill your vacancy because you get hundreds of unsolicited applications every day. But how do you decide who to recruit? Some of the applications are obviously unsuitable, but the bulk of them will be from experienced, qualified candidates who are all suitable for shortlisting?

At this stage, employers start looking for reasons to reject candidates, rather than reasons to accept them. That typo will put an application in the reject pile, so will that coffee stain as will that application using capitals, an irregular font and that application where the crucial information’s not in the order the employer expected. The employer hasn’t time to figure out how the skills an applicant has in their current role will transfer to the vacant role so the candidate who hasn’t bothered to spell that out will end up in the reject pile.

An employer looking for reasons to accept a candidate might overlook these factors or take the time to read between the lines and tease out the information they want. An employer looking for reasons to reject an candidate will not.

This is the position most poetry editors find themselves in. They have an overwhelming pile of poems to choose from so they start looking for reasons to reject poems.

An easy way of finding reasons to reject poems is to publish submission guidelines and ensure those guidelines are widely published. Poems sent outside the submission window or after the deadline: reject. Poems rendered almost illegible by an elaborate font or being printed on a patterned background: reject. Poems without contact details: reject. That sequence of traditional sonnets sent to a magazine that’s asked for experimental forms: reject. Poems that are not written to the requested theme: reject. Poems that are longer than the advised line length: reject.

Like the employer, editors are not going to look kindly on a poem that’s almost there if only the poet would drop the cliché from line two. Editors do not have time to help you rewrite your sonnet into a concrete poem. Editors don’t have time to look at your poem that’s six lines too long and tell you which lines should go. Equally they don’t have time to ask you to cut six lines and re-submit only to find that the six lines you cut were the exact same six lines that got them interested in the poem in the first place. They certainly don’t have time to tell you to reinstate the cut six lines and drop the fourth stanza instead. Much easier, and time saving, to automatically reject anything that doesn’t conform to the guidelines without even reading it and turn their attention to those poems which do meet the guidelines. After all, how fair is it for an editor to waste time on poems that don’t meet the guidelines to the detriment of the poems where the poet has taken the trouble to follow the guidelines?

What, then, does a poetry editor do with a submission where the covering letter states “my poem is x lines over the maximum stated in the guidelines. If accepted for publication, I can shorten it to the correct amount.”?

How can an editor accept a poem that will be changed before it’s published? What if the editor doesn’t like the changes the poet makes in taking lines out and decides to reject it after all? When would an editor enter into correspondence with one poet when they’ve an abundant choice of poems that do conform to the guidelines to select from?

Why deliberately make a submission that you know does not conform to the guidelines? The odds of publication are not in your favour so why create your own additional obstacles to getting published? Why would an editor work with a poet who has deliberately flouted the guidelines? Would a poet, who thinks the rules don’t apply to them, be more likely to have a professional attitude towards being edited or more likely to be difficult to work with?

At a time when editors are looking for reasons to reject submissions, make sure you don’t give them a reason to reject your poems. In some blog articles, I feel as if I’m stating the obvious but recent experience shows the obvious needs stating. Deliberately setting up your submission for rejection is a waste of time and could give you a reputation you don’t want.

Poems for People: an Anthology in Solidarity with Refugees

Poets in Solidarity Book

Poems for People: an anthology in solidarity with Refugees

Aim: To publish and promote an anthology of poems to raise awareness of issues faced by refugees and show solidarity. Funds raised over and above the anthology’s costs will go to charities supporting refugees. The anthology will be produced by an experienced editorial committee, typesetter and Five Leaves Publications who will not charge for their time and will be available in print and as an ebook. Proceeds from sales will go to registered charities supporting refugees both in the East Midlands and abroad.

At the suggestion of Ambrose Musiyiwa, we plan an East Midlands anthology of a hundred poems and pieces of micro-fiction in solidarity with the refugees who are currently receiving so little welcome as they take to boats and rafts to cross the Mediterranean, make their way with difficulty through Europe and, in a small number of cases, arrive in Calais with the hope of reaching the U.K. The aim of the anthology is to enable readers to take a view of the situation which is not governed by the fear and hatred whipped up by the language of media and many politicians. The anthology will be produced by an editorial committee, typesetter and publisher who will work free of charge. The anthology will be published by Five Leaves Publications in Nottingham, and will be available both in print and as an ebook.

Submission Guidelines:

Please submit no more than three pieces of work. If you submit work which has previously been published, please give details of where it has appeared. The editors would particularly welcome writing which sheds a new light on the refugee experience in some way, writing which is specific rather than general, and writing which is not unremittingly gloomy, harrowing or preachy. We hope for a variety of work and an anthology which will interest, engage and surprise readers.

Poems should be no more than 42 lines (and much shorter work is welcome). Micro fictions should be no more than 100 words. All work should be single-spaced. Please include a biography of 50 – 100 words.

All submitted work should be in English. In the case of translated work, it is the translator’s responsibility to obtain permission from the copyright-holder of the original work.

Please send your submissions, preferably by email to by midnight on 28 September 2015. Send all material in a single word attachment AND in the body of the email. If you do not have access to email, you may submit by sending two copies of each piece of work by mail to: Poets in Solidarity with Refugees, 36 Leybury Way, Scraptoft, Leicestershire LE7 9UB. In either case, remember to include your contact details.

About: Poets in Solidarity with Refugees is a group of writers, artists and literature promoters mostly based in the East Midlands who want to share and welcome stories from refugees fleeing war-torn countries. Poems and fiction for the anthology will be selected by an experienced editorial panel and backed by a promotional campaign.

Questions and Answers from “Ghosts in the Desert” Launch

These were some of the questions (which may be paraphrased – I wasn’t taking notes when being asked) I was asked after my book launch for “Ghosts in the Desert” on 4 July. I have expanded on some of the answers below.

How do you know when a poem is finished or is there always another edit?

I think a poem is finished when the edits I’m making are not beneficial to the poem. For instance if I change a word and end up going back to the word I had previously or take out a comma only to put it back in again, when I feel as if I’m tinkering rather than achieving anything. It’s always possible to edit further but there’s also a point when editing looks suspiciously like procrastination.

How do you collect poems around a theme and does that theme inform new work?

Putting a collection together, for me, is a retrospective act. When I can collect together around 80 poems, I start to look for a common theme or anything that suggests the poems are interlinked and can form a body of work. If I can find sufficient poems I will start thinking of them as a collection rather than individual poems. If I can find a substantial number of poems but not enough for a collection, then I simply don’t have a collection. I don’t set myself the task of writing new poems on the theme because I find such new poems are often derivative or repetitive, saying what I’ve already said in a different format.

It’s fair to say, though, that common themes do tend to emerge in writing poems. So, whilst I wouldn’t consciously decide I’m going to write poems on theme x, I may well find that of the last dozen poems I’ve written, eight will be about theme x.

How did you start writing or have you always been writing?

I have always told stories. Even before I could pick up a pen, I used to build houses from play bricks and create stories for the people who might have lived there. At some point stories gave way to poems.

Which poets influenced you or got you into writing?

At school, we only studied male poets. I didn’t believe that female poets didn’t write poems that weren’t worth studying, but figured out I wasn’t going to find them through school or in book stores that seemed to concentrate on dead, white, male poets or anthologies. A friend sent me a copy of the Ted Hughes poem “You Hated Spain” and I identified with the “you” of the poem. That “you” was Sylvia Plath and through her, and her contemporaries such as Anne Sexton and Anne Stevenson, I found female poets worth reading and studying.

More recently I’ve enjoyed reading: Carrie Etter – I loved “Imagined Sons”, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Helen Ivory, D A Prince, Kei Miller, Daniel Sluman, Sheenagh Pugh, Ros Barber’s “The Marlowe Papers”, and I’m looking forward to the publication of Lydia Towsey’s “The Venus Papers” due from Hearing Eye. I enjoyed reviewing Mandy Kahn’s debut.

How do you define your style or poetic voice?

That’s a tricky question to answer without dropping into vague phrases or sounding horribly pretentious. Defining a poet’s style is often best done by others. A voice emerges when you’ve tried writing like other poets or tried writing on themes other poets have written about and you’ve found an approach and vocabulary you’ve comfort with and confident in. Voice comes when others read a poem and identify it as yours or conclude that no one else could have written that particular poem.

Do you find reviews of your work useful?

Yes. Sometimes you know instinctively that something is working but you don’t always analyse why and a review can provide that analysis. Reviews can also confirm that you were communicating what you wanted to communicate with the reader because the reviewer has interpreted the poem the way you intended it to be. Bad reviews can be helpful too: they either suggest the interpretation you intended wasn’t communicated fully so the poem needs another edit or a lazy reviewer’s interpretation is so far off the mark that it reinforces the intention of the poem.

Ghosts in the Desert is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing

Ghosts in the Desert book launch

Your Poetry Collection’s been Published – what now?

Getting a poetry collection published isn’t the end of a journey, but a transitionary stage. It marks the transition from writing a book to selling and promoting the book (and starting on the next). It’s not usual for writers to have mixed feelings when they finally get to hold a copy of their book in their hands. It’s a celebration but can also feel disappointing as a poet shifts from one stage in the journey (getting published) to the next stage (promotion) and the promotional stage is a long haul as I’ve previously written about in “Selling Poetry”.

Most poets prefer the first stage of writing a collection: writing and editing the poems, arranging the poems and seeing how they work alongside neighbouring poems, discussions with editors with the goal of publication. Once published, poets learn that:

“Writer writes book” is not news

The gloss of a new, shiny book can soon dull if you bore everyone you meet by talking about it, a little like new parents constantly talking about their new baby and nothing else. Be prepared to talk about the themes you explore in your book, select a particular poem to talk about or the reviews and reactions you’ve had. Vary your story.

Reviews take time

Even if you’ve been able to send out advance copies, reviews won’t necessarily appear on the publication date and may not appear for months afterwards. Check with your publisher before sending out review copies so you don’t send books to the same magazine. Bloggers may be able to review your book quicker, but always ask before sending an unsolicited book for review.

Arrange Readings

Most poetry books are sold at readings so arrange a launch reading and look out for other readings and local festivals you could read at. These are often booked long in advance so it’s best to get in touch with organisers as soon as you know you’re going to be published. Don’t overlook local open mic evenings and events. You may only be able to read one or two poems but you can read directly from your book and may have the opportunity to sell books on the night.

At a launch, you are in control and can talk about your book and read your favourite poems from it. At other readings, focus on reading selected poems rather than talking about your book. It’s the poems that will sell the book, not your brilliant, witty, engaging talk.

Change which poems you read or which order you read them in when doing different readings. If you start to sound bored, your audience may become bored too. There’s no reason not to intersperse poems from your book with newer poems.

Approach local radio stations too, particularly ones that feature talk shows and interviews. If news is a bit slow or a guest drops out, they may invite you in to talk about your book and read a poem. However, don’t turn an interview into an advert. Constantly urging listeners to “buy my book” will encourage them to do the opposite and some non commercial radio stations will drop your interview. If in doubt about what you can say, ask the producer before you go on air.

Social Media

Social media is an indirect way of selling books. It’s more of a networking medium than a selling medium. Don’t become a “buy my book!” bore. Offer information about forthcoming readings, post blog articles on what your book is about, do blog tours featuring articles on a poem or a specific group of poems or article about a topic or issue or theme featured in your book, include links to where your book’s available or post links to reviews.

Make sure you update your profiles to include your new book. If you use an email signature, does it need updating?


Being asked for Discounts

It will happen. Everyone loves to feel they are getting a bargain or a special offer and there is a minority who think they have to negotiate over everything. Practice saying “no”.

You do not need to offer an explanation for refusing a discount because the person asking will not appreciate that your book took you ages to write, you sweated blood over the comma at the end of stanza two in the title poem or even that writers deserve to be paid for writing. The discount request isn’t personal, haggling is just a habit.

If you know someone’s personal circumstances because they are family or a friend and you’re aware they genuinely can’t afford to pay for a copy of your book but would read it if you gave them a copy, why not consider giving them a copy in return for a review (on a site like Good Reads or Amazon)? That way you are still getting a payment for your book even if it’s not a monetary one.

Be aware that once you allow one person a discount, you will open yourself up to further requests.

Beware Special Offers and Discounts

Offering a time limited special offer or discount, e.g. a discount at a launch reading, a discount on one day only to mark an occasion, is fine. However, if you offer a discount that isn’t time limited, you are effectively devaluing your own work.

Promotional Items

Consider the return on investment before paying for any promotional items. Leaflets and post cards for use as book marks can be produced reasonably cheaply.


Ghosts in the Desert from Indigo Dreams Publishing

Ghosts in the Desert from Indigo Dreams Publishing



Emma Lee’s “Ghosts is the Desert” is available for pre-order from Indigo Dreams Publishing and the launch will be held on Saturday 4 July in Leicester. Her previous collections “Mimicking a Snowdrop” and “Yellow Torchlight and the Blues” are still available.

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Poets and Pay

  • Would you enter a competition where the entry rules required you to product a work of art using considerable skill to meet a detailed specification where the prize was to see stonemasons carve your words in stone, something they would be paid for but you would not be?
  • Would you undertake a three hour journey to give a half hour reading and hang around for a question and answer session for the privilege of appearing at the event (and no expenses)?
  • Would you allow a publisher to have an original, unpublished piece of work for exposure (i.e. no pay)?
  • Would you be prepared to read at a festival which attracts generous sponsorship, where the organisers, marketing staff and people serving coffee are on a salary but you are expected to receive nothing?
  • Would you agree to be a poet in residence where you had to produce a predetermined number of poems and your pay would be free entry to the place you were doing the residency which has an entrance fee?
  • Would you agree to take part in a cultural event to raise awareness and funds for a charity, not one you normally support, when the organiser assumes you would want to donate your fee to the charity, i.e. this donation is their decision, not yours?

How many questions did you answer “yes”? How many did you answer “It depends…”?

Few poets earn money directly from writing and publishing poems. Most earn money through commissions, tutoring, lectures, giving readings and performances or through a secondary job. Therefore reducing the opportunity to earn money through commissions, workshops and performances affects poets. More time spent doing secondary activities means less time available to actually write poems, this impoverishes us all.

  • It might feel good to see your work permanently on display somewhere, particularly if the place is local or has special meaning to you, but your poem is your work. You may generate some local publicity on the back of your poem appearing, but you should also be paid. Without your poem, the stonemasons wouldn’t have work and it’s highly unlikely they’re working for free.
  • If you are reading as part of a book launch or doing a book signing, you won’t get paid because the purpose is to sell books. If you have been asked to appear at an event run by unpaid volunteers and no one is being paid, then you have to consider whether the benefits of appearing outweigh the costs – if a local event where your travel expenses are minimal and it offers an opportunity to network with other poets or publishers and sell your book it may be worthwhile doing. If you have to incur travel expenses, prepare a reading and for a session afterwards it’s not unreasonable to ask for payment.
  • Never fall into the trap of thinking exposure for your poem is worth donating an original, unpublished poem to a magazine/fanzine/anthology without payment, especially if the editor has a salary. If the magazine is being run on a shoestring with an unpaid editor, then a complimentary copy or a token payment will be all you can expect. But steer clear of publications which expect poets to work for free or expect poets to buy copies of publications their work appears in without payment for their published poem: your own reputation may be harmed by association.
  • Similarly don’t bother doing a reading where everyone involved is getting paid except you. It might feel good being able to say that you read at this festival, but feeling good and getting a bit of local publicity won’t pay any bills.
  • Always check the terms of any commission before undertaking to do it. In principle if you produce a poem or poems, you should be paid. A waiver of the admission fee isn’t payment, especially if all it’s doing is allowing you access to the place you need to visit to inspire the commissioned poems. You may be willing to accept a lower fee if the residency is in a place that has a special meaning for you or is connected to a charity or voluntary organisation, but take care not to devalue your work by becoming an unpaid intern.
  • If you are approached to work for a charity, be wary of those who assume you don’t want a fee. If it’s a charity you do support and are happy to work for without a fee, still produce an invoice but mark it ‘donated to charity’ or ‘waived in favour of the charity’. Whether you donate your poet’s fee or not is your decision, not theirs. Remember a not for profit or no profit organisation is not necessarily a charity, just an organisation that reinvests any profit back into the organisation’s work. This does not exclude them from paying for poems or readings. Again, reinvestment of your fee is your decision, the organisation should not assume you are willing to work for free.
  • Two more crucial factors in whether you accept a commission or agree to do a reading are a) copyright and b) publicity.

Does the copyright of any commissioned work remain with the poet or is it bought by the commissioner? Ideally you would retain copyright (or copyright would transfer back to the poet after a set time) so that you can use the commissioned poem(s) elsewhere e.g. in a collection or recording of a performance. If you do not retain copyright, the commissioner should pay you for buying those rights.

If you are expected to be available for interviews or for publicity events connected with the commission, beyond a mention in your newsletter or on social media, this should be taken into consideration.

All writers should be expected to get involved in publicity and help promote their own books and any events they are involved with, however, poets also have be on their guard against not being paid.


Introducing Poems

I was reading Sally Jack’s review of Word! in Leicester and wanted to pick up on a couple of things she mentioned. I agree with her on both points.

Firstly I’m pleased that Sally Jack picked up on Word!’s strengths: that it represents different genres of poetry as if they are on a spectrum rather than adding to the false page/stage divide and that exposure to different genres and standards (from newcomer to established poet/performer) encourages and provides inspiration to do better. She makes the point that the imagery used by some of the poets demanded the poems be read as well as listened to and the best poems work both read aloud and silently.

Secondly I agree with her comment, “It does not always instil me with confidence to hear in an intro that the poem was just written that afternoon.” It may be true, but it leaves your audience thinking:

  • It can’t be very good.
  • The poet is trying to head off critical listening by saying in advance that the poem’s not very good.
  • How much respect for the audience does the poet have?
  • Knowing that Word! has no difficulty in filling the open mic spots, why does this poet feel obliged to read something dashed off this afternoon which may not yet be ready for a wider audience?
  • Why should I pay attention to a poem dashed off in a hurry rather than doing something more useful such as finding the right money for buying a drink, checking my phone for messages, drafting a poem of my own?
  • It may be one of those extremely rare poems that went through numerous drafts over a lengthy period of time in the writer’s head before it got put down on paper so it arrived fully formed and polished, but why mention it was only written that afternoon?
  • Why be apologetic about a poem about to be read?
  • Surely when it was written is totally irrelevant to the poem?

The last question gets to the heart of the problem: the poet has taken attention away from the poem and focused it on the poet. It may be that poet was the only poet who could have written that particular poem in that way, but Word! isn’t about poets; it’s about poems.

Word! runs at the Y Theatre, Leicester on the first Tuesday of every month:

3 February – Penelope Shuttle with Kathleen Bell
3 March – Rosie Garland with support from Pam Thompson
7 April – Adam Horovitz with support from Sole2Soul
5 May – ‘Jarman in Pieces’ by Project Adorno
2 June – Salena Godden with support from Bobba Cass


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