I haven’t yet found the courage to brave the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (except as a punter) so I’ve come to accept August is a quiet time in my calendar. Outside of writing, the freelance work is tied up with schools or projects in the community, but with many people on holiday this month my schedule looks decidedly bare. Initially I was terrified. Three-to-four whole blank weeks is not just staring into the void, it’s vomiting myself into it every morning the diary is checked. I will never work again becomes the hit internal monologue – the summer’s most requested track.
What I’ve come to realise is that this enforced time off is a gift. Freelancers rarely get solid chunks of time to focus on their own writing with very few distractions or deadlines to hinder the work, so what am I complaining about? Creating this time is a key reason I workshop. The inevitable shaky finances have now forced me to quit drinking, and buying dresses is a definite no, but this is not a bad thing. So this summer was spent finishing a limited-edition hand-stitched collection and arranging a few dates for a winter launch; I’ve made a start on a full-length play and completed new work to submit.
Which brings me to the joy and pain of submitting work. I’ve read some fantastic blogs by poets who have detailed submission systems, who have reams of magazines and contacts and competitions ready to send their work to. Spreadsheets ready, their new work finds a suitable home with an exceptional hit rate. I am in awe of these writers but I also find that approach a little overwhelming.
After months of fretting that I’m just not doing it right, that everybody else is doing more than me, I’ve reached the conclusion that what works for one writer isn’t necessarily going to work for me. When considering submitting I want to read a few copies of that publication first. Multiple subscriptions become expensive, so I’ll buy a single issue or borrow one from a friend to start with (being strict on the number of subscriptions running each year also keeps the finances in check). Examples of current/recently expired subscriptions are Dark Mountain, Mslexia, Poetry Wales, New Welsh Review, The Rialto, Bare Fiction, Earthlines, Planet Magazine and The London Review of Books. When one expires I might resubscribe or use that money elsewhere, future plans include subscriptions for Tears in the Fence, Popshot and The Poetry Review.
I’m not interested in being limited to one genre, and because of this I don’t always have work I think will fit with a certain magazine (I subscribed to The Rialto for a year and didn’t send anything, although I still want to). Competitions are a rarity because I don’t write to compete but if one comes around and I have something I think will fit I’ll send it in.
I’ve submitted multiple times to some publications with no luck, and I might even be aware that my work isn’t an exact fit but perhaps I’m hoping the editors will see what I’m driving at, maybe they’ll see how I think I might fit if the kaleidoscope were twisted just a little to the left-field. Or (more probably) it’s me who needs to find a publication a little more to the left.
This method of submitting is admittedly slow. When so many of my peers seem to be flagging up everywhere I feel like a tortoise. I’ve got a few pieces out at the moment, and a poem coming up in Tears in the Fence in September. I’m delighted about this because I have massive respect for that publication and have discovered so many poets whose work I admire when poring over its pages. Thanks to Tears in the Fence I’m now a fan of Robert Van Dias and in the last issue I found a stunning poem ‘Wondering’ by Iranian poet Ziba Karbassi (translated by Lara Popovic). I can’t stop reading it.
Working as editorial assistant on two issues of Dark Mountain helped me to better understand the process: I saw poems submitted that I loved and that easily passed the first editorial round only to miss out on the final publication because they didn’t quite fit the theme or flow of that issue. Such is life. That taught me to send rejected pieces elsewhere and it’s been a successful system.
I also believe that when I don’t have anything to say I should keep quiet and focus on workshops or producing, on helping other people in my community find their voice.
First and foremost I am a poet. My art is the reason I do everything else. The treadmill of suggested funding applications, publications and events is alluring, and submitting to that can make me feel like I’m getting somewhere. Maybe I am. But the question I have to keep asking myself is: is this an authentic step forward for me as an artist, or am I just throwing words at a chance to say anything/get paid? There might not seem like a huge difference between the two, and sometimes there isn’t – but sometimes there is.
By Sophie McKeand