Roy Marshall discusses writing, editing and ordering your poems, choosing a title for your pamphlet, and finding the right place to send it, and suggests dealing with the ‘returns’ with a brief bout of swearing!
Poetry pamphlets are loved by many, as an artistic medium in their own right. Richard Price, speaking at the inaugural Michael Marks Awards for poetry pamphlets, suggested that a reader should “never underestimate the power of a pamphlet’s compact universe”.
A pamphlet can act as a taster, a means of introducing a new poet. Poets from Dylan Thomas to the current Poet Laureate had their first collection of poems published in pamphlet form. As well as being a first showcase, pamphlets can be a means for established poets to present new work alongside or between full collections, a recent example being Penelope Shuttle’s collaboration with Alyson Hallett, Covid/Corvid (Broken Sleep Books, 2021). Pamphlets are ideal for poets who want to explore a single theme, or who wish to branch out stylistically in ways that are significantly different from their work up to that point. Often, a pamphlet will contain a sequence of poems that are linked by theme and form, for example, Kate Bingham’s Archway Sonnets, (New Walk Editions, 2020).
A poetry pamphlet is generally defined as being of between fifteen and forty pages (sometimes with complementary images), with the majority between twenty and twenty-five pages. For publishers and purchasers, pamphlets have the advantage of being less expensive to print and to buy than full collections.
Self-publication aside, there are two routes to pamphlet publication, either by submitting work to an independent publisher, or by winning a competition.
Poetry Pamphlet Publishers
Before choosing a publisher to submit to, it is essential to get an idea of what sort of poetry they are interested in. Some specialise in limited editions by established poets, others are actively engaged in seeking out new voices. Some do both. In recent years there has been a proliferation of presses specialising in pamphlets by performance or spoken word poets. These include Verve Poetry Press, Outspoken Press, and Burning Eye Books.
It is a good idea to buy a pamphlet or two from the publisher you are interested in. Not only will you be able to look at what they do, you will also be helping to support their press. You might also find a bookshop that stocks pamphlets, or be lucky enough to be able to visit either The Poetry Library or Scottish Poetry Library, where you can browse large collections.
Many publishers have a house style, with distinctive design layout and artwork distinguishing their products. Some will use high quality paper for pages, covers and endpapers. Others will be plainer in design. Some are scaled-down books with perfect bound pages and a slender spine, while others are stapled between folded card covers. Coast to Coast to Coast’s series of unique ‘Poet Journals’ are beautiful hand-stitched artefacts.
Some publishers have statements or descriptions of how they see themselves, ranging from the invigorating — “flipped eye publishing is a lean, reader-focussed, writer-loving, boat-rocking support system for culture” — to the more formal
Most publishers have a webpage containing varying degrees of detail about the press and its poets, submission guidelines etc. Some have statements or descriptions of how they see themselves, ranging from the invigorating — “flipped eye publishing is a lean, reader-focussed, writer-loving, boat-rocking support system for culture” — to the more formal. Many specify dates when they are open to submissions. Independent presses are often run by one or two people, and submission windows help them manage their workload by setting aside time to read, consider, and respond to those submitting manuscripts.
Some small presses charge a submission fee. Burning Eye, for example, have found that a fee (later donated to charity) is an effective way of ensuring they are not overwhelmed by the number of submissions arriving at any one time. The Emma Press also charges a fee “to put a value on the time and energy spent by the team”, but recognises that not everyone can afford the full amount, so offer a tiered system that enables people to pay what they can. For the majority of independent publishers, a lack of external funding and the impossibility of making any money means running a poetry pamphlet press is a labour of love.
Some publishers provide details of terms and conditions should your work be accepted, such as the number of complimentary pamphlets available to the poet (or available at a reduced rate), royalty arrangements, print run numbers etc.
When researching publishers, consider how they present themselves both on webpages and social media, and how they market their publications. You might be interested to see if they have won or been shortlisted for any awards such as the Michael Marks Award for poetry pamphlets. If you know someone who has had a pamphlet published you could ask them about their experience of working with a particular publisher. Considering some of the above will help you decide if a publisher is a good fit for you and your poems.
In the UK, annual pamphlet competitions are run by a number of publishers, the most prestigious being Smith|Doorstop, and by magazines such as Mslexia, Prole, Magma and The Rialto, with the winners going on to have their pamphlet published. Entry fees mean that the competition judge or judges can be paid, and they also help to meet administration and production costs. If you are thinking of entering a competition you might want to look at who is judging it. It is unlikely that you will be able to guess what kind of poems a judge will like, since this will not necessarily be the sort of poems they write themselves. But it might be important to you to have your poems considered by someone whose writing you admire.
It is tempting, given the wish to have a pamphlet published, to send it off before it is ‘ready’. The difficulty lies in knowing when that might be. Do you have enough good poems? If your answer is no, you might be suffering from a dip in confidence. Alternatively, you might be being realistic about the distance between where you are at the moment and where would like to be in terms of your writing. In which case it is probably best to trust your instinct and save the entrance / submission fee for now.
This doesn’t mean you can’t begin to lay foundations for a pamphlet. Open a file for your best poems. Type out a provisional title, contents and acknowledgements page. Let your poems accumulate. Let them live together. Live with them. Go back and visit them again, editing when you are feeling creative, reconsidering your work in progress. There is (hopefully) no rush.
If you feel you have enough good poems for a pamphlet, you will need to set aside some time. Choosing poems, editing and deciding on what order to present them in is a creative exercise. This process is potentially enjoyable, but you are likely to feel more confident about your pamphlet if you work on it when you are not in a hurry.
You might begin by asking yourself which poems you love. If you can also explain to yourself why you love those poems, so much the better, as this will help your understanding of your work and its qualities. Ask yourself if you would be happy for your ‘weakest’ poem to represent you. If not, take it out. One poem less is better than a weak link. One approach to choosing poems is to have a ‘definitely’ pile, a ‘maybe’ pile and a ‘not for this project’ pile.
There is probably a reason you are doubtful about a particular piece, even if you can’t put your finger on that reason at the moment. It is worth bearing in mind that poems you leave out can be worked on further. If they don’t seem to fit in this selection, they might eventually be included in a full collection or in another pamphlet. You might feel there is a ‘missing link’; a piece that could fill some sort of gap and make the pamphlet feel more coherent and complete. In which case you might try to write that poem.
Reading your poems aloud will help you choose. As you read, you can listen and look out for uneven rhythms, lines that don’t sound right or ‘true’, as well as repetition of images, language, and forms. Since this is a short selection, you don’t want to cover the same ground, unless the use of repetition is a deliberate choice.
Poems that have received a positive response from an audience, teacher, writing group etc. often carry the glow of external validation with them. But it is useful to re-evaluate how you feel about those poems now, and not automatically include them
It is likely your selection process will be influenced by the fact that a poem has previously been published in a magazine or placed in a competition. Poems that have received a positive response from an audience, teacher, writing group etc. often carry the glow of external validation with them. But it is useful to re-evaluate how you feel about those poems now, and not automatically include them in your current line-up. You might decide that a published poem you valued several years ago no longer feels like it represents the way you write now, or that a recent, as yet unpublished, poem is a better fit for this selection.
A common practice for poets assembling a collection is to print and lay poems out on the floor. As well as looking at how poems fit together, seeing poems in print can help make the idea of your collection more real. Generally, it is thought to be good practice to place one of your strongest poems at the start of the pamphlet. This helps to welcome the reader in and capture their attention.
You might want to put another of your best next to it to sustain the early promise. The last poem should also be among your strongest. A memorable poem, like any good finale, will leave your reader with a lasting impression.
Putting Your Poems in Order
Single themed pamphlets can be extremely effective, with poems linking and building on each other to explore a subject or theme. If you have a single theme, you might want to see how moving poems about changes the pace and tone of the piece. If you don’t have a single theme, there are still likely to be themes running through your poems and you can make notes to identify these to help you to consider how they might be grouped. Look at how images interact, and see if there are any common threads to help you decide how you would like your pamphlet to unfold. Think about factors such as tone and register. How do these affect the way your poems flow or interact? For example, you might not want to place a humorous poem next to a very serious one. You might want to sequence poems so that the transitions in tone or register are smooth. Or you could deliberately contrast these things to achieve a different effect. You might intersperse longer poems with shorter ones to provide variety and moderate the pace and rhythm of the pamphlet.
There is no scientific formula to this process, and your sequencing is likely to be influenced by a combination of calculated consideration and unconscious decisions dictated by feel or instinct. If you have allowed yourself a bit of time, you can enjoy experimenting with different ordering and see which you like best.
If you are worried about the order of your poems, and most poets are, it might help to know that one very experienced publisher and editor I spoke to said something along the lines of “Don’t worry about it too much. The poems are meant to be together. We’ll sort them out.” Bear in mind that if your pamphlet is accepted for publication, a good editor will work with you.
A second reader
If you are lucky enough to have a trusted poet friend, ask them to take a look at your pamphlet. Initial responses to critical feedback, no matter how well delivered, are often defensive, so it is important to allow yourself time to reflect, returning to reconsider suggestions when they may make better sense.
When thinking about the themes in your poems, you might find a representative title suggests itself. Or you might choose the title of one of the best poems, or use a particularly striking line. Keep a list of possible titles and ask friends and family which they like. Again, an editor can help you select a title, but it is useful to have a set of choices to offer them.
Carefully check guidelines regarding font, spacing etc. Some publishers ask for a cover letter containing a brief biography and details of previous publications. If your work is more performance orientated, the publisher is likely to be interested in your ‘performing’ CV. Read your submission again, make final checks and send away!
Submission windows and competitions in the UK attract hundreds, sometimes thousands, of submissions. This means that for every pamphlet published a large number are returned. It is worth remembering that a large number of publishable pamphlets by very good poets will be among those not taken. If your submission is among them, it does not imply a negative judgement on the quality of your work. This is a slightly paraphrased version of a paragraph on the submissions page of Rack Press:
“(We) publish four or five poetry pamphlets a year which means that the majority of submissions are, regrettably, turned down. This is no reflection on the quality of work submitted and no one submitting should be discouraged. Often we would love to publish your work, but we don’t have the capacity. The decision on what to publish is complex.(We) think about the nature of each submission, how it relates to others planned for that year, and how it fits in with other ideas and commissioning plans we have.”
Whenever I have had work returned I have found that a brief bout of swearing helps
I know poets who succeeded in having a pamphlet published after several attempts. If your submission is returned (I prefer this term to ‘rejected’) you will inevitably feel disappointed. Whenever I have had work returned I have found that a brief bout of swearing helps. When you are ready, you can go back to writing, editing, ordering, sending.
Remember, the time and effort you have spent putting your pamphlet together will never be wasted. You will have looked at your poems with a fresh eye and edited them. You will have selected poems, thought about their qualities, identified themes and narrative threads. You will have practiced seeing how you would like to put your poems in order. You will hopefully have received helpful feedback from a friend, or perhaps from a competition judge or editor. Setting your poems out as body might have helped you get an overview. You might even have chosen a title.
Read The Friday Poem In Conversation with Helena Nelson of HappenStance Press, The Friday Poem In Conversation with Les Robinson of ignitionpress and The Friday Poem In Conversation with Stuart Bartholomew of VERVE Press