Why Poems Get Rejected
As a platform for emerging poets, our mission is to be as clear and helpful as we possibly can. The community lifts itself up together or not at all. In that light, we’ve collected a few craft reasons for why poems may get declined from our slush pile of submissions.
Before anything else:
In no way should you hear these notes as a discouragement of your writing. We see so much potential in poets who submit to us, poets who only need encouragement, time and practice to mature into published authors. The not-so-hidden secret to editing is that at least one quarter of the poem’s job is to simply meet the editor in their particular emotional moment. We are people, with lives, with struggles, with memories and scars. A lot of the selecting that we all do depends upon that human factor—so if you receive a notice that your work has been declined, it is not necessarily a judgement of its linguistic quality, but of the fact that it wasn’t the right place, the right time.
With that in mind, also take care to watch for these common mistakes:
Rhyme & Meter.
In America, when we are taught poetry in school, almost always we begin with the sing-song meter of children’s books. If we’re lucky, we move into Frost and Poe by middle school, Shakespeare in high school, and maybe a few contemporary poets thrown in if our English teachers were uncharacteristically enthusiastic. Unless we major in poetry in college, or pursue an MFA, often this—poetry with hard rhymes and hard meters—is the largest image of poetry in our brains. If we want to then become poets, that image will be something we have to defeat.
Almost always, if a poem follows the sing-song rhythm and rhyme of old English poetry, our editors immediately know they’re dealing with a poet who has not read much contemporary poetry. There are exceptions—and we love those exceptions and seek them out—but the majority of poems that rely on hard rhymes for every line ending don’t make it very far.
If this sounds like your poetry, then our advice is simple: read more contemporary poets. There is a whole world of sounds out there that has already been worked out and from which you can steal. (Email our EIC for recommendations: josh (at) frontierpoetry.com).
After that, dig into slant rhymes and off rhymes and play with forms that you are not used to, pantoums and villanelles and sestinas and free verse. There are excellent resources for all of these online.
Dreams & Poetry.
Dreams are what they are: mysterious, poetic, provocative. Poet after poet will tell you about a dream that inspired something they’ve written. Do not discount or discredit the power of a good dream for your writing.
However, do not use the poem as a way to tell us the story of your dream. This is as uninteresting in poetry as it is in conversation. Editors cannot be close friends or family members. We don’t have the ability to be engaged by your particular psychological weirdness out of the context of your life. Your brain and your story are interesting, but they have to be digested for the sake of the audience before they should be shared.
When using dreams in poetry, be mindful of the context and the audience. Probably, the simplest fix will be to remove the introductory phrase—”this is what I dreamed”—and just write from within the dream immediately.
Robert Frost, that old genius, wrote that poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom. A dream begins in delight and ends in a rhino-shaped car driven by your mother crashing into your old high school. Be careful that you find the wisdom on the page before you send it out for submission.
Presentation & Format.
While we at Frontier do not go all the way and have particular fonts and formats as part of our guidelines for submission, our editorial team has discovered quite consistently that if a poet is submitting a piece that is in an unusual font—i.e. not Times New Roman or Courier or Garamond—that piece is almost always of lesser literary quality.
Editors will likely be turned off immediately by unusual fonts, colors, and formatting. Our reading trains us to be so. Likely, you are hurting your chances for publication if the poem is only playing with format in order to make the piece “visually unique”.
By all means, play, experiment, be weird—writing takes practice and you should always be practicing. But not every experiment wants to be shared with the world. Not every poem in which you practice your craft is for public consumption.
Your work will be taken more seriously if you copy serious writers: when in doubt, use Times New Roman, 12 point font, 1 inch margins, and poem titles in bold.
Also, it’s a good idea to keep your submission documents as clean as possible. Unless otherwise asked to do so: do not include footers or headers; do not include a by line for every poem in your submission; do not include the cover letter in your submission documents; do not include a title page.
Note: there are always exceptions, and if you have one, we want it.