POETS: What makes a poem worthy of submission? (Seeking Input!)

I’m toying with the idea of submitting to a few literary contests, since the only real stakes are the entry fees. Plus I have a collection of 88 poems ready for publication (aside from one poem that I need to tweak a bit), and I’m noticing that basically all poets publishing a collection have a list of previous publications before the book. (As an aside I wonder whether that’s because that’s how publishing actually does work or because most poets were encouraged to publish this or that poem earlier in their lives, before they’d acquired a collection of publishable works? What was your experience?)

And besides, I need to start collecting the rejection letters already so I can finally get over that terror. I mean, sure, I’ve had applications rejected by maybe ten universities since I first applied back in high school; but never have I yet received a rejection for a piece of writing. The only thing I’ve submitted thus far was a scholarly article on a single word in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which was accepted with only minor changes (which apparently doesn’t usually happen? Unclear!). Every writer always talks about the rejections. I fear them terribly: rejection is merely a moment’s glance away from abandonment, that most dreadful of the founding terrors within me. But a publication-rejection is not a personal-rejection, and it’s time I get those separated.

So, I picked out fifteen sets of three poems that struck me as plausible triptychs, and from those I chose out four sets of finalists.

But it occurs to me that my criteria for selection are . . . . ehhh . . . . ‘Eclectic,’ let’s say. I’m afraid they’re mostly ‘internal,’ a kind of logic built between me and the clouds of associative thought that I’ve kicked up about each of my poems.

A good friend who looked at them told me one triptych in particular was more relatable. I appreciated the comment all the more because it hadn’t occurred to me to think in terms of relatability. But now that I’ve thought about it for a moment, it’s a permanent question—and I think a significant one. But what other criteria am I neglecting out of naïveté?

I’m especially alarmed because my favorite set, I think, of the four finalists, contains two poems written only within the last two months (to be collected into a forthcoming collection), whereas all the others are from late fall 2018 through spring 2022. It defies my usual routine of sitting on a piece of writing and then coming back to it with fresh eyes.

So I’m trying to understand what thoughts I might want to be thinking as I’m working through this process of selecting poems for submission from a larger collection, and now I’m turning to you, dear poet reading this—and you, dear poetry-lover!

What are the things you look for in a poem, or a set of two or three, to submit for publication or a contest? What gives you the sense that this or that poem should go with this or that, to be submitted here or there?

The number of variables to each of so many questions is overwhelming me a bit…

Let’s discuss! Leave a comment sharing what criteria you’ve learned to employ for selecting poems to submit for publication, whether they’ve been successful or not, or whether you even use any publishing-criteria at all. Or, if you love to read poetry but haven’t written much or any, what do you look for in a poem? What draws you to one poem but not another?

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