'Prepare to be immersed in the heat and vibrancy of Florida's natural world, full of such sensual detail that to read it is to breathe it in.' -Jo Shapcott [review of Greyhound Night Service]

Triangulating poetry submissions: the small batch

Lately I have been submitting to poetry competitions, publications or projects that require the poet to send 'a small batch of work'. Sometimes they ask for 3 poems, sometimes it is 6-10 pages, but whatever the low digit number, the process of compiling the 'small batch' has been an intriguing one.

Firstly, this type of instruction requires one to consider selection and range: how can you possibly best represent the range of styles and forms that you use when writing? This is quite a tricky question and I usually approach it by tailoring each submission to best suit the blurby bit where the details about what the publisher is looking for are necessarily broad and sometimes too vague. Recently I've twice had to email the editor for more information as the website did not provide enough clues.

The stage I am at currently means I have a huge bulk of poems to choose from, those already published in magazines (if already published work is allowed), those poems that are finished but keep not-quite finding a home, the new poems that might be little gems but are rough and quite language-loose compared to finished drafts, and finally, the poetry sequences.

Ah, the poetry sequence. Joy, manna, inspiration and air that I breathe, yet also thorn in my bum, trickster, too-long-for-the-usual-40-line-count mistress of my work.  Apart from those very few publishers who specifically ask for sequences, most don't welcome poems of long length. Poetry sequences often elude the page count specification for these deadlines. They also don't fit easily into the 'send X number of poems' suggestion either.

What happens when a sequence is longer than the 4 page limit (or 6 page or 10)? In the past I have had to choose a selection from the sequence, often the opening or middle poems, to attempt to represent the whole. This sits uneasily with me as the very form of the sequence requires a different type of structure. To select a section is akin to say, choosing a stanza from an individual poem to represent the whole.  Possible, but not the best method I think.

If one is asked to submit by poem number rather than page, I always feel odd sending one long poem with two short ones. Perhaps I have that sometimes female tendency to think I'm over-filling my allotted space so I feel I should still keep the submission relatively short. If 3 poems are requested, chances are, most editors expect roughly 3-5 pages per poet, not two individual poems and then one, 13-page beauty.

Of course there are exceptions to every case and I am happy to have found a number of submission opportunities for short sequences, over time. On the whole though, the small batch requirement means a triangulation of sorts, in the geometric sense: you zero-in on a point (in this case, the publishing of a poem) by finding its location. In order to do this you must approach the point through the only source you have (the poems you have that might be accepted).

The object isn't to approach the hoped-for outcome directly but rather to approach it slant, from the sides, from the periphery, like aiming out of the corner of your eye, half-glancing at the prize. And if the poems are good enough, they'll fly home true. Then the path will look like a direct one in hindsight: I just chose a few poems and sent them off. When really, you may already have quickly forgotten how you chose just the right ones to send, to try and represent your self / your work, the selection of that precious few pages of words and finely-crafted blank space.