Altering poetry for publication: Good or bad?

I like making these post-#poettues posts after tweeting poetry on Tuesdays on Twitter. (Click here to view this week’s transcript.) Today, we discussed self-publishing poetry in unusual formats, the importance of quality and design in publication, and selective poetry journals vs. those that accept about anything. And then, we hit upon the big topic of the day, which was actually a series of slightly different topics related to altering poems for publication.

Altering poems for publication
I believe the first question related to whether poets altered their poems for publication. In a way, all poets who try to publish their work do alter their poems for publication through the act of revision. At least, most poets should take revision seriously (even if you’re having fun with the process and treating it as what it is–an opportunity to experiment and refine).

In this sense of revising poems for publication, most poets should answer yes, I suppose. In my own case, I write and revise (and repeat) until I think a poem is ready to be submitted (if I ever think the poem is ready to be submitted–many don’t make it that far). Some poems are accepted on the first submission, but most are not.

With those rejected poems, I look them over for flaws and use the rejection as another opportunity for revision (and I decide in some cases that some poems aren’t worth submitting again–at least in their current state). Not every poem gets revised, but I at least go through the process of trying to improve the poem if I can.

That’s my process (and the process of other poets), but I don’t think the original question meant altering in that way. I think the original question had to do more with…

Poets selling out to get published
On one hand, this is kind of silly, because there is no money in poetry. On the other hand, I deal with writers (including poets) on a daily basis, and I know how some of them think. Some writers are constantly chasing the three carrots of publication, fame and fortune.

Writers (poets included) often do not achieve any of those goals by chasing carrots. Instead, they are able to find success by creating art and then smartly knowing how to share their art with the world around them.

This led to an interesting aside.

Can art and popularity co-exist?
My answer is, “Yes. I think it can.” I don’t think all great art is popular, and I don’t think everything that’s popular is art, but there is a sweet spot in which they can come together. I think the main reason it doesn’t happen more often (or is not recognized as happening more often) is that both camps (arty and popular) have misconceptions about the other.

The artistic camp sees popularity as “selling out.” It doesn’t matter if you’re talking music, painting, or writing poetry. So true artists are supposed to shun popularity and at the same time complain about the lack of attention truly great work receives.

The popular camp sees art as “pretentious and full of itself.” Art is often pushing the boundaries and so it is uncomfortable for the mainstream audience. That is, until they get more comfortable with it.

How can art and popularity co-exist?
First, stay true to your muse. Don’t chase carrots. Create and experiment and have fun.

Second, don’t be afraid to share your work. Connect with other poets and readers of poetry (even those who don’t think they like poetry) and share your poems. 

There is no third step. Just create and share. Easy as that.


Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer

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You can also join the LinkedIn Poetic Asides group.


Plus, here’s a thoughtful post on today’s #poettues conversation by @BrianKSpears. (Click to continue.)


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10 thoughts on “Altering poetry for publication: Good or bad?

  1. Joshua Gray

    I have only had an editor make suggestions for revision once. I accepted all his suggestions but one, and stood firm on the one. The poem was published.

    It seems to me if you are catering to an editor of a journal it ends up being okay (as long as it’s okay for the poet as well), because the version is not written in stone forever — you can always change it back when the poem becomes part of a book or chapbook.

  2. Lester Smith

    Regarding publication pending an editor’s changes, Writer’s Digest’s own Michael Bugeja has some valid advice in his Poet’s Guide. He suggests letting editors have the final say, because you can always change a poem back in a later reprint and still print, "originally published in slightly different form in X."

    The larger issue, I’d suggest, concerns the continuum of art vs. publication (literally "making public"). Art purely "for art’s sake" just means an audience of one (the artist), with the hope that perhaps it may connect more universally. Still, that’s a pretty one-sided conversation. At the other extreme, writing purely to sell means trying to please a mass market, putting other people’s sensibilities ahead of your own, which is basically prostitution.

    We each have to decide where along that continuum we stand, to know what compromises we can live with. For Wallace Stevens, perhaps, an audience was less important than for Carl Sandburg, who sought to connect with and motivate a broader audience. Personally, I lean more toward Sandburg.

    Lester Smith, President, Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets

  3. Amy Barlow Liberatore

    I’m with you on the twittering, actually. Robert, I understand it’s a useful tool; however, I’m in that camp of those who need more in-depth conversation and articles, to peruse, to stop and meditate and analyze.

    As much as my condition makes me a snappy comeback type, I can’t follow several threads at once.

    Bruce, re: your comments on editing: I’ve had wonderful feedback from editors who were willing to take my "second try" and go with it. I draw the line at censorship (I simply withdraw the piece – not censorship in the sense of using inappropriate language – but wanting me to hold back on something regarding gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, that sort of thing. Trying to avoid controversy. I try to be sensitive to the theme and nature of the publication at all cost.

    Poetic Asides is a safe, nurturing, educational blog. Truly the most valuable community and project on the Web for poets. I commend you, Robert, for setting standards of integrity, constructive criticism (such as typos, which might deprive a poet of being published), and the many articles and interviews you offer. Huzzah!

  4. Sam Nielson

    Sorry for being such a naysayer on the twitter. I think it has it uses that work very well. But for discussion? Anyway.

    I do have interest in the topics still. Art vs popularity? Always a concern. In my local library for instance there is always the debate about fiction vs literature, implying that fiction is popular and literature is art. There are rules of thumb, if you will that point one way or the other, but the categories are never pristine or clear-cut. Even within ‘literature’ or within ‘fiction’ authors will sometimes snipe at each other in thinly veiled competition of each other, and to us it seems beyond our ken to understand the ‘literature’ as they see it, which confuses things.
    Same argument applies in say an art department of a college. You have the ‘fine arts’ and you have ‘graphic arts’ or illustration. They argue all the time. A good example is Norman Rockwell. His work was illustration, but he is collected as ‘fine art’ and that competes with the fine art dollar expended. So not only on the content to they differ, but on the commercial aspects of it as well, though the ‘fine art’ would like to say that money doesn’t enter into it.

    Poetry alteration.
    I seem to have issues with poetry altered to fit in publication. I don’t like to see the poet modify his ‘eye’ to fit a need, but on the other hand without public venue, poetry, indeed almost all writing, can lose its purpose. If no one sees the poem you wrote, it becomes only a game you play with and by yourself (but still can provide benefit to you). In a public venue the skill has to be there or it won’t be/shouldn’t be accepted. But the crossover into ‘selling out’ is where you write without your eye, but intent on fitting someone else’s eye. Where that line specifically exists depends on the poet her/himself. Can I change that word without changing my intent? Or is that word change actually more fitting to my intent?

    The Poetic Asides venue actually allows both sides, in a way, and I am glad for that. It provides a place where a poem can be public, but usually not in a harsh way. (Many of us might not survive that well.) And it provides a bit of a camaraderie and support for those not yet willing to share publically. Speaking from experience, poetry is a format that often begins in shyness, but wanting a little publicity. Up to a point that needs to be allowed, if anything is ever to go public. A certain extrovert trust, a certain thicker skin, a certain trust in self needs to grow before the risk is willingly borne. Normally, this would grow with age and maturity, but not necessarily.

    Sorry. I’m blathering on. And there is a Wednesday prompt going wanting. I’m off until another soapbox gets too inviting.

  5. Margaret Fieland

    Robert, interesting article, interesting points.

    I do enjoy twitter, even though I do see that topics can’t, perhaps, be explored in depth. What I do get out of it is more in the "food for thought" category, for example, to consider audio formats for self-publishing poetry, and the discussion about altering poetry. What they do is give my brain a jolt. I like that.

    As to editorial suggestions, I always listen carefully to what an editor has to say. Usually I find they’ve pointed out something I’ve missed, and even though I may not agree with their solution, I most often do recognize the problem. On a couple of occasions I’ve resisted changing something.

    My day job is computer software engineer, a field I’ve been in for over 20 years, and I’ve observed that other people’s problems are always easier. We bring biases to our own, I’ve observed, that we often don’t to others.

    As to the ‘altering for publication’ thing, I can only write what I’m moved to write. It’s not always what, perhaps, editors want to see. All I can do, as I see it, is to keep writing, keep on revising, and then seeing what, if anything, should be submitted for publication, and where.

  6. Robert Lee Brewer

    Thanks, De! As a professional writer (who has written copy often), I know all too well the demands of the copywriter. And since that job involves a paycheck and supports a family, there are certain compromises that must be made. But as you said, I think the challenges of writing professionally helps the writing process and does not hinder it, especially if you’re bringing the correct attitude to your day job.

    Bruce, you are dead on. Most of the time, an editor does have helpful suggestions. I have changed poems in the past as the result of editorial suggestions, and I have made editorial suggestions myself when I used to edit a poetry zine. An editor can often see things the writer cannot–because of space between the creator and the creation. Of course, the poet has to decide if the changes actually make the poem better. If they don’t, the poet can decide to withdraw the poem or refuse to make the changes, which I have also done (and the poem still ended up published).

    With the original question, I think the poet was asking if others change their writing style JUST for publication. I think if that is the only motivator that the poet will often have a hard time getting published and if the poet is published it will be hard for the poet to get readers excited. The reason? Because the poet is just connecting dots and not breathing any life into the poem.

    Sam, you are correct about the Tweets only diving in so deep. It is very difficult in 140 characters to carry a meaningful conversation, but these discussions start in Twitter and then (in this case) spark at least two blog posts on the topic. And here we are having further discussions in the comments of this blog post, in which we can share personal experiences, things upon which we agree and disagree, and so forth. So they become more meaningful in that way–essentially the tweeted conversations act as prompts or fire starters for broader communications.

    Plus, the #poettues hashtag also offers links to poetry news, calls for submissions, contests, poems, and more. That said, I do understand your point. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Sam Nielson

    Thanks for the view into the Twitter conversation. It reinforces the fact that I don’t like it. I’ve been in an online thing like it before, and you cannot follow anything intelligently. One person is commenting on something three ‘tweets’ back interspersed with several other conversational threads. It doesn’t give one enough meat to consider before jumping into and out of other thoughts.

    I don’t necessarily need a linear flow of things, but in a face to face or even telephonic conference call, you can track threads easily. Online, one never knows who is responding to whom without figuring it out, and by then the ‘tweeting’ has moved on.

    The other disappointing thing is that there isn’t any real discussion, pros or cons, considered response, etc. There isn’t time or space for it. Like the poetry in unusual formats or the altering for publication, I wanted to hear something meaty about either topic, or any of those raised on this twitter conversation, but, in short, the ideas were raised as a skeleton, no a bone in a skeleton and left largely alone.

    I believe I’d rather read a nice longish piece written on someones opinion/experience of those topics rather than the ‘me-toos’ or fractured reasoning. I found Bruce Neidt’s comments above infinitely more satisfying, whether I agreed with him or not. And we get a reasonable idea of where he stands on it. (Thanks Bruce)

    Twitter seems to work between a limited number (say– two) people where both parties can focus and respond in the limited number or characters. But a discussion between larger groups is just not feasible.

    Sorry to be so negative, but I really did want to see the alternative formats, and altering for publication topics reasoned out. I have dabbled with the ideas of commercialness/academicness of poetry for a couple of decades, the discussion of the skill/variety of a homegrown poet versus an MFA academically trained one. Which by the way, I always felt was a skill issue rather than a political one anyway. I guess I am a poetry discussion geek, of sorts.

  8. Bruce Niedt

    P.S.: Most editors don’t suggest radical or major changes anyway – if there are that many problems with a poem, they just don’t accept it. So that’s all the more reason to listen and consider their suggestions which are usually more of a "fine-tuning" nature.

  9. Bruce Niedt

    Interesting topic, Robert, but I thought it was going in a different direction, that is: what to do when an editor will accept your poem, but only on the condition you make some changes? It doesn’t happen the majority of the time, but when it does it gives one pause. Most suggestions from editors are constructive and can actually improve the poem, while others may seem capricious. I’ve had suggestions in the recent past that included changing the title, punctuation, wording (including changes to tighten the meter of a formal poem) and in one case, dropping the last line. The question becomes one of compromise: how much are you, the poet, willing to change to get that poem in print? Is it "selling out" to concede to every suggestion? Is it "artistic integrity" to refuse any such advice no matter how wise? The answer, of course, is somewhere in between. I usually make the requested changes, but have on occasion "haggled" with the editor to reach some common ground. Of course, I always have the option to refuse to make changes and take my poem elsewhere. But I try not to be that stubborn and short-sighted.

  10. de jackson

    Hi, Robert. Thanks for sharing a glimpse of the Tuesday Twittery thing here, where those of us who don’t really Twitter (Tweet? Twit?) can peek in. I’ve spent almost 20 years writing for advertising agencies, and while I do sometimes feel like I’m "selling out," I know most of those years were spent honing the craft and growing as a writer (learning how to say something engaging in 7 words or less, for example). As for what that sort of target marketing might ever mean to the publishing world for me, I’m still getting my feet wet and have no idea. So far lots of splashing and no catching. ; ) But LOTS of writing, and that’s what truly makes my soul happy. Thanks for all you do to nurture that. de.