Poets Helping Poets: On Handling Bio Notes

Over on Facebook, I have a personal account with a bunch of poetry friends, as well as a Poetic Asides group with a lot of members. So yesterday I asked the published poets who are members to share a little bit of advice on writing those tricky little bio notes that poets are often asked to include with their poetry submissions to poetry journals and magazines.

The response was overwhelming. I’m just now digging out of all the great advice. Here’s what some of them had to share:

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I generally strive for a 50- to 75-word bio, featuring only the most recent and relevant info about my writing life. I list the three publications of which I’m proudest first, then two or three accolades (awards, residencies, honors). If appropriate, I tailor the bio for the publication in which it will appear. For example, if it has a regional focus, I’m likely to mention my previous publications in that region. If there’s room, I’ll also reference my graduate degree in poetry and the poetry-related community service I do. As my career evolves, I revisit and update my bio regularly so that it represents the best of my writing life each time it appears.

 

Sage Cohen

 

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The length of a bio can walk a very fine line. As a reader of journals I’m not too interested in work where the bio is only “so and so lives in Atlanta“. I want to know a little something about the poet but at the same time I don’t want to be lulled to boredom by reading an overly verbose bio with dozens of credits listed. I use the same approach, mentioning my background very briefly (maybe a word about my novels) and mentioning a few journals where my work has appeared if I mention any at all.

David LaBounty

 

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Typically in my bio I give the title of my book and then list only three journals, or four at the most, where my poems have been published. When I read a bio that lists a whole string of journals, regardless of whether there are other credits included, it makes me suspect that the poet is feeling insecure–in the same way that a poet who writes past the ending of a poem doesn’t trust the reader. I prefer a bio that is selective. This is the time to put your best out there, not every little indication that someone likes your work.

 

Susan Meyers

 

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I do exactly what the editor asks. If he asks for three sentences, I send three sentences. I do not send six and suggest that the editor edit as he likes. Chances are he won’t like that at all! If the request for a bio is vague, I check the journal for examples. I never send an exceedingly long bio as I’m turned off by them, especially when they’re very braggy. I include usually no more than three journals where my work has appeared. I never use numbers. I find it a complete turn-off when I read a bio that says something like, “So and so has published 502 poems in 138 journals.” Bean counting is unattractive and amateurish. I never include information about pets, one, because I don’t have any, and two, because I never am interested in pet information in other people’s bios. I include my book titles, some journals, what I do for work, maybe where I live, any significant prizes. And those are the things I’m interested in when I read other poets’ bios.

 

Diane Lockward

 

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The formula: [academic accomplishments (MFA/PhD, Grants/Awards)] + [3 or less previous publishing credits (if this bothers you, tack “and elsewhere” on the end)] + [books published or to be published and/or writerly positions, such as “Nonfiction Editor”] = satisfactory bio.

 

Todd Dillard

 

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Sometimes the obvious must be stated: follow the press or publication’s guidelines if they are available, and select information that may be of particular interest to the publisher, such as work in journals with compatible styles or thematic interest. Beyond that, select the information that is most likely to make the reader stop and give your manuscript a close look rather than skim through. A small number of relevant items suggests the tip of the iceberg, while including too much sounds desperate. If you do feel it necessary to include a large number of items, invite the editor to select those that are most relevant for contributors’ notes rather than expect everything to be included.

 

J.D. Smith

 

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Remember that bios are not written in first person, and create a few single sentence and a short paragraph bios to keep on file, making sure to match the tone of the bio with the publication.  If your collection of poems about death makes it into a serious anthology, don’t use phrases like “loves the feeling of mud squishing between his toes” or “spends her free time singing karaoke on free beer night”.  

 

If it’s a lighter-hearted publication, have a little fun with your bio without losing focus of what a bio is for – to let the reader know a little bit about who you are, what you do, and why you are significant enough to need a bio.

 

Lisa Abeyta

 

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Less is more. A bio note is not a resume.

 

Aaron Fagan

 

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If the editor of the magazine does not provide guidelines, I usually keep it to three sentences, including one that illustrates whether I have been published previously and where.  I usually begin the bio with my name, where I am from, and a bit about my educational background.  The second sentence is usually something quirky about myself, and the final sentence is where I have been published.

 

Serena M. Agusto-Cox

 

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First of all, it’s important see what guidelines the journal may set on length and/or type of content and follow those precisely. I always mix my bio with some (and the operative word is ‘some’) of my publishing credits as well as personal comments. It’s important to show that you’ve published, if you have, and yet let the editor know a little of your human side, as well. It should go without saying that you should check your bio for spelling and punctuation before sending it.

 

Pris Campbell

 

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Keep it short and definitely within any word or character limit (for example, keep it much shorter than this paragraph). Mention only the publications in which your work has appeared most recently (unless you’ve previously published in the publication for which you’re submitting the bio; then, it’s nice to acknowledge that). If you’ve published books or worked on projects that are important to you, put those near the beginning. Keep personal details to a minimum.

 

Okay, now here are the caveats: Some people write extremely clever and very personal off-the-wall bios. They are entertaining if written well. Try to see what other bios people have written for that publication to determine whether that’s a good direction. And if you don’t think you can write that kind of a bio well (I don’t think I can), consider sticking with the more plain Jane variety.

 

Joannie Stangeland

 

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In my experience, you have to know your audience. For example, for some journals, I use the opening “Brian Spears is not related to the singer, but he does have a teenaged daughter named Brittany. He hopes she will forgive him one day.” storySouth used that bit, but I didn’t include it when I was published in The Southern Review. I sent it to Measure, and the editors cut it, but I sent it to them because I knew them from grad school, and I figured I could get away with it.

 

My basic structure includes this information: recent publications, awards, and what I’m doing now. I expand it depending on the journal I’m sending to, and how adventurous I perceive them to be. Hope that helps.

 

Brian Spears

 

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There has to be something interesting; a hook in that bio that grabs them as much as what you have written would. Think of your bio as yet more branding for what you are trying to sell. It has to be interesting.

 

Natalie Williams

 

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Do not under any circumstances tally up your publications and give a total. I have read bio notes stating that the poet has published over 200 poems in over 50 magazines, or over 1000 poems, or whatever. I once read a bio note stating that the poet had only 360 poems to go before hitting 5000 poems published. Seriously. Don’t do that.

 

Jessy Randall

 

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My advice is mostly from working as copy editor for Alaska Quarterly Review for three years. I was sometimes assigned the task of cutting author bios down to the size and content we were looking for; I think it does depend from journal to journal. We did not publish information about where a person worked, as a rule. We did publish awards and previous publications. It usually read like this, “So and so’s collection X is forthcoming from such and such press, and her poems have appeared in X’, Y, and Z. Her poem Y’ won the Pushcart Prize in 1998.” If there were more than a few sentences’ worth of publications, we might trim it down, choosing the highest-profile accomplishments, so yes, short and sweet is good. If you’ve been published in 50 journals, best to say, “So and so has been published in more than 49 literary journals, including X, Y, and Z.” If someone hadn’t been published before, we wrote, “This is so and so’s first appearance in a national literary journal.”

 

Erin Wilcox

 

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Always best to look at a recent back issue of the journal to see what sort of tone the editors like (cutesy or serious). As an editor, I really don’t like overlong bios (and why give me extra work to do? Edit yer own bio!) — fifty words is fine. Think of the bio as an opportunity for other people to connect to you: places where they can find you or your work. Never lie.

 

That said, I like adding an element of subtle perversity, like only listing journals that have a number in their title, or are one word or syllable long.

 

Hugh Behm-Steinberg

 

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I have a standard bio that includes a couple major publishing credits, my editing work, and what I do to earn a living. I then add information relevant to the specific poems: if I’m sending poems about Japan, for instance, I will mention the time I spent living in Japan.

 

Elizabeth Kate Switaj

 

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Pick only the most important two or three accomplishments and mention those. Also, try to tailor your bio to fit the audience of the journal or mag in which your work appears. Try to write it in such a way that you highlight what you have in common with that audience or that you establish yourself as unique among the voices there.

 

Allen Taylor

 

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There’s nothing I hate more than a bio that looks like all the other bios. The way some of them read, I imagine there’s no person behind it — only a walking mound of awards and journals, held together by the stickiness of critical acclaim.

 

The bio itself can be poetry. Be creative. Use a metaphor, or at very least a bit of symbolism.

 

Jason Mashak

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2 thoughts on “Poets Helping Poets: On Handling Bio Notes

  1. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

    I always give poets the same advice for bios that I give for poetry: read it out loud a couple of times and make sure it sounds good. When I hosted my reading series, I HATED the long-winded resume-bios some of my features gave me (as did the audience) and would often edit them down or ignore them completely and say something personal I knew about the poet instead.

    A good bio should be no more than 3-4 sentences and include a personal note along with reference to 1-2 specific credits.

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