Breaking the Mold: How to Revise Poems for Publication

Here’s a guest post from James Von Hendy (written earlier this year) about whether material is published on blogs and a sound strategy for handling both poem sharing and revision, including how to revise poems for publication. If you have an idea for a guest post too, just send an e-mail to robert.brewer@fwcommunity.com with the subject line: Poetic Asides Guest Post.

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Recently someone posted a great question on Poetic Asides: can I submit the poems I posted on Poetic Asides to other online or print publications?

The short answer, I replied, was “it depends.” Since then I’ve received a couple of e-mails asking for more information.

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Recreating_Poetry_Revise_PoemsRe-create Your Poetry!

Revision doesn’t have to be a chore–something that should be done after the excitement of composing the first draft. Rather, it’s an extension of the creation process!

In the 48-minute tutorial video Re-creating Poetry: How to Revise Poems, poets will be inspired with several ways to re-create their poems with the help of seven revision filters that they can turn to again and again.

Click to continue.

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Previously Published Poems

Strictly speaking if your poem appears anywhere in print or online where the public can see it, such as on Poetic Asides, it’s considered “previously published.”

Visit the websites for a majority of online and print publications, or check their listings in the Poet’s Market, and you’ll see in their submissions guidelines they don’t accept previously published work.

So now what? Does this mean you can’t publish your Poetic Asides masterpiece anywhere else? Well, actually, you still have options. Here are four:

  1. Look in Poet’s Market for publications whose guidelines state they consider previously published work. If they do, they ask you to identify it as such and indicate where and when your work first appeared.
  2. Create a personal blog where you can re-post your Poetic Asides poems and reach other audiences. When you re-post, credit where and when the poem first appeared and link to it.
  3. Create a chapbook containing your best poems. Be sure to include a credits page. You can self-publish your chapbook in eBook format or as a print-on-demand (POD) book. You can also submit your chapbook to contests. Many chapbook contests—and their submission guidelines—are listed in the Poet’s Market. Be sure to read and follow the contest guidelines.
  4. Revise, revise, revise, and have fun at it. As Robert says in his tutorial video, “Re-creating Poetry: How to Revise Poems,” revision can create new work from old. Perhaps work that no longer qualifies as previously published.

Revise, Revise, Revise

Consider this. In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver writes she typically revises her poems 40 times before she launches them into the world. Revise a poem you post on Poetic Asides 40 times, and you’ll likely end up with a very different poem from the one you started with, perhaps different enough to submit elsewhere as the new poem it’s become. (Confession: I don’t think I’ve ever revised a single poem 40 times. On the other hand, who’s published more poems? Hm.)

At the start of the 2015 April PAD, Robert reminded us the poems we were about to write to each daily prompt were first drafts. That’s a good reminder about many of the poems we post on Poetic Asides. First drafts—no matter how enamored of them we might be in the moment—are seldom final, polished drafts. They can always be revised and made new.

Cosmetic changes alone, such as renaming a poem or tweaking a few words here and there, aren’t enough to make a new poem from the old. So what does?

Breaking the Mold

One strategy I use I call “breaking the mold.” Often when I start revising I’m too attached to the original version of the poem, so I look at my poem’s first draft for its heart, the thing that fired me up in the first place. Sometimes it’s the idea floating behind the poem. Sometimes it’s a line or two that’s already in the draft. In either case I extract the idea or the lines. I don’t look at the original draft, and instead start a fresh draft to see what surprises and mysteries unfold. Only then do I allow myself to go back and compare.

One of two things typically happens. Either I merge the two drafts into a third version and begin revising that, or the new draft becomes my working version of the poem. Often—but not always—I eventually end up with a poem that’s better than the original, related to it, but different enough to stand on its own as a separate poem. If it passes the “separate poem” test, the new poem is one I can submit to other online or print publications.

What do you do to revise your poems and make them new? I’m curious to know.

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James Von Hendy

James Von Hendy

James Von Hendy sometimes dreams of living off poetry, but fortunately for the bottom line he works in a different kind of fantasy world as a technical writer in Silicon Valley.

His poems have appeared infrequently over the last 30 years in print and online journals.

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13 thoughts on “Breaking the Mold: How to Revise Poems for Publication

  1. Mariana Nabila

    I hope you can help with a question!

    If I post excerpts of poetry online (1 or 2 sentences of each poem on Twitter) will those poems be considered published and no loner eligible for traditional publication? What about a video of the full poem read at an open mic reading?

    Thank you,
    Mariana

  2. PressOn

    I don’t try to publish much, so my comment may simply reflect ignorance, but in my day job I work with physicians, nurses, and physicists, editing papers for publication. These papers generally are peer-reviewed before being accepted for publication, and I have the notion that my poems should pass a standard like that too. Thus, even though I “get” the idea that any sharing with the public, whether in print, on line, or in person, is considered publication, in my mind sharing on a blog like this one isn’t, or at least is a lower form of it anyway. If Robert accepts one of my pieces for a top ten list, for example, I considered that “real” publication because someone knowledgeable has judged it. In a sense, the same is true when I receive favorable comments from fellow posters on this blog because it’s obvious that many talented poets frequent this space. Generally, however, I don’t think of a poem as being published when I’m the only one who decided to put it “out there.” In fact, I’m continually made aware that poems I think are good, often don’t impress others, whereas poems I don’t think are good, sometimes do. Very humbling stuff.

    As far as revision goes, I never think of a poem as finished. I don’t have any strategies for revising; I just save the latest version and record the date of first draft; I often find myself going back to poems I originally write more than two decades ago. If a poem gets “really” published, I move it to s]a separate file and generally leave it alone, although I have used some such poems as the genesis for others.

    Anyway, them’s my two cents. Thanks, James, for sharing yours.

    1. James Von Hendy

      Hi William,

      Yes and yes. I agree with you in principle that a poem we self-select and self-post on Poetic Asides doesn’t feel “published,” yet a spin through the Poet’s Market is sobering in that regard. Many editors these days are quite explicit about what “published” means to them, and appearance on Poetic Asides more often than not counts to them as “previously published.”

      I’ve thought from time to time of creating an online zine called “Second Look” that would only accept previously published poems, and who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll finally commit.

      And agreed, when is any poem truly finished?

  3. Nurit Israeli

    Thank you, James, for this enlightening post, as well as for our correspondence on this topic. I particularly like your thoughts about the revision process and your insights into what makes a poem “new” (ultimately, in the eyes of the beholder of course). Personally, I love revising, rewriting, and re-creating my own poems! I find Robert’s tutorial video: “Re-creating Poetry: How to Revise Poems” and Mary Oliver’s “A Poetry Handbook” especially helpful! Looking forward to more posts from you…

    1. BDP

      Nurit: I, too, love revising, rewriting and re-creating my own poems. The original writing of each poem can be a bear, though. That’s why I like the PAD challenge, or the poem a week challenge, in this blog–it urges me to write. Then I get to revise!

  4. Bruce Niedt

    Good advice, James. I would point out that some editors will accept previously posted poems if they are accessible without a sign-in or registration, or if they are on a site that allows anyone to post their work without screening or editing. And not all editors consider personal blogs as “previously published.” As you said, Poets Market is a good source for finding each publication’s policy, but also check the guidelines page of the journal’s website which may provide more detail. I have actually had poems from this blog legitimately accepted for publication.

    Your revision process is a lot like mine. I will often try to re-create a poem from memory a day or two later, with some improvements if they come to me, then I compare it to the original and combine them or just go with the srcond draft. Usually I take the best elements of both.

    1. James Von Hendy

      Good advice about checking a journal’s website for more detail. There are only ~16 journals in the Poet’s Market that explicitly say they accept previously published poems. Don’t ask how I know that, LOL. There are many more where it’s not explicitly clear that they don’t accept previously published work, so it pays to do your homework.

      Like BDP, I envy your ability to recreate a poem from memory. I’ll remember snatches and lines, but not the whole. The visual element is a key for me.

  5. KM

    Great post, James. I think it’s a great idea to look at the poem with completely fresh eyes in a new doc and build, change or cut from there. One of the things I do when I’m revising is change the form and line lengths. For example, if I’ve written a short, left-aligned block of text, I try breaking it up, or putting it into longer lines, or even prose form. Sometimes changing the shape of it helps me see things I didn’t the first time and find new ways to take the poem. I’m a re-arranger too, taking lines or whole stanzas and moving them up or down to see if they fit or flow better. It’s easy to get attached to our first drafts, but as you say, they are so rarely the best possible version.

    1. James Von Hendy

      Hi KM,
      I once got in an argument with a poetry teacher of mine, and things got pretty heated. Finally, in exasperation at my pig-headed insistence on leaving a poem of mine unchanged, he grabbed the poem out of my hands, took out a pair of scissors, snipped the lines apart, threw a few on the floor, and rearranged what was left, chopping lines into smaller pieces for one. Then he bellowed “This is what I mean.” He had a point, and it was a great lesson.

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