How to Make Your Poems Stand Out: Advice From a Reader

Today’s post comes from Daniel Ari, who proposed writing a guest post about his experience as a screening reader for the 2015 April PAD Challenge. He explores how to make your poems stand out from hundreds (if not thousands) of others. By the way, if you have an idea for a guest post, send me an e-mail at robert.brewer@fwcommunity.com with the subject line: Poetic Asides Guest Post.

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Receiving my 213th rejection notice, I felt no negativity. No regret, no indignation, no self-recrimination. The immunity took a while to acquire, but at last I could take no-thank-you’s in stride—and submit again. Meanwhile, I’d read a lot of articles about how to make my poems more likely to be published. Over time my ratio of acceptances to rejections increased, but given the actual math of the poetry world, rejection is an inevitable part of submitting.

But I recently had the opportunity to learn about acceptance and rejection from the other side, as a screening editor. I was excited to volunteer for the role, but immediately began to worry. I would have to comb through 1,000 posts within a week, selecting approximately five percent to pass to the judges. Since I was committed to giving each poem at least one slow, careful read, the amount of work ahead felt daunting.

Yet not only was it hugely enjoyable for me to discover my capacity to read without tiring, giving each poet’s effort my full attention and the tenderness of a fresh, open mind, but I also discovered some important insights. Or rather, I gained new context for the submission suggestions I’d always approached from a poet’s and not an editor’s perspective.

Speaking now as a screening editor as well as a submitting poet, I will try to summarize what I gleaned. I hope these thoughts help you think about how and what you submit and lead you to more of the replies you’re hoping for.

1. GO DEEP

The event I screened for was a poem-a-day-style event, so what I read had usually been written within a day. As a poet who typically spends longer than a day per poem, I thought of each as a first draft. So I was particularly impressed by poems that dove deep into the poet’s truth, into juicy imagery, and into language that was fascinating and gutsy from the start and all the way through.

TAKEAWAY: Poems that meandered or started to say something but stopped didn’t make my cut. There were poems that described a flower or a person but never went beyond description, never revealed the poet’s resonant relationship to the thing described. Even incredible word use or extended metaphor is no substitute in my book for something that makes me care. What is it about Gerber daisies that makes you recall your uncle fondly? How do you really feel about the dressed-up woman you saw walking down the sidewalk at dusk?

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2. PROOF YOURSELF

Even in the context of a poem-a-day event, I came to sense a difference between poems that were posted cleanly and those posted hastily. As a writer, I usually forgive myself for the odd typo or grammatical gaffe; but as a screening editor, I felt that if a poet didn’t care enough to polish their poem, then I didn’t care to correct their errors mentally while also trying to get the most out of their poetry.

TAKEAWAY: Edit before your submit, and then proofread. Twice. Thrice wouldn’t hurt. Proofread from the last line back to the first to help you focus on your words with a fresh perspective.

3. FOLLOW THE RULES?

The event was prompt-based, and I wanted to see if poets adhered to the prompt. When it was obvious from the start that they didn’t, I was on guard.

ON THE OTHER HAND, I found many poets who were pushed by the prompt into tangential veins of passion or into images so compelling that they overruled the rules. In those cases, I enthusiastically kept the poems in the “yes” pile. The point is that the poem is more important than the rules. I valued a gutsy poem that went in its own direction over a blah poem that stuck to the script. (I was happy that this preference was part of the instructions I was given as a screening reader.)

ON THE OTHER, OTHER HAND, some poetry venues make it clear that they expect a certain topic, file format or typeface. Poets should respect requests that are couched as mandatory, or even your gutsiest poem will get tossed before it even gets read.

4. MAKE IT ABOUT SOMETHING

Some poems fell into the 95% “no” pile because they just weren’t about much. Maybe they described a sweater or a water fountain, but not in any significant or transcendent way. I want to see a poem about a sweater that’s really about the struggle to feel secure in times of trouble. I want big meanings as in Neruda’s concrete-noun poems like “Ode to Salt” and “Ode to My Socks.” They’re not just about salt or socks, but about labor, belonging and interconnectedness.

ON THE OTHER HAND: I also eliminated poems that contained too many words like labor, belonging and interconnectedness. Abstract nouns are hard to grab on to, and they’re problematic because they tend to come in flocks. Once a poet has written love, then honor and respect enter. Soon deep, forever, and mutual are at the door, having chased away souvlaki, eiderdown, muddle, and crescent—the very words that help make each love unique. (Luckily, concrete nouns and verbs also tend to come in flocks.)

A TIP: If you want to test your poem for abstraction, imagine you’re a painter. Could you paint your poem? I remember reading a submission about watching a hurricane hit. The colors, sensations, textures, objects, and people so overfilled that poem that a painting would have been beside the point. Nothing abstract about it! It was wonderful, and I was happy to pass it on to the judges.

5. KNOW YOUR FORM

Personally, I like formal poetry though I don’t favor formal poems over free verse. If anything, I might have been a little harder on the formal poems. When I detect a sonnet or a rhyme scheme or a good poetry-slam style cadence, I pay attention. And that makes it stand out more for me when a poet executes a form shoddily or starts in form and lets it crumble away by the end.

TAKEAWAY: If you’re going to do rhyme and meter, bring your A game. Formal poetry should demonstrate a real knowledge of the form, and if the poet goes against the usual parameters, it better read as a conscious, intentional and correct decision. And if you’re going to rhyme, watch out for too many trite ones. I’ve seen life paired with strife and love paired with dove often enough. I like seeing life rhymed with sheaf, as Emily Dickinson might do. Slant rhyme holds a lot of fresh possibility.

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6. HAIKU, SPECIFICALLY

Excuse me while I step up on this soapbox. Friends: counting out seventeen syllables a day is very easy. But writing haiku is not. If you’re going to submit haiku, you should be practicing it like a martial art. Your strokes of language should cut precisely and leave a clean, lasting impression. You should already have written haiku by the thousands. You should demand perfection from your handful of syllables. Poems that are simply a syllable count are impossible to mistake for haiku. When haiku is perfect, nobody is even going to count the syllables—the number will be entirely beside the point, like a grain of sand in the soil beneath an orchid.

ON THE OTHER HAND: If your limerick can make a reader LOL, you may have a leg up. But again, there’s an art to it.

7. COMMENTS DON’T MEAN MUCH

In the online format of the event I screened, people could comment on one another’s posts. It became mechanical for me to delete the extra comments quickly—I had enough on my plate just getting through the poems. In that way, I wasn’t strongly affected by the enthusiasm of the group.

ON THE OTHER HAND: Where there’s smoke, there’s often fire; so some of the poems with many comments did turn out to be worth saving.

8. FIREWORKS CAN WORK

Interesting words arrest me. Duende. Paroxysm. Widdershins. I look them up, and I Google references I don’t get. Wild imagery stops me, too. An antique doll being ruined by the rain. A truckload of ripe tomatoes taking turns too fast.

ON THE OTHER HAND: There was one poem that was all fireworks. The interesting words became a jumble, and I couldn’t piece together a relationship between them. It made me feel dense for trying hard to get it and still not getting it. Linguistic fireworks have to have some reason behind them or it’s just candy and no meat.

9. HANDLE WITH CARE

If I’m any indication, the poems you submit are handled with care. I would expect most screening readers to be sincerely dedicated to the task of pulling the best poems from the bunch. Because with poetry, it’s almost always a labor of love; and the pay, if any, is token. I wasn’t paid, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Because it’s a labor of love, I took time to fix obvious typos as I read and to make any corrections that poets requested in comments on their own work. I read every poem with patience, and I read many more than once. I tried to imagine them being read aloud by Amiri Baraka or Naomi Shahib Nye or William Butler Yeats. I happily gave each poet the benefit of the doubt and didn’t blink twice at grammatical trip-ups like it’s for its. I focused on the soul of the poem, and if it was there in abundance, the poem made the cut.

TAKEAWAY: The truth is that there are umpteen reasons for even your best poem to be turned away. A screening reader often makes the decision—and what do they know? I believe, though, than in the effort to make the best journal, anthology or website, editors are dedicated to making the best choices they can even when you and I, the rejected poets, know how totally wrong those choices are. There are many more submissions than slots, many more styles than tastes. So blame the math, and don’t take it personally. Then submit again if that’s what you want to do.

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Daniel Ari

Daniel Ari

Daniel Ari‘s forthcoming book, One Way To Ask, pairs poems in an original form called queron with imagery by more than 60 artists. Besides being a professional copywriter, he writes and publishes poetry and organizes poetry performances and events throughout the Pacific Northwest.

He blogs at fightswithpoems.blogspot.com.

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42 thoughts on “How to Make Your Poems Stand Out: Advice From a Reader

  1. Marie Elena

    Daniel,

    I somehow missed this post. I caught it when I saw your smiling face scroll by. 🙂 Thanks for the great tips! I hope that as I write, they will come to mind and I’ll recognize whether or not I’m following them. Sometimes I see what I meant to write, and not necessarily what I actually wrote.

    Thanks also for volunteering to screen. What a selfless act of love for poets and poetry!

    Take care, my friend.
    Marie

  2. PKP

    Dear Daniel – This article (for it is more than a mere posting) is filled with clear, and interesting insights into the editing process per se and your process per particular. But, more than this intellectual bonanza – is the sincere, and yes loving, manner in which you approached the task at hand and shared your experience. This careful, deep, insightful, empathic, and yes loving connection with your readers is a significant bit of why I think that you are not only a wonderful poet but a mensch – then again perhaps the two are inextricably related. Thank you for taking the time to write a thoroughly enjoyable piece.

  3. Cynthia Page

    I found this helpful for editing my poems. I’ve been too shy to attempt submissions, though I’ve written more than 400 poems in the last six years. I think I might try submitting after applying this advice, and resist being discouraged by rejections. Thank you.

  4. Daniel Paicopulos

    I am grateful for this thoughtful and detailed discussion. Indeed, you have set the bar very high for my daily writing, and it may go a long way towards explaining why I am having so much difficulty in selecting and editing some 300 pieces for a book. In the April and November challenges, however, it is a lot to ask, for what are really only first drafts. If I attempted to match these legitimate standards on a daily basis, I am afraid some of the fun would go out of it. Having said that, these remain valued goals for re-writes.

    1. DanielAri

      I agree, Daniel. First drafts really aren’t the same as finished poems. I, too, tend to polish poems over a much longer span of time. Still, as poets and as editors, we work with the parameters we’re given. So going deep even in a first draft, and proofreading, for example, are still workable practices for one-a-day poems.

  5. mohinipuranik

    Thank you, Mr Daniel Ari for the helpful advice. It’s so nice to have guidelines by a person who is a poet and a screening editor too. Thanks for reading our poems. I participated in the PAD challenge by PA blog for the first time, this year and what I realized that there is a lot to learn about poetry (for me) and this is the right place for that. 🙂

  6. Sarah Metzler

    Daniel,
    Thanks for the helpful advice and for reading through many first drafts! Regarding your haiku soapbox…I was guilty of writing haiku-like pieces during the Writer’s Digest PAD 2015 without having written or read a thousand previously. However, practicing clumsily and somewhat ignorantly during the PAD inspired me to read and practice haiku after the challenge was over. While I have not yet written one thousand (more like 200) or earned a black belt (more like an off-white), I have improved. And, more importantly, I have found my bliss. So, please forgive the fledgling flapper that wobbles awkwardly before the swans.

    1. DanielAri

      Sarah, your comment reminds me that not every poet is seeking publication or acclaim. Many people write for the equally important drive to meet language and express experience in new ways. One especially great thing about PAD and Poetic Asides as a whole is that poets of all levels are welcome–encouraged–to share. Forgive me for suggesting otherwise.

    1. DanielAri

      Thank you, Bruce. More and more, I’m convinced of #9, that all poems were handled with care thanks to the screening readers being truly into the art of poetry.

  7. SestinaNia

    Thank you, Daniel, for putting into words what many of us screening readers were doing! I can second just about all of this–especially the part about going deep. I also tried to give each poem a fair read, and there were many more good poems than I had space to pass along to Robert. And what made a poem stand out was not always the same factor. Sometimes it was the unique perspective, sometimes it was the fantastic turn, and sometimes it was how the poem twisted the prompt into something totally new yet related. And I would also add that it really did come down to my gut in some cases–did I just love it or did it just make me shrug with a “whatever”. You can’t always put your finger on what makes a great poem, but these tips will help all of us write better poems!

    Thanks again, Daniel, for sharing, and for being a screening reader (I know the hours of work that was!).

  8. Kaulmer

    I am new to this process although I have been writing on and off for a long time. But writing in a closet is a hard place to grow and consequentially I have been craving insights on how to improve, your article provided much appreciated perspective. Thank you.

    1. DanielAri

      Glad this was helpful, Kaulmer. I often encourage people to venture into submitting work and seeing what happens (being prepared, of course, for a fair share of rejection). Your talk about writing in a closet also reminded me of something I heard the poet Michelle T. Clinton say when I was about 21 and writing poetry for only a couple of years. She said it could be worthwhile to let your poetry incubate in private, to grow or germinate “in a closet.” There’s value in that, too. I hope this checklist (by no means complete) can help poets intuit when it’s time to check whether the incubation is complete and a broader readership via publication is ready to hatch.

  9. Anthony94

    Daniel,
    Thank you for the excellent tips as well as remembering to be stoic about the many “doesn’t fit” items/aka rejections! It’s the details you enumerated that add up to the “big one.” Great checklist before sealing the envelope or hitting send! There’s no doubt you and the other screeners were passionate and caring. Thanks to all of you!

  10. Amy Billone

    Thank you for giving such an interesting look at the judging process. I love the complexities of the process you describe and am especially interested in your comments about abstract nouns and concrete nouns and verbs. I like the way you say these tend to “come in flocks,” which can be a bad thing. Your helpful discussion of the judging process reinforces how hard it is to write a great poem. Thank you, again!

  11. drnurit

    Great post! As another screening reader, I thank you, Daniel, for your informative, wise, and insightful observations. I agree with all of them! Personally, the process of selection made me ponder, yet again, what makes a poem “good” or “better.” Like you, I gave each poem my full attention, reading, re-reading, and concluding that there were many more “good” poems than the number of poems I could pass on to the judges. In this labor of love, I attempted to find balance between subjective and objective criteria.

    I was acutely aware that, even though objective criteria are necessary and critically important guidelines, different readers may choose differently, even if they rely on the same criteria. Our opinions are affected by subjective factors like personal preferences (I, too, was “particularly impressed by poems that dove deep into the poet’s truth”), the meaning generated by us, our own perception of excellence, etc. Selections can never be exact and, like James, I humbly concluded that many deserving poems did not make it to the final list just because there were more excellent entries than available slots…
    ~ Nurit Israeli

    1. DanielAri

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response Nurit. As you suggest, in taking on the role of editor, and also in writing this article, one of the main treasures for me was personal: the opportunity to couch for myself what I want for my own poems. Making them “better” is only about making them better in my own judgment; but knowing they are my best effort makes rejection sting less because I can more easily chalk it up to the reader’s preferences and the presence of so many other excellent poems.

      And hey – congrats on winning the forms challenge with your wonderful Dodoitsu! That went deep, fast. It was perfectly in form, it followed the rules, and it had no typos 😉

  12. AC Leming

    Daniel,
    I was volunteered to judge a local mag’s High School poetry competition because I was one of the few poets the owner & editor knew personally.
    I nearly refused to do it the second year because of a dispute with another judge the first year. I reluctantly agreed only if we could meet face to face to discuss our top picks. (It’s too easy to get ugly when you’re not in the same room and aren’t picking up on facial cues.) Fortunately, the mag didn’t do it a third year.

    I have a greater respect for those wearing the “judge hat” after that harrowing experience. Kudos for volunteering, both to pre-judge and for writing about your experience.

    1. DanielAri

      I bet a harrowing experience would generate a much darker article – or none at all. I’m glad my experience was such a positive one. It makes me feel lucky that part of the conditions of PAD was that judge’s decisions are final – so no disputes. D

  13. KM

    This is a helpful and thoughtful post, Daniel. I especially love the question “Could you paint your poem? “. This is something I will try to ask myself from now on in the editing stages.

    – Kim

    1. DDW

      Ha! And for myself: it’s proofreading, 1 word. DYAC.
      Thank you again. After following the link to this good advice on another poet’s timeline, I shared this post on Facebook as well.

  14. James Von Hendy

    Daniel, this post is filled with clear and excellent observations and advice. As another screening reader I second them all. Screening gave me a deeper, first-hand appreciation of the work poetry editors of print and online publications do every day in the name of love for poetry.

    I would also add that in the winnowing process even some otherwise excellent poems can be lost in the shuffle or not quite make the final cut. That speaks, of course, to how many excellent poems there are.

    Thanks for reminding us both of what we need to do if we want to get our work out there, and also for the reminder, indeed, to get our work out there!

    1. DanielAri

      Excellent point about how many excellent poems there are, James. There are a lot of factors that individual poets can’t control, so really just submitting again and again is the only way to see your stuff recognized or published, sooner or later.

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