I thought I’d start a new series of blog posts that address questions I often hear asked in writing classes and workshops. Many of the same questions come up over and over because, I think, there are a lot of unwritten processes and norms in the literary publishing world. From talking to many writers over the years, I’ve found that even if you go to an MFA program, you don’t necessarily get the professional skills training on what to do with your work after you write and revise it.
The advice in this post is geared towards poets, but it could be used for writers of literary fiction or creative nonfiction as well. By “literary,” I mean poems or stories that are not intended to turn a profit, but that exist to ask questions about the world, to provoke thought, and to create community between reader and writer. Finally, I should mention that this publishing advice is geared towards individual poems or stories, not entire books.
What are literary journals?
You can think about a literary journal kind of like a magazine. Some of them come out once or twice a year, some of them, every month. Each issue of a literary journal showcases a variety of different writers. This is sort of the purpose of literary journals as a genre—to convey a snapshot of exciting writing happening right now. (You’ll see journals mention that they publish “established” and “emerging” writers. If you’re just getting started with publishing, you’re “emerging.”) Sometimes, a journal will feature new translations of a writer who’s passed or a folio (small collection) of poems from a long-gone writer who never got her due, but for the most part, literary journals exist to publish living writers.
Sometimes, a particular issue of a literary journal contains a theme, for instance, an entire issue focusing on poetry about the body or an entire issue of work written by black Midwestern writers. Some literary journals invite a guest editor to make all the editorial decisions for, say, a Spring issue, which lends an interesting variety and new textures to a journal. Overall, literary journals mostly focus on publishing poems and stories, but sometimes there is also artwork or a bit of journalism (thinking of VQR, for instance) as well. Literary journals are published in hard-copy or published on the internet. Some literary journals publish both online and in print.
Many literary journals in the United States are associated with universities, which give them financial backing and longevity. Some of these journals have a rotating group of graduate students who serve as their editors. For instance, when I was an MFA student, I served on the staff of Gulf Stream Magazine.
Other literary journals more organically sprout out of writers’ groups, community organizations, or someone’s living room. Anyone can start a literary journal, and, indeed, some of my favorite literary journals are totally grassroots, with hand-sewn bindings.
Often, a letter from the editor is the very first piece of writing an issue features. Reading these letters gives you a valuable window into how the editors are thinking about how the project of their literary journal fits into not only our literary landscape, but the world at large. Most literary editors are not paid for their work, it is a labor of love, so they are, by necessity, passionate about publishing living writers and platforming vital conversations.
Where do I find literary journals to publish my work in?
My first advice is to read as widely as possible. But the question is, where do you find these journals? It’s not like they’re being sold in gas stations or at the grocery store (I wish!).
One place to start would be libraries and bookstores. Most libraries and bookstores receive copies of at least a few of the largest print literary journals: POETRY, The Gettysburg Review, BOMB, etc. If you get lucky, you can find a bookstore that specializes in small press literary journals. (Here’s my plug for Woodland Pattern Poetry Center in Milwaukee, where a poet can get lost for hours. And, of course, there’s Powell’s in Portland, any number of places in New York, and many other gems dotted around the map.) This is a good place to start.
As you read, try to make observations about what a journal publishes. Do you like the poems you’re reading? Can you articulate to yourself why or why not? Do you notice aesthetic preferences or editorial tendencies overall? Can you see your own work published in the journal? Why or why not? I’d recommend taking a few notes as you do your research so you have something to go back to when you start getting your poems organized to submit. It’s okay to read a literary journal and not feel like your work will find a home there because it’s too different. But, I would suggest reading literary journals optimistically.
Another strategy that I’ve found useful is to pick up your favorites books of poems and look at the acknowledgements page. This is usually in the very back of the book or sometimes at the beginning. Where did this poet publish their poems individually? There will be a list of sentences that say something like “The poem ‘Working at a Record Store’ first appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Bramble.'” Before a poet publishes a book of poems, they usually publish some of the poems individually in literary journals.
It can also be useful to check out the poetry section of a library and look at the acknowledgements pages of many books of poetry at the same time. Do the names of certain literary journals come up again and again? Can you find a book of poems that deals with the same themes or formal concerns as your own work? What literary journals were those poems originally published in?
I like this approach because it narrows the field right off the bat. Researching literary journals can be overwhelming because there are thousands of them in the United States alone, not to mention numerous international journals that you could also submit to. Databases like New Pages and Poets & Writers have endless information, as does Duotrope which compiles information (acceptances, rejections, time between submission and editor response, etc.) crowdsourced from individual writers. I recommend checking out these databases with a word of caution that it can become overwhelming quickly.
Another approach I’ve used that can help narrow the field is to look up literary journals by state or region and then to slowly extend your radius geographically. You can find online lists of literary journals based in most states on (for instance, here’s one for Wisconsin). If you begin with researching those and submitting to the ones that seem like they’d be a good fit, you can start small and broaden your scope from there. A bonus is that if these literary journals have in-person events or readings, you may even be able to attend and start building a literary community.