One of the most daunting challenges that confronts every struggling and submitting poet is the demand for "previously unpublished" poems. We have grown used to it by now, and most of us have developed elaborate systems for keeping track of what poems have already found a home, which are somewhere in the submission process, and which are virgin territory. We work with it, but we are not required to like it, and I would like to take this chance to say that it doesn't serve us, the poetry community, or the poetic canon well.
It is understandable that publications and editors want fresh work, want publication rights and exclusivity, yet in asking, always, for work that has not yet found an audience they are eliminating the opportunity to re-publish some of the finest poems being written today.
In a hypothetical scenario a fledgling poet may write a poem that is, against all odds, a minor masterpiece, and since he or she is new at the game the poem will be submitted to a local anthology, or even a chapbook published by a local writer's group. And'there the poem stays, unread, unhonored and unquoted save for the fortunate few who stumble across it.
One would think that publishers and lit mags would want the best of the best but their insistence on previously unpublished effectively screens out and eliminates many of the finest poems being written today. I believe that this may be one of the reasons that poetry is less in fashion today, because there is so little poetry that receives popular acclaim (and in no way am I implying that popularity indicates excellence). However, our audience, as poets, has to hear our voice and read our words in order to respond. The likelihood of any single poem becoming well-know or well-loved when it has a single publication, and often in a magazine with quite limited circulation, is small indeed.
There are, of course some publications that have no such strictures, but they are few and far between. Occasionally a magazine or contest will make allowances for poetry that has only had local distribution or limited circulation but these are far too rare.
Even confronted with these limitations some poets will rise like cream to the top- our laureates, of course, and yet even they suffer from a certain obscurity. Some years ago, when Kay Ryan was the Poet Laureate I mentioned to some non-poet friends that I had gone to hear her speak. They had no idea who she was. Surprised, and as an experiment, I mentioned it again to other friends and was met with a blank stare. Yet this was our Poet Laureate. Yet I believe that a poet becomes well-known only for their poems, and if a poem has limited exposure then the poem and the poet fade quickly into obscurity. Suppose that the sonnets of Shakespeare or the odes of Keats appeared a single time with only local distribution. Imagine if the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay or Sylvia Plath appeared only in their college magazines. We would be all the poorer for it. And we may be shooting ourselves in the foot by not re-publishing anything that has already been acknowledged to be good.
There are a myriad of ways to improve this situation that I think would serve both the poet and the publishers well: Previous publications could be limited as to circulation numbers or occurrences, or whether local (University, college, civic, newsletter, club or church publications). In fact "previously published" might serve as an aid to editors to weed out work that is not up to their standards. If a poem is previously unpublished it may not be because the work is new, but rather because it has not made the cut in multiple other venues, and that may be for good reason. There is a chance that certain contests and publications would be better served if they accepted ONLY previously published work. Or, they might, as the California State Poetry Society does, set aside a certain month to accept previously published work.
I feel strongly that for poetry to reclaim its status among the arts we need to see that exceptional poems received wider circulation and more publication so that once again lines will become familiar and people will proclaim their favorite poem as easily as they do their favorite book or song.
A quick check of Google will certainly turn up a list of publications and contests that accept previously published poems but one look confirms that those venues do not have familiar names and that most have a very limited circulation. As a result many poets are turning to self-publishing because there is so little chance that a poem or poems that they feel are worthy will ever reach a wider audience. It isn't my intention to discourage self-publishing, independent publishing, publish-on-demand or any other vehicle or device to get one's poetry into the hands of readers, but again, I think that it should be the task of editors to ferret out the most superior work being produced. How is that possible when so much is disqualified not for lack of excellence but solely on the basis of previous exposure, no matter how limited or local that exposure might have been?
So it has occurred to me that making a public plea for reconsideration of the "no previous publication" policy might open a dialogue–that industry insiders for whom Poets and Writers is required reading might rethink their position and tradition. That poetry might join the ranks of the other arts, wherein the finest efforts are promulgated and distributed without apology for repeats, in fact expressing a certain pride in the success and acclaim that come with thoughtful distribution and the pleasure that comes with familiarity. Of course we will welcome the new. We will always be on the lookout for creative talents that explore new subjects and means of expression. But it is my hope that in time, those too, will become classics and if we are lucky, very, very "previously published."
For lit mags/journals that accept previously published poems, see my updated list here: Where to submit reprints
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Kathy Lundy Derengowski is a native of San Diego county. She is an active member and co-facilitator of the Lake San Marcos Writer's Workshop. Her work has appeared in Summation, the ekphraisis anthology of the Escondido Arts Partnership, California Quarterly, Silver Birch Press, Turtle Light Press and the Journal of Modern Poetry. She has won awards from the California State Poetry Society and been a finalist in the San Diego book Awards poetry chapbook category.