It’s one of the tired truisms of poetry editing that ‘more people write poetry than read it’ — one of those quotations that gets used so often people eventually stop caring about the source and just assume it must have been Oscar Wilde. At The Missing Slate, we frequently get multiple submissions in the space of only a few hours, and the larger magazines receive several thousand poems per issue. How can you make your writing stand out from the pack? According to a talk Neil Astley gave last year, Robin Robertson is looking for ‘writing that matters profoundly’; Nicholas Murray is interested in ‘a flavour of experience, a root in the real’; Michael Schmidt gets excited by ‘templates rather than images.’ All good advice, if somewhat nebulous, but it’s worth remembering that the first point of contact between your work and the intimidating editor on the other side of the desk(top) is the cover letter — write a substandard introduction and it’s likely that the masterpiece you’ve laboured on for several years (by candlelight, having trained your cats to hold the candle in three-hour shifts) won’t receive more than a perfunctory glance.
For the purposes of this post, it seems easier to define the good cover letter via negativa: by providing a few examples of what not to write. Without further ado, here are five types of cover letter you should not be writing. (‘FIVE TYPES OF COVER LETTER YOU SHOULD NOT BE WRITING!’ shouts Owen Meany.)
1. The txt spk cover letter
Poetry editors are as varied as any other group of people, but you can get away with at least a couple of generalisations: firstly, your poetry editor will be painfully short of two things — time and money— and secondly, your poetry editor will love language. Even though Carol Ann Duffy believes that ‘the poem is a form of texting’, no editor in the world wants to read ‘plz lk @ my poems’, ‘these r 4 ur magazine’ or any message with ‘LOL’ in it. You’d be surprised how often it happens…
2. The pretty in pink cover letter
You’re a creative person who enjoys thinking outside the box; you paid attention to Ezra Pound when he told you to ‘make it new’. Why not let your inner artist out when it comes to choosing a font? In some areas, editors are extremely conservative, and the choice of font happens to be one of those areas: anything curly, anything that looks like it was designed by a chimpanzee clasping a paintbrush between its toes, anything overwhelmingly bold… All of the above will almost certainly ensure that your submission is met with a hasty rejection. Similarly, changing the colour of your text is never advisable: I’ve received more than one cover letter written in pink, but I’ve yet to publish the accompanying poems.
3. The crazy cat lady cover letter
Most editors ask for a short third-person biography at the end of the cover letter. By ‘short’, they usually mean ‘around 50 words’; by ‘around 50 words’, they usually mean ‘around 50 words’ — not two paragraphs listing all your previous publications, followed by an additional two paragraphs about pets and hobbies. A disconcerting number of potential contributors describe themselves as ‘cat ladies’ (men tend to prefer dogs, for some reason). Although ‘cat ladies’ have been known to write perfectly good poems, no editor really wants to know about your pets and few editors will imagine anything other than that lady from The Simpsons.
4. The anonymous cover letter
Historically, anonymous letters have tended to contain shattering confessions, unnerving threats, declarations of love, or anthrax… Although ‘Anon’ has written some wonderful poems, he or she (he and she, technically) sends very few of them to The Missing Slate. If you can’t be bothered to include your name, or any information about yourself, then the editor probably can’t be bothered to read your submission.
5. The I’ve-never-read-your-magazine-and-I-never-will cover letter
There seems to be a large group of people who send dozens of poems out simultaneously to dozens of magazines. If you’re persistent enough, those poems will eventually get accepted, but you’ll find success much easier to come by if you show some evidence of having read the magazine you’re submitting to. Without exception, magazines want readers — all writing ultimately becomes meaningless if it isn’t read — and editors want to see that you’ve at least had a look at the latest issue. Even the briefest glance at the work previously published by a magazine will be enough to prevent you from futilely submitting an elegant, sub-Wordsworthian sonnet to 3:AM or a piece of avant-garde experimentalism (‘aleatory poem composed by seven orangutans at seven Underwood portable typewriters’) to Poetry Review.