Sharpen your poetry publication chances with Colleen Higgs’ expert advice    
Tue, 06 December 2022

Have you ever held a book of poetry in your hands and imagined seeing your name on the cover? Do you wonder how to organise your poems into a manuscript that goes out into the world? If so, you’re not alone…

Many new poets have their first experience of publication online via the AVBOB Poetry Library and soon long to publish their poetry collection. Fortunately, there’s good advice for each step of the way close at hand.

Colleen Higgs, founder and publishing director of Modjaji Books, has almost 20 years of experience editing and publishing some of South Africa’s best women poets. She has quietly changed the poetry landscape by ensuring that women’s voices are represented by work of the highest quality.

Colleen, who is a fine poet and memoirist in her own right, shares the checklist she sends to aspiring writers who approach Modjaji intending to be published. Whether you have only just started writing poems, or are already a seasoned poet preparing a new collection, these tips provide a helpful map. As you read the list, consider how many of these preparations you are already making, and where you still have work to do.

1. Buy and read the work of poets who have had their work published. Do this regularly to see what is hot and happening. Subscribe to at least one literary magazine. Consider this an investment in your poetry knowledge and future. If you can’t afford to buy new books, visit second-hand shops or go to your public library. Reading published poetry gives you a deeper sense of how good poetry is written and how it appears on the page.

2. Attend live poetry readings: Some South African examples are Off the WallThe Red WheelbarrowPoetry Africa in Durban, the Jozi House of Poetry, the Melville Poetry Festival, and the monthly poetry reading sessions from Amazwi in Makhanda. Subscribe to independent bookstores’ mailing lists to be notified of poetry book launches held at The Book LoungeClarke’s Bookshop and Kalk Bay Books in Cape Town; Bridge Books and Love Books in Joburg, and Ike’s Books in Durban. 

3. Send your work to literary magazines. Google the following names to find their contact details and submission requirements: New CoinLitnetNew ContrastStanzasDye Hard PressIncwadiBaobab Literary JournalKalahari ReviewIsele Magazine and the Johannesburg Review of Books.

4. You should have had at least 10 poems published in three or more poetry magazines (print or online) before asking others to review your work professionally. As a publisher, I can say that it is far easier to work with poets who have been published widely. They understand the editing process, are not defensive about editing their work and are looking for ways to improve it.

5. Before submitting your collection to a publisher, ask a published poet whose work you like and admire to read your manuscript. You might have to pay them to read it and tell you if, in their opinion, it is publishable. In other words, get feedback on and responses to your poems.

6. When you have reached this stage, I can recommend people to edit your work. Once again, you should expect to pay for this professional service.

7. If you’ve done all the above, go through your collection and choose the poems that fit together in some way. A first collection that will comfortably be published as a slim volume must be about 56 or 64 pages. But remember that the book will be typeset and you will need at least seven or eight pages for the front matter and end matter.

As the holiday season draws near, the AVBOB Poetry Competition hopes that poetry becomes an ongoing source of joy and renewal. If your goal for 2023 is to prepare your own collection for publication, we trust that these suggestions will help you plan and enjoy the work ahead.