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Care Package: Writing a Query Letter for Your Poetry Book Submission
Two examples, five prompts, and more resources to make it happen.
This is a bonus resource of the Poetry Bulletin, with special thanks to paid readers who support the extra time and energy needed to create posts like this. I wasn’t sure what to call this kind of post… it’s meant to be a generous kickstart and hopefully not too dense. I’d like to do more posts like this, so I wanted a name to capture that spirit. My husband Carl suggested “care package,” which feels right: this is a gathering of good things—some essentials to keep you moving with your poetry—that’s sent with all the best wishes for your practice.
And very big thanks toof who also contributed to this post. Here’s to generous poets who make this publishing journey a little easier!
As I shared in the September issue of the Poetry Bulletin, Copper Canyon’s next reading period opens September 15, and it has a twist. Rather than submitting your full manuscript, they want just a sampling of poems and a query letter.
If some part of you freaked out at the second item—a query letter—no worries, and you’re not alone. Query letters are common practice for fiction and nonfiction writers seeking an agent for their book. Copper Canyon isn’t the only poetry publisher to ask for query letters, but it still tends to be a rare practice in poetry publishing.
So using the upcoming Copper Canyon deadline as a catalyst, I thought I’d offer some thoughts about query letters and how to start writing yours. I’ve been in this headspace a lot this year, as I connect with potential agents for my memoir-in-essays.also generously offered to share an example from her poetry book, Pocket Universe, and you’ll find that below.
If you know of other resources or are open to sharing your query letter as an example, please drop a comment!
New to query letters? Start drafting before you feel ready. Messy drafts are your friend.
Query letters are an area where it’s tempting to read and research a lot—too much, honestly—before digging in with a rough cut of your own letter.
What works for me: draft alongside research. My hope is always to be drafting a little more than I’m researching. Read a few examples of query letters as a start and then get those first sentences of your own draft started… even if it feels very half-formed, it means you’ve got something bubbling. Then go back for a little more research or to check out more examples, and keep iterating.
I find I need to “feel” myself in the mode of pitching my book to figure out what’s actually true to the book or compelling to share. It’s one thing to keep researching and imagining what your query letter might include… it’s another thing to actually feel that messy draft flowing out of your pen or appearing on the screen.
Sometimes I’ll write a series of radically different statements about my book, rapid-fire and one after the next, to feel which one lights me up. It’s like tuning myself to the “true” pitch for the book. Each statement might start “This book is about…” or “This book asks…” or “This book challenges…” and then head in a new direction. I’ll set a timer for five mintues and write as many statements as I can. Or I’ll challenge myself to write 12 totally different possibilities, as quickly and freely as I can.
This makes the process feel more like an experiment and less like a painful assignment. I’m a big believer that writing into the “what if” generates better feedback, which leads to stronger writing… even when that writing is a query.
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What’s a query letter? How do I write an effective one?
There are LOTS of resources out there to cover the basics, but here are some favorites that will hopefully be plenty for poets:
Eric Smith’s “perfect pitch” library of query examples
- by Kate McKean, especially this post on query letter formatting
- is another great publishing Substack, and their podcast has a regular “Books with Hooks” segment where the agents critique book pitches—this episode includes thoughts on creating curiosity rather than confusion in query letters
- has a great guide that breaks down the essential elements of query letter
Five Questions to Shake Out Angles for a Pitch
I worked with the questions below while refining the story of my first book, Divination with a Human Heart Attached. An example of a query letter for that book is at the end of this post.
These questions are send-offs, portals, prompts. You could choose the one that makes you most curious, free-write for 5 to 10 minutes, and then pull sentences or phrases from that writing to start drafting your query letter.
Why is the title poem the title poem? What makes it significant? What does the book’s title promise, provoke, or prepare the reader for in the journey of the book? (If your title isn’t taken from a poem title, why? What invitation or promise does it make to the reader? How did you arrive at that title?)
Besides the title poem, if there was one poem that this collection couldn't live without, which one? What is it doing, saying, or provoking that feels memorable or important to the book as a whole? (One example: I didn’t realize how much inheritance was an obsession and organizing principle in my book until I spent more time with my personal favorite poem, “Inheritance Rosarium.” That single poem ended up feeding queries, pitches, and eventually the back cover copy of the book… your favorite poem probably has more to tell you!)
What shaped your decisions on the structure, pacing, and flow of the book? (The Copper Canyon guidelines, for instance, encourage you to share any special structures or patterns that inform your book.)
When you imagine someone who needs these poems finding them, what need is the book feeding for them? Which poems speak to that need, and are there any themes or images that unite them? (If you use this one to shape your query letter, be sure your sample poems also reflect those themes, so that your submission is cohesive.)
Which poems do you most need in the book—or even resist? Which one still sneaks up on you and surprises you in its energy, emotion, form, etc.? It may not be your favorite. It might be the one that’s still bugging you… I feel like the poems that keep poking at us want to tell us something about the book as a whole.
Consider starting with your writing sample.
I really love this insight fromof about the querying process:
“Big picture, I'd say: think about the key themes, topics, and questions of your manuscript. It might actually be easier to write your query letter after you've selected your sample, which should all be good poems, of course, but which should also show the range of your project. (So you'd want to think about variation in tone and style, how the poems move and what they do, etc., and not just the first 20 pages of your collection or the poems that have been published in the fanciest places.)
You want the sample to show the arc or development that will happen across the book. In the query letter, you can highlight those themes and questions, and also pick two or three poems that present those ideas and explain them. Your query letter matters—it's likely the first thing a potential editor will read—but ultimately, your poems are more important. Don't let stress about the query letter keep you from submitting your manuscript!”
Pitch Example: Pocket Universe
Nancy shared the following example of the pitch from querying with her book:
Framed by my own experience of early motherhood, Pocket Universe examines how the world becomes both more wondrous and more perilous in the permanent after of parenthood. These poems probe that wonder and danger through examinations of my own experiences of pregnancy, birth, postpartum difficulty, and all the ordinary joys, heartache, and tedium of life with small children. However, the book is not merely personal: it sets that personal narrative against a backdrop of big questions about human origins, space and our place in the universe, and current events and violence against mothers and children.
The book also functions as an inquiry into ways of knowing – how we acquire knowledge through history, through archaeology and scientific inquiry, through the body. I’m especially interested in the relationship between subjectivity and knowledge and how nonhuman subjectivities inform our understanding of the world and of humanity. For example, my poem “The Braided Stream” juxtaposes the recent discovery of Homo naledi, an early hominid thought to have buried its dead, with the story of an actress and her sons discovered in a hastily-dug grave in their own backyard. In putting these two narratives together, I ask what the human (and near-human, in the case of Homo naledi) relationship to our dead reveals about human nature. Another poem, “The End of Limbo,” examines the Catholic Church’s evolving doctrine about purgatory and early modern renderings of limbo in art against the backdrop of family stories and silences about my grandmother’s stillborn first daughter, after whom I was named.
This book joins an emerging conversation among poets who are writing motherhood in innovative and boundary-breaking ways. In addition to Nicole Cooley’s Girl After Girl After Girl, (and her 2010 Milk Dress), other books in this vein include Kathryn Nuernberger’s The End of Pink, Maggie Smith’s Good Bones, and Chelsea Rathburn’s Still Life with Mother and Knife. The success of Writing/Motherhood: Difficulty, Ambivalence, and Joy, a panel I moderated at AWP in Tampa, and the many rich conversations I’ve had with other writers since then points to a real interest in poems like the ones in Pocket Universe that engage motherhood with both candor and tenderness.
Query Example: Divination with a Human Heart Attached
This is the query letter I sent Green Writers Press at an early point in the journey with my book. It kept evolving, but in this letter, you’ll spy how I’m trying to work in an angle for the book, my background as a writer and potential collaborator, and even a few comps. (I know folks get heartburn about comps, but I weirdly kind of… geek out?… about them.)
Dear Dede and James,
Thanks for the chance to share Divination with a Human Heart Attached, which has 50 pages of poetry and is my first book. As a longtime reader of your books and Hopper, I’m excited to share my writing with Green Writers Press.
Divination with a Human Heart Attached lives at the intersection of ecology, mythology, and what can be called otherworldly or sacred. These poems tussle with what we inherit—or long to disinherit—in our connectedness to the earth, to each other, to ancestors and future generations. Why do god and power coincide so often in this inheritance? These poems want to get honest about power, the roots of our human hungers, and what they mean for an earth of rising waters.
The book is led by the magpie, Petronilla (St. Peter’s daughter), and other daughters as speakers. Their voices point to histories between histories—the inheritance that has been silenced by institutions or excluded by tradition. Readers who enjoy Diane Wakoski’s work with archetype and persona, Marie Howe’s Magdalene, or Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins would hopefully find a common thread here. Within the Green Writers Press catalog, this manuscript could be a companion to books such as Dirt and Honey and All One Breath.
When this manuscript finds its home, I look forward to collaborating on the publishing process. With a background in communications and community building, I’m prepared to support this aspect of the journey. I actively engage in writing conferences, retreats, and other communities to connect with writers, readers, and creative folks. For example, I’m a past participant of Marge Piercy’s juried poetry intensive, Poets on the Coast (with Susan Rich and Kelli Russell Agodon), and training with Clarissa Pinkola Estés.
I’m also a leader of Amherst Writers & Artists, an international organization of writers and workshop leaders. Through relationships I’ve nurtured at my writing studio, Voice & Vessel, I reach hundreds of writers through workshops and my newsletter. Working with a publisher that tends its community as much as does its books is important to me, and this is an area where I sense that Green Writers Press and I could be kindred spirits.
Thank you for your time and care in considering my work. I’m excited to introduce you to Petronilla and her magpies, knowing that you too have chosen to witness, “to stay outside and watch the waters rise.”
Ok… go forth and query with confidence! You’ve got this, and I’d love to celebrate with you whenever you get your “yes” for your book.
Was this care package helpful? Do you like this format? I’d love your feedback! Please drop a comment with your thoughts—and again, if you have resources or examples to share, that would be so appreciated.