Ian McMillan: Why writing a covering letter can be as hard as creating a poem

These days I write this column, then I rewrite it. Then I look at it again and try to squash any clichés and bat any tired sentences away. Then, when I’m satisfied that it’s fit for the eyes and minds of Yorkshire Post readers, I press ‘‘send’’ on the laptop and the words fly through cyberspace with the greatest of ease.

Ian McMillan recalls the days of having to write off to publishers.

It wasn’t always like that, of course, although our brains like to try and trick us into thinking that it was. When I first started sending poems off to magazines in the 1970s the process was slow and laborious and repetitive, although of course it didn’t feel like that at the time.

I would have half a dozen poems that I wanted to submit to a little poetry magazine, maybe a magazine with a fabulous name like Pink Peace, edited in Folkestone, or Zagamine, edited in Liverpool, or Second Aeon, edited in Cardiff.

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The magazine I really wanted to get into was Outposts, edited in Surrey by a man called Howard Sergeant; it somehow felt more official and important than the others, mainly because I’d found it in a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook in Darfield Library next to other really big publications like The Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman.

I’d sent a few selections to the magazine but always got them back with a rejection slip and a handwritten note on the slip that always said something like ‘‘Not quite this time. Do send more’’. So I did, because when an editor asks you to send more, you always do, even though they always send the poems back.

The poems are typed out, laboriously. There are many starts and restarts. The poems (‘‘never send more than six’’ is the usual advice) are placed in an A4 envelope bought with pocket money from Mrs Parry’s shop; each poem has my name and address at the top and the words ‘‘Copyright Ian McMillan’’ at the bottom.

The poems are held together with a paperclip bought with pocket money as is the smaller stamped addressed envelope that I put inside the larger envelope for the inevitable (or maybe not this time) return of the poems with the sorrowful note on the rejection slip.

Now I type the covering letter; the tone of this must be right. Familiar but not too familiar; chatty but not overly so. Respectful but not stiffly formal. Writing the covering letter is almost as hard as writing the poems, I used to think.

I can’t put ‘‘Hi, Howard old warrior! Here’s some deathless verse for you to send straight back!’’ and neither can I put ‘‘Dear Sir, I hereby submit six poems for your kind consideration’’.

Eventually I decide on some form of words between the two extremes and post the big envelope. And then I wait. It’s a lot easier pressing ‘‘send’’, I can tell you!

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