Happy 1st Year: poem permissions

photo by Michelle DeRusha

This is my second week to count down the days to The Joy of Poetry‘s first birthday. One thing I haven’t mentioned in previous posts — and frankly, something not enough people have asked me about — is the process of obtaining poem permissions .

The Joy of Poetry contains 30 poems by people other than me. In order to print them in a book that would be sold for profit, I had to get permission from the author and/or the publisher. I began sending requests through emails and letters in the summer of 2014. I did not finish until fall 2015. There are some publishers I never heard from at all.

Imagine my book as a giant tray of assorted cookies. I wanted to share poems that had meant something to me personally. Some of those came from established poets, some came from ones with day jobs, one came from a middle-schooler. I had to get permission for each one, and my publisher had to see the documentation.

Now, I don’t have a problem with poets being paid for their work, especially since there is essentially no money in poetry, whether you’re terrific or terrible. But I am sincerely sad that many poems I wanted to share are not included because I couldn’t afford them. That’s why there is nothing from Billy Collins or Mary Oliver. Also nothing from Wallace Stevens, Pablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, Grace Paley, John Berryman, May Swenson, and Kevin Young — all of whom had poems on my original list.

This is the economics side of poetry, and it works both ways. If someone reads my book, likes one of my poems, and wants to use it in a different book to be sold, then he or she would have to contact TS Poetry Press.

The responses from publishers varied so widely as to be arbitrary. The publisher of one U.S. Poet Laureate said yes and sent a contract to sign, no fee required. Another publisher wanted to charge $1,080 for a single poem. And then there was the publisher of a poet, one who passed away recently enough that his work is not in the public domain, that said, “Pay us $200 and then we’ll ask the estate.” Wait, I have to pay to find out if I can play? I rewrote the chapter.

I did include some poems old enough to be in the public domain and from some poets who published with smaller presses. Many of them said yes immediately. In most cases the fees were nominal, and I was happy to pay.

I sent a maximum limit of $100 for a single poem. Obviously, I couldn’t do that for every poem, but I needed a guideline. The only poem I paid that amount for — and actually I paid a bit more — was “Write About a Radish” by Karla Kuskin, who died in 2009. I had such a lovely back-and-forth with her publisher, who was thrilled to see the poem used. It felt like we were working together to bring her work to the world after she had left it. Her representative told me, “That one is widely permissioned — a word in my trade.” “Permissioned.” I learned a new word. That was worth the price of admission.

There were many other lovely exchanges. I received a handwritten note from Shoestring Press in the UK, which published Helena Nelson’s “With My Mother, Missing the Train,” that read, “Dear Megan Willome: Thanks for your letter of 30th July. Yes, of course, you have my permission for Nell’s poem. Hope the book goes well.”

Contrast that with this email I received from a permissions editor at a medium-size publisher here in the States. The title of the poem had four words, two of which are prepositions. I thought I had capitalized correctly, but I did not. (My bad.) Looking back, I should’ve used the Look Inside feature at Amazon, something I used a lot after I received this email: “I’ll assume you’ve been checking the poems & titles against the original pages as part of the process, but I wanted to bring that to your attention.” That was my first response to a request for permission. I was so discouraged I wanted to give up. I’m glad I didn’t. I never heard back from that editor on the poem I requested.

But I cannot say enough good things about Holly Amos, acquisitions editor at Poetry magazine. She helped me get in touch with Daniel Handler’s agent and contact the correct family member who handled the estate of Stuart Mills.

I’d also like to give a shoutout to Maureen Doallas, who helped me locate contact information for Joyce Sutphen for a poem that at that time was only printed at The Writers’ Almanac.

And then there was my correspondence with Dana Gioia. I had an in with him because one of our writers at the Wacoan magazine interviewed him several years ago. After he said yes, he wrote, “Good luck with the book. I hope you make some money!”

I replied, “Very funny. It’s a poetry book. I am definitely keeping my day job at the WACOAN. :)”

“Hope springs eternal in human breast!” he wrote back.

He didn’t even charge me. I sent him a copy of the book as a thank you.

There were so many other kind words from poets you may or may not have heard of. Some would ask, “Is there anything else you need?” When I told Claire Bateman, who wrote “Woman at the Stoplight,” the story of what her poem meant to me, she wrote back, “And your message means a lot to me — I’m always on the edge of ‘Why do I do this; what difference does it make?’ So THANK YOU.”

No, thank you. Thank you all.


  1. Oh, this is wonderful! A rare peek inside. You have given us many throughout this book’s story (which is also part of your story). As one who makes regular visits to the edge of “What difference does it make?” I especially liked reading of the exchange with Claire Bateman. Thanks for taking the time to write all this, Megan.
    AND the book.
    AND the posts about writing the book.
    AND these posts on the anniversary of its birth.

  2. Jack Swanzy says

    Striking, the generosity of some and the lack thereof of others. What are they sharing, what are they guarding?

  3. Megan,

    This insight is awesome – both the legalities of the writerly world, and the heartstrings and/or pursestings of it. I am so very glad you perserevered poetry!

    Happy one year anniversary, by the way.


  4. Fascinating! And a heckuva lot of work, too.

  5. I found this post to be absolutely fascinating. I had no idea . . .

  6. Happy birthday dear Joy of Poetry, and thank you for writing the behind-the-scenes look at permissioning poetry (does that variation of “permissioned” work?).

    Writers need to understand what’s involved and why it matters–and the lovely people you can meet along the way.

  7. Wow! So was the writing or the permissioning the hardest part?

  8. Like our writer friends who have already commented, I too want to thank you for setting this part of the process down in words for us. These new insights and the realization that a year has passed since you offered The Joy of Poetry to the world is niggling me to pick it up again although I have read it twice already. I have it on a shelf with other books that I was sure would get find me in their pages again. I recently heard that CS Lewis said that he couldn’t imagine enjoying a book and reading it only once. I feel the same.

  9. Mark Osler says

    I’m glad I didn’t charge you for my poem– which was included because it was so bad! Maybe I should have had you pay me…

  10. Sorry I missed this when it came out! 🙂

    I haven’t even heard the story of some of these poems. So. Love 🙂