The dirty little not-so-secret concerning the state of contemporary literature (and art) is that teaching lies at the center of it all. Most writers and artists are subsidized by their positions teaching others how to be artists, who in turn look for teaching gigs to…
If this sounds like a Ponzi scheme to you, trust your instinct. The last students to get creative writing degrees when the programs shut their doors behind the last tenured professor to retire will be left holding the bag--filled with student debt. This isn't to say that some artists don't manage to make money from their art. Some even make enough to live on. And some grow rich. But not you. Or me. We are slugging it out in the slush pile, hoping for a few publication credits to add to our brief biographies.
But every cloud, right? The silver lining here is that there are thousands of small journals out there. There have to be, since schools need them in order to train their students, and they all need one another, since they can't just publish their own writers all the time. This symbiotic relationship between the various writing programs doesn't leave a lot of room there for you and me, but it leaves some. And there are blessed souls out there who are on a mission to democratize art who have set up their own independent journals, apart from the colleges and universities that underwrite most of them. And I have found them to be more receptive to my particular style of poetry.
But with thousands of journals to choose from, where to begin? When I started, I used Poet's Market (the niche version of Writer's Market). The book was updated annually with contact information and a description of what the publication was looking for. Today, I look to the web for this, since it's updated continually. Poets and Writers maintains a good list (www.pw.org), and there are many others that will give you a good idea of what's out there. But for the last decade, I have relied on Duotrope (www.duotrope.com). It costs $50 a year, but it has a list of 4,000 journals, the information is accurate, and it includes links to their websites.
Still, 4,000 journals is overwhelming. How to narrow it down? You may have a few journals you have come across already. Start there. And (if you are using Duotrope) you can try several ways of filtering your search results until you get a manageable list. They even include some lists of their own to help you: the most competitive, or least competitive, or shortest response time, or ones that pay, or ones that don't require a fee.
Here is a shortcut that may or may not work for you. Look at the list kept by Clifford Garstang. (His current list is here: https://cliffordgarstang.com/2023-literary-magazine-rankings-overview/). He keeps a ranked list of journals, based upon their representation in the Pushcart Prize results each year. It's a kind of moving average that takes into account past years. And the result is generally 200 or so journals. Because these journals have submitted poems for prize recognition--and have achieved some recognition--they are more competitive than others.
If that seems like too large a pool to swim in at the start, consider some of the least competitive journals. Duotrope allows you to search by acceptance rate (journals with an acceptance rate between two numbers). Remember, I said the rule of thumb was 1%. So maybe you search for journals with acceptance rates of 5-10%, or more.
Then, once you have your subset, read through the descriptions on Duotrope. Then visit the sites and read whatever is available there. Order a copy of the journal (subscriptions will often allow you to jump the line or submit "out of season.") And build your list.
Keep track of when the various journals are open for submissions, and put your packets of poems together. Then send them out! And good luck!