Publishing in poetry and a book discussion with Matthew Johnson

by Diana Castro-Vazquez

On March 23, the Student Honors Organization (SHO) hosted a “Prof Talk.” The Prof Talk is an event hosted at Greensboro College where a faculty member or staff member details a project they are working on via presentation for students to learn about.

This Prof Talk featured Matthew Johnson, Assistant Director of Marketing and Communications of Greensboro College. The event was titled “Publishing in Poetry and a Book Discussion.” Johnson has been working at Greensboro College since August 2021, a little under two years. He has been writing poetry for about 15 years. He started when he was in middle school. He had been writing poetry for a long time, and gradually began formulating the idea of publishing a book. He thought the process of writing, editing and researching would expand his knowledge of the field which he sought. Johnson believed that publishing a book was the next, natural step in the process of growth, both personally and professionally as a poet and writer.

Johnson currently has two published works. His first was Shadow Folk and Soul Songs published on June 29, 2019, and the second was Far from New York State published on March 1, 2023, both having amazing reviews. Julio Carlos states, “Shadow Folk and Soul Songs is nothing more, nothing less than a rhymed revolution. A call of pride. A shout to remember the value and the strength of all Negroes, the African-American culture and a screeching appeal to the understanding of a nation as a whole. This short, very well-woven work is powerful and deeply honest.” Rochelle Spencer, author of AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction states, “With its brilliant homages to Nas and Redd Foxx, Matthew Johnson’s Far from New York State creates a true jazz story, a collage or a jigsaw puzzle – it is full of play and worthy of being read … . Johnson opens up a space and lets the poems tell their own story.”

Johnson decided to do this Prof Talk after being asked by the directors and leadership of the Honors Program (Professor Brittany Sondberg, Dr. Henry Kuo and Ms. Polly Anton), who were aware of Johnson’s background in writing and publishing. Honors leadership thought a discussion about poetry and breaking into the literary community would be one of interest and value to the campus community.

To start off his presentation, Johnson quoted Mark Twain, saying “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” He also quoted Hamilton: An American Musical, reciting, “Write like you’re running out of time.”

Johnson gave these tips for developing writers: write and revise and edit often, schedule times to write throughout the week, when organizing a manuscript/book structure, organization, and voice are key, read other writers, especially in your areas of interest, take breaks and do not compare yourself to others.

Next, Johnson talked about the process of publishing one’s work. He shared about how he was rejected many times throughout the years but how that did not stop him. The first step is to submit your work to literary journals. He told the audience that this is key to getting your name out. Publishers want to see that you are active and writing. He advised that if you are rejected, understand and learn from it while being respectful.

There are many helpful sources to get involved in the literary community, which Johnson made a point to share during his presentation. He gave attendees a list of websites that included New Pages, Poets and Writers, Submittable, Duotrope (which costs $5/month or $50 per year), Goodreads and LitHub. He also stated that Poet’s Market by Robert Lee Brewer was a book that he read a lot in the past that has some very helpful advice and insights.

The next thing he touched on was the topic of publishing houses. We have all heard about the big publishing houses, i.e. Penguin Random House, MacMillian, Simon & Schuster, Hachette and Harper Collins. As a writer, you can publish through these publishing houses, and this is called the “traditional publishing route.” There are many pros and cons concerning this route. One of the biggest pros is prestige. Since these are well-recognized houses, your work may be seen more. Some more pros are that they often pay advances, have more book distribution channels, have no up-front costs, have a professional team so you can focus on writing, access to reviewers and book prizes. Some cons with publishing with a publishing house, however, are that they only accept writers with agents, it is extremely difficult to be accepted, the publisher retains many creative rights and agents also take a proportion of royalties (along with the expected proportion from the publisher).

The other two publishing routes Johnson shared are independent publishing houses and the self-publishing path. The Indie Publishing houses are Graywolf Press, Melville House, Algonquin Books (in Chapel Hill), Autumn House Press, Press 53 (Winston- Salem) and University Presses, among others. Some pros of working with independent publishing houses are that an agent is not required, your book will get more attention from the publishing team, it is more approachable to pitch a book and they edit, market and design the book. The cons are that there can be delays after acceptances, there are lower royalty rates and most do not offer significant marketing help.

For self-publishing, there is the greatest pro: you make the decisions yourself. You also keep the majority of the profit. The cons include a lack of distribution channels, a lack of award opportunities, less editorial and marketing help and no support system. As a writer, you must choose the path that best fits the needs of your work and as a writer.

Johnson also talked about getting involved with your community. He suggested that a writer should attend and participate in readings, workshops and festivals. They should also connect with the local library and ask about writing events and ordering books. Another helpful tip is to read and review books on your blog, on Goodreads and on Amazon.

Johnson ended his ProfTalk with an excerpt from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from chapter 19, Champion of the World. “… My race groaned. It was our people falling…It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps. It was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful… If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true; the accusations that we were lower types of human beings … and worst of all, that God himself hated us and ordained us to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, forever and ever, world without end. We did not breathe. We did not hope. We waited … Then the voice, husky and familiar, came to wash over us.”

You can find Johnson’s two published works; Shadow Folk and Soul Songs and Far from New York State published on Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, as well as the website of his publishers, Kelsay Books and New York Quarterly Press. His website is and you can find him on Twitter @Matt_Johnson_D and on Instagram @Johnson_Matthew.

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