Here are some step-by-step guidelines for you.
Step 1: Take a look at your poems and classify them by:
- Writing style: are they rhymed or rhymed, are they traditional meter (if so what kind of meter) or free verse, are they conventional in language and tone or are they experimental?
- Content: what are your poems about, what's the subject matter?
Different poetry journals cater to a variety of these possibilities.
Step 2: Research poetry journals to find ones that match these poetry styles. There are two ways to go about this:
The best way is to visit the periodical section of your local libraries or bookstores (if you have any) and read some of their poetry journals. If you don't see any that match your work, don't worry about it. Your poems might fit a niche journal the library doesn't carry. But this will give you a good idea about current popular poetry journals, the top tier to aim for someday.
The old school way was to buy a copy of Poet’s Market but you’ll have to do this every year or two to get current listings (things change fast out there in poetry land). I found this was not a feasible option for me long term. Plus, what to do with all the old issues? Your library might have an up-to-date copy.
Create a list of possible journals from this research.
Step 3: Create your cover letter. You can list previous publications here or note that this would be your first publication. Different journals aim for different kinds of writers. Some want established writers and some want to find the next new discovery.
Everyone has differing ideas on the details needed in a cover letter. Feel free to experiment but keep this in mind: journals have seen it all. Literally, they’ve already read thousands upon thousands of “creative” cover letters. Don’t pour all your creativity into this. It’s a functional document.
Step 5: Submit
When you find journals to submit to, peruse their websites for submission information. Sometimes I search Google for "[journal name] + submissions" to get a link directly to the submission information page (because some journals hide the stinker pretty far into their site).
Pay special attention to how they want submissions submitted. They're all different. Determine what format they want the submission to be sent: printed and mailed, attached as a word or PDF or Word doc, or included in the body of an email. And note the maximum number of poems they will accept.
Many journals these days only take submissions through an online service called Submittable (http://www.submittable.com/) so go ahead and sign up for an account there. It's free and the site helps you keep track of every place you've submitted poems and what the result was so you don't have to create an XLS Spreadsheet or other document to keep all that straight, although maybe you should create a spreadsheet or notebook anyway for the few email and mailed submissions you might also send out.
More information on submissions: