I don’t consider the number of poems I’ve published to this point (something slightly over 100 since 1985) much to brag about; however, it means I’ve been rejected thousands of times. Literally. That’s no shame. In fact, I think of it as a badge of—honor? Or maybe it just doesn’t mean all that much in the long view. Peter Meinke, my first real poetic mentor and one of the great souls of this or any other world, told it this way: “Say you send out a poem about a sailboat. You send it to a good magazine. But the editor is afraid of water, and rejects your poem. Now how is that your fault?” I promise you, when I worked as a junior assistant at Mid-American Review I argued strongly for a couple of poems about which I felt strongly, often because I felt some close connection to said poems. Of course, it works the other way as well. Let’s say somebody had sent in a poem about auto racing, a subject about which I happen to know something, counter-intuitive as it may seem and it isn’t really at all; let’s further say that this poem actually got it, by which I mean the writer got beneath the real danger and potential gore and actually managed to say something deeper than some poets manage on that particular subject (it’s woeful, folks); what I know affects how I read, and therefore….I was blessed to work with people at MAR, truly a first-class litmag in which setting I learned the business, and for damn sure I voted down lots of packets in my time. I did not like doing it even though we used to joke about finally getting our revenge against the rest of the literary community for the slings we felt we’d suffered and still were, but for certain I voted down what I thought was unworthy. Occasionally with malice because the poems were so bloody reprehensible.
Look: rejection slips are uniformly uncomfortable. They aren’t as hard to take as, say, a colonoscopy without painkiller (don’t ask me to show you examples; my former students know I have them, tho I most definitely opted for painkiller every damn time). But they are survivable. I’ve seen people who I honestly though were emotionally durable and reasonable, who nonetheless blanched at the idea of sending their work out to magazines.
Of all things. Please.
Never fear the rejection slip. I got one the other day, from a market I’ll call Pubhouse X. The person I communicated with, a perfectly nice person we can call Paul, was thoroughly professional throughout our interchange but in the end he didn’t like what I sent. Didn’t like structure, didn’t like much really, but that wasn’t and should never be a problem.
Remember what I said earlier? Maybe Paul just didn’t hear what I thought was music, or maybe I have more work to do. In any case, why should this be a problem?
Again, I’ve heard more than a decade of students say “I can’t stand the idea of that rejection slip” as though it was a diagnosis of some fatal disease.
I’ve had that happen, too. In my case it was blessedly wrong. And so why should any one editor be the sole arbiter of your talent? Who gave that person so much power? You did, sport. You did. The editor has a job to do—separate wheat from chaff, even if one person’s chaff is another’s wheat and that often happens in this biz that we call po. So editors get you wrong. Keep at your craft. Keep revising as you see fit but NEVER LET DOWN ON THE CONTINUOUS PROCESS OF REVISION. This is a marathon not a sprint, folks; no one editor has control over your present or your future. You have to know that.
I said earlier in this blog that the whole submission business is a game; why not? Pretend nothing is at stake, because in the end nothing truly is at stake; our work will be what it is come the end of our lives, and once we die not much else can change that (although Ted Hughes believed otherwise about Sylvia Plath, to his eternal discredit). Therefore the rest is sport. I don’t care how you define sport; the fact is that you should find a way beyond the simple drudgery of publish-or-perish, that zombie-talk of the academy, toward something more meaningful.
Bear in mind: your creative work is more important than grades or accolades. The point is that you must sharpen all your skills with every line you write. Each should be an elaboration on the line before. Otherwise you’re in neutral.