Recently, yesterday, in fact, I was caught up in a brief and unfortunate email exchange with a disgruntled poet who sent nasty-grams to myself and the two guest editors of a journal I work for. I’m proud of the work I’ve put into this publication over the last four years, I’m proud of this issue and its subject matter, and I trust these editors. So, I guess, I was a little caught off-guard by the poet’s vitriolic sentiments which flat-out accused us of condescension and nepotism. I was accused personally of being hierarchical by signing my full name at the end of the email and only referring to her by her first name (for the record, my full name is listed automatically in every email as a signature in case anyone has queries later).
Her letter felt histrionic. Entitled. Like she was over-reacting and had badly-timed her response, especially given the sensitive nature of this issue. She kept affirming how blessed she was in her daily life. How lettered. How committed to the struggle. Between the lines, I read this as someone who is used to fighting for every centimeter she’s attained in her writing and personal life, and we, her so-called poets-in-arms had just rejected her too. This is someone who for all her accomplishments still seems desperate for validation. And boy, did she let us have it for not giving it to her the way she felt she deserved.
I am not immune to her beef. I submitted a stack of poems a couple of years ago to a mermaid anthology and after a year of waiting without any acknowledgement that they’d even received the submission, got sent a cursory letter dismissing the work. I read the email. Ego immediately went from zero to Texas: Don’t you know who I am?? I am THEE mermaid poet! After about ten minutes of licking my wounds, I immediately started wondering what it would take to bring my own long-time dream of editing an anthology into the world that would feature not just mermaids but other shape-shifters and wild women. I let that dream simmer another couple of years, long after the sting of rejection had faded, and I’m happy to say, in the coming months, the anthology will make its debut purged from any lingering thoughts of "I'll show them!" and instead represents something I’m truly proud of having worked on.
I also remember once, a couple of years ago, submitting my manuscript to arguably my state’s most prestigious press, which has a sterling national reputation. Not only did I get the rejection letter but the editor took the time to encourage me to basically not quit my day job. I was insulted, plain and simple. Just like the aforementioned angry poet, I felt like I needed to confront this glorified intern about how she delivered the news. I felt like justifying my right to submit that book. To let her know who and what she was rejecting and to tell that heifer she better Google me. You’ll be happy to know I didn’t. There’s no faster way to be blackballed in the literary community and to be remembered for the wrong reasons then to come at someone all crazy Miss-Piggy eyes. At the end of the day, writers write. My publisher, co-editor of the forthcoming anthology, and dear friend, Katerina, once said to me, “If the work is ready, it will be published.” And she was right. It wasn’t ready. It wasn’t ready until it was ready. Also, theirs is clearly not the only press out there. And ours isn't the only journal publishing about this subject matter at the moment.
Some of our most celebrated authors saw either nominal or no acknowledgement in their lifetimes. I remind myself that Bukowski was 49 when he became a full-time writer after decades of rejections and over a decade of working at the post-office. Emily Dickinson published her work anonymously and famously said, "Publication is the auction of the mind." None of us are owed or should come to expect anything from a submission, least of all any recognition or reward for doing our jobs as writers. Nothing will get you blocked on my feed (or in person) faster than lamenting about how you didn’t win such and such or so and so didn’t let you in their retreat or pick up your work. When we play the application/submission game, we are already playing into hierarchy. We’re de-facto acknowledging that we are submitting to someone else’s judgment as to our work’s worthiness. Read: OUR worthiness. After all, haven’t we labored to polish the work? Don’t our family, friends, and networks support us? These perfect strangers better recognize our sexy!
Listen. Ego is a helluva drug. Any time I start feelin myself, I remind myself how many times I’ve submitted to this one mid-level mag, have watched friends get picked up year after year, and how I still get form letters. How out of 20 poems I send out, one may get picked up. How many times (probably 20) I sent out my forthcoming manuscript to contests over the past three years and how much guap I invested in those entry fees (at $20-$25 a pop, that adds up!) before it got picked up. And when I did get picked up, no one was more surprised than me that it was a double rainbow. I have two manuscripts coming out next year. And I do NOT underestimate the luck involved. Right place. Right submissions. Right timing. Right editors.
Acceptance is a very, very, very subjective matter. What I pass on, another poet may be singing its praises from the proverbial mountaintops. What moves me may as well be glorified toilet paper to someone else. I mean, there are, of course, the basics I look for…first and foremost, I ask, am I emotionally moved by this poem? Did I learn something new? Am I asking the right questions by the end? How’s the dismount? How’s the overall execution? Startling imagery? Appropriate diction and muscular syntax? But then, there are other considerations. How many leviathan poems or vampire poems or Little Red Riding Hood poems am I gonna have to wade through this batch? (I’m Poetry Editor for Apex Magazine, so these aren’t arbitrary topics). How many pieces on this subject matter have we already published this year? What about diversity of voice which can include but is not limited to: geographic location, gender, race, etc.? What about length—what am I budgeted to purchase? Out of a hundred poems I read for Apex, I may select one or two given all of the above criteria, not even counting for the fact that like everyone else, I am subject to occasionally feeling tired and stressed and overworked, as much as I try to approach each poem like none of that is the case.
So, not to go all woe-is-me, it’s so haaaaaard to be an editor picking all these poems. I am honored to be Managing Editor for pluck! and Poetry Editor for Apex. I’ve learned a great deal as a poet by having to wade through so much slush. I would say my own track record of acceptances has shot up monumentally in the last year alone. In fact, I recommend every serious writer do some slush reading somewhere. It’s so educational.
But all that to say, editors are not immune to the struggle of hopeful poets/writers. Odds are, we’re in the same boat. Additionally, as the editor, if I think a poem has potential, I will ask the poet’s permission to pop open the hood. And I’ve had some lovely conversations with open-minded people who are happy to begin a dialogue about their poems (you'd be surprised how many people are out there writing in the dark and sending out completely un-workshopped material). Sometimes, understanding their reasoning behind certain choices, I change my mind, and sometimes, understanding my objective angle, they change theirs. Sometimes I don’t, sometimes they don’t and we virtually shake hands and part ways. But at the end of the day, I know what it’s like to have someone other than your mom interested in your material, someone who cares about it as much as you. If I think your poem’s got guts and the potential for glory, I want to champion your work. Your success is my success. My success is my magazine’s success. Win-win-win.
I always say that collegiality and decorum are as critical tools in a writer’s toolkit as imagery, metaphor, and word choice. How you respond to rejection says a lot about you—if you’re feeling a certain kind of way about your work—it’s your darling, I get it. But the measure of your reaction should probably match the measure of the transgression, given that this is, again, an occupational hazard. Wear a hard hat and get back to work. Besides, how can that acceptance letter feel so sweet without a little (and sometimes a lot of) struggle?
But, Reading Rainbow style, you don’t have to take my word for it. The internet is lousy with famous authors on rejection. Here are a few thoughts from said famous authors on the matter including my favorite by Sylvia Plath, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”