Many among the thousands of us who write poetry, or assume the title of poet--in fact, all of us who have considered the possibility of an original creation being actualized in this world have also contended with rejection. It's natural to every process. We are continually engaging and negotiating the corners of our lives with varying degrees of success. But for poets (and writers in general) the rejections seem to come several at a time and consistently. This is part and parcel of the job.
A poet asserts an idea or an aesthetic while adapting process to reach an objective aim. It's a constant push and pull, swinging back and forth between a necessary obstinance and amenability. And the poet herself is subject to much discussion and classification, especially with regard to creative output and aesthetic. i.e He's formal and lyrical; she's a feminist poet; they make conceptual pieces; we strictly write for the page. I'm doing my best not to place poets within an objectifying binary (hermetic/populist, tradition/vanguard, demotic/hieratic) Poets universally engage process, and a part of that process is dealing with the consequences of our submissions, dealing with the ways our work is received. We all get rejections...
Typically when we submit our work to publications and, by extension, an individual or group of literary pundit(s) we enter aware of the unofficial terms of the transaction. The work will be accepted or rejected. In instances where work is accepted, we are affirmed in the knowledge that the work is not only read, but appreciated. The reader has experienced the same vitality the poet herself felt when composing the work. Rejection, on the other hand, is typically an ambiguous return on the poet's investment. More aptly put, it is ambiguity itself--disaffected acknowledgment. Dismissal. Form rejection. Which often leads us to wonder if our work is even read by these people, the people to whom we submit/share our work. As if to ask, how could you not feel that poem when I felt it so deeply?
When I started the Broome Street Review my primary goal was contact. I wanted to engage others in dialogue about literary and plastic arts. So for several issues, when the journal was regularly open to submissions, the editorial staff did its best to be transparent and personal in both rejection and acceptance. It was, for the most part, a joy to leave the door unlocked and the light on for poets/writers who cared to submit work. We weren't perfect, of course, but we did our best to engage each author. Still, to be so candid has its limitations, and not everyone can be pleased. But at least, I hope, a modicum of respect can be paid to the author.
When it became untenable to respond to every submission (due primarily to finances, and to a lesser extent volume of submissions v. staff) I stopped accepting open submissions. Although occasionally an author will write to request their work read, and I am still happy to.
Rejection is a necessary tempering. Objectively speaking. It's a smelting process that has less to do with aesthetic molding (i.e. if my poem were more formal I would have had better chances at publication) and more to do with gumption. Rejection is a kind of trial through which poets progress in order to understand their mettle. But recently I received a rejection that made me reconsider a few things...
I was fortunate to have an early draft of a poem published years ago at a site I will not name. I was overjoyed to have my work featured online and with a journal I felt respected/respects not only my poetic aesthetic, but the significance of my cultural upbringing.
At the beginning of this year, a handful of years after its publication, I queried the journal via email asking that they take down the poem.
Thank you sincerely for supporting my work. When you published my poem...I was overjoyed. But as an artist I have grown beyond that work. Would you please take down my poem ...[from your journal]?
I was dissatisfied with it as a representation of me and my work. The work had since been edited, passed through a sieve of dissatisfaction several times before its final iteration. Even now I feel slightly unsettled about the poem in its final form, its quality, what its form communicates. Where once I felt confident about the work, I now feel uncertain.
Like many literary institutions my query emails were ignored. I sent my query, the same query, again and again--not unlike a form letter--but I never received a response.
So I thought to submit my query as a formal submission (titled: Withdrawal). I typed it up, attached it in .pdf format (via submittable) and even attached the same query as my cover letter.
Would you believe, my formal submission was met with formal rejection?
Dear Andrew Colarusso,
Thank you for sending us "Withdrawal". I appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for ..... at this time. Your work was read with great care several times before this decision was made. I truly hope that you will submit again.
Please continue to read ....... The new issue comes out on .....
I don't mean to pick on this journal, whose aims and authors are among the best and brightest in the world. To be fair and honest, the people who run this journal are incredibly thoughtful and generous. Their support and publication of my work was a boon. But the irony of this particular situation was too rich not to write about it. In an unusual plot twist, this particular form rejection made an interesting proposition:
In the previous six years of ....., each submission that met the guidelines received personal feedback. Happily, the number of submissions continues to rise, but that means that I am unable to provide individual criticism.
Still, because I believe in community, I would like to offer this opportunity that I started last year: The weekends of .... and .... I will offer a twenty minute consult on your submitted work. If you have met the guidelines and fit the mission of the journal and have specific questions about your submission, email .... with the subject heading of ..... by..... Those who email by that time will receive an email to a Doodle Poll to schedule a Google Hangout/Skype conversation/phone call. As a working author, I have never had a publisher offer this, but I believe in literary community; it is a belief central to .....
Don't be fooled by the use of first person singular. I have had little luck making contact with the editors over the years--partially because they are very busy/ambitious people. So I have little faith in the idea [of a conference], but I like it conceptually. Then too, it might be easier for everyone if the staff just read and responded to the submissions.
This, I think, is our [poetic] climate, and a lesson in both patience (in submitting your work) and knowledge of the venues to which we submit. Advances in technology and social media seem to underscore the dearth of presence in the vessels we create, inhabit, and revisit. Each of us, in choosing to engage and interact with others, hopes to make contact, connection. It's disheartening when our sincerest efforts are rebuffed. But this is also an age of professionalization. Efficiency is king.