For some time I’ve been suggesting to fellow poets we need to create a rejection society. This would be our own Salon des Refusés Somewhere to share how it feels to open emails containing the words ‘not this time‘ or a sentence beginning with ‘Unfortunately…‘
The standard advice is to remember it’s the words, not yourself, which is being rejected. – or – the poem might not fit the theme – or – the editors had hundreds of submissions for just a handful of spaces.
These inevitably mean saying no to good work.
Too often there’s no feedback to explain the decision. It’s rare for editors to comment but occasionally one might refer to liking a particular poem and even say why. This is gold. Not only does it confirm you’re on the right path, it’s a welcome reward for having the courage to submit in the first place.
For most writers, it takes bravery to put yourself out there. Art comes from within. It’s influenced by our ways of being and seeing in the world so there’s no getting around the fact rejection is personal. You have to learn to deal with it because not submitting isn’t an option for an aspiring writer.
I began sending work out in August 2020. Since then I’ve had 22 acceptances and 77 rejections. I’m not good at maths but that’s definitely more no’s than yes’s, and it still hurts to see a poem come home.
I’ve learned to think of rejections as:
- opportunities to give poems another polish then resubmit to a different publication
- evidence I’ve shifted from having aspirations to having completed work
- a sign I’ve become a writer because I have my own rejection stories to tell
- time to change my negative thinking; instead of reject I now use decline in my records, somehow it feels kinder 🙂
- confirmation I’ve upped my game. You have to be in it to win it and the only way to get published is to submit!
Rejection is also an opportunity to improve my work.
A common reason for the no word, is the poem doesn’t conform to submission guidelines so always double-check these, especially the word or line limits, and be sure to read the journal you’re submitting to. If your work doesn’t fit its theme or style then it’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy. As for any lines or phrases which didn’t feel quite right – now’s the time to rethink them. Make every syllable earn its place. less is more and all that. Reread some poetry books or watch YouTube poetry videos, both your favourites and maybe some new ones.
I’d recommend the following –
- Jen Campbell @jenvcampbell YouTube Channel, in particular How to Edit Poems and How do you write a poem?
- Mary Oliver A Poetry Handbook (a gentle introduction to form/function, content/style etc)
- Kim Addonizio @kimaddonizio and Dorianne Laux @doriannelaux The Poet’s Companion (comprehensive guide to producing and publishing poems)
- Anne Lamott @annelamott ‘bird by bird (a personal plus practical guide to the challenges of a writing life)
Find some critical friends. Being told your work is great does wonders for your ego, but you need more specific detail, such as what works and what doesn’t.
The downside of critique is conflicting advice which leaves you uncertain of which way to go. Here instinct and intuition come in.
I submitted a poem to an online poetry group and without exception, everyone came back to say they didn’t like the ending, yet I did.
The phrase ‘kill your darlings‘ has been attributed to various writers but it doesn’t really matter who first said it. What counts is being prepared to let go of something you think is good when no one else does. In this case, I’ve kept the poem as it was because I feel so strongly about it. However, if it goes out for submission and gets repeatedly rejected, at least I’ll have an idea why!
Submission is a strange experience. Quite often a personal favourite is declined while the least favourite, or the one added at the last minute to make up the numbers, is accepted. Also, there’s the poem you really like which keeps coming back home, until someone somewhere unexpectedly says Yes.
Subjectivity is the name of the game and there isn’t much you can do, other than stay calm and keep submitting.
Remember you’re not alone.
J.K. Rowling’s original Harry Potter manuscript was famously rejected by 12 different publishers, and the advice she received included “You do realize, you will never make a fortune out of writing children’s books?” I wonder what they think today wherever they’re in the R section of Waterstones!
Stephen King is also no stranger to rejection. Carrie was turned down by no less than 30 publishers, Despite being told “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. he kept sending it out. You might not like the genre or Stephen King’s style of writing but his persistence is worth remembering.
There are lots more examples of rejection responses online, such as the one in the image above which was sent to Alice Walker about The Colour Purple. If you’re having the rejection blues, try these https://www.openculture.com/2013/11/rejection-letters-sent-to-three-famous-artists.html I guarantee reading them will make you feel at least a tiny bit better.
To end with, always remember the quote below from Sylvia Plath (The Unabridged Journals) “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”
The next post is from the series ‘beekeeping through history’ and offers a journey through the world of medieval beekeeping.
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