The yin and yang of poetry submissions

image showing scrabble letters spelling Do not give up

Dreich have selected my collection Heaving with the Dreams of Strangers for publication as one of their Chapbook Slims. Now, like eggs, these poems are resting in the Dreich nest. The acceptance email from Jack Caradoc last month was a reminder of how acceptance is the plus side of rejection. The two go hand in hand. They’re the Yin and Yang of the whole submission experience, and I’ve been reflecting again on the whole process of attempting to release work into the public sphere.

Rejection is integral to the publishing endeavour. But if you don’t try, the chances of seeing your work in print are zero. It has to be done. My rejections far outway the acceptances so although the Publications page on this blog looks healthy, it comes at a cost.

Rejection hurts.

Imposter Syndrome loves it.

When a poem, or group of poems, are refused, it brings back the early fears of never being good enough or not having anything worthwhile to say. It’s something all writers and poets have to deal with.

image showing a poster about imposter syndrome

I’d tried submitting to collection calls before but with no success.  This time I took a different approach.  I’d previously submitted poems which formed a narrative on a single theme. This time, I opted for individual poems but, as I worked through the selection process, I found myself bringing together work which had more connections than I first realised.

Almost without exception, the poems deal with myth and legend with a touch of magical realism. They were less about the personal and more about ways in which past can connect with the present. The value of mythical thinking is the lack of hard evidence that the characters and happenings have truths There’s no confirmation that any of it is real in the way history claims to be, and it’s this lack of empiricism that creates spaces where readers can bring their own interpretations. At least, that’s how I understand working within the area.

Myths fascinate me, and the acceptance from Dreich feels like confirmation after all the silence. I re-read an earlier post on  Rejection Blues, and thought it worth including some reminders of my thoughts from a year ago.

The standard advice on rejection is to remember it’s the words, not yourself, which is being rejected. The poem might not fit the theme or the editors had hundreds of submissions for just a handful of spaces. This inevitably means saying no to good work.

image showing posters of the word No

For most writers, it takes a significant amount of bravery to put yourself out there. Art comes from within. It’s influenced by our ways of being and seeing the world so there’s no getting around the fact rejection can feel personal. However, you have to find ways to deal with it because not submitting isn’t an option for an aspiring writer.

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!

Image of the quote Poetry is the shadow cast by our streetlight imaginations by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poetry is one of the hardest genres to work in when it comes to pleasing people. Writing a poem involves both art and skill but also a lot of effort to make your point using the least amount of words alongside style and presentation on the page. It’s a tough call and I’m now realising the bar is set even higher.

How do you follow a collection?

In particular, if it contains what you think are some of your best poems, those you’ve worked with on and off for a long time. The only answer is to carry on doing whatever inspired these poems in the first place. For me, it’s joining online poetry courses and workshops where you write to prompts. The results might not be perfect poems but they’re foundations to work on. Without these incentives. many of the twenty poems in the chapbook would not have been started, never mind finished. So it’s thanks to the course mentors for their time and attention. I’d recommend looking up the following; Wendy Pratt @wondykitten, Angela T Carr @dreamingskin and Jim Bennett @thepoetrykit. Also, it’s thanks to everyone else on these courses for sharing and commenting on the group’s work.

In the face of rejection, the best advice of all is to carry on observing the world around you and find the ways you feel most comfortable with when describing it. It helps to get into a writing habit. It doesn’t matter what you produce at the time, it’s more about the doing. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way suggests writing every morning in a random stream of consciousness. Get your thoughts down onto paper and often a single idea or phrase will appear which you know you’ll be able to use in the future. Dorothea Brand in Becoming a Writer says you need to make regular appointments with your muse because it’s only through the action of writing that she will appear.

Most of all, don’t give up.

Keep writing, reading, taking workshops, and have the confidence to go through the submissions process.

One day it might happen, and then all the hard work will feel worthwhile!

image showing a single person silhouetted on a hill in front of a sunset

Rejection blues

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 –

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!

Stay positive.

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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