On submitting a poem 50 times

I’ve had my head under a giant seeing-my-daughter-off-to-college-shaped rock, so when I read Jeannine Hall Gailey’s blog yesterday, its references to scandal in the poetry world inspired me to lift my busy skull and ask, “Wha-at?” I’m not going to name the white guy who published in Best American Poetry under a Chinese-American pseudonym, because he’s getting enough attention already for what isn’t, in my opinion, an interesting poem. If you, too, have been sulking underground and need to know what I’m talking about, this piece in the Rumpus will give you the gist. And editor Sherman Alexie’s reflections on the experience are also worth a read. The man is a master of the rhetoric of authenticity, but even so manipulated (“This whole damn essay is grandstanding”) I found myself converted to sympathy for his process and goals, if not for his choice.

None of it is that surprising, really–the arrogant defensive colonialist appropriation while wearing the mask of “white guys need a leg up” is familiar enough. But I keep snagging on the factoid that he submitted the poem to journals 40 times under his own name, 10 times under the alias, before Prairie Schooner took it. That’s not incredible, as most poets can tell you. There’s a lot of chance in the submissions game and it can take forever for even a very good poem to catch a sympathetic reader’s eye. I just keep wondering what exactly his figure means.

Mr. McMichael Derrickson O’Michaels, to borrow a sly friend’s re-naming riff, says he keeps thorough submissions records. I bet he’s better friends with Excel than I am. Rather than be organized and efficient, I maintain two lists. One involves a stack of pads on which I scribble down submissions chronologically in numbered batches. Here’s a page from 2013, in which I was doing MUCH better than ten years previously. submissions

I cross out the journals that reject the batch entirely and circle the ones that accept one poem or more. I used to average ten tries or so before an acceptance; now my odds are better. I think the poems are stronger than they used to be–I hope I keep improving!–but I’m also savvier about where I send in the first place. The handwritten list helps me see at a glance which forlorn, unloved batches need to be returned to circulation.

I simultaneously log this data into a Word file that lists magazines alphabetically, so I can see, for instance, if I’ve sent these particular pieces to The Journal before, or whether I need to give those editors a longer rest from my bombardments. I bold the names of journals that have published me before and use asterisks for venues I aspire to see my poems in. I also include notes from previous readings of the magazine–my own weird shorthand to help me remember “hey, this is NOT the place to send a rondel.” This morning I looked for a magazine that has rejected 50 of my poems, since I can’t easily search by single pieces. Here’s one:

*harvard review: lyric, funny/experimental—good ear
7/03 pupal stages, cross-eyed, 2 faced, foreign bodies P, sonnet looking rej 7/03
6/04 genuine, in threes, baby’s, neighboring T, torturing rej 7/04
8/06 patter, two in the bush, 3 out of 4, just long, sabb rej 10/06
7/07 ode, shipshape, she’s doing, divine, horror rej 11/07 “submit again–C Thompson”
12/7 hawthorne, beatles, widdershins, gifts, dead man rej 4/08
6/08 woman using, inner life, exercise, underground, jesus rej 9/08
2/09 split, oral, forgetting, twilight, tub rej 7/09
2/10 douchebags, sigh, entrée, sub, adolescence rej 10/10
9/11 that shall cross community speech paternity Wallace encouraging rec 4/12
4/13 pattern my dead father radioland can’t catch holding rej 9/13

Some of the magazines that keep turning me away get moved to the “Why Bother?” or “Just Rude” section of the file. I’m not going to continue trying no-simultaneous-submissions journals that take a year to respond, for instance, and sometimes, upon further research, I’ve realized that although a venue is prestigious, I am consistently bored by their choices. I’m sure I started sending to Harvard Review simply because the name sounded fancy. I’ll keep trying, though, because I do admire their selections and feel kinship with them.  Who knows–maybe the fifty-first try will be the charm.

What neither of these lists reveals, however, is that I constantly revisit and improve poems–I would never try a batch with a different editor if I hadn’t recently cast a critical eye over their slant-rhymes. Often I realize that a poem I’d thought was a killer is actually undeveloped, or that it begins or ends with the wrong line. And that’s after sitting on it for months before submitting it in the first place–I don’t rush work out. It just takes a lot of distance for me to see my own strengths and weaknesses objectively. Some of the poems HR rejected went on to appear in journals that are at least as well-respected–I’m pretty sure they missed a couple of beauties. Others had problems I only resolved through a round of rethinking. Still other poems I eventually dumped, stopped sending anywhere, because I lost faith in them. I write a LOT of poems. They’re not all keepers.

See, that’s the thing–sometimes editors overlook a poem wrongly, but on plenty of other occasions their refusals are right. If a poem gets turned down 40 times, it probably needs medical help. Just resending and resending the same thing seems dumb to me. It’s possible to LEARN from even form-letter rejections–to learn something, that is, about what makes a poem work for readers, rather than cynicism about a system you then game through deception. And I don’t know why any of us would keep trying if we’re not in it to keep writing better poems. It’s not like there’s any glory in this undervalued art, except the glory of a gorgeous line.

One last thing: the 76th poem Alexie mentions, the one he feels sick over not including in BAP but will never identify? I’m pretty sure that was mine.

4 thoughts on “On submitting a poem 50 times

  1. Hahaha! Great, great close!

    I’m already over-exposed on that particular scandal–already heavy bored, as Henry says. What really gets me is how industrious you are about submissions. I often tend to wait till asked. I positively adore being asked. Now and then I’ll toss a few into the world, but I’m not nearly as good about it. Maybe you will inspire me. Maybe.

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  2. Pretty sure it WAS yours, Lesley…! I tried spreadsheets for submissions and it just doesn’t work for me. My “records” look very much like yours, scrawled on legal pads and stuck in an oaktag file folder.

    Although I have colleagues who differ, I happen to agree with you that “If a poem gets turned down 40 times, it probably needs medical help. Just resending and resending the same thing seems dumb to me.” Yes, I tweak. I rethink. And, often, I discard. My poems are not my children. They are my compositions and my thoughts and states of mind, all of which are vulnerable to fallacy and liable to change.

    You inspire me to send out a few more poems into the world. Busy with the return-to-semester crunch, I’ve abandoned submissions. You, my dear, have no excuse! So keep being, as Marly says, “industrious.” (And don’t change your name) 😉

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  3. Thanks, Ann! It’s startled me to realize how many people think otherwise–that they should stick with their vision no matter what. Sometimes, yeah, you should, but mostly we’re all more fallible that that. For me, a poem is an act of communication, and if I can’t close the circuit and get others to respond, I want to learn why.

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