Three editors on rejection and persistence

I finished choosing Shenandoah poems a couple of weeks ago. It’s such a pleasure to accept work, but there was so much strong poetry that I had to turn down, I could have built another good issue out of what I rejected. Honestly, I agonized so much I wondered if I’m cut out for this. Trying to shake it off, I figured I’d use my decision-sharpened mind to start submitting my own poems again–I’ve been delinquent–but I spent most of this week in a spiral of uncertainty (although family worries also contributed to that). I did finally get poems under consideration in a few places. It took me a ton of revision and reading through old folders, as well as research into markets, to make it happen. I’m freshly aware of the odds against making the cut, so I did a lot of hard thinking about the stakes of each poem, trying to delete or change iffy passages as ruthlessly as I could. And now I won’t know how well I managed it for months! 

The Zoom conversation I recently had with Celia Lisset Alvarez and Jen Karetnick therefore felt timely. See here for a recording of “She Persists: Rebounding from Rejection” that includes readings and lots of frank talk about our personal stats. Below are some bonus tracks consisting of their answers to my follow-up questions, plus their bios so you can find out about their many projects. I bolded a few bits that strike me as especially useful and inspiriting. At the very end, look for a few footnotes from me, too.

  1. Having work declined can be pretty dispiriting. What’s your best advice about coping with and rebounding from a no?

JK: There’s no denying that rejections sting. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling bad about them for a moment. After all, we’re poets and writers. We feel; that’s what we do. But then you just have to shake it off and get back to work. If that sounds a little too positive like a Taylor Swift lyric, well, so be it. Dwelling on what hasn’t happened can really keep you from moving forward. My best advice is to allow yourself to be disappointed, then turn around and resubmit elsewhere. A lot of elsewheres. Simultaneously submit widely. I shudder when I read a cover letter that tells us they’re only sending these poems to SWWIM Every Day. Why? We allow simultaneous submissions, and we may not get back to you for 1-2 months. Send them elsewhere, too! There are hundreds of journals waiting for your work. You just need to find the one who wants it. It’s like dating – the right editor is out there, waiting to accept the love that you’re offering.

CLA: It’s important to really believe that at least half the time a rejection has nothing to do with the quality of your work, or you’ll become so discouraged you’ll stop writing, since rejections are way more common than acceptances. When you get a rejection, you need to see it as a task. You must find a better home for whatever has been rejected, understanding that it may take many attempts before you find the right place. Never ever change a piece you feel is good to reflect an editor’s comment or what you might perceive as a comment from a rejection. You have to both be confident in your own skill and open to suggestion. If a piece is getting rejected more than you feel is normal, take another look at it. If you still feel it’s good, don’t change a word. There is always the odd chance, however, that there is some kind of flaw you haven’t seen before. If you catch it, then certainly revise. But that is a pretty rare situation; once you’ve sent something out, it’s usually because you’re sure it’s “done.” Unless, of course, you’re sending sub-par work out, which, as an editor, I know happens. Many of the poems or stories I reject needed just one more sweep before being wonderful. The work happens, or should happen, before you submit, not after.

  1. What have you learned about rejection from working as an editor?

CLA: The most salient lesson is that writers are not doing their homework.* They don’t know a thing about the journal they’re submitting to, and they don’t even follow the submission guidelines. That is the number one reason for rejections. I’ve also realized just how hard it is to find a good piece; the myth of the gigantic “slush pile” full of gold going unnoticed is just that, a myth. Most often I am still in need of some good pieces at the end of the reading period. What that means to the writer half of me is that I shouldn’t be intimidated by the idea of sending work to a prestigious journal. Good work will stand out. It’s what the editor is looking for, what she dreams of finding. Finally, I’ve realized how formulaic writing has become, how many people want to be Walt Whitman or e.e. cummings. Writers need to think more about voice and less about style. A piece has to have weight to it; it can’t be some facile observation about the life/death cycle of nature.**

JK: I’ve learned that our work might be polished, accomplished, even wonderfully written. But it might not be as unique as it needs to be. Because being human is something we all share, there are only so many plots and themes. Every experience you’ve been through, someone else has been through — even the awful ones. Every idea you have, someone else has had — even the greatest ones. The way that you stand out is through your voice. Take a good hard look at your diction and syntax. Are they as original as they can be? Are your images fresh and striking? I can’t even count how many poems we get, even from very well-published poets, that still use adjectives like “beautiful” and “soft” and “sweet.” Too many poets and writers rely on easy abstractions when we’re supposed to be the ones making the world a more specifically observed and fascinating place.

  1. I appreciated this conversation and sensed it could have gone on much longer. Is there anything else you wish you had time to say?

CLA: There was a point where someone asked about sending out collections rather than single pieces. I wish I would have said something of what I learned writing my latest collection, Multiverses. What editors seem to want from collections now more than anything is cohesion, not of style but of content. If you can put together a collection that has a narrative arc to it, you are much more likely to get it published.*** I’ve been shopping around another collection for near twenty years that I still feel is chockfull of wonderful poems, but they don’t build upon one another. On the other hand, Multiverses got picked up the day after I sent it out for the first time. If what you want to publish is a collection, in other words, I think it’s important not just to write good poems, but good stories. Find the architecture of your writing and write the gaps if you can. You are much more likely to be able to publish a collection that way.

JK:

Don’t waste time explaining the meanings of your poems in your cover letters unless you’re using a specific form that’s not obvious or it’s pertinent to how the editor will read the work. Don’t offer random details about your life, about how you live on an isolated island in the Caribbean island drinking freshly roasted coffee while you write every morning from 8-10 after a refreshing swim. It’s just not relevant. 

Do take time to read the journal’s mission and guidelines, and don’t send if you don’t agree with them. For instance, SWWIM Every Day publishes women, and we have men submitting to us, even men who are aware of our mission statement but say things like “I think you should consider my work anyway.” No. That’s ten minutes of free labor I wasted.**** 

Also, it’s not personal. If your work is declined, it’s about the work, not you. If it’s accidentally declined twice, it’s because the Internet stuttered and it looked like it didn’t go through, so someone hit the button again. If you get a ghost rejection, well, sometimes Submittable glitches and sometimes a human glitches (there is a way you can decline without sending an email). But more likely it is because responses frequently go to your spam, where they sit for a month and then get erased. If it’s taking too long in your opinion to get an answer, it’s usually because circumstances have intervened; we all have jobs, families, partners, personal lives. Sometimes editors just have too many submissions on their plates and can’t get back to you as promptly as they would like–although I admit that I, too, get angry when a year (or more!) goes by and then I simply get a form rejection or the journal just disappears. 

If you’re querying or withdrawing a poem, be sure that you’re using the most direct method. One thing I’ve learned about using the forms on websites is that unless the journal specifically asks that you use them, a lot of journals don’t check those messages. They also tend to stack up on each other in bunches so you can’t see them as individual messages. And no, the “Note” function on Submittable does not send emails to editors! It’s for your personal use. Use the “Messages” function to send a message – that generates an email to the editors. If the “Messages” function isn’t activated, as it sometimes is not, or the journal uses a different system, send an email to the journal.

Finally, as the person responsible for sending out declines (and acceptances), I can tell you it is something I find truly difficult to do, whether or not I know the poet or have published them before. I’m also on the receiving end of declines, so I understand how it feels. Still, that’s all part of being in the literary community and we need to extend each other grace and kindness whenever possible.*****

About Celia and Jen:

Celia Lisset Alvarez is the editor of Prospectus: A Literary Offering. She has three collections of poetry: Shapeshifting (Spire Press 2006), winner of the 2005 Spire Press Poetry Award, The Stones (Finishing Line Press 2006), and Multiverses (Finishing Line Press 2021). Her poems have been anthologized in How to Live on Other Planets: A Handbook for Aspiring Aliens (Upper Rubber Boot Books 2015), Obsession: Sestinas for the 21st Century (Dartmouth UP 2014), and Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books (Minor Arcana Press 2014). She has work forthcoming in the anthologies Poetry Inspired by Cinema (Before Your Quiet Eyes Publishing 2021) and How to Write a Form Poem (T.S. Poetry Press 2021), and in Pensive: A Global Journal of Spirituality and the Arts. She lives in Miami, Florida. You can find her online at celialissetalvarez.com.

Jen Karetnick’s fourth full-length book is The Burning Where Breath Used to Be (David Robert Books, September 2020). She is also the author of Hunger Until It’s Pain (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming spring 2023) in addition to eight other collections. Karetnick has won the Tiferet Writing Contest for Poetry, the Hart Crane Memorial Prize, and the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Prize, among others, and has been an Artist in Residence in the Everglades, a Deering Estate Artist in Residence, and a Maryland Purple Line Transit grant recipient. Co-founder and managing editor of SWWIM Every Day, she has work appearing recently in Barrow Street, The Comstock Review, december, Michigan Quarterly Review, Terrain.org, and elsewhere. Based in Miami, Jen works as a lifestyle journalist and is also the author of four cookbooks, four guidebooks, and more. Find her on Twitter @Kavetchnik and Instagram @JenKaretnick, or see jkaretnick.com.

*This is true for me too, even though it’s also true at Shenandoah that we can ultimately accept only a percentage of the good stuff. Not following the guidelines or understanding what the journal publishes gets you rejected fast. The vast majority of editors do the work as unpaid extra labor on top of day jobs–I do–and as a submitter, I want to convey respect for that. I’d rather an editor feel friendly and read my work carefully before rejecting me. At least, then, my work has found one reader!

**Among a pool of well-crafted poems, what makes a piece stand out for me is often risk. But every editor will have a slightly different answer, I suspect, about what makes them fall in love with a piece.

***How I would put it: the collection might not have a narrative arc, or a slim one, but there’s a story or a web of connected experiences behind all of its poems. Can you say what the book is about in a sentence or two, insufficient as that sentence might be for the nuances the poems deliver? I had Celia’s experience: my first collection, Heathen, was basically all the best poems I’d written to date, and I still think it’s a good book, but I submitted it for 5-6 years before it was taken. My second book, Heterotopia, was about my mother’s childhood in Liverpool during World War II. I submitted it for just a few months before it won a prize.

****Wow, those men are jerks. See *.

*****Amen.

Not helping

Learning, unlearning, and #AWP21

You know the way somebody makes a remark and it clangs in you, your body vibrating with recognition? A friend recently told me that she’s learned a lot over the past year about what she needs to be happy. Yes. I’ve had other lesson years: for instance, I learned during my long-ago stint as department head is that I start falling apart if I don’t have an hour or so of flow experience each day, usually through reading or writing. Even class prep–rereading books, thinking about how to inspire engagement–can satisfy that hunger. Answering emails from the Business Office cannot.

The pandemic has been a tough teacher. I’ve had to be more deliberate this year about pairing periods of work-output with periods of restorative activities, and the range of possible restorative activities is necessarily smaller. I discovered how much travel had scaffolded my emotional life–choosing destinations and planning trips as well as the sheer relief of escaping my small town–and how sad the days felt without even small adventures to anticipate. I dealt with the restlessness through spring, summer, and fall by planning a new hike every Saturday, but tendonitis hobbled me in January, and February was just too icy as well as being crammed with deadlines, meetings, guest classes, and other tiring Zoomy things. I’m introverted enough not to mind some isolation, but projecting energy and enthusiasm via screens really takes it out of me. I entered March both revved up and melting down.

At my worried spouse’s suggestion, we spent 3 nights at a rented house by a deserted lake, which helped me reset. One reason I travel is because it puts distance between me and laptop-oriented work vigilance; I can’t seem to assert that boundary in my own house. I wasn’t looking forward to coming home and retethering myself to professional effort by “attending” this AWP, for which I had registered in a long-ago fit of optimism. Plus I’d learned that most of the sessions were pre-recorded, which I thought would remove that last frail shred of human interactivity. Virtual conferencing at its worst, I thought.

Somehow, though, I’ve done okay. I tried to watch multiple sessions on the first day then managed to listen to myself: I have it in me to pay high-quality attention to one session per day and reduced attention to a second, but that’s it. Why beat myself up about an incapacity to do more? The live chats enabled by the platform are more interactive and interesting than I expected, but I’m still not fulfilling that old, anxious “see and be seen” AWP imperative anyway, so, I told myself, just chill.

Oddly, I find myself choosing and enjoying the sessions on essays and fiction-writing more than the poetry events (although I particularly enjoyed a few generous-spirited poets talking about small press publicity last night). I wonder if that’s chance, or whether it’s about the pleasure of brain-expansion. I know a lot about poetry. I know something about writing creative nonfiction and novels, but I’m way lower on those learning curves, and I’m deeply interested in getting the lay of the land. In all the panels, I’m appreciating using camera-off listening time to stretch, when I’m not taking notes. And I finally did one of those AWP morning yoga sessions, and it was amazing!–not led by a super-fit woman approaching the practice athletically, but by a calm person emphasizing breathing and loosening joints, who kept reminding her invisible audience that yoga is all about feeling good and increasing happiness. Back to happiness, as if that might be an important subject.

Is that a lesson I can take to the next AWP–do less, concentrate on what’s pleasurable about the conference, what I can learn? Or should I skip the next AWP, even though it will be in Philadelphia where my kids are, and concentrate on smaller events where there’s a greater chance of really talking to people? No decision yet, especially given how unknowable the future is now, but I’m pondering.

In the meantime, a reminder that I’m participating in what I hope will be an inspiriting event this Monday 3/8 at 7pm ET (by Zoom, sorry), with poet-editors Celia Lisset Alvarez and Jen Karetnick, about rebounding from rejection. I plan to talk a little about what I’ve learned about it from both sides of Submittable, and why I persist. Sign up here (FB) or here (Eventbrite–but free tickets close a half hour before the event). Plus, I have to tell you, at the lake, there was an outdoor hot tub, and I saw a shooting star when I was lounging in the water (overchlorinated, but never mind). More happy astronomical phenomena, please, and may they be omens of good journeys ahead!

The present and future of pandemic poetry

Like a sad dragon, I’m currently sitting on a diminishing hoard of potential poems for future issues of ShenandoahFall ’21 and Spring ’22, presuming we get there–knowing I can’t keep ALL the gold. I’m already rejecting good poems, trying to get down to 20-ish from more than 700 batches. The last couple of weeks have been largely a sifting process: holding each poem against the light, seeing how pieces might fit together.

One issue I’ve been pondering, in part triggered by a tweet from Kelli Russell Agodon: how are the poems I’m reading manifesting the extraordinary pressures of a global pandemic? The answer I gave Kelli is that the poetic worlds seem a notch smaller: I’m getting more poems about the flora and fauna close to hand, fewer about conversation and art and the randomness of being a human walking around in the built world. That’s not a bad thing, but it can make the submission pile less various. I’m certainly coming across references to Covid-19, too, as well as elegies and poems about anxiety, depression, and isolation, but not as many as I expected. This may be because poetry has such a slow burn that we won’t really see the literary results of any crisis for a few years. It may also be because a lot of people just can’t write lately–their lives are busier and their brains can’t rev down enough for reflection. I’m interested to see how things shake out in the literary world and otherwise.

“Haunted and Weird Futures” was actually the title of the final session of the poetry master class I just finished teaching at Randolph College. The assignment:

To read for class: Juliana Spahr, excerpts from “Will There Be Singing”; Jeannine Hall Gailey, “The Last Love Poem,” “Calamity,” “The End of the Future,” “Introduction to Writer’s Block”; Natasha Trethewey, “Theories of Time and Space”; January Gill O’Neil, “Hoodie”

Prompt: Write a poem that looks toward the future. Some part of it should use the future tense.

It went well, although I was glad I’d lightened the reading for the last session, because the students are tired and stressed. One poem we discussed intensively was Gailey’s “Introduction to Writer’s Block”, because another group of students at Randolph, in a BFA program discussion group, asked me how I keep writing in a difficult time. I talked about switching things up–trying a different genre when one isn’t working–but also just forgiving yourself and spending time on activities that nourish what is depleted in you (whatever it is–a craft, exercise, reading, watching TV, games and puzzles, talking to friends, taking a bath). I love Jeannine’s persistence in the face of pre-pandemic calamity, her declaration that “If you wait long enough, something inside you will ignite.” She writes plenty of poems considering the possible failure of poetry, but they tend to nurture some wit and spark and hope, whatever the trampling Godzilla of the moment is. And I think she’s right: if you keep showing up to the page, cultivating whatever openness you can however you can, the words eventually come.

Because discouragement is also epidemic this year, I am joining in on an event organized by Celia Lisset Alvarez and including Jen Karetnick, both of them poets and editors extraordinaire. We’re going to talk about rejection in the context of our own recent books, and how we work to overcome it. It’s called She Persists and it’s happening at 7pm on Monday March 8th. Sign up here and I promise I’ll try to cheer you on and cheer you up!