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FOURTEEN TIPS FOR DEALING WITH REJECTION
I don’t mean in love, or in life. I’m talking poems here.
And I’m talking both as a rejectee and a rejecter. Both are unpleasant roles, but the former is worse than the latter. Or worse for some people.
I vividly recall the early days when I was sending out a lot of stuff in A5 manila envelopes. Sorting out the poems into groups. Typing up the accompanying letters to editors. Printing final copies as consistently and beautifully as I could. Folding them precisely, popping them into the envelopes, slipping the envelopes into the big red post box. This was long before Submittable. Long before Email. Those were the days.
Until they began to come back. Inside the first manila envelope was a second, addressed to me in my own handwriting. It had a fold down the middle where A5 had been folded to A6 to fit inside the first envelope. You could see these envelopes returning a mile off. You could hear them flop onto the floor in the hall. You could hear them flop heavily, like envelopes with six poems in – not three or four (which might mean two had been accepted).
The worst aspect was the flip-flop heart on opening the envelope: a mixture of hope (you can’t help it, even if the envelope is heavy) and pragmatic anxiety. If some non-poet is with you at the time, you have to hide these feelings. You can hardly stand there and curse when your Aunt Emily is waiting for her cup of coffee.
Some people are very good about this stuff. ‘So what?’ they chuckle, and get on with their lives. Not me. I used to feel dismal for the rest of the day, at the same time as being furious with myself for having that ridiculous response. After 24 hours, the negative emotion had shrunk to a whisper. After 48, it had gone completely. This was good, but there were more rejections on the way. And each time, the same cycle of ridiculous emotions.
When you open an envelope with returned (rejected) poems, the wee souls never look the same. They go out so hopeful and clean and nicely folded. They come back rumpled with their tails between their legs. Where has their confidence gone?
So why on EARTH do I suggest that other poets, many of them fragile in confidence, should put themselves through this? The reasons are complex (more of this in my book How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published), but I do still suggest it, even at the same time as still – to this day – finding it difficult myself.
Yes, I have some tips. It’s the sort of thing you expect from blogs. But as well as this, you can of course remind yourself of various truths, like that none of this is personal; that the return of the poems doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t like them (or you); that they may just not like poems about dogs/sex/the menopause/Donald Trump; that they may already have two poems about frogs in this issue; that the poems were the wrong shape, style or size for the magazine; that your work arrived when the issue was already full; that the silly one about human fleas may have given them the wrong idea about you etc; that it may not be the best idea to share your feelings about the editor on Facebook....
Let’s get down to the tips then.
1. It’s a business. Get down to the paperwork. You sent them out ... when? They came back ... when? From ... where? Keep a meticulous record. You need to know how long each mag sat on the work. And how many rejections you have had from them so far, since there is a point at which you will stop trying.
2. Remember the unique collection you’re in process of making. I mean your collection of rejection slips. Some of them may be valuable one of these days. So go for that slip, grab it and check how rare it is. (The rare ones have comments, coffee rings, blood stains, or were intended for somebody else, not you. Seriously.) File it.
3. Some people say ‘send those poems right out to the next magazine’. I wouldn’t do that. I think you need to put them to one side for a little while. Read them again once your negative emotion has dwindled. Then decide whether you should tweak or change or even abandon. This can teach you something. You might vary the set next time too.
4. Check how much work you still have out there, circulating. Something should be doing the business for you. So you might send a few other poems out. And if you feel really rebellious, include one of the ones that came back today with a totally different title!
5. If your emotions are intense, find a field or open space, or somewhere with few people around and scream at the very top of your voice as loud as you can. This is fabulously therapeutic, not least because – after the scream – you’ll laugh.
6. If you still feel TERRIBLE, write a poem about it. Strong feeling is great. I have several poems written after rejections, one or two of which found good homes.
7. Go and read a couple of your favourite touchstone poems. Remind yourself what this is all about. And how vitally important being a reader is.
8. Maintain perspective by checking the world news. So many awful things can trump rejection from a little magazine. Especially right now.
9. Remember persistency is your friend. If a specific poem has already been rejected six times, the seventh is far less painful. In fact, it becomes fun to see whether it will ever be accepted.
10. Send a couple of rejectees to a good critical friend for comments. The critical friends – your good readers – are enormously important.
11. Do a thorough review of the magazines you’re sending to. Do you like enough of the work inside them to justify wanting to be printed there? If you don’t, then don’t send there again. Reject that magazine.
12. Be naughty with your multiple rejects. Cut them up and change the stanzas round. Make two little ones into one longer one. Share the very short one on Twitter. Then photograph it and have it printed on a mug. (There is a home for every pome.)
13. Start a little magazine. Nothing too complicated. You could do it online, if you like. Changing your role from rejectee to rejecter is hugely educative. (Or read Gerry Cambridge's book: The Dark Horse: On the Making of a Little Magazine. You start to see the whole thing in an entirely different way.)
14. Be aspirational. Decide whether the poem has been rejected enough times to qualify it for the fabulous Salon of the Refused, where rare items from your rejection slips will also be joyfully received.
It's the form-letter rejections that get me. You mean they didn't think enough of my work to plug in a short personalized phrase? Don't they know who I AM? Of course they do. Or don't.
Brilliant, as ever, Nell. However. It's not just Aunt Emily waiting for her coffee when that thick envelope thumps on to the mat (which it sometimes does even in these electronic times), it's this: when the nearest and dearest, normally so housetrained and would never dream of reading my mail, happens to be in situ and what is he doing here anyway when he's usually out at this time of day and he knows he ought not to hover but he did after all forego a night down the pub a few weeks ago in order to sit here for three hours reading that WHOLE other manuscript and found 'in' where there should have been 'is' and corrected something about wind direction and said the whole thing was great stuff so he's really interested in this envelope though it's got different poems in and he's hovering and I haven't the heart to say piss off and I could just wait and open the thing later but it is in my hand so I open it and he might as well have a look. "... not suitable for us at present… doesn't mean that we don't like your work… " That. Urrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!