When I was in high school, I was placed in an honors English class taught by a guy who was supposed to be a fantastic teacher. At some point, he taught a bit of poetry and had us write some poems of our own. I never liked school but, at that point, I thought school couldn’t get any better. At around the same time, our school literary journal was published, and some of my poems were included. It was spring, we were writing poems in English class, I’d read “Little Gidding” by T.S. Eliot for the first time (still my all-time favorite), and a few of my poems were accepted for the school literary journal.
Life was good until the teacher in question called me up to his desk one day and said (shaking his head and scowling as he did), in a voice loud enough for the whole class to hear, that I should stop writing poems because, “Frankly, Miss Kenny, you can’t write poetry.” He went on to rave about poems written by a boy who was a senior. “Now, if you could write like Gene, it would be worth your time.” Talk about bursting the proverbial bubble!
Fortunately, I was born stubborn and knew I’d never give up writing poems. Years later, while I was working as a part-time consultant for the state’s Gifted and Talented Program, I was sent to a nearby school to conduct in-service training in creative writing for the teachers. As fate would have it, the principal of the school was my old high school English teacher. Seeing him again produced the same wretched feeling I had every day when I walked into his classroom. He pretended not to know me and only attended one of the in-service sessions. On the last day of the residency, I left copies of three of my books on his desk. One was inscribed, “For Mr. __________, who told me I couldn’t write poetry.”
As poetry editor of Tiferet since 2006, it's been my "job" to choose the most engaging, and sometimes the most theme-appropriate, poems submitted for inclusion in the journal. The volume of poems we receive is huge (often several hundred poets submit 3-6 poems each), and individual comments are just too time-intensive to be possible. We use Submittables, which offers a form decline note, which isn't my preferred form of reply. I've tried to word the note in a way that doesn't say the poems aren't good but, rather, just not suited to our current publication needs. I always presume sincerity on the parts of the poets and wouldn't want to hurt anyone feelings; and I always feel uncomfortable saying "no" to writers, especially those whom I know and whose work I respect and admire. Of course, I've had my own share of rejected poetry submissions too. My favorite was one I received many years ago that was a terse and definitive, “Nope,” written by hand on a slip of coffee-stained scrap paper. It was, all else notwithstanding, to the point, and it teetered on the balance point of even-handed and harsh.
On the amusing side of rejections, did you know that e. e. cummings’ 70 Poems was rejected by 14 publishers? He renamed it No Thanks and made a poem of the publishers' names:
In 1912, before Robert Frost had established his reputation as a poet, he sent some of his poems to Ellery Sedgwick, editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He received the following reply, "We are sorry that we have no place in The Atlantic Monthly for your vigorous verse." Frost's submission included his now-famous "Birches" and "The Road Not Taken."
In 1944, poet T.S. Eliot was working at Faber & Faber and wrote a rejection of Animal Farm to George Orwell, “… we have no conviction (and I am sure none of other directors would have) that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time … Your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm—in fact, there couldn’t have been an animal farm at all without them: so that what was needed, (someone might argue), was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.” The work was rejected by at least four publishers before publication in 1945.
I thought it might be interesting to ask some of my poet friends about the most interesting, funniest, oddest, or most eye-opening poetry put-downs they’ve received. Their responses follow.
And ... there's a related prompt at the end.
The funniest—and also the strangest—rejection I ever received came in the late seventies, and I believe it was from the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He lambasted me for sexually explicit poems that were pornographic and disgusting They had no place in a journal like theirs and he asked me never to submit poems again. I was totally baffled since anyone who has read my poetry knows that I do not write the kind of poem he descried. I thought maybe he got me mixed up with someone else but more than forty years later, I'm still wondering what he saw in my poems, although I read and re-read them and couldn't find anything.
—Maria Mazziotti Gillan
Years ago I submitted to a journal my baseball poem, “Pisoni,” about an unknown rookie who substituted for Mickey Mantle in center field the very first time my father brought me to Yankee Stadium. The poem described how disappointed I was to not be able to see my hero play that day. A few weeks later I received a form rejection slip from the journal along with a handwritten message: We will not publish poems with ethnic slurs!
This stunned me for I had no idea what they were referring to until I unfolded my returned poem and saw the editor had circled my line “…but I really wanted to see The Mick in center field” and I realized he misinterpreted my use of the popular nickname for Mantle as an ethnic slur against people of Irish descent.
I guess the editor was not a Yankee fan!
Although so many poets advise us to save all of our rejections, I broke the rules and threw one out. This was 15 or so years ago when submissions were still done by snail mail often with multiple copies of the same poem and stamped/self-addressed return envelopes. I am grateful very few places still make us go through all of that. Most of the time I did save the rejections. I even had a labelled file folder for easier storage.
At the time, I was circulating a chapbook and spending a considerable amount of money to enter contest after contest or to pay submission fees. I don’t think my income, strictly from publishing poems, will ever exceed my expenses. The chapbook was a series of poems primarily focused on my late husband’s final illness. The working title was, The Magic of Dead Things, taken from a line in one of the poems.
Since I threw out the rejection letter, I no longer remember the name of the publisher or who wrote the letter, though I recall it was a man. My recollection of the content of the letter, however, remains quite accurate. It read something like, “There is nothing “magical” about this collection. In fact most of the poems seem dead.” It went on for several more sentences in the same vein. The author plainly had a keen sense of humor along with an empathetic sense of how a submitter might respond to such a note. Even if the poems sucked, is that a note one would send to a grieving widow? Had the sender even looked at the poems I wondered? I read the letter a couple of times to convince myself that someone would both write and mail a note like that.
Throwing the letter out seemed the only logical thing to do in the moment and was quite cathartic. Of course, there is a happy ending. The chapbook went on to be a finalist in three contests and was published with the title Repairs. The poem from which I took the line for the earlier title has been widely anthologized. I do not regret discarding the note. I do regret forgetting who sent it, because I would not want to give that publisher the opportunity to print my work ever again. Perhaps that publisher has gone out of business.
Although I’ve had many rejections over the years—in fact, two just today—and I used to wallpaper my bedroom with rejections, I don’t have any that gave me a real belly laugh. I did receive an odd one that sort of made me tilt my head at it like the Deutsche Grammophon dog. It opened with “I don’t have a good reason for not taking” the poem in question. Which made me think, “Okay, then don’t not take it.” The rejection went on to say that the editor, who normally makes suggestions, felt he couldn’t provide any because it would violate the spirit of the poem. The tone of the rejection left me feeling like a parent asking a child why they did something rather stupid and they just respond, “I don’t know.”
—Michael T. Young
Note to Readers: Mike Young (above) reminded me of a rather infamous rejection letter from Arthur C. Fifield to poet, novelist, and playwright Gertrude Stein in which he mocked what would later become her first published book Three Lives. Here it is. (Thanks, Michael!)
I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.
Many thanks. I am returning the M.S. by registered post. Only one M.S. by one post.”
I was in a workshop years ago at the 92nd street Y with a famous poet whom I shall not name. I came to the group two weeks late, so they had bonded. A woman from the suburbs shared a poem about her garden in CT, and the whole group descended on her in the most mean-spirited way. I was stunned and oddly speechless, especially when the big name poet joined in. It was clear to me that the group was trying to impress the leader, and they were miming her behavior. The next week, I mentioned my discomfort, and told them without naming him, that Galway Kinnell had said in a workshop that if you don't like the poem, keep your mouth shut. You'll do damage to the poet. But if you like the poem, say whatever you want, because the criticism will help. The woman who had launched the criticism the previous week said how she'd felt terrible about starting what had happened, but the workshop leader immediately took issue with what I'd said. She indicated that we should all be free to say whatever we wanted. I knew then that I was in for a wild ride. Later, I brought in a poem that was about a deer hunt, obviously a metaphor, but based on an experience I'd been told about in detail. The whole group went after them poem and insisted that I had been on that hunt. I'm not sure how that had come up. I listened mildly amused until the workshop leader asked if I had been on the hunt, none of this relevant to the poem, itself. When I replied I had not, she launched into a spiel to the rest of the class on the power of imagination. I realized she'd set a tone for the group to go after writers, and even she was not able to bring them into focus. She'd created a monster, and I went home laughing. I had learned a great deal about what not to do in leading a workshop. More important, I had learned to trust my own instincts when listening to critique.
As shown in Adele's story, those early rejections have a long life in our memory. Today, getting a rejection for a poem or manuscript has become part of the writer's life. Online submissions and the large number of submissions received by publishers have also made the process impersonal. Using a submission tool such as Submittables, all I see is a gentle "Declined" message in my inbox.
But that was not the case in the first rejection that has stayed with me. My sophomore English teacher was fresh from college, good looking, funny and energetic. He taught the assigned curriculum ("Julius Caesar," Great Expectations, an American literature anthology etc.) but he recognized that I was reading much deeper into the canon on my own outside class and that I liked to write. He told me to come in after school if I wanted to talk about the books I was reading. He loaned me his college copy of The Great Gatsby (filled with his notes) which I read over a weekend so that I could discuss it with him Monday after school. He was my first literary mentor. He made me want to become an English teacher.
When he assigned the class to write a short story, I was determined to impress him. I had been reading Faulkner and wrote a story titled "The Fish" that clearly was influenced by Faulkner's "The Bear." I did several rewrites and typed it out on my manual typewriter with two fingers. When he returned our stories, mine had a circled "B-" grade and one comment: "We can't have sentence fragments in 10th grade." That was it. Faulkner and Hemingway had sentence fragments. He knew that. I was crushed. I never went in after school to talk with him again.
I did become an English teacher and I always tried to keep that comment (which had probably had been written quickly late one night after having read a pile of terrible sophomore stories) in mind so that I didn't hastily scrawl something on a paper that would have a long-lived negative effect.
I made the mistake of asking for comments from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts (back before they re-branded themselves the Mid Atlantic Arts Council). I forgot that every one tries to be cute and witty, so the remarks were: Heavy on the irony, overt and obvious, a mix of wit and cliché, obviously a student poet, and then one kind remark about a poem one of the judges thought was good. I never applied for a grant again, except in 1998 (lost that year, too), but I used the “Remarks" on the back of my book, In Praise We Enter. I found out the name of every judge eventually. Some were my "friends." I learned not to ask for the judge's remarks. Also, my wife Emily sent some of my poems out to a friend (I didn't know she'd sent them and she didn't know he was my friend) who rejected them fairly quickly and then wrote me a rather strange email that began "You know I love your poems..." I hadn't sent them so I was first baffled, then the critique pissed me off. He published a grad student of mine, so that's nice. I use the A. A. mantra: go where it's warm. A lot of magazines have a gauntlet of interns and it's a lot like trying to get into studio 54 circa 1977. You get in because you're wearing blue and you don't get in because you're wearing blue. Who knows? A few mags actually insisted I send and then rejected me which is kind of like asking someone to come to your party, then meeting them at the door and saying: “Sorry, we don't want your kind round here." My work is not suitable for most magazines. I think most zines are promoting a measured, sort of ambiguous middle class lyric of about a half to one page, with lots of dangling modifiers. I wish ’em well.
Some time after submitting to an artsy New York magazine I received my poems back in their self-addressed-stamped-envelope. There was no acceptance or rejection letter. The only response was a circle around my New Jersey address and the question, “Do you know Dave Roskos?”
I assumed this was the opening to a conversation or perhaps a professional relationship with an editor at a hipster New York publication, so I submitted more poems with the answer that I did indeed know Dave Roskos. Those poems were returned with the standard, “We regret to inform you…” response.
(Note: Dave Rostkos is a NJ poet who has published and edited Big Hammer journal for many years; he is also the founding publisher of Iniquity Books/Vendetta Press.)
Maybe 15 years ago I signed up for a week of poetry workshops in another state. Each poet was to bring several poems that she or he felt could be improved by sharing with the group and our relatively famous leader. I brought poems at several stages of completion.
One poem I brought had been sent out in a couple of forms to different journals, but I was not satisfied with it and thought it could be improved. On the day I presented it, the poem was torn to shreds by pretty much everyone, with plenty of suggestions, some of which would have turned it into a very different poem. I appreciated the input, and did learn about the poem and about other poets' ways of thinking about poems.
But when I got home, I found it had been accepted by a decent mag. I started liking the poem more after opening the acceptance. I also learned something about workshops.
My favorite rejection was from a kind editor who said no to my packet, but said he liked one of my submitted poems best and would consider it again with some revisions. I put it on my to-do list, where, alas, it sank lower and lower. A few months later, I received, from the same editor, profuse apologies for the delay. He said if the poems were still available, he wanted to publish two, including the one he must have forgotten being open to a revision. I've logged 12 rejections since January 1, and am now wishing more of those would magically turn into acceptances, like this one did!
I’ve never had a rejection in poetry or love. Of course, that statement isn’t true, though I wish it were. I can candidly say the rejections from love hurt more than the poetry rejections. But since this blog is about poetry rejection, let me focus on that.
Maybe I’m especially sensitive. One of the first poems I sent out was to The New Yorker. That poem came back with a formal rejection note. I was so devastated, I didn’t send them another poem for twenty years. Yet that early poem “I Am My Father’s Daughter” was selected by Toi Derricotte (whom I didn’t know at the time ) as a winner of the statewide William Carlos William Poetry Prize Contest. That made me realize how subjective rejection is, and I should not take it so to heart. But I did and still do.
As founder and editor of the poetry magazine Lips since 1980, I find it hard to reject poems and sometimes delay in getting back to poets in a timely manner because of my own sensitivity concerning rejection. And because I edit a journal, I rarely send my poems out (though sometimes I do) and usually wait to be asked to send poems. As for contests, I mostly enter those that are free (with rare exceptions), so I enter very few contests. Some of the free contests I’ve entered are those by Poetry Society of America where I’ve been lucky enough to win a first prize in the Gordon Barber Award. When I tried the following year, I was rejected and in more recent years when I did try several of their annual contests, I haven’t won another first prize. And those years I tried and wasn’t a winner, I swore I wouldn’t try again but then I sometimes did just because I’d been lucky once. When my forthcoming manuscript years ago was announced a finalist in PSA’s Alice di Castignola Award, I was happy but wished it had been the top winner. That award, however, gave me the courage to try another manuscript, which didn’t win.
I tell myself I should be grateful I’ve received three New Jersey Arts Council Fellowships, but that was not recently. I feel like the legendary Erica of soap opera fame who was nominated for an Emmy each year and smiled at the cameras as her name wasn’t announced. At this point, I’ve had 35 Pushcart nominations over the years without ever having been awarded a Pushcart Prize.
Sometimes I think it’s a natural thing to keep attempting to get published in a more established and known magazine such as Poetry. I did send a poem to Poetry years ago and it came back with a formal rejection note. That was more than ten years ago, and I’m thinking I might try sending another poem to the magazine.
Whenever I get a rejection letter, I react by going to CVS and buying six Kit Kat bars to sooth my depression. They help a bit. I tell myself that if I write a poem the poem itself is my prize even if others reject it. Still, I guess I’ll never get over my sensitivity to rejection whether it’s poetry or love.
When I was in graduate school I had Frank Lloyd Wright's granddaughter for a teacher in one class in French. For my final project in that class, I wrote some poems in French.
I can't remember her exact words anymore (when she returned the paper), but basically she said I was really good at French, but I probably should give up poetry. Now I have a French vocabulary of about ten words.
1. Try writing a poem about a rejection or poetry put-down that you've received (an actual submission rejection or a verbal put-down).
2. Take a second look at e. e. cummings' poem (quoted near the end of this post's intro). Can you do something equally simple with a related poem of your own?
3. Write a rejection letter in poem form that would soften the blow if it were ever actually received by a poet.
4. Write a really silly rejection note—make humor your goal.
5. Write a ballad called, "The Ballad of Poetry Rejections."
6. Write a poem about your best and/or worst poetry rejections or put-downs. You might try a form for this such as a sestina or villanelle.
7. Write a sarcastic mini-poem to an editor who rejected your work unkindly.
Roses are red,
violets are blue,
I'd rather be rejected
than published by you!