How Eight Months of Rejection Taught Me to Call Myself a Poet
If you asked me today what three words most encapsulated my being, I would not hesitate to tell you “wife, mother, poet.” Four years ago, I would have put the word “amateur “ in front of poet, if I had been confident enough to include it at all. I felt like an imposter calling myself a poet because, while I had written tons of poetry, I had never had any of it published outside of my high school and college student literary magazines. To me, a real poet published in real journals. Today I easily call myself poet. I have let go of imposter syndrome, and this I accomplished in one simple way: I got rejected. A lot.
I submitted my poetry to a journal once while in college, but when it got rejected six agonizing months later, I was crushed and I let my poetry writing fall to the wayside. Years passed and I missed writing poetry, but I needed something to push me into it again. I found a local writer’s center in 2011, (the fantastic Muse in Norfolk, VA) and started taking poetry workshops. Under the direction of wonderful teachers I started writing again, but I didn’t think of myself as a poet. I still had this huge mental roadblock about getting something published. I decided the only way out was through. It was important to me to get something published, so I needed to take some action steps to accomplish this. So, in January 2012 I set a terrifying goal: by the end of the calendar year I would publish a poem. I’d put myself out there, face the rejection, and just keep plugging away until I succeeded in getting something published. I would finally convince myself that I was a “for real” Poet. Capital P and all.
I’d love to say I immediately dove in and, after a few weeks of failure, I opened my inbox to a glowing “Yes, we’d love to publish this,” but I didn’t. In fact, it took me three months to feel ready to send out anything. I spent the first few weeks of 2012 reading up on various journals, editing my strongest work, following Duotrope on twitter for leads, and creating an excel spreadsheet to keep track of the work I’d submit and the requirements of the individual publications. This groundwork was important, not only to familiarize me with the poetry world and to get me organized, but also to prepare me mentally for the undertaking. I needed a plan to fall back on when rejections started rolling in so I didn’t lose my drive.
I didn’t submit a single poem until March and, after a few agonizing weeks, it was rejected. Along with the next dozen poems I sent out. And the next dozen. And the next dozen. My first acceptance didn’t come until August, after I’d endured six months of solid rejection, but that feeling of accomplishment when I saw that first ‘yes’ was worth the wait. Once I had that initial acceptance, I began to feel confident in my work, and I started submitting more and more. The first year I started submitting my work, I submitted 48 poems for publication. Eight were accepted. Eight. I was rejected 83% of the time. But you know what? I had eight poems published in 12 months. My goal was to get one poem published, and I beat that seven times over. That’s amazing. What’s also amazing is that my all-time rejection rate as of today is almost exactly the same. I’ve had two chapbooks published and received a Pushcart Prize nomination, yet my rejection rate still hovers around 82%.
Sometimes it still stings a little when I get that “Thanks, but no thanks,” email, but I’ve learned that rejection is just part of process. Just because one journal rejects my work doesn’t mean that the next one will. I’ve learned to expect rejection but not let it keep me from trying.
And you know what else? That trying is what makes me a poet. That’s what makes all of us whatever we are. We’re out there, doing our thing, failing and failing and failing and once in a while, succeeding. It’s hard. We end up getting really accustomed to disappointment. We might hear fifty ‘thanks, but no thanks’ before we hear a ‘yes’. A poem we love and believe in will get passed over again and again. We may doubt ourselves and our talent, but all of that doesn’t negate the fact that we show up. We move forward. We play the game. In this way, every rejection is its own success. It’s proof that you are playing.
Columnist Shannon Curtin is a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of two collections of poetry, Motherland (Anchor and Plume Press), and File Cabinet Heart (ELJ Publications). She is the newly named Poetry Editor of The Quotable, and her writing has been featured in variety of literary magazines including Mothers Always Write, The Muddy River Review, The Mom Egg Review, and The Elephant Journal. She holds an MBA, competitive shooting records, and her liquor. You can find her at www.shannonmazur.com and @Shannon_Mazur.