Rejection From The Other Side
After you’ve been writing and submitting your work for a while, you learn a lot about rejection. You learn to develop a thick skin. You learn that the best thing to do with a rejected piece of work is to send it right back out the door. You learn that once in a great while, an acceptance will turn into a rejection due to staffing changes (ask me about that story sometime, oh boy). But mostly, you learn to just keep doing your thing and press on.
These are all important lessons in rejection, but unless you have the opportunity to be the rejector instead of the rejectee, you miss out on the most important lesson: it really isn’t about you or your work.
After three years of being on the receiving end of rejection, I was asked to step into the role of poetry editor for The Quotable. The experience was eye-opening. The Quotable is not a hugely popular publication, but I found myself reading hundreds of poems during every reading period. Since we also publish fiction, non fiction and art, there’s only room for a handful of poems in each issue. I have to pass on the majority of the work I receive. Now, I’m the one handing out the rejections and it’s not an easy task. I don’t take it lightly. As the sole poetry editor I’ve been able to create my own criteria for what work I accept, as long as they fit within the journal’s guidelines and the theme of the issue. After reading my first batch of poems, I decided my criteria would be simple–an accepted poem needs to be two things: accessible and evocative. I want a poem to knock the wind out of me.
Sometimes this doesn’t happen right away, so I always read everything twice through, even if my initial instinct was to flag it for rejection. I read through the entire queue of poems, mark most of them as ‘maybes,’ a few ‘nos,’ and rarely a stellar one will get a ‘yes.’ Then, after some time has passed, I read them all again, and sometimes the votes change. If a poem I marked ‘no’ has been sitting in my head for a week, it will change to a ‘yes.’ That’s the kind of poetry I want to read and the kind I want to publish, poems that cling to your brain.
Most of the work I pass on is good by any standard. I pass on lots of obviously well-crafted poems because I didn’t connect to them. I can’t publish every poem I like, and I’d prefer to publish a poem that resonates with me. That’s when the lightbulb went off for me. It wasn’t about the poem at all. It was about the editor; it was about the reader.
Every editor has a bias. We all carry a personal history, a professional opinion, and a unique vision for the poetry we want to publish. As I’ve edited the Quotable, I learned that I don’t care for myth-based poems or long epics or anything that rhymes. Other editors might really enjoy all these things. I read blind and make my decisions based primarily on what I like, while other editors might have specific rubrics they use in the review process or might read each cover letter before they read the submission. Sometimes I’ve just accepted very similar work for a previous issue, so I pass on a good poem that I would have otherwise accepted. It really is more about the poem finding the right audience at the right time than anything else.
Since being on the opposite side of the rejection process, I’ve learned some things that have changed the way I submit my own work. After slogging through tons of submissions titled “3 Poems” or “Poems for Quotable,” I now title my submissions to match the work enclosed. I’m also more vigilant about following submission guidelines since at least one in every batch of submissions I read fails to abide by the guidelines, and a good poem I would have published gets automatically tossed into the rejection pile.
In addition to ensuring you follow guidelines, researching the press and the editorial staff might up your chances of publication. The Review Review and Duotrope feature interviews with editors that might give you a better understanding of the person behind the rejection button. However, no matter how much research you do or how perfect of a fit your work might be for a journal, there are always other things at play. Remembering this while soldiering on with each rejection is the most important thing you can do. Rejection isn’t about you, it’s about the press. You are looking for a home for your words, a rejection is just a ‘no vacancy’ sign.
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.