Weekend before last I received a rejection for a poetry submission I’d sent in less than two hours before. It burned me more than a little. The journal in question is not known for its quick turn-around and its speed made their reply feel definite – like cement. This was different than a rejection from a journal committed to fast replies. Quick rejections from journals known for quick judgments aren’t personal, even if they return in a day, or two, or less.
With those journals – the speedy ones – there is almost something gleeful about the rapid smack-down of artistic hopes. I’ve submitted to the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts twice now. Those editors get back to their supplicants – sorry, submitters – in three days, max. Maybe it helps that their truck and store is short poems – how long can it take to assess the quality of four or six lines? I’ve taken to sending them, almost masochistically, poems so compressed they could fit on a straw wrapper. On a straw wrapper, torn in half.
My little witticisms, which exist mostly as commentary on brunch, amuse the hell out of me. However, it’s hard to imagine anyone else would take them very seriously.
for the bartender
These I expect to be rejected.
Perhaps that begs the question – why submit them in the first place? Why submit at all?
Brunch Poem II
When I was studying poetry in undergrad, I had the unfortunate appearance of someone who shared her poetry to hear others say they liked it. This was because occasionally, (weekly,) I’d be struck by some rhythmic impulse and scrawl off a moderately-successful mostly-poem, and become smitten. So smitten, so enthused, I’d rush to share my latest, greatest invention, ready to read it out loud to any friend around who’d listen. I was often convinced the last thing I’d written was my best. Because I was enamored with each poem I then thrust upon my roommates, workshops, and professors, it seemed I shared for compliments. Because I was impressed with myself and my writing, it seemed I expected the same out of everyone I so enthusiastically subjected to my burgeoning verse. (It is very obvious when I am excited about something.)
The truth was that I wanted haters. In “On Writing,” Stephen King advises his Dear Readers to kill their darlings. He’s stolen this advice, he knows, but that doesn’t diminish its value. I knew that I was in love with each recent creation in part simply because it was new. As I wrote more, I began to suspect that affection. The more I loved a poem, the more I wanted someone to show me what was wrong with it. I knew my feelings blinded me to my flaws, and also that that awareness could not counter-weight my bias. I shared my best poems with those I admired because I wanted to tear each poem down, to make it better. I wanted to learn. It seemed clear that the way to do that was by reducing my work into rubble, learning its weak spots, and rebuilding.
Alas, I think I seemed insufferable. Unbridled enthusiasm has that effect. I didn’t realize how I came across.
Even today, in my dotage, I find deep and perverse pleasure in hearing those I admire rip apart nouns I previously cherished. I heartily encourage, and bask in, intellectual take-downs of books or movies I fear I like too much, without good reason – sometimes, with certain caustic, opinionated, sharp-tack friends, I straight-out solicit their arguments and anaylsis against whatever piece of entertainment I suspect I love without reason, or thought, or examination. I want to hear what is wrong with things. I distrust overt, unwarranted affection for TV series, or arguments, or poems. Call me an anti-fan girl. There’s a weird joy, with black wings and twisted fingers, that follows eager behind righteous snubbing of mass-market culture and media. I am better because I can articulate why Game of Thrones is trash. Hating Malcolm Gladwell means I exceed those would-be armchair pop-psychologists who’ve read and love “Blink.”
But what keeps the smug off, for the most part, I think, is how I seek to learn from those I regard. How I choose to turn the microscope, sometimes or even often, on objects whose dissection may cause me pain. I considered Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” stellar literature for many years before I read a friend’s well-build wrecking machine of an opinion that really, nothing happens in the novel. Later I read “Neverwhere,” and its holes glared. It is easy to take down what you already hate. It is important to take down the rest.
When we discuss the things we love, instead of blindly loving them, we begin to be able to assess whether that love is merited. We learn how to discern between true artistry and cotton-candy fluff that looks good, tastes good for a moment, and has no lingering substance but sticky-fingered regret felt in our stomach and thighs. Don’t just kill your darlings. Autopsy them. Study their corpses.
A literary journal’s form rejection, whether within an hour or ten months, does not tell much. It is no blueprint to show where seams are weak and walls want insulation. As a dismissal, rejections are barely useful except as ego-check, and to remind us emotional attachment must be tempered with reason.
If you are never rejected, you never ask the right questions.
As creators it is impossible for us to know which of our beautiful, pale darlings holds the strength in its plum fists to beat upon the world. Our capricious attention dismisses what enthralls others. Devon taught me this: your opinion of your work does not matter, especially in regards to submission and rejection. What matters is the others.
At first this makes submission feel futile. But, in a calm gray twilight beyond the frustration of no good choice, this truth wedges open doors. When it doesn’t matter if you love a poem, you can send off any of them. You can keep dispassion in the thing. You can shrug, and beat yourself against the sill of the world until, during your incited unconsciousness, someone tiptoes around you to raise the sash. Do not love your poems, but push them off and fight to leave. Maybe, in time, some wild, dark, and iridescent creature will take pity on you, and let you them out.