Emily Dickinson once wrote, "hope is the thing with feathers." Because I am a bitter but kind of funny complainer, I once wrote "hope is the thing that never passed the second grade." (It's actually a title of one of my poems. The title is better than the poem.) As is often the case in these classic genius vs normie scenarios, I think we're probably both right.
Let's backtrack for a second. About a year ago, one of my favourite poets, Vancouver spoken word phenom and all around curmudgeon Fernando Raguero, asked me if I ever got discouraged by all of the rejections I get. I did what it's in my nature to do: I lied. I scoffed and made a big show of saying "No! God, what are you even saying? Of course not!" and he nodded and I nodded and we stood there nodding until one of us had the good sense to take a sip of beer just to introduce an alternate secondary action into an awkward conversation.
I don't know why I'm prone to bravado, (actually, I have a bunch of theories, but I'll save that for my therapist,) but I am. What would have happened if I had said, "you know what man, on occasion, I do feel discouraged." I'll tell you what would have happened. We probably would have both nodded in silence. The outcome would have been virtually identical. Given that the point of this rejection-tracking exercise is to be honest with others about the process of submitting work and getting feedback, I'm going to try to be sincere in this post. Yeah. I do get discouraged sometimes.
It doesn't happen often. I know that rejections are a given, and usually when I get one I mainly feel proud. Disappointed, definitely, but I get fueled up. I think "Okay, that's one less place I'm going to hear back from, one less option I have out there, better get onto Submittable, browse the discover section, and submit three more manuscripts so I'm ahead of where I was before this rejection. Suck it, rejection."
The logic is questionable, but the practice is sound. I end up feeling productive instead of bad about myself. My relationship with rejections can be described thusly: most of the time I feel like 90s party anthem Tubthumping,
(How much of that did you just listen to? Are you still listening? I applaud you. Take ten points for the Hogwarts house of your choice.)
but on the odd occasion, I feel like 90s alt-rock anthem and bane of Thom Yorke's existence, Creep.
(Or like the mood of classic No Doubt single, Don't Speak, but I decided to make lyrics the focal point for comparison, so here's young Thom Yorke with the most British haircut in the entire world. Look at him.)
The odd time, a rejection is a perfect storm. A shit cocktail. Pick your metaphor. Maybe I sent out work I'm really proud of, work that I think is a good fit for the journal I've sent it to, maybe it's a journal I really want to be published in, maybe I agonized over choosing the order of the poems for narrative flow and cohesion, thought I was really fitting a theme, blah blah blah, and then it gets rejected, but wait! The rejection comes on the same day as two other rejections you felt similarly about! Boom, discouraged. Maybe it's a rejection from a publishing house I desperately want to be published with and the rejection letter is overly impersonal and you can tell they just really did not like what you sent, it wasn't even close. Boom, discouraged. Maybe I have the flu, or had my wallet stolen, or lost a high stakes dance off, and then a rejection is the shitty garnish on a dish I'm allergic to but really want to eat. Boom, discouraged and hungry.
Basically, that's where I am right now. A rare case of discouragement.
As with almost all perfect storms in my life, I am the hot front that really throws off the equilibrium. In this case, I let myself get my hopes up.
Back in June, I submitted five of my best poems to one of my favourite lit journals. It was for a theme issue that I looked forward to submitting to, something I have spent a lot of time writing about. This was not a last minute submission, it was painstakingly crafted, and I felt good about it. I chose the pieces carefully, I tried to strike a balance between poetic structures, between narrative and meditative poems, and I tried to keep the content diverse enough to be interesting, but thematic enough to be appropriate. I hit submit and crossed my fingers.
Six months later, I got this response:
Your manuscript, 'Five Poems', is moving along through ______'s reading process, and we thought you might appreciate an update on its progress. Because we like it, we’ve included it in the manuscripts being considered for our next issue. The deadline to finalize the content for the issue is at least three months from now, so you may not hear back from us before then.
If for any reason you need to withdraw your manuscript at any time, please advise us immediately either via submissions@______.com, or your account on ______.submittable.com. In the meantime, much as we like your writing, do not send us anything further until after you hear back on this manuscript. We do not publish the same writer in back-to-back issues.
If you haven’t heard back from us in three months , feel free to email submissions@_____magazine.com, and we’ll look into it for you. Best of luck with this next round of consideration,
I was ecstatic. I have never been accepted by this lit journal before, and I want to appear in it so badly. Naturally, because I knew that these poems were being considered seriously, I didn't want to send them out until I'd heard back from the journal. Several calls for submissions and contests came up and I thought "damn, I have the perfect -- oh wait. Nope. It's under careful consideration at one of my favourite places." So I didn't send them. That was my choice. I checked my e-mail obsessively to see if I'd heard anything from them. I felt confident. I started overestimating the odds that these pieces were going to be accepted. It could be that bravado thing I have, or it could be that I've submitted to this journal several times and have never received a message that looked anything like this. My intuition told me that one of these pieces was definitely going to find a home in the magazine this time. The theme was perfect for me. It was clinched.
I chose not to send out the pieces, but I was conflicted about it. I wanted to send one of the submitted poems to a contest, all my intuition bells were having a field day that the poem and the contest would be a good fit, but I abstained, because what if that poem was the one they chose? Notice that this is how I was thinking. Not will they take my manuscript, but which piece from it will they choose? Was it excitement? Bravado? Hope stronger than most recreational stimulants? Foolishness? Yeah, all. Probably some other crap too. Only once did I think to myself, "wait, what if they reject the whole thing? What if this is the worst of the second round bunch? Oh god, you'll probably be the only one who is rejected from this next stage and every other person who got this e-mail will get accepted and then you'll be shipped off on an ice floe to ponder your irrelevance and ineptitude until global warming sinks you like Jack from Titanic."
The other, nicer inner voice I have that sounds a lot like David Bowie talk-singing wasn't having it. It was like:
And I was like, "pff, true. That's my best work, they're going to love it. Thanks, Bowie," and he was like:
And it went on for awhile.
More than two months went by, and my confidence grew. I thought that given the three month time frame, if they didn't want my work, I'd have been rejected already, weeded out early.
So when I saw I got an e-mail from them at work today, I was giddy. So even though it was a perfectly nice e-mail, when I read it, my heart just sank.
[WRITING REJECTION 7/100]
Dear Erin Kirsh,
Thank you for submitting your Poetry to _______ magazine. While we are unable to accept Five Poems for publication, your submission was one of very few that gets passed on by our readers to an issue editor. We really liked it, but were ultimately unable to use it in one of our upcoming issues. Please be sure to send us more of your writing. You can find out what themes might be under consideration by visiting our website, ________.com.
Members of _______ read over 2000 submissions of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction each year, of which less than 2% are accepted for publication. As you can imagine, we have to make some very tough choices. Each issue of ________ is edited by a different collective member, and each issue editor is responsible for choosing manuscripts that most closely match what they are looking for at that specific time.
We look forward to reading more of your work.
I excused myself to the bathroom. My first thought was "well, I guess I deserve that." My inner David Bowie was oddly silent. I just sat there listening to the automatic toilet in the stall next to me with the wonky sensor flushing and wondered if I was the only person they sent this e-mail to.
"They have the right to whatever pieces they want," I told myself, out loud. The toilet next to me gurgled its agreement twice. But I found myself wishing they hadn't sent the in between e-mail. If they hadn't, I wouldn't be quite so sad and disappointed now, having marinated like a frozen raspberry in the champagne of excitement for three months. I appreciate them checking in, and going the full nine months without any word would also probably have been the wrong move. I understand why they e-mailed me. I fixed my eyeliner under the mean spirited fluorescent lights and went back to my desk.
After this rejection, I received another a couple of hours later, also about a submission I'd had a good feeling about, you'll read about that one later. (Hopefully. If you like the things I'm typing to you. I like typing these things to you.) So today is one of those rare instances where I feel profoundly sad about a rejection. I don't feel motivated to submit more work. I don't want to get back on the horse, or focus on the successes I have had. I a little bit want a "just kidding, we want all of your poems, haha gotcha" e-mail, because that's how persistent and dopey hope can be.
The good news is this: I know the low feeling is going to pass. I felt this way last year when I received 24? 25? rejections in a row, and I was sure I wasn't going to get any acceptances at all, but I did. We all come back to ourselves. We all keep going.
Until the next one (which I'll write up pretty soon, because again, I've already received it,)
- E.B. Kirsh
P.S. I blanked out the publication's name because while I do have strong sad feelings, the journal is acting the way a journal is supposed to, and I don't want anyone having any bad feelings about them, because they remain one of my favourite lit mags. I don't think anyone would have any bad feelings, because again, they are being totally reasonable, but just in case.