We try and try, don’t we? Being a poet requires the sacrifice of several virgins, and we, despite advanced educations and countless hours questioning the validity of each comma, keep at it, submitting to any journal that has even a passing waft of legitimacy, and we do so while mitigating our negativity. No one likes a bitter poet, no matter how anthologized. So we keep track of our rejections, pretending to be entertained by the sheer silliness of it all, planning where we will send our piece next to be judged by cavalier strangers.
Publishing remains a cult of personality. Big names are published everywhere, as if success ensures future success, as if prolific work yields only many masterpieces. You know these guys (I am using all the restraint I have to not name names) are phoning in work at this point, and I will gladly offer evidence if you send me a personal message. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Poetry isn’t hugely marketable to non-poets, so a big, Pulitzer Prize winning and easily recognizable name helps viewership. We understand this. We also understand how difficult that makes things for us who have not had substantial publishing.
So what can we do to avoid being bitter? The whole process is defeating and demoralizing, and we constantly have the conversation with ourselves about art versus commerce, how being ignored in his/her lifetime is one of the hallmarks of every great writer (even though we know this isn’t exactly true). We take comfort where we can find it. For example, I never related to Sylvia Plath more than when I too didn’t win the Yale Younger Prize. These ephemeral moments of comfort are what make the process bearable. The occasional acceptance letters are what make the entire enterprise worth it.
But the hardest, most ridiculous, most infuriating rejection comes from contests. We enter for the same reason we play the lottery. Someone has to win. But each year, one poet judges all of them. This year, the great Carl Philips judged the Bakeless Prize, Yale Younger, Griffin Prize, and countless others. He was listed as the judge for almost every major book prize available, and although I entered every contest, my manuscript never reached his incredibly talented hands. Why is this, especially considering I paid a reading fee for each and every one in this very difficult economy when I live on a new professor’s salary and am swimming in student loan debt? Two words: student screeners. These students, who have yet to leave the side of famous mentors, whose work is still a rehash of other poets whose work they emulate until their individual voices come through, hold our prepaid fate. At this point, if I win a contest where the prize is the typical $1000, I will still have paid more to enter prizes than I will have earned. Crazy, no? What a thing to do, what a dream to follow!
Still, though, the greatest tool I have to fight bitterness at the whole process of publishing is the whole process of writing. I can never be too frustrated at the lack of publishing as long as I am still producing or editing my work. The work, as cliché as it sounds, sustains me. I will never ever be anything but grateful for the life I am fortunate enough to lead. I have a full time academic job, and I am fully aware of the dearth of these jobs and the competition for these jobs. I wake up every morning and thank the academia gods who bestowed such a career on the likes of one like me. I used to work for government; I know how much better this job is, with all the frustrations that may accompany teaching. And despite my passing frustration with the publishing industry, I will continue writing and submitting as long as the possibility exists that my work will be read and appreciated like all the poetry I have read and appreciated in my life.
I like to picture a very pissed off Elizabeth Bishop, checking her Vassar mailbox, opening a rejection from Poetry Magazine, and swearing. We all should know that rejection from the establishment is a major part of our literary heritage. And besides, remember this when your bitterness becomes insurmountable and threatens to darken your spirit: if we were universally accepted and popular with all, we wouldn’t be artists. We would be greeting card composers.
Bio: Poet, Joey Connelly earned his MFA from Ashland University in 2010 and is Assistant Professor of English at Kentucky Wesleyan College. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Peripheral Surveys, Medulla Review, Louisville Review, and others.
My thanks to Joey for this post! We both look forward to hearing from you.
© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis