This article first appeared in the July-August 2008 issue of The Penn Writer, a bi-monthly newsletter published by Pennwriters, Inc.
I am a business writer by trade, and a poet by craft. Poetry doesn’t pay bills, but when I think of all the things I love about writing, poetry is always at the forefront of my thoughts. For me, the process of creating poetry is one of exploration and growth.
About five years ago I began to seriously consider pursuing publication for my poetry. Most of my life poetry has been an independent pursuit, shared occasionally with colleagues, friends, and the random coffee-house audience. When I began to write professionally, I realized that I was ready for the next step: I wanted to improve my poetry to be appropriate for an audience much bigger than myself.
The path to publication is neither direct nor generous. Like most writers, I have a healthy stack of form rejection letters, each offering the same unhelpful response, “Thanks, but no thanks.” From time to time, I’m inclined to wonder if I should reign in my poetic voice – modify my own work to emulate the more popular forms, tones, and styles that I see in contemporary publications. While I might wonder about conformity, my conclusion is always the same: I must stay true to my own unique poetic voice.
I come to this conclusion by considering my original goals: I pursue publication for improvement and an audience, not for a byline. How then, do I turn rejection notices into a useful tool for growth? For me, the answer is in the editors, and in the pages of the journals to which I submit.
Recently I received a form rejection letter from Editor Paul B. Roth of The Bitter Oleander Press. I like to send my work to Roth for two reasons: 1) I admire the work he publishes in The Bitter Oleander, and 2) he is one of the first editors who ever sent me thoughtful feedback on my poetry.
The form rejection letter is new for Roth. He traditionally has taken the time to ensure that each submission receives a brief, personalized response. However, like many editors, Roth faces ever-increasing numbers of submissions (hence the new form letter). Nonetheless, in his letter Roth writes,
“Without the give-and-take between writer and editor, we know the effort each of us puts into our work may somehow seem a bit emptier.”
Herein I find the opportunity for growth: Paul Roth and editors like him value the individuality of the writer, and are interested in the conversation of art – the interplay of creator, audience, and critic. Roth may never find a place for my work in his pages, but the professional relationship we build – no matter how remote – is a critical part of my growth as a writer and poet.
I develop my trust in certain editors by reading the journals they compose. When my work is sent back, I immediately return to the most recent issue of the selected publication and review my favorite works. Again, I ask myself same questions that I always pose before I submit: Can I see my work in these pages? Can I see my poems on the page facing the best works in each issue?
Although I may not find clear answers to these questions, I am consistently reminded of the fact that I submit to these journals because I admire what is contained in their pages. I value individuality, and I am attracted to writers with unique voices. I do not want to modify my work to match the common voice simply to earn a byline: I want to clarify my own voice so that it has the potential to find its own harmony in the contemporary chorus.
Poets must be brave. We must conjure the strength to be mercilessly self-reflective. We must be willing to be concise in both thought and form, sacrificing beautiful phrases for the counterweight of whitespace. Poets and other creative writers must be willing to endure the sea of rejection letters in order to preserve our own small islands of creative individuality. These are the challenges and rewards of the poet.
To poets and all writers, I offer these few words of encouragement: stay true. Poetry is by definition an art of innovation. In our struggle to find and nurture our own, unique poetic voice, we have the potential to create something new. I encourage all persistent poets out there to embrace the rejection letter like a dear friend: the one who reminds us to be ourselves at the risk of not fitting in, because our individuality is our strength.