The Long Slog
I keep telling my students that it can take years for a poem to find a published home. The poem posted below is one I wrote in my early 20s and had put away a long time ago. Actually, I put a bunch of poems from my 20s away about 10 years ago—they’d been rejected by so many journals—both hi-end and mid-range—that I figured they were just drenched in Editor repellent and there was no point any longer. I pretty much lost track of them altogether and was vaguely befuddled when they resurfaced last year while I was re-ordering computer files. I kind of liked several of them—which is as good as it gets for most of my poems–so I started sending them around again, and they started finding homes. Weird. They weren’t cutting-edge back then, so it’s not like I can claim to have been ahead of my time. I find the whole business mysterious. There are journals I’ve been trying to “crack” for years. Occasionally, I figure out why my work doesn’t fit, but often when I’ve done that, there are poems in the next issue of the journal that are close enough to my aesthetic/subject material/voice to make me scratch my head. I scratch my head a lot. I’m lucky to have a scalp left, let alone hair on top and bone beneath. Sometimes I just give up after the 12th rejection. At some point in the distant past, one of my teachers mentioned that, on average, poems get sent out 11 times before they’re accepted. That’s the sort of statistic that tends to stay with you. Since I doubt Billy Collins gets many rejection letters, I figure that makes my math even worse. I could check my log and do the math, but I’m a poet, so I don’t.
Mostly I don’t care about rejections. They’re just part of the business, and I understand on a very concrete level that for most artists most of the time, rejection is the dominant experience of their careers. That being said, it’s impossible not to look at the other poems in journals which have rejected mine and go back to scratching my head. Poor head.
Most journals took the time, at some point, to compose a civil note that they then printed up in bulk. This is reasonable—very. I don’t think most editors are making a living at lit. journals, so they’re working for love and with hours they’ve carved out from the work that buys the groceries and their relationships and their sleep. Form rejections are fine. You just send the poems back out pretty much immediately and go back to waiting. This persistence is neither heroic, nor in the top 10 traits of character or virtue. Maybe it’s just the actual dues for membership in The Club (Serious Writers Stubborn Egotists? The Deluded? I don’t know what the club is—there are no meetings, unless you count the AWP convention, no benefits, no secret handshake, and certainly no golf courses, just dues.). And sometimes poems get accepted and published and no matter how small the journal, more people read your poem than would have read it if you hadn’t sent it out. Which, it turns out, is enough.
Oberon’s Law (http://oberonslaw.com) is a new on line journal, and I am feeling very warm-and-fuzzy toward start-up on line journals since I’m in the process of starting one with some friends (I’ll post here when we’re ready to start reading submissions). I found them on Duotrope and sent them three poems. Here’s the one they took:
I cannot die by heat or cold or blunt or sharp.
I cannot die in dark or light.
I cannot die starved. I cannot die gorged.
I cannot die bleeding, or pregnant, or hollow.
I cannot die by water.
I have cut a ribbon of skin from another man’s body,
Dried it by the full moon and made a noose to bind you.
But you slide in knots like a bursting child
From the broken seas of birth.
I slide from knots.
I would break around your body.
In the blackness between red skies,
I would be the opening of your veins.
I would carry your blood in my mouth
And drown like the moon
And never leave the sky.
I have grown white with cold.
I have learned the lips of devils.
My kiss is cold.