August 28, 2022
I’ve just checked my email and of course there was a rejection from an important contest. Initially, I was sad, but then I found myself wiping sweat from my brow because in the period between submitting for the contest and now, I unwittingly enrolled in a course with the judge of the contest, so I can’t win anyway. That’s a load off my shoulders. To have to decline that prize would have been painful. Once that was over, I checked my Submittable to see which poems I had sent. And now, well, I completely understand why my work didn’t rise to finalist.
I go through this all the time. I write a poem, take it to a couple of workshops, figure out what it’s about, polish it up and send it out thinking it’s a really good poem. I did the same thing with every academic paper I ever wrote. I researched, thought, wrote, reflected, revised, printed that sucker out thinking it was a shining example of the most perfect idea I had ever had. I handed it to the professor, sat through class elated at my achievement, relaxed to have it done, then went home, turned on the computer and reread. I was always surprised at what was there. It was an out of body experience—who wrote that? Did anyone proofread?
This happens with poetry as well, but interestingly, (and this was never true of my academic papers) the opposite is also true. That’s what happened with my last blog, “Unseasonal.” That little poem did not fare well in workshop. It had what some thought to be an illogical metaphor, I was too fanciful, the significance too loosely woven in. So I thought it was a perfect example of a failed poem, and then, just after I published the blog post, I had to retract it. The poem had been accepted by Minnow (and will come out soon). Then it happened again with “Innerspace,” a poem so narrative I thought no one would want it, but The Heartland Review did. During this time, mind you, some of my BIG GUNS continue to languish unloved in various slush piles.
So, there’s something wrong with my ability to determine which of my poems is best—or it’s simply chaos. I’m voting for the latter. The most significant example of this is the trio of poems accepted by The Fiddlehead this spring. First, to have three poems accepted by this publication was a surprise and an honor, but I hadn’t considered any of these three my power poems. One turns on an odd metaphor (paper dolls), one is a delight that I expected someone to love, but the poem the editor appreciates most is one I worked very, very, very hard on. I manipulated the lines, I have changed every word in that poem multiple times (except cockroach—pretty much stuck with that) but it’s a poem that relies on intimation and mood and they saw it (I want to capitalize that line). So it’s kismet. It was there, but someone had to see it. And since I don’t understand the nature of kismet, I’ll call it chaos.
Delighted. And the editor really likes it. It has been rejected twenty-three times (a finalist in one contest though). The one I expected to be loved was rejected only twelve times, but the poem I had the least confidence in only went out six times—it was rejected only four.
So, I can’t control this process. I can’t even predict it. And that has to include my composition practices. Another example is my poem Every Morning Leda recently published in the wonderful journal Quartet. That poem was a response to a prompt in a class with Susan Rich. We were to write about something we did daily. I started with coffee, remembered a swan flying by my window one morning, and just followed that. I almost immediately tacked it on with a submission I expected to do well with Quartet and they chose only this one—I even asked if I could revise it. They couldn’t allow that, and I wasn’t about to withdraw so I bit my lip. It was go time. Then it was picked up as a weekly feature by VerseDaily. Again, what do I know?
So what I’m doing is applying this absence of understanding to my work. I will write what I want, enjoy doing so, workshop it, submit it to my indomitable writing partner, listen, listen, listen, revise. Revise. And submit like there’s no tomorrow. I guess I would prefer to have more control, to be able to measure and simmer correctly to get the results I know I can get when making perfect steel cut oatmeal, but then what I wind up with is perfect oatmeal.
If I decide that my poetry comes from places I don’t understand and out it flaps into the world until someone reaches up to snatch it out of the air, and then it has its opportunity to flutter on a particular page, to be read by people, some of whom love it, some of whom don’t, then so be it. I’m not in control of this thing, and that’s what makes it beautiful.