Dealing with Rejection: An Addendum

Reading Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, I realized something somewhat obvious about this literary business I am engaged in:

One of the main reasons especially beginner poets love getting published is selfish. The ego (the “I” or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought) transfers the approval implied by an acceptance from the work to the poet. This transference is sleight of hand. A one for one correspondence between an arrangement of words that is static, albeit open to interpretation, and a dynamic human something is absurd. The poet is capable of infinite arrangements. How could one represent her?

This is an ego trip. Ego is a drug.

We are always playing magic tricks on ourselves because we cannot stop and be still and breathe. Suzuki’s point is that you are human there in that still breathing place. That’s home. But plant your flag out there in the world and your life is forfeit. You have gone astray.

Submit, submit, submit. Then relax and let it be. Build your manuscript. It’s a fun thing to do. No one has to publish it.

Dealing with Rejection

There’s something incredibly difficult about putting together a collection of poems that is so personal, because it encapsulates your own life story, and submitting it to a press you believe for good reason will enjoy it. Then the email appears in your inbox and your heart leaps! This is it, for better or worse, and you don’t even want to click because the preview doesn’t contain the yes, or no, but leaves you in suspense.

It’s an almost out-of-body experience, watching yourself push the button, observing the moment where two possible futures collide–has or has not been selected. And how dare they use the passive verb tense as if no agency were involved in the insidious not?

But, OK. What happens happens. It sucks. You know you’re going to mope. I won’t help to anesthetize yourself. You’re in mourning. It’s a weird and ridiculous grief but grief nonetheless. Because you tried, you really tried, and you really wanted it, but whatever. Next time. Onward. Find another publisher.

All of the emotional experience aside, your left brain has the following suspicions. There are layers of uncertainty to wrap yourself in and warm yourself in. Try these on for size:

  1. You don’t know who is rejecting you. Even if the managing editor signs the message, your manuscript may not even have reached her desk. That is, some one lower down may have been responsible for its getting tossed in the waste basket, a person who may not have had the experience, wherewithal, education, or personal taste to recognize the quality of your work. Additionally, prejudice or politics may have played a role.
  2. You don’t know why it was rejected. The reason may have had everything, something, or nothing at all to do with your manuscript. I’ve had people tell me my book it too long. Didn’t know that was a thing, insofar as I’m observing length requirements in the submission guidelines. Now people are saying limit between 45-50 poems for a full length, “Aim for the 50-page mark.” On the other hand, maybe you inadvertently violated a submission guideline and got nixed on a technicality. What if the press couldn’t get funding? What if it’s in financial trouble?
  3. You don’t know out of how many subs yours was rejected. 1/300 may mean one thing but 1/3000? Think about the size of that pile. Even Yeats might get overlooked/misplaced.
  4. You don’t know how close it was. From the form letter, you will never know what went on during editorial meetings, what editors may have spoken up and vouched for, or even championed your work, and lost out. It’s deceptive because a manuscript that got a summary glance may receive the same wording in the form letter rejection as one that attracted a great deal of interest.
  5. You don’t know who you were up against. Most of us don’t operate under the delusion of being the best poet ever born. What if you were in direct competition with a Rankine, or Rilke, or Plath? How would you know?

Williams

Retired school teacher friend Harold Ackerman reached out after hearing of Lili’s August COVID-19 diagnosis and this little poem published in a webzine I suggested to him as a good home for his work.

William Carlos Williams has to be dealt with, after all, I suppose. As a fledgling poet, I avoided him. Must have read something of his I didn’t like and excluded him from my summer 2009 independent study with professor Klatt (L.S. Klatt) despite his insistence that Williams was poetry’s chief advocate for the conversational quality I was interested in.

During my 2012-2014 tenure at Beijing New Talent Academy I took up the practice of memorizing poems and reciting them on walks around campus. One of Williams’s was among the most pleasurable in my repertoire: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/to-elsie.html.

At the time I tried to memorize many great poems, all but lost to me now. But rereading it I can recognize the words, can’t recall, but recognize them. And I remember the sheer pleasure of recitation. I walked around campus reciting and I can remember a certain part of campus in connection with this piece. There was a far wall, a hedgerow (suitably enough) near where Lili taught in the kindergarten, a round colorful squat building among so many tiled squares. There. And at night, I remember it was night. Sometimes Lili would be held back to work so long overtime I would fetch her from the projects they had her engaged in out of sheer frustration, arrogant American that I was. 


Other poems in my docket were “On Hurricane Jackson” by Alan Dugan, “The Rain” by Robert Creeley, “A Blessing” by James Wright, “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath, “Fork” by Charles Simic, etc. “Skunk Hour” by Robert Lowell I associate with the fifth floor of my teaching building where the science labs were, glass cases full of taxidermies, and a couple of the Chinese high school teachers (men, of course) smoked up the bathroom despite school rules.

Canto I” I associate with the two shade trees in a court between apartment buildings, my bamboo flipflops, and the baggy sky blue shirt I wore untucked with khaki shorts while pacing in the death ray sun. What must have the Chinese folks thought of this wraithlike cantor of English? One lady in particular admired what she perceived to be my studiousness. Students tapped at the window glass when I spent time in an atrium in my teaching building. It was completely surrounded by classrooms. How weird was I?

THE WILDERNESS AFTER WHICH

Today while reading aloud from my first mentor L.S. Klatt’s THE WILDERNESS AFTER WHICH, I experienced a feeling I can only describe as sorrow that made me realize sorrow and love are really synonyms.

The longer I write, the more deeply I explore the field of language in my reading and in my writing, the less necessary I feel the first things I came to poetry with to be: my personality in its uniqueness, say, ego, narrative or personal life story, including, as it does, my terminal cancer diagnosis. As important as these things undeniably are, I have begun to leave them behind in my daily practice of return to the rudiments of my English language and the engine of emotion that brings me to speech, as Levertov says.

Increasingly, the details of my life serve as a mere starting point, a point of departure, from which I derive the poem. Perhaps this is what T.S. Eliot meant by impersonality. The notes I sit down with in my notebook are now more often than not abandoned as the piece that unfurls in my MS Word document diverges and tacks its own unique course. Sometimes I’ll begin with some target in mind, some notion of where I want to end up, but then find a better note to end on, following from some other word or image seeded earlier in the poem. Perhaps this is what Denise Levertov meant by organic form, the organs of a body evolving beyond authorial intention.

At the same time, though, this shift away from the world of real concerns where language is a tool, diminishes the socioeconomic and political importance of the poet, even a poet who might on some theoretical level be subversive.

CoronaVerses

Since I started my work with Saint Augustine on December 2, 2019, in the parking lot of Country Meadows Baptist Church where I was teaching a poetry class for four homeschoolers, which I had to discontinue because of stay-at-home orders, I have been writing about the coronavirus and listening for calls for coronavirus poems and sending them out.

All of the uproar and news reports felt distant, yet I wrote. Now that Lili has tested positive (abnormal detected) for the virus and I yesterday went to Truman Lakewood Medical Center for an excruciating parking lot pavilion nasal swab, the distance has closed. It is us now. Funny how I never considered that a real possibility.

Along with our new self-quarantine has come the idea of another final section to the book on Saint Augustine, COVID-19, and my daughter Omidon, though still uncertain. I’ve started seriously writing again for the first time since the move to Independence.

IMG_5248

I expect the results of my test my this evening but feel pretty certain I have the virus. I worry about developing pneumonia because I have before from a head cold. Chemotherapy a gift that just keeps on giving.

One of the last calls for coronavirus poems I responded to before the move to Independence (CoronaVerses) came back today with news of two of the three poems I sent in being shortlisted. Not surprising I didn’t win considering the caliber of the poems left unpublished after months upon months of dogged poetry submissions, but I thought I might paste here the three poems, each followed by the kind comments made by the editors:

Messenger

 

 

 

Sun shorted morning

wind wells in

the dark skirts of cloud

 

leaf shadows patch

me through

on a secure station.

 

Through me

Augustine as far

as breath may enter indeed

 

a channel of

weather I wonder at

a blue splotched horizon

 

graying away rays

grayed rays.

Grave as COVID

 

Dad contracted

on Facebook himself

a haunted horizon

 

a light doctored

photograph.

 

“Messenger” (Shortlisted) 

Like many of the best entries, this poem approaches the topic in a gentle and not obvious way by creating a melancholy, almost pastoral, picture which contrasts starkly with the information about his father to create an effective evocation of the loneliness, ennui and sadness of the pandemic. A lovely poem clearly one of the top ranked shortlisted. Some lovely phraseology such as ‘sun shorted’ and ‘dark skirts of cloud’ 

Hottest Sports Cars

 

 

 

Only my boy and I stir here, following the brick-and-mortar contours of the gymnasium into recesses of tinted glass, black screens that display us to ourselves: my shaggy temples, the exploded bird’s nest of Theo’s nap. I try a door handle. Demonstrate the lockdown. He forages

a lost golf ball. Desperation hits when a Montessori classmate’s mother tests positive and what choice for Lili but to work for the living we have and hope for the best? Better to be a lost golf ball than the lanyard clinking this flagless pole. Better to be downhill from the Walker Family

Cemetery—hilltop copse for the dead shelterers of outlaw Jesse James—than interred in it and with my boy than alone, roaming Blue Springs the last summer of my solitude. Sitting side by side, we unfurl our first library book since the start of the pandemic—delivered through the car window by a masked librarian—and enter the pantheon of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche.

“Hottest Sports Cars” 

A less conventional prose structure which tells of a moment of family intimacy in the bleak desolation of a town in lockdown so capturing both the abnormal reality of the pandemic and the will to keep hold of valuable human normalities in the face of overwhelming threat. Contains really effective description in a short outline story which capture the emptiness of lockdown life. Very effective imagery. 

The Benefits of Anger

 

 

 

Saltshaker sleet

the Sunday morning Mom

 

chooses church

despite COVID-19

 

Dad admits the virus

he’s already had hit him

 

pretty hard on Facebook

messenger. I stopped

 

calling my father

after that morning (his

 

night) of him screaming

in drunken denial

 

about my diagnosis.

Dad messages from Yantai.

 

Mom proceeds to church,

blames it all on porn

 

addiction, R-rated

movies. Rain or snow,

 

I look out the same

window, read an article

 

about the benefits of anger,

the wine glass that burst

 

in his hand, his enraged

tirade, after I found

 

the door closed. Him

and Judy. I knew.

 

Some things are too hard

to talk about over the phone

 

or in a poem. I am

my father’s son.

 

Judy was my friend.

 

I know the difference.

between rain and snow.

“The Benefits of Anger” (Shortlisted) 

A wonderfully effective and poignant story of live with its sorrows and darkness continuing despite overwhelming external circumstances. Some lovely terse use of words such as ‘saltshaker sleet’. Brilliant structure and use of imagery to convey deeper significance – the poem’s opening line is about sleet and the closing two about snow and rain but the reference is about emotion and understanding. The detail of the story is absent but the significance of the father son relationship and its tensions within the pandemic are clear and moving.