The other day I had a first — a journal editor called me up to say they were accepting a poem. Naturally I was delighted. Once or twice before, I’d received phone calls for a book acceptance or a residency but never before a call from a editor on a specific poem they were taking.
That got me thinking about the unusual acceptances and rejections I’ve had over the years. The first poem I ever had taken by The New Yorker (one of two), I’d added to my submission as an afterthought. It had previously been rejected by five other magazines, some so obscure I can’t remember their names. On another occasion, I had a poem taken by a top literary journal and when it hadn’t appeared a year later, I wrote and asked them what was up. They said they’d changed poetry editors and weren’t going to publish it.
It’s often hard to gauge the significance of a rejection. Maybe the editor was hung over and having a bad day, or maybe the next issue was already full and they weren’t taking anything. Rare is the editor who’s looking for reasons to accept rather than reject a submission.
In graduate school I once saw a poetry editor in action. I was over at his house with some other students and we were sitting around chatting and drinking beer, and while this was going on he was reading over batches of poems submitted to the journal he edited. He’d skim a poem, then shuffle it under the batch and when the batch was done, he’d slip it back in the envelope along with a printed rejection. Once in a while he’d set a poem aside for further consideration — all this while snacking and carrying on a cheerful conversation. So when students and friends get depressed over a rejection, I tell them poetry editors are not the final authority, they’re just boozers like us. Don’t take it too seriously.
When I was starting out, there were fewer magazines and multiple submissions weren’t acceptable. So it was shocking to learn that one of my professors was sending the same poem out to several journals at once. Their position was “life is short and editors take too god-damn long to respond.” Another approach, taken by a graduate student friend, was to include a note with his latest submission thanking the editors for their encouraging response to his previous batch of poems. In fact, he’d only gotten a standard form rejection the last time but he argued that editors deal with so many submissions, they’d never remember whether they’d sent him an encouraging note or not. And lo, he received his first acceptance from Poetry Magazine using this tactic.
Another friend recently got three rejections on the same day and was understandably depressed. I’ve never had so much bad luck at once, but my approach before reading a response from an editor is to picture in my mind the rejection that I’m likely to be getting. If I can lock my mind around the image of a printed “Sorry,” I’m less likely to be upset when I encounter the actual rejection, and if it should turn out to be an acceptance, I’ll be doubly surprised and pleased.
The bigger question, of course, is why do poets put themselves through this maddening gauntlet; why do we want to get published in the first place? It’s certainly not for the money. I suppose it’s because we’re looking for an external confirmation of our identity as writers. To see our names in print or on the web means that someone else, somebody outside of our immediate family, approves of our work. And in the magazines that publish us we can encounter other people engaged in the same activity who can appreciate the effort we’ve expended to get our poems written and into print. Moreover, among them we may find some kindred spirits, poets whose work we connect with and will want to follow in the future. Besides, by keeping at it, there’s always the possibility that one day out of the blue an editor will call up and say, “We’re taking your poem. We really loved it!”
John Morgan’s poems have been published in many magazines, including The New Yorker, Poetry, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Cirque, and The Paris Review. His most recent book is The Moving Out: Collected Early Poems, published by Salmon Poetry.