“Scientists found that pigeons have trouble finding their way home
if their right nostrils are plugged.”
“Findings,” April 2011 in Harper’s
One long term case study verified that death
would be imminent if victims were tied to concrete
and dropped in the East River at midnight.
Men and women of all sizes lose their breath
when wire is twisted around their necks
and pulled. The less a person eats,
the more likely he is to lie under pressure.
In several experiments, it was found that heroin,
used judiciously, can keep prostitutes on the street
for longer periods and make them less likely to fight
or try to escape. Researchers found no cure
for a knife thrust to the heart.
In the short term, crime does pay.
It was discovered recently, there is an application procedure
to copyright one’s Mafia name. The outer skin
is easier to remove when wet. Scientists found a chart
used by hit men to determine the statistical
likelihood of success by type of rifle or handgun.
There is a mathematical formula used, in part,
to calculate, in a ransom situation, the minimal amount to pay.
poetryrepairs #210 15,03:025
DAVID L. JAMES
A Trail of No
I like to tell my students about the worst rejection notice I ever received. I mailed a batch
of poems to a west coast magazine; my self-addressed stamped envelope came back months later
and I promptly opened it. Written across the top poem in red magic marker, in bold letters, was
the message: THIS IS SHIT. I don’t tell them this story to frighten them, though it does. I
tell them this story to model an attitude creative writers (and all artists, for that matter)
must have if they are to survive: perseverance.
Most writers experience rejection frequently. It’s a state of being. What matters is how people
react to this rejection and what they learn from it. In some respects, one might think of writers
as people with the mandate to grow and persist against a barrage of messages that tells them they
are not worthy. There is a constant flow of information coming in from outside that says, “You’re
really not talented enough,” and yet, they must conjure up the fortitude to continue. The best
advice I’ve heard about this process is to separate the creative-self from the business-self
in writing. Treat the submission process in a business-like manner, remotely related to the
creation or value of new work.
How many other people in professions encounter such a steady diet of rejection? Of course,
there are inventors and scientists and researchers who must stomach failure over and over.
Certainly phone solicitors have more than their fair share of rejection. But most people do
not deal with rejection on such a consistent basis. It can be depressing. It can cause people
to question and doubt their abilities, and even lead some to quit writing altogether. As Alan
Shapiro states in a recent interview, “Everything about the literary life is not what it’s
cracked up to be. It’s all fraught with frustration” (qtd. in Pfefferle 41). For example,
Ray Bradbury collected around 800 rejections slips before selling his first story. Steven
King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times. So why do writers continue to write and submit their
work for rejection? What can be gained from pursuing such a trail of no?
Rejection can lead to introspection and reevaluation. Many times our work should be rejected.
It’s not compelling enough. It’s not unique enough. In fact, early and easy success in publishing
can harm writers. Richard Wilbur laments that one problem with the current writing scene is
that “almost anything can get into print nowadays” (qtd. in Stimpson 52). Wilbur implies that
there is value in working hard to get beyond or through rejection slips until one earns acceptance.
This is one reason why the first book of many poets is their best book; they spent 8 or 9 years
working on it before publication! Rejection can provide a cue to writers that they need to reread,
reassess, re-envision, revise. Rejection can open up possibilities of new growth and experimentation
for a writer, if viewed constructively.
There are several life lessons to be learned through rejection, including this: one does not
always succeed. For example, regardless of how hard I try or how many times I submit, I have
never been published in Poetry magazine. For thirty years now, I have been consistently rejected,
and I accept that fact. In life, I experience rejection with the lottery, with grant proposals,
with co-workers and students, with new job applications, with bids on used cars. Rejection of
one form or another is a part of living, of growing up, and the sooner I learn to deal with it,
the better. Eventually, this old heart of mine will reject my body and I will not succeed in living
forever. It is easy to forget this important fact, but Anne Lamott reminds us in Bird by Bird
that “publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems” (185).
Rejection can help writers understand that publication, like life, is not fair. The best poem
or story doesn’t always get accepted just as the best person for the job is not always selected.
Sometimes it’s who you know. Or it’s a matter of timing or mood. Selection is painfully subjective.
A writer only needs one piece to get rejected twelve times before receiving an acceptance on
the thirteenth submission to realize that fate, luck, and serendipity enter into the publication
picture. Understanding that fact about life helps.
Lastly, rejection can focus a person’s commitment to the art form. Will the writer let the
opinions of others determine his future? Or will he find the drive within, the conviction within,
to continue writing because he finds value and joy in it even though the outside world consistently
sends him negative messages? Saying yes to this last question is part of the definition of
perseverance. Yet even perseverance does not guarantee success.
In an ideal world, I would prefer more acceptance letters than rejection slips. Most anyone
would. But this is not an ideal world. And if my poems were accepted at every magazine I
submitted to, my work would suffer in the long run. I would become lazy; I would begin to
accept my own mediocrity as excellence. There would be no need to work long and hard on poems.
I would settle for less from myself and view publication as a right, not a privilege or fringe
benefit. Learning to live with rejection is intrinsically valuable in
And in the end, publication is not what drives people to write. It is an internal urge, a
longing to say what must be said, a testament to one’s life. Writers are trying to make sense o
f their joys, their desires, their questions, their experiences, their doubts, and their hurts.
Those epiphanies can happen with or without publication. Anne Lamott states it more eloquently:
The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within, the water under a frozen lake
or the secluded camouflaged hole. The light they shine on this hole, this pit, helps us cut away
or step around the brush and brambles; then we can dance around the rim of the abyss, holler
into it, measure it, throw rocks in it, and still not fall in. It can no longer swallow us up.
This “dancing,” as Lamott calls it, can occur to us if we write through the truth in our lives,
whether we’re published, rejected, ignored, celebrated, or disdained.
Now, as a person who has come to terms with rejection in his life, I would like to publicly
thank Poetry magazine (and so many others) for not accepting my work for the last thirty years:
it has made me a better poet and a better person. I choose to believe this or else I would
have stopped writing decades ago.
poetryrepairs #210 15,03:025
I've got used to existing
exclusively, at Black Moon
while the time was measured at night
as a woman is
while they compared me to the snake
the phallus and the dragon
I perfected the technique
of eclipsing, the adultery
I have no reason to compete
with people, I don't worship ideas and objects
as they do, but I too am scared
Djinn, Erot, by the dog side
of thirst, insatiability, craving
I too am tormented by rage, lunacy
Satan, I keep on wishing for something young
- New, Half, Full
my mouth spumes from lifting lean meat
my tongue from nibbling, probing
from spirituality and superstition
I too am scared by the sunrise at sunset
gambling with light
for only three days deceitful
three days lunatic
three threesided, three shortlived days
I too am distressed that for a long time
a very long time there is no reversal
a moon phase, a white night
of my moon belt, of your animal belt
you space merry-go-round, you male anathema
poetryrepairs #210 15,03:025
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READ MORE POETRY
DAVID L. JAMES writes from Farmington Hills, Michigan, where he teaches at Oakland COmmunity COllege. Works Cited:
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.
Pfefferle, W.T. “Poets on Place.” Poets and Writers (Jan./Feb. 2005): 38-41.
Stimpson, Henry. “Catching Up With Poet Richard Wilbur.” Poets and
Writers (Jan./Feb. 2005): 51-53.
Born in 1951, Veles, Republic of Macedonia. KATICA KULAVKOVA is a poet, theoretician of literature and literary essayist. Professor of Theory of Literature and Literary Hermeneutics at the Department of General and Comparative Literature on the Faculty of Philology, "Sts. Cyril and Methodius" University, Skopje. Her memberships and activities include the Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences, Chair of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee of P.E.N. International, Editor-in-Chief of the international multilingual P.E.N. E-collection DIVERSITY (www.diversity.org.mk).
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