Today in the mail, I got a rejection slip from a powerhouse national magazine whose literary prominence is known far and wide. No personalized notations were on this slip, and of course, I hadn’t really anticipated any. My main motives for annual submissions to huge magazines with slush piles the size of Everest are twofold, really: 1. Doing so keeps me humble, and 2. It gives me some sense that my work has been in front of influential editors, even if they did reject it.
This next statement sounds terribly snobbish, but honestly, the proficient poet becomes accustomed to better-than-average acceptance rates from smaller literary magazines. When one sends work predominantly to fledgling journals and up-and-comer markets, acceptance and kind words become a fairly regular occurrence, with a few apologetic rejections along the way. Editors, for the most part, are appreciative to receive your work, and you as the writer are pleased to be published. It’s a great relationship, and one I never take for granted.
On the flipside of this publishing coin, however, is the danger of egotism. After so many acceptances, the writer’s head can grow quite large if not checked. Something has to level out the mountaintop experiences of mutliple publications in smaller journals to maintain balance. Rejection from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or other major publications helps to keep the poet realistic and attached to modest roots. Granted, any rejection helps to accomplish this, but the coldly impersonal rejection slip from enormous national publications is the best of all ego-crushers. No explanation, no “we really liked this, but…” statements, just a flat-out “NO,” worded as generically and insensitively as possible. Tough luck, Mr. Wordsmith…no dice. (EDITORS: Please don’t interpret this graf as a request for more rejections; I have enough for a while, thanks.)
Certain writer friends of mine have this conspiracy theory that big-time mags rotate off the poems of about 12 different renowned writers each year, and that any submission from someone without name recognition is immediately dismissed without a second thought. For now, I remain optimistic that editors and publishers are serious when they state in their guidelines that they are “devoted to discovering new voices.” Truthfully, if I were in their positions and I had to choose between rockstar fellowship winners or Joe Blow the small-town unknown, I’d probably make the same decisions they did: Publish the identifiable, decline the struggling. Empathy doesn’t make the rejection sting less, but at least it allows some justification.
My hope, of course, is that one day the tide of rejection from the “big boys” will stop, and I will finally be among the elite who manage to have their work carried in the prestigious pages of historic, culture-defining publications. For now, my small-time successes (see prior posts) sustain me and encourage me to keep going. Equally appreciated are the small magazine editors who reject work with thoughtful feedback, as well as the ones who accept my work with gratitude. Some of the best critiques I have ever received have been from the desks of truly devoted editors at college or “little” magazines. Their input has been invaluable, and hopefully, their refining suggestions will lead to bigger and better things as time progresses. For now, I have work to improve and send out, and for tonight, that’s enough.