By Cati Porter | Contributing Columnist
It’s the new year and I am already contemplating failure. Isn’t that wonderful?
Let me explain.
In the days leading up to the holidays, I received several rejections — 14 pages of poetry in all. I have to admit, it stung. But was it the end of the story? Hardly.
Have you ever wondered how writers forge ahead in the face of so much rejection? Sure, some of us drown our sorrows and throw our pages to the wind, but the ones who ultimately succeed are the ones who persevere.
Maya Angelou once said, “For every accomplishment there were 20 rejections…” In the end, though, only one attitude enabled me to move ahead. That attitude said, “Rejection can simply mean redirection.” So let’s begin by discussing what rejection means, what it doesn’t, and what a gift it can be.
Above all else, know that rejection is not a referendum on you or your work.
One of the most common reasons for rejections is fit. Another common reason is timing.
Maybe the press just published a similar book, or doesn’t publish your kind of book at all. Or maybe your book is about divorce and the editor is going through a similar situation. That could work for or against you, which is why it’s important to do your homework before you send your work to any venue.
Another common reason is budget. There may be constraints on how many books they can publish each season, or how many pages they’ve budgeted for in that anthology, or the fact that color is integral to the design of your work and that’s not in their wheelhouse.
The most common reason for rejection? Yes. Craft. But rejection isn’t an excuse to throw in the towel. It’s an opportunity to make it better. There is always room for improvement. (Pro tip: Save all versions!) But if you know you’ve put in the time, then you will have given your work its best shot.
I will leave you with my cautionary tale:
In 2020, I hadn’t had a book accepted for publication since 2015, but thanks to the pandemic, I found myself with a little extra time. I spent a whole day combing through my hard drive for all of my poems in draft.
As it turned out, I had quite a lot!
Awestruck by my own brilliance, I stuck all of the poems together in one manuscript and sent it off into the world. Then I smugly sat back to wait.
It didn’t take long before the rejections started to come in.
Feeling defeated, I went back to my laptop and re-read the manuscript. What I found: Typos. Too many poems. Too many disparate themes. No wonder it had been rejected!
So I peeled the too-many-poems apart into two manuscripts: witty and surreal in one pile, world-weary in another. And I revised. And revised. Until I was literally sick of looking at the poems. That’s when I knew it was time to send it out again.
The witty surreal poems were picked up right away by Bamboo Dart Press and became my chapbook, NOVEL, which you might remember me writing about last year.
The rest of the poems became SMALL MAMMALS, which, alongside some rejections, was named a finalist for the WILDER PRIZE – a poetry book competition for women poets over 50. That told me I was on the right track.
No, it hasn’t been accepted yet.
All told, it’s been submitted 17 times, and each time it’s come back I’ve looked at it afresh and revised again — sometimes it’s the poems, or the order, or the form, and so on. For instance, I turned a series of epistolary (e.g., letter) poems into a crown of sonnets.
I also began sending out the individual poems to journals with a renewed resolve. It’s true that I only sent out about 40 poems in 2022, but 16 of those were accepted for publication, and each response was a litmus test: was the poem (and, by extension, the manuscript) heading in the right direction?
Rejection is a writer’s best friend. It can provide motivation and insight, as it did for me with this encouraging postscript to what was otherwise a boilerplate rejection letter: “An admirable sonnet corona beginning on page 24.”
I hope this year you will join me in embracing failure. As Sylvia Plath put it, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”
Cati Porter is a poet, essayist, and executive director of Inlandia Institute. Her latest book of poems is “NOVEL.” Find her on the web at catiporter.com.