"I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance." --Wesley Snipes

Sunday, August 07, 2005


Rejection is life. Life is rejection.


As an editor, I write dozens of rejections in a month or two. As a "poet" I have received dozens. In the shoebox they go.


Is it healthy to want to write poetry with the chief goal of being published? I want to say no. But then I continue to send things out here and there, to send the book ms. out, to send things along when I'm solicited. And I wouldn't be an editor if I frowned upon the pursuit of publication. It's a very confusing place to be.


I have invited plenty of people to submit to The Canary. Some we accept, some we do not. An invitation to submit does not (or should not) imply imminent acceptance. The poet who thinks that is arrogant. An editor's job is to publish poetry she likes, poetry she believes in. If a good poet sends you subpar work, the best editorial move is to reject it.


Gabe Gudding invited me to submit to a journal he edited and then proceeded to reject me three times before finally taking some poems. Three times. I didn't take my toys and go home. I just sent better poems.


For those on the west coast, consider ZYZZYVA. Howard Junker usually responds within a week. Also consider Northwest Review. Response time is considerably slower, BUT it's a nifty magazine. So much of our slush pile is so horrible, if bloggers began submitting en masse, I'm pretty confident the quality of the slush would greatly increase.


I can understand labeling a poem "too intellectual," but, at the same time, I can also understand what a cop-out such a response is. WHAT makes the work "too intellectual"? What does that even mean? [Brian Draper voice here.] Sometimes we need to be careful about what we scribble on rejections.


Or "too intellectual" might be shorthand for "trying to prove how smart you are, or how much you've read." I reject those poems too. If one must wear one's heart or one's brain on one's sleeve, guess which sleeve this editor will prefer?


If you write poems about Orpheus, they had better be the best fucking Orpheus poems ever written. Otherwise, save a stamp.


A.R.B. said...

Interesting post, Tony, especially the thought that one should write poetry to publish it. I always assumed, rather naively, it seems, that one just wrote poetry and then perhaps published it. But then again, if “writing to publish” is inspiration in and of itself, why not go for it?

Also, I’m curious, were the poems Gabriel Gudding accepted from you “better” poems or were they poems Gabriel Gudding liked better than the first three he rejected? Because rejections occasionally indicate an editor’s predilection for certain type of work rather than “worthiness” the concept of rejection itself is often misunderstood.

Good stuff.

Tony said...


The thought that one should write poetry to publish it isn't exactly mine, but a paraphrase of ideas that I've been seeing on blogs lately, and in the past few years of my po-involvement in general.

I had a workshop leader (during my short stay in MFA San Quentin) whose workshop comments were often given with the proviso that "editors will look for this" or "this poem will be more publishable if you do X." This always deeply bothered me.

At the same time, however, it's hard to knock one for wanting publication. After all, most poets want their work to be read by a public of some sort.

To answer your second question, both. I mean, "better" usually means "favorite" anyway, right? In the case of what I sent Gabe, the final batch, the batch that he accepted were poems that I thought hadn't a chance in hell. They were the most emotionally naked, the most, in a word, "sincere." No jokes, or no jokes-as-entire-poems.

Maybe this is what planted the sincerity seed. Well, that and meeting Andy Mister. That and reviewing my two mss. and realizing that one person's sentimental slop is another's fine art.

Realizing that maybe there isn't much difference between "fine art" and "slop."

Charles said...

I never know if Arizona is considered the West Coast. I mean, compared to the Midwest it is. But, technically , we don't have a lot of coastline here. If you want to be semantic about it. My heart belongs to the West Coast.

I think there are many ways to look at publication. Only one of them is as a careerist pursuit. I know that as an editor your goal is to share with others work you really believe in. If you didn't believe in your own work, you wouldn't be writing it. We need to believe in our own work. So, pursuing publication, then, isn't necessarily careerist but a core value of the creation of art. I mean, unless you're Emily Dickinson. But I'm pretty confident you aren't.

Tony said...


For ZYZZVA purposes, Arizona is not West Coast. West Coast = California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and I think British Columbia.

My heart is in San Francisco and San Diego simultaneously.

You wrote: "If you didn't believe in your own work, you wouldn't be writing it."

This is interesting, but I disagree with it. I usually don't believe in my own work. I have two unpublished manuscripts that make me cringe when I read them. I know that at some level, at least some of the poems are "good" but I have a hard time believing in them consistently. I write more because I can't not write. That line has almost become a cliche, but it's true. Publication, though, IS a concern, though I try not to admit it. I have no publication goals, as in, "first book by age X," "publish in journals y, z, and w," etc., but I like my work to reach a public, even if I don't feel strongly about it.

Does that make sense?

poetzie said...

In a perfect world of roses and pinwheels, we can all sit around and write poetry for poetry sake. But if one wants to pursue a career in academia relating to poetry, one needs to publish-- a lot. I had one mid-career poet read my manuscript and his primary critique was that I did not have enough publications to even get a second read in any contest- and 10 of those poems had been published in six different publications. The cold hard fact is that a PhD in Creative Writing and a dollar will get you a Coke- you need to have a book published to APPLY to most if not all tenure track jobs teaching Creative Writing at any four-year university. The only way to get a book is to get published in journals along the way.

What lies in the undercurrent of my own drive for publication is my love for teaching poetry. They are not, at this juncture, mutually exclusive. I have just as much passion for teaching poetry as I do for writing poetry, though this is not a "popular" stance among most poets. While most poets "teach to write," It's probably more accurate to say that I write to teach (though I would write anyway, but not feel the same drive to publish, publish, publish).

It's funny, really-- the only reason I've ever even tried to get published is because teachers and colleagues told me that I HAD to. Unfortunately, I'm afraid they are right.

Tony said...


I've got to tell you, I don't live in a perfect world of poetry and pinwheels, nor do I want to. However, I'm not a believer in poetry for poetry's sake.

Which puts me in a difficult position if I'm going to cast aspersions at careerists. That is, I believe that poetry must do work in the world. Art has a social function. So what better way to promote art's social function than as a teacher? Right?

I guess I could decry certain types of academic teaching--most MFA programs, for example--as being "less pure" than say, teaching poetry to grammar school children for a pittance. That would be kind of stupid, though, regardless of how much I'd like to romanticize the latter and be suspicious of the former.

I haven't been paying attention to a lot of the "popular" stances, but I'd think that teaching poetry (not Creative Writing) should be one of the ONLY reasons to be a careerist. If a poet doesn't want to teach, that's fine, but if one WANTS a career in academia, for God's sake, LOVE poetry, and LOVE teaching.

I've been lucky enough to have published pretty widely in the past few years. I'm lucky enough to be almost the bearer of a PhD in English Literature and Rhetoric. I haven't been lucky enough to publish a book, full-length or otherwise. I am not optimistic about my job prospects. The point is, though, I would read and write (and share my thoughts on) poetry regardless of whether or not I had a job, or was looking for a job, etc.

One of my favorite poets lives alone in a shack in northern California, with no MFA, no college degree of any sort, actually, and no career apsirations whatsoever. And he keeps writing gorgeous poems. Poems that are better than 99% of what I read as an editor and as a general reader of journals not my own.

Hannah said...

I now feel strangely compelled to write Orpheus poems.

C. Dale said...

Me, too. Orpheus poems all around!

Charles said...

Tony, I totally understand what you're saying. My MFA thesis makes me cringe. But at one time I was passionate about that work: when I was creating it. Although I'm not always a fan of what I've written, I'm a fan of what I'm writing—I think if I didn't like what I wrote as I wrote it, I'd seriously reconsider the whole endeavor.

Hot new pic, by the way.

brandijay said...

Now I have to know who the writer living in the shack is...

brandijay said...

If you're inclined to share, that is... if not, no biggie. Just always interested in checking out people who write gorgeous poems :)

Nick said...

I guess I can identify with the poet living in a shack (albeit I live in one only figuratively speaking) with no MFA. My only education in literature comes in the form of the elective courses that I took during the course of my university experience pursuing a couple of degrees in Sociology.

I have no career aspirations in teaching poetics or creative writing. And at the risk of sounding ingenue and further alienating myself, I write to communicate and to express myself and/or relate my rather subjective mindset with the aspiration of having my words resonate with others. However, and this I might add, I learnt from my Sociology course on Symbolic Interactionism – so it goes to prove that it was not a total waste: "Symbolic Interaction ( or communication) at the very least requires two parties: one that transmits and another that interprets." (I paraphrase here to further my argument.)

But why limit the number of interpretors? As far as I’m concerned the more interpretations of my pome the better. There can never be enough interpretors or interpretations. That is why I publish (or at least vainly try to). My aim for a bigger audience is just to see how far the ripple effect of some diturbance of the literary waters that I initiate (via a poem) will have. In these terms, I have already superceded my expectations. However, unlike Tony’s poet friend that lives in Northern California my poetry is far from being gorgeous or even where I’d like it to be.

Anne Boyer said...

1. Joe Massey lives in the shack in Northern California. I think he is beautiful.

2. Publication is a social act, and sometimes pleasurable, but I write mostly for just a few cunning souls.

Publication and the ability to connect with more cunning souls is a happy accident at the end of the process. Contributors copies, free books and manuscripts, unpublished poems and love and fan letters, etc., are also happy accidents.

Poetry must be urgent. Of course writing for jobs and money is controversial. It just doesn't make sense, poetry and academic ambition hanging out in the same room.