A few things I’ve learned about writing poetry

1. They don’t suit everyone, but workshops and writing groups can be a brilliant way to spark ideas and an invaluable opportunity to get critical feedback on your writing.  (Don’t go until you’re ready for this.  If you just want to be told how great your latest masterpiece is, show it to your partner/best friend/goldfish).

2. The title of your poem is more than a convenient reference point to help you locate it in your overstuffed electronic filing system; it is an integral part.  You’re missing out on an opporutnity if you don’t make the most of it.  (I learned this at a workshop.)

3. When you start submitting work to journals, you need to send a decent selection of your work: five poems, not just the one.

4. That poem you have just scribbled down is not the most amazing thing you have ever written.  Not yet, anyway.  Whatever you do, don’t send it off.  Put it in your virtual bottom drawer for a week or so to marinate among your other festering poems.  Then read it again.  See?  It still needs work.

5. Don’t worry about rejection. (I’m going to bang on about this because a couple of people have raised it with me lately).  If you send your work out to a journal, unless you’re already an established poet, there’s a good chance it’s going to be rejected.  75% of my poems are rejected.  (I can demonstrate this by means of a large elaborate spreadsheet I have used to track my output for some years now -some people find this sad; I find it invaluable).

You can minimise rejection by checking out the journal carefully beforehand to see if your work fits and only sending your very best work.  But the faceless editor(s) on the end of the email/letter still might not want it.  Why not?  What’s the matter with them?

A.  It might not fit with their current theme (which might only have emerged as the editors went through the selection process).  Your interpretation of an advertised theme might not match with theirs.

B. It might be too similar to something that’s already been chosen for the issue or recently published.

C. The ediotr might not like your particular style of writing. (That’s OK, they’re allowed).

D. (Brace yourself)  Your work might not be as good as the other things that have been submitted for that issue.

Every time a poem is rejected, I have another close look at it to see whether D might apply.  Is there any way I can improve it?  What’s missing?  Is it fresh and original?  Does it have anything interesting to add to the vast array of poetry that’s already sloshing about out there?

The way I deal with rejection is:

– life’s too short to fret about it

– it’s a prompt to have another good look at a poem and maybe make it better (see above)

– it might have saved me from having mediocre work published that will haunt me in years to come

-I always have a range of work out in the submission-land ether waiting to be considered; that way I always have hope.

– I don’t take it personally.  One poem (or five) has been turned down by one editor.  There are other poems, other editors.  This time, it wasn’t to be.

– There are plenty of other things in life that make me happy, so I get on with them

– If I’m lucky, the rejection letter might contain some useful feedback from an editor that will help my writing (Alistair Paterson from Poetry NZ springs to mind).

One of my favourite writing quotes is this, attributed to Ray Bradbury

“If you write a hundred short stories and they’re all bad, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You only fail if you stop writing.”

10 comments

  1. That’s a very interesting post, and it accords with a lot of what I’ve learned. When I started submitting my work, each rejection felt like a death-blow; now, I take them pretty much in my stride. The one exception is when I have got my hopes up that a particular piece will be just right for a particular journal or anthology. When I have an expectation – however illogical – that a piece will be accepted, it’s still a blow when it isn’t. But as long as I stick to my resolve to send work out with confidence but without expectation, and as long as the odd acceptance does accompany the rejections, I find I can handle rejections well enough.

    The one thing I don’t do, at least for poetry, is to have a close look at a poem each time it’s rejected. For me, that leads to tinkering with the poem, and that rarely improves my work. If the poem isn’t working, then I’d rather put it away for a while, then come back to it with a fresh eye.

  2. That’s all excellent and wise advice. It mostly all seems obvious to me now, but it wasn’t long ago that it really wasn’t.

    When you start submitting poetry, and in fact whenever you submit poetry, you really do have to expect that it will sometimes (or even often) get rejected. And you shouldn’t take as a sign of bad writing (though sometimes it might be), but merely of a mismatch of editor and poem.

    I’ve been thinking, and chatting with other people, a bit about feedback – as in point 1. I’m considering writing a post about this, but my summarised conclusions so far are: feedback is a really tricky thing to do, for both feedback-giver and feedback-getter. Both need to come into it with an open mind, with humbleness, with a desire to make the work better, and with an explicit understanding that the feedback-giver is just giving their opinion, however knowledgeable that might be, and the feedback getter should take on board the things that are helpful, and can leave the things that are not (though in time they might come around to things that don’t seem helpful at first – I know I have).

    Feedback is also hard because, as you say, often people just want validation. They want to be told that their work is worthwhile, and that they are, in fact, a writer. And really, we all need that sometimes…

  3. Ooh, and I meant to also say that your spreadsheet isn’t weird at all – well maybe a little – but I have one also (though mine’s not very elaborate), and I think it is just plain good practice to track what you sent where. One of the most infuriating things as an editor is when someone sends you the same stuff twice – you just assume they don’t care enough to keep track of their darlings.

  4. Thanks Tim & Helen. Actually the spreadsheet has turned into a way of making rejection fun, because I get to play with it every time a piece gets rejected (or accepted for that matter). I realise this is not going to work for everyone, but if something is rejected or fails to win a competition, etc, part of me is thinking: cool! Time to mess about with the spreadsheet!

    It started off as a pretty straightforward sort of list but now it’s multi-dimensional, running to about a dozen worksheets and containing various graphs and calculations. I can tell you for example, that in 2002, my acceptance rate for poems was only 14%, so perhaps that shows I’m getting better as I go along. In 2001, I wrote 116 poems (!) only 10 of which have been published. The quickest turn-around I’ve had from an editor was 2 days, from the Orange Room Review and the longest was Light Quarterly, at around 18 months! (I’ve found it’s worth following up editors who don’t reply – sometimes they’ve just lost your work and once someone had already emailed an acceptance which somehow got lost in the ether.)

    I think how one measures success is important and for me finishing a poem or a story counts as success and sending it out to a journal or competition counts as success. Publication is wonderful, of course, but it’s helpful to have other little pats on the back on the way.

  5. I’m impressed by your penchant for statistical analysis: the scientist joining hands with the poet! Do you often go back to, say, your 2001 poems, revise them, and send them out; and if so, do they graduate to being poems of the year in which you revised them?

    I follow up submissions after three months, unless I know that the journal has a longer response period (e.g. JAAM, which is annual). And I love markets which allow electronic submissions – that still isn’t all of them, especially when it comes to science fiction short story magazines.

  6. I do go back and revise poems from previous years, but they remain within that year, unless they subsequently get incorporated into something new, in which they retain their original slot, but fade to grey…

  7. I enjoyed this post! That Ray Bradbury quote is wonderful. I once had a writing teacher who said, “What’s a writer? Someone who writes frequently.” He didn’t mention anything about publishing, awards, accolades, etc.

    However, to be acknowledged as a poet, one obviously has to publish. What are your thoughts on selecting journals to submit to? There are so many (too many, perhaps) journals, and contemporary poetry feels so schizophrenic.

  8. Thanks Storialist. The choice of journals these days is a little overwhelming. Personally, I send work where I think it’s going to fit in with its surroundings. If I read a few poems in a journal and think, hey, they’re great, wish I’d written that – then that’s somewhere I’d like my work to appear and I’ll submit something.

    I use the duotrope site quite a lot – great for searching for journals, both online & print, paying & non-paying, themed and non-themed. http://www.duotrope.com I send work to quite a wide range of journals – different countries, different degrees of experimentalism/conservatism, a mix of on-line and print. I’m more likely to send to a journal I have some sort of connection with (I mostly submit to New Zealand journals because I live in New Zealand and UK-based journals because I was born in England) or a journal that’s accepted my work in the past.

    I also subscribe to several journals, becasue I know they’re not going to continue without writers supporting them.

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