If the subscription list of this magazine approximated the yearly inflow of manuscripts – the editors would hire a long string of assistants, have cut flowers replenished daily on their desks, and be less harassed generally. Even then, however, the impossibility of answering personally each letter that reaches the office would be equally manifest. What is one to do about such a condition?
Those sentences were not written by any living editor of a literary magazine, nor ever blogged (except by me), but were written by Alice Corbin Henderson and published in Poetry – way back in July 1916. You can read the whole piece here. I’ve been noticing the theme of rejection that runs through some of the comments on my posts here this week, and thought I'd address them briefly before I melt away. (I call this "Secrets of the Editing Trade, Part 1," but will probably only have time for a part 2. There aren't really any secrets, despite what people seem to imagine.)
I guess the first thing to mention is that both Chris Wiman and I are writers who get rejections all the time just like everyone else. This is true of most of the folks who read submissions at magazines and websites that publish poetry. In fact, the only time I'd ever been in contact with Chris before I came to work at Poetry was via a rejection letter from him sent not long before I came! And I speak to you as one of those recent Paris Review de-acceptancees. No need to feel sorry for me, but I'm just sayin'...
Is this a tired subject? Probably not. Lots has been written about it already, though there's little need to state the obvious. But it remains an important subject for most of us – it's not going to go away; heck, there’s even a whole Rejection Wiki these days. Well, of all that's been written on the subject, I recommend Ada Limón’s “Response Burger: A Story of Rejection.” It’s heartening to see Ada’s strong and salutary response to her having received those mortifying rejection slips we all get: “I really believe that all those rejections made me better.”
Understandably, not everyone feels that way.
For those who haven’t “made friends” with their rejections as Ada has done, it’s worth noting that Henderson’s piece is not a complaint. Like all of Poetry‘s editors from Harriet Monroe on, Alice was grateful to those who take the time and trouble to send their work, without which the magazine would simply not exist. Instead – and as are the present editors and Harriet herself – Alice was a poet too, and well understood the experience of rejection as “brutal and dispiriting.” But, she asked, what sort of rejection would not be those things?
What she offered in solace to those whose work was turned away was the assurance that “All the verse that has come into this office up-to date has been read by the editors.” Despite the large number of submissions we get (about which I remarked earlier in the week) and the small number of staff here at the magazine, every submission is read with care and respect by the people on the masthead. Our Consulting Editor, the poet Christina Pugh, and I, between us, read everything that comes in (as it happens we have no interns or students), and compose written comments on submissions that I then discuss back and forth for many days at a time with Chris.
I don't know how things will be under the next editor, but these past few years Chris Wiman and I have gone back and forth about submissions in what has become a continuous, illuminating, and humbling conversation. I have never ever heard the world "slush" used here. Our names go on the thing, so we take it very seriously. And we all know we can be as wrong as Col. Higginson was in our judgments. When we find work to accept, we feel real pleasure, knowing what publication means for a poet; when we turn things away, we both know how it feels, and we sincerely hope everyone will keep trying us, entrusting us, with their work.
Henderson put it memorably all those years ago:
“The poet knows that he is a genius; and the editor still hopes to discover that he is in each manuscript examined. The editor has a hundred sorrows for the poet’s one. The poet may swear at the editor, and rather adds to his dignity in doing so; but the editor, in addressing the poet, has to assume the polite demeanor of the dancing master.”
So, let’s dance, shall we? It’s our share of what Ada nicely calls “the necessary work.”
Coda: A word about the photo above. To celebrate his 15th poem in Poetry magazine, appearing earlier this year, it was taken by Todd Boss and posted on Facebook with the caption:
“12 rejections before they ever took one. Don’t give up, friends. Never give up.”
-- Don Share