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January 11, 2013


I imagine Laura and Leslie's experience of regular rejection is the norm for most poets.

During the two years 2003-5 when I made a concerted effort at sending poems out to small magazines the acceptance rate was roughly 50/50.

I'd been writing for two and a half years before I had anything I was confident about and I think being in an academic environment when I started submitting helped me experience the process fairly detached because by that time I'd had a couple of years learning in the perfect positive place.

What I found very enlightening were the notes, however short, that came with both acceptances and rejections, because they offered a glimpse into the mindset and self-image of a range of editors I submitted to.

Some would be very gracious rejecting and others accepting would come across snotty, making sure to remind of what a big favor they were doing me.

As a general rule of thumb it seemed that the smaller the reputation of a magazine the bigger the ego of the editor. This can also be applied to poets themselves I think.

Galwegian poet Kevin Higgins has a great line about poets who'll cut your throat to get a poem published in the Ballybaloney Bugle. The biggest egos on the lowest rung of showbiz.

Because I was in my mid thirties with a varied life-experience and my previous work being in the law where my day to day was dealing with people facing prison, though I tried, after a while I found myself unable to take the business of getting poems published very seriously. I was merely imitating what everyone else does. 'Building credits' in the mags before sending out the manuscript a fairy-editor from an independent press would then accept and bang! into the world of as an 'official' published poet with a slim collection being (un)sold on one obscure publisher's website.

The most profound learning experience I had in the beginning was when I wrote to Mick Imlah at the TLS during my final year of the writing and drama BA, droning on about myself and asking could I review some poetry for him. He wrote back and said, OK, send me some reviews, and at that moment I realized the extent of my bluff. That I had no reviews and was not yet sufficiently experienced in the reading or writing of poetry to review for the Ormskirk Advertiser, never mind the TLS.

Though I have never submitted a manuscript to any editor, on a handful of occasions since 2005 I've sent individual poems out, and the reply that gave me most joy was from Paul Muldoon, rejecting some long poems on behalf of the New Yorker. ..'not quite us, alas, hope all goes well with you.' It made my day just getting a reply from him.

After losing interest in the submit-reject-accept dance in 2005 after finding the Amergin poem and concentrating instead on the long slow process of putting in the 10,000 hours of writing practise that leads to getting a practice; a by-product of being on the sidelines and watching others at the same level of experience as myself as they made their ways up the ladder of 'success' in this model, was that the veil of mystery and mystique surrounding the business of poetry publishing slowly lifted and clarity dawned.

What struck me most is how short-lived the high of having their first manuscript accepted was. I have silently observed from a distance the trajectory of a number of poets go from un- to published, and in nearly all cases they merely replaced one set of anxieties and worries with another.

There was one British poet who had their first collection accepted by Salt in 2008, just at the crossover point when a new online start-up, with the assistance of the Arts Council, began doing the job of traditional publishers but cutting out the middle man of the editor. They said they would publish the first 5000 people who wrote to them with a valid email address and a manuscript. If you had a manuscript they would publish it as-is, without any editorial input and sell it on their site for free, and for £40 they would assign your book an isbn and distribute it through Gardners, promising royalties of 40% 'less administration costs'.


When the poet was accepted by Salt they blogged about it in a euphoric state, clearly over the moon, but a few days after the appeared promising to publish the masses and the poet blogged in a rage, deeply unhappy and making all sorts of accusations about the scheme. One day they were very happy and the next they were very angry and ranting what a rip off it must be, how it was a dark day for Literature and how the pool of poetry would be poisoned if any old riff raff could be published without having been first 'accepted' by an appropriately qualified professional.

Ted Smith, the guy running came in for sustained abuse from not only the poet but numerous other 'concerned' individuals defending the old submit-reject-accept model as the only one true literary way.

I had a great time debating with them, and they got angrier and angrier the more I wrote, especially as I had bought an isbn, saying how great it was and I was just like the newly accepted poet in that I too would be having a book out, but with more royalties.


The contract was in plain English and 40% 'less administration costs' came to roughly 12% of the retail price, which the author was responsible for setting.

The doomsayers however were proved 100% wrong. did exactly what they promised and not only that, the books came off the same printing press at Lightning Source and seemed to have a better distribution deal than Salt, because a friend ended up publishing her first collection of poems with them and it was easier to get hold of than the poet ranting about the disgusting changes, which amounted to the same books off the same press but with better distribution. Once it was proved to be kosher they went quiet on it and never mentioned it again.

But this aside what I noticed about the first time published poets is that once they got published they then began worrying about how few books they were selling, and then the disappointment of not getting onto any shortlists for first collection prizes; along with the suppressed envy of other first timers surging past them in the competition of getting their names in the papers.

It slowly dawned on them that releasing their slim collections of poetry, as Ginsberg said, was like dropping a feather in the Grand Canyon and waiting to hear an echo. At the end of the day all they had was a physical object selling a couple of hundred copies, that at times seemed an albatross around their neck and daily reminder of a dream that didn't come as true as they secretly hoped, because they were looking no farther than having a book of poetry published.

Quincy Lehr has a hilarious October 2011 piece on the Contemporary Poetry Review website: The Lighter Side: On Selling Your Poetry Book, in which he details the dilemmas of the newly published poet, the comedy and quotidian lack of any real change first collections bring to the lives of the majority of poets.

Cheers Don. Great week.

Des Swords, Sure wish you would learn to edit. Your comments are too long. The quote, btw, is by Don Marquis, not Ginsberg.

Thanks for the kind words of unsolicited advice Marissa. Wonderful to know one's thoughts affect you enough to reply. Hurrah!

Rejection is not hard to handle; but not for the second time, third, and fourth, monthly or yearly.But by being positive in all aspects, however, it could be a great training.By focusing and being determined, the more you polish everything until you will be accepted because of extra ordinary literary pieces, honed by rejection and time.

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