My blogs are barely read, other than the times when I talk about two things: failure and death. Rejection, in a way, is both things. There is an awful lot of propaganda about that says that rejection is a wholesome par-for-the-course thing, that we learn from our mistakes. But I find myself viscerally baulking whenever anyone is lazy enough to quote that fatuous Beckett line about ‘failing better’: ‘Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better’. Why is it always Nobel Laureates who are telling us about their failure rates? The horrid truth is that rejection is no growth experience at all, it actively diminishes us, contrary to what most people put about. It’s the ‘smile-though-your-heart-is breaking’ lobby that hate to have to deal with someone passionate, honest and spontaneous. So much is about trying to make an untenable situation (that’s Life) seem tolerable – what exactly is it that compels people to their place of work each morning other than the financial incentive? We are sold fictions about life that make it seem worth living, when often these fictions are sheer propaganda, but for what or whom?
Rejection has been a steadfast ally of mine (or rather Svengalian shadow) as long as I’ve been writing poetry and trying to get it out there. When I was younger and wrote poems that were full of ambition but essentially gibberish, I found I had a fairly good time getting published. But when I aged and decided to take my ‘craft’ seriously, that’s when the knives came out. See, what happens as a poet starting out is that you create a little buzz then you find your poems getting into magazines. But as soon as that buzz dies away, if you fail to cement your achievement in terms of extra-poetic things like prizes and awards (Eric Gregory etc), those who published your early work begin to feel betrayed and wonder why they published you at all. I’ve been in this position with a number of hail-fellow-well-met, fair-weather-friend magazines that published my early work fulsomely but refused to publish anything thereafter. My favourite rejection slip came from the now defunct The Bow-Wow Shop which had previously published quite a few juvenile poems of mine: it was all of two words, no address or sign-off, simply ‘No thanks’… I treat call-centre pests on the phone with much more courtesy than that!
You can tell a well-intentioned rejection from a bad one miles off – a good rejection tends to be supportive, handwritten and perhaps the editor sticks their neck out and says what they liked and didn’t like so much, perhaps they urge you to submit again. I’ve been in the position of motoring through a blizzard of rejections to eventually secure an acceptance. And perhaps it’s arrogant to assume that your work deserves or merits this sort of attention, but if you are an active reader, buyer and writer of poetry then I think that this is exactly the sort of treatment that’s called for.
The added problem is that we are not supposed to talk about these things now, about being rejected. We live in an age that exudes apodictic certitude – that’s why no politician will say that Brexit is just sheer self-destructive lunacy, because we can’t admit that we’re wrong and we can’t ever accept that we’ve failed. But what if you’re a sincere poet that has tried and tried and failed, where does that leave you? If you’ve no obvious school to attach yourself to, what happens? Chances are your work will be rejected. Of course there’s an art in reading and subscribing to magazines that might like your voice, but the magazines of integrity (as in the mags that simply publish what they like with no agenda) are rare. Why publish a good poem by an unknown when you could publish a shopping list by the latest Eric Gregory recipient? And of course this is bitterness, but it’s also a fact about how magazines operate, they need to sell copies and the known quantity is always preferable to the unknown.
I have published two pamphlets and collections of my work. This does not mean that I’m an old hand (or should that be ‘hat’?) but it does mean that I expect to be taken seriously when I submit to a magazine and a recent postal submission I made to Poetry London resulted in my poems being returned with no slip at all, no idea as to what the editor made of them. Somehow I think not hearing back from the magazine is less of a slight than this. Of course, this could be an innocuous administrative error, but I’ve been in this position too many times to think so and give the benefit of the doubt.
We are encouraged to be graceful in accepting rejection, and rejection is an inevitable part of writing, but I think that over recent years editors have felt that it is acceptable to treat submitters with something much less than grace. But I’m an extremist, there’s absolutely nothing that will deter me from trying to get my work out there. No amount of rough treatment will put me off, because I know that I want to reside in the realm of poetry. The price you need to pay for that if you’re not fashionable is often an editorial brick-wall, but so be it. Some brick walls have cracks.