Like many people around the world, I write poetry, which I send off to literary magazines to try to get it published. Though most of my career successes now center on nonfiction writing or on teaching, I still have a real affinity for poetry, which is probably the toughest and most competitive genre for a writer to gain recognition. My love of the genre has not really translated into much career or publication success for me. High school teachers often tell students, “You can do anything you put your mind to.” I’m not one of those teachers who tells them that, because it’s not true. It’s more complicated than that, especially if you want to be a poet.
My main question — the one I really want answered — is: am I any good at writing poetry? I hope so . . . and I will add at this point that I have had a handful of poems published mostly in small poetry magazines. However, I get all of the form rejection letters that other poets get, from American Poetry Review, Poetry, Black Warrior Review, The New Yorker, Oxford American, and some smaller lit mags too. All of them say no, but in a vague way that leaves me – and thousands of other poets – wondering, “What does that mean?” Most rejection letters I get are worded similarly, whether they come in the mail or via e-mail. They feel that my work is not right for their publication at this time, but they do wish me luck placing it elsewhere in the future. Does that mean that my poetry is not right for their magazine right now, or ever? Is that wishing-you-luck thing sincere or sarcastic? “Yeah, good luck getting that published . . .”
I would like to know, because if my poetry is really not good, I would probably quit submitting my poems to magazines and relieve all those poetry editors of worrying over my submissions. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel sorry for them when their guidelines state in anguish that they receive thousands of submissions, and as such can’t reply personally to all of them. In many cases, I think that’s a crock of shit. Maybe some magazines receive that many submissions, but most don’t. I think it’s a marketing tool to make the magazine seem important. No, I would stop submitting — if someone sat down with my poems and showed me why they aren’t that good– because I want the cream to rise to the top. And if my poems aren’t, then okay.
My chagrin is rooted in a few factors. First, I do have a degree in English and a master’s degree in Liberal Arts with an emphasis in English; I’m not some cardigan-wearing dropout who thinks that coffee and body odor will make me a better poet. However, I will admit that I have not, at this point, gone to earn that MFA in creative writing. Second, unlike a great many so-called poets, I do buy and read poetry; I read Rodney Jones and C.D. Wright, Richard Brautigan and Miller Williams, Martin Espada and Kevin Young . . . I really do read poetry. I also read the magazines that I submit to, just like guidelines say to. Third, I’ve had some small successes as a poet, some publications here and there, and not on posting boards or Poetry.com. But that big success is evading me.
I have considered signing up for one of these high-dollar, week-long workshops, like the Iowa Summer Writing program, just to go and ask the teacher, Am I any good at this? I don’t want to take some class and do writing exercises; I just want a good couple of hours with somebody who can tell me what I’m doing wrong (and right), for real. If my shortcomings are insurmountable, I want to know. If I’m near-missing myself to death, I’m all ears.
What I want to know is pretty simple. Should I continue sending out my poems, or should I give up? In the absence of a concrete answer, I continue to run through the possibilities. Reasonable idea #1 is: Maybe this particular editor didn’t like this particular poem, which I tell myself often enough. Then other ideas follow, with varying degrees of paranoia. Maybe some editors increase their readership by encouraging hopefuls with open submissions and a guideline that says to read the magazine to get a feel for what they publish, but then no one actually reads the submissions. Maybe some editors only publish their friends or people they think will forward their careers in return. (David Wojahn wrote about that mindset in the most recent issue of Writer’s Chronicle.) Maybe self-righteous interns reject my poems, without ever showing them to an editor. Far-fetched but possible, I guess: maybe I’m a misunderstood genius. (Shut up, it’s possible.)