In 2014, it was six years since self-publishing my first poetry collection, Leaving Home: Discoveries and Reflections of a Once-Sheltered Life, with Aardvark Global Publishing, LLC. Many of the poems were written in high school–some in graduate school eight years later–and the path to publication was a mixed bag at best. There was not a lot of guidance in high school days for an aspiring poet, nor was there a flourishing Internet to read up on the current layout of poetry markets and how to avoid the pitfalls of the vanity press.
I was wise enough to be skeptical of the inevitable acceptance letters and “opportunities” to purchase anthologies containing one’s polished work, but barring the knowledge of other options, my early poems were (supposedly) featured in several anthologies by The National Library of Poetry, Cader Publishing, and others. My reasoning was that as long as I didn’t purchase said anthologies, I hadn’t fallen for the dupe. After all, my poems had still been chosen over others, and the positive feedback was motivation to continue writing. Looking back, that reasoning may have been flawed, but I was in my late teens and early twenties actively seeking publication, so I can’t be too hard on myself.
There were “legitimate” publications which accepted my work as well, although they seemed far less prevalent than now without the Internet to compile lists of them together. I’d buy copies of Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest magazines at the bookstore and send off to the classifieds. Robin and Carl Heffley really encouraged my writing in their positive and personal acceptance letters to The Candlelight Poetry Journal and various anthologies which often included my work. And there were other contests and publications outside the vanity press which propelled me forward.
An Editor Reaches Out
So after graduate school, where I composed some additional poems while participating in the National Writing Project at the University of Missouri, I self-published my collection in 2008 and pursued other interests. In 2014, I started hiring voiceover artists to record my poems on audio and made multimedia presentations. A small press publisher on the Internet reached out and asked to publish one of my videos in his online lit magazine. This is the video:
Naturally, I was thrilled to death. It was the first time a publisher I had not solicited approached me to publish my work. But interestingly enough, when I did submit to this publisher a few years later (2018), I received the all too familiar condescending response I have received on several occasions in the 20+ years of seeking publication for my writing.
The response was the typical empty, condescending rebuff from those who so have fervently sought to push anything resembling traditional formal poetry from the contemporary canon:
“Hi Randall [sic], excuse my slow response, partly due to the fact i have been poorly and recuperating, but mostly that i am looking for a more modernist approach in contemporary poetry than the material i have been receiving from you & others, even if this means i have to greatly reduce the posts to the site, it’s necessary to maintain a standard. I don’t want to be committed to an overt critique of your work, by all means send me material but try to keep it updated.”
This was not the first (nor the last) of such notes I have received, but it was the first from someone who had reached out and sought permission to publish my work in the first place.
Rejection Does Not Define the Poet or Their Work
The title might be more aptly say “Condescension is Part of the Journey.” Every writer faces rejection. But facing repeated rejections coupled with tired, canned criticism simply because the submissions are not free verse does become frustrating over time. As a formalist poet, when receiving constructive criticism, I want to know how to do what I am trying to do better; I don’t need an editor’s unoriginal and ignorant opinion that “all rhyme is forced rhyme,” etc. Needless to say, I have found other editors more amiable to sharing my work, found a publisher for my 2nd poetry collection, and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize among other accolades. The moral of the story is that rejection is very much subjective, is sometimes (in my experience) unkind and demeaning, but does not define a poet or their work.