Recently I got the news that a literary journal accepted one of my poems. Now, this is always an occasion for whooping and hollering—any “yes” from any publisher makes me do the happy dance. But this one was special. This particular poem had a dubious distinction: It had been rejected by many, many other literary journals. How many? In the 12 years since I wrote it, it got shot down a whopping 34 times. It was, by far, my most-rejected poem.
Why on Earth, you would be right to ask, did I keep sending that poem out, when so many people clearly thought it sucked? Simple: I did it because it got the sigh.
The sigh came one night years ago, when I workshopped that poem in a creative writing class. I was asked to read it out loud, and just as I finished the last line, I heard it: the wonderful sound of the woman next to me sighing. It was, you know, that sigh—the one that poets long for, the slightly orgasmic one that tells you that you have something there, a poem that somebody likes so much that it drew a physical reaction out of them. I heard that sigh and I thought, Ooh yeah—that one’s a winner.
I was off and running, sending that poem out to one top-tier journal after another. In my mind, it was my marquee poem, the best horse in my stable, and no little journal would do. But the months went by and time after time, the poem came limping back home in its scuffed SASE. I kept at it for about five years, sending it out to every top-drawer mag I could think of. Then, perplexed, I gave up and put the poem back in its stall for a rest.
Land of Ten Thousand Revisions
Still, it gnawed at me. Every once in a while I’d take it out and give it a hard look, wondering what the hell was wrong with it. I’d tinker with it, sharpen up a few words. Once, in a pique of minimalism, I got out the big knife and hacked away two-thirds of it. I felt all satisfied until I read that pared-down version a couple of months later and realized I’d cut all the spirit and nuance out of it; all that was left were a few listless lines that even I couldn’t understand. I restored it to its (tinkered, sharpened, revised) longer version and read it again. Crazy thing. I still liked it.
As time went by, other poems rose to the top of my “send out” list, and that old poem sank farther down and spent more time at home. But it kept bugging me; it was like a hill that I could never quite climb. So about a year ago, I made a conscious decision to change my strategy with it. I still wanted to see that poem out in the world, but I decided it didn’t have to be in Ploughshares. So I started sending it to middle-tier and regional journals, but always ones that I especially liked; I still wanted it to live someplace that I would want to visit when I felt the urge to see it. It became a sport, tucking this poem into the envelope to round out a submission to this small journal or that one. And it still came back a few times, so I added those rejections to the list, filling up four index cards in my Byzantine tracking system. I kept thinking, come on, surely somebody out there will give this poem the sigh, somebody besides me and that woman in that class all those years ago.
And someone finally did.
I’ll be delicate here and I won’t say which journal’s editor was kind enough to sigh, or which poem it was. That will come out in time, but right now I don’t want that editor thinking he/she picked up a poop that all those other editors stepped around for all those years. This lovely editor obviously doesn’t think it’s a poop, and friends, I am not about to make him/her think otherwise. Whether it’s a poop or not is all in the eye of the beholder. That’s art.
Naturally I’m hoping that, after such a long and difficult journey, that poem will find its way into the Pushcart anthology or Best American or whatever. That would be sweet justice, and a damned good story. But for now, I’m just glad it will be out there in the sun, rubbing shoulders with other poems, instead of stamping its foot impatiently in its lonely stall.