Coming Off as a Rube
Nothing makes me second guess my poems more than when I have to pick them for a reading, except maybe when I see one in a journal. I automatically recognize what’s wrong with it: pointless lines, odd word choice, weak transitions. That went double when my manuscript was accepted: I went through a long editing process of cutting bad lines like I was getting paid to do it (which I wasn’t). Now, I had crafted my poems and all that, but my perspective changed when the call came: “You won the Main Street Rag Poetry Contest,” the Press Editor said.
“Seriously,” he responded.
I suddenly saw my poems like they were children going off to the big city. I didn’t want them coming off as rubes.
I was still skeptical. You see, earlier that weekend I had just accepted an instructor position from the University of South Carolina Aiken, the only place that showed any interest in me as a teacher, and just a couple months before that I had won a chapbook contest. And now a book? I couldn’t help but think somebody somewhere was messing with me.
When I gathered together my manuscript as an MFA dissertation, I thought it was pretty strong, and so did my teachers. They told me so. But, I second-guessed, it’s their job to say that, right? And if they were being honest with me, why should contest judges agree with them? Regardless, I sent that mutha out to fifteen different contests that first year (at about 20 bucks a pop), and I’d feel hopeful all day if an assistant editor scribbled “thank you” on the thin rejection slip. I was looking for validation, but it was sparse. Sure, I still published individual poems in journals, but as a collection—nothing. Was it the boring title? I asked myself. The boring poems? Lack of a cohesive theme? Too many sonnets? Not enough bird poems? Too many bird poems? Did the Hogan’s Heroes dramatic monologue make it hard for editors to take me seriously? I wondered if Kmart was still hiring.
I may have despaired a little; that’s what I do, but I also remembered that my instructor advised me to keep adding the new poems; they will be the stronger ones. So I started ruthlessly cutting poems that were weaker, unfinished, or a little off thematically, and let the new ones fill in the gaps.
I sent to twenty contests that second year, and when I got my rejections, some editors wrote whole phrases on my rejections slips. Some contests invited me to submit next year (although I suspect this might have been extended that invite to all contestants). I’d set the manuscript aside and wait, write new poems. I made mixed cassettes (my 88’ Honda Accord has a state of the art cassette player and an electric sunroof but still no cup holders). Mixed CDs, I told myself, didn’t require the same sense of timing. I looked for variety in my tapes. I noticed transitions between songs like “My Funny Valentine” and “Toxic Waste Block Party.” Lots of tension can be suggested by transitions. This was important practice for reordering my manuscript, in helping me see the narrative and lyrical connections between my own poems. I reorganized poems into chapbooks. I told myself this all wasn’t a waste of time.
What else? There’s all that technical advice: keep accurate records of the contests and their responses, don’t lose hope, don’t take it personal, keep that day job, make the process as routine as possible—send, send, send. But there is one question each writer must consider after so many dollars worth of rejections: why would a collection flatly rejected one year manage to win the same contest the next time around? True, there is dumb luck involved, and granted, it might get a better read if you send it in a couple weeks before the deadline. There is the possibility that the first year your poems were read by an intern with a chip on her shoulder, a rushed TA, or just a reader with a completely different aesthetic. However, after three years of rejection, consider this possibility: it’s not them; it is you (and more specifically, your current manuscript). Trust me; a different guest judge is NOT going to matter unless your manuscript makes it to the semi-finals. Until then you are dealing with interns, graduate students and rushed assistant editors who are not going to be the most sympathetic of readers; I’ve been there myself: an assistant to an assistant, a stack of 40 manuscripts to read over the weekend, working for nothing more than my name on the masthead. On top of that most assistant editors also teach and take graduate classes. They’re a busy lot with divided attentions, and remember: this is a competition. It’s their job to make a judgment here. So I looked at my manuscript like an over-worked editor might. I asked myself if the first couple poems would stand out in a mess of other poems? Will they keep a stranger’s attention?
On another level, you have to submit the thing and then forget about it. Write new poems. Compile mixed tapes. Read some. Tell yourself that publishing books is for chumps (it really does help dull the pain of rejection).
Then I got my book. The poems in it are all off the table now, they are done, and it makes me a little sad. I’ll miss tinkering on them. But I’m told I get royalties. Maybe now I can afford to get the oil changed on my Honda? Strangely enough, I’m still comfortable with most of the poems in there. I am glad they are finished. And the world goes on.
Roy Seeger's chapbook, The Garden of Improbable Birds, is available through Gribble Press and his book, The Boy Whose Hands Were Birds, is available through Main Street Rag. He lives in Kalamazoo with his wife and small gray dog. His poem, "Heirlooms," appeared in issue #42. You can find out more about Roy on his website.