Part of being a Poetry Editor for a literary magazine means you have to reject people’s work. We send a standard rejection letter, with the option to be sent an explanation. This is what one of those responses (with names blanked out) looks like, in case you wonder if I take what I do to heart.
Morning, _____ -
I apologize that it’s taken me this long to get back to you; I spend my days in the publishing office for a high fashion magazine, and there are weeks I forget to pay rent and eat regular meals because of the workload. Had I any decency, I would have replied to you before the first of June, and I hope that you won’t hold it against the magazine. Unfortunately, we did not accept any of your work for our June issue, but because I have unfathomable admiration for every person who puts them self out there, I wanted to open a dialogue with you which could hopefully lead to future publication.
When I am considering poetry for the magazine, my first questions always are, “am I left different after finishing it? Have I been stirred, have I been incited?” These are the key points we strive for our work to hit, in all of their many ways. Some work is political in nature, falling on both sides of the party lines; some work tackles mental and physical health; some work expounds on unpopular opinion, some; some, I might even say a lot, of our work deals with relationships (all of those man vs. ____ conflicts we all learned about in middle school).
Your work did, in fact, move me. “_____” begged a few questions that I was actually pleased were not answered. “_____” and “_____” explored non-romantic relationships and the effects they render on us. However, all of them felt a little over-encompassing. They were often specific, but not as momentary as they could have been. You’ll find a lot of the poetry that we publish comes from a very singular place in the poet. Four of my recent favorites that serve well as examples have been: “The Girl’s Room,” “But Why?,” “Sonnet for Edison,” and “Marathon Monday.” These pieces aren’t revolutionary, but they are in their own way. You can see the moment where each of them were seeded, and how they very quickly took root and spread. You are both able to describe what they are about, but are also left wordless by the end of them.
When I’m “trying to give advice” to writers about “how to improve,” I a) hardly feel like an expert myself most days and b) don’t think there are any definitive ways to do so. I think the only way to become a better writer is to write more. In high school, I used to sit down at my desk, or on a bench, or at a coffee house and say, “I am going to write a poem about _____” whether it was a breakup, or a family struggle, or just the teen age girl experience. My work wasn’t ~*about*~ anything more than word play. They sounded good (but probably actually not) but didn’t do anything.
Going through all of Professor _____’s creative writing courses at _____ made me realize that some of my favorite authors that I often strove to emulate wrote fantastically (see 1, 2, and 3) about concrete imagery. Some of our early exercises were “find an image, write about it; write about it over and over until what you are writing conjures the same image that you are seeing in your mind and then write about it again.”
If you ever had ___, and you ever mentioned me to him, he would say I also was an “eager beaver.” (Notably the time I tried to come up with a independent study about trochaic tetrameter. We did not further explore that option.)
Here are some pieces that might help you see what I’m getting at:
“Where You Go When She Sleeps” by T.R. Hummer (His girlfriend is asleep on his lap and he’s equating it to a little boy falling to his death, and at first you think “excuse me” but at the end of the piece, you are 100% on board with the feeling he was attempting to describe to you)
“Fat Girl” by Megan Falley (WATCH THE VIDEO; “The journey to unapologetic self-love is not always paved with rainbows and self-esteem. Sure, they show up, but there is also some crying in private. Also, potentially, some crying in public.” This is an example of crying in public, something I highly recommend.)
"Kite" by Rives (This is a piece about the “The morning after the first night we made love” but like also the entire human experience; look up a video of him doing it live.)
"For Those Who Can Ride in an Airplane For the First Time" by Anis Mojgani (“I’m twenty-eight years old and trying to figure out most days what being a man means.” I’ve heard him speak about this piece. He didn’t sit down one day and say, “I am going to write a poem about what it is to be a man.” He wrote this poem he spoke this poem about running over a kid and questioning his core morals because if he didn’t, he didn’t know what he’d do.)
I’m going to leave you with a few prompts that I think will demonstrate my point. 1, 2, and 3. Also this quote from TEDTalk veteran / slam poet Sarah Kay. You have what is clearly an amazing mind, and are learning your way with words. My challenge to you is to not seek to Write Poetry (capital W, capital P) because it’s this thing you are trying to attain. I challenge you to write because if you don’t you feel as if you may actually die. Write like you’re pressing on a bruise. Write like you are seducing someone with your cheekbones. Write to answer a question or raise a question you need answered. Take work you have already written and read it out loud over and over again until the words don’t sound like words, over and over again, and you can see where it is you want to add all the things you didn’t write down the first time.
I want to hear from you. I want to hear if you hate this or love this or anything in between. We here at RP&DS are crafting community, we are work-shopping, and connecting, and hashing out. I’ll go back and forth with you on a piece until you are tired of seeing my name pop up in your inbox, because if you can’t tell, I love what I do here. I really am looking forward to hearing from you if you want to be heard from.
All the best,