Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Pip's Fortune

My wife has taken the day off, and after a flurry of post-guest cleaning, she's now watching a horror movie and relaxing with the puppies, who had seemed to have exhausted themselves galloping around the backyard. Yet, after a respite of carrots, water, and lounging on an area rug inside, both dogs have uncorked reserves of energy that I no longer seem to posses.

Outside, the muggy heat and scorching sunlight has chased the residential wildlife under canopies of shade—even though it's not yet June. As for myself, I’ve spent much of the morning wandering between the backyard and the basement, searching for warranty documentation, and trying, without luck, to phone someone to service our smoking air conditioner.

At the moment, my brain feels almost as crispy as the wiring in our air conditioner. My thoughts, sadly, are not even muddled. They are simply non-existent. There is nothing here other than the ache of sleeplessness in my eyes, the chorus of the background music, and the chatter of the ceiling fan overhead.

Yesterday, as I thought about the upcoming day, I certainly didn't expect to be reminded that—even in summer—exhaustion, ennui, frustration, and dashes of melancholy can fill a house as quickly as ants can cover a discarded bratwurst. I don’t know, honestly, what I expected from today, but this isn't it.

Of course unmet expectations aren't all that unusual—are they?

After graduate school, when I had finally found my own studio apartment in north Dallas, which was literally on the other side of the tracks, I spent a few weeks gathering poems onto the hard drive of an antiquated 286 that was nowhere near "Y2K compliant." I printed about twelve, wrote four very dignified, if stilted, cover letters, folded the poems into thirds, and sent them off to readers and editors of some of the best literary magazines in the country.

Unfortunately, poems—even though thousands upon thousands of your readers are poets—are seldom, if ever, read solely for their craftsmanship, and I do, honestly, believe that those poems are well crafted. The language is interesting, tight, and complex. It's clear, I think, that a reasonable intellect is struggling with and against difficult questions of "human experience." More, I think the poems display a smidge of technical virtuosity. And at that time, I thought they were perfect. I expected the readers and editors to notice the quality of those lines immediately and to open up the pages of their respected journals for my crystalline beads of wisdom. I was certain.

Yet, 2-3 months later, the rejection slips—all unsigned—came trickling into my mailbox. I waited, still, holding out hope that one or two would be accepted and suspecting that such a publication would change my life through the ineffable force of actually having my poetry read by, well, hundreds of people. When that last self-addressed stamped envelope finally arrived, I tore the envelope to shreds, like a cat tearing into the side of a sofa, and yanked out the small brightly colored slip of cardboard paper that was printed with black ink and the larger white sheet of paper that seemed somehow more promising. The colored note was, of course, a form rejection slip, and the white sheet was, of course, a subscription form to the esteemed quarterly journal. I’ve always found the inclusion of these extra scraps of waste paper deeply fascinating. How often, honestly, does this sales technique generate a single subscription? Couldn’t those journals wait a month or so, until the sting subsided a little bit, to pitch the poems and stories that are, according to the editors, superior to your work?

Anyhow, when I saw that rejection note, I was furious—for the poem. Perhaps that reaction was merely a set of mental aikido moves designed to protect myself from the vested interest I have in poems I’ve written, but I’m not certain. I was, nevertheless, offended that the poem hadn't found itself a home. I questioned the quality of the journal, the knowledge of the editors, and the care that the readers had taken in perusing my manuscript, and I held a grudge, on behalf of a single poem, for years.

Now, I've forgotten which journal irked me so, and I've reread the poem with far, far more time cushioning any attachment my ego had to the poem. I think, now, that the poem was well crafted, but I see little reason why it would stand out from the mass of competent verse that must funnel into whatever literary journal that was. In addition, I now realize that literary quality—as much as it should be—is not the sole and only criterion for the selection of a poem in any literary journal. Editors read far too much work, leaving little room for the kind of quiet contemplation that a good poem actually deserves. Furthermore, editors are looking to create a journal that can be sold, so a poem that's different enough from the overriding aesthetic of a particular issue might not be included. Finally, as difficult as it may be to believe, editors are actually people too. They have bad days when the neighbor's dog spent the night barking at a rabbit just beyond the fence line. They have days when home life feels a bit like the jaw-of-life ripping through the roof of their sedan. They have moments where concentration lapses and they wonder what the next episode of Lost will be like.

In short, inheriting Miss Havisham’s wealth—even if, like Pip, you deserve it—is not always as easy or likely as it may appear. But, there's always a metaphorical fortune out there for you somewhere—if you're willing to hunt for it. Read widely, becoming familiar with as many journals as you can. If you can afford to, subscribe to a few journals that always seem to publish work you admire. And most importantly, work on your poems until you can't make the little beasts any better, and do anything you can to make yourself feel better about the long, tedious process, even if it means waiting by a rotting cake in your wedding dress. That’s what I’m doing.


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