Friday, June 15, 2007

A Bit of a Dickensian Duality

The morning has already slipped, somehow, away from me. Archie is on the mend, aching to play again, to chase Dixie, the mighty Jack Russell, across the shaded grass. Archie and I are sitting outside, surveying the yard with our distinctly different gazes. His head swivels toward each unusual sound until he explodes from his haunches and runs to the fence to bark a warning at a passerby.

My muscles ache slightly, and my eyes feel a bit bleary. I'm regretting, ever so slightly, having jumped from bed at 7 in the morning, when Archie, having jumped down from bed for a quick sip of water was whining at the foot of the bed, unable yet to make the leap.

Yesterday, I let myself get immensely distracted by a bit of good news in the mail: an acceptance to one of the 40 submissions I mailed out. When I saw the tell-tale self-addressed stamped envelope, I simply assumed it was another speedy rejection. When I tore open the envelope, however, I didn't find my returned manuscripts. I didn't find a thin strip of colored notepaper. Instead, there was only a single sheet of colored letterhead. I opened the letter, glanced over its contents and started shivering with adrenaline. They took two poems. I phoned my wife to tell her the news, and sat outside on the front porch smoking until the dogs yelped for my attention. Even though I'm not earning a penny from that publication, my body must have felt as it would feel if I won the Kentucky Powerball and never had to work another day of my life. After taking a few moments to settle myself down and sharing the news with Michelle, I had to share it with more people. I emailed a friend in New York. I emailed a former professor.

Then, after trying, futilely, to return to the short story I had been working on, I gave up and phoned my parents. I reasoned that I would have to tell them soon, and what kind of call would it be if I waited until this Sunday, when I'm planning to phone on Father's Day? So I talked with my father and step-mother for a while, letting the conversation go where it would, letting the tingling from my scalp settle into something more sedate, letting the sudden rush dissipate back into the nothingness from which it had come.

Then, I drove down to visit my wife at her office downtown. By the time I got back, I realized I'd neglected to eat, so I stuffed myself on leftover Sloppy Joes before settling into a long nap with the puppies on the living room sofa.

Today, in contrast, the mail brought a different sort of news. Again, one of the Star Wars stamps I used for the last batch of submissions graced the exterior of an envelope. It was another SASE bearing another answer. Darth Vader's helmeted face gazed up from the corner of the envelope. The envelope, like the one from yesterday, was too thin. Could this be, I wondered, yet more surprisingly good news?


My manuscripts weren't returned, but the envelope contained nothing more than a typed rejection slip and an envelope soliciting both subscriptions and donations. Nothing was handwritten on the note. There were no glimmers of hope to ease my maudlin mood. My work simply did not meet their editorial needs at this time. At a future time, or at some time 20 years ago, when I was on the precipice of puberty, the slip implies that my poems might have been appropriate. Of course, this is a falsehood. As an occasional editor, I've fantasized about what a wholly honest rejection slip would look like. I've imagined reading such notes: I've read this before, handled more competently; I can tell you have an MFA, but no thanks; You haven't read our magazine, have you? Please cross us off your list of future submissions; We strongly advise that you read anything other than your own work, written in the last 100 years; What? And of course, the simple, elegant, No.

I do not doubt that if conventions of politeness were not vital to the continued existence of a society as complex as ours, I would have received almost all of those rejections at least once in my life, and I expect to get far more in the future.

After spending far too much energy thinking about it, I'm taking today's rejection as a simple No. Yet, despite clear expectations that the simple No's will far outweigh those surprisingly exciting moments like yesterday, this one still stung. Perhaps, in retrospect, it stung because of the rapidity with which the response came. My wife even suggested that they hadn't read my poems. While possible, I seriously doubt that any literary magazine that takes a semblance of pride in what it does would ever make that mistake. As I've written elsewhere, there are any number of reasons why that No might have arrived in my mailbox today. But an explanation doesn't take away the fact of rejection or the vaguely disturbing notion that after almost 12 years of trying, my ego and my hopes are intimately tied to the response of an editor (or a reader) who may or may not know more about poetry than I do.

I'd like to tell you that over the years, it becomes easier. I don't know if this is true. More, I'd like to tell you that the percentage of rejections plummets as you become more and more successful, that soon enough you'll be sending out all of your poems to fulfill solicitations, and rejections will be a thing of the past. I think this is true for a tiny portion of poets. Even poets who have been nominated for the National Book Award will receive notes back from friends telling them that a particular poem isn't right for the readers of a particular journal.

I'd like to tell you that, as the rejections have piled up, my emotions have been galvanized like steel beams, that I'm no longer affected by the opinions of others, that I trust in the quality of my own work, the potential for my own genius, the certitude of my own peculiar poetic vision. Of course, like so many of those rejection notes we're all bound to see, that would be a lie.

More, I don't think you've come here for unctuous platitudes or Hallmark-inspired missives from some imagined front. You've come here, I hope, for the smallest sampling of truth.

And the truth is, sometimes, I still ask my wife to coddle me when a rejection slip arrives. Sometimes, my ambitions falter, and I let myself spiral into unwarranted negativity. The truth is we all suffer sometimes. Sometimes we are the roots of our own suffering. The world may well be an illusion.

Still, sometimes, I let myself suffer. Sometimes, I know that these infinitesimally small wounds are part of the life I've freely chosen.

Sometimes, it's good to remember that, yes, I still care and that someday is still out there, waiting for me to arrive.

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