Response Burger: A Story of Rejection
When I first moved to New York to go to NYU graduate school, I wrote a lot about laundry lines and sadness. I was a typical graduate student. Poor. Hungover. And staring out the window a lot, saucer-eyed and scared. I wanted to make great poems and I wanted to make my rent. I wanted to fall in love, and also (sometimes seemingly more than any of those things), I wanted to have a poem accepted into a journal. Any journal would do. But some sort of recognition, any sign, that my poems were working, moving in the world, was essential. Otherwise, how was I to know that I was a poet? I read all the journals I could, mostly in the magazine section of bookstores that didn't mind if you stood there for hours and never bought anything. And, yeah, I thought my poems were good enough, but I wasn't going to know that for sure until I saw my name printed in italics on the top of one of those off-white pages.
T, my best friend that I lived with, also wanted to be published. We were both from the west coast, new to New York, pronouncing all the streets wrong, wearing all the wrong clothes (I had a tiny backpack), and the dream that someday we would be real artists was what we lived on (along with free bags of chips from the bartender). I would meet her at our local, the Turkey's Nest, after work and we'd drink very cheap beer in large Styrofoam cups and watch baseball (our TV didn't get any reception). We'd walk home in the wee hours talking about poems and plays. Then, we'd open the mailbox. The mailbox that was stuffed with rejection letters: The rejection box.
We'd stumble upstairs and I'd open them and be blue for a second and then fall asleep. In the morning, having forgotten about the rejections, I'd look at the kitchen table and be rejected all over again. We called this, as it was a common occurrence, The Double Rejection. Once at night, then again in the morning.
But in the morning, I'd look for any sign that the poems were read. Any handwritten note. Once the editors of Hanging Loose said, "Your toes are in farther than you think…keep it up." (In response to a puerile cover letter that said I was just beginning to dip my toe into the world of submitting poems.) One said, "We did like these!" Exclamation point and all. I remember thinking, "No you didn't!" Once, I got an empty envelope. I took it to mean I was rejected. One was particularly encouraging. I had sent in a poem called, "Response," that was inspired by a William Carlos Williams quote. The editors liked that one and wrote, "We really enjoyed ‘Response,’ but can't take it now as our next issue will be dedicated to poems about food." I read that to T. She said, "Send it back, just call it, ‘Response Burger.’"
Needless to say, I did not. Though I did submit again, and was finally accepted. And, I really believe that all those rejections made me better. Some poems would come back and when I read them again I would think, "I'm so glad no one published that. I'd be mortified." I made a file, and then a drawer, and then another drawer, then a box in my closet. A real rejection box. I made friends with my rejection letters. I made friends with the journals and reviews that took the time to make small notes here and there. I thought of it as the necessary work.
Above both of our desks in Brooklyn we had the Samuel Beckett quote, "Try gain. Fail again. Fail better." So, I would fail better. I'd send in better failed poems and get better rejections in the rejection box. Rejection made me, not only a better writer, a better proofreader, and a better reader (of the journals, of the poems that were being accepted, of my own work), I also think it made me a better person.
Things didn't come easy. Acceptance didn't come easy. It still doesn't. I have to remind myself all the time that I am allowed to fail, and that failing is just as important as succeeding. It's a lesson that you can't learn alone. You need that rejection box somewhere in the closet of your mind. At least, I needed it. I would say, "None of these will bring disaster," in my best, imagined Elizabeth Bishop impression, and then go to work trying to write a better poem.
And better poems came. And some worse ones too. And then acceptances. But sometimes I still wish I had sent in “Response Burger” to the editors that were making a food issue. Only if to say that I had, to have done something to rally against all the rejection. But I did do something. I wrote. I still do. Still trying to make better poems. Still trying to let the taste of failure not be bitter, but rather something that sustains me, something I can sink my teeth into, some food that keeps me going.
Ada Limón is the author of Lucky Wreck (2006), This Big Fake World (2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and Bright Dead Things (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award. She earned an MFA from New York University, and is the recipient of...