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The Rejection Slip
If the subscription list of this magazine approximated the yearly inflow of manuscripts – the editors would hire a long string of assistants, have cut flowers replenished daily on their desks, and be less harassed generally. Even then, however, the impossibility of answering personally each letter that reaches the office would be equally manifest. What is one to do about such a condition?
Those sentences were not written by any living editor of this magazine, nor ever blogged, but were written by Alice Corbin Henderson and published in Poetry – in July 1916. You can read the whole piece here. I’ve been looking over the shoulders of my colleagues at Harriet this month, and have just read Ada Limón’s post, “Response Burger: A Story of Rejection.” It’s an important subject, needless to say – heck, there’s even a whole blog devoted to it: Literary Rejections on Display. And so it’s heartening to see Ada’s salutary response to her having received those mortifying rejection slips: “I really believe that all those rejections made me better.” Understandably, not everyone feels that way.
For those who haven’t “made friends” with their rejections as Ada has done, it’s worth noting that Henderson’s piece is not a complaint. Like all of Poetry‘s editors from Harriet Monroe on, Alice was grateful to those who take the time and trouble to send their work, without which the magazine would not exist. Instead – and as are the present editors and Harriet herself – Alice was a poet too, and certainly understood the experience of rejection as “brutal and dispiriting.” But, she asked, what sort of rejection would not be those things?
What she offered in solace to those whose work was turned away was the assurance that “All the verse that has come into this office up-to date has been read by the editors.” Poetry receives about 100,000 submitted poems each year. Despite that large number and the small number of staff here at the magazine, every submission is read with care and respect. Chris Wiman and I go back and forth about submissions in what has become a continuous, illuminating, and humbling conversation. When we find work to accept, we feel real pleasure, knowing what publication means for a poet; when we turn things away, we both know how it feels… from personal experience.
Henderson put it memorably all those years ago: “The poet knows that he is a genius; and the editor still hopes to discover that he is in each manuscript examined. The editor has a hundred sorrows for the poet’s one. The poet may swear at the editor, and rather adds to his dignity in doing so; but the editor, in addressing the poet, has to assume the polite demeanor of the dancing master.”
So, let’s dance, shall we? It’s our share of what Ada nicely calls “the necessary work.”