Poets know failure

Another month, another list of failures. Such is the life of a poet.

image Wikimedia CommonsRejections from literary publications, misses in contest submissions, “no room at the inn” messages from retreats.
A poet sure doesn’t write for any kind of commercial success or broad readership. To do so would be beyond crazy – we all know that readership for poetry is pretty much limited to fellow poets, a handful of literary enthusiasts, and a grab bag of friends and family.

 Even so, it would be nice if the success rate for publication, grants, awards and other recognition were not so punishing.
Cases in point: in the past month, I received the usual collection of “thank you for submitting your work but…” notices from publications across North America. To that I added a “we receive more applications than we can accommodate” turn-down from a writing retreat where I have previously booked writing time. And then, in an essay competition run by a writers organization that I helped to start decades ago, a curt announcement on their web site “It has been decided by the jury not to present an award in this category for this year.”
All writers recognize that the selection of writing for publication and awards is highly subjective and difficult. Juries (typically a combination of fellow writers and academics) have their personal tastes and preferences. So any writer who has been at this for a while has the oft-mentioned ‘thick skin.’
Yet some rejections kick harder and deeper. The essay competition that decided “not to present an award this year” apparently felt none of the entries even warranted a short list – the life blood for writers.
Having won this particular prize in the past, and having read entries this year by fellow writers, I think this is just appalling. This is not the Pulitzer Prize (which, of course, had its own non-award controversy this year). For a writers’ organization to be handing out the “please go away” notices to fellow writers is an especially low blow.
try againOf course, pop media love the “this book was rejected 18 gazillion times before becoming a runaway best seller” story. The reality is that some writing forms will never become best sellers – they simply seek out small clusters of discerning readers.
One of the reasons that poetry is not a pop genre is because, unlike other genres, it does not traffic in Hollywood endings or rose coloured glasses. We all spend most of our days wearing very strategically arranged blinkers, like thoroughbreds on a race track, so that we don’t look at the scary and disconcerting scenes all around us. Poems take the blinkers off. It can be uncomfortable.
The solace comes from friends, from fellow writers, and from the work itself. Social media is a great place for writers to vent and console. In the past while, the understanding and supportive words of buddies in the writing racket are all that have kept me from walking away from it all.
Rosemary Sullivan recently wrote an article on creative writing programs noting that their greatest value is in the community of support that they create for writers. The final paragraph of the piece (first published in Descant magazine and reprinted in The Writers Union of Canada magazine Write) is worthy of quoting in its entirety:
“Writing is certainly about talent, the love of language and story, but it is also about stamina, which comes from a shared sense of community. Writing is hard. Will you have the will to continue? When you are in the throes of a writing project, you will find yourself asking: Why do I do this to myself? The answer must be: ‘I love it. It gives meaning to my life. It is my intimate conversation with the world.’



  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the encouragement contained in this post. I abandoned poetry almost before I started, with just a few verses published in obscure Canadian literary journals.

    I recently hired a copy editor and dusted off a book project that saw 18 rejections a decade ago, but it was not long before I retreated once again. The stress was too much. After all, the project led to bankruptcy the last time around. Maybe it’s jinxed!

    Mind you, the plan–if I dare take it up again–is to publish it as an eBook.

    I’m hard enough on myself, without the insults of the publishing industry.

  2. Yes, I meant to mention in the post – blogging and e-publishing are the new options for writers – just ignoring the traditional outlets and going directly to readers. That has been very positive for me in the past couple years.

  3. Anonymous says:

    One wonders if the organization in question simply had too few people on hand to mount a fair review of submissions to be able to arrive at a short list and prize. Perhaps like many organizations with dwindling, aging resources or qualified volunteers, the parties instead took the route of not awarding a prize for the year.

    I often find fitting the old saw (paraphrased) that one shouldn’t immediately suspect malice when disorganization may be the cause. While I love the printed word in my hand; I agree that the e-solution may be the door to a broader and fresh new audience.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Of course, the downside to the new eBook phenomenon is a bit too much freedom, and the inundation of outlets like Amazon with bad, even “spam” books comprised of purloined content.

    It is a hard balance to achieve, writers should be rigorous with their own work, and dispassionate outside editing should be considered a must.

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