How I Am Trying to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love My Poems

I want people to read my poems. Thus, instead of stuffing them in a drawer, burning them, or using them as practice sketch paper, I try to share them with others.

“Others” generally means my wife Melinda and, occasionally, three or four poor souls I trust and therefore pester. Oh, and editors at poetry journals. Or their assistants. Or their interns.

I’ve had a grand total of six poems published in a first-rate poetry journal (singular). And that was back in the late 1990’s. After that, I took a separation from poetry and began submitting again only in January, 2011. Since then, I’ve had roughly 40 rejections, and, to emphasize the point, no takers.

My logical mind tells me that’s ok because no one owes my poems a read, and if I want people to read (or publish) them, I better earn that.
But emotional me has not been quite sure how to interpret my rejections. They leave me wondering whether the kind of poetry I am writing will never be published or if it’s just a matter of time. Or to put it another way: am I making lemonade when the editors want orange juice, or is it just that my lemonade is not quite there yet and once I start making better lemonade the editors will start accepting it?

I know I write pretty good poetry (I ought to, after 26 years at it, albeit with a 10 year break). The problem is there is no shortage of pretty good poetry in the world — its metaphorical ears are oozing with pretty good poetry. And, I have to admit, I am not writing the kind of poems that would blow anyone away.

Which brings me back to my conundrum: is the kind of poem I write (what comes down on me and demands to be finished) the sort of thing top-tier magazine editors will find interesting,

or

am I wasting my time because no matter how good I can make my poems the top-tier editors won’t be interested in the sort of poem I am capable of writing?

And yes, I’ve tried copying poems I’ve seen in print which have struck me as worth copying. Alas, somewhere in the process they turn into Andres Rojas poems, which defeats the purpose of the enterprise, of course. And so, I keep wondering, is there any point in submitting poems I fear (my deepest hopes non-whistanding) are just not what the top journals publish?

I guess the answer is “who knows.” There may come a time when I start writing poems editors may want to publish. Or there won’t. But there are variables to work with: I can change, the editors can change, aliens may kidnap every poet in the world getting published today, thus opening up the field for my stuff. And so on.

After dwelling on this problem at least since April or May of 2011, it has dawned on me that I don’t write poems to get them published. That is, once a poem is written, I’d love nothing more than for it to be published. But when they drop down on me from wherever they drop down on me from, publishing has nothing to do with it.

I write poems because they show up, because that’s how I process the world, because it gives me pleasure to do it, because I love the work of distilling experience into a poem, because from a young age putting words down on paper has been important to me. And the results deserve my respect even if the end product isn’t all that. What I end up with is mine: my thoughts, my words, my creation, my dialogue with myself and the world.

Yes, it would be awesome if editors published my poems and readers found their time was well spent on them. Yes, I greatly desire the largest audience possible for them. Yes, I wish the world would validate what I write and give it its seal of approval. Yes. Oh God, yes.

But lately I’ve had this inchoate sense publishing is not why I spend so much time writing. What I do with my poems after I write them is one thing. Why I set out to write them is another. And for a while there, I’ve let my lack of success in publishing overwhelm the real reasons why I started to write again after a long hiatus: it’s what I do and what I love to do, it’s one of the most important ways in which I choose to process my experience, it’s one of my greatest pleasures.

Right now I am in the middle of a fight not to let my lack of publication ruin the wonder writing poetry brings me. At the risk of being redundant, it’s one of the ways in which I want to spend what time I have left, and there’s something terribly valuable about that.

I can’t deny that publishing is important to me. But I’ve come to realize (or finally express coherently) writing is equally important. In fact, it is more so. And I have decided I must not let anything belittle that, no matter how much I long for my poems to be read once they are written. That they are written is the real thing.

I think I finally know the path. Now it’s just a matter of walking it.

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11 Comments

    1. hey, from now on, instead of “poet” let’s say “Rodney Dangerfield,” as in,
      “oh, she’s a great Rodney Dangerfield,” or “man, why are Rodney Dangerfields so depressing” =)

  1. I started reading your blog when your reviewed Raintown. It’s the only one I have on an email link. I love the two older poems you have posted but where can we see what you’re working on now – all these poems that aren’t what the top journals want? I read some “top journals” every now and then but I seldom find things I really enjoy. I find those rare poems online, on John Hayes’ blog, for instance, and when I come across one I look for a book, or more of that poet’s work online if there’s no book available. Post more poems. Please.
    PS – I’m also enjoying your thoughts on writing poetry, including this essay on not publishing it.

    1. Mairi, again thanks for dropping by, and thank you for the kind words. I am in the middle of trying to decide whether a few poems are “finished” enough and I may share them on here

  2. It’s all about the work. Publishing here, publishing in a “first rate literary magazine”, receiving public recognition – that is all secondary. Write them as them come to you, put them some place where people can read them, and move on to the next poem.

    “You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.

    Perform your duty equipoised, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure.”

    Bhagavad Gita – chapter 2

    1. well, this is a very pleasant blast from the past =)

      thanks for taking the time to drop by. hope you’re still making music

      and yeah, ultimately the work’s the thing

  3. You wrote:

    “Others” generally means my wife Melinda and, occasionally, three or four poor souls I trust and therefore pester.

    Thank you for that. You so describe my life!

    To misquote Donal Ryan: I haven’t “failed” to be published, because I’ve never tried…

    P.S. Does your Wife like what you write?
    Sadly, mine is not excited by poetry.
    Donal Ryan’s, liked his shite… 🙂

    Bernard
    By the Burn

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