I’ve rarely been so pleased to get mail as I was yesterday when I got home and found my contributors’ copies of Seneca Review 40.2 in my mailbox. The poem of mine that appears in the issue, ‘You Form,’ was first drafted during my very first week in the MFA program at University of Michigan, way back in 2000–and it stands out for me simply because it was the first piece I wrote that felt like it looked back at me when it was finished. Almost everyone who’s read my manuscript has said that it’s my best poem, but it’s had quite a time getting itself out into the world.
At the moment last January when the editors of Seneca Review contacted me to ask if it was still available, I was on the verge of taking it out of my manuscript altogether, because over the years it’s gained me more rejections than any other poem I’ve submitted. I’m not talking about 20, 30, 40 rejections, either–I’m talking about 105. I had started to listen for some kind of telltale grinding noise–a have I been wrong about this thing for the last decade of my life? kind of feeling. I wondered whether a poem about love and sex between women just wouldn’t find editorial support anywhere–I had gotten at least a dozen we really loved this poem, but it didn’t work for the upcoming issue-type notes over the years. Finally, in late 2009 I made the decision that if I gathered 108 rejections on the piece (108 being the most auspicious number of all, so I decided it was a good one) I’d stop sending it out, take it out of the book, give it ten years off.
But then it appeared, at the very top of January last year: “Dear Rae, I am writing to tell you that we loved ‘To Form’ and would very much like it for Seneca Review. Its handling of sex and eros is brilliant.” Love David Weiss.
I bring this up not because of persistence, or because of hope, but because when I first started sending my work out, I didn’t even think to send this particular poem to this particular journal. Yet SR is one of the places I would absolutely most love this particular poem to find a home–it’s one of my favorite journals ever. A more right thing could not have happened for this piece.
My students ask me all the time how to deal with rejection, how to avoid getting slushed on by the slush pile. All I know is that those issues can’t be your focus. The only way to move toward publication is to write like your life depends on it, to read like it’s going out of style, and to not stop doing those things when you (also) start submitting your work. Getting rejected is part of the job. Almost everything that’s been published has also been rejected. It doesn’t mean anything.
Today I get to stand back with the printed issue in my hands and think about the incredible life cycle of this thing. Great day.