Saturday, February 7, 2015

Smile, Though Your Heart Is Breaking ...

            I’m known for my smile.
            More specifically, I’m known for my smileys—the smiley faces that I included on select poetry rejection slips during my many years sharing the helm of the literary journal Mid-American Review.
            A rejection slip from me would always address the submitter by first name, and it would always include a “thank you.” Poems I liked would also receive a smiley face—hand-drawn in my early years of editing, an emoticon more recently.
            The smileys were remarked upon rather frequently. A few people took offense, as if the smileys were mocking them at a moment of painful rejection. Most people seemed to like them, though—it’s most typical, after all, for a smile to elicit one in return.

           My smileys were sincere, always, although I handed out a lot of them over the years. They reflected my personal philosophy of submitting—that each submission is a boon to the journal that receives it, and that each rejection represents forward progress in the life of a poet. A rejection doesn’t feel as good as an acceptance does, but it is not a thing to be mourned. I always felt as though each submission were a leg of a journey, and each response a milepost along the way.
Here’s a case in point. My mentor, George Looney, papered his bathroom with rejection slips in his younger years—and he had plenty left over when he was done. He must have been doing something right; Lost Horse Press will be publishing his eighth book of poetry, Meditations Before the Windows Fail, in the fall of 2015.
I used to love paper submissions. I would sit on my beloved Persian carpet and open each envelope in turn. As I wrote responses, piles would grow—a pile of “maybe” poems to devote more time to later, a pile of submission material to recycle, a pile of envelopes to return to writers whose work I didn’t choose. Inside those envelopes were preprinted rejection slips, and I always wrote a personal “thank you,” and for the work that compelled me, I also included a more detailed note (and a smile).
One thing I shied away from was offering advice to writers. A submission is not something to be workshopped, after all—the writer considers it finished work, and when it reaches an editor, a simple (but polite) “yes” or “no” is what is called for. I would offer counsel in some instances, though, like when work was very close but some small and specific element kept me from accepting it. Sometimes I would offer a provisional acceptance—“Cut the last stanza and I’ll be happy to print the poem,” for instance. And obviously, once work is accepted, conversations about small edits are perfectly appropriate.
I truly hate to receive unsolicited advice from an editor. It suggests that his or her singular opinion is the final ruling on a poem. But I’m going to send any rejected poem along to another editor, and maybe it will find favor. That is often what happens. Sometimes a poem never finds favor because—wakeup call—it’s not very good. Multiple rejections are a clue that a poem is not effective, but I’m sometimes willing to believe that a dozen or more editors can, in fact, be wrong. I’m an editor, and I’m frequently wrong, so doesn’t it stand to reason that this can happen when my own work is on the table?
Electronic submissions are certainly convenient. I would never send a paper submission to a journal these days; the idea of licking an envelope and applying a stamp seems so quaint, and I don’t picture a Persian carpet on the other end. (Paper submissions to journals that allow electronic submissions are, frankly, a pain in the tuchas to deal with.)
By abandoning paper, we gain convenience and we save valuable resources. However, what we lose with electronic submissions are those lavish bathroom displays, and a chance for a lopsided, hand-drawn grin. The smiley says a fellow traveler has received you. I always meant it to say, “Don’t give up.” I meant, “Take pleasure in the journey.”


  1. Hi Karen!

    I just wanted to pop in and tell you I still have all five rejection letters you sent me back in 2004-2006. They're packed up in storage now since I've downsized twice since then, but I know which box they're in. It's labeled, "Non-Acceptance Letters." ;) ~chuckle~

    And yes, I always enjoyed your smileys. :)

    Cristine ~