Monday, January 18, 2016

Learning to trust the inner navigator in poetry

Every now and then, it’s a good idea to take a little break from submitting work.

Mind you, this is a writerly suggestion and not career advice; clearly, some people have tenure and promotion considerations to think about. It’s one area where I, as an adjunct college instructor, have a clear advantage: My writing is my own, and I answer only to myself as far as content and placement are concerned.

Recently I wrote a series of poems that mean a lot to me. I am very moved by economic themes, and the poems are about money. They talk about debt and dearth and justice issues related to them; they give a human view of both surfeit and want and suffering and scale. Some of them are funny. None of them contains even a shred of practical advice, except maybe where the spirit is concerned.

To be honest, I think the poems are pretty good, but magazines aren’t snapping them up. They get quite a bit less traction than my usual work. The rejections are forms. I’m not getting any “send again” postscripts.

So what is the message here? I believe in the work, but it’s all boomeranging back my way pretty quickly. Am I wrong about it, or have dozens of editors lost their minds?

As writers, we have to trust that inner compass that tells us we’re wending our way down the proper overgrown path. We’d be fools not to watch for signs in that wilderness, though. My message from editors is sort of like a “Wrong Way” placard nailed to a tree. The problem is, those people who throw up the signs have no way of knowing my intended destination, so if I make a course change based on those indicators, I may never find where the path was leading me.

The answer, for me, is to take a break and listen to my own voice, rather than the opinions of strangers. I may have made any number of unconscious submitting mistakes; my work may have reached editors in a glut of other submissions, or I may have put together the wrong groupings. Maybe I should include a few of the economics poems along with some regular work, because that much money talk was overwhelming. I might need more formal variety, or, let’s face it, some people may not want to read about that stuff. I’m a little surprised to be writing it, truth be told.

The work, though, continues to come, and I’m choosing to focus on it, while saving my submitting efforts for another day. A steady stream of rejections has the potential to shake my confidence in my current work.

When it comes to poetry, I go where I am told—but not by editors. I answer to a higher power.


  1. Great post! With sequences, I think the whole is often more than the sum of its parts. It can be hard to publish them in journals because they seem odd out of their context, but later, I think it's easier to have them accepted as chapbooks of full-length books. Just my experience as a poet and publisher.

    By the way, my newest book is a sequence of poems that may or not be about your home town. It's called The State That Springfield Is In.

    1. I was wondering if that might be true about these projects. Good to hear your perspective! And I just saw that you had this new book, which I MUST OWN. Love the cover! :)

  2. I meant "chapbooks OR full-length books." Ugh. Typos.

    Thanks for the compliment on the cover (which is really a compliment for Scott Bugher, the designer). I love it too. I also love the title page inside the book, which depicts a Duff Beer can with the he book's title on it.

    1. You had me, though, at "Springfield." My Springfield is weird and extremely poem-worthy.