This is a story about my new collection of poetry. I should say up front that I have no idea what the moral of this story is. Something something persistence, maybe. Something something luck of the draw. Definitely something about privilege. Possibly something something Serenity Prayer, because the work of getting our poems before an audience often destroys our ability to tell the difference between what we control and what we cannot.
The first draft of this piece was a goodbye letter, a breakup song. The opening sentence was “Farewell, Seducing the Asparagus Queen.” I was putting the manuscript in a drawer. It was time.
Back up. The manuscript was born in September 2012, when I realized I had too many poems for one collection and split my then-current manuscript in two. One of the new collections retained the title Ha Ha Ha Thump; eventually, after three significant revisions and 29 rejections, that collection found a home with Sundress Publications and was published in 2015.
The other was Seducing the Asparagus Queen.
I sent out that first version of Asparagus Queen four times before revising it. Thus began six years of sending and revising: adding poems, deleting poems, writing new poems, reordering poems. By June 2015, I had so many poems fighting for space in the collection that I once again split it in two—one keeping the Seducing title, the other called Boom Box.
Boom Box went through two versions and 20 rejections before it, too, was picked up by Sundress; it’ll be out in 2019. Meanwhile, I kept plugging along with Seducing the Asparagus Queen as well. Several times, I was on the verge of shoving it in a metaphorical drawer, but then I would receive an encouraging personal rejection or a finalist berth in some contest, and so I would read it again with new hope—and find myself still liking it, and recommence sending it out with fresh resolve and optimism.
Back up again. I’ve retired manuscripts before. The first was a hodgepodge of poems cobbled together from my MFA thesis and titled Comfortable Naked, which I sent out 20 times in a frantic hurry in the first year after finishing my degree. Thank goodness no one said yes to that one. My writing grew so much and evolved so quickly in the few years after I completed the MFA that I would not be proud of that collection were it out in the world as a book.
At the time I decided that the poems in that initial collection were too disconnected, too haphazard to catch an editor’s eye or rise to the top in any contest. Too much mixtape, not enough project, to use the distinction Erika Meitner makes in an essay I’ve read dozens of times over the years. (Honestly, the poems simply weren’t good enough, but I wasn’t ready to face that particular cold truth.) So my next collection was a capital-P Project: a series of poems inspired by blues music and musicians, titled If the Devil Ever Asks. I sent that manuscript out 55 times over a three-year period. A few finalist spots, runner-up in a big contest once—but in the end, the book was not to be. Again, as with the first attempt at a manuscript, I’m glad. The poems themselves this time were not the problem; the poems were at least okay, some even pretty good, but as a collection, it was missing something; it was not a book. No, I didn’t know that at the time. At the time, I was merely hecking depressed about its failure to find a home.
Jump to early 2018, when I wrote the first draft of this essay, waving a white flag over Seducing the Asparagus Queen.
I had sent out this manuscript, in all its variations, 51 times over six years, at no small cost in submissions fees (that’s another entire topic: the barrier these fees present for writers, the privilege I have in being able to pay them, the voices they silence). It hadn’t been declined by every single press in the PoBiz, but it was getting close. It was in Version 7, with each version representing a pretty substantial re-invention (some of the versions had sub-versions that indicated more minor changes: 5.2, 5.3, etc.).
About a fourth of the rejections the manuscript received were “special”: personal notes from editors, finalist or semifinalist nods, and the like. Two different presses closed for good while the collection was in their queue. The other thirty-some were plain old form rejections: thanks for submitting, we received more manuscripts than we can possibly publish, do try us again next year, etc., etc.
Saying goodbye to a collection is not easy. This is what I wrote at the time: I oscillate between thinking I’m letting rejection stop me, which everyone knows writers aren’t supposed to do, and thinking that I need to be humble enough to listen to the feedback the world has given me. At this point, the pendulum has swung far enough toward “listen to the feedback.” I have given this collection a fair chance of finding a home. I have invested enough emotional and actual capital. It’s time to accept my sunk costs and move on.
The poetry-book publishing world remains a strange place. There’s not much money in it, really, and not much social capital beyond our relatively small circle of poets and poetry readers. Whether you have a book is not reflective of your worth as an artist. I know all this. And yet it means so much to me. The idea of having my poems made into a book that I can hold, that maybe someone else will hold and even read? It’s magic, or at least I’ve built it up to that in my mind.
I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels this way. Many book-contest rejections cite the numbers of entries the press received: 600 here, 800 there. One press recently opened on the 1st of a month for submissions and said they’d be open until they hit 800 manuscripts received; by noon on the 4th, they were at 500. There are a lot of us doing this, and that’s a lot of people hearing no. When editors say they receive more good collections than they can publish, they mean it.
That doesn’t making hearing no any easier, of course. Over the years that I have been seriously submitting my writing, I have gotten pretty good at not being depressed over rejections from journals. Averaging about 100 rejections a year will do that; I’m basically the textbook definition of submitting like a mediocre white guy, and I know very well that I am incredibly privileged on multiple levels to be able to submit the way I do. But I’ve never gotten good at dealing with manuscript rejections, even though I’ve received more than 200 of them in the past 10 years. Every single one stings. The file where I track my manuscript submissions holds an embarrassing amount of profanity and whining in the column where I note the rejections. My own pitifulness shames me. Yet I remain pitiful.
The story isn’t done yet. It gets weird at the end. Weird in a good way. Literally the day I wrote the first draft of this essay, with the manuscript pending at three final presses and the rejections due any day, I received an email from a small press accepting Seducing the Asparagus Queen.
I was stunned, happy. It felt like cheating. It felt undeserved, in the way that such good news often does. It didn’t feel quite real. Really? An acceptance on the same day I began drafting the goodbye essay? Sounds made up for the movie version. But there it was.
I told only my wife and a friend or two, waiting to make the announcement to the world until I’d signed a contract. A contract, it turned out, that was not forthcoming. I mentioned to the publisher that I’d like to get it signed and that I didn’t want to withdraw the manuscript from consideration at the other two presses where it remained without a contract. No problem, I was assured. But no contract. Another reminder from me a month later, a quick response to the email, but still no contract. I was starting to get worried, wondering if I might need to revisit that goodbye essay after all.
Two months and a day after the acceptance, still no contract in sight, I heard from the very last place that had the manuscript under consideration: Seducing the Asparagus Queen had won the Vern Rutsala Prize from Cloudbank Books and they would be publishing it late in the summer. They sent me the contract the same day.
I didn’t feel good withdrawing it from the first place that had said yes. I talked to several writers to make sure I was doing the right thing. Everyone assured me that yes, I was well within my rights to accept the prize from Cloudbank. So I did. I still feel a good bit of guilt about that first press, which is a small operation that puts out good-looking books, but I did spend two months asking for a contract, and if I’d received one, I would have instantly withdrawn it from Cloudbank. But I never got one, I didn’t withdraw, and now the book is a physical thing in the world.
When I tell people this story, they often say something about persistence paying off. And yeah, submissions 50 and 51 were the ones to get a yes after hearing no from 1-49. I did the work and eventually got the result I wanted. But I could have decided to shelve the collection one round earlier, which honestly I would have if not for a heartbreakingly kind “almost” rejection I received the previous summer from a press I love. Both Cloudbank and the other press certainly could easily have picked someone else. To me, the fact that they picked my collection feels more like a bit of arbitrary good luck more than a reward for my continued efforts.
When I decided to put this collection in a drawer, I was at peace with that decision. I had given it a fair shot and then some. Not every poem I write needs to be in a book. Now that these particular poems have, in fact, ended up in a book together, I’m pretty glad about that, too. It means something to me. Probably more than it should. When I finally held the physical book in my hands, I knew how close it came to not happening. Here’s something else I know: I was not entitled to this result. There is no deserve to this. I did the work, yes, and I do think the poems are pretty good, but lots of writers do the work; lots of poems are pretty good or better. I got lucky, and I know it.
What, then, is the point of this essay? More ego gratification, boasting about my good fortune? The same kind of self-indulgence you’ll find in the results column of my submissions tracker? Sure, probably that’s all wrapped up in here. But I also think—hope—it’s worth talking about this, even though I don’t have any more concrete answers than I did before. I still can’t say for sure when it’s the right time to retire a manuscript. Was I wrong to send the blues collection out 55 times? Would I have been wrong to retire Asparagus Queen after 48 submissions? I don’t think there’s an obvious answer to either of those questions. I am reminded of the closing lines of W.S. Merwin’s poem “Berryman”: “you can’t // you can’t you can never be sure / you die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good / if you have to be sure don’t write.”
Everyone says hearing no is part of the writing life, and we all talk about the resilience you need, the thick skin required to set aside all the rejection and keep writing, keep working to get your words in front of an audience. But we’re also pretty vague about it most of the time, although recently the #ShareYourRevisions hashtag was all over Poetry Twitter for a few days. A friend posts his rejections on social media every May, sort of an antidote to the enthusiasm of April and National Poetry Month, and his posts seem to make a real impact on the people who read them, or at least those who respond. People seem gratified to know they’re not alone. To know that even successful poets like my friend—multiple books in different genres, with highly respected presses—hear no a lot. A whole lot.
As much as we value community, as much as writing and reading are about connecting with other human beings, as much as we need each other, it’s lonely work, writing. There is no objective answer to when you should put that manuscript in the drawer, no one-size-fits-all advice I can offer here, no number of rejections that stands as proof that a collection isn’t ready. Rejections don’t define who you are as a poet, an artist, a writer; this means the corollary is also true: an acceptance also does not define who you are. Getting a book published matters in many ways both practical and emotional, but it doesn’t mean everything. In the end, I think what I’m trying to do here, which is also why I write poems, and maybe why anyone writes anything, is this: Tell my story in hopes that I’m not alone, in hopes that perhaps it will help someone else feel less alone.
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Amorak Huey’s second full-length collection of poetry, Seducing the Asparagus Queen, won the 2018 Vern Rutsala Book Prize and will be released this month by Cloudbank Books. He also is author of Ha Ha Ha Thump (Sundress, 2015) and the forthcoming Boom Box (Sundress, 2019), as well as two chapbooks. A 2017 National Endowment for the Arts fellow, he is co-author with W. Todd Kaneko of Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury, 2018) and teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.