The Value of Rejection

I’d like to start by thanking Alan Squire Publishing @alansquirepub for their thoughtful rejection of my book. I mean it. I don’t expect every publisher to leap at the chance to publish me, and I have come to expect the cursory form rejection. Alan Squire took the extra step to write a personal rejection letter that, though it didn’t go into great detail, did acknowledge the value of my manuscript and the work that went into it, even if it ultimately wasn’t right for them.

I’m also an editor and and educator, so I get it. We’re all strapped for time and overwhelmed with the number of submissions, so it’s impossible to give everyone personal attention. On the other hand, when something stands out enough to warrant an extra nod, then it makes a difference to the writer to have been noticed.

Was it that extra sentence or two in the brief exchange of emails about rejection that made the difference? Or was it just another in a series of rejections (this is normal folks; I’m not complaining) and the thought of where to submit next that got me thinking about revision? I may never know, but the morning after receiving their message, I sat down with the manuscript and put it through the wringer one more time.

It may also have been the result of working on a few more poems. In our MFA residency, I had done some warm-up excercises with my students: one was Rattle’s ekphrastic challenge. I responded to the image and wrote a poem to submit to the contest. I have no delusions that it will be chosen, but if it were, I’d be happy, and if it’s not, I’ll keep submitting the poem elsewhere. Then another poem came to me on a subject that had been bugging me. This led to a third, and with a little rearranging, I brought a fourth poem from elsewhere in the manuscript to create a new, final section that probably needs two or three more poems, which I’m working on now.

Moving that poem suggested moving others, and soon the balance of the book was thrown off enough that I felt at liberty to shuffle more. I thought the first two sections had too many poems and needed to be broken up more, but this resulted in combining two later sections that weren’t as long. I’ve also brought in a couple of poems I’d set aside but was able to fit in with significant revisions, and even found one poem I’d forgotten all about writing that fit well in this collection.

None of this would have been as possible without the new poems, and those poems wouldn’t have been possible before the current moment. Strictly speaking, I don’t think of those as pandemic poems, but they do respond to the lives we’re all leading.

This isn’t the first time it’s gone through major rearrangements. If I look back at my files the collection has gone through four titles and probably five or six major changes in the three years I’ve been sending it out so far. I printed a copy of the first version to give to my mother and one for myself, knowing full well it would change, but announcing to myself that it was a book and not a bunch of poems on my hard drive.

I’ve sent it to 36 publishers and contests so far, and only a few of those are duplicates. I’ve also sent out several queries without the full manuscript. It’s even been accepted once by a publisher that I turned down once I saw their contract was far from standard. Given that a lot of these submissions are to contests, I fully expect it to take awhile and to double or even triple the number of submissions before I find the right place. Poets: that shouldn’t be depressing, it is just reality for many of us.

With each revision, the manuscript gets a little better — or at least that is the hope. Sometimes the revisions have been to meet a contest’s page requirements, but often they are insights gained through rejection as I think about what could make the collection stronger or grab a reader’s attention sooner. I’ve taken poems out and put them back in as I ultimately have to justify to myself what the arc of the book needs to be.

I’ve also written other poems that won’t go in this book, and I’m constantly looking forward to my next projects. But a rejection, especially one that takes you seriously, causes you to look back, and with the distance that comes with time, a manuscript keeps evolving. That and the resolution to keep sending it out are the value of rejection.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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