Rejections Update or: The Speadsheet That Ate My Life

Where I’m at:

  • Rejections: 22
  • Acceptances: 0
  • Total submissions: 48
  • That breaks out to 23 poems being read by editors (or undergrads in charge of slush piles) a total of 207 times.
  • Total submissions last year at this time: 0

Meanwhile I am still doing a one-week-per-month “poetry cleanse,” and that’s the main way I’m generating new work and working through revisions.

Reader, may I be perfectly frank about this experience?

It’s fucking exhausting.

Some organizational issues that have come up:

  • It’s getting harder to keep track of versions. There have been a couple poems I sent out where I find I’m relieved when it gets rejected, because I’ve since revised it. I suppose this is a known hazard of Poet Life.
  • The spreadsheet has become a bit unwieldy. In the process of putting together packets that are appropriate to each journal, I’ve gradually lost my neat “Group A / Group B / Group C” logic. At this point I’m just keeping one poem at no more than 10 places, though, in looking at Duotrope’s data on acceptance rates, I am highly unlikely to have to pull a poem. Here’s a bird’s eye view of the spreadsheet now:
“Hope: A Conceptual Artwork”

But you know, I can deal with all that. The real issue is that I feel I’ve lost any sense of joy in this process. I feel beaten down. I’ve often approached burn-out in my day job, but to come up against it in my writing practice is a fun new experience.

I was watching a documentary on the making of Sense8, and the cast and crew were talking about the way the Wachowskis work:

“It’s really incredible to watch how they work. When they show up on a set, they use everything.”

“They are constantly open to inspiration, and taking inspiration from wherever in the atmosphere, the soil, the people, whatever that’s there at the moment, and take what they have on the page… as a blueprint. They allow it to come to life and be alive in that moment.”

“They enjoy putting things together; they enjoy trying things. We, often times, we’ll cut things one way, it’ll work, but let’s try this way. Let’s try something like this. Let’s try it like that.”

“Let’s just try things, because that’s what we do.”

“We try things. Yeah. Let’s try this.”

As I listened to this (and rewound it like three times) I thought, yes, this is what the work looks like. And what I’m doing now feels like the exact opposite of this. And I realized that I don’t need to keep up with some arbitrary goal. And I felt a weight lift off of me, a weight I didn’t even acknowledge I was carrying.

What is creativity? It’s labor, for sure, sometimes difficult labor. But it leaves you with more satisfaction and ambition, not less. In the past months, I’ve really lost that lightness in the midst of my dark, stressed “submit all the time” mood. “Let’s just try things” implies a sense of deep confidence in your process. It says that possibility is as important as the numbers. That progress is not always linear or planned.

Being rejected repeatedly is also a kind of labor. It’s good to approach it as a game, for sure. But it’s also demoralizing, and I have to acknowledge that.

Am I just not cut out for this?

I could do with less torture, and more trust.

Film editors discussing Wachowski sisters’ process


Text: The Art of the Deal; Erasure: Me

Friends, 2017 is here. Is it ever. And each day brings some new offense against democracy, good sense, and human kindness. The kleptocrats insist they will make everyone rich; the body police say they will free us from government intrusion; the grandchildren of immigrants are deporting other immigrants; and the biggest fake of all keeps calling real journalism “fake news.” And as if that weren’t enough, there is growing evidence that our executive branch has been compromised by a foreign dictatorship. We’re living in The Upside Down, complete with Cold War flashbacks. Maybe a few of us will find out we are super-powered like Eleven, but in the meantime, we have to get on our bikes and fight the monsters with little more than unearned confidence, friendship, and breakfast foods.

Eleven, with the Waffles Of Victory.

I will admit that I got to the point of exhaustion way too quickly. Having a day job and a job-for-love is already a juggling act; now I’m also integrating my responsibilities as a citizen. One way is to put my money where my mouth is, by supporting institutions like The Washington Post and the ACLU. Another way is to raise my voice. Although I’m sure my regular letters to my weaselly Republican senator go ignored, it does help me to be a high-information voter, aware of legislation as it unfolds. It also feels urgent to put this historical moment into words, and I’m honored that my work has found a home in Thank You For Swallowing and Cleaver’s Life As Activism series.

My recent writing has become much more “political.” But something I think we often forget is that every poem – every piece of artmaking – is a political act. We live in a culture that does not value art except as a commercial endeavor, but creativity has a profound value outside the marketplace, in the lived experience of Americans. Poetry says “what I do matters” and “how I feel matters” and it says “I am paying attention to the world.” Through poetry we have the power to see each other, to practice empathy, to recognize injustice and call it out. The poet and the reader of poetry is not a consumer; she is a citizen; this is our honored role going back to Whitman and Dickinson both.

Many days, I wake up saturated with a feeling of vague horror. But what I try to ask myself is: “how do you want the next four years to look for you?” As writers, we are called to record this moment in time; if all you are doing is writing it down in a journal, you are part of the resistance. Among my writing goals for 2017: be a witness; read more poetry, even just one poem a day; continue with monthly poetry accountability exercise; and collect 100 rejections in 2017.

In solidarity,


50,000 people at the Women’s March in Philadelphia



Resistance flair. Because jewelry is never not relevant.


Poetry accountability project #3



You know what’s a clever thing to do when you’re working a lot of 12-hour days? Start a poetry accountability project with some friends.

Really. It’s SUCH a good idea.

But my usual Instigator Friend said let’s do it. So here I am on the other side of a very sleep-deprived week, and I have seven new drafts.

See, I have a real problem. My problem is, I often wait to write new stuff until the mood strikes me. You know the mood I mean – the “let’s write something!” mood.

Let me tell you about the mood. The mood is very nice to have, in those golden moments when it presents itself.

The mood is also:

  • surprisingly rare
  • misleading
  • easily crushed by anxiety and depression
  • fickle
  • unreliable
  • and generally an asshole.

Seriously, fuck the mood.

In my experience, writing sometimes happens when you wait for it to happen.

But when you plan for it to happen, it happens a whole lot more. Sometimes what you produce sucks and sometimes it’s a workable draft, but you need both of these to happen in order to build the body of work.

I’ve done two poetry “grinds” previously (see here and here). (And here’s another great post about the practice.) This time my Instigator Friend called it a ‘”cleanse” and suggested we do it for a comparatively brief seven days.

A week really seems perfect – it’s long enough to produce both some junk and some good stuff, without too much pressure. But it’s not so long that the sleep deprivation will actually kill you. In fact we liked the outcome so much that we are planning to do it once a month. So in theory every month would look like this: one week for generating new work; the other three weeks for revising and submitting.

This time around, I came into it with a lot more intention. During the day I would focus on something and think “I want to write a poem about that.” (These were not grand topics of import to the humanist project. These were like “I’m going to write about that bird outside my office” or “I’m going to write about my neighbor’s dog.”) Then at about 9pm, when I should have been going to bed, I’d open a Word doc and start the poem. Let me tell you, the first things I write are always crap. I mean, always.

Here – for your amusement – are some opening lines:

I don’t LIKE pantoums, that’s all

I’ve never ever had one work at all

eve, eva, ever, either

is she  never never neither

eva, evita, evelyn, evie,

write something sexy

about a man and a woman

who aren’t supposed to be together


And then: I kept going. I wrote something. Something at least passable. Because I had to. Because I said I would.


Major recurring topic: [birds]


To MFA or not to MFA…

… that is the question. And I’m not the first to ask it, obviously. There’s a near-continual debate, in writing circles, about the MFA – is it good for poetry? is it bad for poetry? – who cares! can we even afford it? What happens to a person of color in an MFA program? I’m strangely relieved that the debate is still a lively one. And I don’t see it dying down anytime soon.

I had a friend who was in school for her MA/PhD, and she had a classmate who had already completed an MFA from Iowa, and was getting an MA in art history at a prestigious liberal arts college. I was like, dude, you’re telling me he goes from highly regarded program to highly regarded program, just collecting degrees that interest him? Yep, he was. He was – and I feel like you can see this coming – from a well-off family. I wished, fervently, that I was him. Well, not a dude – but intellectually curious, gifted, and rich. You get the idea. A life of studying things I love? Sign me the fuck up!

So if I were independently wealthy, I’d get an MFA. If I wanted to teach, I’d certainly do it. And I think it would be awesome. But so would all of life be kind of awesome if I didn’t have a day job, worries about retirement, and all the various constraints on my limited life energy that most of us have.

I used to spend a lot of time thinking about how much I wanted more freedom. But in day-dreaming, I kind of shortchanged the freedoms I do have. I can’t throw all my structures away and go live in a yurt. But I can make choices, find out they’re right for me, or all wrong for me, abandon one path for another, abandon one path for no path, start over, double down, doubt everything I’ve ever written, send it out anyway. And maybe it’s the cynicism of encroaching middle age, but I spend a lot less time fixated on the pie in the sky these days. I suspect that a certain amount of pragmatism is a necessary step to actually getting what I want.

So here’s my life: I have a non-literary day job, and I squish poetry in wherever it will fit. Poetry, for its part, is remarkably agreeable about this. It understands my need to do sometimes a little, occasionally a lot, go down plenty of blind alleys, and on some days ignore it completely (mystery leak in kitchen, evening spent crying, important episodes of Gilmore Girls to watch, etc.)

It’s true that I often feel like less of a Serious Poet because I don’t have an MFA. I’m continually impressed by people who pursue them, whether full-time or on top of a job, or with small children at home, because they want to teach or because they just feel like it’s the right thing. We’re a tribe. I want success for every writer. I support every writer doing what she most wants to do. But I also accept that some things are not me, or not me at this moment.

At this moment, I think my writing benefits more from small, persistent actions than from grand, sweeping commitments.

And poetry holds, generously and gently, the imperfect life. The life of compromises. The life of the worried, the hopeful, the confused. I’d even go so far as to say poetry welcomes it.

Poetry Grind #2 Update

(Read about Poetry Grind #1 here.)

Poetry Grind #2 is in progress, instigated once again by the amazing K.T. Landon! This time we have 9 members; some of us are the same as last time and some are different.

It’s… different. I’m having a harder time generating new stuff. I think that’s just… life, honestly. A lot more static interfering with the signal.

On the other side of that, I’ve been using the grind as motivation to go back to older stuff that needs revising. Like, neeeeeeeds revising. Or needs to be summarily DELETED.

Do you ever just delete old work? I was always like “Save All The Things!” But in the process of moving house, I  ended up donating and throwing away bags and bags of stuff. It was easier than I thought it would be. And it was a shock to the system that I’m still recovering from, but that I needed. So now I’m doing the same thing with old drafts that never went anywhere. If there are one or two good lines in a draft, I copy/paste them into an “inspiration” document, then delete the rest.

I think the reason this works for me is that when I re-read things I don’t like, I have a really strong emotional reaction to it. I can’t stand the self-indulgence and pretentiousness. It makes me depressed and irritated. And since I’ve been keeping a journal for [redacted] years, it’s not like I don’t have those same thoughts written down somewhere else.

So I’m kind of feeling less precious about every single piece of writing.




The Writing Process Blog Tour

Thanks to K.T. Landon for tagging me in the Writing Process Blog Tour! Here we go.


What are you working on?  

1. The first draft of this post. It was lengthy and pretentious, so I deleted it.

2. a. Unpacking.

2. b. My current journal is an all-white Moleskine, to inspire me to be a minimalist. (So far I’m not inspired to declutter, but I’m very inspired to complain about decluttering.)

2. c. Praying to Hermes, god of communication, that Verizon fixes my internet before Poetry Grind #2 starts on Monday.

3. I was in a boring day-long meeting, so I wrote a poem about spiders and whether or not to kill them.


How does your work differ from others of its genre?  

I don’t really want to answer this question. Does anyone really want to answer this question? Don’t we all think we’re in a category all our own?

My thing is, I loved studying the arts in college, but my experience of the academy was that it was a lot easier to take something apart than it was to put it together, and that the two practices – both worthy – required utterly different mindsets. So I try not to let “comparison sickness” creep into my thinking about writing. If I read a lot of Milosz, I start to sound like Milosz. But eventually I just write like me again. I’m inescapable. And the only way I can define myself better is to keep evolving.


Why do you write what you do?  

I have such nifty, clever ideas about what to write poems about… and instead I write about what I keep stumbling over.

I keep stumbling over approximately 40 boxes of packed books, so I’m thinking a lot about their relation to life as a writer. The carefully packed boxes from ten years ago, labeled with their exact locations on the shelves – “upper right,” “lower left,” “poetry.” (It’s kind of cute how organized I was.) The new boxes I packed more haphazardly – the books signed by my dad; the book with an ancestor’s inscription and a crumbling spine; that weird little book about wabi-sabi that I keep re-reading the first half of.  

I was a better packer in my 30s, but a worse writer. I wanted everything to be finished, to be polished off. I’d labor over one poem crankily, obsessively – open with a good idea but manage to strip away every spontaneous thought, every strange locution, until it became a hollowed-out version of what a poem should be: all the parts, no heart.

And I think about how I could easily fill up my bookcases with the books I already have. But how I need my bookshelves to not be full. They can’t just be proof of where I’ve been. The poet can’t ever think she is finished. She has to keep some open space. I try not to become too rigid, too aligned, and too full of my own history and my own certainties.

I didn’t answer the question… I think the point is, I’ll probably throw away the poem about the spiders and find it was just a way for me to get to my real topic.


How does your writing process work?

I keep a journal, full of unrestrained self-pity. I cherish it as proof that I got through each day. And sometimes it also functions as a first draft.

Sometimes I decide I’ll write one poem each night, which is a great way to be productive, but not as good as…

…I’ve done one month-long poetry grind, which is an incredible way to be productive.

I used to think I could only compose on paper, but the grind taught me that I can also write first drafts on a laptop, and that I can let go of things, and be looser. You never know when you’ll get to the good stuff, so the key is to just keep writing.

I like it when other people participate in the same project because it alleviates my existential suffering.


So that’s all there is to say about me… My nominees for The Writing Creative Process Blog Tour:

Sarah Hand is a paper mache & mixed media artist and teacher. Exploring and spreading wonder and making stuff keeps her going. She lives with her husband and unruly cats in Richmond, Virginia.

Julia L. Mayer has been a Philadelphia area psychologist, specializing in women’s identity and relationship issues for over twenty years. She’s worked with numerous young women struggling with bad boyfriend issues.