Saving the Most-Rejected Poems

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A couple of times a year, I search my submission spreadsheets for poems with the dubious distinction of having collected the most rejections so far. If these poems are not currently under consideration for publication, they go into a special category: Most Rejected Poems.Then I print them out and spread them on the floor of my office. One by one, I read them slowly and carefully, trying very hard not to judge them. I imagine the editors I’ve sent these poems to reading through piles of unsolicited work, looking for that intangible thing – a mood, metaphor, imagery, or narrative – that sets a poem apart. I read the poems again, those rejected babies of mine, searching for those very qualities. What are they missing? Does the poem need a tune-up? Or a rest from constant submitting?

About half the time, the poem needs a little work. I often consult Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, eds. Scott Wiggerman & David Meischen. I’ve saved many a poem with, for example, a better title (Susan Terris’s chapter “Twenty Ideas for Titles to Pique the Curiosity of Poetry Editors” is a favorite of mine) or by re-writing the poem in an unusual form, as in Ravi Shankar’s chapter “A Manipulated Fourteen-Line Poem.” Other books that help include Diane Lockward’s The Crafty Poet and The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.

Sometimes, though, a poem just needs time. You, the poet, might be too close to it to see its flaws. This is what happened with a poem I wrote in 2009, originally titled “Wave Bowl.”

Wave Bowl

Before the water
went away
I made
a bowl like an ocean
wave
fluted the edges
made rests for fingers
pressed sea bubbles into
clay
every day the sea
recedes a little
my bowl sits in a room
and catches words
not rain
not anymore

This poem was rejected over and over. I left it alone for a while, and then in 2016, seven years after I’d first written it, I revised it into the following poem:

Bowl

It’s the emptiness
that seems sad.
All the rolling
and wet hands,
the clay that
lurched from
side to side
then the glaze
the unbearable heat
and it never
once cracked.
Now it’s
like a house
where earthquakes
knock old dust
from shelves
and grass grows
in the kitchen.
Put something
in there: hot soup
or a couple of apples.
There’s just enough
room for a cat
to curl, tail and all.
My hand keeps
reaching to pet
the invisible fur.

The new version was accepted the first time I sent it out. It appeared in the April 2016 issue of The Lake.

Never give up on your most-rejected poems. Make dates to give them some extra attention. You might be surprised!

7 thoughts on “Saving the Most-Rejected Poems

  1. What a wonderful Post ! Life hurries us along and we forget to look back to see what was and give it that new spin that only time can make.
    Thank you
    Judith Shernock

  2. Nice work, and a fantastic reflection on the process of getting far enough away. I’m doing it too, right now. What were we thinking once? Even the poem doesn’t always remember, but something lingers, and that something can have new life. Xo

  3. Thanks for the ideas! Lovely new poem, quite a long ways from where it started, but clearly drawing from those thoughts. Sometimes I will pillage half a failed haiku for a new one, creating something stronger from the bones.

  4. I like this story!
    I see rejection as another chance to hone a poem that’s not yet quite there. Sometimes the last draft doesn’t have a single line in common with the first – but deep down it’s still the same poem. This is true of a poem that went through 8 major re-writes and 5 different titles. Eventually it was accepted, and I even got to read it at Keats’ House in London!

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