Illegitimi Non Carborundum

I’ve been thinking a lot about rejection lately. The literary kind. Well, other kinds too, really, but right now I’m talking about what happens 97% of the time after I send a bundle of poems off to some journal somewhere: a few days, weeks, months, or (yes) even years later, I get a terse form email or a small, photocopied slip of paper telling me no. It can be a bit deflating to feel that it took an editor six months to stick together two consecutive letters of the alphabet and then mail them to you in an envelope you addressed to yourself, bearing a stamp that you paid for. It’s like giving the head cheerleader 44 cents to laugh in your face when you ask her to prom.

Granted, there are shades of grey. Some rejections include notes on your work, some include handwritten messages kindly encouraging you to submit something else. And while a rejection received two years after submission is irksome, it’s perhaps preferable to the form rejection received mere days after you drop your work in the mail, because that is a most emphatic “no”—not so much a “no” as a “good God NOOOOOOOO”—and certainly demoralizing.

(Incidentally, The Normal School has the best rejections of all: they send you a sticker that reads “I’VE BEEN REJECTED BY THE NORMAL SCHOOL.”)

Anyway, my most recent flurry of rejections has got me thinking of adopting a new strategy: for each rejection I receive, I’ll send out two submissions and write one poem. The idea, of course, is to ensure that I’ve always got finished work circulating out there, and that I’ve got new material gestating to send out once the current crop either finds its way into print or finally kicks its little legs in the air and dies of exhaustion and shame.

I’m not sure I can keep up with that pace; before long I’ll probably wind up dropping the whole concept like a New Year’s Resolution in mid-January, but for now I’ll give it a whirl. It’s important to keep moving.


Welcome. Please bear with me a moment.

During my junior year in high school, Dr. Dieter was the strictest teacher I had. She taught English, and subtracted an entire letter grade from essays for each misspelling, grammatical error, and style error she found. If you were in a rush, your excellent paper could easily fail if you skimped on the proofreading.

Sick of seeing my A’s turn into C’s because of typos and tense errors, I once slaved over a paper until I was sure it was perfect, proofread it over and over again to ensure that it was absolutely watertight—only to have my A knocked down to a B because I’d used a “not only” without a “but also.”

I think I did use a “but,” which should be acceptable. When I argued that my sentence was technically correct and technically grammatical, she agreed... and refused to change the grade, because she felt the sentence would have been clearer with a “but also.”

None of this is especially relevant here, but it’s now more than two decades later and I still can’t think about Dr. Dieter without fuming over that sheer injustice.

This bit, though, is arguably relevant: I don’t remember what book we were discussing the day Dr. Dieter tried to impress upon the class that words had many facets, so many shades of meaning that could be coaxed out via different subtle contexts—that the right combination of words could be magical, so evocative as to intoxicate the reader. What I do remember is one of the boys (his name was Dante, he was wearing cargo shorts and sprawling in his chair) snorting and saying, in a voice dripping with adolescent derision, “High on poetry?”

And I remember that at the exact same time, I was staring at Dr. Dieter, grinning and dumbstruck by revelation: I wasn’t the only person who thought of words that way.

That was the year I started cutting school to stay home and write terrible sonnets. In college, I cut classes to write slightly less-terrible sonnets, and even some decent poems that won a little money via an annual campus writing prize.

When I entered the work force full-time, my output fell almost to zero, but occasionally I’d call in sick and stay home to peel a poem off the inside of my skull. I started writing more when I quit my day job to be a full-time dad, and began submitting poetry to journals not long after that, spotting the (very) occasional acceptance amid a crushing sea of rejections.

My daughter’s nine now, and I’m back in the 9-to-5. I scribble down words at 2 AM, and save up vacation time to take an occasional week off to write: still mostly poetry, a little short fiction, some unclassifiable stuff, and a novel that really needs to come off the back burner sometime soon because it’s starting to calcify and I’m worried I’ll never scrape it out of the pan.

Not one of these things contains a “not only” without a matching “but also.”

I know, I ramble a lot.

As I said: welcome.