Emma Simon asks poets about good rejections, bad rejections, and rejections that leave you hanging on forever
As rejections go, it is hard to imagine a more disheartening letter than that sent by publishers Angus & Roberston, to FC Meyer, of Katoomba, Australia, which read (in its entirety): “No, you may not send us your verses and we will not give you the name of another publisher. We hate no rival publisher sufficiently to ask you to inflict them on him. The specimen poem is simply awful. In fact, we have never seen worse.”
All credit to FC Meyer who didn’t give up at this point, but went on to be published elsewhere. This rejection was sent almost 100 years ago (in 1928), and while such dismissive, curt, or just plain rude responses are by no means the norm, they sadly still seem to occur.
Researching this article, I came across a number of poets who have been on the receiving end of such rejections. One magazine, which is, perhaps not surprisingly, no longer running, started all of its rejection letters with the less-than-encouraging words: “Stop writing”. It then urged submitters to take a break before committing pen to paper again. Another poet was told by an editor that the magazine only accepted competent poems, while another received a reply that said, “I don’t see how these are poems.” Neither wanted to name these publications, but thankfully such egregious examples are relatively few and far between.
More problematic is those magazines and competitions that don’t send any formal rejection at all, but just leave poets dangling, like a literary ghosting. You only learn your poem hasn’t been placed or published when you spot other poets cracking open the emoji champagne on Facebook and Twitter. One poet described this as “the long silent no” where poems and sometimes whole manuscripts disappear into the void, “leaving you just waiting. Forever”.
One magazine, which is, perhaps not surprisingly, no longer running, started all of its rejection letters with the less-than-encouraging words: “Stop writing”
From my (albeit unscientific) research, this seems to be one of the biggest bugbears among poets, particularly with competitions that charge a fee. Most people don’t expect hugely detailed or personalised rejections, explaining why your poem, or pamphlet, failed to make the grade, but a standard email simply letting you know your poems are free to send out elsewhere would be appreciated. As well as being courteous to writers who have paid to enter a competition, I would have thought this also makes good sense for the competition organisers, who often rely on these fees to keep magazines and events afloat.
Cafe Writers, sends prompt and polite rejections to its annual poetry competition; I have been in receipt of a number of them over the years. It also uses this opportunity to lets submitters know their fee helps ensure poets reading at its events get paid for their time. I think there is something positive about knowing you are helping the poetry ecosystem, even if you aren’t a winner this time. And organisations who have your email on file can use it for other marketing opportunities, not least inviting you to enter the following year’s competition when the date rolls round again. I’ve entered quite a a few competitions over the past five or six years and am surprised how few do this.
Of course, it’s important to remember that even prestigious competitions with large prize funds are still often run by a skeleton staff, while the vast majority of poetry magazines and journals have just a single multi-tasking editor holding it all together with love and shoestrings. For us demanding poets sending out just a standard email rejection may not seem particularly time-consuming task, but when you are already largely (or totally) unpaid, keeping track of email addresses and sending out timely responses is still another job on what is probably a never-ending ‘to do’ list. This perhaps explains why a number of publication have gone for a ‘third way’ approach and simply list a date by which all acceptances will be sent. Those who haven’t heard by then can assume their poem is unwanted and are free to sub it out again.
Mark Antony Owen, creator and curator of iamb (iambapoet.com) and After… (afterpoetry.com) explains that this helps him manage the demands on his time. He says: “When it comes to subs those accepted hear from me pretty rapidly. Those who nearly make it are acknowledged, and, sometimes, offered a short at publication later. There’s always a clear closing deadline for submissions and it’s always explained up front that if you don’t hear anything by [X] date it’s a thank you and best of luck next time. I’d love to be more personal but time simply doesn’t permit this.”
Few would argue with this approach, particularly when it is matched with a commitment to a reasonable turn-around time and an honesty about why the publication has taken this approach. However, this model can run into difficulties if magazines fail to stick to these deadlines. Having not heard by the stated date, one poet I spoke to, re-subbed his poem elsewhere, only for it to be later accepted. As he explains this meant getting in touch with the second publication, which had a strict ‘no double subs’ rule to explain the mix up, and worrying they wouldn’t believe him.
The shift towards online submissions may have persuaded more publications adopt a similar approach. Publications like The North used to ask for paper submissions, but like many other magazines have switched to electronic subs in the wake of Covid. This can lead to a significant increase in the number of incoming poems, so adopting submission windows, or a ‘if you’ve not heard by this date’ deadline can be a way of managing this.
I wonder too whether some editors send standard rejections to the ‘nearly’ and ‘almost-rans’, but feel a deadline date removes the need to send a written response to those who repeatedly ignore submission guidelines, send in batches of 50-plus poems and don’t appear to have read a poetry magazine in the last 20 years. It’s also a catch all for any poems that get lost in the ether or admin systems.
But despite these various pressures, many publications do still send out these rejections, or ‘soft-returns’ as the thoughtful editors at Butchers Dog Magazine call them. What’s more, in many cases poets say these ‘returns’, while obviously always a little disappointing, can still offer real encouragement.
So what makes a ‘good’ rejection? A timely response is clearly important. Most of us appreciate that it takes time to sift through and mull over hundreds of poems, and are happy to wait a few months. But it was striking that several poets complained about publications hanging on to poems for a year or more. This does seem to be taking advantage poets’ goodwill, particularly if the publication has also stipulated no simultaneous submissions.
A number of poets said it was some of the larger magazines, such as PN Review that can have slower turnaround times, though presumably they also have a higher subs pile to work through. However, magazines like Prole were praised for the speedy and personalised replies rejections (and acceptances). Another poet also praised Poetry Wales. She pointed out that from a submission of five poems one was quickly rejected. She said; “I liked the fact the editor quickly assessed this wasn’t for him and it freed up the poem for me.”
So what makes a ‘good’ rejection? A timely response is clearly important
Poets also clearly value a personalised response, however brief, which responds to the submitted poems. When asked which magazines and online publications did this well, poets mentioned Butcher’s Dog (for being kind), The Rialto (for its considered and personal response), North Gravy (for being both quick and kind) and Atrium (for being personal and thoughtful). Poetry Birmingham and Magma was also mentioned, while Pennine Platform was described by one poet as offering “the most constructive rejection” ever received.
Another poet added: “All my kindest and most thoughtful and personal rejections have come from Maria Isakova Bennett”, editor and creator of the hand-stitched poetry journal Coast to Coast to Coast. It was notable that Maria replied to this poet online saying pointed out that this aspect of reading and responding “matters enormously” to her as an editor.
Poetry Wales also gets another mention, with one contributor describing the then editor Jonathan Edwards’ rejection note as being “so lovely it almost felt like an acceptance”. Another poet described a recent “encouraging” rejection from 14 Magazine (edited by Richard Skinner) in similar terms. Such words of encouragement are often remembered years after the event.
The poet Roy Marshall says a small hand-written note from Peter and Ann Sansom was very important to him when he first started submitting. It said “Sorry not to be able to take any of these, but we liked something in every poem.” He isn’t the only poet to mention notes from the two, and how these are often kept for years. I still have a complement slip that came with a rejection from the much-missed Smith’s Knoll magazine, edited by Michael Laskey, which added a “but please [underlined] consider submitting to us again”.
Time and money mean that most publications will send out brief standard rejections. Most poets I spoke to agreed this was better than nothing at all, though many agreed there are certain turns of phrase that can grate, or feel a bit offhand.
Top of the pet hates list was the chummy X-Factor-ese of “I’m afraid it’s a no from me”. Other objected to the assertion that this rejection “has nothing to do with the quality of your work”. I’d imagine this is an attempt at kindness, but as the poet who’d received this pointed out, it can sound a little disingenuous.
Editors have a difficult job, and whatever tack they take declining work, they are not going to please all of the poets all of the time. Recently I’ve noticed more editors including information about longlists or shortlists, or data on just how many subs they have received. Many people seem to like this: knowing you made the last 50 may be more encouraging that just a straight ‘no’. But some poets say it can be disheartening, one added it can feel a bit “self-aggrandising” to list quite how many entries / subs were received. Perhaps with more standard rejections simplicity is best: a simple “this is not right for us at this time”.
I thought it was worth concluding with the comments from a couple of editors showing how much care they take with their submissions. Broken Sleep Books was mentioned by a number of poets, and editor Aaron Kent welcomes simultaneous submissions, stating: “In the meantime if this gets accepted elsewhere do let me know so I can congratulate you.” What a generous attitude!
The poet Wendy Pratt also edits Spelt Magazine and says she tries to think as a writer when sending out rejections. “I give a date when they should hear by and ask them to chase up if they haven’t.” I like the fact that this gives people permission to chase, something I always feel a bit squeamish about doing, even after nine or 10 months. She adds: “I also feel I have a responsibility to be encouraging to writers who are just starting out on their publication journey. I send individual emails to every single person who submits. I try to add a detail to the standard response and always address people by name, because they have submitted little bits of themselves to us, and I need to respect that.”