Workshop by Zoë Brigley | Social media compiled and article written by Frances Turpin
Welcome to Overcoming Rejection, a series focused on dealing with the worst but most inescapable part of being a writer. In June 2022, we asked our friends on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram what the best advice they could give to someone who’s work had been rejected would be. This series is a collection of that advice, as well as some insights and thoughts from the Poetry Wales team.
Poetry Wales editor Zoë Brigley has written an ‘Overcoming Rejection’ workshop to accompany this series, which you can download here:
In our first post, we focused on self-care and coping with the emotional side of rejection. In this instalment, we’re looking at what to do next.
In her workshop, Zoë Brigley says that:
The first action to take when you have a rejection is to self-scrutinise. Did you send your very best work? Were there any aspects of the poem that niggled or seemed a bit unleavened? Read the poems again. If there is anything there that still bothers you, you can bet that it will have bothered an editor too.Zoë Brigley, ‘Overcoming Rejection’ workshop
On the Facebook post where we asked for advice from our community, Taz Rahman (who has now been featured in Poetry Wales a number of times), said that for poets who are emerging:
“rejection from a ‘top’ magazine is actually a blessing in disguise, an invitation to reach a better version. If [Poetry Wales] had not turned me down twice in 2020, I’d not be the poet who was accepted at the third attempt.”Taz Rahman via Facebook
It is important to remember that rejection of a poem is not made on a binary basis by an editor: a ‘not this time’ does not automatically equal ‘this poem is rubbish’. We will dig in to editorial decision-making in the next instalment of this series – but first, it’s time to self-scrutinise. If we see rejections not as dismissals but as invitations to become better poets, how do we accept that invitation?
Turning Rejection into Motivation
Previously, we released rejection – but those feelings have to go somewhere. S. Reeson says that:
“My best use of rejection is as fuel. It propels me forward. It makes me look critically at myself and my output.”S. Reeson | @InternetofWords
Vanessa Owen had a similar approach:
“Looking back I’m usually glad that some poems have been rejected as there’s been an opportunity to improve them.”Vanessa Owen via Facebook
Finally, Kali Richmond recommends:
“[letting] the rejection energy motivate you to write something better. There’s always a more interesting/surprising/moving etc. poem that could exist. It might be the poem that was rejected in an edited form, [or] it might be one you haven’t written yet.”Kali Richmond | @SevenKali
Time To Rework?
The decision of whether to rework a rejected poem or start afresh is a difficult one to make – and ultimately, it’s going to come down to how you feel about it as a writer. Some people like to get to work on a rejected piece straight away, while others might prefer to put it on ice for several weeks/months (or longer…) and come back to it when it feels less emotionally charged – or, as Jane Burn puts it:
“look at the poems again, after the stormy dust from a rejection has settled.”Jane Burn | @JaneBurn14
Katy Evans-Bush says that:
“In my experience, poems can turn a bit adolescent when you send them out, not meeting people’s eyes, using family shortcuts [etc.]”,Katy Evans-Bush via Facebook
She recommends trying to look at your poems “as if you were a total stranger” when you come to review them – difficult to do, but necessary if you’re trying to look for shortcomings! Often we have spent so much time with our work that when we read it we are only getting the ideas and senses we were feeling when writing, or trying to convey, rather than experiencing them as a reader would.
Hannah Linden (who’s Highly Commended poem Cave: How to Say Goodbye to a Door you can read here) adds:
“I don’t give up on poems. I may keep tweaking them too, so, in some ways, it’s a good thing if a poem takes time to find its home. My poem that was Highly Commended in this year’s Wales Poetry Award had been rejected 13 times before that. It had a small final tweak before this submission and so it had time to breathe into itself. And it landed somewhere better than it would if it had been accepted earlier.”Hannah Linden via Facebook
Ignore Your Ego
It’s hard to be objective about your own work, especially when a lot of blood, sweat and tears have gone into it. But, as Natalie Holborrow said:
“Don’t just send out the same submission over and over if it’s knocked back several times. Yes, sometimes the time, theme or editor doesn’t suit what you’ve written. But sometimes it’s an indicator that something in there isn’t working. Put your ego aside, share with a trusted friend, rework and try again once it feels stronger.”Natalie Holborrow via Facebook
Maybe your poem was pitch-perfect, and the only reason it was rejected was because the editor simply couldn’t fit it in – but unless you have been explicitly told that by the publication that rejected your work, it can’t hurt to have another pass at it. Jane Burn suggests:
“Be your own best friend and your own worst editor – be honest with your work. Be prepared to see mistakes and don’t be so much in love with your own work, or treat it as so precious that you become unable to step away from it and give it the metaphorical mucking-out it needs,”Jane Burn | @JaneBurn14
A New Perspective
In next week’s post, we will look at where you can find external feedback on your work, which is of course much more likely to be objective than trying to give yourself critique – but it’s still an important part of a writer’s journey to be able to know and identify your own weaknesses. It can also be an opportunity to experiment – to try rewriting the poem in a different style, or using a different rhythm. Poetry_cocktail on Instagram suggests “[reading] your poems again, out loud,” (coincidentally, this is also a proofreading tip we use at PW!).
Looking at your work from a new angle might only help realise that you liked it better before, but you could also find something new within the poem that you hadn’t noticed before, and give it a whole new life. Look into the work of artists you admire, and you’ll find that almost all of them have been through several rough drafts (that they may have believed to be the final version) before the one that you see before you. In fact, if you read through any of the How I Write A Poem interviews on our website, you’ll find dozens of examples of poets who have re-worked and re-written their pieces sometimes over years before finally being happy with it!
Above all, don’t try to punish yourself – or your work – into being ‘better’. As poetry_cocktail said, “Love and nurture [your poems]. They may come through”, and (despite everything else we’ve said in this post) as Chris Hardy said:
“If you are pleased with your poem don’t change it if it’s rejected. Trust it and yourself. You have to do that: poetry is, in the end, a solo not a team game. Fellow poets, workshops, friends and others may help you decide on a poem’s form etc. but you must really like what’s left as it’s yours. Keep sending it out.Chris Hardy via Facebook