C’mon, Threepenny… give me a break…

I’ve had six stories accepted recently at good literary reviews, so it’s strange to have such a negative reaction to a form rejection letter–I feel like I should say, “C’est la vie” and let this one slide, but The Threepenny Review is a respected journal and I expected a little better from them. The rejection I received from them was a perfectly acceptable form email. It isn’t the content that I find objectionable. It’s not even the rejection that is objectionable! I don’t care about the rejection! So what’s eatin’ at me? Here’s what it says:

We have considered your submission carefully, and unfortunately we are not able to use it in The Threepenny Review.  Please do not take this as a comment on the quality of your writing; we receive so many submissions that we are able to accept only a small fraction of them.Thank you for sending your work to us, and please accept our apologies for the automated message system. We wish we had time to reply to everyone individually.

Nothing wrong there, right? Of course not…it’s pretty much the same rejection that thousands of writers receive everyday. It’s the process by which a writer toughens his or her skin and continues to write, despite it all, because a writer should not be defeated by rejection. It’s the general insincerity that bothers me. Let me explain further:

Here’s the time stamp of my online submission to TPR:  June 23, 2011 9:09:15 PM EDT

Here’s the time stamp of my rejection letter from TPR: June 25, 2011 9:16:31 AM EDT

For those of you keeping score, that’s about a 36 hour turnaround time. In the rejection notice, it says they’ve “considered the submission carefully.” Interesting. Maybe that’s true. Maybe someone received my submission Thursday night right after I sent it. Maybe someone was waiting at the computer totally anxious for a new submission to fly through the transom. Perhaps several dozen people awaited new submissions! A whole room full of careful readers waiting to read carefully on the late-night shift for TPR. Maybe that one reader did carefully read my story–it’d take maybe twenty minutes or so to read. Maybe I was lucky and got an upper level editor and that person felt qualified to reject my story right away because they had a good sense of the needs of the journal. Maybe that person waited a few moments for the story to sink in, pondered it over a refreshing Mountain Dew or herbal tea. Maybe that person mulled it over for the whole night, carefully considering whether or not my story “fit.”

But I highly doubt it. It also says in the email that “they receive so many submissions” that the idea that someone carefully reads them all is a joke. I have nothing against the person who rejected my story–probably a hard working editor or reader with fine taste in stories and essays, perhaps my rejector is a wonderful writer, too, also receiving rejections from literary journals. I understand the business side of things. Once I sent a story to Harpers and three days later I received (in my own SASE) a similar rejection. This was “snail mail,” which means that between the time my story was dropped into the mailbox and three days later when I received the rejection (which also stated my story had been carefully read) there was no possible way that anyone could have even glanced at my story. Someone had opened the envelope and removed my SASE and dropped a rejection slip into its prepaid slot and mailed it away. I can only hope that story was recycled.

Something similar happened at TPR. Sometime late last night, a dedicated editor skimmed through all the submissions that came in Friday. There’s no careful reading involved, or it would take weeks to get through each day’s submissions. He or she looked at the first sentences of each submission and decided it wasn’t up to snuff for TPR. Like I said, I’m fine with that–the reader most likely is well-versed in such affairs. But I wonder how many wonderful stories and essays are passed over in such a way? I’ll even take me out of the equation–how many hundreds of good stories and essays do editors miss while they wade their way through the slush piles? For some reason, my first sentence didn’t catch this reader’s eye:

Behind the Quinn City Recreation Center, down a muddy hill and through a clearing bordered by a slow moving creek and a line of young trees, Andrew Winton molested me in a tent we shared on a camping trip. ”

It’s okay, I believe in this story and think it will find a home at some point, but I have to admit to being slightly miffed at the insincerity of the statement “We have considered carefully.” I just don’t buy it. I don’t buy the “we” because it was most likely one person–no editorial roundtable–and don’t buy the “carefully” because it doesn’t seem like the time allowed for such care.

Still, it’s better than no response or a rejection that takes a year. People who don’t respond at all are at the bottom rung of the editorial ladder. TPR is somewhere in the middle. I don’t mean to criticize TPR unduly–they do put out consistently good product. And even if someone did get past my first sentence and into the story, they still might have felt it not a proper fit. I guess I’m speaking for all of the people who work really hard at their prose–weeks, months, or years getting a story just right–and feel that they never get half a shake at the reviews to whom they submit. I’ve been lucky recently–far more acceptances than rejections of late–but I know that for each of my stories that finds a home, dozens of equally worthy stories are sent back with similar rejections. Perhaps a simple rewording is in order?

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Last day…

…of sixth grade. You know how on old tape decks (kids, tape decks were the stop-gap technology that carried us music lovers over between vinyl and CDs…I’ll devote another post soon to explaining vinyl records. And maybe CDs, but I digress…) you could hold down the fast-forward and play buttons at the same time and the music would become a blur of squeaky sounds that carried only the slightest echo of the song’s normal speed? That’s how I feel this morning. Grace just set off for her last day of sixth grade and I swear it was only moments ago that she started sixth grade. And only moments before that, she was born. I’d like to ask whomever is in charge of the cosmic tape deck to stop goofin’ around and take your finger off fast-forward. I’d like to listen to the song at normal speed. What’s that you say? This is normal speed? Shoot.

Isn’t she beautiful? Can we run the next few months in slo-motion, please?

Some days…

When I treasure hunt in my back yard, I’m like Indiana Jones–every shovel unearths new and amazing treasure. Today was not one of those days. Today was more like Al Capone’s vault. A lot of effort for a big ball of nothing. Well, not quite nothing. I found some old nails. And some bent metal things. Some days, you’re Harrison Ford. Some days you’re Geraldo Rivera.

Vote Quimby. Sent from my iPhone

Allen Ginsberg and Me

A few days ago, I read the illustrated version of “Howl,” the classic American poem and cornerstone of all things Beat. Although I liked the way the illustrations slowed the poem down and made me read each line more slowly than I do when I see it all tumbling out in its traditional fashion–what struck me most while reading the work was that I have my own Allen Ginsberg story and I’ve never written it down. I thought perhaps I should rectify that situation.

It’s not the happy story that I would like to relate–I met Allen Ginsberg and he changed my life!–but rather a tale, on my part, of lost opportunity and fear.

When I was attending the University of Charleston, West Virginia, Allen Ginsberg came to stay for a few days as a visiting poet. At that point, sometime in 1986, I’d never heard of him. Although I was on my way to being rather well read, I’ve always been a slow starter and was ignorant of many, many great books and poems that I’d soon recognize as classics. One of my professors brought to class a tape of Jack Kerouac reading and said that another very famous “beat” poet was coming to our school as a guest. She said that those interested would be able to meet with Mr. Ginsberg to discuss writing. I fancied myself a poet at the time, and a rather fine poet at that (no snickering from the peanut gallery…please allow me the fantasies that sustained me as a yoot) and I was eager to meet a famous poet, although I had no idea what that meant at the time.

My writing? Awful, I suspect. Ramblings of a twenty year old who’d spent too much time writing in a spiral notebook without really reading much poetry. My poets were songwriters–good songwriters (or groups) like Lou Reed, John Prine, Dylan, Pink Floyd, The Police, The Call, etc.–but songwriters nonetheless, not poets. I hadn’t yet figured out that I wasn’t a poet, but a fictioneer. I was probably fifteen years from writing a decent story, but I really liked words. I loved to read and loved to fantasize about the life I’d lead as a rich and famous poet (my delusions knew no bounds). At UC, for one class, I read: Crime and Punishment, Jane Eyre, The Adventures of Augie March, and Middlemarch. Well, I sort of read Middlemarch. I didn’t fall in love with that book for a few more years. The teacher that introduced me to those great novels and brought in the scratchy recording of Kerouac also issued a warning about Ginsberg.

In my memory, she spoke directly to me, but perhaps she warned the whole class. I think I might have been the only student who was openly professing the fact that I was a writer. In any event, she told me she was glad I wanted to meet Ginsberg, but that I should be careful of him. And under no circumstances should I let him keep my work if he asked to see it. She gave no reason for this warning and I was too young to contemplate questioning the dire cautionary admonition.

So, I went to see Allen Ginsberg. I wish I could remember it better. He was staying in a nice little house on campus with two young men whom he called assistants (they also played squeeze box and guitar during his reading) and they were all very nice to me. I was nervous meeting him–I would’ve been nervous without the warning, but the warning set me on edge. I wanted him to like me and I wanted him to like my poems. I had a sheaf of wrinkled papers in my hand. He read them while I was there and we talked about other poets I liked (the only one I could think of was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lord only know how I knew him, who was Ginsberg’s publisher, but whom Ginsberg called a little derivative). And then he did exactly what my teacher told me he would do–he asked to keep some of my poems to look at and comment on.

It’s hard to believe that I said no, but I did.

Typing the words is heartbreaking to me now. He looked sort of shocked, too, by my refusal, but perhaps everyone was saying no. I imagine it must have been a little baffling for him.

What I write next is even harder to write: I had it in my head that my teacher warned me away from Ginsberg because she thought he might steal my ideas. That really hurts, my youthful stupidity.

It hurts that I couldn’t see beyond it, beyond the stupid warning. It hurts to know that I might’ve had some poems (bad poems, certainly) with marginal comments by Allen Ginsberg if only I hadn’t been so afraid of…something…or if I hadn’t been guided toward that fear.

It hurts to admit that I thought Allen Ginsberg wanted my poems because he wanted my words, not because they were paying him to come and be a mentor and offer a few encouraging and perhaps constructively critical comments on my raw efforts. But that’s the truth. That’s what happened.

Later, I went to see this lovely man at his reading. This was Charleston West Virginia, not the most wild place in the world. And there was Ginsberg–he was about a decade from his death–but wild as ever, playing songs and reading poems and getting this uptight crowd (I considered myself so very not uptight, but man, I was) to chant “Legalize it” and playing the squeeze-box with wild abandon, hair loose and flying about, his young boy/men infusing the whole place with energy and a youthful sensualism–it was, to be cliche and perhaps a bit starstruck, great. It stands, even in the foggy haze of my memory, as one of the greatest readings I’ve ever been to.

In hindsight, I know my teacher wasn’t afraid that Ginsberg would steal my poems. I have a sneaking suspicion that the fact of his homosexuality prompted the warning. She was an older teacher and very formal, very much a part of the establishment. Ginsberg was the antithesis of nearly everything she represented. I think she feared for my integrity. Or my soul. Maybe she thought I’d catch his gayness. Or that he’d corrupt me, invite or coerce me into his den of sins. I know she didn’t mean to rob me of something, that she issued the warning out of good intentions. Still, I’m left wondering what he might have said about my work. Maybe he would have said, “Jeez, kid, you stink. Better pack it in.” That would’ve broken me. I don’t know if I could have kept writing. Maybe my teacher recognized that I couldn’t yet handle direct negative criticism.

Or maybe he would have said, “Kid, it’s going to be harder than you know to become the writer you imagine yourself to be.” That’s the advice I now give to my students. I try to encourage, too. In fact, I think my whole teaching philosophy is based on encouragement, but I also let young writers know that the road is freakin’ hard. For me it has been anyway.

One of the hardest things to admit is that lost opportunities happen. These days, I try to let fewer opportunities pass me by. I’m twenty-four years older than I was when I refused to let Allen Ginsberg comment on my poems.

I can safely say that if another famous (or infamous) poet comes my way and wants to read and comment on my work, I’m going to say yes.

Reading, late

On Chesil BeachOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It would be easy to rank this book as a small McEwan book in between two “important” McEwan books, but it is quite large in it’s own way. The action of the book takes place mostly on one night of the two protagonists, but the scope is huge. He is wonderfully generous to his characters, creating people heartbreakingly trapped in their respective roles. Although Saturday and Atonement had a larger palettes, On Chesil Beach is lyric and lucid as it chronicles the paths of Edward and Florence as defined by their actions on their wedding night.

View all my reviews

Acceptance?

Certainly acceptance is something that I need to practice in my life–in my writing life especially–but in everyday life, too. Have you ever seen those bumper stickers that say something along the lines of  “if you ain’t angry, you ain’t paying attention”? What an awful way to live, driving around being pissed off about everything you see, grinding your teeth when you see another bumper sticker that pisses you off, speeding up to see the jerk who so flagrantly flaunts his/her wrong-headed ideas, spending the rest of the day thinking about how much of a jerk that guy was?

Wait, am I writing about bumper stickers? What was it? Oh, right acceptance. What do I have to accept. Everything. Does this mean I’m the world’s doormat? Not at all. But when I’m practicing acceptance, I’m aware of the limitations of my actions, aware that I can only do certain things on this day and that the things I can do tomorrow are not a part of the equation, because no matter how much I plan, they do not exist yet. Likewise, the “certain things” I did yesterday no longer exist either. I accept that tonight, a few moments before I go to bed, things are the way they are. Seems rather elementary, really, but our whole culture is based, it seemed, on living without acceptance.

As a writer, I’ve often written about rejection and what that means. I’m sure I’ll write about rejection again. Understanding and accepting rejection has made me the writer I am today. Often, when people read my writing on rejection, they say things like: “don’t worry! Keep your chin up!” Or, “Think positive!” Aside from the fact that “think positive!” doesn’t make any sense (without the “ly”, positive is just a noun and one cannot “think” nounly. A little message from the Grammar Police, Adverb Division GPAD) I’m afraid my ramblings about rejection haven’t done what I thought they would. Like any writer, I hated rejection letters at first. Then I loathed them for a while. Then I hated them some more. Then I laughed at them, HA-HA, and tossed my hair about insouciantly. And then something strange happened. I stopped caring about them. I get them in the mail now and I don’t really think about them. The people that reject me are doing the hard work of putting out a literary magazine. I didn’t make the cut. I toss the envelope in the recycling been. Without even knowing it, I’d started practicing acceptance for the rejections. Does that mean I give up? Not at all. In fact, today, I searched for new places to send my work to and I’ll send it out, do all I can, make the stories as good as I’m capable of making them, drop them in the mail and then it’s out of my hands. Nothing to do but write more stories.

But what happens when I get accepted? That’s the new wrench in the cogs. Since February, I’ve had six stories accepted for publication. That is, quite literally, more stories than I’ve had accepted in the last decade. I’ve had stories accepted at Eclipse, Limestone, Nimrod, Conjunctions and two other places that I can’t mention yet because they are connected with contests that have not publicized their results. These are a mix of small and large literary magazines and such acceptances have left me feeling oddly confused. I never thought I’d struggle to accept acceptance on this scale. But like everything else, I suppose it takes practice. Of course, I can’t count on acceptance letters. I have to accept whatever comes my way.

Having six stories accepted feels like the roof of my writing life has been stripped. I’m exposed to the elements. Luckily for me, my house is currently in this state, so I can show you what it feels like. Here’s a picture of my attic without shingles. Metaphorically, it’s kind of cool.

Life, After

I’ve been working on a strange little story/prose poem called “Life, After.” It all stems from an article in The Writer’s Chronicle titled The Afterlife of Henry James. A friend and I both wrote poems (mine was in prose because I’m so very poetic) and once I did that, other writers, mostly dead, needed a little exploration in the same vein. Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Charles Bukowski, James Joyce, The Russians (yes, I know… they are a varied group, but for the sake of the poem, I treat them as one), David Foster Wallace, and me (I worried that it might be a bit presumptuous to include myself in this list, but then I thought, what the hell, it’s my poem, right?). I’ve quite enjoyed writing this piece. I posted an early draft of the Henry James post a few weeks ago. Here, for another taste, is:

Emily Dickinson

It is a small comfortable room, always new—her skin soft, transparent, all Life—and Death, her lover, now tamed—blossoming in a rich tincture of peony and sparrow’s tuft—frost glistens on the stones piled and stacked in the corners of this lodging, this apartment of a Nominated Heart, where the dim light of Moon—Lo’, wrinkling the landscape—and Joyous Dawn warm the Sweet Mountains anon and seen only through glass Rippled and Cross-stitched with Age—Fie!, that old Foe—and only in specific amounts and at specific times, when the Eyes have not failed nor the other Senses, the gifts that balance upright the physical body and tremor-filled Soul. She laughs often and heartily at her old self, a Laugh so unexpected that passersby on the street stop and gaze into the window and laugh with her, lost in Mirth—that old self caught up in the Battle, floorboards counted and paced and chair-back gripped and chair adjusted and so too the dresser and bed and the measurements of the room ingrained, the Soles of her feet buffing clean the clutter of Dust and the clattering of her silly lines! The pen is still upright, the inkwell brimming, but the papers now lay flat, smoothed every so often as she leans against warm memories. But to organize a poem? How tedious! Besides, she cannot pick up the pen—her fingers pass through its casing and the words dormant in the ink are alive in her, pulsing through her veins, the Blood of Hallowed names—but she would not write even if she could. Amazing, she thinks, how long I labored to script the sounds, a lifetime moiled in my own dusky stanzas, devoted to the Outside. Here, at last, all the words are present, all Ordered without Order, and I their gentle container.

Live on land that was once a farm…

…and you might just find some bones. Gail and I were walking around the yard this evening looking at our gardens. Up near the raspberry and blackberry bushes, I leaned down to pull up what appeared to be an old root just pushing through the surface. What I discovered was a jaw bone with teeth still embedded. Underneath the jaw were more teeth. People have always told us that this used to be a horse farm. Supposedly, there was a horse track on what is now Pease Airfield. This would have been years before it was the Air Force Base. We don’t have any real proof of exactly what sort of farm this was, so a lot of what we know is really just speculation. But we do know the original house was built early 1800’s (maybe late 1700’s–all of the wood is hand cut) and that there have been at least two different barns on the property. The big barn was probably gone before 1900. It was out past the big barn that we found the bones. I love finding bones. There’s more of the animal back there, but it was getting dark and I wanted to take my time digging it up. Part of the fun is putting the puzzle together. Turns out, it seems that this jaw bone and these teeth more than likely belonged to a cow, not a horse. A little investigatin’ on the internets helped us with our deducin’. Did I just stumble on the graveyard? Is this where one farmer threw the dead animals? The carcasses of the animals he slaughtered? Could be rabbit, could be. Below, pictures to shock and amaze: