Ever Been Rejected by Poetry Magazine? You’re in Very Good Company

BY Mike Melia  June 29, 2011 at 2:53 PM EDT

Poetry Magazine, November 2005The Poetry Foundation opened its new home in Chicago last weekend. As it celebrates this achievement, we decided it would be fun to ask for people’s stories about being rejected from the foundation’s time-honored literary journal, Poetry magazine. If you’re a writer and you’ve sent out work to journals, you know the feeling.

Poetry’s long history includes publishing some of the first work by some very important poets: T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, H.D. and William Carlos Williams, among others. Founded in 1912, it bills itself as “the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English-speaking world.”

It’s also one of the most difficult to get into — it publishes under 1 percent of what’s submitted.

Art Beat asked a number of poets about their experiences being rejected and got a variety of responses. (For the record, the Poetry Foundation helps fund the PBS NewsHour.)

There are some lucky ones. Li-Young Lee has only submitted work once and he was accepted. Marie Ponsot told me she’s shy about sending poems out to journals, but after publishing an acclaimed book, Poetry came looking for her. Others have labored for years, gained success in the poetry world, but still never made the magazine’s pages.

Brian Spears is poetry editor for The Rumpus, but his experience has been like many others: “I sent poems in and I got a form rejection back. That’s really it, I’m afraid.” But Spears’ experience has not deterred him. “I sent them poems (and will again) because it’s one of the most prestigious magazines for poetry in the world, so you have to take your shot, even if it’s unlikely you’ll hit.”

The magazine’s own senior editor, Don Share, responded on Twitter that even he has been rejected.

Elizabeth Alexander, who read one of her poems at the inauguration of President Obama, told a panel led by the NewsHour’s Jeff Brown at the opening of the Poetry Foundation’s new building that she was rejected within the last year.

The best response we got to our query came from Billy Collins. We’ve decided to print what he wrote in full here:

“My history with Poetry magazine is unusual. The first time I submitted poems, I was turned down. The second time, I was enthusiastically accepted. What is unusual is that I waited 26 years before giving the editors a second chance to reject me. I was introduced to Poetry in high school when my father used to bring the magazine home to me from his office in downtown New York. I don’t know why his office had a subscription. No one there read poetry, my father included, but he knew I had literary interests, so a copy found its way into my hands every month. The happy result was that I discovered in those pages for the first time the sounds of contemporary poetry. The only poets I had read up to that point were the ones assigned in English class, all of them dead males with long beards and three names. Until I discovered Poetry, I thought I would never become a real poet because I had only two names and was just beginning to shave.

“Then, after reading the magazine throughout high school, I was foolish enough to put a few of my own poems in an envelope and send them off to Chicago. I was 18 years old when I submitted this first batch. I had no delusions of grandeur; I just had no idea of the inadequacy of my poems. Amazing as it seems to me now, a few weeks later I received from editor Henry Rago a personal letter several paragraphs long and full of encouragement — not to send more poems, mind you, but to continue to write and read more poems before I submitted again.

“Twenty-six years later, feeling better prepared, I submitted to the magazine a second batch of poems, which Joseph Parisi quickly accepted. I carried his letter with me for weeks. I could hardly believe it. I was being published in Poetry. I could die a happy forty-six-year-old poet. During his long tenure as editor, Parisi continued to be susceptible to my poems maybe because I always sent him what I considered to be my best work. He published me so frequently that I once thanked him for “serializing” my latest book. At the recent opening of the Poetry Foundation’s new center, one of the staff handed me a printout of all of my appearances in the magazine: there were over 80 poems on the list. I like to tell younger poets that everyone is born with 300 bad poems in them. In my case, it took 26 years to write them out.”