No writer or poet, no matter how well known, is free from the blow of having work rejected. No matter how carefully the poems have been selected, the magazine studied and read carefully, all submission rules followed, the rejections will still come. It is just as likely to be rejected from a small publication as a big one.
The old advice – and I’ve been submitting poems for over 40 years – was to have another look at your poem, polish further and send out somewhere else. This still holds good but there might be nothing wrong with the poems at all. Maybe the magazine was full, perhaps your work was long-listed but didn’t make the final cut for all sorts of reasons nothing to do with the poem, such as it didn’t fit in with the other poems chosen, or there was another one on a similar theme. So much of being published is down to luck. So send the poem out again somewhere else. It’s a little like dating – you have to try a few before finding the right one.
I know rejections can be disappointing, but the thing is, they make our acceptances all the better. Back in the 80s, I had a sonnet in London Magazine, under the editorship of the generous and intelligent Alan Ross. It took me three goes to get in, and he kept coming back to me with helpful advice. Few editors have time to do that now, but the very best still do, and several have made suggestions which have helped me reach a final draft of something I was not quite ‘there’ with yet, because they wanted to publish it. The much missed magazine, Iron, edited by the inimitable Peter Mortimer, finally took a poem of mine after correspondance with Peter, in his famously bad typing, in which he told me my faults and what was wrong with each poem he wasn’t taking. My joy when I finally ‘made it’ was enhanced by all the rejections I had had before from Iron, even though I was reviewing for them and had a lengthy correspondance on their letters page over a few issues.
The truth about rejections is they keep us trying, they stop us being complacent, they make up the darkness in which the hard won acceptances can shine brightly. Embrace them, learn from them. And keep sending those poems about regardless, until they find their forever home.