Carol Ann Duffy allegedly used them to paper her smallest room. But that’s not so easy these days when so many of them come by email.
I used to save all my handwritten ones, together with the poems I’d sent out, but life’s too short to do that. In the past, editors like Peter Mortimer, of the long defunct Iron magazine, used to type feedback letters and tell the poet what he liked and didn’t like about the poems. Very few editors these days have the time and energy for that, because so many more people are submitting poetry. Bless the ones who do!
Many rejections take the form of a standard letter, offering generic advice. Sometimes they can come across as patronising, especially to people who have been submitting poetry, with both positive and negative results for many years. One size never fits all, and I would urge editors using these to cut out the parts that do not apply in that case. For example, it is pointless and annoying to suggest a poet subscribes to or reads your magazine when they have made that clear in their cover letter.
Some rejections use a standard letter but include a personalised message. This is always encouraging. It might be that they would really love to publish your work, but it doesn’t fit in with their funding priorities. I have had the most lovely, personalised rejections from two publishers in the past, which softened the blow that they were not able to publish me although they liked my work.
If a magazine editor writes a personalised response, believe that they mean every word of it. I have edited a magazine in the past (Brando’s Hat) with a small team, and some of the poems we had submitted were regretfully rejected because not everyone on the team liked them, or they didn’t fit our brief, or various other reasons. If you get such a personalised rejection, always resubmit with some different poems, after a few months, and thank the editor for their encouragement the last time you sent poems. Editors do an often thankless task and it’s good to show them you appreciate their efforts.
Sometimes, quite understandably, after you have gone to the trouble to choose poems and make a note of them in your submissions book (or whatever you use), and even found the right size envelopes and traipsed to the post office (in the case of snail mail subs), it can seem very disappointing to be rejected, particularly if it is the form letter type. But poets have to learn to take this on the chin. I’ve had poems rejected from magazines only to have them accepted by even more prestigious ones. So it isn’t always about the quality of the poems.
Never complain to the editor, as this can only make the editor avoid your work in future. If you have something constructive to say in reply, that’s different. On the whole it is best not to reply, unless you say something like ‘thank you for letting me know so promptly’ but even that is unnecessary.
Although a rejection may seem rude, this is probably just your temporary upset getting the better of you. A rejection is not rude unless it uses taboo language, includes personal insults or humiliates the submitter or stops them writing in future. If that is the case, would you really want to appear in a magazine someone like that edits? I know I wouldn’t.
When poems limp back home, re-read them. Is there something which needs fixing? Is unclear? Is in need of cutting? Tighten them up and re-submit, either to the same place, pointing out you have worked on the poems (Only do this if you had the encouraging personalised response), or to somewhere else. I enjoyed a lovely correspondence with the late Alan Ross, over a submission to London Magazine a good while back now. He gave me feedback, I kept rewriting and resubmitting, and he ended up (after 3 goes) accepting a sonnet of mine, which appeared next to Joseph Brodsky’s work. It was my first really big acceptance.
If, when you re-read the poems, you still think they are the best they can be, send them out again somewhere else. Repeat until they are accepted.
Finally, one last bit of advice. Don’t rely on publication for validation. Although it’s nice to be accepted, rejection might just mean that the world is not yet ready for that poem. Look at Emily Dickinson, rejected by the only editor she tried, yet one of our best loved poets today.
The real goal is writing the best poems you can, and reading and living poetry.