Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Dealing with Rejection as a Writer

One thing you don’t always hear when you’re starting out as a writer is that your work is going to get rejected most of the time you send it out. I’ve seen a variety of statistics, but it seems that in general, literary journals accept between 1% and 2% of their submissions. A magazine such as The New Yorker accepts an even lower percentage: .14%. That means they reject 99.86% of the work sent to them. 

In fact, if the work I submit to literary magazines, publishers, and theaters is accepted even one tenth of the time, I feel as if I’m doing terrific. The reality is, there are many, many talented writers, and a much smaller number of outlets to publish in.  


On top of all that, rejection is never easy to take. We work hard on our literary creations, and we pour our hearts into them. For that reason, rejection often feels as if our very souls are being turned back from the gates of Heaven and banished to literary hell.


So, how to deal with rejection? Well, one lesson I try to take away from a negative response is that my work can always improve. After a rejection, I imagine I’m the editor who reviewed my work, and then…poof, I accept it!


No, actually, I imagine I’m the editor, and I attempt to see my writing more objectively. I think how I can make that submission better before I send it out again. I try to consider each rejection as an opportunity to rethink and to polish my writing. That doesn’t mean ripping up what I sent and throwing it out. It means striving to raise the work closer to my aspirations for my highest potential as a writer.


Another takeaway from getting your work turned down is that not all rejections are completely negative. In some cases, an editor takes the time to say that they liked your work and they hope you’ll submit your writing to them again. Do not take that as a polite version of a flat “No.” That means an editor really did appreciate your work. Make sure your submissions spreadsheet has a place to note rejections of that sort, and periodically go back to those notes and send more work, maybe six months or a year later. In your new cover letter, thank the editor for encouraging you to resubmit, as a way to remind them that they liked your earlier submission. Do not resubmit the same work, however—that would be ignoring what the editor told you in the first place.


One of the reasons you send out your work is that you’re hoping to reach out beyond your solitary labors as a writer. As the poet André Breton once said, “Writing is the loneliest road that leads everywhere.”

André Breton: 
“Writing is the loneliest road that leads everywhere.”

While rejection may not be the kind of connection you were hoping for when you submitted your work, it still means you were brave enough to risk sending your work out into the world. That’s a victory. Someone also saw your writing, and weighed it in their mind and heart. That’s also a connection. View your attempt as an achievement, rather than as a negative.


If a particular work of yours keeps getting rejected, try sending it to a different kind of magazine. Over a two year period, I sent out a poem I thought was very publishable to 50 magazines. It got rejected at all of them. You read that right: 50 rejections! The 51st journal I sent that poem to, with an editor based outside North America, emailed me to say, “Congratulations! We loved your poem and would like to publish it in our next issue.” Sometimes it makes sense to mix it up a little.


But given that rejection is the most likely outcome of a submission, make sure you really celebrate when your work is accepted. Savor that moment. Don’t boast, but don’t be too modest, either. When the publication is posted online or arrives in the mail, share that with your friends and on social media.


It’s rarely easy to get your work printed online or on paper. But publication is, after all, one of the great thrills of being a writer. Yes, rejection is not the fun part of a writer’s life, but it helps us to improve our work, and it reminds us to keep faith with our literary calling, even when that is painful.  

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Haiku in Africa: An Interview with Adjei Agyei-Baah

This blog features an interview with Ghanaian poet Adjei Agyei-Baah, one of the leading writers of “Afriku,” the school of haiku poetry flourishing in Africa. Agyei-Baah is the author of three volumes of haiku: his latest, Scaring Crow (Buttonhook Press); Afriku (Red Moon Press); and Ghana 21 Haiku (Mamba Africa Press). He is the cofounder of the Africa Haiku Network (AHN) and coedits Mamba Journal, Africa’s first haiku magazine.

Adjei Agyei-Baah

Could you talk a little bit about the history of haiku writing in Africa?

Haiku writing in Africa owes a lot to Sono Uchida, the prominent Japanese haiku poet and diplomat, who thirty years ago in Senegal initiated a haiku contest in the French language. That was the first international haiku competition in Africa.


During his mission as a Japanese ambassador in Africa, Uchida always felt that Senegal would be a fertile ground for the growth of haiku. The way the Senegalese people adapted to nature reminded him of the traditional world of the Japanese people, a way of life that was rapidly disappearing. According to Sono Uchida, it was the belief of haiku poets in Japan that nature does not belong to humanity, but rather it is humans who belong to nature.


Uchida’s promotion of haiku in Senegal was supported by the first President of Senegal, His Excellency Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was also a great friend of haiku.


In more recent years, haiku has spread particularly in West Africa, especially in Ghana and Nigeria. Some African haiku writers have pushed the genre in new directions. Emmanuel-Abdalmasih Samson of Nigeria, for example, invented what he termed “mirror haiku,” a technique now used by many other haiku writers around the world. Here’s an example from Samson’s poetry:


        walking in the rain

        umbrellas sing counterpoint

        August concerto


        August concerto

        umbrellas sing counterpoint

        walking in the rain


How did you personally come to haiku as a form for your poetry? Why does haiku particularly appeal to you as a writer?


I got to know haiku through my fellow Ghanaian countryman, Nana Fredua-Agyeman, a very strong haiku contender. He used to share haiku on his blog. I followed his adventures and became addicted to the genre. I was captivated by its feature of brevity and the way a short haiku also says much more. It seemed a good way to tell African stories.


Your new chapbook, Scaring Crow, has a remarkable form—every haiku mentions a scarecrow. What drew you to that image, and what associations does it have for you personally and as an artist?


It's a book I wrote purposely to try to push the frontiers of haiku. Arguably, it's the first haiku collection ever to explore a single theme in more than 100 ways. It was an honour and privilege to have great haiku scholars and doyens like Hiraoko Sato, Professor John Zheng, and Scott Mason contributing the foreword and blurbs.

Do you write in other forms besides haiku, or in free verse? If so, how do you know when a poem wants to be a haiku, and when it needs a different shape?


Yes, I began with longer poems before discovering haiku, and I’ve had several long poems published in international journals and anthologies. As part of my practice, I create a haiku when nature presents a moment in a flash of lightning, that delivers a lasting after-image. But when I want to address humanity, or talk about more scholarly topics, I usually write longer poems.


Any advice for writers who would like to write haiku?


Deep observation yields haiku! To communicate an aha! moment from nature, a novice writer must constantly observe. Read good haiku journals and publications to improve your craft. I hope to see more African poets, both young and experienced, come to the practice of haiku to tell African stories, as few are doing at the moment.


Here are some favorites of mine from Adjei Agyei-Baah’s new chapbook, Scaring Crow:


        All Saints’ Day

        a scarecrow glows

        in fireflies


        gleaning the field

        a hidden melon

        behind the scarecrow


        ripened field

        an old scarecrow invites

        birds to party


        flitting butterfly

        the scarecrow’s shoulder

        provides a rest


        country walk…

        passing on an old hat

        to a scarecrow


        parting mist…

        the open arms

        of a scarecrow

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Embracing Your Darkest Hour: An Interview with Poet Michelle Bitting

This blog is an interview with the writer Michelle Bitting, whose book Nightmares & Miracles, winner of the Two Sylvias Press Wilder Prize, establishes her as an important voice in poetry.

Poet Michelle Bitting
Zack Rogow: In Nightmares & Miracles, you turn to a number of stories from your childhood and your family history. What was it that made that material so urgent or so possible to explore at this moment in your life and your development as a writer?

Michelle Bitting: When writing, we all experience the “eternal return” to childhood matters—memories, sensory impressions, snippets of recollected gesture and dialogue. As a writer, I’ve been working through a fair amount of trauma and dysfunction from the distant past since I started making poems a couple decades ago.


To be blunt and to the point: twenty-five years after my older brother William committed suicide, my younger brother John took his life as well. This latest tragedy occurred in December of 2019, the day after Christmas, and at our parents’ house. In attempting to get at the molten center of that, I’m also trying to free myself from it, or at least transform it into song outside myself. I’m not sure I’d still have the passion and joy for life I hold now if I hadn’t surrendered to this activity, which feels almost mystical to me. When I lost my younger brother by suicide recently, it was (again) a terrible, shocking thing. I had to don the mask and suit and absurd flippers and dive back down.


Q. One of the poems in your collection is titled, “A Poet Embraces the Darkest Hour.” To me, that could be a description of this whole book. What is it that a writer gains by embracing the darkest hour?


Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to keep embracing the darkest hour? I would really love that. I think we could all use a grand break, don’t you? Along with each personal trial (and mine, in relation to the wide world of suffering humans are bearable by comparison) it feels, of late, like a constant barrage of outrageous torments chipping away at our collective serenity. And sanity! But on we endure, and I try to expand beyond my particular suffering into new articulations that have to do with making stories, or mythologizing, if you will. Crawling through the tunnels with my flashlight I find stuff that glows and helps me figure my way forward. I remember I’m a dot in time puzzling the “facts” and past into something that helps me embrace the chaos while also organizing it in a way through language, image, sound. To state the obvious, and to quote Carl Jung: “There is no light without shadow, and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.”

Q. The nightmare-like experiences you talk about in your book seem to enable the miracles that you describe in such a dazzling way—I’m thinking, for example, of your poem “The Unmaking” about going with a child to put a pet to sleep at the vet’s, a poem that ends in such a moving way. Could you talk about the dialectic and the interplay between nightmares and miracles?

The “flip side” of the nightmare portion of life, the sense of “miracle” is often the glorious, astonishing feeling of having survived horrible derangements and despair—the terror of what came before. I know this sounds awfully dramatic, but having experienced a fair amount of violence, sustained psychological stress, and volatility in my family environment (s) over the years, making it through those passages delivers a euphoria, a deep gratitude and delight in the smallest “things” that are often of the spirit and not necessarily concrete. We may be battle-weary and scarred, but we’re still mighty. We get excited about life and art because these engagements are precious and necessary. Just as death is necessary. Look, I’ll never be over losing my brothers or our dog Charlie, among other brutal realities and epic failures I have to contend with in myself, my family, the world at-large. Shaping a little container of words on the matter is a positive gesture that helps soften the blow even if it hurts in the writing and remembering.


Q. Your book deals in part with the roles of women in your mother’s generation and your own. Do you see continuity or discontinuity in how the women of those two times dealt with issues of parenting and relationships?


This is a question I’m actively attempting to answer, and perhaps reconcile, in my mind and in my writing. And it connects to what we’re experiencing on the national and global levels of society, history, politics, and more. How do we “break down” and break away from the mistakes of the past, and find ways to heal, change, and forgive forward?


A major point of contention seems to be the ongoing lack of admission of wrongs done, and poor choices that continue to be made that hurt and subjugate people. At this point, I’m most concerned for the rising generations, the young people who have to somehow move valiantly into the future dragging a behemoth of economic and environmental problems that are complex, yes, but also perpetuated by older generations who continue to make greedy and heinously controlling decisions that serve their own immediate desires but certainly not the true prosperity and freedom of future generations—or civilization, for that matter.

And yet, without compassion and understanding for each other and the faults of those who came before, what are we? This predicament feels especially critical and troubling at this time of turbulent change. Well, we’re not the first to struggle through dark times. The best we can do is keep singing.


Q. Could you talk about how you are moving forward from this gripping collection of poems?

I’ve embarked on a “larger” and ongoing hybrid (fiction, memoir, script, poetry) writing project that involves my great-grandmother, the remarkable stage and screen actress Beryl Mercer. She was quite a renowned character performer of the 1930s, and considering obstacles she endured to become who she was, a feminist exemplar. I’m channeling her and imagining into various roles together as we investigate family and societal ills, as well as achievements and ongoing patriarchal damage spanning a century. For me, this is a major creative undertaking—in this case, that’s an appropriate word!


Here's one of my favorite poems from Michelle Bitting’s new collection:


The Unmaking


Where brightness goes to die

after years of settling its joy in our lap

the husk of all we prized and carried

just as my son clutched that four-pawed warmth

in his hope-stripped hands

surrendering our furry bundle

in an old blue baby blanket

Dachshund-Beagle-Chihuahua mutt

the dwindling fruit of his ruined heart

driven to the mercy hotel in the dead of night

because this suffering we could no longer abide

and so passed on to the doctor

at the all-hours clinic

a kind, white-coated vet who nodded

a solemn You’re doing the right thing

after I stammered Maybe a different medicine?

the twin neithers of her eyes meeting mine

silence dropping its dirty oars

breaking the human surface

rowing us closer

Who asks for this?

my son’s beggared hand finding me

our palms’ salt rivers twining

reading each other

our runned-over prayer

completing the circle

as we turned to find the door, the lot, our keys, our car

our way home in a vacant dark

of dreaming streets

first pocketing his collar, some paperwork

how sweetly he looked at us

as the last light left

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Along the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in France

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes in 1878 about his 140-mile (225 km) hike through the mountains and fields of central France. Stevenson’s book was prophetic—he spoke so eloquently about our need to reconnect with the natural world in the early stages of the industrial age. That was a time when most educated people were wild about machines and factories and could not yet imagine their negative consequences.

Robert Louis Stevenson, around the time he wrote
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes
Here’s a quote from Stevenson’s book where he talks about sleeping outdoors, a passage that gives a flavor of his worshipful attitude toward nature: “A faint wind, more like a moving coolness than a stream of air, passed down the glade from time to time; so that even in my great chamber the air was being renewed all night long. I thought with horror…of hot theatres and passkeys and close rooms. I have not often enjoyed a more serene possession of myself, nor felt more independent of material aids. The outer world, from which we cower into our houses, seemed after all a gentle habitable place; and night after night a man’s bed, it seemed, was laid and waiting for him in the fields, where God keeps an open house.”

Wildflowers in the Cévennes mountains

Stevenson wrote this book about his solitary interactions with nature, but Travels in the Cevennes has resonated with so many people. This slim volume has had an amazing ripple effect! Currently thousands of hikers every year retrace Stevenson’s route. A small percentage even attempt it with a donkey.

Hiker struggling with recalcitrant donkey.

The reach of Stevenson’s message has actually increased geometrically in recent years. The engines driving that were the publication of a bande dessinée (graphic novel or comic book) of Stevenson’s book in France by Juliette Lévéjac, and the recent release of a charming rom-com film My Donkey, My Lover & I (Antoinette dans les Cévennes). The film, which stars Call My Agent phenom Laure Calamy, tells the story of a school teacher who stalks her crush in the Cévennes, with a donkey as moody and lovable as Stevenson’s Modestine. Stevenson’s book has now become a cultural phenomenon in France and has inspired the hikers who follow in his path. Recently my partner and I walked three stretches of Stevenson’s path, through beautiful fields of wildflowers, up to peaks in the Cévennes mountains dusted with yellow broom and with sweeping views of green valleys, and passing by gorges of the Tarn River. We were impressed with how many hikers were walking the entire length of the trail, seeking to recreate Stevenson’s pilgrimage to nature.

Hiking near the Stevenson trail, in Bougès, France

In our own era, when our 24/7 connection to mobile phones, computers, and other devices severs us even more from the natural world, it’s not surprising that so many people want to disconnect from virtual reality and reconnect with actual reality. The extraordinary effect of Stevenson’s book a century and a half later shows how much impact an author can have over time—provided the author, like Stevenson, has foresight, authenticity, and original turns of phrase that touch the lives of others.


I Love Walking in France downloadable guidebook with information about trails, places to stay, and other great information.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Dion O’Reilly Guest Blog: Demoralization, No! Intention, Yes!

I want to admit something: I’ve been caught in an endless desire for acceptance as a writer. It began with seeking positive critiques in workshop groups and paying famous poets for feedback. Submitting my work has also stirred intense cravings to see my writing in print or online. But it has forced me to study journals, to reconnoiter the literary landscape, and to refine my poems to meet the challenge. As high as I feel when I receive a Yes, inevitably, a crash follows. That can lead to demoralization. Not only that, I’ve jonesed for better and better journals and publishers for my fix. Whenever I’m obsessively checking my emails or social media, it’s time for me to refocus on intention.

poet Dion O’Reilly
When I examine the culture of poetry, I sometimes think poets exist on a spectrum: on one end, those who rarely self-promote and quietly turn out a finely-crafted collection every seven years. On the other, poets who self-published a collection twenty years ago, and have taught high-profile creativity classes and published how-to manuals ever since. In between these poles are poets with an array of accomplishments and varying levels of social media presence. Some write essays like this one. Some teach in MFA programs. Some record and sell craft talks. Some offer podcasts or webinars.

At all spots on that spectrum, poets offer something for someone. I just want to understand where I feel comfortable—and to set my intention accordingly.


For now, my main priority is to dramatize experience, to stand at honesty’s precipice and jump. Then poetry never disappoints and is pleasurable. Even if my poems remain unpublishable, the process is satisfying, leads to greater insights, and sometimes (Hallelujah!) results in “good” poems.


The same is true of the thrill of discovering poems—it’s like finding an absorbed twin. In fact, when I don’t have an engaging book to study, I feel lost. Meeting poets, befriending poets, entering a community of poets is likewise satisfying and provides warm connections.


I don’t want to discount ambition. It moves me, motivates me, and informs me. No one’s pure. I think the trick is to be self-aware, to track what the mind is doing, dis-aggregate the information, and explore what feels valuable. For example, my mentors have followed a trajectory to impressive fame. But there are many ways to skin poetry! By remaining in my own intention, I can be both thrilled to see my poet friends achieve, and also study my vocation’s pathways. Why respect one publisher or one way over another? Why not democratize the journey?


This might seem off topic, but bear with me: In my childhood and into my twenties, I struggled with an eating disorder—an addiction really. I felt fat and ugly. But, through therapy and twelve-step programs, I strived to ignore the disparaging voices—if I couldn’t believe I was worthwhile, I could at least act like I did. I also had to reset my intention—to care for myself in order to be a better person, kinder, and more present—and not because I wanted to be hot and skinny. 


Writing’s the same: when I started out as a poet (and even now sometimes) my disparaging voice whispered, Hey, Bitch, your poems are ugly! But my better angel said: Honey! Don’t listen! Just lace up that corset and go! I realized my intention should not be to “fix” myself with recognition, not to write “good” poems, but rather to work at feeling poetry’s pleasures, to enter poetry—to resolutely craft the rawness of life—in doing so, I might become more mindful, insightful, empathetic, and content.


Besides, self-disgust—anything I feel—is worth writing about, if I can just detach a little and examine it from a new angle.


One more thing: of course I’m insecure! I’m writing poetry—it’s the opposite of engineering. Everyone knows what engineering is for! But when I say I’m a poet, people ask if I make money at it, or they complain about their high school English teacher (which I also am). Or, if they’re a poet, they might ask what press I publish with, and if it’s not Norton, they’re unimpressed. Even among other poets, reaction to my intense, “confessional” poems can be dismissive.


Yes, self-disgust originates from others—from family, society, and some peers. That’s why overcoming demoralization by honing intention is a radical act. I also think finely crafting our deepest thoughts stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers in a healthy way. The trick is to develop a greater sensitivity to poetry’s mysteries at work in our minds. And finally, I want to share this advice: be your own damn self.

Dion O’Reilly’s debut book of poems, Ghost Dogs (Terrapin 2020), was shortlisted for the Catamaran Poetry Prize and the Eric Hoffer Award. Her work appears in The Sun, Rattle, Cincinnati Review, Narrative, and other magazines. Her second book, Sadness of the Apex Predator, was chosen for the Portage Poetry Series from University of Wisconsin’s Cornerstone Press and will be published in 2024. She facilitates workshops with poets from all over the U.S. and hosts a poetry podcast at The Hive Poetry Collective.

Dion O’Reilly’s most recent book, highly recommended!
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry