Advice for Poets:
What it means when a journal says no (or anything other than yes) LizKayatBurntDistrict May 3, 2014
I've talked before about publication, but most of my advice has had to do with how to initiate a submission, and now I want to talk about what to do when you get a response. We've been sending a lot of responses at burntdistrict the past few weeks. Obviously, everyone is hoping for the acceptance (really, on our side too) but there are basically four other responses that you might get (from any journal).
1. The Form Rejection (though honestly I prefer to call it a decline): This rejection means nothing. Or it means many things. It means so many things it's impossible to cull the meaning from it. It might mean that your work is so awful the editors couldn't bear to read past the second line. It could mean that your work is really spectacular, but not in an aesthetic the journal normally prints. It could mean that your poem is really similar in theme to a poem the editors just took but not in a way that could open a conversation between the two if they were to print them side by side. It could mean that the editors read so many poems one night, they fell out of love with poetry and should have stopped reading 3 submissions ago but didn't. It could be that your poem included an & (which is a particular pet peeve of Jen's), or that you capitalized the first letter of every line (which is a particular pet peeve of mine) and so it already had a strike against it going in.
In short, yes,it could mean that there is something wrong with your poems, but it also could mean that these particular editors just didn't fall in love with them.
So, what do you do with this? Nothing. You keep sending the poems out to other journals and see what happens. You should try the same journal that rejected this batch with newer and better poems in 6-12 months.
Occasionally, people reply to these, but I don't recommend it. Every so often, we get an outraged response (often in verse) from a writer who is pissed off that we have failed to recognize their genius. Even if your note is just a polite thank you, I always get a little jolt of dread when I see a response to a decline. (No one's ever going to hold it against you for sending a thank you, but it's not expected or worth your time.)
2 The Encouraging Form Rejection: This rejection means that the editors did not fall in love with these poems but they liked aspects. They liked the themes or the imagery or maybe just one line. They see promise in your work (if you're just starting out), or they looked at your bio and know that you sent them your "B" work. They hope that you try them again.
Again, it's not necessary to reply. Send them another batch of newer and better poems in 6-12 months. Note that while these are two different responses, you should handle them in the exact same way. There's really no reason to go to Rejection Wiki to try to figure out what tier you're in unless, of course, you enjoy making yourself insane.
3 The Non-Form Rejection with Specific Feedback: This rejection is incredibly rare. The editors were really drawn to your work, to the possibility in your poems. They're going out on a limb in opening up a dialogue, so this is a big deal.
Now you reply. It takes so much time to write these, and also writers are crazy. It is not really fun to correspond with them about what's wrong with their work, so it is an incredible gift when an editor takes the time to do this. Maybe you disagree with their feedback, but they read your work closely and were invested enough to start a conversation. Be polite enough to reply graciously. They may ask you to revise and resubmit a specific poem or poems and you should do that. Take your time. Put real work in it. Know that they might still not publish your poems. Also, now that you have a better sense of what they like, put together a (newer and better) batch of poems and send it in 3-6 months (unless they specifically encourage you to resubmit sooner). In 6 months, they will still remember your name.
4 The Conditional Acceptance: The editors want to edit your work. This is what editors do. They tend to be good at it.
Say yes. If you don't trust them enough to take their advice, you shouldn't be sending them work in the first place. Granted, the first time it happens, you'll be like, tercets instead of couplets? But that changes everything! and you'll be super fucking upset about it. Get over it. People who know what they're talking about want to help you make your work better. Be grateful. And then spend some time thinking about the changes they made to your poem and see if you can apply it to the rest of your work. Seriously. A gifted editor will teach you how to write better poems if you pay close attention.