Family Poems Are Hard–part 2

I left off part 1 of this topic saying that publishing my first book of family poems, Dance From Inside My Bones, was truly overwhelming.

For a number of reasons.

DanceBonesFrontCover

First, let me say, my experience with Snake Nation Press, where my manuscript won the Violet Reed Haas Award, was not one of those reasons.

The strong women editors at Snake Nation, Roberta George and Jean Arambula, were truly stellar to work with.

They lauded the honesty of my work, and had me attend the AWP conference in Atlanta for the book release.

Not for one minute, did I forget how fortunate I was to have my poetry manuscript published.

Getting a poem published is hard. Getting a book published is harder. I was one of the lucky ones.

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Yet, a part of me believed it was some sort of mistake.

That they announced the wrong winner and would take it back.

Removing word with pencil's eraser, Erasing mistake

A voice in my head (my mother’s) told me I didn’t deserve it.

Nonetheless, I was overjoyed, and deer-in-the-headlights scared.

deer in

At the AWP Snake Nation booth, I stood behind copies of my books, as thousands of people streamed by.

I am a terrible introvert. It took every ounce of bravado I had not to go to my hotel room and hide.

hiding

I smiled. I nodded I answered questions.

Mostly, the same one over and over–

what

My book is about family and growing up into a young woman. 

And the response was largely–

Oh, childhood nostalgia.

happy child

No, not that at all.

Actually, it was more like this–

crying

The problem was when I wrote the poems, I wasn’t thinking of some future point when I would have to physically stand in front of people and justify my work.

I wasn’t thinking about being there, in person with the book, putting a face to the autobiographical poems.

hiding-behind-book

When I was writing the poems, I was trying to put my experiences into words that might connect with others on the other side of the page.

Being in front of people with my book felt like one of those dreams where you are suddenly naked in public.

naked in public

I was more than uncomfortable. I was worried about being judged, or blamed.

I had written my truth, but I guess, I hadn’t yet claimed it. Not live and in-person, anyway.

I hadn’t accepted I had a right to that truth.

I hadn’t thought ahead to having to stand in front of folks and give readings.

I was really up there

But, I would give readings. And at Seattle’s Open Books, no less.

And I feared I would be hated for not saying Hallmark things about my mother. In this culture, and many others, the word mother is synonymous with sainthood.

But I didn’t have a Hallmark mother, nor a Brady Bunch family.

bbunch

And I had been in abusive situations with family members, but never told anyone, other than my therapist.

Now that the book was out, it felt like I was shouting it from the rooftops, telling the world.

shout

Well, anyone in the world who wanted to read Dance From Inside My Bones.

Then, there was the fact that all but one of those abusive family members were still alive.

What would they say, if they read my book?

account

Fortunately none of them wanted to read my book.

Which was a relief.

My mother said she knew it was “garbage” since I had written it.

I expected that. But it still hurt. Even now she’s dead, it’s still impossible to shut out my mother’s derisive voice in my head.

dead mother

So what really happened at each reading I gave?

People were polite, applauded.

polite

Several people bought my book.

Sometimes one or two folks asked me to sign it.

But one person came up and confided in me that my work spoke to them about what they’d been through.

That person thanked me.

And I cried tears of joy as we hugged.

connected

I realized I’d come full circle.

Poetry saved my life as child in harrowing circumstances. Poems reached across time, distance, gender, culture, and spoke to me of survival. Poems taught me I wasn’t alone in my suffering. And if others could survive, so could I.

bridge

Finally, my poems provided that message and reached out as well.

My words only connected with one other living soul. And that was more than I could ever hope for.

I may not have changed the world.

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I may not have bettered that person’s life.

But for one brief moment in time, that person knew they were not alone.

And it was enough. For both of us.

poetry matters

But still, I thought, I would publish no more autobiographical poems. I had said all there was to say.

Little did I know…

[Next time, Family Poems Are Hard–part 3]

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The Road Paved With Rejection

Rejection never gets easier. Not for me. I know rejection is the more likely outcome whenever I submit a completed poem or fiction piece or essay.

If for no other reason, than because of the sheer quantity of writing being submitted everywhere. Publications have limited space and unlimited selection. It’s a numbers game.

Rejection Just Ahead Green Road Sign with Dramatic Storm Clouds and Sky.

But when rejection comes, it always feels personal. Even though I understand from a rational standpoint that it isn’t. I feel like I am being told I suck. I don’t matterNothing I do matters. I am the worst writer in the world. Maybe the universe.

As an editor myself who has to parcel out rejection–something that hurts as much as receiving it–I know rejection is about the taste of the people choosing. And their mileage may vary from my own.

Rejection is subjective. Taste is individual. Not absolute.

Editors’ differing aesthetics, their biases, having to read the thousandth dead grandmother poem that month. And their grandmother is in the hospital. And she may not live. Or maybe that editor just discovered their father cheated on their mother with a person who has the same unusual first name as me.

Whatever the reason, rejection still hurts. And for me, it’s a physical pain as well. A blow to the chest, making it hard to breathe. Which makes sense according to MRI research. Rejection lights up the same areas in the brain as physical injury. There’s a great article on the TED site by psychologist Guy Winch that talks about this: Why rejection hurts so much

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The good news is, once I catch my breath, I’m ready to try submitting again. Mostly because of the voice in my head. Thankfully, that voice belongs not to me, but to my very first poetry mentor, Ottone “Ricky” Riccio, who taught at the Boston Center For Adult Education for several dozen years.

Ricky said, “Don’t call yourself a poet until you’ve received a thousand rejections.” What he really meant was that success at submitting doesn’t make you worthy. Passion for writing makes you a poet. And if you have enough passion that you’ve submitted a thousand or more times, you’ve got what it takes.

By these guidelines, I can call myself a poet many times over. Thousands of rejections.

Ricky didn’t place much value in the hierarchies of literary publishing. He encouraged sharing your work, but getting it out into the world any way you could. He suggested students take a handful of magnets and post poems on the refrigerators in the appliance section at Sears.

Ricky was an early proponent of self-publishing. Way before print-on-demand came into being. Many of his photocopied, hand-stapled collections stand among my all-time favorite poetry collections.

dealing with rejection

In my heart, I know sharing work matters. During my childhood, growing up in harrowing conditions, poetry saved my life. It still does. Every day.

As a child, I saw how people who’d suffered loss, and tragedy, and all kind of hurt, wrote about their experiences in poems. Across distance, time, gender, culture, these folks spoke directly to my wounds. They lived to write about what they’d been through–a testimony to survival, and likely, even thriving.

I’ve come to believe that our words reach those who need them most. However that happens–whether publication in a literary journal, or in the community newsletter, or posting online.

Poetry is my spiritual practice. Getting work into the world is a necessary part of that practice. Rejection is a piece of it as well. And the hurt. So I rest, take some deep breaths, and keep on. I hope you will too.

heart road

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Time Travel Coming Soon!

Some of you know that I’m a huge time travel enthusiast–reading about it, watching movies, delving into the scientific possibilities. 

delaurian

And I’ve always wanted to write a time travel novel.

Well now I finally have!

It’s a romantic adventure called Time Flash: Another Me.

There are no DeLoreans, but there is a wacky scientist.

And a possibly-magical cat.

tt quote smith

I’ll be releasing my novel soon.

Stay tuned for more details!

 

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Out into the world…

progress report

 

Met my submission goal for the month of February.

 

Here’s what I sent out into the world:

1 personal essay

1 short story

5 poems to a contest

7 poems to several venues

1 application for a writing class

 

I’ve seen other writers set a goal of 100 rejections per year. I’m going to aim for 180.

 

That means I have to submit at least 15 individual things a month.

 

If I get rejected every time, I will easily slide into my goal.

 

But what if someone says yes?

 

Well then, good problem to have. I’ll just need to keep writing and keep submitting new work.

 

Either way, rejection goal, here I come!

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