(This post was updated on August 15, 2023, to clarify a comment from Joshua Gage.)
So, you’ve written and edited a set of ten amazing haiku. You’ve studied the markets and found the perfect place to submit. You are now awaiting a response from the editor. And there it is—another rejection.
Finding a way to cope with rejection may not be critical to your success as a haiku poet, but it certainly makes things easier.
”I always think it’s better to be rejected for a haiku that’s ‘interesting’ than to have a formulaic haiku accepted. Rejection is part of the whole, just as acceptance is. The first book I wrote was about ceramics – I’d invested three years of research into it. It was rejected eleven times before a publisher took it. It puts all my other rejections into perspective. If I’m rejected multiple times by a journal I take a break from submitting to them – sometimes it’s merely the case of two people (editor & poet) walking different paths. And that’s fine. That’s just life. The key thing isn’t to personalise it. Sometimes I’ve felt that an editor ‘got it wrong’ then, re-reading a couple of years later realise they were bang on the nail. Rejection is something to learn from, and there is always a positive in it, even if the positive is realising that your work just doesn’t ‘sit well’ with a journal.” 🙂 — Al Peat, 2022 Touchstone Award Winner for Individual Haibun
Here are additional strategies, suggestions, and thoughts to consider when your haiku is returned to you.
Cry and eat ice cream
One of my haiku friends suggested this coping method as a joke, but I think there’s merit to it. Sometimes you just need to wallow for a bit, admit that rejection stings, and acknowledge your loss before you can move on.
Embarrassing as it is to admit, I am motivated by jealousy. Not every haiku rejection I experience is crushing or even note-worthy, but if I don’t place in a contest and find myself jealous of the winners, I have learned to take that as a sign that I need to keep submitting. If I care so much, the competition must matter a lot to me.
Complain to your friends but . . .
If you feel the need to vent about a particular haiku journal, editor, or contest, it’s wise to share your complaints with a select few, preferably with those outside of the poetry community. Here’s the thing—and I learned this the hard way—if you are new to a group, you may not know anyone, but that doesn’t mean the group isn’t interconnected. If your chosen confidant can’t keep a secret, your words may be repeated behind your back and you could be forever linked to something you said off-the-cuff.
Think before posting criticism on social media too. I have seen poets vent on Twitter (I can’t bring myself to call it X), and then seemingly regret their words and remove them. After a comment is posted, though, it can be hard to take back, and harder still for those of us who saw it to forget. Once, I witnessed a poet describe the unfairness and large ego of a particular editor. The poet thought their complaint was anonymous since they didn’t mention the editor by name in the post. But they quoted from their rejection letter, and I recognized the editor’s writing style.
I’m not saying that you can’t complain or call out unfairness in the haiku community or elsewhere when you see it. But you should know to whom you speaking. (And, for the record, don’t complain about a teacher to another parent unless you can really trust them, or your words might get back to the teacher and you’ll be called into the principal’s office and written up on a performance plan.)
Accept the odds
If you consider my ten-poem example earlier, a successful submission might only net one accepted haiku. That means that 90% of a haiku poet’s work could be rejected even when that poet is “successful” at publication.
“Rejection is a natural part of the poetry submission process, and all poets working in haiku will enjoy it more if they see it as a form of meditation, an opportunity to center and ground yourself in the cosmos, rather than some indictment of skill or prowess. You won’t often get feedback, but neither should you necessarily give up on a piece without seeing if it fits in well with another journal’s needs.” — Bryan Thao Worra, Lao Minnesotan Poet Laureate and former President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association
Know you’re not alone
In volume 6, issue 66 of failed haiku, more than 150 poets shared senryu that had previously been rejected. In fact, it was a requirement for publication in that particular issue!
“Everyone gets rejected — and dejected. This chapbook should have a huge following.”
Joshua Gage, publisher at Cuttlefish Books, offers that “[h]aiku poets need to remember the 100 rule and actually believe in it.” I wasn’t familiar with the “100 rule,” and I found more than one definition in play for it. But whether a poet commits 100% to writing haiku or spends one hundred hours of writing haiku yearly, it sounded like good advice.
I followed up with Josh for clarification and his actual advice is even better:
“A journal, in general, will only accept about 1% of what they receive. And that’s after they eliminate the dreck.
Therefore, a poem should expect to be rejected 100 times before it gets snagged, simply by math. I don’t know the numbers, but it would be curious to see percentages. I’m sure journals like Failed Haiku or similar have higher acceptance rates than Mayfly, but I’d be curious to know the numbers. I know there was a survey from the 90s or early 2000s, but a new one might be in order.
I think understanding publishing from a editor’s perspective helps, too. All editors have agendas, and knowing those agendas and aesthetics helps. But it’s mostly a numbers game. You have to play the odds, and odds are your poem will be rejected 100 times before it’s snagged. Anything less is lucky!”
Rewrite your work
Personally, I’ve decided that for each of my haiku, I will keep editing and resubmitting them until they are accepted somewhere, or until I am thoroughly sick of them. This method lends itself to a lot of revision. This piece of mine was rejected nine times before it landed a home at Haiku in Action on week 8 of 2022. I wrote it after a trip to California in 2016:
my childhood beach
lost to erosion
“[You] can make brilliant changes in the fragment and phrase and turn [your rejected haiku] into an acceptance! Climbing up small hills and mountains give a special energy to our physical and mental attitude, [similar to how] edits and rearranging the words become solid haiku . . . Even diamonds shine only when they are polished well.”
She suggests that poets keep a separate folder or file of rejected haiku and try shuffling various fragments and phrases.
Reframe how you think about rejection
“Evaluating the notions of acceptance and rejection I held, I compared haiku journal submissions to dating, even though this is something of a stretch. But I found my way to a new relationship to rejection, which was freeing because it made things feel less personal when the poems I submitted were not accepted. I told myself that the poems were not well matched with the journal and/or the current editor. I even came up with an alternative term for rejection: the poems were simply unchosen or unselected, and both these words sounded much more impersonal than did rejection.”
“In my submission records, I always say a poem is returned, never rejected. That helps to never think of my poems as being rejected.”
Michael goes on to say:
“But not getting anything accepted from a submission can still sting, especially for those new to haiku. One way to lessen that sting is to write more. I don’t mean right after poems are returned but all the time. The more poems you write, the stricter you can be in selecting what you send out, meaning that they will be better poems and less likely to be returned. But more than that, your greater number of poems will reduce the ‘weight’ on any individual poem.
I once had a poem returned by a major haiku journal, only to have that poem win the HSA’s Henderson Award, which is just one of several ways that some returns may have nothing to do with the quality of the poem. But if you repeatedly get returns, some humility and openness to learning more about haiku may be in order. Or maybe you’re sending senryu to a gendai haiku journal and need to read the submission guidelines more closely. No matter what, keep reading, keep writing, and keep submitting. And remember that publication is not the only way a poem can be validated.
Don’t take ‘rejection’ too seriously. However, don’t take ‘acceptance’ too seriously either. They are both subjective.”
Recognize that your work may not be a good fit for a particular journal or contest
“A haiku is chosen because a reader connects to it, loves it, enjoys it, is moved by it, or in some way finds it interesting. Even the best haiku don’t work for everyone. So submissions should be considered as an offered gift . . . not everyone is the right person to receive it. Editors are looking for poems they love enough to share with their readers.”
And sometimes, editors make mistakes. Once, I was co-editing a poetry collection with a friend. We were considering a poem with a scientific term in it, but I couldn’t get past the way the poet chose not to capitalize this acronym. I was insistent that the word needed capitalization; the poet was equally insistent that to do so would ruin the poem. It took me years to realize it, but the poet was right.
“I think that if you send out a submission and it’s not accepted that does not always mean that it is not good. Sometimes it needs revision, sometimes it doesn’t. I have had haiku or tanka not accepted and then I will submit them to a contest and win an award. If you submit it’s not easy but you have to be able to accept that not everything will be accepted. If I submit to a journal a couple times and I’m not accepted with the same editor I will stop submitting to that journal. Just remember JK Rowling—she was rejected over and over again then she finally found a book publisher that loved her work and now she’s a multi-millionaire. Just keep writing because you love to write—that’s what I do. If you get accepted that’s a plus, if you win an award that’s even better. I still love to write and I will continue to write, that’s my mantra.” — Pamela A. Babusci, Editor of the art of tanka
In his Frogpond article, “Beyond Rejection in Haiku,” Robert Epstein writes:
“. . . If I regarded the poem as good enough and publishable, I took heart in knowing that I could include the poem in a book of my own poetry. I am willing to confess here that the thought of publishing my own poems rejected by one or more editors gave me both a sense of independence and a devilish sense of satisfaction.”
Self-publication may be the best vehicle for your haiku, especially if your work defies convention. Tia Haynes and Jonathan Roman, for example, self-published their collection on religious trauma, After Amen: A Memoir in Two Voices. This book was awarded an honorable mention in the Touchstone Book Awards for 2021.
Final thoughts on rejection
“Remember that poetry is just a form of art and all art is subjective. There is no right and wrong. It is a matter of taste and preference. That said, of course, look at your submission…is there anything glaring like are all of your poems on the same topic? If the editor already had a better poem on that one topic, you did yourself a disservice by not sending a variety of topics. Next time, be sure to mix it up.
There is also the matter of fit for the journal itself. Your writing style or the particular poems you sent this time may not be a good fit for the place you sent them. Pay really good attention to the style and mood of the place you are sending. I feel like this is something many writers don’t have a good grasp on. That said, I encourage people to still send poems that are uniquely themselves. Editors should read all styles of haiku/senryu and be challenged to question any biases they may have. But, a place that publishes all nature poems isn’t going to publish topical senryu, as an example. Sometimes it is obvious, as an editor, when someone has not read the journal.
It took me a while to figure it out with certain journals myself. One journal took me 2 years to get into because I really didn’t understand what they were going for and the editor didn’t really ‘get’ my work. But I kept submitting and it paid off. And now I have a lovely relationship with the editor. I encourage people to keep going versus quitting. Don’t be afraid to have a dialogue about it with the editor if you are genuinely confused about what you are missing. They may be able to give you some direction.
As others have said, I’ve had several ‘rejects’ get scooped up within days by another esteemed journal or win contests. I look at a *returned* submission as a new opportunity to submit and really nothing else. I know it is hard to look at it like that when you are starting out, but instead of publication in and of itself being a goal, I like to think of honoring my experience as my goal.
PATIENCE. I like to think more long-term. In the end, excellent poems that don’t get published in journals still make it into books, so while I keep sending them out I still know they will be published eventually so I don’t stress about it. Even if you end up publishing it yourself, there is nothing wrong with that and you get to look at it in print and hold it in your hand – and give one to your mom (or whoever is important in your life)! There is more to all of this than the journal hamster wheel.”
How do you cope with the rejection of your haiku? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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My thanks to Pamela A. Babusci, Chuck Brickley, Randy Brooks, Joshua Gage, Lakshmi Iyer, Lorraine Padden, Al Peat, Robin Smith, Michael Dylan Welch, Bryan Thao Worra, and my anonymous ice-cream loving friend for sharing their thoughts on this topic with me.
(A final thought: Any errors in the text are likely the result of my new puppy biting my sandals as I wrote this.)