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Haiku Maven: The Heart of the Harsh Rejection

hm_logo Dear Haiku Maven, Let’s talk for a second about the words and tone an editor uses when rejecting a submission. A rejection can be an ego-bruising event for any artist, no matter the number of previous acceptances. Those who can shrug it off have my admiration, but for many of us it takes a toll. The difference between a split-second and several-hours’ toll is how the editor conveys the turndown. Here is a recent example of a respectful editor’s rejection, “Thank you for sending your work to us. I am sorry we cannot take your haiku for our current issue but look forward to hearing from you in our next reading period.” And a tactless one, “I will pass on your haiku. There were many other good haiku. Keep working on them.” While it is true many editors receive hundreds of submissions, it seems to me that the burden of that workload and consequently, the tone and words of the acceptance or rejection should not fall on the submitter, should they?

Signed, Haiku Submitter

Dear Haiku Submitter, Haiku Maven read your letter with keen interest and not only because it raises interesting issues. Most haiku editors would be surprised to learn that their rejection of work had the power to cause hours of turmoil to the submitter. As in other fields of endeavor, some editors are skilled at rejections and others never mastered the “plays nicely with others” part of kindergarten. In the two examples in your query, Haiku Maven surmises that the first is a “canned response” while the second is an actual response, although rather inelegantly phrased. Haiku Maven also knows of instances in which more than a few well-mannered haiku editors received rude responses to their own politely phrased rejections. At a minimum, rather than worry about whose burden it is when it comes to rejection responses, Haiku Maven suggests you heed these words of Eleanor Roosevelt (which today can be found on exorbitantly priced paperweights), “No one can ever make you feel inferior without your consent.” The next time you receive a harsh rejection letter, press the “permanent delete” key or if it is a letter, do what Stephen King used to do and nail it to the wall. Then, if you truly believe it is your best work, submit the rejected haiku to another top publication or well-known haiku contest. Finally Haiku Maven suggests if you have the opportunity to attend haiku conferences, do so. There are more editors at these conferences than Haiku Maven can shake a stick at. Once you meet these editors in person, you may discover that their array of superpowers is somewhat limited.

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The Haiku Maven posts each Friday to The Haiku Foundation blog. Haiku Maven offers advice about awkward situations involving haiku poets. The word maven comes from the Yiddish meyvn, meaning “one who understands.” Please use our Contact page to send a question. Haiku Maven will select a pseudonym for you based on your question. Click this link to see the Haiku Maven archive. Feel free to leave comments.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. As far as I could tell, Lorin, the sting in that “tactless” comment was not the “I will pass on your haiku.” That is, as you said, an acceptable [mild] expression; it was the added, “There are many other good haiku.” That seemed a bit harsh and quite personal.

  2. “I will pass on your haiku.”

    I had to smile when I read this, as I’ve had the “I’ll pass on these” response from an editor. After my eyebrows came down from the ceiling the first time I received that response, I managed to put the inappropriate register in context. As a mother who spent long years attempting to convince my teenaged-to-early-30s son that a polite refusal was more along the lines of “No, thank you” than “I’ll pass on that”, I can only imagine that the editor in question picked up the insolent habit innocently enough within a peer group which was influenced by the English lessons given in the popular film, ‘The Terminator’, (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) Enough said.

    The other rejection response I find irritating and amusing goes along the lines of “Thank you for your wonderful/ beautiful/superb haiku. We haven’t selected any of them.”

    “Why not, if you think they are so wonderful/beautiful?”, one is tempted to respond.

    But these are minor irritations. What I appreciate most is a response, acceptance or rejection, within an expected time frame. The rudest policy a journal can take is no acceptance/ rejection response at all, with the implied “You can wait to read what we publish to see if your work has been accepted or not”. An inconsiderate and rather imperious attitude, imo.

    As an editor, what I find most annoying is people who take a general call for submissions to be a personal invitation that entails a promise to publish some of their haiku. And those who submit their work after the clearly stated deadline for a given issue and then argue (even demand!) that I should consider it for that issue anyway.

    Neal, you have the right, as we all do, to be selective as to whom or where to send your work for consideration. If you require that your haiku be considered only by editors who’ve studied in Japan and acquired trade certificates or PHDs or whatever in ‘the art of Japanese haiku’, then by all means make sure that you submit your work only to those you consider qualified ‘experts’. Or, if you are what you consider to be an expert, publish your haiku yourself. What’s the use of sneering at those you don’t consider qualified to assess your work, especially EL haiku editors?

  3. I agree with Merrill that returned haiku gave me a chance to review and rewrite. I mainly learned how to write better poems by analyzing wwhat was not accepted more than what was accepted. As in life, it is the difficult times that challenge and support our greatest growth. I never had an editor make a harsh comment. The harshest comment for me was receiving no comment, and I understand that the time constraints for these hard working individuals does not always allow for helpful notes on submissions. However, that being said, if an editor was rude in a condescending manner (and this has never happened to me), I would not submit to that editor again simply because this would indicate that we were not alligned in our thought processes so why waste my time? I also never looked at returned submissions as ‘rejections’ – they wre simply ‘returns’ and went on to a new life as some of my best poems. I have a sign on my desk that is very helpful in all phases of life: “Freedom begins when expectations end”. I’m sorry, but I do not know who wrote that gem which is a guiding light for me.

  4. I guess I’ve submitted so many embarrassing haiku that got printed! that when a haiku was rejected it almost felt like a relief!!! I found out a long time ago that haiku has many forms and it changing all the time as new voices enter the art. I also found out that some of my words meant one thing to me and quite another to others… which can be an eye opener. Another thing, when I entered haiku I found, since I write from isolation for the most part, it took awhile for some editors to get what is unsaid in my haiku, learning that if the editor didn’t get it, I’m sure those reading his journal would not get it either. So each rejection was a lesson for me to explore. I learned the most from some of my taciturn editors as I read their work and learned where THEY were coming from. I am most thankful for editors that would not publish something of mine that they thought might embarrass me five, ten years down the road. Since they had access to what was moving and forming in haiku, that was a true gift and I am grateful.

  5. I think that one of the things that prepared me to be an editor was the experience of having my own work returned. I’m sure that there were times when I presumed I could do it in a better way and, when I actually found myself making selections and returning work, I remembered what it had felt like on the other end. But it was also then that I realized how many good examples I’d been given. Bob Spiess and Francine Porad were especially helpful to me as editors who returned by work with comments.

    A favorite memory of a “rejection” involves Elizabeth Searle Lamb as editor of Frogpond. She returned a poem to me, saying that it was interesting but that it had an awkward first line. She said she’d like to see it again if I came up with a solution for that first line. I worked on it but decided that, while it was somewhat awkward, I couldn’t do better. Just as I was considering where else to send it, I got a note from Elizabeth saying she had been thinking about the poem and, if it wasn’t promised somewhere else, she’d like to take it “as is.” The point of this, for me, is not so much that she ended up taking the poem as that she continued to think about it. I was impressed with that and, ever since I have gotten the chance, I have tried to be as thoughtful about what is presented to me.

  6. Dear Maven,

    An interesting topic, taken further by the responses.

    I am sure I have written thousands of “rejections” over the years in my role as Editor. I have also been on the other end many hundreds of times. I spend an inordinate number of volunteer hours trying to be personal and polite. Sometimes brief, even terse; other times teaching, giving help.

    To Neal I offer that I’ll be at HNA Long Beach in August and look forward to a good discussion over a few fine ales about roles of Editor and haiku submitter. Brief preview, an editor is judged by standing in the Haiku community, general opinion of the Journal itself, and to some extent the perceived ability as haiku writer of the Editor her/himself.

    [parts of this reply as follows to Maven were delivered as a speech, 24 April, 2004, to the annual Haiku Holiday held at Bollingbrook Farm near Chapel Hill by the North Carolina Haiku Society]

    DEAR EDITOR,

    OR:
    The Care and Feeding of your Haiku Editor
    [excerpted by the author]

    ***

    There are many ways to publicly share a haiku including, at least self publishing or vanity publication (editing one’s self); publishing a book through a for-profit publisher; sharing poems on-line (self-chosen); sending to a type of Internet “zine” which takes all offerings or guarantees that some of all offerings will be accepted; or by submitting to a journal which itself has total editorial control.

    Why make a submission to one of the latter kind? We are each fallible and can be blind to our own poetic creations. If one selects a journal and succeeds, then the poem bears the imprimatur of the journal. The reputation of the periodical and its editor(s) is imputed to the poem and to some degree to the writer. For some poets this enhances self image — look what I did! Most haiku poets realize the odd conjunction, the conflict, of their own ego with what should be an egoless Art. Publication in a genuinely edited magazine isn’t just a yardstick for self-measure, it is also a means to share.

    To perhaps state the obvious, one role of an editor is to edit at the word level. A writer has, in a sense, the benefit of an editor’s dictionary, manual of style, and experience. Beyond this, and particularly regarding haiku, are matters of both craft and the “Art” of haiku. Each can be appraised separately, but are completely entwined in a successful haiku.

    It is the nature of a haiku journal to publish according to a standard, a philosophy. Each editor (each journal) has the free will to accept or not by her or his own lights. Ultimately, a writer has complete control. A haiku or group of them is sent to a publication to be considered. This is a voluntary action.

    Any submitter of haiku for publication needs to know there are several hypotheses to consider in the event a poem is not accepted. Writers do not always know how their efforts are perceived by a reader/listener. So, one hypothesis is that the poem is not of high quality — even if an author thinks it is. Another, that it has good haiku qualities but is not in line with some or all of the guidelines of that journal. It is frequently the case that a decent haiku is just edged out by another poem that, in the opinion of the editor(s), is slightly better. Reasons of space do intrude. Some journals have a fixed limit of pages or number of haiku per issue. Some others are “relatively” open ended. Yet another hypothesis could be that the critical reader just misses it — is not in tune with the poem. No one is perfectly wise, especially since Master Basho has been dead for more than three centuries. The last things I would assume from the failure of one of my haiku to be published is that the editor was either stupid, not knowledgeable, or mean. This is always a relationship of mutual benefit. Journals need poems; some writers wish to share gladly, to be published.

    Robert Spiess (1921-2002) was Editor of _Modern Haiku_ for 25 years. From his _A Year’s Speculation On Haiku_, Modern Haiku Press, 1995:

    “Editors of haiku periodicals must be merciless in their grandmotherly kindness.”

    I’ll quote one of Bob’s ballpoint, scrawled turndowns (yes, to me from _Modern Haiku_): “Dear Paul, The publication of _x_ will not do any good for your reputation in the haiku community.” Ouch! It took several years before I saw the flaws and understood him.

    ***

  7. In my log of haiku submissions, I use the term “Returned” rather than “Rejected.” Maybe that’s just semantics, but I believe it reflects the reality of the process better. Sometimes poems are returned because of personal taste (even if the poems are great), the journal was already full for that issue, or perhaps for other reasons that may have nothing to do with the quality of the work, or the editor may be inexperienced and not recognize the quality in your work. No biggie. Just send the poems somewhere else. Or sometimes they just make a mistake, perhaps because they have so many poems to review. I am grateful to Modern Haiku magazine for rejecting a poem I really liked, because it then won first prize in the Henderson Contest. Go figure.

    And here’s another story. When I edited Woodnotes and Tundra, I would occasionally offer feedback on submissions. I remember one time, on the same day, sending essentially the same paragraph of information to two different poets who seemed not to have encountered haiku as a literary art (they had sent pseudo-haiku that was perfectly 5-7-5 but had no other resemblance to haiku). About a week later, I received follow-up letters from both of these poets. One of them was very angry, and said “How dare I tell him how to write haiku.” And he went on for half a page. I hadn’t actually told how to write haiku. Rather, I had outlined the kind of haiku I was looking for, although I did use his haiku as examples of how they departed from what I was seeking (that was obviously too hard for him to take — it’s hard for any editor to know what an unknown submitter can or cannot take in terms of constructive criticism). The other letter (from a person who received essentially the same text, customized with that person’s poems as examples) was completely opposite. She thanked me profusely for such helpful guidance, and thanked me for spending the extra time to offer help when I could have just ticked a box on a form letter saying “no thanks.” So you can never tell with some people.

    Obviously, editors should think carefully about the tone of their replies, even if they use form letters. Those of us who submitted for decades to Robert Spiess will all know the encouraging tone of his “not quite” responses. But he didn’t use this phrase every time — I believe he used it only when he truly meant it. But whatever the case, editing is hard work. When I was editing Tundra, I recall getting something like 20,000 poems per year (and these were mostly longer poems, up to 13 lines, not just haiku, since the journal focused on poems of 13 or fewer lines). I accepted about 1 in 200 poems (most haiku journals accept a much higher percentage of submissions than that). It can be really hard to stay gracious as an editor under all that work, so I certainly understand if another editor sometimes gets a bit punchy.

    I recall a Japanese haiku master telling me that he reviewed 30,000 haiku EACH MONTH — a truly staggering and mind-numbing number — although he was just deciding yes or no on the poems, with someone else doing the work of publishing them (I don’t think any of them were responded to — you found out your poem was accepted when it appeared in the journal). The point here is to remember that editors are volunteering tons of time, so have some sympathy for their plight, too, even if they’re not always perfectly gracious in their rejection notes.

    As for the authority of editors, what you think of their authority as haiku arbiters is really not relevant. If you choose to submit to them, then you are automatically deferring to their authority, whether they’re experienced at haiku or not. The editor can choose whatever he or she likes for a journal. The editor may think he or she is selecting high-quality work, no matter how deluded they might be — or might not be. If that editor then starts offering corrections to returned submissions, then it’s easy enough for an experienced poet to reject any suggestions if the poet doesn’t agree. Beginners might not know when to trust such comments, though, if they don’t know the experience of the editor in question. There’s no need to submit to a journal if you have little or no respect for the editor.

    I once submitted 20 haiku to a journal, years ago, and was appalled that the editor accepted ALL of them. The editor immediately lost some of his credibility with me. Had he no discernment? No particular preferences or leanings that could help improve the journal? I’ve also received rejections of all submissions numerous times, whereupon I remind myself that I am still confident is all or most of the poems, and feel it is just a matter of getting each poem to the right place. But a thoughtful rejection of an entire batch of submissions can actually help build my respect for the editor, and it reminds me to be conscientious with my submissions.

  8. Rejection has two uses:
    1.) The bookmark in the subsequent publication to compare atrocities.
    2.) The catalyst to write.

    Lane

  9. The most useful rejection letter I ever received featured a handwritten post script signed by the editor- “Interesting failure.”

  10. I’m always delighted when an editor has anything to say beyond “yay” or “nay”. Most haiku publications, especially online journals, receive many, many submissions for each publication date – thousands of poems in some cases – and editors barely have time to eat, let alone write polite notes and critiques to all.

    Clearly, an editor’s choices are subjective (so don’t take it personally). Equally clearly, the quality of a publication is entirely dependent upon the quality of submission (so send them your very best work, not something you’re working on).

    There is one journal my work has appeared in over a long period. A recent “thanks but no thanks” was a valuable wake-up to, as Patrick says, focus and dig deeper. If you believe the rejected haiku to be sound, then stand by it and submit it elsewhere; if, after some consideration you find and remedy a weakness in it, remember to one day thank the editor.

    Journal editors work hard and receive little in the way of praise or appreciation.

  11. Every rejection is an opportunity for grace. After a rejection notice, I always try to go deeper into the experience I was attempting to render and often I discover new things. Yet it must be said, that I have encountered nothing but kindness and encouragement in the haiku community…many editors have gone out of their way to help me say what I was struggling to say.

    -Patrick

  12. @ Haiku Maven

    Speaking personally, I wouldn’t give a damn if you rejected any haiku I submitted. I’m fairly thick-skinned and anyway I write them for myself. If (e.g) I choose to show to you then that’s my look-out if you don’t like them.

    However, I AM interested in how you and your ‘Team’ (I assume) of arbiters found yourselves to be Experts in haiku . . . Did you study in Japan and have you the necessary ‘bits of paper’ and ‘letters’ after your names to say are qualified hiaku experts? Maybe you did a Correspondance Course to achieve your qualifications and expertise?

    I am assuming you do HAVE qualifications in the art of haiku of some sort because, if’n you don’t, then you’re no better than a bloke down the pub telling me, and all the other submitters of haiku, ” wurl, it’s orlright I s’pose, I dunno much abaht it, mind” . . . .

    So, please enlighten us as to you and your teams ‘fitness’ to judge other peoples haiku . . . .

    sougai wa
    rakka no sakura
    o-shikimono

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