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Sophomore Slumps ~ Real or Old Husband’s Tales?

typewriterGetting a book of poetry accepted by a publisher can be a heady experience akin to euphoria (or maybe “me-phoria” is a better word). Is it any wonder that there might be a hangover, then?

I’m speaking of the sophomore slump, the term used for athletes, students, and artists who worry they will never match initial heights as they tackle new challenges and attempt to not only match but better their first success. Is this “slump” real, or is it just another old husband’s tale?

Oddly, when you get a book published and finish the hard work or working with an editor to get it ready for publication, you reward yourself with a writing vacation. Bad, bad, bad! This is not what writers do. They don’t wake up every day and say, “I don’t have to write today (or this month) because, look at that! I’ve got a shiny new book for the world to see!”

As the seasoned veterans will tell you, “Big deal. Writers write. So don’t make like Orpheus and look back now, start playing again.”

OK. Got it. But now you’re holding yourself to higher standards. Are these new poems better than the ones between the first book’s covers? And shouldn’t they be?

You see the problem. Suddenly the inner critic, already notoriously negative, becomes tougher still. And, as rejections from journals flow in from editors completely unimpressed with your cover letter citing a debut poetry collection, doubt begins to creep in and take hold.

“Was that it?” you wonder. “Am I one and done?”

Hardly. Take a look at the publishing histories of many poets and you’ll find that the arc from early poetry to more sophisticated later poetry is long and gradual. With the machete of words, you must hack your way through an Amazon forest of poems before discernible changes begin to appear.

Meaning? The sophomore slump is actually similar in nature to the work you produced as a freshman phenom. That you might produce worse is just another nagging falsehood you have to deal with as a writer. Rejection is part of the game and will remain so–even if you have four or five books of poetry to your credit.

Sure, once you make it to the Promised Land, where you have name recognition from summiting the toughest markets like Poetry and those august university magazines that are way past June and July and have been publishing verse since Frost was a school teacher, you can count on getting accepted more often even when you put out slightly sub-par stuff, but those days are so far away that you don’t even want to think about seeing them with the naked eye.

Instead, trust in yourself (who else will?), write and, most of all, revise, revise. In the almost words of the book/movie Field of Dreams, “If you write it, they will come–and they don’t care whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior.”

Amen to that.


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Rejections. They’re part of the game when you’re a writer. You bundle up some poems, send them out, hope for the best.

But sometimes you feel confident. The reason? You do what you’re supposed to be doing. You heed the editors’ cries and actually read the poems they publish “to get an idea of what we like.” And sometimes you wonder about poems they like. Why on earth would an editor say “I do” to a poem like that? Why would she marry herself to such a lame excuse for poetry?

There are a few reasons. Sometimes, just as you want to promote your own poetry by getting it published, editors want to promote their journals by publishing known names they can splash on their covers, thus upping the “prestige factor” of their magazine. In that case, real estate is sucked up by writers who sometimes live on past reputations as much as present merit.

Or sometimes questionable poems just fit an editor’s personal quirks. He likes that style. He likes form poems. He likes rhyme in a free-verse world. He likes that topic.

The same holds for rejected poems that, by all accounts, seem as strong or stronger than what goes into the journal. It could be you’re not a known entity and thus, don’t even get a true hearing. Private country club-itis stops you at the door. End of story. Or it could be, as is true with students taking high-stakes tests in schools, the mood, health, or temperament of the editor that particular day worked against your poem.

Then again, it could be a numbers game. Many submissions are only partially read by readers helping an editor out. They may stop reading, mid-poem (or even four lines in) if, quite frankly, they don’t like how it starts. I dare say (but fear to say it), some submissions are rejected without being read at all. Is this really possible, you ask? Of course. Anything that’s possible can and will occur. Who knows, really?

Which is not to say I’m questioning the integrity of editors. The vast majority are overworked and dedicated to a cause we mutually deem important. I’m simply saying editors are human, and thus subject to human weaknesses.

To think of rejections this way can only be helpful to writers, who have to understand it as a numbers game being played in an existential world of organized (Submittable, anyone?) chaos. If your work is good–or certainly as good as work you’re seeing published–it will eventually take root somewhere. But it will not necessarily be automatic. Or quick.

The system does not work that way. Not until your name is Billy Collins or Mary Oliver.