Vulnerability and the Submissions Process
Apr 28, 2017
By Colorado Review Associate Editor Denise Jarrott
It used to be the case that I had to consume the equivalent of a glass of wine before submitting a poem to a journal, just to take the edge off. My fears were as common as any writer’s fears: What if I get rejected? What if a journal accepts a poem, and then five years down the road I am ashamed to see it out in the world? What is “wrong” with a poem if a journal does not accept it? Should I change it? What if I care too much about the piece I am submitting?
Of course, I rarely submitted work to journals. I was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, and everything I read or wrote felt as if it were under a microscope. I wondered if it would be seen as hubristic to even try to send out a group of poems to a journal that I respected. So, I wrote poems in a kind of vacuum, and for a while, that was enough. I shared them with my partner and my teachers, but rarely with anyone else, even other writers. I was horrified at the idea of having my work out in the world, for everyone to parse through for clues to my life or inner states. So my poems accumulated, in their own anxious little world.
I wondered whether it was even worth it to try submitting to journals. Wasn’t it a little self-important to try putting my work out there? Did that indicate that I thought it was “good” or “finished?” There were too many what-ifs to count.
But when I came to CSU, I decided to try. Much about being here, among the people I met and the things I was asked to read, led me to decide that making my work available to a wider audience was enough. So I—minus the glass of wine—sent poems out. I got a few published, but the most satisfying feeling wasn’t seeing my work in print, or kind words from my fellow poets. It was the fact that the more vulnerable I made myself, the stronger I felt. I realized that I could write even explicitly about my life, my family and the people I know, send those poems about my life and the people in it to journals I admire, and rejection didn’t hold as much weight.
I grew to appreciate the innate vulnerability of the submissions process when I realized that there are human beings reading the work who don’t know me, who have their own lives and stories to tell. Since I have a tendency to take things personally, I had to exercise a sense of empathy. Readers and editors have jobs to do, and my poem may or may not affect them, and that is okay. I am also a reader and editor, and certainly some poems resonate with me while others leave a bad taste in my mouth. Regardless, I know there is hope and anxiety and stunning vulnerability behind a submission, and to read it is to cultivate a kind of compassion.
You never know who is on the other side of the computer screen or opening paper submissions. You never know who has had a glass of wine and sent out their poems for you to read. We open ourselves up to scrutiny, but also to the minds and hearts of another person. Submitting work is more than just a numbers game. It is a way to strengthen and humble yourself, to open yourself up, and that is worth every rejection in the world.