Thursday, July 18, 2013

Teachers and Poetry and Rejection Letters: A Rant

Every summer, going to the Frost Place fires me up again about teachers and teaching and poetry and the world. So this year, riding that storm of enthusiasm, I pitched an article idea to a major poetry magazine. Here's the email I wrote:
Dear ____: 
I direct the Frost Place Conference on Poetry & Teaching, which draws teachers from all over the continuum (K-12, urban/rural, community college/Ivy League . . . ), and I'm interested in writing a piece about the state of poetry in the classroom--in terms of how teachers are struggling with administrative and political mandates as well as how they are managing to keep it vital within their students and themselves.  
As a bit of background about myself: I have written essays for the Sewanee Review, the Threepenny Review, the Southern Review, etc. I've been associated with the Frost Place conference since 2009, and I work as a visiting writer in the schools. My third book of poetry is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press next spring. My blog has more details about my books and work. 
Looking forward to hearing from you!
Here's the email I received in return:
Dawn, my apologies for the delay in response, but I'm afraid this won't work for me.
Now, like most writers, I have received many hundreds of rejection letters. Most are blanket form letters; some are rude; a few are personal and helpful. This note was neither rote nor rude, yet it still managed to piss me off royally. I've simmered about it for a few days, partly because I've been too busy making pies to think coherently but also because I wanted to make sure that I wasn't simply grouchy about being rejected. That's a major danger with the acceptance-rejection process: it opens a door to a miasma of spite, victimized squealing, and generalized conspiracy-theory gloom that I particularly loathe in both myself and other writers.

But I've come to realize that this rejection is rankling for a different reason. After all, this was an article pitch. I wasn't turned down because my writing didn't attract the editor. I was turned down because the article idea didn't attract the editor. The more I think about this, the more shocked I get.

This particular famous poetry magazine is the organ of a rather well heeled foundation that spends considerable time headlining "education," "young people," "poetry in the schools," "reading resources," etcetera, etcetera. So why would an editor flatly dismiss an essay about poetry and education? As an article writer, I have a reputable-enough vita. The Frost Place is not a fly-by-night outfit: we have a long history of attracting faculty members whose work has appeared in the pages of this esteemed poetry journal, and I have published essays, articles, and poems in journals that are as well esteemed as this one.

In other words, I can't chalk up this rejection to a sulky (1) "the Frost Place is nobody" or (2) "Dawn is nobody." That leaves the subject of the pitch--the teachers--and this is what makes me so angry. If a foundation is going to spend millions of dollars promoting poetry in the schools, it damn well ought to take some time to figure out what's going on in the heads and hearts of the teachers who devote their lives to these students. "I'm afraid this won't work for me" is dismissive, patronizing, even derisive. "Why should these people matter to poets?" is what I hear in that phrase.

The students, spotlit on stage, young and eager, reciting Rita Dove or Emily Dickinson: that is what this foundation adores. And they are lovely; there's no question about that. But how the hell do you think those students manage to climb onto that stage? All the foundation money in the world can't replace the tired middle-aged teacher who, year after year after year, keeps cogitating about how to light a Beowulf fire in his tenth graders. Or the veteran teacher who gives her fifth graders the structure and the freedom to write poems from the point of view of igneous rocks. Or the young ambitious vocational teacher who offers future car mechanics a year-long immersion in love poetry.

I could go on and on about these teachers, and I would have in the article that will not appear in this esteemed poetry journal. Of course I want to be fair about the rejection. Perhaps by "I'm afraid this won't work for me," the editor really meant "We've recently published an article on a very similar topic" or "I'd like to broaden, narrow, or tweak the scope of your proposal." For if I'm correct--if the editor was really saying, "Why should these people matter to poets?"--then something has gone very wrong. The teachers I would have featured in my unacceptable article are fascinating and dedicated and confused and idealistic and doomed. As poets, parents, citizens, and fellow strivers and idealists, we need to celebrate them and support them and listen to them. They are heroic: and by choosing to ignore them, esteemed poetry journal, you have made an ugly and unforgivable mistake.


CMGadapee said...

As a teacher, as a fledgling writer, and as a human being...I want to say,thank you.

And The English Journal has a list of topics out that they are accepting articles about; I'll send it. Your voice, and your experiences, and your tireless championing of the front line forces in education, make you both a hero in my eyes, and a valuable advocate in the world of poetry as well.

Jean said...

And, see, that is EXACTLY the article that would attract me. Teachers work so often in professional isolation. We don't get an annual state-of-poetry-in-the-schools address. It's easy to believe that a personal experience is the universal experience. Keep pitching this one. It has an audience. It needs a publisher.

Jean said...

The response you received? Lazy and irresponsible.

Ruth said...

Oh my, I do so agree with both Jean and Carlene. Poetry awards to students don't just happen. Somebody is lighting the fire and I do think it must be teachers because most students do not just decide to write a poem because they are bored nor do they pick up a poetry magazine/journal for beach reading. If our work in the trenches isn't important, then journals and organizations could face serious decline in the future.

"but I'm afraid this won't work for me." seems to be a response from a rather snobby and selfish point of view

That response was demeaning to you and to teaching. PLEASE keep pitching that idea!!

Richard said...

It's heartening, day after day, to see how everything you write -- with or without comment -- works infinitely well for all Ruths, Jeans, and Carlenes, and their kindred spirits, near and far, visible here or invisible there, who go on making such a huge difference in the lives of so many wondrous toddlers, developing pre-teens, curiously confused adolescents, challenged but persevering young adults, surviving, often thriving adults, and senior citizens of all descriptions, thanks to the spirit of poetry in evidence at The Frost Place.

Carol Willette Bachofner said...

Things were a bit better when one could walk into the office of an editor/publisher and chat about ideas or proposed articles. Now, it is canned responses and distant comments at best. My advice: put out the essay yourself in a collection of essays. Screw the "establishment."