It occurs to me that I need to keep better records of failure. I’ve mentioned before that in my early days of flinging poetry at submission targets, there was the Big Book of Failure, which served a useful purpose. It gave physical form to the terror: how much work had to be done, how much was subsequently rejected in my pursuit of the elusive win. It was approximately eighteen months of thrashing about before I got lucky in November 2018.
After that, the lesson was learnt: keeping a list of the rejections only became useful when recycling them. I got tired of looking at work after it would be rejected and believing that if it was rewritten or further polished, somehow it would be successful. What I was producing was good enough, just not what was being asked for. It’s why Places of Poetry was so important, I realise looking back on last year. Writing without the need for validation was a game-changer.
To have a poem published from that set of work is pretty much a dream come true as a result, because for the first time it wasn’t about the winning. That was the bonus that keeps on giving: I made the contest, set the goals, found myself talking about my joy on national radio and it was me that made all that happen with my own effort and output. It’s only now beginning to become clear that this was the fundamental shift in attitude I needed to move forward as a writer.
If that hadn’t happened last year, poetry would probably have been given up completely, career moved in a completely different direction. Between then and now I’ve been hospitalised, there’s been a major personal health scare and now we’re in a pandemic. None of this was on the plan, but we’ve coped with it all, with some confidence. The one thing that never really got dealt with was the consequences last year of counselling. The last two months has seen that issue finally pulled into focus.
The last submission piece completed today has been one of the most uncomfortable things I have ever written. It combines intensely personal parts of my history with the true, visceral terror of living through the last six months with a mind at times very close to total breakdown. It was built from pieces in a significant collection that showed that, if pushed, I could produce work to someone else’s brief which would be good enough to be shortlisted.
That collection is now split into three: the sunniest group of 22 poems also got sent away to somewhere else, final eight poems that remain will now sit for a while and breathe, before being repurposed for a major contest in September. I’m done with submissions for this month, a mere five days in, because the lesson has been learnt, finally. Validation only works if you believe it. I don’t need other people to tell me how capable I am any more, just need to feel confident in my own ability, and have never felt as confident as I do now.
Ironically, I’m already expecting rejection this week from work submitted before all this chaos began. I won’t take this as a setback either, because looking at that work, a copy of which is sitting to my right, I can already see where it could be improved. Some submissions aren’t about winning in the first place, but building confidence to take part in other, more important events. It’s the miles in your legs, to use a cycling metaphor: muscles never build strength or condition if you don’t exercise daily.
Poetry is, in many ways, just like exercise, and it is not surprising that I see many poets as keen runners or athletes. Understanding how words work in a brain and then condition them with strength and repetition makes an awful lot of sense. Finding your voice will never happen if you’re too frightened to speak out loud, or make mistakes. It is a balance within you, and between you and the Universe, in a constant and often frustrating state of flux.
This month, I’ve decided to get the cosmic angst out of the way early 😀