The Unluckiest Poet in America

Last week The America Library of Poetry was more than “fanning the flames of literacy” at our house.  The Library, sponsor of free poetry contests for kids in kindergarten through twelfth grade, had finally picked this year’s winners. Adam was not among them.

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He had been so hopeful after he was notified this summer that he was still in the running for the grand prize. To confirm that he was a serious contender, his poem would appear in a volume of other entries set for publication in December. For $35 my son would forever have his own personal copy of his first work to appear in print.

September 30th.  Adam noted the date on our family calendar. It was the day the winners would be published on the Library’s Web site. He visited the site several times a day throughout September, trolling for hints of how his poem was faring in the contest. Nothing. He was nervous. I was nervous for him because I knew all too well what was coming down the pike.

It’s hard not to take rejection personally. And, boy oh boy, did my son take it personally. I was out when he logged on to the Web site on the evening of September 29th. When I checked my BlackBerry there it was—Adam’s righteous (or self-righteous) indignation that his poem was not among the winners.

My son-turned-critic berated the winning poem in his age category as “a sure sign of uncreativity (sic) and poetic weakness. You rhyme when you can’t be vivid or use figurative language.” Ouch. Who made him the poetry maven?

Welcome to my world Adam. I’ve got a collection of lovely rejection letters from editors at some of the best publications in this country. And you know what? When I started out, I clung to those hand-written two line notes like a life preserver. “Not quite right for us. But send more.” These days I get rejections mostly through email and they’re not nearly as exciting. Ten point Arial dilutes the urgency, the optimism embedded in the rushed handwriting of those earlier notes.

My near misses don’t make me all that angry anymore; they make me determined. Fiercely determined (maybe that’s constructive anger) to show every editor who has rejected me that they were flat out wrong.

In the meantime, Adam needed some perspective because frankly he is not, as he claimed in the heat of the moment, the best children’s poet in America. I know because once upon a time I thought I was the best children’s novelist not only in America, but the world. I was so sure of it that when I was nine I sent my first “book” to a legal publisher I found in the yellow pages. The CEO was charmed and he called my parents to tell them so.

I told Adam the truth about the writing life—albeit one that was dipped in maternal honey:

Congratulations! Every single accomplished and talented writer has been rejected. If he or she hasn’t been rejected he is not remembering correctly. Some of those poems were not as good as yours. But some of the poems were just as good or better. The judges are not “impaired.”  However, judges are human and they have their preferences.

I followed up with a call to home. Ken answered and I asked him if Adam was still upset. My husband had no idea what I was talking about. “He didn’t place in the poetry contest,” I said. “He hasn’t said a word to me,” Ken said. “He saves that stuff for you.”

Yes. I’m the more reactive parent, the mushier parent. While every kid needs a mushy parent, that same parent must take precautions against becoming too malleable. Adam needed to understand that he may have deserved to place in that contest, but so did the actual winners.

The Adam I came home to bore no resemblance to the raging poet who fired off that earlier e-mail. I asked if he would like to read through some of the winning poems with me. I read the Grand Prize Winner aloud and he agreed that it was a very accomplished poem. I pointed out that the poet was a senior in high school. And as for that rhyming poem that took first place in his age category? I said that I thought it worked. We read that one out loud too and he reluctantly agreed.

A few minutes after we had discussed the winning entries, Adam sent me a contrite e-mail. He explained that he felt “angry and unappreciated” when he pounded out the first message. After the disappointment passed (isn’t it great to be twelve?), he asked Ken and me never to work for The America Library of Poetry. Employees and their families are not eligible to enter the contest. Only a true writer would be so optimistic and yet such a glutton for punishment.

Congratulations, Adam. You’ve arrived.

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