Poems as Pilgrims

by Robbie Gamble | June 2017

    I recently evolved into one of those increasingly common creatures, the Emerging Poet. (I sometimes wonder what it is we are emerging from: some warm and comfortable womb of creative ectoplasm? Or some deep dark crevasse of naiveté that has shielded us from harsh daylight of the literary business? Or both?) As an Emerging Poet, I now possess two things: a sheaf of poems that I am deeply invested in, and a desire to share these poems with the wider world.

    Oh, these poems! They have progressed from little “Ahas!” of inspiration into clunky drafts and then less-clunky re-drafts, and then re-re-drafts that start to flow. The duller ones have been shoved into desk drawers for weeks or months at a time, in order to ferment and “find their voice,” emerging wiser and ripe with new strategies for presenting themselves authentically on the page. Others have been picked apart and reassembled in workshops, or had drastic surgeries performed on them by revered mentors, and some of these have healed and realigned and grown into healthier beings. There comes a point when the survivors feel more or less complete. And my desire emerges to prop them up and send them out for all to see.

    I have had a number of conversations recently with fellow Emergers about the Submission Process, the emotional rollercoaster of exposing our precious poems to the whims and judgement of that other lofty species, the Editors, in the hopes of convincing them to make a prominent place for our pieces in their prestigious journals. We all have stories to share, from the occasional high of an enthusiastic acceptance letter to the all-too-frequent low of those impersonal form rejections. Some of my friends bear rejection stoically. “When a rejection comes in, I just send that packet right out again,” they say. Others have been devastated when that perfectly-honed group of poems they just knew in their gut was a perfect aesthetic fit for The Nonpareil Quarterly gets bounced back to the inbox in less than a week with a curt “Sorry, this just isn’t for us.” I have been submitting in earnest over the past year, and I have experienced my own broad spectrum of feelings in response to the inevitable stream of rejections. And I still have this swelling sheaf of work, and a desire to share.

    Kathleen Spivak was a student of Robert Lowell, and apparently was present, Forrest Gump-like, for just about every significant Boston literary event in the nineteen-sixties and –seventies. In her excellent memoir “With Robert Lowell and His Circle,” she describes being invited out for coffee one time with Lowell and Anne Sexton, and listening in as the two great poets kvetched about the publishing business and the pitfalls of rejection. They both agreed that a three-percent acceptance rate was about the best they could expect. Three percent! These Pulitzer Prize-winning literary icons were accustomed to the idea that only three out of a hundred of their submissions would find their way into print. And this was long before the exponential proliferation of MFA programs and online writing workshops and the legions of all of us earnestly Emerging Poets. I find great consolation in this anecdote.

    Once, after a discouraging cluster of rejections (they do seem to come in waves) I went for a long walk in the Maine woods to clear my head. I picked my way along an undulating, moss-carpeted trail as sunlight shafted through gaps in the spruce canopy overhead, and I found that I was happy just to be in motion, detached from time or destination. My thoughts wandered, as they do on long walks, and at some point they came around to my poems, and my efforts to find a fixed place for them in the world. I realized that the poems were on a journey too, from conception to revision to the ups and downs of the Submission Process. What if I thought of them as pilgrims? In many spiritual traditions, people take a period of time out from their ordinary lives to travel somewhere, on foot or by other means, often at great hardship, in order to achieve a deeper understanding of who they are and how they relate to the broader world. There may be a destination involved, say Lourdes or Mecca, but much of the spiritual growth occurs along the way. And even if the journey is hard, there are moments of joy in it.

    I now imagine preparing my poems as pilgrims by placing a little staff in their hands and a pack of provisions on their back, before sending them out into the world with a click of the Submittable button or (much less frequently now) stuffing them into an envelope with a SASE and dropping them in a mailbox. And I know a few of them will find new homes. Many more of them will return to me, a little wiser, perhaps bearing a note of encouragement or advice from a kind editor. Some will cycle in and out, travelling long and hard, and eventually I will see that they need a different flourish, or some deeper nourishment, in order to have the strength to go on. And some will flounder, eventually recognizing that their path is to end in obscurity, and that will be okay, for they journeyed as well as they could. My hope is that all these poems will grow into who they are meant to be while on pilgrimage, and that I might vicariously grow along with them, and perhaps other readers, too.

Robbie Gamble recently completed an MFA in Poetry at Lesley University. He is a nurse practitioner with the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and has led writing workshops with some of his homeless patients. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife, two stepdaughters and three energetic dogs.