Like most writers, I hate rejections–those polite “doesn’t meet our needs at this time” emails. Another one of them came yesterday. I have cultivated a thick skin, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care.
Then there are the prizes, which always seem to be won by someone else–usually somebody younger, which is objectively not surprising since I’m in my sixties. They have an edge of genius I lack. I’m mediocre.
Or sometimes: They have a spouse or partner whose income & presence allow them much more time to write & revise & learn than I have, being single.
There are also “self-rejection” moments when my struggle to make a poem find its path seems to be failing. Should I just give this up? Maybe I’ve reached the limits of my capacity.
Most of the time I manage to keep my eyes on the actual prize: making this poem or story better, trying a new subject or style, uncovering & strengthening the inherent rhythm of a piece.
But sometimes I really need encouragement from someone else. From June 2011 until her death in November 2015, Helen Degen Cohen was a poetry mentor to me, though we didn’t name the relationship in those terms.
Helen was brilliant & restless & insomniac & loving. She was a cofounder of the splendid RHINO Poetry annual, & she did win a number of distinguished prizes, residencies, & grants. She invited another poet, Susanna Lang, & me to form a critique group with her.
And one day, when I was beset by those doubts about the value of my work, Helen responded, “You of all people should not worry about that.”
Really? Of all people?
That in itself was a prize. Helen knew my work, understood what I was trying to do, & found it important.
So rejections come, but I keep writing. Our stories & poems & art can be part of something bigger than fame & recognition. And I want to be one of those “you of all people” encouragers who notice others’ work, affirm it, name what’s important in it. We really do need each other.
- Thus far there’s one posthumous collection of Helen’s work, My Life on Film, and more are in the works. We’re going to have a big launch party for My Life on Film Sunday September 23, 3-5 p.m., at Facets Cinematheque–put it on your calendar if you’re in the Chicago area!
Helen adored gardening. This is one of her own photos.