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The Silence of the Muse

After a lifetime of rejection slips, publishing can be a trying, if not life-threatening, business. GRADY MILLER exposes a history of correspondence between a desperate poet and his unfortunate editor.

October 16, 1968

Sir,

Thank you for submitting your work to Flotsam, a Quarterly of Poetry and the Arts. We are, however, not accepting any more pieces for our next issue, and must respectfully decline your submission. I apologize for not offering comments or suggestions on your piece, but I do not think a few quick words, dashed off in a burst of insincerity, would really help.

Yours truly,
E.D. DeBris, Editor


* * *


November 3, 1968

Sir,

Per your request for specific suggestions for improvement—perhaps I can offer a few nuggets of editorial guidance…

Your piece, “Ode to an Apple Fritter,” is full of admirable spondees, such as “Cool gloom / of day-old glaze,” but the rhyme scheme goes stale quickly (pun intended!). For example:
Battle…over so quick, after the long foreplay
of anticipation… The morn is a new day,
and with it, a fresh fritter; frittered away.
And so on for 29 verses. Why did you choose to enshrine on Parnassus an apple fritter instead of a cinnamon roll, with its infinite spiral reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Night? You know the kind I mean—oven-heated, with a dollop of whipped butter on top, melting into the ridges. This seems a lost opportunity, indeed.

Aside from your extraordinary abuse of the semicolon, your poetry utterly fails to reflect the turbulence of our times, the political upheaval, and dawning cosmic consciousness, and the allusion to the fall of man was pretentious at best. (“Behold! the fritter of good and evil.”) More successful was the sexuality intimated in “your sugar-laced grottoes and your vall-ays,” even if your rhyme scheme again reared its ugly, strict head and slaughtered your metaphor.

Rigid rhymes are old news, sir, and modern poetry has been freed from these chains. Rhymes went out with rumble seats and Sara Teasdale. (Come to think of it, I went out on a blind date with Sara Teasdale, and it’s a good thing I was blindfolded.) Get with it, and eliminate the rhyme scheme, cut it down to seven verses, give it historical resonance, and I may reconsider. But no promises.

Best of luck,
E.D. DeBris


* * *


November 21, 1968

Dear Poet,

After careful consideration, we have decided that “A Cinnamon Roll in Saigon” simply isn’t right for Flotsam. It seemed both sentimental and manipulative to place the thoughts of the roll in the mind of a young soldier, disillusioned by the war after his bed has been short-sheeted. Best of luck placing it elsewhere. (May we suggest Introspectives, out of Rhode Island?)

Keep the faith,
E.D. DeBris

P.S., The cinnamon roll you included with your manuscript arrived a bit squashed, though it was a thoughtful gesture.


* * *


July 15, 1972

Dear Poet,

Thank you for your most recent submission.

Here at Flotsam we call ourselves “a Quarterly of Poetry and the Arts,” but you may be taking that too literally. Your new poem, “Seven Arts”—a five-page ode in Byronic stanza dedicated to all Art Linkletter, Art Carney, Art Garfunkel, Arte Johnson, Artie Shaw, R.D. Laing (you are right: if you say “R.D.” very fast, several times, it does start to sound like “Arty”), and Art Forgery—is, sadly, not for us.

Sincerely,
E.D. DeBris


* * *


June 26, 1996

Sir,

Thank you for submitting your work to Flotsam, a Quarterly of Poetry and the Arts. We are, however, not accepting any more pieces for our next issue, and must respectfully decline your submission. I apologize for not offering comments or suggestions on your piece, but I do not think a few quick words, dashed off in a burst of insincerity, would really help.

Yours truly,
E.D. DeBris, Editor


* * *


August 13, 1996

Dear Poet,

I apologize, I do not recall the earlier correspondence to which you refer. So many submissions, so little time, you understand…

In your defense, you claim to have used this 24-year hiatus from poetry to “ferment,” as it were, renew your subscription to Flotsam, and soak up the magazine’s content and style. You were confident I would be impressed by your poetic evolution. I am. Your enclosed poem, “My Uncle’s Prostate,” has managed to incorporate my editorial preference for maudlin source material, familial dysfunction, creative punctuation (the tacit eschewing of semicolons!), and free verse.

Alas, there is no space left in our Fall issue, and so I must regretfully turn down your submission.

Yours truly,
E.D. DeBris


* * *


April 16, 2000

Dear Poet,

It is my pleasure to inform you that I truly enjoyed “Hindenberg, Mon Amour.” We plan to include it in the Summer issue.

E.D. DeBris


* * *


April 27, 2000

Dear Sir,

I can understand your nervousness and need for clarity at this stage of the game. Let me assure you that when I say “include it in the Summer issue,” by that I mean we will publish it.

E.D. DeBris


* * *


June 8, 2000

Sir,

Unfortunate news. When the magazine was going to press, the typesetter was offended by the word “tapioca” in the final stanza, and we decided the poem was just not right for Flotsam. Good luck in placing it elsewhere.

Regards,
E.D. DeBris


* * *


June 20, 2000

Dear Poet,

Hark and desist from this reckless decision to take your own life! Remember, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. But wait… under the present circumstances, disregard that piece of advice…

Though you are right, a proactive attitude toward death has brought reward to countless writers. Papa Hemingway has been more prolific than ever—since he redecorated the wallpaper in the downstairs foyer. Sylvia Plath is synonymous with suicide, and no other poet has reaped more benefits from do-it-yourself death. John Kennedy Toole posthumously snagged the Pulitzer Prize for A Confederacy of Dunces after publishers’ rejections drove him to suicide. He’s pushing daisies, and everything’s coming up roses. What gives?

We are born asking “Why?” and we die asking “Why?” Why can’t every bank offer free checking? Why do some doors say “PULL” when you can really push them? Why does $5.99 sound so much better than $6.00?

Face the facts. It appears you have sacrificed everything to the altar of art: stability, the respect of your family, and your precious little sanity. Your résumé may be a blemish, your children may ridicule you, your wife may threaten to leave you, but you know what I say? SO WHAT! There are a great many beautiful things to be thankful for in life, gentle poet. At the moment I cannot recall any, but I am sure you will think of something. In the meantime, you may want to rethink Viagra overdose and consider a less cathartic suicide method, if that is possible.

You know, being editor of Flotsam, a Quarterly of Poetry and the Arts, has taught me a few things. One, a good writer is one who can accept criticism. Two, no one ever gets to the end of a New Yorker article. And three, virtue is overrated—generally speaking, virtues cause a great deal more trouble in life than vices…

And evidently you find some virtue in writing poetry, but it seems to me by doing so you are destroying all that is truly good in your life: your family, your joie de vivre, your self-respect. I would like to suggest that suicide may not be your wisest choice, because you would not be around to enjoy your posterity—then again so few are.

All the best,
E.D. DeBris


* * *


August 5, 2000

Dear Sir,

As the personal secretary of E.D. DeBris, editor of Flotsam, a Quarterly of Poetry and the Arts, it is my sad duty to inform you that Mr. DeBris passed away peacefully in his sleep last night. Authorities believe it was suicide, after finding an empty bottle of sleeping pills at his side along with a note: “Unable to stand a semicolon, I replaced it with a coma.”

A memorial service is going to be held for Mr. DeBris at Yankee Stadium next Friday. Though he didn’t particularly care for baseball, I’ve got season tickets on the left-field line, and we can all stay for the game afterward—a double header with Boston. We really need somebody, anybody really, to say something nice about Mr. DeBris. Though he touched the lives of many in the world of poetry, his family, long estranged, is unreachable. Thanks to your correspondence of three decades, we have a rare glimpse into the inner life of this most private man, and feel you would be the ideal person to speak at his memorial.

Enclosed is one first-class plane ticket to New York, and I shall look forward to meeting you at JFK Thursday night.

Incidentally, one publisher has already expressed interest in your and Mr. DeBris’s correspondence. Perhaps we can nosh with their people after the ballgame and cut a deal or, better yet, plant the seeds for a bidding war. As Mr. DeBris used to say, “All’s fair in art and war.”

Yours truly, etc. etc.

Grady Miller needs no introduction, unless you are wondering who he is. He spent his childhood in a nonobservant Presbyterian household, and credits his father (who was particularly nonobservant) with an early interest in humor. Mr. Miller is the author of A Winter in Hell and Late Bloomer. More by Grady Miller