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August 28, 2004
About Wislawa Szymborska's rejection letters, a very nice quote by Rilke, some Schadenfreude and some other unresolved distractions. One of my favorite little books is one that I am not even sure exists in English, it is by Wislawa Szymborska (we all love her don't we?) and it is called: "Poczta Literacka czyli jak zostac (lub nie zostac) pisarzem" (Literary Mail or how to become (or not to become) a writer)... The cover and many of the illustrations in this little gem are by Andrzej Dudzinski, who lives not very far from here, and to whom I wrote fan postcards when I was maybe 13. The book contains about 140 pages of really incredible rejection. Szymborska used to work for a literary magazine at the very dawn of her literary career, and her job was to write rejection letters to those submitting their poems, short stories and other attempts to get published bit time. (Should I interrupt this post to report that two of my neighbors across broadway just decided to do a variety of things with their naked bodies all in the proximity of their badly frosted bathroom window?) Ahem... so Szymborska's job was to write rejection letters. Had she been a good and efficient worker bee, the book right next to me would probably be the most boring piece of collected memos, or actually not a book at all. But because Szymborska is a blessing to our world and not a curse, these rejection letters are like most stunning and elaborate constantly reshaped gates preventing hundreds of wannabes from entering the literary heaven. Clearly some of the authors were injured in the process, but boy... at least they were kicked off the ladder by a foot belonging to someone who later accepted the nobel prize and for many good reasons. (If you think my neighbors stopped, you are mistaken.) Imagine sending in a poem in hopes of becoming a great literary star and receiving the following answer after a little while (and please forgive my rough translations, I am clearly not a master here...) Dear Marlon (oh yes, your name would be Marlon), not everybody who can draw a sitting kitten, a little house with smoke coming out of its chimney and a face assembled from a circle, two dashes and two dots is going to become a great painter. Your poems currently are, dear Marlon, in a state similar to the just described drawings. Keep writing, think about poetry, read poetry, but also consider gaining some experience in a field completely independent of your need to guard the muses. The muses are hysterical, as we know, and you can't count on those who are. Okay, I got a bit lost in translation on that last sentence... This one on the other hand is pretty clear: "How to become a writer?", you are asking a very problematic question, dear... . Very much like the little boy who asked his mother to explain to him how children were made. After hearing his mother's answer that she would explain it later because she was too busy, the boy insisted:"So at least explain to me how to make the head." Oh well, let's try to at least explain how to make the head: One needs to start with a tiny bit of talent. Or "In case you decide to publish the attached poems, I would like to take on the pseudonym of 'Consuela Montero'. Thank you." – You really arranged this one quite beautifully in your thirteen year old head. I wonder if a Spanish weekly received a similar letter, from a real Consuela Montero who requested to have her poems printed under the egotistic pseudonym of Marysia Nowakówna. [the real name of the Polish writer.] Now this would be a fantastic cultural exchange, wouldn't it be? It is a bit early for a publication. May both girls work a little more and show a tiny bit of more patience. Imagine page after page of these... The rejection letters are a reminded that even some of the less attractive seeming jobs can still contain potential for greatness. I know that the ones I sampled here appear incredibly mean and saturated with a certain Schadenfreude, but the overall tone of the book is more one of serious understanding of the matter, there is a positive, hopeful undercurrent; and also resistance to an onslaught of bad writing, of course. Imagine young Szymborska reading one horrible manuscript after the next. Some of those whom she rejected seemingly did not like to take no for an answer. Certain ambitious scribes wrote her back, often in anger of course. Szymborska's replies to them also sound like words softly whispered, right underneath that giant stick. From time to time even Szymborska had to give up and call other authors for help, even if only by quoting them. One of the submitted texts must have tried to chew on a much too large piece of a much too giant problem. When rejected, the writer must have complained that writing about the little things were somehow boring and not really interesting. And this is when Szymborska decided to quote Rilke. He apparently would recommend that young and maybe not so experienced writers try to focus on tiny things, maybe those surrounding them. "If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty." Now this is a very depressing one to read on a day when things somehow appear less exciting than usual... Enough with this post. I will now just publish it, and continue with work. Though I much rather would be sleeping. ; )