Sophomore Slumps ~ Real or Old Husband’s Tales?

typewriterGetting a book of poetry accepted by a publisher can be a heady experience akin to euphoria (or maybe “me-phoria” is a better word). Is it any wonder that there might be a hangover, then?

I’m speaking of the sophomore slump, the term used for athletes, students, and artists who worry they will never match initial heights as they tackle new challenges and attempt to not only match but better their first success. Is this “slump” real, or is it just another old husband’s tale?

Oddly, when you get a book published and finish the hard work or working with an editor to get it ready for publication, you reward yourself with a writing vacation. Bad, bad, bad! This is not what writers do. They don’t wake up every day and say, “I don’t have to write today (or this month) because, look at that! I’ve got a shiny new book for the world to see!”

As the seasoned veterans will tell you, “Big deal. Writers write. So don’t make like Orpheus and look back now, start playing again.”

OK. Got it. But now you’re holding yourself to higher standards. Are these new poems better than the ones between the first book’s covers? And shouldn’t they be?

You see the problem. Suddenly the inner critic, already notoriously negative, becomes tougher still. And, as rejections from journals flow in from editors completely unimpressed with your cover letter citing a debut poetry collection, doubt begins to creep in and take hold.

“Was that it?” you wonder. “Am I one and done?”

Hardly. Take a look at the publishing histories of many poets and you’ll find that the arc from early poetry to more sophisticated later poetry is long and gradual. With the machete of words, you must hack your way through an Amazon forest of poems before discernible changes begin to appear.

Meaning? The sophomore slump is actually similar in nature to the work you produced as a freshman phenom. That you might produce worse is just another nagging falsehood you have to deal with as a writer. Rejection is part of the game and will remain so–even if you have four or five books of poetry to your credit.

Sure, once you make it to the Promised Land, where you have name recognition from summiting the toughest markets like Poetry and those august university magazines that are way past June and July and have been publishing verse since Frost was a school teacher, you can count on getting accepted more often even when you put out slightly sub-par stuff, but those days are so far away that you don’t even want to think about seeing them with the naked eye.

Instead, trust in yourself (who else will?), write and, most of all, revise, revise. In the almost words of the book/movie Field of Dreams, “If you write it, they will come–and they don’t care whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior.”

Amen to that.

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2 thoughts on “Sophomore Slumps ~ Real or Old Husband’s Tales?

  1. Luckily, since I never write a poem thinking how it will advance or fit into a preconceived “project,” I never worry about its genesis or its comparative quality. I focus on one new poem at a time even after a book has been published. 3 years later, I collect the 30 plus best of the poems and go looking for a publisher. So far, so good. And no anxiety about a soph, junior, or senior slump.

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    • If you collect the 30 plus best poems, that means you worry about your work’s quality (and what writer with any sense of pride wouldn’t?). And if you go looking for a publisher every three years, that is writing with publication in mind.

      I guess I could have pointed out that a lot of poems I wrote leading to Book #1 never saw the light of day AND that the same will hold true for Book #2, but I considered it too obvious. Plus it’s true of all writers.

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