By Suzi Q. Smith, in response to Tilt West Roundtable: Rejection & Denial
“If you aren’t getting rejected on a daily basis, then your goals aren’t ambitious enough.”
—Chris Dixon, Internet Entrepreneur
A couple of years ago, a journalist friend of mine and I started joking on Twitter about which of us receives more rejections — I’m a poet, and felt confident that my writing was rejected more frequently than his. The joke between us eventually turned into “The Jerklife Rejects Club,” which is a small group of writer friends who share our rejection stories and stats, but also includes an element of competition — the writer with the most rejections at the end of the year “wins.” This story was the first thing that came to mind when I received an invitation to participate in Tilt West’s roundtable conversation on Rejection and Denial.
I started submitting my poetry for publication when I was in high school, which was always summarily rejected. One day, a form rejection letter I received included a handwritten note from the editor with her words of encouragement noting the lines that she enjoyed and the double-underlined phrase: Keep Writing!!! I was thrilled to receive this letter; I brought it with me to school the next day to show my Creative Writing teacher, Mrs. Onesty, and we both celebrated my progress. While it was still a rejection, it was accompanied by the hope of future acceptance.
“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
—Audre Lorde, Author
Because I am biracial black and from Park Hill in Denver, rejection was a common part of my social existence as a child. While Park Hill was a diverse neighborhood, both racially and socioeconomically, most people fell squarely on one side of the line or another. My classmates and their families were not often prepared for a face or hair like mine, so obviously and decidedly both or neither or in-between. Their confusion about my lack of respect for the boundaries they believed in generally led to curt denial and rejection. Biraciality is a peculiar thing; I often joke that mixed people are the only ones who get to experience racism at their own family reunions. We learn the intricacies of acceptance and rejection from birth, our existence challenging people’s attachments to boxes and lines.
I learned early in life that I had the power to accept people, carefully cultivating a circle of extraordinary friends. By middle school, I decided that my self-acceptance was more important to me than the acceptance of my peers. By the time I reached my teen years, I was hardly able to give weight to anyone else’s denial or rejection. I also learned that I had the same capacity to reject people as anyone else, and became an expert in rejecting ideologies, expectations, and advances that I found oppressive or offensive, or that otherwise didn’t meet my needs.
“I am good at walking away. Rejection teaches you how to reject.”
—Jeanette Winterson, Author
Since then, I have often employed these skills of acceptance and rejection as an editor, as a curator, and as a creative. I have rejected brilliant work that I absolutely LOVED when it wasn’t the best fit for a project. Similarly, I have accepted work that I personally disliked when it served the needs of a project. These experiences remind me that rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that my work does not have merit.
I am grateful that my life’s journey has allowed me to see from so many different perspectives, and has anchored me so deeply in my own. As a creative, my experience with rejection allows me to make whatever I need to, irrespective of other people’s boundaries. My voice is always the loudest one in my head, which allows me to create and share my work boldly, even when rejected by some.
“I really wish I was less of a thinking man and more of a fool not afraid of rejection.”
During the conversation at Tilt West, our prompter and my friend Bobby LeFebre, in discussing the historical weight of rejection, said, “If you were ostracized, if you were castigated or denied or rejected, it usually was a death sentence, you know? We relied on one another to get through things. . . That emotional connection still lives in our bones, it’s still a part of who we are and we can’t really escape that.”
While many aspects of human life have evolved over the millennia, and we are now able to survive with almost no direct interaction with others, our tribal history is still a part of our innate nature. In this age of social media, we are more connected and disconnected than ever before, depending on your perspective, and the rate of rejection and denial we engage in and are subjected to is constantly expanding. We accept or deny friend requests; like, share, follow and unfollow; and find ourselves exposed to the acceptance or rejection of our networks every time we go online.
Coming together to share our thoughts about rejection and denial revealed a broad range of perspectives in our conversation. For some, a tender vulnerability came through, while others displayed a more callused indifference. While rejection was a common experience among all of the participants, it is not often a subject that we discuss because it is associated with so much fear and shame. Ultimately, I think we all agreed that rejection and denial are, like many things in life, best consumed in good company.
Suzi Q. Smith is an artist, activist, and educator who lives with her brilliant daughter in Denver, Colorado. She has shared her poetry on stages throughout the U.S., sharing stages with Nikki Giovanni, Talib Kweli, the late Gil Scott Heron, and many more over the years. Her work has appeared in Union Station Magazine, Suspect Press, Muzzle Magazine, Malpais Review, Peralta Press, and more, and her collection of poems, Thirteen Descansos, is available from Penmanship Books. She currently serves as the Executive Director of Poetry Slam, Inc.
Tilt West’s mission is to promote critical discourse focused on arts and culture through live events and publishing efforts. We aim to provide a platform for inclusive community discussion and debate on a range of issues relevant to cultural production in Colorado and beyond. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions of the organization. For more information about our programs, including audio recordings of roundtable discussions, go to our website: tiltwest.org.