In My Big Little Break, we ask authors to talk about the first piece they ever had published, how it felt to finally break through, and what they’ve learned since then. This week, Sarah Sweeney, author of the recent Barrelhouse book Tell Me If You’re Lying, shares her answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
I was lucky to have a batch of four poems—“Lament for a Frat Boy,” “Drunk Sestina for Eddie Money,” “Lifetime Movies,” and “Lament for the King”—accepted as my first publication.
Who published it? Are they still around?
PANK took my poems and they are still around.
Give us some context: how old were you? How long had you been writing and submitting? How many times had the piece been rejected? Anything else we’re missing.
I was 27, and I’d been out of grad school for about a year. Up until that point I’d been pretty lackadaisical about publishing my own stuff, and was just starting to move away from sporadic submissions to making publishing a priority. I thought these poems would be a good fit for PANK, which favors wacky, pop culture-y, less formal writing, and I think I’d just submitted the batch on a lark to PANK only.
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
I was stoked! I was most excited that all the poems I’d submitted were accepted—that’s pretty rare. The other cool thing about is that Roxane Gay accepted the poems—she’d co-founded the journal—and this was still a few years before she really burst into public consciousness and became the powerhouse she is today.
Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?
I love those poems and included them in my full-length manuscript, which I’m still trying to publish! Visiting the moon is easier than publishing a full-length collection of poems.
Now that you've been doing this for a while, collecting plenty of rejections and acceptances along the way, what advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
Submitting work is tedious, thankless, and often feels like toiling in obscurity—especially when the rejections start rolling in. But I think it’s important for any writer to be both patient and dogged about publishing. I’d tell myself to be patient and keep submitting. To think of it like an unpaid second job, which it truly is. Also: don’t compare yourself to other writers and their successes. It’s an easy way to get discouraged and bitter. Be happy for them—and then do it better.
Sarah Sweeney is the author of the essay collection Tell Me If You’re Lying (Barrelhouse Books, 2016). Her poems and essays have appeared in Catapult, Oxford American, Barrelhouse, Greensboro Review, Cimarron Review, Lumina, Quarterly West, PANK, and others. She works as a freelance writer. Find her on the web at www.sarah-sweeney.com and on Twitter at @loosegringa.