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, writer Justin Marks, author of "You're Going to Miss Me When You're Bored" and co-founder of the awesome Birds, LLC, answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
It was a horrendous “sonnet” I wrote while reading Milton’s Lycidas as an undergrad. Someone had told me about this local zine that was looking for poems, so I sent and was accepted. I remember being excited. I probably thought it was a major accomplishment, the first step toward fame, but also had no idea what it meant. Only later did I find out the editor accepted pretty much whatever people sent him.
Who published it? Are they still around?
I can’t remember the name of the magazine. I’m pretty sure it was out of Carrboro, NC. That, or Chapel Hill (where I was an undergrad). This was in 1996. I can’t imagine it’s 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 must have been 20 or 21, probably 21. I’d been trying to write since high school. It was my first time submitting. It would be 10 years and hundreds of rejections before I’d get another acceptance.
Actually, that’s not quite true. Around 1999 I submitted to some small magazine put out by a college. The response was that they had intended to write and say they were accepting a poem of mine but that they had just found out they lost their funding and the magazine was folding.
In hindsight, that was probably for the best. I remember the poem. It wasn’t very good.
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
I was so naive. I had no idea what publishing meant. My guess is I simultaneously attached tons of meaning to it and none at all. What I remember most is my friends were really excited. They kept saying, “drinks for the published poet,” and bought me beers.
Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?
God no, it was awful. I haven’t read it. If there’s any record of it, it’s either in some stray copy of that zine or stuck on some outdated floppy disk for the Brothers word processor I wrote it on. I can still remember a few lines, though. Trust me, it’s best that I not share them.
But you’re actually making me remember a poem I wrote in high school. It was about Laura Palmer. I’m sure it was terrible, but my memory is that it was the first poem I wrote that made me feel I might have some talent. I wish I still had that poem.
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?
Is it bad to say that, at least with regard to journals, I don’t have advice for my younger self? With journals, my attitude is to just throw yourself in the deep end. Send what you think is your best stuff to places you want to be published in.
I don’t mean the New Yorker or places like that. I wasted so much time and postage submitting to places where I never had a shot at being accepted. So maybe that would be my advice: Don’t waste your time submitting to places just because they’re prestigious, or whatever. Aim for the places you love and that your peers publish in. If they accept you, great. If they reject you, keep trying. Either way, you’ll at least be getting your stuff out there and (hopefully) read by somebody.
Justin Marks’ books are, You’re Going to Miss Me When You’re Bored, (Barrelhouse Books, 2014) and A Million in Prizes (New Issues, 2009). His latest chapbook is We Used to Have Parties (Dikembe Press, 2014). He is a co-founder of Birds, LLC, an independent poetry press, and lives in Queens, NY with his wife and their twin son and daughter.