Success Story: Renée Ashley

Ashley’s 4th poetry book published after 152 rejections

Renee Ashley headshotCongrats to long-time Getaway Faculty Member Renée Ashley whose fourth book of poems Basic Heart has just won the 2008 X. J. Kennedy Prize awarded by the Texas Review Press. While most people only know Renée as a poet, she wrote her first novel, Someplace Like This, before her first book of poems, Salt, came out in 1991. When Someplace Like This was finally published to laudatory reviews from Publishers WeeklyKirkus Review and Library Journal in 2003, it had been circulating off and on for fifteen years! During that period she wrote and published two other collections of poetry, The Various Reasons of Light and The Revisionist’s Dream and has since published a poetry chapbook, The Museum of Lost Wings. But Basic Heart was having a rough time.

Renée is dogged if nothing else, and her poems are dense and frequently dark. In the nine years that it was circulating, Basic Heart received 152 rejections. 152! But not all from different publishers. She made a list of the publishers she liked and kept sending her manuscript back to their contests and open submission periods when the judges changed.

In that time, she took one poem out and put a new one in. Sure, it had been a finalist for many contests and received many generous rejection letters, but Renée never gave up. Jokingly, she says “Just goes to show if you live long enough. . .” but she is no fool.

“The articulation of craft in workshop feedback sessions is invaluable,” Ashley explains. “Community, like the one at the Getaway, gives us the opportunity to do that. Peter’s community, in particular, gives us the opportunity to do it safely, with support. We need that; we need, as well, to be reminded by interaction with others that we work within the context of a world of differences—not just inside our solipsistic little heads. And, frankly, the dancing [at the Getaway hotel’s disco] doesn’t hurt.”

Renée continued to read, to write, to read, to take classes from writers she admired, to read and to master her craft. Did I mention she reads a lot? Perhaps more than anyone I know. It is this literary “professional development” that gave Renée confidence in her work, to keep sending it out and not give up. She knew it was good!

Rejection hurts, especially as the world fails to see what a literary genius you are. However, it is a sad fact that more writers submit their work to literary journals than subscribe to them, and I suspect that more writers send their manuscripts to publishers than buy their books. If you do not read and do not study, you will not grow as a writer. You must practice just as hard as any musician or gymnast. And if you are not enjoying the process, well, then maybe you should give up. But if you are working hard and having fun, then keep on writing and don’t surrender. At least not until you have surpassed Renée’s record.

Here’s her title poem:

Basic Heart by Renée Ashley

“What can we do once we are ordinary?”
~ Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Sorrow has a horizontal habit; some souls’ feet are bound.
Still the black bag of night is the structure of hope. Tonight’s
Concert of blue light is riddled with the infinite; your jester’s
Stripped of bells – neither fool nor the absolute fire behind
That black gate. The trees read the air and, despite the meticulous
Script of your bones, you sing your savage door wide and wear
The heart, finally, as just a heart, poor vessel of all your moments.

[Originally published in Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment and the Creative Process, Richard Berlin, ed. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.]