The poetry of rejection

Authors are used to having their works rejected, but when a prestigious magazine doesn’t even bother replying to a submission, you wonder if it’s all worth it. Tom Krause discovers a poem in search of an anthology, but only finding success underground.

Floyd went under, out of winter light, his denim coat
Limp like a defeated flag, hanging from a dark sapling:
A clod-splitter, unknown by name or sight off Flint Ridge,
Soon to be spoken of in Brooklyn and Belgrade.

And now, Sydney, I hope. The above is an extract from a poem called Ghosts of Floyd Collins by Dr Michael Nardacci about a pioneer cave explorer in the US. Let’s make disclosure early: Mike Nardacci is an old friend of mine. We met at graduate school in New York City and have stayed in touch for the last 44 years, separated by continents, but not empathy or love of literature.
The reason I write about the poem is that the prestigious New Yorker magazine has never had the courtesy to acknowledge receipt of the work about the famous Floyd Collins, who explored caves in central Kentucky, an area that includes Mammoth Cave National Park. Floyd went under, as the poem says, when he was trying to find a new entrance to a system of underground caves, a popular tourist attraction, owned by his family. It was 1925: Floyd Collins was trapped in a narrow passage, and one of the first scrums in modern media history. When newspapers and fledgling radio stations found out about it, journalists headed for central Kentucky in droves and stayed for 14 ghoulish days. Nardacci describes it thus:
A shudder in the rocks engenders there
Trainloads of newsmen, breathless for misery
Peddlers of mountain moonshine and Sand Cove balloons,
And in the pitiless winter rain, Floyd’s family fearful;
And the little man called Skeets,
Keeping a date with ghastly death and Pulitzer,
From up north in Lou’ville  — as far to Floyd as the moon –
Comes to feed him moldy hopes and damp sandwiches.

Skeets Miller is the reporter on whom Billy Wilder based the character Chuck Tatum in his 1951 movie, Ace in the Hole (renamed The Big Carnival by Hollywood), starring Kirk Douglas. I saw this film on Foxtel early one morning a few years ago, and now every time I watch a mining disaster on  television, I think of Skeets Miller and Floyd Collins. Thankfully, the major tv networks have become a bit more sympathetic to the miners and their families – but the coverage is still over the top until the rescues, or the deaths, of the victims.Think Chile and New Zealand. Mines do kill people.
Caves, on the other hand, are a tourist delight, and Floyd Collins’ coffin was an attraction for years until Crystal Cave was closed to the public and the body later reinterred in 1989. Before then cavers used to pass by the chained coffin and say:
Come along with us, Floyd, is the casual greeting,
And that’s the tradition, and it’s said with a laugh;
But I pick up my pace and my footsteps fall soft,
And that’s partly in sadness and partly in fear.
Fear, of course, because as the title of the poem suggests, the ghosts of Floyd Collins still roam the caves, as two old local boys discover on a pilgrimage and one of them hears a voice crying out for help:
An’ he’s askin me, “Whose voice? Whose voice did you hear?”
Then I bet I turned white – he says “You gonna faint?
I just says, “Oh Lordy, oh Lordy, oh Lord.
I heard that voice callin’ in my deaf left ear.”
It was, of course, the voice of Floyd Collins.
Back to the New Yorker, and as you can tell, the magazine has missed a substantial poem, telling a great topical yarn, but I still wonder why I never heard back. I had sent it as a favour to my mate to Amelia Lester, the newly named managing editor of the New Yorker, an Australian from Sydney’s North Shore. Five years later, Amelia is now back in Australia and is the editor of Good Weekend in the Sydney Morning Herald. I still haven’t heard from her. (Here’s a very nice piece she wrote for Harvard Magazine when she was a student there: No, I didn’t expect a yes to a long poem (11 pages), but at least a reply. Mike Nardacci also submitted the poem and contacted them, but to no avail.
I only complain because there are so few outlets for poets these days. Even a website founded by the veteran and award-winning Australian poet, John Tranter, is not “currently reading submissions of poetry.” It’s not Tranter’s fault. The website,, is now run by someone else and is based in Philadelphia, though it is committed to preserving a full, searchable archive of the original Jacket Magazine, which contains more than a thousand original works by poets from around the world. For those interested in poetry, John Tranter’s homepage is a must read:
And while I’m plugging a mate and a legendary Australian poet, I’d better recommend again a terrific books blog by the literary editor of The Australian, Stephen Romei, called A Pair of Ragged Claws. Stephen also cares about poetry, and this Saturday in the Weekend Australian, the books section will review the 1024-page blockbuster, Australian Poetry Since 1788, edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray and published by UNSW Press.
All of which brings me back to the Ghosts of Floyd Collins and the non-responding New Yorker. Maybe Amelia Lester never received my letter and a copy of the poem, and maybe the magazine never received Mike Nardacci’s submission and subsequent communications. If this is the case, I apologise. But in the meantime, if they are interested, Mike will be happy to send them a copy of the poem again. And the good news is that the National Speleological Society (yes, that’s the underground press – sorry I couldn’t resist!) has scooped the New Yorker by publishing the poem in its latest news magazine. The ghosts of Floyd Collins, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, William “Skeets” Miller, will be laughing at that one.
Finally, back to my war on clichés,  and I have to report myself to the Cliché Monitor. In discussing a document with my colleagues on Meet the Press, I actually wrote in an email that I hoped we were all “on the same page.” Horrors, to think that I used that cliché.
Speaking of cliches, I heard “at this point in time” twice on Fran Kelly’s excellent ABC Radio National Breakfast show on Tuesday morning. First from Nadine Flood, the spokesperson for the Community and Public Sector Union, who used the phrase in discussing the Customs officers strike. Union spokespeople suffer from the same problem as politicians. When they can’t think of something to say, they use a cliché. And finally, it was utilised by Melissa George, a Wulgurukaba Traditional Owner with traditional connections to Magnetic Island and the greater Townsville region, Far North Queensland, in an interview with Cathy Van Extel. But Ms George can be forgiven, given that the topic of the discussion was about a record number of turtles and dugongs dying off the coast of Queensland. At this point in time remains a sore point; but nothing is as awful as going forward.
Tom Krause was the supervising producer of Ten’s Meet the Press, when this post was first published. His views are his own; always have been. First published September 28, 2011 on Network Ten website. Copyright

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