I am also a little jealous of the writers who have managed to keep all their rejections as a badge of honor to remind them where they've been. I have a few from my days of postal submissions squirreled away, but most of my efforts after 2001 or so are electronic, and I didn't really save any e-mails. Those mail ones were from all the places from about 1995 onward that I felt were a good market for my work---or the places what tiny bit of insight into the po-world I had were telling me to submit --The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Poetry. Occasionally I would submit to places I actually had a chance of getting into. The first acceptance outside of college lit mags or semi-vanity anthologies was a tiny local feminist magazine, Moon Journal, who would later publish my first chapbook. Another was an awesome little wallpaper wrapped stapled journal called Poetry Motel I really wish was still around. . Later, I would decide the New Yorker and Atlantic audiences weren't, with their overwhelming number of Lexus ads, my sort of readership. Poetry, though I like the people and the mission and occasionally the poems these days, it took a little longer, but I realized eventually I just didn't share their aesthetic and that they'd likely never like anything I'd written.
But online journals, all through the aughts when I was getting my bearings were where it was at. Sometimes it took several tries, but I landed most of my dream journals eventually after some trying--No Tell Motel, La Petite Zine, Stirring, Caffiene Destiny. I also sent to print journals I grew to love--The Tiny, Backwards City, Cake, Another Chicago Magazine, Swink. On the whole, I found the work in a lot of more academic print journals less daring and excitng, but a couple--Denver Quarterly and Black Warrior-- are still places I would love to get work into one day. I stumbled into a few really awesome places by invitation as well, but then also was occasionally solicited and rejected. Yearly, I unsucessfully try a few places I love when I'm trying out some new discoveries.. Last year, I made it into Paper Darts which was on my wishlist, but The Collagist and Sixth Finch remain ever elusive.
In the past decade so, I almost yearly get a fire under my ass and decide to send out some submissions, and even this far into, I guess, a "career"my ratios of acceptance and rejection are still the same. I am better suited to figuring out who would like my poems, but that doesn't mean I am always right. My submittable rate is about 25% success, but is skewed a little higher by occasional solicitations. As for previous success helping you along, I feel like everyone has a long list of credits and books sometimes and even multiple books in, I still don't really have an advantage in some regards (and sometimes that many books and no one really having ever heard of me seems weird too and maybe a disadvantage.) My first book was about 90% published in journals since it took so long to happen and I submitted a lot. Now, most books only boast a handful of journal appearances, and in the case of the shared properties of water and stars none at all. I'd like to change this, but since I love releasing some projects as zines or artist books fairly quickly after their completed, there is less time for sending things out before they are published. I've stretching the timelines to allow journal inclusions on certain series though and this may help. I also feel it's little more challenging to get stand alone pieces published of serial projects. Sometimes, they are a little harder to market than poems that can be extracted completely from the whole and still make total sense.
As for full-length books, and the short time when I was submitting chapbook-length projects, there was a decent amount of rejection. I'm pretty sure I entered maybe 10-15 contests between 2003 and 2005 for books, maybe another 5-7 for chaps. Money was an issue so I was limited, and the irony is that a press who I queried the traditional way was the press that wound up taking that first book. And I've fared well since with subsequent books, sometimes though some more old-school querying or open reading periods. Sometimes through circumstance and shared interests with editors who believe in my work.
I'm thankful that much of my publishing history has worked out rather serendpitously outside the contest circuit, mostly since I don't think I would have fared very well there. Right before Ghost Road took the fever almanac, I was a semi-finalist in the Crab Orchard contest, but it's as close as I ever came. I was a finalist in a couple of chap contests over the years, one of which, feign, actually amazingly got published. Maybe my books are good, but if I know anything after all these years, there are a lot of good books still unpublished out there. All of which have to make it though a a circuit of first, maybe second readers, and to the final judge. While I feel sometimes my editors are my best cheerleaders and some of the few people that get me, finding a GROUP of people, especially a disparate group that have varying aesthetics, that get me and my work, much much harder. I've thought about entering contests just to see what might happen, and could always use the sort of prize money, but it's sort of like sinking 20-30 dollars and pulling the slot machine handle. You probably won't win, but then, hell someone has to.
I think though, if there is anything I've learned being on the other side of the gates is how truly subjective all of it is. I've often said my choices for dancing girl press are solely based on the work that I like or that excites me. Since I'm the only editor, I get to publish what I want, but I couldn't imagine having to figure out with a group what to invest in. What to weed out. Also, that gatekeepers are fallible, and sometimes, that it's hard for a group of people to come to a consensus on a given piece of work, sometimes, especially when you have a bunch of different people who have different ideas of how a poem succeeds and fails (think of this especially when you submit to academic journals with student readers. Also, that rejection sometimes is a comment on the work itself, but not always. Maybe it's a sound poem, but the subject matter or voice doesn't interest the person whose desk it came across first. Or maybe they were having a shitty day and everything was a no. Or maybe they were tired of poems about rabbits or suicides or whathaveyou. So often I would send a group of poems and they would reject the work I thought was strongest and take some of the other pieces. Maybe what comes with experience is not so much mastery over your domain, but a certain birds eye view that makes things much less frustrating over time. I know what's out there, what I'm up against, so when the no's come, just as often as they ever did, they feel less like obstacles and more like oh wells.