As regards my recent long weekend assessing and organizing my work, the most startling revelation has been its sheer volume. I keep my printed poem drafts in an old-fashioned cardboard letterhead/correspondence box which holds two reams of paper–1,000 pages–and the box was full. Among poets who experience writer’s block this abundance may seem a problem worth having, but keep in mind two things:
1) This output represents over 15 years of uncompleted, unrevised drafts and
2) Most of the poems are crappy, or mediocre at best.
Apparently I have taken to heart William Stafford‘s advice that if one has trouble with writing, “perhaps you should lower your standards.” *
Abundance is a fine thing, but anyone who has ever cleaned a barn stall or an attic knows that sheer volume does not count for much. And one cannot spin bad drafts into gold without considerable help from supernatural guides or wily trolls, neither of which accompanied me to the cabin.
Thus, I had to toil on my own, critique my poems, evaluate which ones have most “promise,” and try to keep myself from throwing absolutely everything into the woodstove. The work required solitude, discernment, frequent breaks for walks, tea, exercise, reading work other than my own, and (eventually) wine.
Also the occasional nap. My brain gets sleepy after awhile.
The outcome? I winnowed, though possibly not enough. I have begun the disciplined, for now, revision process of the “active” stack of work. It is entirely possible that there’s a collection or two in there, though I will not know that for some time.
It will not be gold, but it will be a vast improvement over the accumulated dross..
Part of the process…
*In an interview with Bill Moyers, and widely quoted elsewhere
Poetry and publishing: two topics that seem diametrically opposed, if you look at them under the perspective that’s the norm in the USA—that of business, capitalism, popular culture. Shake off that norm, however, and publishing can be re-imagined as aural/oral, visual, textual, cinematic, digital, interactive…who knows?
When a reader begins to deepen her understanding of creative literature, she will also find it necessary to widen the concept of publishing. Some folks say this is a new world. Or they’ll claim things were better in the old days. Curmudgeons and prejudices abound.
In my lifetime, I have observed and been part of significant and constant changes in what constitutes publishing, from Linotype to Huffpost. Recently, I participated on a panel of poets talking to students who have just begun an MFA program. The panel was a discussion, but it jogged reflections on the process of getting poetry to an audience. So here’s a compressed version of getting poems published, as I experienced it.
I began to submit my work in the very early 1980s to the indie-publishing journals which were extant at the time: photocopied, stapled zines with print runs of 300, or maybe just 150. I was new at writing and aware that my work wasn’t ready for Ploughshares or Poetry and the so-called top-tier journals I purchased and read carefully and tried to learn from.
As a 20-year-old woman, I was not exactly full of self-esteem. Why did I submit at all, when I knew my poems were juvenilia? Well, I know that now…at the time, let’s say I knew they weren’t up to the work of Elizabeth Bishop or Audre Lorde. The reason was mentorship. I had two good friends who encouraged me to send work out but to be realistic. To read the journal first and analyze my work in comparison to what appeared in the magazine. Good advice—and let me tell you how much harder that was in the years before the internet! As I lived in New York and Brooklyn and Philadelphia, however, and it was the 80s, there were good independent bookstores to browse, and good libraries. And there was Dustbooks.
So analysis was crucial, not just for deciding where to submit but to learn how to be a better writer. It was important to compare, to take apart, to hear meter, to recognize rhythm and consonance and the fabulous image and the fresh metaphor, to say how does that writer achieve what she does and can I learn it? Without slavish copying?
Damned difficult. But thanks to publishers, at least the materials were available. If we hadn’t had poetry publishers, it would have been even harder to learn the craft; and I’m not the sort of sui generis writer who just creates out of genius. I had to study, practice, revise, and learn the hard way. Alas.
In the later 80s, I started doing some editing and publishing of other people’s work. My dear friend, David Dunn, and I had a small press that put out two broadsides and four chapbooks. Taught me a great deal. I helped to edit a Xerox-zine in Philadelphia in the 80s. Meanwhile, I kept getting work into small press journals nationwide, mostly these photocopied deals with tiny readerships; but the minor successes kept me going. After awhile I had enough hubris to try the better-recognized journals, with some success. This is how it works: persistence, but not bull-headed, blind persistence. One persists through the learning process; revises, practices, finds trustworthy people for feedback.
My sister, my spouse, and I all have worked in the publishing business-as-business, in how-to and B2B magazines; I was a typographer, proofreader, copyeditor, writer, indexer. All of that background was valuable in its way and never kept me from pursuing creative work. So I did eventually go for my MFA, in my 40s, and I got chapbooks and a collection published at long last in spite of—oh, you know—life.
Because I feel that poetry needs audience, I was early to jump on the online publishing wagon, despite colleagues who warned that it wasn’t really as acceptable a venue as academically-affiliated print journals. Nonetheless I’ve found myself enthralled by online journals, by audio-poems, moving-poems (video), podcasts, blogs. I’ve watched well-respected magazines migrate to the internet. And there are problems with online publishing. I know about them, wrestle with them, yeah—keeps life interesting.
My route has not been the academic route, although I work at a college today; I am more of an outlier. Poets and writers can be nurses, doctors, mechanics, or landscapers, grandparents, people with disabilities, insurance industry managers, post office workers, tutors. Each of us discovers her own process for writing and for getting the poems into the world. Mine is pokey and slow and frequently interrupted, and my next long collection won’t appear until 2021, nine years after Water-Rites, my first. But I feel satisfied with my publishing record, such as it is. People do read my work, which is kind of the entire point of writing, no?
When everything is easy and there’s no chance of failure, life is boring. Writing creatively means taking risks, creating tension. Publishing creatively requires the same things. Risks, imagination, persistence, curiosity, analysis and a willingness to be open-minded. Fun pursuits, but not always easy ones.
I have read reams of advice and guidance on how to choose poems for a collection, how to order them, whether to construct an arc in a poetry collection, and so on. I have also had the excellent personal input of good poets and mentors in the process, all of which leaves me deeply grateful and still stumbling when I once again begin the process.
One challenge is excess. I have put off revising for collection for a few too many years, and now I need serious critique and culling; thus, I didn’t know where to begin (as I mentioned in an earlier post). Given a problem, however, creative people tend to develop a method. I chose the simplest one I could come up with: start by pulling all the published work that is not in my previous collections, and see what happens.
What I will discover–in fact, in the early process, already have noticed–is that not all work accepted for publication in a poetry journal reflects my judgment of my strongest poems. Then, too, down the road I will pull some good poems from the evolving manuscript because they do not play well with the others…that is, in terms of tone or subject. As I add things up, I’ll begin to see what might be missing or needed, or I’ll be reminded of an unpublished piece that ought to be included.
This work is exciting. And it takes weeks or months. It will change; my feelings about what I want the collection to say will change.
And then the reading will begin. I will read and re-read the book-as-it-exists and ask generous friends to read and critique the whole.
If I were a more ambitious and organized person, I might approach the manuscript process differently–certainly sooner, and possibly with more of a projected arc in mind from the start. I know that putting together another manuscript will be yet another learning experience, different from chapbook-writing, different from the past books I have composed. The poems differ, too–of course! My perspective, my physiology, my experiences, even my environment, though I have lived in the same house for 20 years.
At this stage, a month or so into the process, a coherence begins to occur. Yes, a book exists in the piles of poems. Probably two books, in fact–but let me begin with abundance (or perhaps, with diminishment) and proceed from there.
Creative writers, who are often solitary creatures given the kind of work we do, nonetheless must communicate with the wider world: that is, after all, the purpose of poetry. It is a form of artistic communication using words as medium. I do not know much about the (possibly long?) history of writers offering feedback, critique, encouragement or collaboration with one another aside from the more well-known spats and criticisms of Some Famous Authors. I do know that during the 20th century, evolving from artistic and literary salons of the 1800s, there arose the idea of writers’ groups and writers’ retreats, seminars, getaways, workshops…culminating in the MFA program, I suppose. Despite the popularity of the concept, I have had people ask me about writers’ groups and whether or not I recommend joining one.
First, I think we must ask: What is the purpose of a writers’ group? What do writers gain by meeting regularly and discussing their work, sharing their drafts, listening to feedback, and offering one another advice on publishing or goals or career moves? Is the writing group a place for jealousies and competition, or an environment of encouragement and networking? A bit of both? Is it good for friendships? Is it useful?
Then, we can ask: For how long can one expect a writers’ group to run? Months? Years? Decades? And how committed to the group is it necessary for members to be; and what number of members works best? How does it work, assuming that it does benefit the members? What happens if someone gets hurt, or angry, at the group or at a member in the group?
And where do we put the apostrophe? Writers’ group, or writer’s group? Or do we ignore the apostrophe? (Sorry. Had to make a punctuation observation.)
Full disclosure: I have been a member of writers’ groups for most of my writing life. I joined my first group in 1980 in Brooklyn, NY. I joined a loose coalition of poets when I moved to Philadelphia and some of us met for critique, though mostly we participated in readings. When I moved to my current region, I was invited to a feminist writers group; my spouse and I purchased our first house from one of the member poets! After that, I was invited to two other groups. One of the groups “clicked” for me. I have met with this core group of poets and writers for nearly 25 years now, and the experience has changed me.
The artistic question here is: Has the experienced changed my work for the better?
The personal question is: Have I benefited from the experience?
Redbud leaf in fall
I could perhaps write a book on these questions, but I am far too lazy. As to whether my work is better because of the discussion and critique, I’m pretty sure the answer is yes. Even though my colleagues are not famous writers, they are excellent and thoughtful readers–and that is what one most requires from this sort of group. If you want to improve your writing, you must have readers who can tell you whether or not they “get” your work.
Or make you reflect carefully upon why it is they don’t.
Have I benefited personally? That one is an easy and certain yes. I have a community, a very small community, devoted to creative writing and willing to read and think about that sort of work. I have learned–from their writing itself and from our discussions surrounding ideas pertinent to the process of writing and revision–much about their daily lives, backgrounds and fears and hopes, their cultures and their passions, their careers, their health, their homes (in which we meet). We have shared recommendations on which books to read, which poets to learn more about. Often, we disagree. Without conflicting opinions, no forward momentum. We are passionate, we are gentle, we are probing. Sometimes we probe too deeply. We learn to back off when necessary. We also embrace.
During 25 years, there have been serious losses, real tragedies, that our members have lived through, written about, survived. Such strength. Such humility. Such proof of the ways art can help people to express to others that in their grief they are not alone. That in their love and in their confusion they are not alone. That others feel the weird varieties of joy, the ambiguous sensations, the coincidences, the empty hours, the gladness in small things that human beings experience.
And also…might you consider a different line break here? It might heighten the punch of that phrase, and function as stronger alliteration in the following line.
A few months back, I heard from an editor who rejected a poem I had submitted. He said that the editors really liked the work, but that the journal generally did not publish “poems about poetry.” The critique was especially surprising to me because Ididn’t realize that my poem was about poetry; the editors’ interpretation of my text was different from my own!
It is interesting to re-read one’s own work from the viewpoint of a reader who is not oneself. Actually, that’s an impossible task, but I tried. My interpretation of my poem is that it is a somewhat speculative, perhaps philosophical piece concerning the re-envisioning of the commonplace. Nonetheless, it is not an abstract poem on the surface. My poetry inclines toward physical imagery, often nature-based (no surprise to readers of this blog…). When I distanced myself a bit and tried to imagine what another reader might make of the poem, I could see that there would be a way to interpret the piece metaphorically as a reflection on the writing process.
That’s not what I thought I was writing, but the interpretation works just fine. Who knows, maybe I was kind of writing about writing, and it took a thoughtful critique by some editors to figure that out!
Which brings me to the whole topic of interpretation. I am not teaching poetry class this semester, but that does not mean I am not trying to impart to my students an understanding of what it means to interpret a text. The aim of any composition & rhetoric course is to assist students in learning how to express their original thoughts about a topic–any topic–and to ground those thoughts in evidence: in other words, to validate the student’s interpretation.
That process involves analysis, argument, inference, sometimes research, and composition whether the text the student responds to is literary, persuasive, commercial, visual, auditory, performatory, or digital. Critical thinking requires inference and metacognition. These tasks are harder than they seem; most students do not develop those abilities overnight and need a bit of coaching.
Then there are students who are capable of thinking analytical thoughts but are at a loss for how to express them on paper (or on word-processing software). That ability also requires a bit of coaching.
It can be difficult to ascertain whether a student I am tutoring needs help with the thinking or help with the expressing. Too often, early in my career as a writing tutor, I have inferred incorrectly about a student’s difficulties with the written word. Coaching takes finesse. Finesse takes awhile to develop.
Come to think of it, interpretation requires finesse as well. When a critic bludgeons a poem to pieces, the interpretation gets lost in the analysis (and critics can even bludgeon poems that they love).
I am glad that the above-mentioned editor read my poem with considerable care and finesse. He may have decided not to publish it, and he may have interpreted it differently that I would have myself, but he took the time to interpret. It is encouraging to know that my work has been read with such care.
For the month of October, I participated in an online poetry workshop with Daisy Fried (see this post). I enjoyed the workshop and gained a great deal from it; I wish I had had a little more time to put into the writing, however. As is often the case, “life intervened” and I did not find quite as much creative writing time in the month as I had hoped.
Then again, all writers have to juggle. Life intervenes, always. How dedicated are we to making art? We have to ask ourselves that now and then. If distractions too readily remove us from the genuine work, maybe we’re dilettantes. On the other hand, not all of us choose to devote 100% of ourselves to the work. That does not make us less serious about the hours it takes to compose art.
One thing I learned from the online workshop experience is that, with the right participants (our group seemed well-chosen), you can get to know one anothers’ work and topic concerns fairly quickly, and even glean things about personality, cultural background, and literary influences of the people in the group. This may be more true for writers than for other artists, perhaps, as writers are experienced at…well, writing…which is how the critique and feedback exchanges operate on these forums (via comments). The exchanges were interesting and useful because the perspectives varied greatly; and instead of talking together in a room real-time, and perhaps feeling inhibited by face-to-face shyness or fear of interrupting one another, the participants had time to write our thoughts and think a bit before posting feedback.
The downside of an online workshop, for me, mostly entails the quantity of on-screen reading necessary for full participation. I suppose I could have printed the lectures and comments, but that seemed a waste of paper and was not simple because of the Blogger-framework, the format of which does not play well with my printer defaults. Ah, technology! How I love and hate it! And the beauty of a face-to-face workshop is the beauty of human beings, faces, flesh, vocal tones, body language, gesture–subtleties lost in a virtual forum. When I was enrolled in my MFA program at Goddard, the intensity of the low-residency on-campus workshops and lectures were crucial (and irreplaceable).
Nonetheless, I found the workshop online this past month to be a valuable learning experience that expanded my thinking about poems and narrative, about revision and experimentation, and about the various modes of teaching or critiquing. I recognized, for example, how much preparation Daisy had to do to organize a one-month online workshop, how much organization, and how much thought as to purpose and guidance and feedback, let alone figuring out which low-cost method to employ to deliver the lecture, set the context, and permit easy and rapid feedback on the part of both teacher and students. Not an easy task, and she did a yeoman’s job of it. One thing I deeply appreciated was Fried’s devotion to the value of deep revision rather than just to tweaking the draft. I had forgotten how I used to wildly and almost randomly revise drafts “just to see” what might happen if I made radical changes. Often I would return to the earlier draft with renewed focus, and sometimes the radical revision took the poems to much more interesting places. These days, when I have less time to mull and experiment, I tend to stay on the safe side and take fewer risks with revision. Risk is worth it, though. I need to get back to that approach.
All in all, a positive workshop experience, and one which yielded a couple of poems worth revising and some poetry colleagues whose work I like and whose feedback I value and may tap in future (who knows?). Without leaving home.
A group of friends gathers once a month to read and share and critique one another’s poems. They know one another well enough that they can be empathic, honest, and helpful; also, they are trusting enough to bring poems that really aren’t “working.” The critique’s the best way to get some understanding of why a poem is not working.
Recently, one member shared a poem that was somewhat philosophical in its overtones. The rhetoric of the poem was shifting, getting away from her, and she knew it. But she couldn’t figure out why, or how to correct the problem.
The talk moved away from critique and into values–for awhile. So the group was no longer exactly discussing the poem, or poetry, at all.
And yet, through the conversation, the writer recognized where at least part of the poem’s problem lay…which was in image and in structure (as illuminated, perhaps, by value and by rhetoric).