Who are you

To continue the conversation from last time regarding putting together a poetry manuscript: I was reminded that who the reader is may have much to do with how he or she approaches a collection. A reader of poetry, one who bought my book or borrowed it from the library (or who had me thrust it upon them and he or she reluctantly opens it out of some sense of guilt or ancient loyalty), will likely enter and peruse willy-nilly. But a press editor or a book judge will likely start at the beginning. And as I don’t have an editor eagerly awaiting any output, I will need to create a manuscript that is likely to be read from the beginning, and in such a situation, the mind of the reader naturally seeks connectivity among the poems. I just found myself thinking recently, in my role as a judge of a book contest, “Hm, this just doesn’t hang together as a collection.” I was startled to find myself thinking that, in light of my own desire to have a collection that just exists because it’s poems I wrote in a certain period of time. What I think I meant in that case was that the poet, in the end, indulged herself too much and threw in what felt like all the poems she’d ever written. It felt like a collected works instead of a slice of a concentrated period of a mind working. In the end, as a collection it tried my patience and did itself a disservice by meandering and feeling jumbled and uneven after a while. So am I saying shorter is always better? Well, maybe you can get away with more variation if you leave the reader-judge/editor wanting more. Which brings me back to an earlier posting complaining that so many manuscript contests are specifying 60 pages or more. So many opportunities to weaken a collection as I stuff more poems in to meet the minimum! Seems pointless and cruel.

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2 thoughts on “Who are you

  1. Isn’t this disrespectful of the art of the lyric poet? A lyric is a work of art, complete in itself. If it needs 59 more poems to complete it, it is not a lyric at all but a section of an essay or narrative (60 fragments, not 60 lyrics). If one finds 30, 40, 50…100 poems that readily complement each other in theme and tone, all of the same one mind (especially if you are reading for a journal where many authors are involved), you have tapped into a vein of mediocrity. Shouldn’t you dump it all to find that one great poem which is all history and the reader will keep around? That one great poem? You know: that one poem that stood out so glaringly the poet dropped it from the collection or the editor returned it so it will never see publication in our current era… in fact, isn’t this entire issue a symptom of the careerism that infects our contemporary poetry community. We no longer look for outstanding poems. We look for contest winning collections or submissions we can imagine in the magazine as we’ve experienced it before. Maybe it’s time to remind professional readers of the things those who read for love intuit: a lyric poem is finished. Stop looking for the rest of it.

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    • Oh, I don’t know. It’s fun to encounter collections in which poems speak to each other or elbow each other, lyric or narrative. Like they’re all at the neighborhood bar, jockeying for a the bartender’s attention. I just would prefer being in a bar with 48 poems rather than 60, I guess. The noise level is lower.

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