How Do I Know?; or, Learning to Assess Our Own Work

I encounter again the ubiquitous “Send us your best work” bullshit advisement on the submission page of a literary magazine. Listen. I have never looked at a poem and thought, “Okay, well, this is mediocre, I think I’ll send it to x literary magazine.” Have never read through a manuscript and thought, “Oh, well, this is better than some of the crap out there, I think I’ll send it to x publisher.”

You bastards, I AM sending you what I think, at that moment, is my best work.
…I think…

Do I read it a week after I’ve sent it out and think, “Holy crap, what was I thinking?” Sometimes.

Do I get your rejection back and think, “But this is the best work I’ve ever done and you STILL won’t take it?” Sometimes.

Do I get your rejection back and think, “Hm, well, I think you were right about that”? Sometimes.

The big question is how do we know when our work is at its best. How do we develop within ourselves an adept critical eye.

No, really, that’s a question. Please tell me: How do I develop within myself an adept critical eye?

Again, not to pound this point, but, well, to pound this point, time is a wonderful filter.
If only I would listen to myself and not get overexcited by a new piece and start sending it out in the first blush of blind optimism.

I think I’m going to create a new folder called Hold It! (I’m a great creator of folders…) and put in it every new poem I’m excited about, and I’m not allowed to look at them until at least a month after I’ve put it in the folder. AT LEAST a month. Six months is probably better.

In six months I’m a different person than I was six months before — new skin, blood, colon, fingernails, as cells replace themselves throughout the body at varying rates. So surely the new me will have some fresh insight.

But I’ll have the same eyeballs, though, and mostly the same brain, but new neuronal networks. So in order to shove myself along developmentally, as the pink-faced new poems cool their heels in the Hold It! folder, I should work on my eyesight and my memories. Which means to me that I should read more and widely in poetry especially, and when I find a poem that makes me say “wow, that is good work,” spend some time taking a look at how it works at working. But also other kinds of written work, because all kinds of literature can feed perspective. And I should also look at art, listen to music. And probably dance a little, even if it’s just in my kitchen.

All these kinds of inputs have the possibility of opening my brain to new ways of seeing, new ways of communicating, new ways to imagine. So when I open that folder again, I can see with altered vision and new light.

Once I do look at the poem again, I should also question myself harder. What do I mean here? This is all very fine sounding, but is it more than sound and fancy? Have I dug deep enough into the initiating impulse behind this poem? Do I even remember what I thought I was writing toward? If I’ve forgotten, what, then, presents itself to me in this poem, and is it interesting? Does energy spark and fade throughout the poem? Inquire of that movement: why does it shift, how can I make the whole thing spark and arc? Inquire of every stinking word. Does it belong, does it add, does it move, does it shimmer, does it hold water?

Ugh, with such big questions, I fear I may never open up the Hold It! folder again. Wasn’t it easier just to love the poem and ship it out and take the rejections as they came?

 

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6 thoughts on “How Do I Know?; or, Learning to Assess Our Own Work

  1. I tend to let my longer pieces “marinate” a while (weeks or months), while shorter ones seem more likely to be finished earlier. And I, too, find the “best work” demand ridiculous. We never send out our worst work, do we?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh boy, did you strike a nerve here, as I am struggling with thinking do I have something to say and even if I don’t I must try anyway and sifting through old and newish poems for a new manuscript (again!)

    As usual, you have your finger on the poet’s pulse.

    Lisa >

    Like

  3. Your partial answer to your own question sounds feasible and sensible. Mostly, I applaud you for getting on the ball and submitting work; I find the process tedious. Also, I find I second-guess myself. Is this poem really really good? Is it ready to send out to the world? Do I believe in it, or am I just sending it out because it seems like something people would enjoy reading? Am I over-thinking this submission and the whole submission process?

    Kinda, yeah. Much to be said for sending out soon and then, if the poem returns, placing it on hold for a re-examination.

    And not kicking yourself for thinking it was good enough to submit–because you never know. Sometimes, it is.

    Like

    • Ah, one rejection doth not a flawed poem indicate. But sometimes the hideously slow response rates of most places do provide that much-needed fresh perspective. I’m with you, though, regarding the wearisome task of sending work out. I do it spasmodically, for sure.

      Like

  4. Pingback: Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 3 – Via Negativa

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