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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Help Me If You Can; or On the Stages of Project Completion

Sometimes when I’ve just “finished” a project, I get all bouncily excited. I can’t wait to get it out into the world, CERTAIN that the world will be AGOG. At times like this I wish someone would gently wrest the “Send” button from my hand.

If I do excitedly send the fresh, new piece, fortunately it takes so long for most places to respond that the rejection letters come less as a knife to the heart of Tigger as a knife to the heart of, say, Kanga, perhaps, or Roo, or, depending on the day, Eeyore.

If I’m a sensible bear, I’ll put the piece aside. I’ll come back to it later and HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT IT. Then I’ll put it aside again and later come to it with a more measured response. Although if I wait too long, I’ll get too Wol-ish about it all, and that can be insufferable.

So, having just finished a couple of pieces about which I’m WILDLY ENTHUSIASTIC, I’m going to try to breathe through the bouncy part, and try to put my new pieces aside for a while. I’m hoping to get fairly quickly back to my usual, Piglettish state: slightly worried, somewhat confused.

Easy Pieces; or, Editing as Meditation…Editation?

It’s been years since I worked on a jigsaw puzzle. My mother and I used to do them together, bent over the puzzling pieces, saying, “Let me get just one more, and then I’ll stop.” When I got one for a gift recently, I just thought it was cute and whimsical, and thought to put it aside for some rainy day when we had guests who might want distraction.

But I opened it up. I’m sucked in. One thousand pieces.

The picture is a painting of a couple walking through a park in the rain. It’s not a good painting, managing to be both sentimental and garish — the colors are improbable. But as I’ve been working on the puzzle, my sense of shape and color is enhanced. After spending time sifting through the pieces, when I walk away I see the world afresh, my eye still alert for that certain shade of orange, for a piece with a little blue in one corner. I see new colors everywhere in the everyday world. And I’ve come to appreciate the picture painter’s bold use of color, his or her fearlessness at slapping a stroke of cerulean in a shadow, a smear of fresh-grass-green on a tree trunk.

Because I’m seeing the painting through tiny shards of it, seeing the bits of tree for the forest, I’m enjoying what’s been accomplished here in the details, as I pull back to look at the overall picture.

And it occurs to me that if I could bring this level of attention to my writing, it could be a powerful editing tool — to slow my process way down and see each and every word, how the words fit together, how they elbow each other, where space is used, and then pull back to understand each element anew as I view the whole piece. And also use that heightened awareness of word and silence as I encounter the world.

I tend to gallop through editing, working quickly, instinctively, shoving words or lines around. If you look at me working on a jigsaw puzzle, you see me bent almost motionless over the pile of pieces, examining, searching, maybe poking with a finger to get a better view of this one or that, sorting some out by color. If you watch me edit a poem, I’m cutting and pasting, deleting, undeleting, retyping.

But now I’m tempted to literally cut up my poems, even my essays into separate words, and spend a slow time piecing them back together, with the slow breath of concentration and meditation.

I know that putting together a thousand-piece puzzle is a slow process that will take weeks, and I accept the pace, and enjoy the process.
So why am I in such a hurry with my writing?

 

Take It Away; or, Some Thoughts on Editing Poems

I’ve been writing some crappy poems lately. As I brood upon them I think most of them suffer from, at the very least, a problem of tone. I’ve written in other posts about the issue I have with poems of mine that sound overly grandiose. Like I’ve suddenly taken on a British accent or something. I want to say to the poem, “Get over yourself.”

The poems are stumbling around some fairly abstract concepts and this tone is the trap I often fall into when I’m writing from an intellectual interest in an idea rather than from a more visceral reaction to some stimulus.

But I love poems that do a good job of getting their fingers gripped onto the elbow of a good hardy abstract concept. I know it can be done.

One of the crappy poems has a tone I love, but the poem itself goes nowhere. I think the problem with that poem is it doesn’t have a central concept around which it’s stumbling.

The balance of idea and tone is crucial; one must match the other, and one cannot move forward without the other, it seems.

It occurs to me that one of the editing approaches I can take with tone is to radically pare down the words, to move away and away from prose, to introduce white space and silence. Sometimes this can unsettle the plummy tone and begin to allow the poem to get its feet under it.

In contrast, with the poem that goes nowhere, one approach I can take is to keep writing, to write toward something, often starting with the prompt “what I’m really trying to say is:” and asking my mind to move around the image or memory that presented itself, and why it arrived, and why now. Then once I’ve got a lot of prosaic words that may be heading me toward the central idea the poem is wanting to consider, I can begin paring back toward something interesting.

At least these approaches are a place to start. If I get nowhere, well, then I guess I’ll just move on (see post: https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/know-when-to-run-or-when-work-in-progress-is-not-making-progress-or-giving-up-as-part-of-the-poem-editing-process/)…

Know When to Run; or, When Work in Progress is Not Making Progress; or, Giving Up as Part of the Poem Editing Process

I have been stuck on a couple of poems. They didn’t do what I wanted them to do, resisted even doing something different, resisted any effectiveness in coming together in a way that made me satisfied. I think I pulled out my entire arsenal of editing ideas. Here were my editing efforts:

– Walked away from them for a couple of weeks.

– Rewrote them backwards to try to get some insights or suprises.

– Broke them apart and put them back together differently.

– Took out entire sections.

– Plotted the logic of my arguments/analogies to make sure they were solid.

– Asked a poet friend to take a look at them and I did the edits she suggested.

– Tried combining the two poems into one.

– Did a writing exercise starting with the prompt: What I’m really trying to say is…

Nothing worked. And so it goes. So I add them to my pages and pages of abandoned poems.

Sometimes whatever the impulse was to speak just does not lead to something worth hearing. It’s sad to abandon an effort. I keep the pages of abandoned poems around and revisit them occasionally, hoping some new insight will enable me to save them. I cannot recall a single instance of this working.

Part of working toward being a good writer is knowing when to walk away. Part of working toward being a good writer is asking enough of your poems that some of them just can’t make the bar.

 

Oh, No, You Didn’t; or, In Which I Venture Forth a Definition of Poetry

In his incredible book Homo Deus, a sweeping view of the entire history and future of the human species, Yuval Noah Harari, asserts that over time we have greatly reduced the incidence of the three major threats of much of our history: famine, plague, and war; and will in the not too distant future also get under control economic and ecological equilibrium, the two things he identifies as the key modern issues. What will we do then, he asks, and jocularly offers a suggestion: “What will the scientists, investors, bankers and presidents do all day? Write poetry?”

Oh, ha ha. What a joke. Who would do a crazy thing like that…?

But it made me thing of the two strong reactions I had recently in one week as I was encountering poetry:

– “Wow, people are writing some really interesting poetry,” and

– “Oh, dear.”

I ran into some really good work this week, as I was poking around in what people are up to from various fine presses — powerful, inventive. Wow. It is humbling. And inspiring!

And I also ran into work on the other side of the spectrum in some closer encounters. Somehow too many people have gotten the impression that if you put heartfelt thoughts on paper in short lines, and rhyme the endings, you have a poem.

It’s okay to write your heartfelt thoughts on paper in full sentences. You don’t need to make rhymes. The process itself is the point. The record will make for an interesting encounter with yourself years hence. If you have to call it something, call it a diary or memoir or thoughts on life.

Poetry is…well, as soon as I write a definition, I’ll begin to argue with myself, and doubtless you will too. But I’m going to give it a shot.

Poetry is experience/memory/sensation/idea/imagination distilled and thoughtfully crafted with:

– an ear to sound, an ear to silence

– an eye to how it sits on the page (IF it sits on the page), an eye to density, to white space, to line breaks, stanza size and number

– a deliberate creation of rhythm and arhythm

– use of imagery, metaphor, simile developed through imagination

– some awareness of what has come before in poetry tradition

– a sense of something at stake in what is being addressed and how it is being addressed

So come on, all you scientists, investors, bankers, presidents, average schmos. The species could do worse than to concern itself with the task of writing good poetry. AND work on solving all those other problems. In rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter.

On Poetry Craft: A Megablog

I’ve been keeping this blog for several years now, and decided to combine all of my posts thus far that have dealt specifically with issues of poetry craft, as I’ve wrangled over the years with my own poems.

In the document linked below, you’ll find general observations, notes on some specific poems, and, most importantly, my thoughts on the guts of poems and editing considerations. I hope you will find something in there of use. Write on.

PostsOnCraft