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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Abandon Hope; or, Grappling with Critique

A poetry teacher of mine told me once that she thought (“at first,” she graciously added) that I was “not open to criticism” of my poems. I felt the sting of injustice in that, as I could think of nothing I did or said that would lead her to think that — I took copious notes of what was said of my poems, did not, as far as I recall, argue or defend.
Was it my resting bitch face?
Or was it that I rarely turned in edited poems?

After (I swear!) careful consideration (and swearing) of the comments and suggestions, trying things, putting things in, taking them out, writing more, heading in different directions, I not infrequently concluded either that the poem just could not serve the intention, or that I did not have the ability to make that particular poem do the thing the critique asked it to do, so decided to move on and write something new. In most circumstances, I think that is a perfectly reasonable response. (Or am I being defensive? I don’t think so! Listen:)

Sometimes the originating impulse behind a poem is just not clear enough or stable enough or grounded enough. So no matter how much tinkering, I still have a poem that’s shallow, merely decorative, or without deep sense. Or frankly that I lost the sense of somewhere along the way and can no longer recall.

Sometimes the critique offered is not something I can figure out how to make my own, or how to grapple with it in the given poem. Especially if I’m unclear about the problem the critique suggestions are meant to solve, I can’t comfortably settle into the solution. I can try things but have no ability to gauge the success or failure of the attempt.
Or sometimes I understand and agree with the critique, but just can’t make the given poem hold up. When I turn one screw, the whole thing gees or haws to one side or another. The center cannot hold. (Maybe a revolution should be at hand…)

At any rate, receiving and using critique is very tricky. First, I have to have sufficient distance from the piece to be able to see it NOT through the rose-colored-glasses of first-love and also NOT through the who-wrote-THIS-hopeless-piece-of-crap smeared window. I gotta be cool, man, real cool.

Then I have to be willing to play around, try anything, mess things up, break things open, dismantle and remantle. That can be hard. know what I wanted the poem to do. Sometimes a critique wants to take the poem in a different direction. It can be very hard, sometimes impossible, to allow that process. That doesn’t mean the critique isn’t right on; it just means that I don’t have enough distance yet, or as a writer I’m not yet skilled enough to figure out how to follow through, or I just don’t want to go in that direction, for whatever misguided (or guided) reasons.

Sometimes a critique is off base. Sometimes a critique is not well grounded itself. You have to be open enough to both consider a critique, and to discard it. That takes a level of self-confidence that to some borders on hubris. Own it. You might be wrong in the long run, but at least you can be honest about the fact you considered an idea but then turned it away.

As I’ve noted before in this space, one of the most important editing tools is time. Sometimes I just have to put it all away, poem and critique and notes and versions. Move on, at least for the moment.

I have a folder labeled “B level” that contains about 50 things that I thought were poems at one point but finally concluded over time that they just weren’t worth the moniker, but might have something in them worth saving. I have a document called “drafts and notes” that is 108 pages of abandoned work and multiple versions of things. That doesn’t include the teetering pile of notebooks on the pages of which, amid the whining, freaking out, counting of blessings, screed, screams, squeals, and snarls, fodder for what I had hoped were poems but on review just were not. Nor the old computer with old folders with old poems I no longer believe in so didn’t bother to transfer into my new computers.

Only time can tell me ultimately if a poem is going to “have legs,” as the saying goes. I think of skittering spiders of poems heading for the corners of the room. Or if the critique finally makes sense and is something I can act on.

That’s why I keep all these old poems in the folders, a sort of Island of Misfit Poems. I periodically visit them, test them for some magic inside that I could now, with the capacity and perspective I have as the writer I am now, make use of.

I must admit, rarely do the poor things get out of there.

But you never know.

skitter skitter

The Name is Bond; or, Writing Within Constraints…or Not

Someone asked me recently what kind of constraints I put on my work. I didn’t understand the question. Constraints? You mean, other than my own vast limitations? Hunh? But what he meant was the kind of thing poets do sometimes, challenge themselves to write within limits: for some of us free-verse people that might mean writing within a form such as a sonnet or villanelle or the dread sestina, or with a strict count of syllables per line. Or it make take the form of writerly play: write a poem without using the letter e, or use six random words from the dictionary.

I have had spasms of trying to write in form. I still shudder to remember the crap I’ve written. Sometimes my poems do, though, begin to take the form of a form: I’ve had poems that seem to take the shape of a sonnet, have had poems begin to exhibit a rhyme scheme, or that show the kind of obsession a form like a villanelle brings out. I could be more willing and try to be more able at encouraging/allowing that, and making the best of it. But to start out with the intention to write in a form? It makes me shudder.

As for the other tricks, the only thing I do — and this only when I haven’t been writing at all — is substitution. That is, I’ll take someone else’s poem, ideally someone whose work is different from mine, so I’m off-balance to begin with, and then word by word substitute my own words. So “…while I pondered weak and weary” becomes “after we made assumptions, burly and full of ourselves,” perhaps. I do this to shake up my work, or push me into process when I’ve lapsed into lassitude.

They do feel like tricks, these constraint games. And I feel like I can feel the artifice in the final product. Which for some people is the point. My own mind, imagination, abilities, proclivities, ignorances, prejudices, blindnesses, laziness, insistence on some kind of logic…well…etcetera…are constraint enough. Aren’t they?

I want the poem to become its own organic thing, growing in bumps and spurts to whatever lumpy, limpy, or suave form it fits itself. My job is to give it some oomph and stay out of the way.

Some would argue, though, that working within constraints requires the imagination rise to a new occasion.

Hmph.

And haven’t I nudged myself before for the active engagement of the imagination?

Hmph.

Come on. Maybe it’s sonnet that hard. Maybe I shouldn’t get my pantoums in a bunch. Maybe terza rima in me yet. Mayb it’s tim for somthing nw.

 

Who Wrote the Book of Love; or, Remembering Wonder in the Writing Process

The other night I was listening to a writer read a long descriptive piece. The scene obviously meant a lot to the writer/reader, but failed to reach me. It’s not that I couldn’t picture what was being described — the description was perfectly picturable, and I could understand what would move the person to write it in a diary. But to make a work of art of it,  to make a “poem,” something else needed to happen.

What is the problem, here? I speculated. What can I learn? As I listened, it occurred to me: a. the language needed to capture viscerally the moment — verbs needed to be active, adjectives vivid; b. the imagery needed to be imaginative enough to capture the emotion , and to give dimension, layers, senses; and c. nothing was unknown to the writer/reader. What could have been meditative and transcendent instead was not, for me.

Where, I wondered to myself, was the actual wonder? What was discovered by the writer in writing this? What in this accounting surprised the writer or moved the writer or forced the writer to think harder, to be momentarily confused, startled, to shiver, to shake a head or a fist, to question perception, sanity, to feel dizzy with something, to blurt?

There was an allusion to time: ephemerality and timelessness, but it was almost tossed in there half-heartedly, even though, I think that’s exactly what was at the heart of the thing. And finding the heart of the thing is the whole enterprise, isn’t it?

And by heart I don’t mean that easily achieved shape with two bumps at one end and a point at the other, but the whole mysteriously pumping, sucking and spewing, occasionally off-beated blump or hoosh, or, awful silence, the blupping and forceful chug of this vital organ.

I wanted to shake the reader and say, “Okay, you’ve told us what you know; now show us what you’ve got.”

What we want to be doing is writing through the known into the not-known. I always forget this until I remember again. I am, after all, a know-it-all from way back. It takes an effort for me to embrace what I don’t know. But it’s what I have to do.

And so I again remind myself of this today, as I face the abyss of page, as I think, how do I say this unsayable thing. I wonder.

Callooh Callay; or, A Brief Note on Editing

I had a couple of perfect days recently: one was an exquisite balance of walking, friends, color, nature, and the absorbing work of editing. The other was a wonderful balance of solitude, making applesauce, and the absorbing work of editing.

I love editing far more than I love the act of making work. I often do the work of writing by having one eye winced closed in case I’m making crap. Or I’ll write while pretending to think of other things, the way a cat friend of mine used to look away insouciantly as he hooked a plastic spider ring and flung it to one side. Then he’d leap after it as if it were prey. In this way I sometimes find half-forgotten things in my notebook that I can leap upon with edit-lust.

This time though I had the rare pleasure of feedback from people whose opinions I care about, and could delve in to their notes and make multiple copies of possible versions of the poems while muttering things like, yes, yes, okay, you may be correct here, or no, no, you’re wrong, utterly wrong, or, not infrequently, both in reverse succession.

But I also love the balance of mind and body, the meditation of walking, the pleasurable act of squishing apples in my hand-turned apple squisher device. The act of editing is both such things — establishing rhythm, noting details, turning chopped stuff into smooth, and balancing words and silence.

I Second That…; or, Considering the Emotional Gravitas in Poems

Nothing like yet another rejection to get me thinking about emotion again. No, not the attendant screaming, crying, rending of garment. I mean emotion in the poems. This is a recurring theme for me as I grapple with my own work.

This time it’s not just one poem. I’m staring down a bunch of poems. Make that a chapbook-length collection of poems. I’ve been sending them out individually and as a chapbook. With no luck. But I’ve long had this little hmm of concern about them. So I keep revisiting them, and having an argument with Me and Other Me:

– I read these poems and get a little glurgling in my gut. What is wrong, what is wrong?

– Is it the burrito we had for lunch?

– No. It is not the burrito we had for lunch. I’m sorry, I have to, again, come to the conclusion that the emotions of the poems are obscured. Or overly intellectualized. Or not well realized. Or, frankly, nonexistent. Too many of the poems feel like intellectual exercises.

– But we’ve been working on these for almost two years!!!  There are some very interesting parts of many of these poems. There is emotion in some of them.

– But the sum? No. we just have to face the fact.

– But wait, two years worth of work? Must we chuck it?

– Quite possibly. In economics that time and effort is called a sunk cost. You can’t worry about it. It’s done and gone. The product just doesn’t work. It’s the clunker of chapbooks. A lemon.

– But, wait, let’s be reasonable. What about the parts that work? Can’t we start there?

– Yes. We can, clear-eyed and with renewed energy, start there. But there are no guarantees. Isn’t there a column in some magazine: “Can this relationship be saved?” That’s where we are. The answer could possibly be “no.” It’s also quite possible that we have not a chapbook-length collection but just a few good poems. They can be used toward some other as-yet-to-be-realized collection. The rest can go in the chuck-it bucket.

– Eesh. Okay, I might be able to live with that.

– Frankly, remember, all of these poems started out as imitations. So to some degree, they ARE intellectual exercises. We were trying on other poets’ rhythms and thought processes.

– Yeah, but we were inserting our own thoughts, our own nouns and verbs and clauses, so they did arise out of our own concerns. And then we edited them toward our authentic voice.

– But I can still detect that disconnection, that roundabout route to the poem. We have not shown what is at stake in these thoughts, situations, these descriptions, flights of fancy. We have not truly plumbed what these poems are “about” for us.

– This question, “what is at stake,” annoys me. What is ever at stake in a mere poem? No lives are lost or saved here.

– No? We are an uttering animal. We cry out in words. We jubilate in words. A poem can be a little cannon of power. What’s at stake? If I, the reader, don’t feel that something vital is at hand, some deep energy impelled the poem to being, then the poem misses the mark. I can indulge in memory and fantasy and philosophical meanderings. I can tell you my dream. But if I have not conveyed the deep “why” of what turned those into utterance, then I am wasting the reader’s time.

– Gaaaaah.

– Calm down. Let’s just go back and look at them, one poem at a time to, without sentiment, dig deep into the impetus of the choices of these poems. Toss what’s ornamental. See what’s left.

 

 

 

 

The Cheese Stands Alone; or On Ordering Poems in a Manuscript

Does order matter? I go back and forth about it.

Here’s how I approach a book of poems that I have not yet read. (I just got Bruce Beasley’s All Soul Parts Returned. Very excited. Love his work.) I check the acknowledgments page (professional curiosity — how many of the poems in the volume have been published and where. If there’s lots of good lit mags, I get to feel intimidated and bad about myself). I read any notes in the back, just to get oriented. (This one has lots of notes. I love notes.) I open to a random page and read a poem. I open another random page and read. I look at the cover art. I read the bio. I open another random page. I look at the table of contents to see if there are sections or some organizational system. Only then might I start from page 1.

But even then, I don’t read the book in one sitting, so if there is continuity at work, I might not even “get” it, as I might not come back to the book for another day or so. If there’s no clear narrative in process, the poems may still feel somewhat random, unless the sections clearly group like-oriented poems.

And yet, when I do feel a system at work inside a book, I really enjoy it. “Oh, look,” I can say, “see how this poem refers back to that poem on an earlier page.” I feel like I’ve gotten more access to the poet’s brain, feel a greater togetherness with the poet. Like I’ve gotten some inside joke, or we’ve shared a wink.

I recently got hold of a friend’s fresh manuscript. She is concerned about the order she’s established for the book of poems. So with this in mind, I started from page 1 and read right through. The sections were grouped with a clear idea of why. This appeals to my orderly mind. (Or maybe it’s a disorderly mind, which is why I like order.) But did the order enhance my enjoyment of the collection? I’m just not sure. Under ordinary circumstances, I’m not sure I’d notice much.

Nevertheless, because I was asked to think about order, I started wondering what the collection would read like if the distinctive poems in one section appeared dotted throughout the section. Would this give me a little thrill of insider perspective when I encountered this kind of internal rhythm of certain kinds of poems woven throughout? Maybe. Again, that is, once I settled to read from cover to cover, and if I read from cover to cover in one sitting or in sittings that were relatively close together so that that mind referenced above would remember.

So, does order matter? Maybe. Of course, if it’s a “concept” collection in which something is unfolding or the reader needs to be familiarized with how to read the poems in the collection, then certainly order concerns matter. But how many of us are writing collections like that?

I know that when I read for a contest, I taste from beginning, middle, and end. If every poem I encounter interests me, then that manuscript goes in the Maybe Yes pile. If even one poem falls short, the ms goes in the Maybe pile. If several of the poems fail to interest me, it goes in the No pile. That’s just the way it is. (For more on my experience as a first round reader, see links below.) So in this case, order doesn’t matter very much. But as an author, I want my collection to have a flow, a weave, a pulse of some sort. So in that, case order does matter, if only to me.

So I guess here it is: Does a disorderly order sink a manuscript? I don’t really think so. Can an interesting order enhance it? Yes, indeed.

Am I finding it enjoyable to think about the order of my poems in my ms? If yes, then I should go ahead and shuffle them around as long as I’m having fun. Is it a drag? I guess I wouldn’t expend too much energy, then.

But I’m enjoying shuffling this friend’s poems around, so maybe it’s worth asking someone else to look at order, if that person finds it fun.

But the bottom line is, if every poem doesn’t pull its weight, then no reordering is going to save the ms. It’s all down to the individual poem. Again.

And, by the way, Beasley’s book is fantastic.

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/notes-from-a-first-round-reader/

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/notes-from-a-first-round-reader-redux/

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/new-notes-from-a-first-round-reader/