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?



Open Mic, Insert Pen; or, Notes on the Editing Experience

As I shifted uncomfortably in my hard chair the other evening, it occurred to me that sometimes my experience of attending an open mic is not dissimilar from my experience, at times, of the editing process.
I approach with a mixture of anticipation and dread.
The lights go down. I can’t see clearly.
I eat a cookie.
Poems are going on and on.
I feel like a small ogre in the dark, thinking things to myself like: “No, no, no.” “Cut that line. That one two.” “Stop there. Stop. Stop.” “What are you going on about now?” “Nooo.” “What on earth are you talking about??” “Too long! Too long!” “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
I feel uncharitable. Can’t I be more open-minded to these poems?
One cookie is not enough. I eat a second cookie.
Sometimes I think things like: “Hm, that wasn’t half bad.” “Hey, something really interesting is going on in this one.” “Oh, wow, now THAT is a poem.” “That was interesting. I could learn from that.”
Sometimes I laugh out loud.
Two cookies is too much.
Often I forget a moment later what I thought was interesting.
I forget what I had thought I learned. I forget the idea I had. I become confused and overstimulated.
After a while, I get physically uncomfortable, my body stiffening in the chair, my feet shuffling around underneath me in an excess of unexpended energy and cookie sugar.
I feel lonely in the dim light, the cacaphony of words.
It’s a relief to finally just go home and go to bed.

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

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.





Now Hold On There; or Slowing the Revision Process

Recently I slipped while hiking and twisted both my ankles. I was able to hobble out, but this incident has considerably slowed my pace these last couple of weeks as I limp through the world.

I know I should probably say “Oh and this has enabled me to notice more of the details around me,” but I was already pretty notice-y, thus write poetry to do something with all those details I see. No, this change of pace has made me think about my editing process.

I tend to do many things quickly: I walk quickly (a friend of mine told me once she had spotted me “marching down the street” and I felt momentarily self-conscious of my purposeful gait). I think quickly (except in emergencies, during which I’m pretty useless). I drive at a fairly sedate rate, and I don’t know if I speak particularly quickly, but I write quickly, and I edit quickly. Limping through the world has required me to curtail some activities (like the other hikes I was planning to do, or really any walking much at all) but mostly to strategize better my movements and consider more closely my priorities.

This came home to me particularly at the grocery store. I was already in aisle 10; did I really need that thing I forgot to get in aisle 3? I had to think through the item, the impact of its absence, the significance of its presence in my post-supermarket life. Yes, I sighed, and shuffled back.

I wonder if this limping pace might benefit my editing process, that slower level of consideration of each word, image, line, stanza, type of rhythm, punctuation. I was thinking about this as I read a fascinating article by Denise Levertov in which she takes us almost step by step through the writing and revision process of two poems. She had kept her notes and so was able to recall the process that took place over days and weeks of two poems that were making use of ideas years in the making. (I was reading the article, “Work and Inspiration: Inviting the Muse,” in A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, but the article originally appeared in Fieldin 1969.)

I recognized the one step forward, half step to the side to regain balance, a half step forward, the drag of the more-sore foot pace of the process she describes. It sounded like a good process, necessarily slow and halting in order to get at the depth of the work she was trying to bring forth. I’m going to try to consciously slow my editing pace, to limpify my revision process, in a good way, to bring more strategic thinking in terms of viewing each decision against the bigger picture, reviewing each step in light of the where-I’m-trying-to-go.

We’ll see. I make no promises. I’m already pushing my healing process with these ankles, impatient to march forth again.


This is an addendum to my previous post,

But I guess the question remains: HOW do I go about finding or highlighting the thread among the disparate pieces of a poem? It has something to do with theme, and something to do with imagery. For example, I’m working on a piece that uses repeated imagery of a bridge to talk about, well, various bridgey ideas, both literal and figurative. Movement, transition, change, stasis, choice-making, connection, communication are all things I’m thinking around as I think about this bridge. One thing I threw in was a segment not about the bridge I was standing on, but the bridge in my mouth, and tied it back in to the road sort of bridge, and to an idea about trust and connection sort of. I think I may be able to let that stay. I think I manage to have enough of a string that it stays attached to the whole. Another section talks about alignments of standing stones in France that may act as a bridge for the gods, or for human beings to move between life and death. That section strikes me as going too far off the image and the collection of ideas, so I think I’m going to jettison that one. Neither the image nor the idea are quite enough in keeping with everything else going on in the…well…whatever this thing is, poemy thing or essayish thing. So the answer to “how” seems to be a constant querying of each thing I throw in to the kitchen sink and a check back to look at the whole confabulation. What is this thing I’ve thrown in, and will it find its way to fit with the whole group? If I’m setting a table with silverware, I may not need a cowbell.

Order! Order!; or, On Finding a Unifying Principle in the Disorderly Poem

I have been trying a new approach to writing poems these days, very different for me, who usually has a stranglehold on word and idea. I’ve been kitchen-sink-ing it these days.

I start with an image and anything that occurs to me around that image which seems at all relevant to why the image caught my eye, I throw down on paper. And I do this for a while, leaving a file open on my desktop to add stuff to as it occurs to me as I wander around my day. After a while I start rereading them to rediscover what’s there.

If it seems like I’ve got a heap of stuff that has some relation — a bunch of silverware perhaps, or cups and saucers — then I pick through to try to create short, more orderly passages. I try to find threads to weave and gaps to fill. I toss to the bottom things that either don’t seem to quite fit or are blathery or boring, but I don’t want to throw away just yet. Often I find similar versions of the same idea, so I have to decide which one is most interesting, or twist a handle here, ding a tine there, so there’s enough different that I can keep them both. And I start to try line breaks, stanza thingies, start to clip and shift my way toward rhythms. And I try to find the point beyond which an idea I’ve thrown in just cannot stay.

It’s in this editing process that I bring some order to the mess. I do insist, it seems, on having some kind of organizing principle or through-line of reason. (Which it seems puts me out of touch with so much of contemporary poetry I read, poetry that tolerates the, to me, wholly tangential, the inexplicable, the, what I call, “hunh? quotient.” Of course, these contemporary authors may indeed have their own organizing principle for the seemingly random utterances. But what is it? What is it? What the hell is it?)

I am concerned about making sure there’s some kind of connective tissue at work in a poem, a line of thinking that at least somewhat clearly loops back upon itself. I want the reader to happily take leaps with me, not find themselves legs flailing over an abyss.

It doesn’t always work, of course. I have heard from some of my readers that they have at times in reading my poems found themselves all Wile E. Coyote-like, dingetdingetydingety over a poetic cliff. They don’t care for it, I hear…

Some of these poems I’m working seem to want to stay long and unwieldy; some hope to strike out across the page width-wise as well as length-wise; one floundered itself into an essay form instead of poem; one just got whittled down from four pages to one stanza. I’m not sure if any of them quite add up yet to more than the sum of their parts. But I’m enjoying the process at the moment. This devil-may-care flinging of stuff into the sink with a clatter.