So You Say You’ve Got a Lot to Learn; or, Being the Mentee You Want to Mentor

I have a full length and a chapbook length manuscript of poems submitted out hither and yon, and rejections are trickling in. I know that instead of brooding over my submissions list and awaiting a boop from email, I should buckle down and start something new.

But I’m having trouble settling down to anything, and I’m wondering how to push myself into new territory, to reach toward doing work that might exceed my grasp.

And for the manyith time I wish I had a mentor, someone who would say, okay, you’ve come thus far and you clearly need to head in that direction; here’s what you’re doing well and why and here’s what you are hiding from and how I can tell. And I think grumpily back to times when I shoulda/coulda/woulda had such a person. And then I admit that in fact of course there were probably many times when I DID have such a person but failed to recognize it.

I am sure people in my life have said many important things to me with regard to my work that I either:

  1. Didn’t hear because I didn’t realize they were talking to me (Why would they care about me?)
  2. Heard but was thinking about Y when they were focusing on X. (But what about Y, I would cry. Y? Y?)
  3. Thought I heard, but they were talking about Y when I was focused on X. (What? What are they talking about? What does Y have to do with X?)
  4. Heard but couldn’t understand what they were talking about because I just wasn’t developmentally there yet (Sorry, master’s thesis in public policy advisor…. NOW I get what a “conceptual framework” is…)
  5. Was too scared/freaked out to really hear what they were saying. (Ahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!)

I believe there have been people who thought I was arrogant and not listening. Would I doth protest too much to suggest that I don’t really think that was the case? That it was more likely to have been, oh, e.g., #5 above? Anyway.

When I took voice lessons, if I showed up early, I would get to hear the tail end of the lesson before me, and I realize pretty quickly that our teacher was communicating the same things to us in different ways. I realized she had listened to us with great sensitivity and was figuring out how best to communicate something in such a way that we could hear it, altering her style to each of ours. She was allowing us to teach her how to teach us. I found this to be a revelation about what a teacher can do.

Now I realize it was also a revelation about what a learner or mentee can do. A mentee can be open to all the ways in which a mentor may address him.

But learning has its own cycles, with the individual learner whirling around inside them. In any given lesson, a teacher may be trying to convey 5 things, but a student is likely only to be able to pick up from 1 to 3 of those things, her mind only able to absorb so much, easily distracted by all the newness, and/or all the oldness. This requires the other items to be repeated some other time when the learner has half a chance of hearing them. I realized this when skiing with a friend who, several years earlier, I had given some instruction to. She was saying, “This very helpful young man last year told me to do X,” and I thought, “Um, I told you to do that very thing myself three years ago.” But she could only hear what she could hear at the time, could only absorb so much at any given point in the learning cycle.

But it seems to me that if we learners are very alert and aware, we could actively try to grasp some part of all 5 things, allowing them to bubble up over time. I’d like to aim for that, anyway.

I am hoping that I can learn how the world is teaching me, can be open to being a mentee of whatever mentor stumbles along, whether he or she intends to hold that role or not. I aim to try to be an open mind, an active listener to the world, a grateful recipient of useful lessons and ideas.

I am hoping that I am learning how to learn how to learn.


You can’t fire me…; or, the Challenges of Overcoming Self-Doubt

I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary poetry, hot off the presses kind of stuff, from well published, lauded, awarded, fellowshipped, granted authors. And I have NO IDEA what is going on in these poems. NO IDEA. And I think, well, no wonder my work is getting rejected left and right; I’m clearly COMPLETELY OUT OF TOUCH with the contemporary poetry world. That’s it. I am NEVER GOING TO WRITE AGAIN.

Then I encounter a poem coming through my email here, shared over Facebook there, a book handed on, and I find poems that make me think wow. That is good stuff. I am loving this work. Wow, how did that poet do that? And I think, well, no wonder my work is getting rejected; there is NO WAY I can write work as good as this. That’s it. I am NEVER GOING TO WRITE AGAIN.

My Inner Voice kindly says nothing in the wake of these outcries. I do catch, however, an eye roll. What. WHAT? She turns on the vacuum cleaner, mimes an inability to hear what I’m saying. I know she’s thinking this too shall pass. Oh, shut up, I say to Inner Voice, into the din of the vacuum. You missed a spot.

In her provocative essay “American Originality,” Louise Gluck writes, “As American poets increasingly position themselves against logic and observation, the American audience (often an audience of other writers) poignantly acquiesces…The literary art of our time mirrors the invented man’s anxiety; it also affirms it. You are a fraud, it seems to say. You don’t even know how to read.”

I certainly have felt this with these books. That I am at fault, and ashamedly so. If I only learned to read better… But the other part of the equation Gluck presents is that the writers themselves are deliberately resisting connection with the reader. Is that true?

In what is so far a lively telling of the relationship between Rodin and Rilke, Rachel Corbett in You Must Change Your Life, in an aside, briefly outlines shifts happening in their era in thinking about the brain, art, aesthetics, psychology. She describes the new premise this way: “The moment a viewer recognizes a painting as beautiful, it transforms from an object into a work of art. The act of looking, then, becomes a creative process, and the viewer becomes the artist.” She discusses the idea of an empathy between the artist and the observer: “When a work of art is effective, it draws the observer out into the world, while the observer draws the work back into his or her body.”

So I must believe that I am lacking in the requisite empathy as I encounter these poems. I am insufficiently open to and sensitive to what is being expressed.

But does the creator also have a role in the empathic relationship? If the sentence above about the effectiveness of art is true, doesn’t it suggest that the maker must take some responsibility for the observer’s/reader’s/listener’s response?

As a maker, I resist that. On the other hand I do believe that I must fully feel my own response to the world in order to create work that will engage you the reader in that response.

On yet another hand (octopusishly, now, as I believe I’ve run out of hands) as I said, many of the authors I’m reading have been published/awarded. So SOMEONE is “getting” their work, someone (and important, fellowship-judgish someones at that) are responding empathically.

So again I must conclude that I might be able to respond to this work if I tried harder. But I also conclude that I am creating my own work, in my own response to the anxieties of my world. So if I must have empathy with someone, let’s start with me.



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.

Working Title; or, Poetry Titles, Oy

I’m not saying it was necessarily because of the title changes, but I had the experience once of radically changing titles of two poems that had been rejected several times from lit mags and suddenly and immediately got an acceptance for them. Coinkydink? Possibly. But it certainly made me sit up and take notice of what titles can do.

– A title can situate a poem in place or time, so you don’t have to use up vital poem real estate with that information. Yeats sets us right on “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” so we’re already in place when he begins. But you may run the risk with that of overemphasizing time or place when the point of the poem is to transcend time or place. You have to ask whether the time/place title helps or distracts or gives too much attention to itself.

– A title can emphasize a certain je ne sais quoi that the poem is getting at. But you run the risk of beating the reader over the head. A title that basically says “Be Prepared to Feel Sad Ahead,” or “This Poem Is About Grief” just aren’t that interesting. But you can suggest it slantwise with an image, perhaps, or an echo of sound or word/words from the poem. I mean, sometimes it’s the only good solution to name a poem about daffodils “The Daffodils.” But maybe it’s a lost opportunity.

– A title can carry some of the weight of the poem, in that you can ask it to act as another line, the first line, in fact. You can ask the title to address the same things that the poem addresses, or hint at them, or choose a title that creates a resonance. A long and searing poem of several parts tracing a personal and family history Ocean Vuong titled “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” There is nothing about earth nor beauty particularly in the poem, but the title captures a tenderness toward the fallible humans considered in it. It prepares our heart somewhat for what lies ahead, and when the poem is done helps settle a kind of grace on the experience.

Or you can choose something completely innocuous, I suppose, and not ask much from a title at all. Modern visual artists do that all the time — “Painting #7 of a Series of 10,” for example. But visual artists don’t have to work in the medium of words; poets do. (What if visual artists “entitled” their work with splashes of paint or visual gestures instead of words? I think that would be helpful sometimes.)

But we poets work in a world of words and white space, and the title has a particular status at the top of the page. It sits lordly over the poem text, wearing its white robes. It offers an opportunity to capture something about what lies ahead or provide a way to loop from the end back into the beginning again. It can provide crucial information for the reader to find her way into the poem, or set a tone, or cast a lifeline for the reader to hold as he walks through the poem, then out and back in again, or out and out and out into the world.

I Wonder as I Wander; or Writing Poetry of Deep Consideration

I am reading Matthew Zapruder’s excellent Why Poetry, and particularly, his very useful meditation on learning to read Ashbery (a skill I have not yet acquired…). In this meditation he speaks about imagination and its power. He quotes Wallace Stevens’s 1941 lecture “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”: “What is [the poet’s] function? Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves, Nor is it…to comfort them. I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs…[be] the light in the minds of others…to help people to live their lives.” As Zapruder puts it, “..[N]ot an escape from the world around us, but a different sort of engagement.”

This made me think of my recent lurking discomfort. Although completely understandable in the face of the grimness of life in the world right now, the current poetry I’m writing and what I’m reading/hearing/seeing seems to suffer from an excess of earnestness. I am also hearing a voice in today’s poems that cries over and over “I am Other,” “I am Other.” The personal seems to be only or primarily political, rather than essentially human, as complex, contradictory, and infuriating that state is. I read (and write ) and I listen but find myself in the end hungry. What do I want for sustenance if not this? Is it humor? Whimsy? Distraction?

A different sort of engagement. Yes.

There is cleverness in abundance in the poems I’m encountering, certainly, and wordcraft and wordplay. But am I seeking the imaginative? Something that takes me away from the headlines? I’m not necessarily seeking to be comforted — there is nothing comfortable about the rough beast slouching toward Bethelehem or the boy falling from the sky as the executioner’s horse scratches its behind on a tree. And those are poems that do feed me. Headlines change. But what does not change, it seems, are the essential dilemmas of being a human being in the world, bumping up against each other and the earth and the cosmos. I think about Dickinson’s slanted telling. I want more of that.

Marcel Proust, in commenting on the early 20th century poetry of Anna de Noailles, talked about work that came from “the profound self that individualizes works and makes them last.” I’m not sure that these works written so quickly in response to the day’s atrocities are given even half enough time and consideration to reflect that “profound self,” the individual experience so deeply considered that it becomes universal.

Zapruder again: “When Stevens writes that the role of the poet is to help people live their lives, it sounds very grandiose. But really what he means is that the role of the poet as he perceives it is to deepen experience, to write poems that we can use to protect ourselves in some small way against the constant encroachment of ‘the pressure of the real,’ …The original Surrealists of the 1930s in France had a similar, utopian, impossible desire for poetry, that it would reconnect our daily existence with the world of imagination and dreams that modern life has split from us, leaving us in constant deadening pain.”

I don’t know that I entirely agree, but I think he’s getting at something I’m missing right now in my work and so much of what I’m seeing just now. Big big vision. Deep consideration. Grand imagining. And, yes, maybe a little whimsy.



In Favor of Waiting, Poetry’s Best Revision Tool

I play any number of editing games with my work (including that game of believing it’s absolutely perfect right out of my head onto the page): chopping things up, turning things upside down, tossing things away, changing articles and personal nouns and verb forms. But there is no more exacting revision tool than time. A “perfect” poem put away for a while will, once brought back to the light, reveal its skin tags and moles, its sagging belly, its misshapen feet. Yes, it can be gruesome. Don’t get me wrong, some poems do come out of the head fully formed and pretty solid. But the thing is, you can’t really know that until some time has elapsed.

What is a poem? A made thing — poured onto the page, nudged onto the page, spat onto the page…and then worked: carved, smoothed, questioned, made exact. I’m not sure anything that does not undergo that process should be called a poem, but rather some other word: a thing, a whatsit, a lump of something that might be something.

When someone shambles up to the microphone at an open mic night with phone clutched in hand to read a “poem” they “just wrote this morning” — that noun and that phrase should not appear in the same sentence — they do a disservice to themselves as a maker and to the made thing, not to mention the long-suffering audience.

How much time does it take? I wish I knew. I often get tired of waiting, often think “oh, it’s fine, just get it out there.” Sometimes I’m right. Sometimes I’m wrong. Only time will…well…you know.