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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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

An Accounting; or, Writing Submissions by the Numbers

The end of the year is closing in, as is my birthday, and I often do a year in review for myself. This year I also did a submissions review. What have I been up to? Well, apparently “up to” a lot of reading fee payments.

In 2018, I spent $350 on contest entry/publisher reading fees from which I received bupkus.

Clearly I did not spend enough money — more entries should equal more acceptances. No. Clearly I spent too much money — I got zero return on my investment, so it was a bad investment. No. Clearly I have no idea what is reasonable and how to think about entry fees.

One of those contest entries resulted in not a win but an offer to publish a poem in the publisher’s online magazine. So I guess that’s something.

I sent out 30 lit mag submissions from which I received 3 acceptances. In spite of the sturm und drang all those rejections caused, the big picture is somewhat cheering.

But I thought I had submitted more than that. There are a handful I haven’t counted because I haven’t gotten a response yet. So by the end of the year, I think I’ll be at 35 magazine submissions. Will I eke out another acceptance? Given my usual ROI, I doubt it.

Most of those were online submissions for which I paid nothing. One was a $2 fee that I now bitterly regret paying, as it was for nought and was against my better judgment and my general refusal to pay online submission fees. A couple were mail-in submissions, with postage well below the $2 fee many lit mags are charging, plus I can walk to the post office, so I get some exercise out of it.

I got one paid reading gig, and I sold some books out of my own store, so made a little money. I gave a couple of workshops. My little paid book review gig garnered me a tiny sum. Not that I’m in it for the money, but if I’ve got to lay out some dough, I want to get some back in once in a while.

And so it goes. This in no way addresses the qualitative pleasures (and pains) of being a writer — I enjoyed so many things, camaraderie, experiences, experimentation and play, am proud of the work I did, happy to have gotten my work into some venues. But sometimes I have to step back and just look at the numbers with an eye toward how to conduct the po biz in the coming year.

Intentions: Double my submissions next year.

Should I pay more in entry fees? I don’t think so. This amount made me gulp, but it supports a variety of publishers I want to support, and that feels supportive of my work, whether it got accepted or not.

Is it all worth it? Can’t I just be content making work?
No. I want it out there. I want it read or viewed. I want it appreciated. Or criticized, or whatever.

Yeah, I know, friends, that I get down at the mouth throughout the year. But I also feel buoyed sometimes, amused often, engaged in my work, and hopeful. Do I fail to mention that? Remind me to mention that.

I sometimes get the sense from people that they think I should be content just making the work, that there’s some kind of purity in that. That the search for publication success is somehow a sullied enterprise. Egotistical, perhaps. Or at best, a fool’s errand.
I say, it’s part of the artistic process — do the work, put it out into the world, take your shots and huzzahs as they come. Complain bitterly along the way; dance foolishly around with glee. It’s all part of the equation.

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.

 

Hmm; or, A Little More on Wonder

Because I spent days hearing the “wonder wonder” song in my head (oh I wonder wonder oh-be-dooh who…) (you’re welcome) after invoking it as the title of last week’s blog post, I began wondering about the word itself.

Wonder, it turns out, is a mystery word; its origins unclear, but many Germanic languages have a version of it — wundor, wundrian, wunder. So that got me thinking about some synonyms.

Amaze is from the OE amasian meaning stupefy or stun but may have had an original sense of being knocked on the head unconscious (those Old Norse roustabouts). This word actually led to the word maze, rather than the other way around, but which started as a word describing a state of mind — dazed, delusional — and then became a structure to effect that end.

Astonish, astound and that ilk came from extondre, meaning leave someone thuderstruck, from the Latin verb to thunder, tonare, which, traced back, apparently just means noise.

And I think of those days when the sky is dark and low, foreboding of precipitation, and suddenly you hear beneath the chatter of the day, that noise, thunder.

So as I write I must listen for the noise under the noise, the thunder of what’s coming or what’s happening behind those clouds of words on the page.

And when I hear thunder, then I wait. Lightning could be next. 1, 2, 3…

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.