Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Poetry Agnosticism

I recently requested some advice from my fellow poets on Facebook about what to do with a poem that's survived 24 rejections. The responses were varied, but seemed to fall into a few camps. A handful said 24 was not that high and I should keep trying. Some said that I should consider revising it. One person suggested I hold onto the poem for a year before submitting it again. And a number of people suggested I stop being concerned with "numbers" or rejections, because they mean nothing; I should let the poem speak to me and tell me what to do.

This last category interested me, since it seemed (at first) like I was being shamed. They said "stop worrying" as if my use of spreadsheets and tracking were somehow causing me to lose focus on the really important stuff: my art. If my goal is merely publication, then well, I should really reevaluate my motivations and stop focusing so much on what others think. The goal, in their view, is to decide how important it is that my poem get out into the world and have people hear what I have to say. This was good advice. I know I worry a lot about what others think, so it was a good reminder.

But this advice did not totally ring true to me. If I really didn't ever worry what other people thought, why would I try to submit my poems for publication to begin with? Couldn't I just post them all on my blog instead? If getting poems out into the world is our only concern as professional poets/writers, then why aren't we all self-publishing?

Because there are standards, there is craft, there is style and technique. Yes, these standards are impossible to express or pin down because they change depending on the poet, the venue, the editor, the region. Yes, many of the qualities that make one poem great can make another one... not so great. So much of this process is subjective.

But we don't live in a vacuum. Feedback on my writing is important to me. It is part of the dialogue that comes with living like a writer. Oftentimes this dialogue isn't easy, like when I recently took some heat for publishing a poem that reveals a lot of personal information. Or like when I ask Facebook for advice and get shamed for being a bad artist and caring what others think.

There has to be balance.

Balance between what I think and what those around me think. If I have no regard for what others think, why would I read? Why get an MFA and listen to my professors? Why would I bother to workshop a poem? On the other hand, we can't let what others think always determine a course of action. Yet, it takes time to develop the skills of self-evaluation. When we try new things in our writing, these skills are tested and it becomes more difficult to decide whether we are successful in communicating something.

Clearly, I don't make all of my decisions about submissions based on rejections or acceptances. But this feedback can be useful in some ways. For me, it can be one of many voices of feedback that inform my writing process. How loud I let this voice speak is up to me.

My original question was based on my experiences. Up until now, a majority of my published poems were accepted by the 4th submission or sooner. Some were even published on the first round and never got a chance to be rejected. Therefore, to me, 24 seemed like a lot. So I asked my virtual community. This reminded me of when I first started submitting to only two or three places at once, and I would get rejected from them all and feel defeated. My advice for myself back then would be "Three is nothing! Keep trying!" Turns out, that same advice applies here, because it doesn't matter. It's all a crapshoot. Because I've only been submitting work for two years, so it is too soon to tell how long it takes for my work to get published. It's random. There is no pattern really.

I think what I learned most from all of this is that some writers approach their work with religious-like fervor. "The poem will tell you when it's ready," they said. Hence the shame I felt at first, though I don't think that's what they intended. But I do think that kind of advice comes from a place that is similar to religious belief. But my reject-twenty-four-times poem IS ready; that's why I was submitting it. Or at least, to me it was ready. But I had a moment of doubt, which I don't think is a bad thing always. Knowing that I can't always look at my work objectively helps me understand that sometimes I need to ask for help. Asking for help, for advice, for a kind, yet keen eye - that's a good thing. An important thing.

I have a new question now: what are some of the many ways we can approach our work as writers? The New York School of poets would preach the process of "organic poetry"by allowing the poem and the form to flow naturally from experience. Therefore, the poem and it's form is a document of the experience and should not be revised. New Formalists preach a different gospel, one that includes meter and rhyme schemes and constant, painstaking revision. Some poets feel that directness and clarity of meaning is king. Others pray the gods of music and language and song.

I think I fall somewhere in the poet-agnostic category. I am not a spiritual person, in fact, I am the opposite. I don't know the source of my creative impulses, but I do know whatever the source or sources, it is essential to my experience as a human. My creativity is tied to my humanity. My poems and the space in which I write and revise them - that is all part of my humanness. I can't explain it more than that. That's all I know.

So if sometimes I look at my medium - letters, words, punctuation, sounds - and I think, "Should I say this differently?" I'm really asking my community, "Can you help me share this part of my humanness?" Needing community, so important. Doubt is good too. Asking for help: good. It's what makes me human. It's what makes me a poet.
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