Project 1: I’ve submitted my manuscript as a candidate for the Kundiman Prize, hosted by Alice James Books. Response expected in June. The website doesn’t say “no simultaneous submissions,” so I expect to submit the manuscript other places as well.
Project 2: As of Feb 8th (will probably update before this post goes live), I’ve written 12 calendar poems. We’re 6 weeks into the year, so I’m hitting my mark.
Notions of what constitutes “good” poetry are even more subjective and idiosyncratic than notions of what constitutes “good” prose. Poetry is home to a great deal of dogma, some of which verges on ridiculous: e.g. you should never use adjectives, formal poetry is innately hierarchical and oppressive, accessible poetry is pandering to the masses and difficult poetry is elitist. (These are not parodies. These are quotes.) In an industry where 200 copies make a best-seller, salability is no criterion either.
Poets tend to value authenticity of expression over other literary factors, and this can make critique difficult: “But that’s how I really feel” is an unanswerable argument. Poets who lean toward the Romantic ideal of the poet as loner and outcast rarely seek the opinion of others in any case. (Not that the Romantics themselves lived this ideal: Byron, Keats, and Shelley traveled together, corresponded, and routinely critiqued each other’s work. I won’t even get into the home lives of the Coleridge/Wordsworth family.)
For a poet who’s interested in communication, the best standard I can think of is: Does the reader or listener “get it?” Do they get what you’re trying to say? Maybe not right away, but after going away and sleeping on it? Obviously you can’t always know the answer, but if you don’t get out there and read to people, or have them read your stuff, you can never know the answer.
So paradoxically, the first step in self-critique for a poet is: Get feedback. Give readings. Go to open mikes. Go to critique groups. This is how you build up informed judgment, which you can then apply to your own poems.
These are the flaws I find in many of my poems:
–I’m tempted by cleverness and technical virtuosity for its own sake, especially in showing off my formal skills.
–I shy away from exposing real emotion, partly because I oppose the dogma of personal experience, but partly because I’m a private person and don’t like to let it all hang out.
–I’m not good with titles.
–Some of my poetry comes across as strained, or forced. Some of it is plain obscure.
–I have excellent formal skills, which inform my so-called free verse. (Most poets acknowledge that “free” doesn’t mean unstructured. Writing formal poetry has given me a strong sense of structure.)
–I’m good with imagery.
–Even when not consciously rhyming or alliterating, I’m frequently surprised by critiquers complimenting the sound of a poem I’ve written. Apparently I have a good ear.
Perhaps most important, I’ve improved a lot over the seven years or less that I’ve been writing poetry. I look at my first collection and cringe at some of the poems in there. (Although I’m still quite fond of many of them.) The Work continues.
I don’t insist on perfection, or even necessarily a high average quality: I’m happy to write and post mediocre poems, as long as there are at least occasional poems that I consider publishable quality. It’s not exactly that I think quantity creates quality; it’s more that constriction prevents quality. Insisting that every poem be perfect feeds the self-censorship demon. In another sense, I think quantity makes quality possible. I’ve compared poetry to weight-lifting: writing poems, even if they’re not the best poems, keeps the poetic “muscles” strong and the skills sharp, and better able to serve when an important poem, a really good poem, comes along and demands to be written.
Probably 85-90% of the poems on my blog can be considered practice pieces. Out of over 1600 poetry posts, that still leaves a couple hundred that I consider publishable (and to be honest, I’ve had some published that I wouldn’t even submit now). That’s not bad for seven years of work.
The danger of this approach is that one can fall into a downward slide without realizing it. As a data analyst in my daily life, I’m well aware of how difficult it can be to detect long-term trends through day-to-day variation or “noise.” In addition, if my tastes in poetry are changing, I may find my recent poems “better” than my older ones just because they’re more in line with what I like right now. (And if my tastes aren’t changing, please check to see if I’m breathing.)
A couple of things about my writing habits. Given the approach I’ve outlined above, productivity is important to me. Fortunately, it also doesn’t seem difficult. Even at its lowest, my poetic output has been high compared to most poets I know. I make minimal use of spellcheck, and should make more; I do routinely spellcheck poems I’m polishing for submission. I never do grammar checks: poetry routinely omits particles and punctuations and scatters sentence fragments. We do these things for good reasons, but try explaining that to MS Word.
One last word on the subject of self-critique: All poets believe that they are good poets, and that readers don’t appreciate them because readers are not smart enough, not sensitive enough, ignorant about the poet’s culture or life experiences, just don’t get poetry, haven’t been educated in poetry, are too educated in poetry, etc. Etc. I’m as guilty of this as the next poet (my personal gripes are that people don’t appreciate formal poetry and people expect poetry to be exclusively personal). That’s OK. As long as I keep trying.