Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Why You Don't Want to Know What I Think of Your Poems: A Guide.

Like so many teachers of poetry, I imagine, I get random requests, often, from people I don't know, to tell me they write poems. They want to meet with me sometime, whenever it's convenient for me, in my office, or they offer to treat me to coffee or tea. They want to know what I think of their work.

So this post is my answer to you. You don't need to know anything about what I think of your work. What I think of your work isn't of much value. Are you hoping to hear that you're good? Me too.

My response would only be to ask what you think of your work in the context of poetry as it is and as it has been. Who are your reading? Who has had the greatest effect on you, positive and negative? Why? What do you think about the work you see in the journals you read? Whose essay on poetry moved you? Which writer challenges you? What ideas challenge you? What are you chasing in language that won't hold still?

I've had several of these meetings with people, and based on this experience, I conclude the following: 99% of people who wish to show you their work don't read poetry. And now for a banner announcement that is sure to surprise no one: If you are not reading poetry, you probably aren't writing it.

You don't need to know what I think of your work. Once you've scratched out a draft or twenty on the page, what any writer needs is that sharp, focused eye that is not satisfied. How do you get that eye?

Here is my guide:

1) Read more poetry. Read the books that have just been published, the books that were published ten years ago, the books that were published fifty years ago.  Read ten of the current issues of diverse poetry journals. Then look at that draft you've got there in your little plastic envelope (and why, why, must you keep a draft in a plastic envelope?)—and see if that draft won't take on a larger shape almost immediately.

2) Send your work to journals you love. You do want to know what editors think of your work. And there is a major side effect to sending your work out. Once you begin to think about attaching that draft in your submission or putting that draft in an envelope, once you begin to take seriously that an editor will at least start to read it, you bring the vision to the poem that you hadn't up until this point. There it is: your sharp, questioning eye, the eye that isn't flattered by anything.  That's the eye you want on your work.

3) You do want to know what you think of your work.

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