Be wary of how much you edit lest you kill the poem.
I’ve published three poetry books and I’m a regular contributor to many magazines across the country, yet I still have yet to break the ceiling of the larger, more prominent publications. I’ve been able to breach a few or the more respected publications, but I’m certainly not a regular in the hollowed pages of Poetry Magazine or the Iowa Review. Very well-known magazines are reserved for those that follow the creative writing dictums to the letter: you must write and rewrite and write again, and once you’ve done that, write and rewrite; then, share that final rewrite with a trusted colleague, or better yet many colleagues, and begin the entire process again. Do this, all of this, for about a year, then submit your “polished” work to the poetry authorities for approval.
Once you’ve completed this process and submitted five or six poems to one of these prestigious journals, you wait for a year or more until you receive word. Sound familiar? Of course it does. These are the poetic commandments according to most creative writing programs. This is not just sound advice doled out by poetry professionals, this is how you write modern poetry. And you know what? I agree with it one hundred percent. This method of creation is how you write modern poetry for the modern critics. This is how you write dull poetry that no one reads but that might earn you some much-coveted award money. This is how you draw the attention of the judges of American poetry. I refuse to call them editors because an editor edits. Many times I’ve received a rejection from one of these publications saying something along the lines of “we really enjoyed (insert title of poem) but ultimately decided it was not for us.” This is not what an editor does. I don’t think good poems grow on trees, and that you can simply be on the edge of accepting or rejecting a particular piece that has already caught your eye. At that point, you are judging it on something else—be it grammar, logic, layout, or voice. A good editor, and there are some out there, should also trust their baser instincts and then be willing to work with someone who is that close to publication.
Poems written in the manner I previously describe do, however, seem to grow on trees. They’re plentiful because it’s a formula—the workshop formula. Again, others have argued this very idea, but I believe this is occurring not just because there are lots of creative writing graduates, or because people have a hard time judging what amounts to a highly subjective art, or because there’s a lot of nepotism going on. I think this is occurring because poets and those involved in the art of criticism are generally risk averse. They don’t want to stick their necks out for the sake of an artist who in their narrow view might be too raw, too uncultured, unsophisticated, or untried. They prefer to wait for the artist in question to make it through other filtering methods before they go ahead and anoint them poets worthy of any attention.
A word of caution: there are some poets whose personality dictates a slow creative process. This might be you. But I think some writers may be trying desperately to fit a round peg into a square hole. I can’t totally be sure there are poets who are trying to follow the creative writing dictums just to achieve some notoriety or simply because they bought into the idea that this is what poetry should look and feel like, but if that’s not the case then there’s too much attention being given to those of a certain personality type. If this is true, then that’s still an unhealthy prevalence that needs to become more balanced. I’m not in the habit of giving advice, but in my opinion, the best art is the kind that shocks a little bit, the kind that demonstrate a voice with edges, that barks to the point of making you slightly uncomfortable or perturbed. Lets open up our scope more.
Can we let some light into the sacred halls of American poetry. There’s plenty of room in that living and ever-changing museum we all cherish and hope to sustain.