by Courtney Spohn
I’m a new poetry editor at Nimrod, and it’s been a pleasure to read submissions because I feel connected to each writer’s work and the community at large. As a writer, I know what it feels like when my work is rejected and how it feels to read a published piece and believe my writing is better. These are tight, icky feelings! So recommending a poem for publication is something I take seriously and with an eye toward the subjective nature of art. As a reader, I find myself revisiting a few similar reactions to submissions. I want to share my opinions below with the hope that they support any writer who feels alone and unheard.
- Submit what, where, and when you want to be published. I would like to address the work that hasn’t been submitted for publication—the poems writers would like to see published, but that they hold back for a variety of reasons, including a debilitating sense of perfection or worthiness. I believe there is a forum for nearly everything a writer wants to be published. As to when to publish, I think writers need to examine their motivation for seeking publication and then see if the piece they want to publish aligns with that motivation. For example, if I want acclaim, but I have a poem that was written for just one person, then I’m doing a disservice when I submit it for publication. When I have a poem that I love and I want others to read, and the poem is telling me it’s ready, then there’s alignment when I send it out in the world. I think, more often than not, the work itself tells writers if it is for others to read or not. When a piece is ready to be published, send it out. Let go of self-censorship and self–criticism! I have been writing with a friend for over a decade, and recently she has developed dementia. We re-read her poems and she cannot believe how good they are; years ago, she thought they were bad poems. “Did I write that?” she asks. And the poems are scattered in her apartment and not in general circulation. Let yourself shine in this moment—not some imagined future.
- Stop hiding behind your wit, intellect, and inside jokes. I think many writers use writing as a primary form of expression—and we tend to write better than others. Often, we are accustomed to being misunderstood, so when we write something, it can feel like doing a magic trick. Look what I can do, you ordinary soul! It’s a metaphor! So when we write from our ego, we know we can create something that will impress others. To me, a poem that’s trying to impress will always be secondary to a poem that isn’t, even if the poem that isn’t trying to impress is the more ordinary poem. Instead of trying to impress, I want to see that same writer push further—even if the writing gets ugly—to find what’s really there. Recently I’ve had to tell myself to act like everyone is as intelligent and funny as I am—this means I can’t be impressive because others will already be a step ahead of me. I can’t hide, either, because then they’ll be a block ahead of me. To keep up, I need to say what I mean. I want all poets to do this. Of course, like Emily Dickinson says, we can “tell it slant.” I encourage writers not to hide behind shorthand or jokes that only make sense to them. Maybe another way to say “don’t be clever” is to say “start believing that you are being seen and heard.” If you only had one minute to say your point, can you find that point in your poem? And would a (funny, intelligent) stranger understand you?
- Experiment with form. Sometimes it feels like writers have more to say about their subject than they let themselves say. My hunch is this comes from a sense of trying to create a poem that looks like a poem—a type of control. It also feels a little safer to submit a poem than to submit ten pages from your journal about the same topic. The problem with a poem that feels like it is begging to be larger is that I either don’t understand what the writer’s real take is or I, again, think the writer is hiding. Feel the freedom to write about your topic in whatever form it takes to express your feeling and beliefs. If your point could be made in an essay or speech, say it there. Use the poem because you need its form and value the import of every word and punctuation mark. Consider whether or not you’re using sensory imagery to ground your point. If not, then you might have a good essay on your hands. Or, better, you could use multiple genres, each to express different facets of your point. Just make sure you keep writing until you know you have stated your full point and its associated emotions in at least one place.
- Go there with religion and politics, but don’t make me agree or disagree with you. It’s common experience to reject religious and political beliefs we grew up with, and I think it’s exciting terrain to explore because it places writers on the edge of what we believe. What’s accepted or rejected in the writer’s understanding of the world? Go there! And go there with anger, if needed, but don’t assume that you are either alone or in community with your reader. What is the experience of anger like for you? What strikes you as out-of-touch or hypocritical and what does that say about you? I might completely agree with a writer’s politics or spirituality, but I don’t like feeling divided in a poem or that I’m picking sides with wide swaths of people who agree or disagree about something. Tell me what it’s like for you, and assume that I will understand and be on your side, even if we disagree. Hold out a larger container for yourself and others that allows everyone’s viewpoints while still staying true to yours. When it comes to politics, there are certain practices that are abhorrent and shocking. Carolyn Forchè’s work with poetry of witness comes to mind here. For example, in “The Colonel,” Forchè provides just the details. There is no question about right and wrong—the details she provides shows us the truth. Here, there is a space to witness and record what’s happening, and that is a type of political commentary. There is also editorializing on what’s happening, as seen in Morgan Parker’s work. In “ALL THEY WANT IS MY MONEY MY PUSSY MY BLOOD,” Parker provides both the political details of what she’s experiencing and how she feels about it. Both providing and withholding direct opinions on political topics can be appropriate for poetry. I would encourage us to be clear about our intentions and have the courage to ground all commentary in sensory details. Again, trust your message will be communicated. Then take the time to see what you’ve created and where you can, again, assume you have an intelligent audience. What can you give them that communicates your anger or beliefs without forcing them to agree with your specific viewpoint? I think this is along the lines of being so personal that we bring to light a universal.
- Don’t use “you” unless you are very, very good at it (and ignore everything I’m doing in this post). I find myself getting uncomfortable with the use of “you” in a poem that refers to the reader (instead of someone the speaker is specifically referring to, like a lover, parent, etc.). I become obstinate and think, “this isn’t my marriage, mother, or fill-in-the-blank.” But I am happy to try on any ideas related to those themes, among others. When a poem is obviously about your experience, I think often it’s best to own it and use “I” or find a way to tie the experience to a third party or the natural world (by that I mean not just nature). Leave you/me out of it! “You don’t know me!” my stubborn self says. There are many exceptions to this rule, of course, and the things that are the hardest to say are sometimes said best through “you.” I would argue that, unless the details of the poem are so specific that there is no possible way the poem is about me, a writer likely shouldn’t use “you.” This connects to the assumption that your audience is intelligent and full of humor; I know what a lot of experiences have felt like for me. What were they like for you? I will follow the poem through the use of imagery and emotion and not because I’ve been named as “you.” Of course, if it’s obvious “you” is the addressee of the poem, and a specific person, then use it. Did I need to tell you that?
There are always exceptions to the things I’ve said here, and there’s almost nothing worse than unsolicited writing advice. I simply would encourage the intelligent and humorous writers among us to consider where they might be hiding and to pull away those curtains. Connect your insights to the world instead of to abstract ideas. Eliminate clever turns of phrase. Don’t rest on easy insights. Don’t assume others aren’t noticing the things you’re noticing. Name experiences that are yours—don’t graft them on an unknown reader. Tell us what you have to say as if time is running out and you won’t get it back. And tell us what you know and feel and have experienced as if it matters, because it does matter. As Bong Joon-ho said during an Oscar speech, quoting Martin Scorsese, “[t]he most personal is the most creative.” Be the most creative
Courtney Spohn lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she has participated in various poetry readings. With Sheila e. Black, she has a poem published in Otoliths. She is a life coach and blogger at courtneyspohn.com.