Tag: opinion

The Dangers of Attachment

Weekend before last I received a rejection for a poetry submission I’d sent in less than two hours before. It burned me more than a little. The journal in question is not known for its quick turn-around and its speed made their reply feel definite – like cement. This was different than a rejection from a journal committed to fast replies. Quick rejections from journals known for quick judgments aren’t personal, even if they return in a day, or two, or less.

With those journals – the speedy ones – there is almost something gleeful about the rapid smack-down of artistic hopes. I’ve submitted to the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts twice now. Those editors get back to their supplicants – sorry, submitters – in three days, max. Maybe it helps that their truck and store is short poems – how long can it take to assess the quality of four or six lines? I’ve taken to sending them, almost masochistically, poems so compressed they could fit on a straw wrapper. On a straw wrapper, torn in half.

My little witticisms, which exist mostly as commentary on brunch, amuse the hell out of me. However, it’s hard to imagine anyone else would take them very seriously.

Brunch Poem

                                     for the bartender

The toast

is gross.

These I expect to be rejected.

Perhaps that begs the question – why submit them in the first place? Why submit at all?

Brunch Poem II

                        a response

Try

the brioche.

When I was studying poetry in undergrad, I had the unfortunate appearance of someone who shared her poetry to hear others say they liked it. This was because occasionally, (weekly,) I’d be struck by some rhythmic impulse and scrawl off a moderately-successful mostly-poem, and become smitten. So smitten, so enthused, I’d rush to share my latest, greatest invention, ready to read it out loud to any friend around who’d listen. I was often convinced the last thing I’d written was my best. Because I was enamored with each poem I then thrust upon my roommates, workshops, and professors, it seemed I shared for compliments. Because I was impressed with myself and my writing, it seemed I expected the same out of everyone I so enthusiastically subjected to my burgeoning verse. (It is very obvious when I am excited about something.)

The truth was that I wanted haters. In “On Writing,” Stephen King advises his Dear Readers to kill their darlings. He’s stolen this advice, he knows, but that doesn’t diminish its value. I knew that I was in love with each recent creation in part simply because it was new. As I wrote more, I began to suspect that affection. The more I loved a poem, the more I wanted someone to show me what was wrong with it. I knew my feelings blinded me to my flaws, and also that that awareness could not counter-weight my bias. I shared my best poems with those I admired because I wanted to tear each poem down, to make it better. I wanted to learn. It seemed clear that the way to do that was by reducing my work into rubble, learning its weak spots, and rebuilding.

Alas, I think I seemed insufferable. Unbridled enthusiasm has that effect. I didn’t realize how I came across.

Even today, in my dotage, I find deep and perverse pleasure in hearing those I admire rip apart nouns I previously cherished. I heartily encourage, and bask in, intellectual take-downs of books or movies I fear I like too much, without good reason – sometimes, with certain caustic, opinionated, sharp-tack friends, I straight-out solicit their arguments and anaylsis against whatever piece of entertainment I suspect I love without reason, or thought, or examination. I want to hear what is wrong with things. I distrust overt, unwarranted affection for TV series, or arguments, or poems. Call me an anti-fan girl. There’s a weird joy, with black wings and twisted fingers, that follows eager behind righteous snubbing of mass-market culture and media. I am better because I can articulate why Game of Thrones is trash. Hating Malcolm Gladwell means I exceed those would-be armchair pop-psychologists who’ve read and love “Blink.”

But what keeps the smug off, for the most part, I think, is how I seek to learn from those I regard. How I choose to turn the microscope, sometimes or even often, on objects whose dissection may cause me pain. I considered Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” stellar literature for many years before I read a friend’s well-build wrecking machine of an opinion that really, nothing happens in the novel. Later I read “Neverwhere,” and its holes glared. It is easy to take down what you already hate. It is important to take down the rest.

When we discuss the things we love, instead of blindly loving them, we begin to be able to assess whether that love is merited. We learn how to discern between true artistry and cotton-candy fluff that looks good, tastes good for a moment, and has no lingering substance but sticky-fingered regret felt in our stomach and thighs. Don’t just kill your darlings. Autopsy them. Study their corpses.

A literary journal’s form rejection, whether within an hour or ten months, does not tell much. It is no blueprint to show where seams are weak and walls want insulation. As a dismissal, rejections are barely useful except as ego-check, and to remind us emotional attachment must be tempered with reason.

If you are never rejected, you never ask the right questions.

As creators it is impossible for us to know which of our beautiful, pale darlings holds the strength in its plum fists to beat upon the world. Our capricious attention dismisses what enthralls others. Devon taught me this: your opinion of your work does not matter, especially in regards to submission and rejection. What matters is the others.

At first this makes submission feel futile. But, in a calm gray twilight beyond the frustration of no good choice, this truth wedges open doors. When it doesn’t matter if you love a poem, you can send off any of them. You can keep dispassion in the thing. You can shrug, and beat yourself against the sill of the world until, during your incited unconsciousness, someone tiptoes around you to raise the sash. Do not love your poems, but push them off and fight to leave. Maybe, in time, some wild, dark, and iridescent creature will take pity on you, and let you them out.

The Examiner’s Conundrum

Literary analysis often provides a gratifying way to better appreciate an already-favored piece. That’s why I wrote a 25-page paper on Stephen King and horror tropes for my undergraduate senior research project. I also like to revisit favorite poems and break them down in different ways in an attempt to determine what makes them work so well, or at least so personally appealing.

However, two valid, almost-opposing obstructions arise when analysis and examination enter the picture. One can remove all joy from the pleasant, navel-gazing potential of analysis, while the other can strip confidence in one’s ability to “successfully” glean meaning from a work. The latter is often summed in a question many ask when first introduced to analysis: “How do I know I’m right?” or, with more pique, “Do authors really intend to put any of this additional, hidden meaning into their work? If they don’t, does that meaning exist?” then followed by “What about when authors vehemently deny analyzed ‘truths’ of their work?”

I suppose it’s possible that this wasn’t exactly what he was talking about, because sometimes Žižek can be hard to follow. But this was my takeaway, and my interpretation is valid, even if it’s wrong. Misinterpretations can still be accidentally true.*

I think the quote above well addresses such concerns. It’s accurate to observe that not all writers consciously inject their works with all the meaning that analysis uncovers. It’s probable that most don’t. Such deliberation would be harrowing on the part of the creator, and I imagine diminish the enjoyment and creativity of production. In addition, it’s not possible to anticipate all potential interpretations of a text, especially one’s own: the creator’s by necessity close relationship with their product logically prevents a disengaged view and the ability to interpret a product without bias. The emotional attachment of creation blinds one to certain subtleties. This also explains authors who, upon analysis, become upset or enraged at their interpreters’ conclusions. Of course those meanings may not have been meant. However, a lack of deliberation does not equate to a lack of result – how many times, for instance, have we hurt another’s feelings without intention? The result and impact remains. As a result, even unintentional interpretations possess validity.

Once the benefits of analysis are realized, a precocious reader runs the danger of falling in its other trap. Convinced of analysis’ value, the reader may become overly enthused. In advanced cases, subjects believe value cannot be gleaned from a work without its full review. Consequently, our dear reader will often endeavor to analyze everything. This scenario seems especially prevalent in poetry. The idea grows that one cannot truly understand or enjoy a poem without analyzing meter, rhyme, multiple schools of symbolism, temporal context and cultural movements, etc, to determine the given poem’s “message.” This idea insists all poems have messages, and that a failure to locate those messages is a failure on the part of the reader. This trap exhausts. It implies only the most mindful reading and review reveals a work’s value. I thought this way for a long time. I didn’t believe that reading poetry without further consideration could help me improve. I didn’t trust that I would learn a thing without conscious identification and articulation of a, any, every poem’s perceived strengths and flaws. The result? I read less and less. I tore my hair out over “Yes, but what does it mean?” One poem was a marathon. Six lines of surrealism would stymie me for weeks. What did it mean? I stopped enjoying poetry. I’d either feel guilty I wasn’t reading closely enough, or I’d struggle with minutiae, hyper-focussed to determine reasons for every detail in a verse. It is a misconception that one cannot learn from or like a poem based on its surface presentation. This is the unintentional lesson of high school lit classes in which poetry lessons are often compressed, toothless, and antiquated – boring – while ‘successful’ poetic analysis is a high-focus requisite. Unfortunately, this lesson sticks. I think it is one reason many people have difficulty approaching poetry today, in their extracurricular or non-academic lives.

I have learned that sometimes, appreciating a poem’s sound and rhythm is enough. While every fragment of a poem may possess hidden meaning, the identification of such should be a result of interest, not obligation. We can learn unconsciously as we read. When I want to understand a poem’s every nuance, or when I envy its success, then I analyze. Surrealist descriptions do not require me or you to determine what those images represent. Every poem does not need deep, philosophical hidden meaning. And you, beloved reader, need not torture interpretations out of beleaguered verse in order to like or even truly it.

Here is to the freedom of analysis – and the freedom of not having to always indulge in it.

*This quote is from the extremely entertaining article, “If Stalin Had A Ping-Pong Table,” about, of all things, Seinfeld, and published by – of all sources – Buzzfeed.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Writing*

In sixth grade I had a reading teacher with a poster in her classroom. It read, “Read Every Day.” At the beginning of the year she asked how many of us read every day. Some portion of the class raised their hands. That’s when she corrected the rest of them.

“How do you know what classroom you’re in right now?” she asked. “How do you know what my name is? How do you know what your homework assignments are?” (They were written on the board.)

“That’s right,” she said, as we began to cotton on to her argument. “See that poster? That says read every day? If you didn’t read every day, you wouldn’t be able to get through life. You wouldn’t know to stop at stop signs. You wouldn’t know where to find toilet paper in the grocery store. Reading is essential. All of you do it all of the time.”

That’s how I feel about writing. We all write, every day. We have to. Whether it’s email, a text, a grocery list: all of these are kinds of writing, and I think it’s important to recognize how much of it we do on a sheer minimal level. In that regard we are all, always, writers. Text messages are a modern medium for story-telling: stories about how our day went, how we feel, what we think. Twitter, though it consists of 140-character quips, is a narrative tool. Consider good tweets the shortest version of finessed flash fiction. Best is that the more we use these varied methods, the better we get (hopefully) at conveying our stories. We learn to pace: how long must one hold a punch line to elicit the right chuckle? We learn structure: where should we begin telling what happened at the bar last night? Is it better to start with this morning’s text from the guy you forgot you gave your number to, or would it better serve the story to begin with the back-to-back tequila shots with which the night began?

I often have email conversations with friends at work. They provide a good opportunity to ask such questions. But unfortunately, sometimes problems can arise when we finesse our interpersonal communications to a certain degree. Everyone develops their own lexicon and style. Sometimes, these linguistic habits become ingrained within us and our friends to such an extent that we forget not everyone speaks, or writes, how we do. Have you ever conversed with someone and not been sure what their words said – what they meant, perhaps, by some specific phrase? While both speaking English, exchanging common words, somehow the interpretation was off.This hiccup is often exacerbated by written communication, which strips facial cues and tonal hints from the message. Was he joking? Is she being sarcastic?

Sometimes you meet someone who gets your personal lexicon. It can be great to meet to meet someone and realize you can talk all day and immediately understand another. Other times it can be real work, or at least real confusing, a battle to meet in the middle. I like to think of these times as challenges, a call-to-arms that can enable one to build an understanding of the flexibility of language and expand personal collections of diction and flair. I am a magpie with slang, phrases, and jargon – I treasure and collect them whenever possible. I joke that I keep up with slang by hanging out with my 20-year-old sister; she keeps me current.

We are all writers. I think it’s valuable to approach the world, literature, and text in general with that approach, to consider that even the person who thinks they never write really writes constantly. And this, dear readers, is what I talk about when I talk about writing.

*With my apologies to Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”

Let’s Talk About Preferences

I hate olives and lima beans. Can’t stand either, though I try each from time to time, just in case. It helps that Bloody Marys have an olive garnish. Lima beans, I’m afraid, are probably eternally damned.

I have a coworker who can’t stand tomatoes, cooked or raw. She picks them out of her soup. I, on the other hand, will happily slice and salt them and eat them raw.

We all have things we like, and others we can’t stand. For the fun of it, today I’m talking about certain poetic flairs, tendencies, or style choices that simply jive poorly with me. Some of them drive me bonkers.

But before I get into the meat of this post, a disclaimer: my views are not representative of the views of the editorial staff of Kenning Journal. While I am one editor and participate in the selection process, we form a triumvirate. This post is not meant as a guide to help poets get into Kenning, nor should it be used as a such. I can think of at least two items on this list that I dislike, but other members of the editorial staff wholeheartedly enjoy. I don’t want anyone to edit their poem(s) to fit my personal whims as represented in this post. I can be wrong about things and often even am. It’s important for poets to develop their individual voice – and with that comes their individual taste. Just do you.

With that said, there are some artistic techniques used by entire writing schools, it seems, that immediately set off Big Red Warning Bells in my head when I spot them in a poem. The presence of one isn’t enough to immediately discount a poem, but after enough of these small ticks add up it becomes very difficult for me to see the poem outside of them – I can’t see the forest for the trees and all of the trees are covered in poison ivy and somehow rubbing against me. At that point, all I want is to get out of the damn poem. Today, I’m going to talk about those.

For starters, line breaks. Line breaks are definitely a challenge to any poet, and something I struggle with to this day. (I hope to write about them in the future.) I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment that “Line breaks are hard.” That being said, whenever I see a poem that uses line breaks to place single word on a single line,

like

this,

I am wary. The more single-word lines there are, the more suspicious I become. This is in part because of a tendency I had as a young poet to splash line breaks down anywhere. It greatly frustrated a dear friend of mine, one of my Constant Readers. “Emily!” he said. “They must have meaning! What is so special about this word that it deserves to go on its own?”  Thanks to him, that question always arises when I see an isolated word in a poem. The weight of a word cannot derive solely from its placement on a page; the meaning of the poem must support that placement as well. All too often I find one-word lines heavy-handed, too deliberate and too emphasized, which I find poets should strive against. Poems are things of delicacy. You should never pound me over the head with one.

Another tendency I’ve noticed among some poets, which annoys me and yet at the same time is a little thing, a technical detail, is the capitalization of the first word of every line, closely followed by errant capitalization, when writing in free verse or enjambed lines. I admit I am a grammar purist, but for me capital letters are reserved solely for beginning sentences or for making Very Important, Occasionally Farcical Points. I accept historical capitalization in poets of a certain era, for instance Emily Dickinson’s frequently wayward practices, but unless done deliberately and as a conscious riff on established practices or tropes, such capital letters only put me off. Although I’d like to believe this capitalization is solely the work of militant Autocorrect programs, I’ve seen it often enough and in “big enough” poets’ work to believe that it is a real distinction between poets, the result of conscious stylistic choice and not overzealous, artless word processors. This is a great example where there appear to be two divergent schools of thought on the issue; I land in one.

For an example of another poetic preference, as I’ve previously mentioned, I believe that 90-95% of gerunds used in poetry could be cut out and replaced with stronger versions of the verb. I also steadfastly believe that gerunds are overused for their easy creation of sing-song rhythm and pseudo-rhyme, which make a poem sound at first listen much more complex, difficult, and finessed than it is. As a result I’ve developed a habit of counting the number of gerunds used, especially in quick succession, in poems I read. Essentially, if gerunds are used frequently or clumsily enough that I notice their presence, it’s a poor mark for the poem. If the poem is so good I don’t notice the gerunds until a second or third read, I give them a pass.

I’ve also developed a habit of monitoring for use of the word “like.” Specifically, I mean in the context of similies: I believe that “like,” and additionally “just,” serve mostly as filler words within poetry (and real life). To be specific, I refer to the usage of “just” as synonymous with “merely,” “barely,” “only,” etc – not in regards to a characteristic, but a disclaimer. The use of “like” waters down powerful language, distances the reader from description, and implies that the writer is unable to create an exact, precise image.  It is possible to describe everything exactly. In poetry, this is particularly important. Cut out every “like” you can. As for “just,” I find it a caveat, a cheat of a qualifier, a word inserted in order to justify the rest of the phrase: “I was *just *asking for help.” “I was *just *listening to my iPod.” “He *just *didn’t like me enough.” The word itself almost whines. Cut out “just” and allow statements, emotions, and the like to own themselves. As I write this now I realize I may have another bias against “just,” previously unperceived: it seems to lend itself unnaturally well to pairing with a gerund. Double dark marks in my book!

I could go on. What’s more important, here, however, is realizing not only that everyone has their own writing preferences, but that they appear and develop over time. Five years ago I couldn’t have told you any of this. I wouldn’t have known if I liked these things or not. This was distressing: how did I know my poetry was any good? I liked it, sure, but I didn’t even have a personal metric to measure it against. It’s important to explore what doesn’t work in a poem, at least as much as what does. I think it is both more difficult and more interesting to verbalize what goes wrong in a poem than what goes right. And you know what? At the end of the day, people will disagree with you. That doesn’t make you wrong. As with dating, drinking, and clothes shopping, it comes down to personal taste.

 

Blogiversaries

Hey, lovely folk. I bet you didn’t realize, but this blog post is prettttty special. As of today, I have been blog-running for Kenning for a full year (plus a day or two). Who knew they’d let me do this  that long? I wanted to take some time to review the blog’s past year, and discuss some of the things I’d like to do in the next  – well, however long I get.

In the previous year, I managed to scrap together 31 blog posts. I posted a little more frequently than once every two weeks (my personal goal was three times a month, of which I fell just shy). The “Three Poems In Twenty Minutes” series took the lead in terms of content of posts, which was pretty much exactly how I wanted it. A little less than half of all my posts dealt with three 3P20M theme. The second place goes to audio posts, which made up just about 13% of posts. As you can get the rest were wildly varied. I put up some current event pieces, some opinion pieces, and some interviews with poets I am fortunate enough to know. All in all, I think it was a good year – a great start.

Now, let’s talk about the future!

Of course, I plan on continuing with the 3 Poems, 20 Minutes series. When I first started this blog I was told I could write about anything. It didn’t even need to be poetry! But I found such freedom terrifying. I’m not necessarily good at rambling, or even expounding upon poetry without a more defined impetus. The 3P20M series became my structure, providing me with a limited canvas that was also inspiring. In addition, it encouraged me to look at poetry in a new way, and forced me to read constantly. All of these things lead to some great blog posts. I have a long list of potential 3P20M posts for 2014-15 – here’s a short list:

  • More of the “Form Doesn’t Mean Formal” subseries.
  • Maybe sonnets!
  • Pantoums?
  • Three Water Poems
  • Bird Poems
  • political poems
  • three poems with fog in them (a tribute to Ron Riekki)
  • three shape poems

Besides that, there are also some other topics I’d like to discuss, or pontificate about, or merely blather on in regards to. For instance, I’d like to consider each of these questions at some point.

  • When is a poem art? when is art a poem?
  • What purpose do line breaks serve? How are they best used?
  • Personal Preferences In Poetry: What I like and what I hate
  • Rhyme in poetry; Kay Ryan’s recombinant rhyme and rap
  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Poetry

I like to keep a running list of potential blog topics. I’ve wanted to do a 3P20M series on sonnets since I started this blog, for example. However, I’ve put it off because I want to gather the most compelling, unexpected sonnets I can. I want to blow the lid off most people’s perception of the form. I want to tell a new sonnet story.

Of course, real life events sometimes usurp my posting plans. I like to write about poetry in the news when I can. I’ve occasionally used events from my own life to drive posts, whether they are 3P20M posts or rants about people’s disregard for poetry.

I think it would also behoove this blog to focus more on writing as a whole than simply upon the specific art of poetry. The common perception is that “writing” is more accessible than poetry. I think that’s the case because we break the two out from each other.

Many people who do not read poetry seem to consider it difficult. It’s like some a mythic unicorn that people don’t get close to and don’t believe they can even touch. It’s seen as different from prose and separate from writing, although poetry is simply one stylized type of writing. It’s viewed as archaic and incomprehensible. It’s easy to see common misconceptions about poetry in motion: just find someone who has just started writing poetry. Poetry must rhyme! It’s okay to completely invert phrase structure in order to make poetry rhyme! Poetry must be about love! Poetry must be about beautiful things. And so on.

These are opinions formed by people who have brushed by poetry but never fully experienced it. In our public schools we teach poetry as a small unit separate from prose and fiction, which are featured throughout the entire year and taught as normative. If poetry is going to succeed, poetry must be taught as normative too. Poetry should be taught throughout all year. Students should read modern poetry, not just the “important eras” – Pope, Coleridge, and Wordsworth are wonderful, fine, but the structure and convention of their verse are dated, and modern readers become alienated, discouraged.

I want to stop that. I joke sometimes that this blog gets about 10 readers a post – which might be optimistic of me! But even if one of you out there is with me, or understands what I’m saying…please. Keep reading, keep writing. Let’s change poetry, and the world, together.

Here’s to another year, guys. I can’t thank you enough for reading, and your support. I’ll be talking with you soon.