Play with your words: Poetry craft, reading & revision

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Vintage postcard: A charming lily pool in the heart of Florida

When I was in grad school a few of the poetry students seemed to be more, er, playful. I remember a potluck dinner at a professor’s house where one of the poetry contributions was an 8½-by-11-inch pan of Jell-O with mini bottles of booze gelled into it. The liquor was plucked out and consumed. The blue gelatin, not so much.

Outside of parties, there seemed to be little overlap between students and faculty in the poetry track and those in the fiction track. In hindsight, I wish my program had required us to take workshops and literature classes in other genres. For me, the magical realism class taught by Alberto Ríos offered the most in terms of genre blending with topics ranging from Dadaist poetry and images to novels by Isabel Allende and others.

Post-MFA I felt ill-prepared when my first teaching gig included a creative writing class meant to cover both fiction and poetry. I had much more to offer students in the fiction unit. For the poetry segments of the course, I relied heavily on the textbook.

Reading about poetry

Through the years I worked to make up for this gap in both my reading and my work in poetry. A few books I return to time and again are:

  • Poet’s Choice by Edward Hirsch. The book collects his columns from Washington Post Book World and covers an array of poets and poetry styles. The individual columns offer platforms for further reading, “from ancient times to the present,” and for drafting.
  • The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. With sections on “Subjects for Writing,” “The Poet’s Craft,” and “Twenty-minute Writing Exercises,” this book is geared for classes or self-study. Wondering how to structure a sestina or how to address death and grief in poetry? This book can help.
  • The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser. This book is subtitled “Practical Advice for Beginning Poets,” and that’s what it was for me. This book helped me play with words and possibilities, even when I was writing about heavy topics.

Reading poetry itself

One of the usual prescriptions for writers is to read. Kooser’s book led me to subscribe to his column and others like it. Daily and weekly poems pop into my inbox from sources including:

  • American Life in Poetry—Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, sends out a weekly poetry column. Each column includes his introduction to the poem and some basics about the author of the week’s poem. Access the columns online at americanlifeinpoetry.org or subscribe (free) to receive the week’s poem in your inbox. The column’s supporters include The Poetry Foundation.
  • Poem-a-Day—The Academy of American Poets offers, both on their website or via free email subscription, a variety of poetry that includes pieces by contemporary writers, works in progress, and samples of centuries-old verse. Each Poem-a-Day email has a statement from the poet about the genesis of their work or a historical note, as well as a brief author bio.

Any of these inbox poems can lead to deeper dives into the poetry of individual writers. Reading a whole book from a particular poet can help you connect to their work in a way that a single poem often cannot.

NOTE: Content on the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets websites also cover the craft of poetry and are a useful accompaniment to the books mentioned earlier.

Seeing revision in progress

Another helpful area of reading has focused on revision. One book in particular made me feel like I’d observed a college poetry workshop in that it took student-level poems and offered critiques from an array of teacher/poets:

  • Poets Teaching: The Creative Process edited by Alberta T. Turner. This is an older book, published in 1980, that I rescued from a bin headed to the college Dumpsters. (Who knew that indexing books in online databases costs more than keeping the books on the library shelves? But that’s a matter for another day.) This book advanced my understanding of line, exposition, sound, and so much more.

Each student poem in the book received extensive comments (sometimes contradictory) from two or more of the thirty-plus teachers, among them David St. John, William Stafford, and Thomas Lux. Occasionally, the teachers offered line-level suggestions for the more advanced poems to show how handling lines in different ways led to different effects.

Some feedback in this book made me shudder. Individual teachers didn’t hold back from labeling writing as “boring.” One even said, “it may turn out her abilities do not lie in writing, but in some other direction entirely.” Yikes! Is this any indication of what goes on in college-level poetry workshops? Or is it just a few of these teacher/poets?

Play with your words

Beyond reading poetry, craft, and revision texts, I’ve learned you should play with your words. Let yourself do the writing equivalent of chilling mini-bar liquor bottles in a tray of blue Jell-O. You can always pluck them out, throw them out, consume them, or turn them (or the Jell-O) into something else entirely in the next draft.

Worst Writing Group Ever

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Vintage postcard: Dumping ore into a pocket at a shaft station, Cliff Copper Mine near Phoenix

For the past decade or so my writing group has, on average, taken months to get back to me. In a couple cases it has taken them more than a year. Good turnaround is about six to eight weeks.

When they do respond it has usually been brief and vague. These may sound familiar:

  • “After careful consideration, we’re sorry to report…”
  • “We enjoyed reading it, and though it doesn’t quite…”
  • “We read your submission carefully and regret…”

Time

A benefit of continuing with this group has been time:

  • Time for my own work to become distant enough that I can read it like a laser-eyed stranger
  • Time for me to read other writers (both successful and less so)
  • Time to further develop the craft of revision, storytelling, structure, line, and so much more

Encouragement

Another benefit has been encouragement, especially when editors include personalized notes, more detailed rejections, or invitations to submit to them again.

Nonetheless, I still had a strong reaction when I read the following quote in Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer:

“[G]etting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, [said an assistant editor at The Missouri Review], when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never get the chance to read the writer’s work again. She noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.”

Friedman went on to describe the social media response to the original blog post, “Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good” by Michael Nye. “His post provoked a significant backlash from writers who felt tired of banging their heads against the wall—pursuing success within a system that never seemed to work that well in the first place,” Friedman wrote.

While rejections no longer sting as much as they used to, I connected to this conversation and not just because I have rejections from TMR dating back to 2002.

Paying for feedback

I’ve found a couple bright spots. One is the “in progress” designator in Submittable, which may indicate when my work has made it past the first readers.

A larger one is the feedback option offered by some publications, such as Tahoma Literary Review. Sometimes it’s a small fee for a few paragraphs of commentary. Other times it’s a lot more money for an in-depth critique. I’ve paid for an in-depth review on a project that was especially important to me through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Continuing Studies. Faculty member Christine DeSmet offered concrete feedback beyond what I’ve received from family readers and writer friends, who might have been concerned about hurting my feelings.

Persistence

One thing my continued participation in this “writing group” shows is persistence. In the face of years of rejection, I continue.