A very wise poet friend of mine recently observed that poetry is a form of communication and therefore any poem that goes unread is, in some ways, unfinished.
I think this holds true for poets, as well. A poet without an audience is... well, unfinished.
I don't see much chance for a reasonable rejection of that statement, so, for the moment anyway, I'm going to take it as a self-evident "truth" of being a poet or an artist of any kind. You need an audience to be complete.
But there's a big danger in completing yourself as an artist. Once you find an audience, they're very unlikely to want you to change what you're doing. Not even a little. That's why you see so many bands and singers still playing songs from thirty plus years ago; that's why actors and actresses try to keep their signature looks, voices, and roles.
That's why big brands seldom make radical changes to their products or services.
If you're lucky enough to write a poem or two that resonate with people, those are the poems they're going to want to talk about, hear you read, discuss on social media, and have you sign for them. Sure, you just made a major breakthrough in your nature poems, but your readers loved it best when you wrote about your childhood sexual abuse.
Writing about your trauma helped you move on, but it's unlikely your core audience will move with you. So, Poe's "The Raven" is as much his identity as it is a poem; same for Plath's "Daddy" or Frost's "The Road Not Take." If Frost started writing death-metal lyrics in his later life, his fans may have spontaneously combusted. Thing is, no man was probably better suited to writing death-metal lyrics than Robert Frost, but there wasn't a buying or reading public for it.
Even worse, you might get known for something you're not. E.E. Cummings is always thought of as an avant garde and experimental poet because he used eccentric punctuation, but really many of his poems were sonnets and, in truth, he was most like a traditional Elizabethan in form, spirit, and theme. A lot of readers who like traditional love or nature poems for example might avoid Cummings because they feel (without ever having read him) that he's too experimental.
You can bring your audience with you as you evolve, but it's almost as tall an order as finding your voice to begin with. No matter what, the best advice remains to write what you feel. What you must.
So growing and earning an audience is only the first step. You have to live with them and live up to your audience once you're lucky enough to get one.
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Consider this post a double-tip, because what I'm about to tell you will not only improve your writing, it will get you writing and keep you writing. But be forewarned, this isn't a tip for the timid! You'll need some creative backbone to follow along.
Here's the tip. Write about something that makes you angry. Thunderously angry. Something that makes you want to explode with emotion and opinions, something that pushes every button you've got and threatens to overload you.
The reason you need to do this is because, simply put, this is where some of your best writing is waiting to happen. That's why you're broiling with emotion, because the anger inside of you is also a flare gun signaling: "There's poetry here!"
Don't believe me? Try reading Plath's "Daddy," Ginsberg's "Howl," Shakespeare's Hamlet, or crank up some classic rap, metal, or blues. Anger is as much a part of artistic expression as love or beauty and often, it's best when they're all mingled together.
Here's a simple test. If I asked you to write 500 words on a politician you most admire, it'll probably take you longer to come up with something than if I ask you to do 500 words on the politician who most ticks you off. It's much harder to write from a perspective of adulation than it is from anger.
There's really no limit, either. You can go to Spinal Tap 11 with your anger and it won't hurt anything. You can murder's, mangle, shred, explode, and crucify your enemies. You can ridicule them with language, you can imagine them shredded in a chipper. Or even better you can somehow turn them into lovers and friends.
Just remember: art is catharsis and healing, but it's also a refuge. So don't spill enough imagined blood (or tears) to ruin your sanctuary or scare or gross out others from visiting and sharing your stories.
I'm not saying you should always write from anger; I'm not saying you should write from anger most of the time. I'm simply saying: don't be afraid to write from an angry place because it's often a source of incredible poetry and it will help you let go of emotions that might be weighing you down if not for the poems you write.
Michelle Tinklepaugh's a special poet and I'm going to tell you why. She does with words what a great watercolorist does with paint, but she paints the most serious, often tragic, archetypal images you're apt to find from any poet on social media. This means two things: first, she has a unique voice and, second, she's immersed in themes that many poets typically avoid or fumble.
Her poem "mustard bones and other ways to pay the ferryman" is a brilliant piece of poetry. Click on Michelle's picture above to read the whole poem and you'll soon see why I've got my work cut out for me in this post.
Sure, this poem feels like Emily Dickinson and intones like Sylvia Plath, but I defy you to keep these associations past the final line. This poem goes somewhere neither of those Titans visited, and it's purely Tinklepaugh's vision, theme, and aesthetic. It's not surrealism, precisley, and it's not only Symbolist. This fusion and originality generally signals a complete poet, one that should be published regularly in the literary journals, have books out, and be taken seriously by critics.
I can't do much about the first issue, but I'm happy to announce that Tinklepaugh has found a publisher and will release a book sometime soon. It's only on the third count that I can contribute. I'm not a critic, per se, but I take Tinklepaugh's art very seriously, as seriously as I take anyone publishing in the journals or elsewhere.
I urge you to read her work, which you can do by following her blog or following her on Facebook. My upcoming First Flashes anthology features a poem from Tinklepaugh and I'm excited to include her work.
It's going to take another blog post to get down to actually talking nuts and bolts about her poetry. For now, read the linked poem, think about it, and realize that this poem starts with:
i carry your bones in my pocket
the smooth round ends
into knife points
but every single line gets better until, 75 lines later, we reach what's best described as the poem's true beginning.
I'll be blogging more about Tinklepaugh's excellent poetry soon, which will gain her a category of her own on this blog, something her work well deserves. mustard bones and other ways to pay the ferryman
Notice the title says: make new readers, not "attract" new readers, or "grow" new readers.
We're done with all that. It's too much work for too little reward!
Kidding aside, I'm going to offer another super-easy poetry tip today that will help you gain more readers. If you use it well, it may be the most important tip you ever stumble across. It's easy, but it can be a bit painful if you're not used to doing it.
No, it's not about using double-entendres, although maybe I should blog on that sometime. No, this tip is much more basic. Here it is:
Imagine that every time you read a new poem, you gain a new reader for your poems.
Clearly, this isn't logistically the case, but it's most certainly the case in spirit. And here's why. Reading poetry is the single most effective (and necessary) way to improve as a poet. Period. Add to that most of us don't read nearly enough poems and you have a "magic" formula that's more true than anything that would stand up to a computer. Try it!
But only imagine a new reader for yourself when you're reading a new poem, preferably by a poet you've never read. Each time you read and absorb a new poet, pretend you've gained a new reader for your work because what you learn by reading another poet will make your work stronger. Someone who's read ten thousand poems has an advantage in composition over someone who's only read ten.
The tip works even better if you read both contemporary and classic poets. Don't be afraid of new poets. Love and crave them as you love and crave readers because one leads to the other.
Today's poetry tip is one of the simplest, yet most painfully difficult, tricks in the book.
It's like this... Take out one of your favorite "finished" poems -- don't choose a published one or one you've posted. Now pretend someone has a gun to your head and you have to cut a line. An entire line.
Choose one line, lop it off, and read the poem back to yourself. Is it better? If so, lose the line for good.
If not, choose another line to cut. And so on, until you've tried every line. If every line must remain, congratulations, one of two things happened. Either you're incapable of revising your work or you've written a perfect poem.
Now honestly, which do you think is the case most of the time?
In prose we're often told to "murder your darlings" but it's just as true in poetry. One thing to keep in mind is this: if the line you scrub has some tasty figurative language or a cool turn of phrase or just sings like a blackbird, you can use it elsewhere, perhaps in another poem, or even a blog post like I just did, in case you cared to notice.
Try this maneuver in any poem you're serious about and see if it doesn't make your work much stronger. It might be tougher to cut lines from your poems than to let a stranger give you a hair cut, but in this case, you're the one holding the scissors, so don't be afraid to trim. Your poems and readers will thank you.
Are you surprising with your poems? You should be. People love invention and they love to be surprised. As an artist, it's your job, your sacred task, to make things seem new even when they aren't.
Surprise is the best way to grab attention. It's also the best way to keep people thinking about your work after they stop reading.
So how should you use surprise?
The answer is: surprise me! But keep one very valuable caveat in mind: if you hit with too many surprises at once, joy turns to confusion, then anger and your readers will just tune out.
But if you sprinkle surprises throughout your poems, you'll grown an enthusiastic audience.
Let's look at some examples. Gwedolyn Brooks's poem: "We Real Cool" surprises from word go because it uses a slang title. Next, it has a subtitle: ""The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel." that sounds like a title you'd most likely find on a painting, not a poem.
The next surprise is, despite the long title, the poem's over almost before it begins!
Which is the whole point right?
We / Die soon.
The ending is, of course, a smashing surprise with death popping up on the penultimate word. But there are other surprises. The use of three word stanzas; the use of a single word refrain at the end of each line. The vanishing of the refrain at the end.
That's how to use surprise like a master!
Joy Harjo's poem "Eagle Poem" is a very predictable poem all the way until the closing lines. It's exactly the kind of poem you'd expect her to write and this is intentional. It is a nod to tradition. But the closing lines pack a big revelation:
It's not only that the poem takes a sudden turn toward absolutism and beauty, but that it repeats the line. Why should it do this?
Because the two matching lines show a harmonic resonance that hints as to what makes beauty. Harmony. So big Platonic thoughts at the end of an overtly Native American meditation. Universal Mind manifested in two lines.
The lesson is: don't be afraid to take chances in your poems and do things that will make your readers say "Crickey!" even if they're young and not British.
I believe in the art of rejectomancy, I really do. In fact, I'm a master. Show me a rejection letter and I'll tell you exactly what it means. It's an amazing power I have.
You can have it, too.
Rejectomancy is the art of reading between the lines when you get a rejection letter. It consists of parsing each word, perhaps even every syllable, for deep clues; checking response times, and maybe even doing a bit of etymological digging on exactly what the words "commend" and "unfortunately" really mean.
Here's the truth from someone who's assembled over 100 rejections just last year and has sent ten times that many over the years as an editor. Rejections mean exactly what they say. No more. No less.
Think about it: why would any editor try to speak to you in code? They either want your work or they don't want it. I'm not saying that you can't sometimes read between the lines; I'm saying you don't need to. In virtually every case, the rejection says it all at face value.
Here's three good signs, but you won't have to decode anything to find them:
1) An editor asks specifically to see more of your work.
2) An editor mentions one or more of your pieces by name and specifically commends your writing.
3) An editor mentions that your work was shortlisted.
Other than that, you can't read anything into a rejection letter that really means anything. In most cases, a writer's work is rejected because it doesn't fit with what the publication is looking to publish. Often, this is a case of quality, but it is also sometimes a question of fit.
If you're like me, you probably sometimes get "nice" rejection letters asking you to submit again and saying your piece just didn't fit this time. That means exactly what it says. Editors like to "match" works when they publish them for whatever reason and they do so in ways you can't possibly foresee. If a specific editor has to choose between two equally good pieces, but one fits with the feeling of the issue they're building, the one that fits gets in. This is a purely subjective thing and it's not the same as having a stated theme.
What can you do to improve your odds? The answer is: not much. But here's a few things to try.
1) Study the publications you submit to. This is easy nowadays because almost everything is online. Don't submit to places that you can't see your own work slipping into comfortably.
2) If a journal. pub, or site form-rejects your work more than six times, stop submitting for a while. Whatever you're doing right now isn't working for them. If your style changes, maybe you can try again.
3) Try to submit as early as possible in a given submission window. For obvious reasons.
4) Send the maximum number of poems you are allowed to send. Try to send a range of themes.
5) Send poems under 20 lines. Shorter poems are almost always easier to edit and "fit" in for most places, even when they're online.
6) Submit only fully edited, finely polished work.
I've got a lot ore to say about rejection and submissions in the future so stay tuned. Meanwhile, good luck with your own work and hope you drown in acceptances!
Think of your poems as time bombs. Each line brings the reader a tick closer to the explosion.
All through the poem, some part of the reader sweats it out, wondering how big of a bang is waiting and wondering if they'll be wounded, or maybe even scarred.
Some poems, like Eliot's The Wasteland are atom bombs that vaporize cities of tradition, aesthetics, and comfort. Others, like many of the poems we all write but hopefully don't show, go off like duds. They make a corkscrew of smoke, more pathetic than profound.
What I'd like to consider in this post is how the metaphor of the time-bomb helps us understand the role of a poem's penultimate line. That's the line right before the last line. And I'm telling you here and now something you'll likely never hear from anyone else and that's this: a poem's penultimate line is just as important as the closing line. Sometimes more important.
Not only is it sometimes more important; it's far easier to flub. Why? Because this is where most poets tend to ease off. It's where we all tend to get a bit slack. It's an understandable urge. After-all, it's the job of the last line to tidy everything up and make the "boom" really go off. Right?
Well, not really. In fact, I think it's better to look at your penultimate line as a tee for the last line, or even as "fanfare" for it. Readers will feel the acceleration whether you take advantage of it or not. If you slack off just as they get ready to climax, well we all know how that goes!
Let's take a look at three obvious examples of great penultimate lines. The first one is from Shakespeare's Sonnet 18:
"So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,"
Here the Bard takes full advantage of the penultimate thrill by injecting newness right before the close -- the idea of a group of men, rather than a single speaker, and the idea of overcoming mortality through art. The poem makes a sudden shift from the personal to the universal and does so precisely on the penultimate line.
Here's another brilliant penultimate line, from Sylvia Plath's "A Winter Ship:"
"The sun will diminish it soon enough:"
With a single line, Plath waves away her brilliant imagery -- her poetic evocation of a winter seascape in all its frigid glory. She simply introduces the image of the sun, and with it the obvious connotation of melting ice and snow, to turn her poem around like the most graceful of skaters on the thinnest of blades.
Finally, Joy Harjo's poem 'Ah, Ah" uses an increasingly more intense set of call and response couplets. She shifts the enjambment in the penultimate line and capitalizes on the reader's natural excitement by connecting the final "response" line to a claim of eternal being:
"on our return, over the net of eternity thrown out for stars."
This poises the reader at the edge of wondering if the "Ah Ah" refrain will endure. Of course, it can't do otherwise, but the suspense is what drives the poem's final sacred theme straight into the heart and mind.
These are brilliant tip-of-the-iceberg examples to get you started thinking a little more deeply about your penultimate lines. That was mine; I wish you good luck with yours!
Don't click Bernardo Wade's picture above because, if you do, you'll be whisked away to his excellent poem "Another (Damn) Crow Poem" over at Crazyhorse, soon to be known as swamp pink. The reason you don't want to click over and read the poem is because it will remind you how lonely you are.
Sure the poem's about watching a murder of crows take off in harmonious flight from a late autumn tree. And, sure, the lines are delivered with melodious grace and musical infection:
Once the leaves abandon the tree,
the crows, who seem to sense
the loneliness of a limb,
rise up like musical notes
syncopated by the brisk
Wade goes on to describe the familial gathering of birds with a sense of detached intimacy:
I watch them huddle close
like strange fruit nestling
warmth—the survival of kin.
He then concludes that crows don't deserve their reputation as birds of ill omen, or as thieves, or tricksters. After-all, they don't have loving mothers, probably never experience tenderness, or gentleness, and everyone associates them with spooky things.
So, why in the world should this make you feel lonely? Well, because Wade's played a brilliant trick here. The conclusion of the poem that describes the negative things we associate with crows actually applies to ourselves. The things that he imagines the crows not having are our own lacks. The giveaway is in the stanza quoted above, where the crows huddle together and endure. They are part of the music of nature, no matter how harsh or dangerous it may appear to us.
We are the lonely crows. When Wade writes:
I wonder if the mother
crow sits her chicks down to impart
the resilience behind black wings,
He already knows the answer: he has already acknowledged natural instinct and the rhythms of nature all through the preceding poem. Crows don't need loving lectures; but people do. IS seeing love in the circle of nature, through the portent of a murder of crows, a warning that we're out of harmony with nature?
So this poem is a call for what might restore us to the music of nature. To embrace ourselves, our families, our friends, and society as a whole... as a murder.
But with deepest love.