Pulling Together a Manuscript, and Other Cautionary Tales

This morning Papa Bear took the Cubs to the dentist, and I am trying to pull together a manuscript for a little poetry competition that's coming up in April. This post is my study break. So far my impressions of the process of pulling together a ms. are:

1. This is hard, and I'm just a Baby Poet.
2. Every poem I've ever written is twice as long as it needs to be.
3. How am I supposed to know what these poems mean? I only wrote them down!
4. Ummmm........ maybe I should try to write a few happy poems from time to time.

And here's what putting together a manuscript looks like in my little world (imagine me sleepwalking through the rows of poems, laying them down, arranging, rearranging, picking back up, moving three to the left, pushing one over with my toes to make room for the one I'm holding between my teeth, wondering what the hell I'm doing. Also, please ignore my ugly, hand-me-down coffee table in the background.):

Anyway, I am plodding forward despite the opinion of the Inner Critic that I should just go back to bed for the day. But the process has me thinking of the last meeting of the Monday Poets, a cheerful yet committed group of poets that I meet with on Monday nights, led by the gentle and fearless Tom Ruud. We gather to study other poets, and to discuss and critique our own work. It's a fun group. I always think our slogan should be: "Monday Poets: We'll Critique Your Poems and Make You Laugh About It."

Last Monday I brought a poem that I had come up with earlier that afternoon. I pulled a random writing prompt from my stash of writing prompts and it said, "Write about a shadow." I thought immediately of Peter Pan and his shadow, and went with it. I ended up with a draft entitled "To Reattach a Shadow."

When we begin the workshopping process at Monday Poets, usually a few people will pipe up with a few things they like or that "work" in the poem. Maybe there will be a few questions about the poet's goals and/or thought process. Then some suggestions for what might make the poem stronger.

Well, not this time, my friends.

Something in the poem triggered immediate and strong reactions. Right away, the opinion was expressed that "bone-white needle held soft in her hand doesn't work at all." One person felt my (admittedly loose) reinterpretation tampered too much with her understanding of the character Peter Pan, and therefore, was unbelievable (as in not believable). Another viewed the poem from a Jungian perspective and felt, therefore, that the idea of the shadow in the poem was just plain false. All thought the poem was definitely about First Sex, which I really didn't intend. There were what felt like vigorous debates happening all around me. I think one person kind of liked it. Maybe. By the end of the workshopping session, I was laughing and all I could say was, "Thanks. I think."

I've had plenty of poems fall flat with the Mondays before, but I don't remember a poem that has brought such strong reactions. It has caused me to ponder the difficult task of parsing criticism in a way that identifies what doesn't work in a poem and roots it out, but that stays true to what the poem/poet is trying to do. And also to consider the issue of how to manage the biases we all bring to our encounters with any piece of art, and how much to take those biases into account. For example: how true to a literary character, an existing myth, an accepted report of history must artists be? And does reading something from a Jungian (or Marxist, or feminist) perspective really tell us anything about a work of literature or art? Or does it, like Harold Bloom would argue, tell us only something about Jungian psychology, Marxist political theory, or feminism? How does a writer discern for herself the difference between someone simply not liking her work, and the work being poorly written or technically inept? These are all things I'm still struggling with and learning as a writer.

(By the way, the strength of reaction intrigued me and made me think there must be something in the poem worth working on -- there's something in it that people are responding to).

The whole episode made me think of a chapter in In The Palm Of Your Hand by Steve Kowit, one of my favorite books on the craft of poetry. In Chapter 28 The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Poetry Workshops, there is a poem that has been workshopped half to death. There are circles, strikethroughs, ???s, !!!s, and arrows. Numbers line up in the margin for a suggested reordering of stanzas. Comments cry out from the white space: "Why plural? And why all the caps? --And dashes??" and "Rhyme scheme breaks down here - this isn't even slant." The final remarks are: "Nice language here, but I end this poem feeling confused... You seem to be alluding to some anger here, but the cause is never explored or revealed to the reader. Is there another poem behind this one that still needs to be written?"

Ends up the poem is by one Emily Dickinson, number 754, My Life Has Stood-a Loaded Gun- (read the whole poem here).

Which is not to say that my poem is of the same caliber as Miss Dickinson's; it surely is not. But which is to say that it is the task of every artist to wade through the criticism and take what's valuable, while also staying true to one's own voice and work. I confess, I haven't mastered this balancing act yet, but I keep on trying my best to do both.

By the way, here's a current draft of the poem, (which I thought was about not being able to escape some darkness in ourselves, our lives, but finding it to be more bearable when shared and tended to lovingly -- goes to show you what I know):

this draft has been removed


CitricSugar said...

Okay, I have had a strong reaction to your poem as well.

But I love it. The rhythm, the words you've chosen... I do understand the "first sex" vibe that was pulled from it. I found it to be reminiscent of a loss of innocence (which is VERY Peter Pan), trying to reclaim who we once were, how to wear ourselves entirely, scars and all, and how not to distance ourselves from the darker parts of our lives.

But those are just MY thoughts on it. Maybe I'm biased because I am an admirer of your work but I am also capable of criticism. I don't have any for this piece. Thank you for sharing it!

Molly said...

Thanks, Carly. I feel I should say that nobody is under any obligation whatsoever to like it! :) And that one of my weaknesses as a writer is revision. My usual approach to bewildering criticism -- instead of having the courage, judgment & imagination to parse it and move forward with the poem -- is to let the poem hibernate..... maybe forever :). I am trying to get better about that.