What is fascinating to me about writers (not professionals) is that there is some kind of mythology out there about the place where writing emanates which leads them to think (and actually believe deeply) that their writing is so inspired as to warrant leaving it alone once it is initially on the page. I've been doing this thing (writing, editing) for a long time and I see this phenomenon over and over, in fact more now than ever.
Here's a true story to illustrate:
I received a submission for Pulse Online Literary Journal a few weeks ago and decided the poems had something to say, but needed a little tweaking to say that something better. Being the kind of editor I'd want to have myself, I suggested a couple small edits and offered to work with the poet on larger issues (line break, diction, etc). I found an email from that writer in my inbox yesterday with the following:
Dear Mrs. Bachofner,
Thanks for your "acceptance" if that's what you call it.
I cannot believe you would have the nerve to say the poems
were not finished and needed some polishing. When I write,
I am inspired by the universe, my muse or whatever. It is just
wrong to slap that being in the face by changing what was
sent to me. You call yourself an editor? YOUR JOB is to print
the inspired words you are lucky enough to be sent. You should
be more careful of messing with fate the way you are trying to.
So, to be very clear: print the poems as they are. Oh, and I believe
a thank-you is in order, not the raking over the coals I got from you.
I have to say I am surprisingly shocked whenever I get this kind of email. I can hardly grasp the idea of speaking thusly to someone I'd hope to have publish my work.
I publish the exchange here so you can see the issue up close and persona.
I went back to my sent file to see what possible "raking over the coals" I had sent this writer. Here it is:
Dear __________, Thanks so much for sending the poems. I see potential
here and would like to accept the following poems [a list follows] IF you are willing
to do a little revising. While the poems have good bones, there is room to tweak
in terms of line breaks and removing clichés. I'd like to see a bit more concreteness
and not quite so much abstraction in ___________ for example. This particular poem
blocks the way in for readers with its vague references. I hope you will accept my offer
to work with you on making the poems shine as I believe they can. Please get back to me
if you want to work with me on these poems.
My final reply to this person was "Sorry you are not taking advantage of my editing help. Good luck with your writing." Where else could I go with this? Sigh.
When I first started publishing poems by others in my zine, I saw this kind of thing from time to time, and our fiction editor saw it even more. Mostly however, poets seem more willing to revise than fiction submitters. Lately, however, there is a resurgence of submissions with "this came from the universe/God/muse and I am not going to change a word I got from [that entity] because it would be against nature." I muse (pun intended) over why this might be happening. I wonder if the social/political/economic climate is so horrid that these folks are turning to poetry as some kind of prayer call and response scenario (a friend suggested this might be the case) and if so, is there a place for the poems that are springing up from this?
I wonder also about the glut of MFA grads being "churned out" from the plethora of universities and colleges which have developed MFA programs in the past decade or so. My zine partner, Lizzie, tells me that she gets so many story submissions that are a mess from MFA grads. She has suggested that these folks are not even close to knowing what makes a good story and how to write one. I admit I do not know what is going on with the fiction folks (why I leave that up to her).
What concerns me here is the bubbling up of poems where it is fairly obvious that the "poet" spent very little time after the initial inspiration to write. I know a man who belongs to a writing group (one I used to attend out west) who would get absolutely insulted when suggestions for revision were made by his peers. Why go to a writing group where critique is a factor and then refuse to consider revisions? I concluded that, for him, he wanted the social part of being in such a group, and was hoping for praise and validation as a poet. He too felt that the poems came from somewhere "out there" and should not be "messed with by others."
I am also amazed by how many "poets" who write prolifically do not have the slightest notion of how to describe the parts of a poem or how to discuss poems using the language of critical assessment. Several years ago, I was having lunch with a man who considers himself a poet. He gave me a poem and I read it right away. It was not what I think of as a publishable poem, but had some good parts, including some fairly fresh language. He is a poet of cliché mostly, so I was very happy to see this poem's language. Wanting to encourage more of this, I said to him, "I admire the diction in this poem." His reply was that he didn't know what diction was. OK, the man has not been formally educated in poetry. He writes "inspired" poems. However, wouldn't you think that a person who claims to be a poet, sees that as his calling in life, would take the time to educate himself in the nuts and bolts of it? This is what concerns me: so many people writing without a clue about what it takes to make a poem a poem, much less a good one. To me, these are hobbyists, not true poets. Nothing wrong with that by the way, but please don't send me your poems for publication.
I do not think a person needs an MFA or take on a formal program in order to become a true poet. A college professor I admire (a really GOOD poet) asserts that the best teacher of poetry is the poetry itself, urging us to read and read and read, then ask "how did ______ DO that? How might I do that in my own poems?" I have to agree with my former professor here. But I believe this method of learning poetry is slipping off the map, at least for some of the "poets" I encounter. And why, when encountering a poem that seems to be organized in a way that is unfamiliar, would one not search out what that might be in order to try it him/herself? Puzzling. Extremely puzzling.
So what to do with those who resist revision? Pretty much nada, nil, zip, bumpkus, zero. I conclude that leading by example is the only thing to do, i.e keep offering workshops on writing and revising. That and holding my ground with the submitters who try to slip a little cosmic dust into my inbox.
I'll end this blog entry with a thumbs up to the poetry group I attend, High Tide Poets. These amazing women are the opposite of what I describe here. The many many many revised versions of poems we share with one another is simply heart-warming to see. These woman WORK. I am up to my elbows in editing an anthology of the writing this group has produced over the past years. Will keep you posted on the details as the project unfolds.