I’m reading ORDERING THE STORM, HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A BOOK OF POEMS. In the section by Liz Rosenberg she writes: Like most young writers, I spent years asking other for their opinions, and learning how little is to be gained by it. No one else can teach you how to be yourself.
I love this thought. As poets we need to trust our instincts on such things. We need to (from the deepest of our centers) know that we know more about our poems than anyone else. It’s the idea that when you are putting together a book of poems, you need to create it from within. It’s funny, in life when we have the most difficult troubles or concerns, we find ourselves asking others for advice. What should I do? How would you do it?
Still, I believe others can help when ordering a manuscript or working with poems, but not in the job of the poet, but in the job of the reader. A reader can tell you where you are missing information, where they are getting lost, or where there seems to be a break in the flow. As poets, we know the back-story to every poem. The problem occurs when we create a poem and it makes sense to us because we have this background info; another reader, unaware of all that we keep in our head, reads the poem and is either lost or uninterested in our genius thoughts.
I rely on others to help me find confusion in my poem. It sounds odd to go looking for confusion, but clarity is important to me. Not Windex-clean clarity, but I want the heart of the poem to come across the reader because I want that connection for them as well. I want to know where I became sloppy in my writing, where I became too poetic. Some of my best suggestions have been from my poets friends who have merely said, “Do you need this?” I take three words away and the poem is thousand times better. It’s the magic of being someone else. Of not being emotionally tied to a poem, not being in love with a word choice.
I think the best people to help with a poem are people who don’t want to make your poem theirs, but to make your poem a better yours. If your style is tennis shoes and jeans, they aren’t throwing a feather boa around your neck because that’s what they like to wear. They may suggest a better-soled shoe or a pair of jeans with smaller pockets, but they aren’t trying to change your poem into something it’s not.
I think that is always the concern with workshops. If you find yourself involved in community poetry, it’s time to slip out the door before the hoedown. A mentor once told me, “Poetry is not a Tupperware party,” and I think about that whenever I try to seal a lid on a poem or win the free orange peeler at my poetry group. What I mean is, I don’t write poems so my friends will approve them, but I continue to write poems that challenge myself as a poet. I want all my poetry friends to keep their original voices and so far, we have. That is the challenge of such things. From the moment we’re born, society tries to make us conform in so many ways. We need to avoid that in our writing, even while we’re wearing the trendiest jeans or the shirt from Old Navy that everyone has. We may let ourselves blend in other ways, but our writing is too important to follow the current trends. As Liz R. said above, No one can teach you how to be yourself. We each need to follow our obsessions and disasters, our gut feelings even when it feels as if the whole country is made of 2.5 kids and driving around in SUVs or minivans, we need to feel good in our Vega, our Beetle, on our bicycles circling the neighborhood as if we’ve a thousand places to go.