To Anyone Who’s Ever Written a Poem or Even Is Just Thinking about Trying It Soon: A list of DOs and DON’Ts
1. DO keep in mind that these things have already been done a lot in contemporary poetry: titillated use of unusual-ish and admittedly sonically pleasing words like cochlea, rivulet, and sluice; desire or need expressed by someone’s open mouth; Russian nesting dolls; making the primary offering of the poem the fact that it is about a mythic/ iconic character (Eve [of Adam and Eve fame], Satan, Captain America, Thor, Buddy Holly, Jon Benet Ramsey)…The best you’ll do is make someone think “Oh, I’ve always pictured Persephone as a victim, but this poem portrays her as kind of a bad-ass, and I like that!”
When I see a poem written in the (tampered with) voice of a well-known figure, I think “This poet does not believe that he will be able to interest readers without clutching the ankle of a figure that culture at-large has already sanctioned as ‘lit-worthy’.” Listen: I remember really loving Stephen Dunn’s Sisyphus poems when I first read them but all the things I loved about them had nothing to do with the main character being Sisyphus. I would have loved poems about a regular old dude buying bagels and feeling terror in the face of a godless existence just as much.
2. DON’T keep a poem around because someone out there might like it or find it interesting (or even part of a poem—don’t let any part of your poem be a boring bridge to good things. You can do better!); if you’re not excited about it, toss it. Sure, there’s a chance you might be depriving a couple people of a moment’s pleasure, but are those couple of people guaranteed to be better judges of poetry than you? There’s probably a reason you can’t muster any excitement about that line/ stanza/ poem, and if you aren’t in love with it, you’re going to have a hard time selling it to anyone else. It’s your responsibility get yourself to the point of being able to trust your discernments, your final say, about the relative value of your own craft. However,
3. DO consider your reader’s experience. Recognize that putting a poem in a book or magazine (as opposed to leaving it in your journal/ on your laptop) is saying “Reader, I have something for you. Please spend a bit of time with it.”
Now, considering a reader’s needs too soon (in the early stages of a poem’s development) can kill everything good that that poem might become. As a poem is just beginning, the poet’s self-consciousness, which can lead to a “To Do” list approach in writing poetry, is detrimental. In the early stages of writing a poem DO let your eyes roll back into your head; DO try to keep yourself ignorant of what’s happening; DO become an empty vessel, a clean faucet for your unconscious thoughts and maybe something else that comes from somewhere else. It’s in the final stages of a poem that you should take a step back; forget what you love and know about the poem; think about the person who has no access to what’s inside your head; do what you need to do to maximize her experience with your poem. For example:
4. DO spend some time thinking about the difference between a useful generative exercise (thematically-unified listing, googling various saint-sightings in developing countries, consulting the I Ching) and a finished poem that will bring something valuable to the life of your reader. In other words, recognize when the jumping off point that has helped you evade your writing anxiety and made poetry game-like and thus fun (or just doable) again has served its purpose and needs to slip back into the shadows. But on the other hand,
5. DON’T be a poet that the reader can feel hovering in the periphery of the poem with clutched hands saying “I Hope you like it! I spent 2 hours thesaurus-ing adjectives for ragweed for you!!!” The reader doesn’t owe you anything, so don’t be the mother who guilts her kid into appreciating her by reminding him of her 42 hours of labor with him (which was followed by 15 years of thankless work etc.)…If I read a poem that has so clearly been toiled over, I feel like the only appropriate response is admiring the toil and the formidable, gleaming results of that toil. But I don’t like feeling like only one response is appropriate, which is why I don’t like being told jokes (which is very different than being in the presence of someone who spontaneously makes jokes, which is a thing I love): Someone says “I’m going to tell you a by-definition funny thing,” and then they tell me the thing, and if I don’t laugh then we both experience feelings of failure and disappointment. In other words:
6. DO make it look easy. It’s not about you anymore, poet. It’s about the poem, what it has to— really needs to—say to the reader, the bad/good temporary world, and all of us.
Hannah Gamble is the author of Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast (2012), selected by Bernadette Mayer for the 2011 National Poetry Series. She has received fellowships from InPrint Inc, The Edward F. Albee Foundation, and the University of Houston, where she served as an editor for Gulf Coast: A...