ON ENGAGEMENTS, INCLUDING EDITING
In 2002, I released my first U.S.-published poetry collection, REPRODUCTIONS OF THE EMPTY FLAGPOLE. It's still my bestselling poetry book. Among the many responses I received to it was a letter from a stranger which still stands out in my mind. Said stranger said he liked the book, but then he listed (if I recall correctly) about six points where he suggested some editing changes.
My initial response was sorta huffy. I didn't know this dude from ... any other dude. And he was offering his opinion which, in the arts, can't usually (not always but usually) be disengaged from the identity of the person offering said opinion. So I sniffed but tossed the letter in my files.
Eight years later, as we put together THE THORN ROSARY which selects from earlier books including REPRODUCTIONS..., I stumbled across this guy's letter. With years of distance from REPRODUCTIONS, I was able to cast a more objective eye on the dude's suggestions, and indeed ended up incorporating about half of his suggestions!
Let me digress for a moment to discuss the editorial change I made as it may be helpful to other poets out there putting together manuscripts. Basically, we poets have our own biases and predilections which often (unconsciously) makes us favor the use of certain words. For me, such a word used to be "azure". So, I wrote several poems where, when having to come up with a word for blue, say to describe sea or sky, I'd lapse to "azure." Nothing wrong with that. And for individual poems, it works. But when you put together a collection, what becomes presented is an over-use of the word. (Was it in BLACK LIGHTNING, Arthur Sze once said something similar to me -- how his publisher Copper Canyon Press' inhouse editors were good at pointing out a word or two that may be repeated overmuch in the pages of a new collection.) Anyway, that's just something to think about for you poets creating manuscripts from poems that perhaps were previously written in individual spaces and now must be joined together to cohere into a new collection.
So, to get back to this dude -- it took years when I found his letter again to appreciate what he did. This dude took a chance -- think about it: how many people do you know who would read a poetry book, take the time to make suggestions, and share such suggestions to a more likely negative reaction from often oversensitive poets? I can tell you that I've only received one such letter like this one. I've never written such a letter either! The dynamics nowadays of poetry-creation just doesn't create an environment for this, does it? Where you give well-meaning input to a stranger for the sake of poems (vs because you're friends with a poet and/or support each other's community, which is what I've observed to be the primary context for giving/receiving feedback outside of an academic or workshop setting)?
Anyway, so I sent this dude a quite belated THANK YOU note along with a copy of THE THORN ROSARY. Yesterday, I got a letter back from him. Among other things, the letter expressed surprise (grin) at not just receiving my newest book but that I incorporated some of his suggested changes. And by receiving his reply, I managed to find out more about who this guy is -- a visual artist. If you know Moi, that be so apt! And dang if dude ain't a good artist, too, based on the exhibition card-announcement he sent. Universe, it's so often good--what you bring Moi through poetry...!
It's a blessing to see people engage with your poems. It's a blessing to see others care about your poems. So, speaking of THE THORN ROSARY, thanks as well to Aileen Ibardaloza for this visual riff off of one of the thorny poems -- she was moved to photograph one of the pages and the result was not just "unexpected [but] ephemeral":
And, to moi mind, the image (which is also now up at the Academy of American Poets' Free Verse Project on Flickr) kinda fits the actual poem:
: “You were standing by the gate of a zoo”
: to turn time into eternity, as gorillas do, by making it about presence not absence
: Oh! That hot lemon smell of gorillas, and the thicksweet smell of the hay!
: we are all born
: the haven defined as “utter lack of inspection”
: God as Love without a steeple for there has never been a roof
Yes, the above doesn't look like the typical paragraph of a prose poem. But that's why Allen Bramhall so had it right when he observed that working with the sentence won't disavow "timely subversions" (e.g. disjunction, and fragmentation, and linear discontinuity)--that's why it's prose poetry, not prose. Anyway, Woot Aileen: salamat for the lovely shadows and light--now that's poetry-in-progress!