Tuesday, April 06, 2010


I often get asked for advice regarding poetry, which is disturbing(ly amusing) in that people who read my blog might not get the underlying performance aspect of it -- to wit, Moi blather a lot about Poetry precisely because I don't know it. Poetry isn't stable enough to be known as such knowledge implies it's a fixed entity when, actually, it's the quintessential air or water whose shape changes based on, uh, vessel...Anyhoo.

Having said that, and feeling like a Dear Abby just now, I thought I'd pose my response to a young poet who asked for my input as regards a journal which just accepted a group of her poems. Said young un wanted to know whether she should hold back a poem from the accepted batch to try to place elsewhere so that her poems would get "wider" distribution. At the risk of insufferability, here's my response below and, maybe I'll keep posting replies to advice-questions in the future if it's amusing to do so (or mebbe not -- "poetry expert" is an oxymoron, after all...still, if it's amusing to do so...):


Dear XYZ,

In response to your question, let me share my favorite story about poetry --
Once, there was a poet who finally finished a poetry manuscript after much time and effort. But, one day, hir house and its entire contents was devastated in a fire. As s/he stood there on the streets, watching the firemen battle down the blazes, one of the neighbors walked over to express condolences. During their conversation, as both watched the fire destroy the house, the poet mentioned that all copies of her writings -- paper printouts as well as computer disks -- were in the house. And since s/he hadn't memorized her poems, this meant that the poems were basically gone. The poet anticipated that in the future s/he might recall some fragments as s/he writes new poems, but, for the moment, considered all the poems that were in the house to be gone.

"Wow! I'd be devastated!" the neighbor replied. But then the neighbor noticed that the poet didn't seem particularly sad. So the neighbor asked how the poet felt about the loss of hir poems.

The poet looked at the neighbor and confirmed that, Nope, s/he didn't feel any sadness or despair over the loss of hir manuscript or other poems. The poet said, "If I'm a real poet, there will be more poems. If I'm a real poet, I'll write more poems."

So, you see Dear XYZ, I'm not the best person to ask about strategies in placing poems in literary journals. I am not saying your question is not valid and I do know that many poets have such strategies about submissions and publications -- a long time ago, when I still lived in New York, another poet told me that she was "done" with sending poems to any journal. From hereon, that poet said to me, she was going to send only to the "best" (print) journals out there, and she was also going to be very careful about the company in which her poems found themselves. Clearly, that strategy worked as that poet since has come out with several books and (foregoing any discussion over the oxymoronic nature of the phrase "poetry fame") is both well-known and well-respected.

Certainly, in amassing literary credits, three poems is just as good as four, I suppose, and you could hold back a poem from the accepted batch to try to place elsewhere. Perhaps many poets might so advice you to do that.

But what I love about my favorite poetry story is that it proposes that poetry's expanse is infinite and that one need not *allocate* poems as if the poetic well has limited contents. I am one, therefore, who would say: "Give the journal all four poems and just focus on writing more poems for others." But this solution, of course, requires faith in yourself as a poet -- that you, indeed, will continue writing new poems worthy of future publication.

I also believe in keeping a more sacred space around (my) poems than the dross of tacky exchange. For me, I believe I am blessed when anyone responds well (e.g. through a journal acceptance) to any of my poems; I feel I should respond to those gestures with gratitude, thus generosity rather than thrift.

Your question, Dear XYZ, may not be just a question about literary strategy. It may be a matter of ars poetica -- it's not just a matter of how you choose to be published but an issue of how you choose to live as a poet. And because that is what I believe your question is touching on, I will share this advice that perhaps was not what you were expecting to hear (but you did ask for "any of [my] thoughts :-):

Poetry is starkly righteous: it will treat you exactly as well as you treat it -- this Gift you've been given to be able to make poems.


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