Dear Poet, Please Change Your Poem…

If you haven’t spent much time around other poets, one thing might seem worse than getting a rejection letter from a publisher. It’s being asked to change your poem.

Poets who have been to workshops, joined writing groups, spent time on internet forums (good ones) or been through tuition classes understand that for an editor to spend long enough on your work to form an opinion about how it was written… well, that is about as wonderful a thing as you could hope for. It’s a generous thing to do.

I was lucky enough that the first editor to accept my work was a skilled and sensitive tutor and the process of discussing what I could do to turn a good poem into a great one became a mentoring experience. 12 years later, I still look upon that person as a doorway to becoming a mature(r), self-critical writer myself.

This week I have happened to have poems queried a couple of times, from the owners of different poetry journals. People I respect enough to have sent them my poetry in the first place. In one case, the editor accepted other poems but had reservations about a particular one. With no intention of publishing it, this person began a dialogue with me spanning several emails each, in which we pretty much focused on a single misplaced word. Why would anyone do such a thing, spend an hour or two of his time with a virtual stranger working on something that he was not going to publish anyway? Well, no doubt in part because I stayed receptive to what the editor was trying to do for me.

When I spoke about this to a non-writer (a visual artist), it raised indignance : the idea someone would correct my creativity and free expression. I get that, it takes a lot of effort to write a poem and having done so the thought of taking it apart is not immediately a pleasant one. There’s exhilaration in “finishing” a piece of writing, disappointment in finding it isn’t. An inexperienced poet could well be perturbed, even angry at having to “start again”.

I counsel against this attitude, just because having someone take a deep interest in your work is actually rare and a chance not to be missed. It can be high praise. OK, so I don’t know everybody, it’s a big world full of all sorts of people and maybe there are editors who wield a scythe to poems for their own egotistical reasons, but one thing I do know is that as a poet I am not short on ego myself and learning to get out of my own way is a necessary step (which I have to keep taking).

A piece of writing is a fluid thing and may never be “finished”, it simply gets to the point where it is read by someone else. If anyone is kind enough to criticise your work, jump at the opportunity to hear what they have to say. Not necessarily in awe, though you must have admired him or her to show them your stuff first of all, but as a peer, someone to learn from. After all, you can always go back to your earlier drafts later. For a moment, suspend judgement. Writing feedback generally costs money, and getting it for free isn’t to be taken ungraciously.

Perhaps the person is right and perhaps they are wrong. I’ve decided in both directions at one time or another, but I always come away with a better poem, one with more thought put into it but also one whose effect on a reader I understand better than before. That’s why, the next time you send out work, you could hope not for more hits and fewer misses, but for almosts. It means someone has read your poem not once but several times, thought hard, maybe shown it to colleagues. You don’t get that every day.