Wittle: For me, I have this poem I call “The Diana” poem that seriously haunts me. I’ve been trying to work on it for two years and I can’t hit on the right way to access the poem. Have you found yourself in a similar situation? How did you overcome it?
Heins: I’ve had three poems, specifically, that fell into this “limbo” phase you describe. My “Dianas” have been painstakingly difficult to polish off, and to this day, I still avoid reading them at all costs. However, they are three of my best poems. To pull these poems out of limbo, I had to use a different trick with each piece. One was about my father, and after over a dozen revisions, re-writes, and the like, I’d given up. My father and I have had a very strange, distant relationship these past six years, and the words simply weren’t there. But one day, him and I sat down at a family gathering and lost ourselves in good memories we shared together before those six years hit. Hours later, I was at home, and I started writing. I opened the many old drafts of my “dad poem” and reused the imagery that struck me most. Reconnecting with the actual subject of a piece helps stir the pot, but saving all of those killer images from earlier drafts adds necessary spice.
Another one of the three dealt with an experience that was completely imagined. So, naturally, the reason it remained in limbo was because my imagination wouldn’t let loose the way I hoped it would. Oddly enough, the thing that saved the poem was form – specifically, a terzanelle. It took hours to write, but once it came out, I felt the strongest sense of relief and accomplishment.
Really, Kenny Rogers said it best: you got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Save everything, and if something still calls to you, give it space and try shaking it up – it’s worth pursuing.
Miller: Oddly enough, in light of my last answer, I write around it by making a story about it and how I feel about writing it. I try to keep the original inspiration for the poem out of it and let it change itself. Sometimes a list of lines rawly written and then rearranged helps.
Pollack: I have several poem ideas that I just can’t seem to get down in a successful poem. I’ve heard other poets use a jazz trope to describe this: I don’t have “the chops” to write that poem. Obviously, I haven’t remedied this inability, but I assume that if I keep writing poems my skills, my “chops” will develop, and I’ll find my way to the language and form necessary to realize those unrequited poems.
Todd: Why not see an unfinished poem as a step toward a poem that will be realized? Writing is a process. I am always writing what I can’t figure out how to write yet. If I’m not writing ahead of myself, how can a poem be a discovery, or as Denise Levertov proposed in her poem “Overland to the Islands,” “. . . every step an arrival”? But if the poem is too far beyond my ken, then I have the experience you’re having. I can feel something that I can’t access. If that feeling lingers, sometimes I’ll go in search of a painting or a piece of music that may carry me closer to the tone or color that I can’t reach in the poem. Other times, fresh air is needed, as Kenneth Koch reminded us in his foresightful poem. Then I’ll go for a walk in the city or a ramble in the woods to clear the thicket of tangled images and wrong turns through which I’ve lost my way to the poem. But often, the poem is unsolvable and unresolvable, and I put it away. I may revisit it intermittently or forget it for months or years or forever. It’s dormant and I’m dormant to it unless it pushes up when I am more ready to understand it. For the most part, poems that get put away for more than a few months are not survivors but they lead to poems that do take life.
Wittle: What advice have you been given with regards to writing and publishing you would like to pass on to another writer?
Heins: The best bits of writing advice I can give would be to learn the ropes in poetry, read the authors that move you most, and finally, let it rip. If you ever feel comfortable in your voice, or you feel like you’ve mastered some aspect of poetry, take a left and do something new.
For publishing, you should first seek other poets that can help you refine your work. Then, purchase Poet’s Market. Take an afternoon and a highlighter and pick publications in that book that you think would enjoy reading your work. Submit relentlessly and never fear rejection. As you build publication credits, consider creating a manuscript, and then shop that until a publisher picks it up. Always do readings when time allows. Rinse, repeat.
But the fact is, all poets have different processes. The one thing no one told me when I was starting out was that a poet must learn his or her own process and embrace it. If one of your friends writes every single day at 8 a.m., facing southeast, and does yoga afterward don’t think that you have to follow suit.
Also, it is important for the poet to accept the fact that his or her process may change over time. The poet must stay in touch with the self, or else the act of creation will be unnatural.
Miller: Read other people’s work, take a publishing class if you can, e-publishing in particular.
Go to events to get to know the range of the publishing world near you and begin to make connections. It surprises me to discover what a small world it is.
Pollack: I heard George Saunders advise, in effect, to trust the market. I vehemently disagreed at the time because the literary market seems so fickle. However, in the process of putting together Spit Back a Boy, I noticed that I went from receiving rejections, to polite rejections, to encouraging rejections, to encouragement until I was named a finalist for a contest and then won the Cave Canem Prize. At each rejection or encouragement, I went back to the desk and revised the manuscript and made the poems stronger. The market was telling me that the collection wasn’t ready. That said, I’m still not sure I entirely trust what seems the bias and capriciousness of the market, but perhaps I just don’t understand it.
Todd: My mentors have given simple advice on writing that I pass along to my students.
Keep at it. Daily, if possible. At the same time each day, if possible. If you show up to write every day, the writing will show up too and you’ll be there to receive it.
Read deeply: slow down, even read aloud the work of writers you admire.
Read shallowly: skim what interests you, graze whatever the subject or form or footnote catches your attention for the sweet nugget you didn’t know you needed until you read it.
Draft or revise a few poems at a time. Allow them to trigger each other. When one bores you or stumps you, turn to another.
Writing a poem is practicing an art. Publishing is practicing a career. Each has its value. It’s best not to confuse them.
I would just like to thank the four poets for allowing me to pick their brains about my questions. I admire all your work and am truly grateful you could take the time to do this for me. All the best-MM
Ben Heins is the author of the electronic chapbook, Greatest Hits & B-Sides, by Vagabondage Press (www.vagabondagepress.com), set to be released this spring.”
MaryAnn L. Miller, MFA is the Resident Book Artist at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College. Her work is in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Miller’s debut book of poems, Locus Mentis, has been published by PS Books.
Iain Haley Pollock’s first collection of poetry, Spit Back a Boy (U. of Georgia Press, 2011), won the 2010 Cave Canem Prize. Previously, his work had appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, and Callaloo. Pollock lives in Philadelphia and teaches English at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and poetry at the Solstice MFA Program of Pine Manor College.
J. C. Todd’s most recent volume of poems is What Space This Body. Poems have appeared in The Paris Review and other journals. She teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and in the MFA Program at Rosemont College. Awards include a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and two Leeway Awards.