We teach best what we most need to learn.
I have a freshly printed poem. No-one, to my knowledge, has ever set down these particular words in this particular order. I feel rather pleased with myself and that’s ok. But it might be worth reminding myself later that any poem I write is only partly mine. I don’t mean that I have deliberately lifted or re-written bits of other people’s poems. Rather, I am aware that this poem and all others I have written or might write are descendants of all the poems I have read or listened to. I stand on the shoulders of giants. Or, if you prefer a more fluid and less clichéd metaphor, my poems are merely waves on the surface of a deep body of poetry.
I want to talk about ego and poetry and success. That’s a lot of ground to cover and there are some complex relationships here but I need to start somewhere. What I’m trying to establish is the idea that although our poems are unique creations, we need to be mindful of their place in the wider scheme of things. Yes, our poems can be important expressions of who we are. They may even be read by someone who miraculously will find some aspect of their own experience reflected there. And here, maybe I’ve stumbled upon what would constitute true success.
My new poem also owes a debt to those who have helped me develop my craft. In a list that might read a little like an Oscar acceptance speech, I can think of writing workshop facilitators, writing partners, friends, mentors, editors. All have added something to my understanding, or helped me look at what I have written and see it in a different way. Disagreeing with feedback and learning to stick to your guns can make you more sure of your work, and being able to explain why you don’t want to change a poem, at least to yourself, is as useful as realizing that maybe you could make suggested changes.
I haven’t had any formal feedback for some time, and am not part of any writing group, but I have recently benefited from the suggestions of friends. One might only suggest the possibility of changing a word. Another might offer generous but heartfelt (and very important) support and encouragement, which can never be underestimated.
So for these reasons, I could remind myself that my poem is not entirely mine. I am responsible for it, and it is ultimately me who decides if it is finished.By ‘finished’ I mean a poem which I feel fairly certain I can’t improve upon, a poem to which it seems no more can be usefully added or subtracted.
In order to have a chance of the kind of success I mentioned above, namely that of the poem resonating with another reader, it is necessary (unless you are happy to read your poem to an audience and leave it at that, which is also fine) to get it into print.
If I like my poem and believe (at least at the time of sending) that what I have written has captured something interesting and in such a way that it is worthy of sharing, I’ll send it out . Some of the poems I send out are returned. Others are published. So it goes.
If I sound blasé about this process I don’t mean to. Publication is important to me and I generally look forward to having a publication on the horizon. By circulating returned work and sending out new poems at regular intervals I do my best to maintain the prospect of publication as a constant backdrop to my writing.
Of course I will be pleased, (in some cases very pleased) if a poem is accepted by a magazine. If I have tried that particular magazine few times it’ll feel like I have got over some kind of hurdle. Which seems a bit ridiculous, but is understandable perhaps.
Obtaining publication is also part of the business of building a track record on your way to convincing someone to publish a pamphlet or book. It is possible to view publication in itself, or winning a prize or being short-listed for an award, very simplistically, as ‘success’, and therefore, to view non-publication as its opposite.
By using the words non-publication I am skirting around the commonly used word ‘rejection’. I’ve written here before about rejection, and I’ve often thought the term ‘rejected poems’ could be replaced with ‘returned poems’. Most, if not everyone, to varying degrees, finds having poems returned difficult. And all published poets have at some time experienced it.
It might be helpful to look at the returned poem in the following way . If the objective of sending the poem off is to get the poem accepted and the poem has been returned, then all that has happened is that the objective has been delayed. It might help to view our ‘rejections’ or returns as delays on the way to the next temporary feeling of success. Unless of course the writer’s publishing success has been delayed for a number of years, in which case this might be a realistic indication that assistance is required to move the work forward.
I appreciate that it is difficult to think of the returning of a poem or poems as a delay. But it is good, if you can, to develop a kind of resilience to the return of your work if you wish to continue to attempt to be published. There’s only one way to proceed and that’s to keep trying. The difficulty is not only in the fact that the returned poem frustrates the poet’s desire for the poem to be read, but in that it may be viewed (or rather felt) as the opposite of affirmation.
The act of affirming; state of being affirmed.
The assertion that something exists or is true.
I have a feeling that most poets suffer from a deficit of affirmation. Sometimes insecure or egotistical creatures, often an odd cocktail of both, many poets will equate the acceptance or return of their work to the value of their art or worse still, of themselves. In the most extreme case a lack of affirmation may feed feelings of worthlessness. The need for affirmation might be one reason why some people write poetry in the first place. I’m sure there’s a research project or two in all this for those with the inclination, energy and resources.
To summarise, acceptance for publication can be seen to equal success in two ways. It is a positive, affirming and encouraging event, and it enables your poem to be seen and potentially achieve the (perhaps more meaningful) success of connecting with readers. For these reasons, acceptance for publication should be enjoyed and celebrated.
But the joy of acceptance and the accompanying affirmation are fleeting. They wear off. And it is possible, if we are over-reliant on this affirmation or in a rush for recognition, for us to hunger for the next confirmation of the worth of our work the day after the last acceptance. In an extreme scenario we might even forget to write as we perpetually wait for the next publication fix, or dwell bitterly on the latest delay in obtaining it.
There is probably no purer feeling of ‘success’ than the very first acceptance of a poem by a good magazine (quality of publication is of course important). But in my experience the intensity of this kind of feeling diminishes the more one obtains it.
How we understand and relate to publication success and rejection (or delayed success) can be healthy or unhealthy. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions associated with publication or lack of it. But if success is measured solely in terms of publication, most, if not all writers will never be able to get enough.
So how do we keep a sense of perspective and remember what is important? And what is important? Here are some thoughts I’ve jotted down to finish. I hope some of this makes sense and that this list doesn’t read too much like a boy scout’s pledge
It is important
To be kind and helpful and fair to others.
To be generous with what we have learned.
To absorb to watch, read and listen.
To notice what’s within us and without us.
To remember our lives and the lives of others, to honour and explore memory.
To be mindful of how we deal with ‘success’, ‘rejection’ and other temporary distractions.
To diligently purse new ideas.
To translate our learning into other words.
To use what we know, what we think we know
and what we know that we don’t know.
To accept praise and criticism with humility.
To engage with and utilize our imaginations and passions when we can.
To take our writing seriously, but remember to laugh at ourselves.
To forgive and be generous to ourselves. To rest.