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on starting out in poetry:
a call for advice

filed 7 January 2004 | Chicago
by Kurt Heintz

On New Year's Day, 2004, I received this e-mail from David Eaton:

> It seems that for beginners the only way to get feedback
> on a poem is by entering a contest. I have many works
> that I am dying for someone who is respectable or just
> interested in poetry, to read. Do you have any advice for
> someone looking to share their work?

What follows is my reply. Mr. Eaton's question has been the subject of many e-mails I've received over the years, so many that I think this response will probably answer many similar e-mails to come.

What you're asking is, essentially, how to get started in poetry without enrolling yourself in a university. But given how poetry has moved from academic pursuit to pop artform in the last 20 years, even a university education may not help you the way you desire. A college-level introduction to poetry composition is still a good thing, however, because it will put classics and historically significant literature before you that few open mics ever would. I figure, literacy never hurt any writer. So go for it if you can.

Until lately, my first suggestion would've been to visit a local poetry open mic, and start communing with writers there. It's still not a bad idea. You'll have a chance to meet others interested in poetry, who may also be starting out, just like you. You'll get to audition their work, and they will have a chance to listen to you. You'll hear who is working with techniques most like your own, and so determine who will understand your situation best.

Critique at open mic readings can be excellent or dodgey, or both. It ranges all over in terms of quality, since many fellow open mic attendees are newcomers, too. After witnessing nearly twenty years of poetry open mics, I can say there are a few constant things. One is, it's hard to get an honest response from someone in the moment when they just heard you. But, in the end, it is still critique, and getting some feedback on your writing is often much better than none at all. A common effect on new writers, when they discover open mic readings for the first time, is a rapid evolution of their writing. They begin to see their work with fresh eyes, hear it with fresh ears, and so they approach their new work with a fresh mind.

In the last decade, however, the thrust of open mics has split poetry in two, in the old (and I think passé) "page versus stage" debate. Open mic readings have overwhelmingly emphasized performance over text. This entertains a lot of people, and is a worthy pursuit. Not to be a snob about it, I nevertheless believe the texts of these entertainments often lack wordcraft when they're considered by themselves, without the stagecraft. If you're a writer who is not interested in performance, you'll either be frustrated by this, or you'll have to adapt. So you should make a decision for yourself: How much should performance influence your writing? A little? A lot? Would you rather be known by your books or your gigs? Or both?

There is a middle way through this dilemma, and a possible strategy...

From what you describe, you seem to be seeking a writers' circle, a group of people whom you can trust with a mutual and healthy critique. Try several channels and pick the best people from all of them. Check out your library. If a writers' group resides there, meet them. If not, consider starting one. Visit open mics at local cafés, bookstores, and nightclubs, particularly where poetry -- and not music or theater -- is highest on the agenda. Like the library situation, if there's no open mic, you might want to start one yourself just to get the process rolling. Even the local mall may do as a venue; it's not unusual for major chains like Borders or Barnes & Noble to host readings in their cafés.

If your town is small, and venues like cafés or libraries are not handy, join a few discussion groups online where posting your poetry is encouraged. Just keep in mind that nothing online approaches direct interaction with a real, live human being. Then, when you know a good group of people whom you trust, gather them together. Convene these minds in one place and time, and get the poetry and critique trafficking among you.

Ideally, you will keep a diverse mix of influences and personalities circulating through your criticism. This is why I suggested convening your critical support from several different places. Poetry does not exist in any single form any more. So your body politic of critics should not come from a single sector of the poetry world, unless that's all you care about. If all you'll ever want to do is hip-hop, then by all means choose strictly from fellow hip-hop artists. If all you want to do is in-print poetry, then choose strictly from published poets. But if you're just starting out, why limit your choices? Why limit your influences, particularly when you're at a stage in your life when you can most easily "shop around"?

... wherever you gather friends and colleagues for critique, remember one thing: Never confuse what's social with what's critical.
With your circle assembled, look for acceptance and encouragement. Expect those expressions as much as you give them yourself. If your people shut you down, you probably ought to find other people. Your goal is to create and discuss the positive things of new work, and not to go in for a weekly bludgeoning. That said, your group should not rubber stamp everything you write, lest you and your writing suffer from a lack of challenges, and you'll be arrested in a first-grade development stage as long as you hang with them. Automatic approval will make you a mediocre poet in no time. Strive to keep the criticism direct and concise in your discussions. Save the discussions that include references to Derrida and Pynchon, for example, for later in your career... just not too much later.

Finally, wherever you gather friends and colleagues for critique, remember one thing: Never confuse what's social with what's critical. True partners will have the nerve to tell you the toughest things. Hangers-on, or "scene-sters", will suck up to you with positive critique just to inflate their social circle. You can have great fun with your hardest critics.

And you can end up buying too many beers for some of the most flattering and vapid commentary you'll ever hear. It's like that line from the old Church of the Sub-Genious, "People will pay perfectly good money to hear something they already know." Avoiding the pitfall is as easy as staying focussed. If you're there for critique and poetry, stay on the critique and poetry. Save the socializing for some other time. You may seem intense, but hey... Aren't poets intense?

With your work polished and presentable, you then owe it to yourself to take the next step: Get published.

In selecting a publisher, be choosy. This is your creative labor, so you must look out for its best interests. Just because a website accepts e-mail submissions of poetry doesn't mean it's all that critically conscious. Apply the same scrutiny to online and real-world venues that you'd apply to your friends, or to anyone from whom you'd accept critique. Don't get duped into believing that an e-mail group or website can automatically make you part of a scene. As with writers' circles, don't confuse the social for the critical. It's one thing to make a lot of new friends, but quite another to earn respect through your poetry as it greets total strangers.

Online poetry groups simply alter the ways that you interact with others, compared to the real world. In a few cases, such online venues are fronts for people who'd co-opt your work to make themselves look bigger. Read the web carefully to see who (or what) signifies whom in the stronger direction. Is the emphasis on the new work and constructive dialogue? Does the site owner take a back seat to allow the dialogue to flow? It's probably good.

[The] online vanity culture is an extension of the vanity press, long known in print, merely transposed to newer and even cheaper media.
But what if the site owner's name shows up at every turn, as if he were the center of All Things Poetic. It's probably bad. As a beginning poet, you already feel the need for attention, and in your case it's for positive critique. But a few webmasters do not know when to say "when" with attention, especially in bartering yours to get more for themselves. They may insist that more attention is better attention. Or that controversy, even if its artificial, is a legitimate tool to raise audience awareness. But is it really? Instead of lending genuine critique, they may grandstand with your name and writing, and promote a really uncritical environment for your work.

A huge vanity culture is out there, just like in the poetry contest scams, waiting to take your earnest creative energies and make them their own. This online vanity culture is an extension of the vanity press, long known in print, merely transposed to newer and even cheaper media. Avoid this culture as much as you possibly can. Let's face it: Any website that will publish your poem for the price of a random e-mail is not exactly posing a constructive challenge to its contributors. Such a site may be a statement of community or politics, but it has divorced itself necessarily from much potential for aethetics and self-improvement. To accept anything at all, it must declare, "It's all good." ...even with the bad stuff.

Then there is the matter of publishing credits. If you are published online, does that count the same as being published in print? Some say yes, others say no. Being an online publisher, and a picky one at that, I prefer to think that an online press should be greeted with as much legitimacy as a conventional book publisher. But owing to the numbers of vanity sites out there, big and small, I can understand that a publishing credit would mean more from a book than it would from a website. Anybody can have a webpage. But can you pass muster with a real print editor?

In either case, consider the legitimacy of the publishers who receive your work, whether the publisher is in print or online. Remember that the popularity of a publisher isn't necessarily a factor of trust. When submitting your poetry, it's your turn to be critical. Be a hard judge yourself. Be choosy.

If a given press accepts lots of material, and only publishes a select sample of it, then consider that press a challenge. But don't waste energy sending your work to picky publishers who may not agree with your style or aesthetic in the first place. They may reject your work out of hand or, if they do pick it up, they may put an odd spin on your work by featuring it in a foreign context. Understand your potential publishers. Then -- and only then -- should you send them your work. A trip to any major bookstore can get you a copy of the current Writer's Market, where you can begin surveying potential publishers.

If you've tracked yourself into performance instead of print, apply the same healthy scrutiny to the venues where you might perform your poetry. Do the audiences listen, or are they more about flirting with their dates? Will guests really turn off their cell phones? Is the venue a pub, a bookstore, a gallery, or what? How will the format of the show, the character of the host, and the audience's expectations of their poets, rest against your own work? As a poet, you have no obligation to give the audience exactly what they want. You should remember, however, that the audience has no obligation to appreciate you. Your performance will be a live negotiation of respect, both ways, between you and the house. Consider whether that negotiation will be positive.

Ultimately, you will have to do the work that any author does to succeed: Provide manuscripts, get published and cope with revisions and rejections... Blow some lines on stage and try to recover... Discuss the reasons why your texts or performances are the way they are... Refine your writing... Hone your stage presence... Expand your literacy, and stand up to the fuller examination of the whole world.

- Kurt Heintz
e-poets network, Chicago

The discussion continues between David Eaton and Kurt Heintz.

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