Thursday, July 30, 2015

How to Make Your Poems Stand Out: Advice From a Reader

Today’s post comes from Daniel Ari, who proposed writing a guest post about his experience as a screening reader for the 2015 April PAD Challenge. He explores how to make your poems stand out from hundreds (if not thousands) of others. By the way, if you have an idea for a guest post, send me an e-mail at robert.brewer@fwcommunity.com with the subject line: Poetic Asides Guest Post.

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Receiving my 213th rejection notice, I felt no negativity. No regret, no indignation, no self-recrimination. The immunity took a while to acquire, but at last I could take no-thank-you’s in stride—and submit again. Meanwhile, I’d read a lot of articles about how to make my poems more likely to be published. Over time my ratio of acceptances to rejections increased, but given the actual math of the poetry world, rejection is an inevitable part of submitting.

But I recently had the opportunity to learn about acceptance and rejection from the other side, as a screening editor. I was excited to volunteer for the role, but immediately began to worry. I would have to comb through 1,000 posts within a week, selecting approximately five percent to pass to the judges. Since I was committed to giving each poem at least one slow, careful read, the amount of work ahead felt daunting.

Yet not only was it hugely enjoyable for me to discover my capacity to read without tiring, giving each poet’s effort my full attention and the tenderness of a fresh, open mind, but I also discovered some important insights. Or rather, I gained new context for the submission suggestions I’d always approached from a poet’s and not an editor’s perspective.

Speaking now as a screening editor as well as a submitting poet, I will try to summarize what I gleaned. I hope these thoughts help you think about how and what you submit and lead you to more of the replies you’re hoping for.

1. GO DEEP

The event I screened for was a poem-a-day-style event, so what I read had usually been written within a day. As a poet who typically spends longer than a day per poem, I thought of each as a first draft. So I was particularly impressed by poems that dove deep into the poet’s truth, into juicy imagery, and into language that was fascinating and gutsy from the start and all the way through.

TAKEAWAY: Poems that meandered or started to say something but stopped didn’t make my cut. There were poems that described a flower or a person but never went beyond description, never revealed the poet’s resonant relationship to the thing described. Even incredible word use or extended metaphor is no substitute in my book for something that makes me care. What is it about Gerber daisies that makes you recall your uncle fondly? How do you really feel about the dressed-up woman you saw walking down the sidewalk at dusk?

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2. PROOF YOURSELF

Even in the context of a poem-a-day event, I came to sense a difference between poems that were posted cleanly and those posted hastily. As a writer, I usually forgive myself for the odd typo or grammatical gaffe; but as a screening editor, I felt that if a poet didn’t care enough to polish their poem, then I didn’t care to correct their errors mentally while also trying to get the most out of their poetry.

TAKEAWAY: Edit before your submit, and then proofread. Twice. Thrice wouldn’t hurt. Proofread from the last line back to the first to help you focus on your words with a fresh perspective.

3. FOLLOW THE RULES?

The event was prompt-based, and I wanted to see if poets adhered to the prompt. When it was obvious from the start that they didn’t, I was on guard.

ON THE OTHER HAND, I found many poets who were pushed by the prompt into tangential veins of passion or into images so compelling that they overruled the rules. In those cases, I enthusiastically kept the poems in the “yes” pile. The point is that the poem is more important than the rules. I valued a gutsy poem that went in its own direction over a blah poem that stuck to the script. (I was happy that this preference was part of the instructions I was given as a screening reader.)

ON THE OTHER, OTHER HAND, some poetry venues make it clear that they expect a certain topic, file format or typeface. Poets should respect requests that are couched as mandatory, or even your gutsiest poem will get tossed before it even gets read.

4. MAKE IT ABOUT SOMETHING

Some poems fell into the 95% “no” pile because they just weren’t about much. Maybe they described a sweater or a water fountain, but not in any significant or transcendent way. I want to see a poem about a sweater that’s really about the struggle to feel secure in times of trouble. I want big meanings as in Neruda’s concrete-noun poems like “Ode to Salt” and “Ode to My Socks.” They’re not just about salt or socks, but about labor, belonging and interconnectedness.

ON THE OTHER HAND: I also eliminated poems that contained too many words like labor, belonging and interconnectedness. Abstract nouns are hard to grab on to, and they’re problematic because they tend to come in flocks. Once a poet has written love, then honor and respect enter. Soon deep, forever, and mutual are at the door, having chased away souvlaki, eiderdown, muddle, and crescent—the very words that help make each love unique. (Luckily, concrete nouns and verbs also tend to come in flocks.)

A TIP: If you want to test your poem for abstraction, imagine you’re a painter. Could you paint your poem? I remember reading a submission about watching a hurricane hit. The colors, sensations, textures, objects, and people so overfilled that poem that a painting would have been beside the point. Nothing abstract about it! It was wonderful, and I was happy to pass it on to the judges.

5. KNOW YOUR FORM

Personally, I like formal poetry though I don’t favor formal poems over free verse. If anything, I might have been a little harder on the formal poems. When I detect a sonnet or a rhyme scheme or a good poetry-slam style cadence, I pay attention. And that makes it stand out more for me when a poet executes a form shoddily or starts in form and lets it crumble away by the end.

TAKEAWAY: If you’re going to do rhyme and meter, bring your A game. Formal poetry should demonstrate a real knowledge of the form, and if the poet goes against the usual parameters, it better read as a conscious, intentional and correct decision. And if you’re going to rhyme, watch out for too many trite ones. I’ve seen life paired with strife and love paired with dove often enough. I like seeing life rhymed with sheaf, as Emily Dickinson might do. Slant rhyme holds a lot of fresh possibility.

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6. HAIKU, SPECIFICALLY

Excuse me while I step up on this soapbox. Friends: counting out seventeen syllables a day is very easy. But writing haiku is not. If you’re going to submit haiku, you should be practicing it like a martial art. Your strokes of language should cut precisely and leave a clean, lasting impression. You should already have written haiku by the thousands. You should demand perfection from your handful of syllables. Poems that are simply a syllable count are impossible to mistake for haiku. When haiku is perfect, nobody is even going to count the syllables—the number will be entirely beside the point, like a grain of sand in the soil beneath an orchid.

ON THE OTHER HAND: If your limerick can make a reader LOL, you may have a leg up. But again, there’s an art to it.

7. COMMENTS DON’T MEAN MUCH

In the online format of the event I screened, people could comment on one another’s posts. It became mechanical for me to delete the extra comments quickly—I had enough on my plate just getting through the poems. In that way, I wasn’t strongly affected by the enthusiasm of the group.

ON THE OTHER HAND: Where there’s smoke, there’s often fire; so some of the poems with many comments did turn out to be worth saving.

8. FIREWORKS CAN WORK

Interesting words arrest me. Duende. Paroxysm. Widdershins. I look them up, and I Google references I don’t get. Wild imagery stops me, too. An antique doll being ruined by the rain. A truckload of ripe tomatoes taking turns too fast.

ON THE OTHER HAND: There was one poem that was all fireworks. The interesting words became a jumble, and I couldn’t piece together a relationship between them. It made me feel dense for trying hard to get it and still not getting it. Linguistic fireworks have to have some reason behind them or it’s just candy and no meat.

9. HANDLE WITH CARE

If I’m any indication, the poems you submit are handled with care. I would expect most screening readers to be sincerely dedicated to the task of pulling the best poems from the bunch. Because with poetry, it’s almost always a labor of love; and the pay, if any, is token. I wasn’t paid, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Because it’s a labor of love, I took time to fix obvious typos as I read and to make any corrections that poets requested in comments on their own work. I read every poem with patience, and I read many more than once. I tried to imagine them being read aloud by Amiri Baraka or Naomi Shahib Nye or William Butler Yeats. I happily gave each poet the benefit of the doubt and didn’t blink twice at grammatical trip-ups like it’s for its. I focused on the soul of the poem, and if it was there in abundance, the poem made the cut.

TAKEAWAY: The truth is that there are umpteen reasons for even your best poem to be turned away. A screening reader often makes the decision—and what do they know? I believe, though, than in the effort to make the best journal, anthology or website, editors are dedicated to making the best choices they can even when you and I, the rejected poets, know how totally wrong those choices are. There are many more submissions than slots, many more styles than tastes. So blame the math, and don’t take it personally. Then submit again if that’s what you want to do.

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Daniel Ari

Daniel Ari

Daniel Ari‘s forthcoming book, One Way To Ask, pairs poems in an original form called queron with imagery by more than 60 artists. Besides being a professional copywriter, he writes and publishes poetry and organizes poetry performances and events throughout the Pacific Northwest.

He blogs at fightswithpoems.blogspot.com.

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