Part IX. Additional Articles by Other Poets

A note from the Handbook writer:
While we all enjoy the sound of our own voices, as conscientious editors it is incumbent upon us to make room for other voices. This space is provided for poets and readers of Comstock Review to make contributions. If we decide to use your work, we will feature it on this page. If not, our web “mistress,” Peggy Sperber Flanders, will get back to you. Contact us now. Kathleen Bryce Niles, Editor Emerita.

Articles are added below, with the newest listed first.

Lost In The Woods
by Angelo Giambra, Largo, FL  added 8/08

Beware the pitfalls of the vaunted online “Poetry Workshops”. While workshops can be a valuable tool for a starting poet, it’s easy to get waylaid, a King’s messenger caught in the forest by Robin Hood’s Merry Men. You start to really like this roisterous bunch, their carefree bandying out here in the woods away from the world. You forget the message you were sent to deliver.

The idea of the poetry workshop is certainly worthy. Here, among your peers, you can hone your craft, sharpen your skills, getting immediate feedback from other poets on where your poems have missed their mark, muddled the metaphor. But unless you continually remind yourself why you’re here, it’s easy to discover you’ve gotten lost in the woods, become a member of the merry band.

Online workshops allow a venue in which a poet can upload a poem written just minutes ago and post it where other poets can read it. In just seconds, there’s your sestina, on the screen for anyone who might come along and stumble upon it. It’s like freeze-dried publication. Add water and you’re an author.

It’s easy to get caught up in this aspect of online workshops. All the muss and fuss of submitting poems, waiting months for some anonymous editor to say “No thanks”, bypassed. The instant gratification of seeing your work out there in the world, the eyes of other poets dripping with tears of joy at the profound beauty of your words.

The ease of it can make you lazy. I’ve seen submissions on online workshops accompanied by comment like: “I just wrote this a few minutes ago. See what you think.” As if we could spray paint poems. Whoosh, here’s a new batch, how do you like ‘em?”

Online workshop usually require an author to critique a certain number of poems before being entitled to upload. There’s a limit, say fifty words or more. You end up with a lot of folks counting words, offering you meaty gems like, “Nice poem. I liked it a lot.” You can almost hear them counting, their final word right at fifty one. We don’t like to admit it, but we end up doing it ourselves. We’re so eager to get that new poem uploaded, show them all up, but we’ve got to do those dratted critiques. Feels too much like school, homework due tomorrow morning.

Sadly, a lot of what you read isn’t all that good. Face it, the stuff just came into the world moments ago, like babies still coated in all that afterbirth. They’re not as pretty as they’ll be when they have a chance to grow, take shape, learn who they are, unique little beings alive in the world.

If what you’re constantly reading isn’t the best poetry you can find, what are the odds you’ll be writing that bit of Frostian wisdom, your poem shining like an apple after apple-picking? What I’m saying is this. Workshops are a great place to get opinions about your work, to get advice from other writers about your strengths, your weaknesses. Just don’t get lost in the forest. After you’ve been there a while, tell the merry men it’s time to move on.

Creative Cowardice
by Diana Anhalt   02/06/07

Some poets, the brave ones, throw themselves in front of their writing and confront a poem head on, knowing exactly what needs to be done. They grab it by the horns, wrestle it to the ground and, when successful, tame the beast so it will follow them home like Mary’s little lamb. Then there are the rest of us. I, for example, approach a poem obliquely, teasing, cajoling, flirting with it, without the faintest idea of what I’m supposed to do should it succumb. (Spaniards have a term for this, capotear, which means to waggle a bullfighter’s cape in front of the bull long enough to tire it out and distract it from what’s really going on.)

Each poet approaches the beast according to his or her nature. (In referring to poetry as a beast, I do so because no literary form is more challenging, more terrifying.) Words are potentially lethal. They bolt away, disappear, then attack you from behind.

Now, some poets speak of divine inspiration or writing in a trance-like state. I don’t doubt this is true for others and only wish it were true for me, but mine is essentially a case of—to a paraphrase an unknown poet— ‘more perspiration, than inspiration.’ I will stumble across a phrase or an image—I think of it as something found, like a marble or a rainbow in a puddle— and without knowing why, will be moved to write about it.

But in the end, words are all you’ve got. You do not have Technicolor, stereophonic sound or animation, but you do have rhythm, rhyme, cadence, symbolism, imagery, the pattern on the page—all those techniques which affect the sound, sight and meaning of a poem. And—miracle of miracles— when you place all the right words in all the right places you may actually convey meaning and evoke sensations so succinctly and effectively a bulb in your reader’s brain will flash on and off, and for an instant, she will grasp some elusive truth. (Better yet, you may grasp some elusive truth—about yourself, when you’re honest— although honesty alone won’t make a great poem.)

In the end, I find the hardest thing about taming words and getting them to perform for me is believing in myself long enough to see the task through. After all, to assume the role of poet-hood is tantamount to declaring, “Oh, I position the stars in the sky, demolish superstition, pull characters onto the page and shoot them dead. You know, that kind of thing,” because, let’s face it, there is nothing a poet doesn’t do: We recreate universes and ourselves out of thin air and throw words up into the void of empty space—but not just any words and not just any space. And that is nothing short of miraculous. Or, as poet Mary Oliver wrote when asked to describe her work: “…glory is my work.”