29 October 2009


What happens when you have a bunch of poems that you believed in (and believed) at one point, but no longer believe in (or believe)? I'm talking about a change of heart; not just outgrowing the poems, but no longer meaning them. No longer caring about what they have to say.

Is a poet obligated to mean the poems he or she sends out into the world, or reads to the public?

I never faced this dilemma until recently.

Perhaps I didn't have enough meaning to begin with back then.

I've probably mentioned that I trashed an entire book this past year. I made the Saint Monica series into a chapbook, but that left 50-60 pages of poems that I basically abandoned after publishing most of them in journals. People have been shocked that I don't intend to make those poems into a book. I don't want to, and it wouldn't feel right. I couldn't picture myself doing a reading tour with those poems in 2012.

Kelli has some fascinating posts about the evolution of book manuscripts. I know that I need to get motivated to work on assembling/sequencing/submitting my new ms, the one I wrote to replace the one I threw away. I wonder if I'd be more motivated if I didn't work in literary publishing. I wonder if I am totally overthinking this. I wonder if I'd seem so cavalier if I were a fiction writer. Don't they throw things away all of the time?

Not jellyfish, of course.


John said...

I don't think you should ever throw anything you write away. I've never published really, so maybe my vote doesn't count. But I don't think everything a writer does has to be public, but it does have to BE to document our experience. Lovely Kerouac: "No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge," and especially "You're a Genius all the time."

Suzanne said...

Keep the work, don't throw it out. You might start to believe again, or not. You could use them to write in response to, or against too.

I'm giving you a a little nudge. That's what I needed to stop procrastinating and put my second book together. It worked, so I'm passing it on to you-- ((NUDGE))


Penultimatina said...

Yeah, I'm not going to literally throw it out. I'm just going to stockpile it, I guess.

Suzanne, thank you for the nudge! I will use it, then pass it along to someone else who needs one.

Oliver de la Paz said...

You hold onto those poems for so long, until you've got so many books of other poems and can then publish a collection entitled "The Uncollected Poems of Mary Biddinger." And I'm being both cheeky and serious . . .

Penultimatina said...

Oliver, I love it!

Michael said...

Mary, I'm adding my voice to what seems like a choirs saying keep the poems. I've always believed art is not static. All art, including poetry. Hence by the time I've finished a poem and it finds a home,it could seem altogether different.

Justin Evans said...

I thought I had an answer but I don't All I can say is that you are not alone. I have this happen to me all of the time.

Stephanie Goehring said...

I think the shocking thing is that people think that just because you have enough poems to fit in a book that those poems should be a book.

They're your poems. Only you can say if they're a book of poems.

I personally think it's a shame that some people think any given collection of a certain number of poems by one poet are inherently a book.

Go with who you are and what you want, which you of course seem to be doing. Yay to that.

Lyle Daggett said...

I've kept everything I've written, though I haven't kept all of it in typed copies. The earliest of what I have (dating from about 1970, after I'd been writing poems for about 16 months) is in notebooks.

I'm typically working on five or six potential manuscripts at once, and typically have four or five completed manuscripts waiting for a home. All of the books I've published have been thin, what would usually be called chapbooks.

(I'm on a quiet unambitious campaign to ignore the distinction between a "chapbook" and a "book." as far as I'm concerned, a book is "full-length" when it has enough poems in it.)

During the past year or so I've been putting together a New and Selected Poems manuscript, with roughly one-third of the poems from previous books and the rest not previously gathered in books.

There are a couple of poems in the new manuscript that date from the late 1970's; the rest all from about 1981 forward. I'd been writing for about 13 years before I was consistently writing poems that I still feel "hold up" pretty well today.

In putting together the New and Selected Poems, I've "raided" several of the unpublished finished manuscripts and manuscripts-in-progress for poems in the new collection, in some cases more or less gutting the manuscripts of what I felt were the strongest poems in order to use them in the new manuscript.

That doesn't mean that the remaining uncollected (or unselected) poems aren't worth reading public or publishing in books, it just means that their place in the world has changed, and they may need to wait a bit.

The New and Selected Poems will likely be somewhat skinnier than what it typically for that type of collection. Again, I feel that a book is full-length when it has enough poems, or (maybe more to the point) the right poems.

I absolutely feel that a poet should mean the poems she or he writes, and reads publicly, and publishes. How we feel about particular poems may change because we ourselves change. I tend not to revise or rewrite poems, not much, once I've decided that they're done. (It's been very important for me to learn the discipline of deciding that a poem is done.) As my feeling about a particular poem changes over time, rather than rewriting or rethinking the poem, I tend instead just to write new poems. But I also keep the earlier ones.

John Gallaher said...

I don't think there's any reason one has to mean what one writes. I can imagine a work that is totally unmeant by an author and meant deeply by a reader.

Now, not wanting to have to read from it . . . that, I think would be a good reason to leave it on the shelf.

I'm sure you're not actually destroying it, right?

Penultimatina said...

Oh yeah, I'm totally not destroying the ms, and most of it has been published. I just don't want it to be my "next book." Or my "next next book." Or any book. That's all.

Radish King said...

I have quite a few of those lost boy poems. No matter. The prize is in the writing, nu?


kristy bowen said...

I have an incredibly fickle relationship with my work..both books I've published I have hated passionately at some point and though I shouldn't even bother with it..

M. C. Allan said...

I halfway believe that, just as you stop believing in a poem and what it says, it will become a poem that expresses perfectly what someone else feels and believes. So what now feels like fraud to you could be someone else's lifesaver. Or someone else's kazoo, if we want to be less sentimental. It's all timing.

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