Friday, May 26, 2006

How Far I've Come, I Think

The Celebration of NJ Literary Journals was a great event. I've not been to any of the major literary conferences, so my only comparisons are the Dodge, the Warren County Poetry Festival, and local reading series. But how much fun is it to be in a room where the audience varies between 20 and 50 for three hours, as opposed to between -1 (one person, there just to rest their feet, not listening) and 5 for 40 minutes - an even better, where the readers go straight from the podium to their cars. Ugh.

Anyway, it was terrific. And I had one of those moments where you suddenly feel like you're accomplishing something. A poet whose work I've followed and who has known me at least casually for ten years stopped me after my little 4 minute bit to say "Hey, it's terrific to hear how far you've come since I first heard your work." That's the kind of comment that is more meaningful than a casual "Loved your stuff" from someone exiting the men's room. It shows awareness of change in my work and the presence of something different, some growth and accomplishment. Even if he didn't mean it, but I'm pretty sure that he did.

So I went and looked over my stuff from 1996 and earlier to see what's different. At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two biggies:
  • The "Murphy Rules" (though I know he wouldn't call them that) - Peter Murphy uses a set of questions to judge your level of accomplishment as a poet, to help decide between basic and advanced classes in his writing seminars. In a nutshell, they boil down to concreteness (the ratio of abstract words to concrete ones) and the absence of clich├ęs. I don't know when it happened, but I can see in the more recent work how I do more showing, use more scenes and examples, and most importantly, am more specific in my descriptions, making my mood-setting more effective.
  • The "Two Lines Too Many" rules. Harder to simplify, this is the tendency to let the poem end when it wants to, rather than force it into a neat package, or worse, to clarify what it "means" with a wrap-up clause. I'm enormously guilty of this in my earlier writings, and on more than one occasion, editors have accepted my work after suggesting (and me accepting) taking 1-2 lines off the end, and leaving the rest as it is.
In noticing these differences, I realize that I've changed my audience expectations a little. But interestingly, I think it's the audience of myself - my own expectations for my poems have changed. I attribute this to tons of reading, as well as learning to teach a little poetry myself. Both have exposed me to wide attitudes about poetry, and both have forced me to consciously decide what I like about a poem, what I find the essence of that poem to be.

Navel-gazing? Maybe. But fascinating to me nonetheless.

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