Words and images are completely knotted up in my imagination, and I’ve given up trying to disentangle them. It used to be a reciprocal relationship where the images spawned words that would become poems, and the words would give birth to image. I suppose that may still be the case in some parallel universe, but over the past five to six years, the images have gotten greedy and devoured most of the poems. Occasionally I can still eek the poems out if I’m challenged, however, studio time for me now primarily consists of scissors, glue and paintbrush as opposed to a computer or paper and pen.
The story, as told to me, is that more than twenty years ago, while narrowing down grad school choices, I visited the University of Alabama, sat down in the creative writing office, leafed through literary journals for two whole days, and then suddenly looked up, mid-poem, and stated, “Yeah, okay, I think I could come here.”
My friend Joy Katz asked me to write a short article about sentimentality for a print symposium. Sentimentality, she suggested over the phone, was one of those words we poets use frequently, mostly to denigrate poems we find icky or cloying. Yet no one we knew of had come up with a completely adequate definition of the term, nor was it clear to us where a work crossed the line from emotional to cloyingly emotional. Had our—and by “our” we now meant “our generation of poets” —aversion to sentimentality grown to include a deep suspicion of all strong emotional expression in poetry? If so, where did that aversion come from? And did we have a double standard—that is, were we willing to allow for powerful emotional expression in the works of Wordsworth or Blake or Shakespeare, but not in the works of living writers? Did we condemn our generation of writers for trying to achieve the very thing we admired in the work of other, long-dead poets?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes for a good book of poems. And by ‘good’ I mean everything from a book that’s a satisfying read to one that’s so stunning it absolutely knocks me on my ass and makes me want to send a copy to everyone I know. This is partly because I’m in the middle of putting together a new book of my own, and also looking at a few manuscripts for poet-friends. It’s also because I’ve been reading a ton of recently published books in an attempt to pick a few for my MFA poetry workshop this coming spring. But mostly my ruminations were inspired by the fact that I took on a formidable project this year: screening somewhere between 400 and 500 poetry manuscripts for one of the largest and most aesthetically diverse poetry book contests in America. I received one-third of the submissions to the contest (there were two other screeners too), which came monthly, starting in February of this past year, in beat-up white copy-paper boxes coated in packing tape, and took up most of my office. I didn’t do it for the ten pounds of binder clips, or the money, despite the fact that this gig did pay—though not nearly enough to compensate me for the hours spent reading countless poetry manuscripts, and winnowing my pile down to a mere 15 by June to pass on to the next round of judges.
How will we know if our work is good? If it’s horrifyingly bad? As writers, we rely on a complex weather system of approvals and disapprovals from trusted readers, peers and publications, and we develop inner barometers to give us readings on the quality of our work. But what happens if we don’t?