Sunday, July 16, 2006

Background Noise #8

Artist/Album: The Dingo Fish Band/The Dingo Fish Band
Drink: Negra Modelo

On my blog, this poet's life, there was recently a heated exchange between Christopher Cunningham (host of Upright Against The Savage Heavens) and Owen Roberts (Canadian poet and miscreant). The exchange quickly got ugly (as most "debates" and "exchanges" are wont to do when passions run high) and devolved into ad hominem attacks. Most of the posts and comments have since been deleted, so there is no record of the viciousness that ensued. As well, the original post that spawned the back-and-forth (a post by Chris of a letter he'd written to a certain editor) has been removed.

But, none of this is crucial to the topic of this week's installment of Background Noise. The argument (or at least the root of it) got me to thinking about literary criticism and the role editors play (or should play) in our particular genre.
Ancillary thoughts about HOW we create, the different ways are can be created and the importance of those ways, and the responsibility of the poet also crept in my mind, but they are not of the crux of our current matter (and have either been dealt with in previous installments, or will be addressed in future ones).

What this installment is about is literary criticism (specifically, as it relates to the kind from an editor to a writer). Also, what should the role of an editor be? Should he merely accept or reject a particular piece from a submission, or is he required to comment? If a comment is made, how should it tendered?

Personally, I appreciate criticism. I don't mind hearing an editor's opinion on my work. I do, however, want it to be honest and without malice. I don't want condescending attitudes. I don't want arrogance. But, if the editor thinks something I have written doesn't work, then I want to know. Not so that I can change it to appease him, but so that I can see how another person reacts to my poetry. And who better than either someone who writes poetry, or someone who comes across a lot of poetry in their life (e.g. an editor).

If I don't agree with what the editor has to say, then obviously I ignore it and move on. But, the criticism is still good to hear, I think. It allows us to know where we are in our creative process, and forces to think about what we're attempting to accomplish in it. But, if an editor suggests something that makes sense, a change that makes the poem stronger, I am all for it.

The host of Upright looks at poetry (and art) in a different way. I don't mean it's less valid, or wrong; just different. (I added this caveat because "different" is too often misconstrued as "wrong", and this just isn't true.) Christopher sees himself as a conduit of the creative energy that permeates and swirls around the cosmos. He is merely a medium for the muse. He doesn't edit his work and sees no need to. The poem is as the poem was created. It isn't about the end result as much as it is about the process.

I'll readily admit that this was a foreign concept to me when I first heard it. It's fascinating and utterly astounding to me that someone doesn't edit their work. But, I see his point and find it terribly romantic (in the poetic sense). The process IS the art. Therefore, he has no need for editorial comments or suggestions. The work is as it is. Like a living creature, each poem is born as is, with everything it will ever have in its life. No need to change or add a thing.

For me, though, and I assume most other writers, the end result is what it is all about. As such, editing is a major part of our process. I even have a system of letting each poem sit for at least a month before tackling the editing portion. This allows me time to remove myself from the initial burst of creativity that formed the poem and see it objectively. Most poems don't make the cut. But, the rare few that do are tightened, rewritten and ready for submission. And, at that point, any editorial criticism is taken for what its worth.

I suppose, like most things in life, there is no right or wrong way to look at literary criticism. It all comes down to how you look at the artistic process. Is it about the destination, or the journey? This will decide how you view literary criticism, or an editor's place in suggesting revisions. But, regardless of how you look at it, without a destination the journey is nothing more than aimless wandering; and without a journey there is no destination.


Blogger Luis said...

Good Post Justin.

There are some editors that take the time to comment on why something worked for them & why something did not. These are but a few. But I appreciate & respect them for taking the time to provide constructive criticism.

While I do very little editing, I have changed a poem on a few occasions, when I saw the change not hurting the poem. There are some editors who want to put in their "own words," and totally change what you as a writer have in mind. I will be less inclined to change what I wrote if I do not agree with the suggestion, especially if my poem becomes their poem.

Overall, our goal is to write the poem, and do the best we can with what we know, with what needs to be said. And there is no right and no wrong way to write a poem. There are no rules. No one can teach you how to write a poem. Everyone has their own rituals, their own ways. If everyone followed the same patterns, we'd be writing robotic poems, a la academe, where almost everyone is writing the same "workshop" poem, lacking fire, lacking punch, lacking truth.

12:37 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

well, of course, it had to be...

great post j.b. and thanks much for really clearly explicating my methodology. indeed, I see the unknowable forces of creation, the curious spark of inspiration, the strange "dark energy" of a poetic universe as the WHOLE of art; the life spent vibrating wildly in reception to those "voices" that speak in the shadows of our minds when the music is right and the head just so, and the darkness creeps in and the wind howls and dogs bark somewhere out of sight; a life spent conciously choosing the outsider/outlaw path, the path that leads into the overgrown mystery of an unexplored forest; a life spent paying attention to the little shards of human existence that often get crushed into the red dirt, and forgotten. I believe in art as the cave painting, man's hoarse cry against his own mortality, and I don't want to stand in the way of the universe screaming.

anyway, I never have a problem, like you say, with valid criticism, I only have a problem with editors who believe things and cannot vary their opinion when some "new shit comes to light," some method from outside their fragile belief system that causes some kind of weird reaction, an ugly thing sometimes, and finds voice in good ol ad hominems, having nothing to do with the original work/submission/mag/etc. and everything to do with a personal, visceral reaction to that which is hard to understand.

but thankfully, there are enough editors out there that understand in the end it is the poem that is important, not that we wrote it while wearing a pink body stocking suspended from our heels drunk on a mixture of cough syrup, ovaltine and moonshine and then only edited during the one of the solstices (really, the only way to write a's in the rule book, I think, or the "bukowski handbook" *snark*...)

and finally, it is about both destination and journey: the poem in its finished state, however we arrive at it, is our attempt to say the unsayable, to understand that which has never been understood by us short-lived humans, to communicate with ourselves and anyone who is listening to our shouting. destination. and the journey, the life we live, the ideals we live by, the dreams we maintain in the ugliest of times, the attention to minutae which is the essence of a good poem, the careful observation as we pass thru and pass away informs the act of travelling, making creation possible, making creation necessary, making creation essential. the words merely are, finally, and we come to them hoping we have the guts to speak.

oh yes. editors. some good, some bad. poets. some good, some bad. criticism on subbed work? sure, whatever. edits as requirement for publication? nah, not for me.

one more thing: I sit at the typewriter for long periods of silence broken only by the music on my radio, long stretches of motionless thought, deep trancelike introspection, words piling up in my head, tumbling around, battling for a chance to streak across the empty white page. then I put my fingers on the keys and get out of the way. then I pull the sheet out and stick it in a folder marked "for submissions," which is periodically culled for crap (goes into a big motherfucker of a box of other crap poems I've writ), and the beat goes on.

and LCB is right: if we all did it the same, we could just go to the fucking WalMart and buy all the hardass poems of luck and struggle we could fucking stand, in quantity and at low, low prices.

and to piss somebody out there off: workshops cannot teach you to write poetry, and the academic world is a great big slush pile ridden suckfest. so take that.


great post j.b.

1:18 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

er, sorry, I missed a point also in j.b's post, an editor is never required to comment on poems, but I do think a handwritten reject is far superior to the common form reject. and I don't care how many subs a mag has, espec. cause there is some undergrad intern clipping rejects to the slush pile subs as fast as they can, they might as well write something. and in the small press, there is really no excuse, as circulations never get that high to preclude some kind of personal acknowledgement of effort, good or bad.

unless comments are requested by the poet, then I say let em have it, both barrels. they asked for it, after all.

sorry about the length of my comments, but tough shit, you shouldn't get me started.

*again, hehehe*

1:35 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

oh and if a poet/editor is snarky, they should be called out and insulted with the most vicious ad hominems we as writers and users of the english language can muster, they must be made examples of and destroyed. it is only Right. <------SARCASM, DO NOT MURDER/DESTROY ANYONE OVER POETRY PEOPLE, I CAN'T STRESS THIS ENOUGH.

**drones on and on and on, loving the sound of his own typewritten voice**

1:38 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

jesus, and one more:

bill at BosP is a perfect example of an editor who lets you have your head and nudge you incrementally in the "right" direction, but word wise lets you run the show while david at sunnyoutside is a perfect example of an editor who might say, "just look at the poem again overall and see what you think." that is the best kind of "editing" suggestion, almost like a record producer saying, "hey, Miles, do another take, we missed some of it..." and the second take is even better, completely redone, yet maintaining the intial burst of inspirado...

**jesus, does this guy ever shut up?**

6:33 AM  
Blogger Partisanpoet said...

Being an editor is not an easy task. I have my own ideas about poetry as perfected language, as authentic communication and as creative juxtaposition. I beleive poetry reflects our consciousness and the culture in which that develops. I edit what I write and have had only a few poems born fully formed.

As editor of a journal I look for what moves me, (and I mean really MOVES me!), for what fits the mag, and for outstanding quality of craft. I look for something being said that needs to be heard. I also know my own limits. I'm no expert, I have no degrees in English, no MFA . . . though my co-editor has a masters in English.

Still, I'm a picky editor (as many know) but an editor must be a diplomat too. I know and appreciate that people are sending me bits of their soul coughed up on paper. It may be great but all to often, it sucks or is mundane, hackneyed work. There is no point in saying so in a cruel way. I rarely comment because firstly, I have experience with the sensetivity of poets and secondly because I don't want to play a teaching role I don't feel qualified for. I prefer a positive approach. I may comment on the subject of the poem, suggest reading something or send a sample of the journal hoping to inspire the poet to something better. I've had nasty rejections myself and I think such editorial abuse is uncalled for and inexcusable (though there are times when a reactionaly lug may need some lecturing).

6:52 AM  
Blogger c. allen rearick said...

my only problem with the whole "editor" thing is, can we really call the majority of "editors" out there "editors" are they really editin' anything? it's more like they just pick a poem they like and include it in the journal. do they actually look for misspelled words, improper grammar, a better way to say somethin' in the poem as to make it clearer for the reader, and so me it seems the answer is no. (i know cc is waitin' to pounce on this one)

1:13 PM  
Blogger Partisanpoet said...

I know I have to edit, especially prose. It is unfortunate that many fine writers don't take the time to make sure that punctuation is correct and consistent and that words are spelled right before mailing something for possible publication, Unfortunate but true.

Also "just picking a poem" isn't that simple.

I could begin a long list of editorial pet peeves but the basics are not checking the guidelines, and not bothering to read a journal to see what it publishes and then, when one is published, responding by sending more poetry without a thought to supporting what is an expensive, time consuming and labor intensive project.

There isn't a good excuse for editors to treat writers with anything but respect and consideration but the same is true in reverse as well. Without someone taking on the yoke of editing and publishing, there would be no venue for your work and most of us do it gratis or at a loss.

1:41 PM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

PP makes all good points, espec. writers not supporting the mags where they send their subs, money wise. I know none of us have the dough to subscribe to every mag, but those that put our shit in their pages regularly need some help, and if we poets don't provide it, who will? I mean, this is the kind of problem that ends up creating a society where corporations must sponsor ANYTHING and everything in cash strapped communities across the country. people expect that someone else will pony up the dough, take care of it for them, etc. but when AMEX or DUPONT puts their name on it, it ceases to be for the people and starts to be for the profit of the boardroom. now, of course the small press is in no danger of this, but as an illustration of the degeneration of our support for "small doses of quality" rather than "large doses of generic crapola," it holds pretty well. we have to decide if we poets really want there to BE a small press AT ALL. the university boys have their grants, their awards, their tenures, student interns, cockshaking reading tours, etc. to pay their incestuous way, so we must support ourselves, if we believe that it matters in the least. good ol' GW Bush style bootstrappin'.

how does PP put out BLUE COLLAR REVIEW without some bucks from readers? is he supposed to not eat so we can have a place to send our work? don't think so. it is why so many mags fold.

I agree that a sample copy is a good way to at least tell an editor/mag that you are sincere in your desire to support those who support you in your efforts (and the reverse of this is I think with the ease of aquiring a website/blog every mag should try to have some kind of web presence to make it easier to give a read thru sample poems/past issues/photos of the mag/etc. when money is tight for someone. no excuses for not sending SOMETHING eventually though...)

and as for editing for grammar, spelling and the like: I say, go for it. nothing I hate more than a misspelling or a bad grammatical misstep, though it really IS the poet's responsibility to "spellcheck" (those things exist right?) and make sure they've not made any silly errors, easily corrected.

I will vouch for PP's tough standards; though I've been in BCR a good bit, the number of rejects is high, and with good reason when you read PP's mag. it is always at a level of quality that is hard to reach, and it sticks by its "manifesto," it stands by its mission and puts out art that supports the struggle of the working class in this suffering country. and it takes an editor unafraid to pick the best work and make sure he takes pride in his/her mag from cover to guts in order to make it the best representation of their vision for poetry.

in the end it is a system of mutual respect that enables the small press to thrive on any level, and when it is violated, as too often happens, the "quiet revolution of creation" so necessary to we humans, slips further into the general malaise and deindividualization that is everywhere today.

3:39 PM  
Blogger Karl Koweski said...

excellent column, justin.
here's something you cats might be interested in. Tao Lin recently posted on his blog "reader of depressing books" the run in he had with Kevin Sampsell, editor of Future Tense Press. It's an 11,000 word missive complete with the emails they sent back and forth to each other, and a line by line edit of one of the stories. Long story short, Kevin pulled the plug on Tao Lin's chapbook due to "editorial differences". It's a fascinating read on how these differences came about.

5:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For what it is worth. I usually don't send out personalized rejections or comment of work. I have found that commenting on work has caused me nothing nut grief. I received nasty and threatening e-mails from people that could not believe that I would have the nerve to reject their work.

I wish that it was not so, but it is.

Also, many people from outside the small press will submit work when they CLEARLY have not taken a bit of time to read the sub guidelines. Some examples of subs that I get:

1) Poems about how Jesus is king
2) Full novels as submissions.
3) Submissions consisting of 50 or more pages.

In these cases, I feel that their lack of interest does not warrant a personal reply. They did not bother to take the time to even look at my website. They only saw my name and address and sent poems off. Wouldn't poet #1 above be really pissed to read some of the other poets that I publish? So why send it? Laziness.

When I get a sub from someone that I know, I always send a personalized acceptance/rejection. It may still take a while, but I send them.

Also, I agree with Luis that I'm a publisher, not really an editor. That being said, some others certainly ARE editors.


p.s. I even had a poet threaten to "take me down" because he could not deal with my rejection. I did not insult the work, just said that it was not a perfect fit for what I was publishing and wished him all best. He became ENRAGED and started threatening me.

6:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nothing nut????

Nothing but.

I need an editor...


6:09 PM  
Blogger Partisanpoet said...

Hah! I feel your pain! Even we editors make mistakes, I've made plenty and I have 3 other proof-readers! And poets are an extrememly sensitive lot when it comes to their/our work.

Good thread indeed and thanks for a chance to vent. I am a tough editor so if you've been published in the journal it's because your good. The goal however is toinspire and to raise the level of writing not to discourage.

9:26 PM  
Blogger c. allen rearick said...

cc - i agree. it IS the poet's responsibility to spell check, but sometimes spell check will miss things, such as homphones and the like. not to mention, one can go over and over his/her own work and continually miss somethin'. granted, you could always pass it on to a friend to proof read. but you get what i'm sayin'.

also, i agree as well on the whole support the small press issue - without a doubt!!

8:50 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

no doubt. it is easy to miss things when proofing your own well covered ground. good point. and I rec'd yer mailing, thanks for sending. some good poems in there, espec. the SA Griffin poem in THE SEED. will write more in a letter, you are 'on deck,' along with my late letter to B McG. (apologies...)

9:15 AM  
Blogger c. allen rearick said...

look forward to the letter. also, anyone readin' this, check the guidelines for - submissions are bein' accepted for the next issue.

10:03 AM  
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