Thursday, June 29, 2006

Fresh Feedback

In a lot of ways getting feedback on your poems from "laymen" is far more useful than getting it from fellow poets. I don't mean "laymen" in some sort of condescending way. As a writer, your audience isn't just fellow poets. At least mine isn't. That would be an awfully small audience, and poetry has a pretty small audience as it is, relative to other genres. People shouldn't need to be "experts" in order to appreciate, enjoy, and "get" poetry, any more than they ought to be a book reviewer, literary agent, or English professor, in order to enjoy fiction. And if you're writing with the expectation that the common people just aren't going to get your poetry, then I wonder who the hell you're writing for.

As a reader, I'm not automatically so intrigued by your shit that I want to solve a bunch of puzzles in order to get anything from it. I already have my puzzle-books. If your stuff has some sort of meaning on some higher, intellectual meta-level, awesome. But it has to be good and interesting in the first place, or else I don't care. Absurdist plays are like that. Waiting for Godot or The Bald Soprano are interesting and entertaining in their own right, not just because they were doing something different with the genre itself. Impress me, make me like your work, and then maybe I'll grant you the favor of paying attention to your work on that level. Life is short and there are things I can enjoy immediately, without having to slave over it, like leaves and the smells of things, and good writing.

Poets have generally had more practice reading, analyzing, and critiquing poetry. In a lot of ways, I think this means that when we hear or read a poem, we approach it less freshly. We know how it works behind the scenes, we've been seasoned and maybe jaded by numerous workshops and seminars, by reading other people's horrible, mediocre, and good poetry, and we've become accustomed to approaching poetry as a critiquer, and a fellow creator. It would be a bit like a professional chef going to a restaurant. They'd notice things about the food's preparation, presentation, and so forth, that most people might not pay attention to. Does that mean they appreciate food more deeply? I don't know, perhaps in some ways. They've been trained to notice subtleties. But that also means that whenever they experience it, part of their mind is consumed with analyzing the experience itself, which can distract from a direct and open-minded perception of the food. It's not as though non-chefs are incapable of subtle, intense appreciation of food.

So I admit, when I hear someone else's poem, part of me is in critique mode. This may be because most of the time I've heard poetry recently, it's been in a workshop setting. What would my impressions be, without that, without a part of my mind calculating what effect the poem has on me? Just experiencing and not trying to judge how good a job they did, to figure out what they were doing there and how they were doing it?

Which brings it down to last night, when I read some of my poems for people I knew, friends of my mother's. My friends too--I knew them, I'd grown up with them, and I usually did feel more comfortable around adults than with someone my own age. When I asked for responses, what I got wasn't "Yeah, I liked that part, you should do something else with this line." What I got was, "Here is what your poem did to me." In a direct, frank, and visceral way. And that is what I want to know.

That is the entire point of what I am doing. That is the point of poetry and probably of most writing. I am trying to do something to you. I am not describing what I feel, I am trying to make you feel something, to experience something. To duplicate in you something that I experienced. The feedback of professionals is extremely useful in some ways; the feedback of amateurs is extremely useful in others. And in ways I don't often get. When you take too many workshops, you don't get that feedback any more. You have to use your own judgment to determine what the poem is going to do to someone.

I don't know, maybe you have to get to a certain point in your craft before that sort of feedback is useful. To go through a period where people told you to cut a line, and you didn't already know you ought to. But you rarely hear anymore, "This is what it stirred up in me."

And I guess what I was doing worked. That one poem, where the protagonist was sickened by anxiety, they felt ill. They felt coldness at the back of their neck, they saw the air shimmer. "Like a subway ride," someone said.

At the end of the other poem--I was trying to read those, then move on to other poems, so I wouldn't be left with those as the last--she just said, softly, almost as a surprise, a revelation: "You loved him."

I did.