One of the dumbest things I have ever done in my career as a poet was to waste the opportunity to get feedback on my poems from two advanced-career poets who actually offered to read them. I was nearly thirty and feeling that my career had already stalled; others my age already had books out and even tenure-track jobs, while I was in a full-time lectureship and had dozens of book rejections under my belt. So misplaced pride was part of my response, I’m sure, as well as the seeds of career despair that would come to blossom over the years until I finally quit academia—still as a full-time lecturer, though at a different university.
But this isn’t a story about my big failure, but about my small one: the utter stupidity of telling these two wonderful, generous, intelligent poets that I “didn’t really revise” and “didn’t need them to give me feedback.” Oh, I’m sure I persuaded myself that I was saving them time and effort, letting them off the hook. But really I was terrified that they would hate my poems, terrified to feel like a student again, terrified of the shame if they thought I was still writing just like an MFA student, when I’d gotten my degree five years before.
The truth was, and is, that I revise my poems many times in the week or so it takes me to write them. After that, it’s usually not until I have a full manuscript I’m working on that I revise the poems again. Because when I’ve just written the poem, I feel about it like I feel about a very young puppy: it needs love and care, to be taken care of and cherished, never hurt.
That feeling doesn’t last. Soon enough—a few weeks, a few months—and the poem seems to me like a cardboard cutout of a puppy: inauthentic, inflexible, lacking in depth or life. I don’t know why this is, but I hate it. And it persuades me of two things: 1) that none of my poems are ever particularly good and 2) that I’m a terrible judge of my own poetry.
I want this to be funny, but actually it’s painful. I want to love my own work, or rather, to be as affectionate towards it as it deserves. But I guess, deep down, as many poets must, I feel unworthy. It was this unworthiness that made me terrified to have these two established poets respond to my work. It was this unworthiness that made me secretly convinced I didn’t deservea book or a tenure-track teaching job. If I admitted this unworthiness to myself, would I be admitting that I never should have dropped out of law school, that my life was all based on wrong decisions? Thus my “pride” stepped in to shield me from myself. Thus I told these two poets just enough bullshit that they returned my poems without comment.
If I had gotten their comments, would it have changed my life? Probably not. But…maybe, just a little bit, for the better. Maybe they would have reassured me about certain things in my work and sent me in new directions when it came to others. Maybe they would have worked with me so I had a handful of finished poems that would find good homes in respected literary publications. Maybe they would have shown me some of their drafts, and I could have learned from their impulses and changes. Maybe I would have felt more community as a writer, and that would have helped me in the long run.
I don’t know. I’ve never been good at having anyone tell me what to do, especially if they were right. I’ve been stubborn and prideful my whole life, I think. And because of this pride, particularly susceptible to shame when I got things wrong, or when I failed. That is not a healthy or useful attitude for a writer—neither the pride nor the shame. So I urge you, whether you’ve never published a thing or have several books under your name: don’t be like me. Take the generous offers of others to help you. Be humble and grateful. Remember that, even if you don’t take someone’s advice on this poem, the knowledge shared my affect your future poems in positive ways. And you won’t feel as stupid as I still feel, twenty years later.
Katie Riegel is the author of two full length books of poetry and a chapbook. She taught at colleges and universities for over 20 years, and now offers editing services and online writing classes. There are still spots available in her class that begins at the end of January, called Embrace Your Inner Weird. CLICK HERE to check it out and sign up to reserve your spot!