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Published: Thu Sep 24 2015
Eva Lundsager, A Pause (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Online 2015 Education On Poetry Writing Process
On Accepting—and Leaving—Mentors

You must know, M— said when I submitted my MFA thesis, the sonnets about your daughter are magnificent. Two of them promptly appeared in a venerable journal. A year later, R— , a publisher, critiqued my manuscript. What might be the most difficult for you is that I suggest taking out all but one of the daughter poems … their inclusion makes for a rather predictable book. I deleted them.

To clarify further what I ought to do to land a publisher for what I believed was a near-complete manuscript, I sought the perspective of someone who had not mentored me in grad school and had no previous knowledge of my work. D—, a Pulitzer nominee, cautioned: Too elliptical, t_oo many leaps_. And then, as H— slashed through the opening stanzas of an elegy I had just written, she reminded me: Poetry requires economy. Don’t say it all. Don’t explain.

Learning to revise your own work from geniuses is bewildering. Editors of prominent presses; Pulitzer, National Book Award, Kingsley-Tufts, MacArthur winners—no matter the level of accomplishment, one mentor sees strength where another sees weakness. And why should they agree? They’re poets! It is their articulation of their absolutely eccentric visions that we admire.

What is an apprentice to do? My first year out of grad school, their accents and idioms played in my ear: Compression is your gift. Here are your challenges. Don’t close. A Kentucky voice said, Let the string go. I obeyed. When my endings summed up what I meant to say, I burned them. I have internalized these powerful poetic voices, and I have rested my own voice so that it floats gently on theirs. I see their lips move when I revise.

At some point, however, perhaps when you have reason to believe you are maturing as a poet, colleagues become more attractive than mentors, and since those first apprenticeship years, the best thing I have done is share work with colleagues who are smart readers. For one thing, they don’t charge money to read your work. And you can disagree vehemently. As one colleague said of a suggestion I made: No, I don’t think I want to do that. But when I write, I try not to listen to the voices of mentors or colleagues because I am listening so acutely to the voices I have swept up and stored, whether from three minutes or three decades past. Hearing my own mind is a task far more difficult than hearing others. I have to focus more intently. There can be no noise around me. No music with words.

The longer you write, the more you fortify your own ear, and the more eccentric your voice becomes. That is the nature of art—if it weren’t, it would be wallpaper. People who never liked your work will dislike it even more. To my mind, in order to mature as a poet, you have to exploit your own gifts.

My work is highly compressed, and has been since I first began to write letters to myself and hide them under the mattress. A few years ago I tried to revise a poem that addressed one reader’s comment—a reader I paid to completely humiliate me, and I hope I have been smart enough to deglaze the pan for his drippings. The poem was mysterious and confusing. Who is Jacinte? Why does she go to Thailand? Whose kids are they? Who waits at the cemetery? Dutifully, I filled in the narrative leaps. But then, the poem bored me. It had lost the quality of missing pieces in a remembered landscape, which is what I had set out to evoke. It was no longer the poem I wanted to write. A dud, I decided and deleted it from my manuscript. But the next morning, I tore through my files for the original version and the comments I had received from a favorite reader—not a reader in the habit of flattering me. (In fact, she’s the poet who told me to rip out the daughter poems from my manuscript.) About “Jacinte,” she had written, It’s a jewel, pure and simple.

Here’s the principle at which I’ve arrived: The greatest danger of the post-apprenticeship years is sounding like mediocre versions of other poets—not surprising when many of us spent years trying to sound like Wallace Stevens and Louise Glück. For me that has meant resisting the urge to pick off my flaws one by one (to detail a clear narrative, use x number of metaphors, eschew punctuation so I sound less formal) and instead deploying more deftly the eccentricities that make my work—well, mine. My job as assigned by me: to create blank spaces on the page that sound a counterpoint to what’s written; to make the narrative gaps that are so characteristic of my work potent; to make my own heart leap.

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Jayne Benjulian’s poems have appeared in Barrow Street, AGNIPoet Lore, Women’s Review of Books, Nimrod International, and elsewhere; her essays, in HowlRound and The California Journal of Women Writers. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. (updated 5/2015)

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