I have just finished reading a book I love: To Be the Poet by Maxine Hong Kingston (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002). I bought this book after I heard Kingston, who has long inspired me, read at the University of Minnesota last fall; the book sat in my bookshelf until the time was right.
That right time was this past week. As a prose writer who also works at making poems, I was immediately drawn into Kingston’s poetic narrative about finishing her “longbook” (later published as The Fifth Book of Peace by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2003), and moving into the life of the poet. It was a gift to follow a well-known writer as she mulled over what makes a decent poem.
It was not just that I could identify personally with Kingston that made this book important to me. It was also the generosity that flows through her words that got my attention. She shares what she knows and honors those who have taught her. There is tremendous give and take in the world of poetry that offers a way in for the poet who is willing to pay attention.
As one who is not just a writer, but also an editor, I am charged with paying attention to more than my own work. When I read poetry from someone else, it is my duty to open up that generous spirit, to offer a critique that another writer finds useful. This is when I pay it forward.
Paying it forward as an editor does not mean telling everyone they’re wonderful; it means being honest enough to tell someone when they’ve been unsuccessful in engaging an audience. That’s not particularly easy to do, nor is it always welcomed by the hard-working writer whose very act of sending a submission opened up the possibility of rejection. Not all editors are 100 percent objective, either, though most do try. That’s what happens when humans are involved. But the spirit of paying attention, of generosity, can make up for quite a lot. (So can an awareness of publication guidelines…perhaps that’s another column.) An openness to learn, really learn, what makes good poetry never ends.
Kingston mucked around quite a bit with the question of what makes a poem and let herself play at it. She included bits in To Be the Poet that aren’t particularly great poetry, acknowledged that there may be only two or three usable poems in an entire season. Yet, she is a great writer. A great teacher. Probably a pretty great human being. What I know for sure is that this book reminded me to keep questioning what I think I know, how I do my work, and how I accept the offerings of other writers.
All worthy questions.
How do you make poems?