Yesterday gave me another reminder of why it’s so important to learn how to both give and receive…..a critique of one’s work. Because I’m part of an editorial team of people who regularly read and comment on short poetry prior to its publication or rejection, I am usually on the giving end of a critique. Some days go better than others. Some days, I make a big effort to start with what I like about a piece, or, if there’s nothing I like, at least with something that has potential. Then I move to what didn’t work, if that’s the case. I try to say why. My comments aren’t random. They’re based on tons of reading, formal education, interaction with other readers, a sense of what’s happening right now in the poetry world. They’re tailored to the goals of the team I’m part of.
Some days I miss the mark. After seeing too many pieces that fall flat, I might give a response to someone that isn’t particularly expansive. Or, a piece might really hit me wrong if it says something about a topic that is especially repulsive to me. In those cases, I sometimes just tell the author that their work made me think of “x”.
Authors don’t always like that.
I wouldn’t always like it if it were my work that elicited some of my own responses.
However, I am aware that whatever a piece of poetry makes the reader think of is valid for that reader. The author does not have the final say in what a reader thinks. What the author does have is the power to influence, to steer the reader toward a certain path. Sometimes what the author considers to be a clear direction is completely muddled for someone else. The author may have miscalculated the audience that reacted badly to the work, such as mistaking a traditional literary audience for one that considers pop music lyrics to be amazing poetry. And then it goes back to the author to consider why their work did not elicit the anticipated reaction and whether it matters.
The best thing any of us can do when we get a critique of our work is to be quiet and think about it for a while. Our initial reaction might be, “You swine! How can you not understand what I was trying to do?!” Or, “You #$%!@, that’s not how it is at all.”
Those are comments we might want to keep to ourselves, accurate though they may be. The whole idea of having someone critique our work is to see how they react, isn’t it? To see if we were successful in our attempts to say whatever it was we wanted to say. If we are not successful, that is not the fault of the one doing the critique.
That’s right. It is not the critic’s fault if our work does not say to them what we wanted to say to them. It is ours. And our hurt feelings are ours, too.
A critic can be a little too biting. Too insensitive. Sometimes uninformed. And that is the critic’s fault. But let’s not confuse insensitivity or ignorance with a piece of work that fails. Let’s remember why we put work out into the world. Poetry, painting, prose, fiction – it’s all a way of commenting on and communicating about this world we share. It’s about reflecting our assorted cultures. Sometimes, it’s about hitting people over the head. And no matter what we create, someone isn’t going to like it even if it is successful.
So, buck up out there. Artists and critics both are doing their best, but they are still human and prone to occasional unexpected reactions. Let’s not make enemies along the way.
DO A KIND THING
When I began this blog, one of my goals was to help pay it forward within the arts community. This morning, I was at a fundraising breakfast for an organization that does exactly that. Free Arts Minnesota offers art as a way for at-risk kids to heal through arts programs that take place wherever the kids who need help are. Some of the organizations that have had Free Arts Minnesota programs include residential treatment centers, battered women’s shelters, therapeutic preschools and other nonprofit social service and community agencies. They have served more than 10,000 kids since they began this effort in 1997. Thousands more are waiting. Check them out here. If you’d like to help kids in other parts of the United States, you can check out the Free Arts for Abused Children affiliates here.