Manuscript Exchange and Writing Away from the Self
A big part of what I learned in my MFA program was how to emotionally detach myself from my poems and see them as my readers would so that I could better revise them. When I was writing lyrics about museum visits and mockingbirds, this worked. By my third year in the program, I chafed in workshops, receiving critique that pointed to problems I already saw or that were informed by a different aesthetic. I had already seen the reflection of my poem that was going to be offered to me by eyes that I had internalized or rejected.
And then I had a miscarriage. And then I had kids. And then my marriage matured out of its now-uncomplicated-seeming first few years. And then I started to become estranged from part of my family. The emotional detachment that I had learned to apply to my work—an art product crafted out of visual stimulus and some kind of feeling of insight from my lyric self—I could not apply to my life. My poetry began to flesh out and give voice to the parts of myself I was ashamed to share. Ashamed of the pity that I received when my coworkers found out that the pregnancy I’d announced so prematurely had ended. There was fear too. I was afraid of joyfulness during my second pregnancy—fearful that if I was too happy, it would end like the first one did. I tempered my happiness, hoping that if I didn’t let myself get carried away, I wouldn’t jinx myself. After I got married young and fell into a stay at home mom’s life, I felt like an outsider in my academic life and even more of an outsider around the women, often from conservative backgrounds, who had chosen it. Who excelled at it. All of this I couldn’t say in conversation or even in prose, and so my poetry took the full brunt of five years of turmoil and change and revelation. It took the full brunt of me.
It has been very difficult for me to try to anticipate how readers will react to these poems, because I identify with them. This is where I got a lucky break. A poet emails a listserv that I subscribe to asking if $500 is a normal fee for a manuscript review—which gets me all hot under the collar. I’ve got this feeling that I’m sitting on two manuscripts that nobody wants to read or publish—because they don’t. And it makes me mad to think of paying someone to do it, like what kind of pathetic narcissist pays someone to read their poems? I write off a mouthy email about community and goodwill and the greedy nasty po-biz and I ask my social media friends if anybody wants to read my manuscript. One of the takers suggests a manuscript swap.
Here’s the gift of this swap: I can recognize myself in this manuscript—a woman sifting through the received truths of her childhood and the invigorating encounters of her intellectual life, even while she mourns the destruction of her first family, lost to disease and age, and shifts into her new life at the center of the family she is working to build. There isn’t a lot of mid-career poet talk about teaching the new crop of undergrads or something that is happening on another continent. The world is changing right here, inside the poet. And while these poems are beautiful and strange and compelling, I start to suspect that the reason that her book and my book haven’t been picked up is because there are probably hundreds of women like us, writing about our lost families and our new husbands and our new houses and our new babies. I haven’t read many first book collections from women on these themes, however. No, it’s museums and mockingbirds from the more mainstream prizes, and grim fantasyscapes strewn with female bodies from the grittier ones. And ekphrasis, that’s ok everywhere. The only books I’ve read about motherhood and wifey-hood are from established writers.
I still cry when I read some of these poems. And some of them, trying to fit damage into a worldview that still accepts pleasure, make me feel a little bit more whole every time I read them. I read this manuscript that I traded for and I feel that some of these poems are gifts, given from poetry to a woman like me who needs them to feel like this world is a good place. But more and more I feel like this book I’ve carried around for five years, and the book I’m writing now, are books I wrote for myself or for my kind. The hundreds of other women writing the same book might like to read this version of themselves, to see this piece of the fragmented whole which is our shared experience. But if I want to publish, I should probably take a trip to Paris, go to some museums, inhabit the persona of Amelia Earhart, go study marine iguanas for a year. This isn’t an accusation or an indictment of the first book poetry prizes. It’s a frustration with myself. I haven’t read all of the prize winners, so who knows what kindred spirit I’m missing out on. And the ones I have read are so good. The poems that I’ve read about motherhood that call out to my experience are also so good. But what I feel is that competence as a poet is not enough here. To write about this experience, which enough of us share to overwhelm the contest pools and yet is still outside the mainstream enough that successful poets have said it feels like a challenge to write about being a woman in a family—well, to write about it and get it published it needs to be brilliant. It needs to be great. I know a couple of those poets, but it’s a terribly high bar for a first book.