Although my pandemic writing life has been poor to nonexistent, I’ve been trying to feel like a writer by working on a poetry manuscript that has been in development for some time—that is to say, core poems in the collection were written as far back as 2014. First it was a chapbook, then it was a different chapbook, then it was a full-length book. Now it’s a full-length book that might be more publishable if I replaced about a fifth of the poems with different poems that I probably haven’t written yet.
While working through this process, I’ve been thinking a good bit about what makes literature good. What’s the difference between something that’s of value to me, primarily because I wrote it, and something that could be of value to somebody else? What are the virtues and functions of literary art? When is a poem successfully fulfilling its purpose? Although this line of thinking could easily become cynically commercial, I’d argue that sharpening my awareness of how I evaluate literature—mine or anybody else’s—is important, not least because what’s important to me in a broader sense has changed over time. I don’t read or write the same way I did as an undergraduate English major now that I’m having conversations about college selection with my own children.
Although I value beauty, cleverness, and truth, I find that it’s especially crucial for me to learn something from what I read. I recently finished David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, and it held my interest through nine hundred pages, as I filled in at least that many gaps in my knowledge of nineteenth-century America. But I don’t have to read a colossal work of nonfiction in order to learn; fiction and, yes, poems teach, too. They make me look up words. They motivate me to read more, whether to fill out historical context, better envision a landscape, or understand cultural assumptions and expectations that differ from my own. At best, they haunt me; being haunted is a kind of learning, too.
As an editor at Literary Mama, I continually learn from our writers. They show me the inside of experiences that I’ve never had. Sometimes, they help me see my own experiences in a new way. Motherhood may be our journal’s common theme, but mothering is as varied as living, and I can still be disoriented by a challenging perspective or drawn in by an unexpected turn of phrase. Meanwhile, these writers also remind me to write—or at least to think seriously about writing while I revise a manuscript. Whether you’re reading the new issue or browsing the archives, I hope you, too, will find an education in Literary Mama.