Last week Literary Mama Poetry Editor Sharon Kraus and Assistant Poetry Editor Ginny Kaczmarek took us behind the scenes of the submissions process (click here for that post). This week they offer some invaluable advice for mom-poets and ideas for what to do with those “stuck” poems.
What tips can you offer to poets writing about motherhood/parenthood?
Sharon: Motherhood has turned out to be rather an intense experience, but avoiding self-pity is important. Sometimes the poem is about discovering lack of sleep doesn’t matter, lack of child-connection matters. Even when totally freaking out about the monstrous person lurking behind the door, I am still attached to him, and that’s the problem, not the lack of sleep. Another approach is to be intensely, candidly, appreciatively looking at the child, which works best when it’s about a specific child.
Language matters, as well as “smart” imagery. There’s a thin black line dividing loose, colloquial language from clichéd language and its friend, clichéd imagery. We want poems to push through the imagery and language we’re used to, in order to discover something. And there’s the usual ton of stuff to discover, to do with parenting and living and dying. And breathing. And sorting the damnable laundry.
Ginny: It can be difficult to express an honest emotion in a way that hasn’t been heard before, especially when the emotion is complex or (Sharon adds: “and”!) common, like love for a child. So many clichés abound about motherhood–think of the Mother’s Day card section at the drugstore– but every writer has a unique perspective, so it’s important to let that uniqueness come through.
Try free association to come up with ideas and phrases, to circle around a nugget of an idea. But don’t send that in. Choose the best bits, the ones that surprise you. Then revise, revise revise. Let it sit in a drawer (or on computer) for a week. Show it to friends, show it to colleagues, consider their input and revise again. Yes, you want the feeling to be raw and true, but you also want it to be constructed, crafted, and polished. You should be able to explain, more or less, why you’ve broken lines where you have, why you’re using (or not using) punctuation, why the poem begins and ends where it does and how it earns its emotion. You want your poems to go into the world looking their best, ready to shine and charm. Or frighten and depress. And if they come back to you–and they will–let them cool off, revise them again, and send them back out there.
A few revision tricks for poems that feel stuck:
- Break it into couplets, triplets, quatrains
- Rearrange stanzas randomly
- Turn it upside-down: rewrite the poem with the last line first, first line last
- Remove all adjectives and adverbs
- Add back the adjectives and adverbs, but describing different words
- Replace all –ing words and all forms of “to be” (is, are, am, being, be)
- Examine your adjectives. If you’re using “tiny” to describe an infant, your unconscious is doing you a favor: look harder, look more closely. Underneath that word is the thing you really mean to name.
- Free associate around the parts you do like and go back to the drawing board