my old poems belong on MySpace (& other musings)

Picture it: you submit a poem to a literary journal of any sort, knowing full well the risk of rejection. Months go by, seasons pass, and you slowly forget that you sent anything at all, imagining your submission in a yellowing pile of slush on the top left corner of some big shot editor’s desk. Then, you receive an email that begins with “Congratulations!” and you nearly spit up your soy latte.

The poem, however, once you revisit it, doesn’t seem very…well…good anymore. You wrote it almost a year ago, and there are so many things you’d change now as a more “sophisticated” and “learned” writer. The present (and possibly unrightfully pretentious) you scoffs at faulty line breaks and turns up their nose at questionable word choices, yearning to violently stab a red pen through the computer screen and go nuts before this thing ends up in the hands of unsuspecting strangers. It feels like the poetic equivalent of sending out a link to your seventh grade MySpace page to everyone you know.

Okay, maybe I exaggerate (as all poets do), but really…just this week, I faced this exact situation. Elated as I am to share my work, I suddenly feel like it’s not even mine anymore after months separated from this specific piece.

After our discussion in class about publication and readership, and after receiving the “Congratulations!” email later that night, I was faced with the burning question: as we grow in our craft and in our lives in general, how does that change the way we look at things written in the past? I especially wonder about poets who publish whole collections and look back on them months or even years later…do they still find immense value in their past work? Can they appreciate something they’d written at 20 years old when they are old and gray? Do they laugh at themselves? Do they cut themselves some slack?

At least for me, I know I have an odd relationship with past work and I wonder if this is a universal feeling or if I’m just being pretentious. Let me know your thoughts on this!

5 Replies to “my old poems belong on MySpace (& other musings)”

  1. Hi Grace,

    I think there are different ways of looking at things one has written in the past, but every “finished” piece began somewhere, whether that beginning (or middle or end) is a piece that feels “unfinished.” We can laugh in embarrassment or cringe with nihilistic dread, but I think there is value in (looking at) past work. I wish I remembered Martha Rhodes’s exact words when asked the questions you seem to be grappling with, but she shared that she looks at her old work as emblematic of that time/self. I think there’s a tenderness to old writing (it testifies to an apparent effort), and a tenderness with which one can look upon old writing, not to get too sentimental. There’s value in work you produced a year ago because it is a chronicle of your thoughts and decisions at the time (which may otherwise be inaccessible), and I think it’s pretty neat to look at one’s writing as a sort of archive. As you said, what you know now that you didn’t know then shows your growth as a writer and in general.

    This kind of reminds me of this Joan Didion quote (she’s talking about the value of keeping a notebook, but I don’t think it’s totally unrelated): “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

    As for reconciling with the fact that people will read something that you feel is unfinished – even published writers seem to have their own methods of distancing themselves from previously published work (or some even rework what’s been published), so you are definitely not alone. Regret (and that might not even be what you are asking about here) recognizes the opportunity for growth, and I think that’s something to celebrate in addition to the acceptance (congratulations, by the way!). It’s because you wrote that piece with that sensibility, which made those creative decisions – that you began somewhere – and bravely sent it out, that your future self could now read it and look it over with more experienced eyes. (I hope I am not stating something too obvious.)

  2. Who was the dude who burned all the work he had written before age 27? He’d probably have something to say about this.

    I, personally, always think of the quote from animator Max Gilardi:
    “How I draw now is how I should have been drawing six years ago. And how I draw six years in the future is how I should be drawing now.

    I read my old stuff a lot. Some of it—mostly the poetry—I’m a lil bit embarrassed by. But I’ll always love the fanfiction.

  3. It’s funny; I wrote the same reply to Rachel’s blog post from the 21st the other day. Look at it this way; is anything ever really complete? Yeats went back and revised and republished old poems. Stephen King wants to go back and scrap aspects of his novels. Nothing is ever really done, it’s just…good enough. This is the most perfect I can get it done for now, but there’s always more suspense that can be added, fewer cliches, more line breaks that can offer an entirely new meaning. It’s tough. But it’s about satisfaction, I think. When you’re satisfied, you’re done. Your work isn’t going to be perfect since no one is perfect.

  4. As Marley indicated, I don’t ever think a work is truly done, though sometimes you just need to throw in the towel and come back to it later. I’m sure many of us have written our next Best Seller late at night to come back to it the next day, week, month, ect. and find out that we can’t stand it. I think this is a common feeling. As writers, we always want our work to get as close to “perfect” as possible; however, the written word is so subjective that there will never be such a thing. In our quest for “perfection” it is easy to do more harm than good as we cut, add, and edit away. Before this happens, I think the author needs a vacation from the poem and the poem needs a vacation from the author. Just because you no longer feel the same admiration for a poem you wrote a month ago, doesn’t mean that the poem is not “good,” it just means that you have grown since then.

  5. I definitely relate to your thoughts. Just from the time between writing a poem and handing it in to workshop, I find that my opinions on them have changed already. And when I’ve read things I’ve written years ago, and I definitely didn’t like them anymore. There were so many things I would have done differently if I rewrote them. But at the same time, I think I learned from that. Just from editing my own work, I think it helps me really think about why I made certain choices in the poem, or really notice how I’ve changed as a writer. So I think that it can really be helpful to read old poems, even if they’re poems you don’t like anymore.

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