Are We Really That Vain?

I’ve been teaching creative writing off and on for about ten years now. Inevitably, we get to the point where students need guidance on the revision process. What I have historically done when we reach this place is to bring in the 47 or so versions of a poem I’ve been working on for, oh, I don’t know…12 years? It’s not even a poem anymore. It’s more a standing joke in my household. “Hey, how’s ‘Memphis Blues’ coming along?” some snarky friend or family member might ask. To which I reply, “Version 168 coming up soon!”  Still, I’ve found “Memphis Blues” to be a fantastic teaching tool. Nothing explains how we go about revising poems better than seeing the mind of the poet on the page – seeing the lines cut, the words changed, the form drastically revised. This poem has been a villanelle, a ghazal, a sonnet and a free verse poem. It’s been three pages long and three tercets long. It’s had a rough life. Poor thing.

At the recent AWP conference, I decided to talk with some editors about an idea I have for a book in which poets would share their poems – from first draft to published draft – along with an essay discussing their process. It sounded like a good idea and one that might actually sell (not that I’m particularly interested in sales, but I know that publishers are). Imagine my surprise when I received this response from an editor of a pretty well-known poetry press:

“Sounds like a very interesting idea. I like it. But I think you’d be hard pressed to find poets willing to show their first drafts.”

To this seemingly silly comment, I scoffed. Pshaw! For a guy who publishes poetry, he sure doesn’t know much about poets! Boy, oh boy was I ever wrong.

After hearing Top-Notch-Editor’s concerns, I decided to ask a few poets if they’d be willing to do this sort of thing. The answer looked something like this:

“I couldn’t possibly print my first drafts,” said one very up-and-coming (4 books and counting) poet. “What would people think? They’d think I didn’t know how to write a poem!”

And I have to admit: I hadn’t really thought about that side of things. A poet’s reputation is quite important to his or her success. And I suppose it’s possible that some readers might think less of a poet if they were able to see behind the curtain. But then I think: really?  I mean, it’s not like we all believe poems come out perfectly formed on the page. And, let’s face it, there aren’t a whole lot of readers out there reading poetry who aren’t poets themselves. We know how dreadful first drafts can be. We’ve all written them. We might as well admit it and get some use out of them.

And then I think about the master/student tradition in creative writing. Just a couple of weeks ago I was blogging about The Girlfriends Book Club and all the wonderful stories writers had shared about how more experienced writers had helped them on their journey. Writing is by all intents and purposes an apprenticed craft. Most of us attended MFA programs or workshops or conferences where we learned from the masters. There’s no telling where we would be without the humility and openness of our teachers.

Has writing become so exclusive and high-brow that we can’t bear for readers to even see the process behind a poem that is ultimately, in the end, successful? Are we really that vain?

2 thoughts on “Are We Really That Vain?

  1. Hi Gabriel, yep, sounds pretty vain to me! Why wouldn’t an accomplished poet be willing to show earlier drafts and show the reality of the creative process? I think it would be encouraging to apprentice poets who think they have to get it the right the first time, and who have not learned the value and power of revision. Pshaw! Vanity, vanity, vanity.

    • I think it’s more complicated than that. Poetry is such a tenuous profession – and reputations are really, vitally important. Plus, I think all writers are a little shy about showing their early work. It’s actually a tricky proposition that I’m making – and I think easier for very well-established writers than those who are up-and-coming or what we call “mid-level” poets.

      At the same time, I feel it kind of silly to be concerned about what someone might think of a first draft (especially since it would be side-by-side with a published one) – it’s the division of poet/editor in me that creates the controversy.

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