Welcome back to our ongoing series of guest posts by interesting authors on the subject of censorship, subtle and otherwise. Not entirely coincidentally, as I hope all of you have noticed, this is also the topic for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, for which the deadline is a week hence. Join in the conversation, and make me proud with your entries, people!
After Tuesday’s rather downbeat post about the writing path of a gifted poet, I am delighted to be able to bring you a much happier tale today. I think today’s installment in our ongoing series on censorship, subtle and otherwise, is going to speak very directly not just to poets (although many little birds have told me over the years that quite a few long-time Author! Author! readers do indeed write poetry), but to all of you writers who have either been submitting your work — and thus exposing it to the risk of rejection — or scared off from doing so by the sense that it might not be good enough.
Hmm…where have I heard that sentiment before?
Poet, writing coach, and blogger Paula Neves has some words of wisdom on the subject, ones that I hope you will take very, very seriously. Because contrary to what naysayers on the writers’ grapevine so constantly tell aspiring writers, literally the only writing that has NO possibility of getting published is the manuscript that’s never submitted.
Think about that, please, the next time you hesitate about entering your work in a literary contest or querying yet another agent. As we discussed yesterday, no force on earth so effectively prevents a piece of writing from reaching readers as its author’s not allowing it to see the light of day.
Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with choosing not to try to get one’s work published — I have enormous respect for the Emily Dickinsons of this world who elect to keep their brilliance to themselves, or limiting it to a select few readers, provided that it’s an active choice. There’s a certain nobility to deciding that the world at large is not one’s audience. As Aunt Emily herself wrote:
THE SOUL selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.
Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.
I’ve known her from an ample nation
Then close the valves of her attention
Hard to argue with that, eh? But I’m jumping the gun here.
Please join me in welcoming a good poet who has been through the publication mill, has lived to tell the tale — and has been kind enough to share her experiences with all of us here at Author! Author! Many thanks, Paula, and take it away!
When Anne first approached me to guest blog on Author! Author! about my unique take on censorship in poetry, my immediate reaction (after being flattered) was, no problem—I’ve got plenty of “take” on that. But not in the way you’d expect.
The fact is I haven’t experienced much in the way of censorship in my poetry—if for no other reason than I actually haven’t published much of it yet. How’s that for an admission from someone whose been writing the stuff since falling in love with Emily Dickinson and the glamour of her reclusiveness as an impressionable teen almost three decades (eegads!) ago? Ok, so maybe it is typical for someone who would fall in love with the Belle of Amherst’s hermit tendencies as much as her funky slant rhymes.
Regardless, I haven’t yet experienced the tyranny of editors/agents the way many of you have experienced with your work. But it’s not for lack of want. In short, censorship is something for which I secretly long if only because it means people are actually reading my work (or at least saying they are)!
Certainly, throughout my life, I have experienced censorship in ways related to other kinds of writing/thinking. In college, there was that politically correct academic type, the subtle or not-so-subtle expectation of classroom opinions and written critiques following in the tradition of the paradigm du jour. I recall a particular moment in my undergrad days when I took a course called Homosexuality and Society (taught by a fairly well-known lesbian feminist poet du jour with whom my then girlfriend had previously had a torrid affair, and who had a hand in getting said girlfriend’s thinly veiled verses published –echoes of Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons here—but that’s another story).
This was a course where all were expected to participate and actively relate their own experience to the material. For me as a young gay woman, this meant I was expected to “represent” and be a vocal lesbian feminist spitfire. I was 19, and, although American-born, a good sheltered girl from an insular Portuguese immigrant community far from home (i.e., 30 miles away) for the first time in my life and just coming out/Uhauling: what did I know about spitting fire? Both naturally shy and innately suspicious of “expectations,” I kept my mouth shut and passed the course with a C by the grace of the goddess.
Was it jealousy of the professor’s previous entanglement with my girlfriend that made me stubbornly refuse to “participate”? Was it that I didn’t actually believe in the homophobic origins of women’s oppression? Heck, no. Like I said, I was a young gay and sheltered Portuguese woman, the first in my immediate family to even go to college, never mind take a course like Homosexuality and Society. That alone was enough to keep me quiet and reflective.
Not long after this experience, two of my poems were published in fairly rapid succession. I had been writing poetry for nearly a decade at that point, but these pieces were the first I had sent out to legitimate (i.e., non-vanity) venues (with the exception of the time I was 17 and, after getting encouraging feedback from the editor at the Plains Poetry Journal, made the classic amateur’s mistake of overwhelming the poor soul for months with other examples of my “promise”). One of the poems was about sex and appeared in a Tee Corinne-edited anthology called (what a surprise) The Poetry of Sex, which became a Lambda Literary Award finalist; the other was about being the child of immigrants and ran in the (now defunct) The Portuguese Heritage Journal.
Although the yawping silence between these two major life themes was disconcerting, the response from the editors of these publications was surprisingly positive. The folks at The Portuguese Heritage Journal encouraged me to send more work and ended up publishing a couple of my articles, all I ever sent them before they folded the venture a few years later. Tee Corinne solicited work, a short fiction piece this time, which she ended up accepting and placing as the opening story, for her next anthology, The Body of Love. She also graciously accepted my request to interview her for one of the profiles I was writing for Uncommon Heroes, an anthology of queer role models. And she said to keep in touch. I never did.
Sure, I could chalk up some of this lack of follow-through to being young and dumb.
After college, out in the “real world,” I found work on the other side of the writing spectrum as a technical writer/editor and experienced the endemic censorship of office politics. You know, the kind where, no matter how much you write, rewrite and tighten sentences in a report, article or two-line ad copy, the boss always changes a semi-colon to a comma, active voice to passive, or adds a few more adjectives or prepositional phrases because
1. He’s older and went to a better school than you;
2. He’s a member of Mensa and of course knows grammar better anyone in the office; or
3. Because he’s the boss and can.
He then passes the masterpiece on to his boss and the process begins anew. You get the idea.
Despite these workplace entertainments, my personal writing and poetry remained fairly unaffected. Again, not for lack of being written (and rewritten) in hundreds of computer files, notebook pages, grocery receipts, envelopes, napkins (no scrap of tree pulp was safe), but for lack of being shown. During my nine years in the traditional 9-to-5 hitch, I sent poems to perhaps two-dozen outlets of various kinds. The results:
* two pieces appeared successively in a Princeton-based newspaper’s annual fiction and poetry issue, which paid an honorarium (miniscule, but still);
* I was accepted to do readings at three state-funded poetry/performance events—also paid;
* I did one-on-one critiques of high school student poems for a teen arts festival—also paid;
* various poems appeared in several issues of the literary magazine of the English department in the community college at which I worked;
* numerous poems have appeared in The Newark Metro, an online journal affiliated with my grad school; apart from the publication itself, this has resulted in my developing a good working relationship with the well-respected editor, a big fan of my work.
(On these latter two points, never underestimate the value of “small” or school-related publications: exposure is exposure and there are some incisive and often well-connected literary people behind these journals.)
Of course, I don’t mean this to sound like an ad for “You too can be published simply by submitting your work.” I’ve had plenty of rejections from publications, across genres. However, considering that I think of myself as a poet first and how relatively few poems I’ve actually sent out, my stats are in that area are pretty good. I’m also not saying this because I think I’m to Emily what Hart Crane wanted to be to Walt Whitman.
I’m saying it because my own worst editor/agent/critic has been…me.
Some of you may recognize this siren song of self-censorship. It sounds something like, “It’s not good enough”; “Maybe this isn’t really my genre”; “It’s going to get rejected anyway; it was already rejected several times”; “There would only be a limited audience for this anyway/This can get in local publications but not the really big ones” (one of my favorites); or variations thereof. Even for experienced writers these doubts can creep in and result in dejection, procrastination and missed opportunities.
Sure, maybe my early follow-through had to do with being young and inexperienced, but what was my excuse in my mid-thirties when, with reams of poems written, plenty of workshops, classes, and even encouragement under my belt, I brought nothing with me to a writer’s conference, and had nothing to show a small press publisher who was actively seeking new work and specifically asked to see some of my poems?
In my case, my failure to “show” had a lot to do with insecurity and trouble reconciling two integral parts of my identity. Since my poetry is, for the most part, confessional, my reticence to expose it was telling. Literally.
Eventually, I got that it was telling me to take the gamble, put the work out there. Not everyone will “get” it or like it, or understand what the big deal is/was about holding back. Maybe some of it still shows developmental tics.
Who cares? Take the risk.
Or risk missing other opportunities. At some point “it’s not good enough” has to be examined for whether it means the work or you.
Paula Neves has been writing across genres since she was a teen, but has always loved poetry, to which she keeps returning. Her poetry has appeared in The Newark Metro, The Princeton Packet’s US1 Summer Fiction and Poetry series, a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Poetry-Sex-Lesbians-Write-Erotic/dp/0934411506″>The Poetry of Sex, and The Portuguese Heritage Journal. She has read all over the New York metropolitan area, most recently as the “sunrise poet” (a one-hour daybreak reading) at the Newark Museum’s Centennial Celebration. She has studied poetry and fiction under writers such as J. D. McClatchy, Rachel Hadas, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Alice Dark and was recently accepted into the MFA in Poetry program at Rutgers-Newark.
Paula is the founder of Technical Writing Service and blogs at Itinerant Muse.