Blackbird, the inspiration

[Photo modified: Idea go /]


A few weeks ago, a senior editor at Blackbird sent an email requesting commentary on a sequence of poems that I submitted last year and if any of the other 4 poems (as they had already accepted two) were still available. It seemed that they wanted to feature the sequence:

I was very impressed by the tonal and imagistic cohesiveness of all the pieces in your original submission which arrived under the singular (& suggestive) title colors of cities [now called diffuse]. I admire the delicate way they explode/fragment language at the sentence level but then use a fairly restrained (in terms of overall text-length) assemblage of couplets to balance this effect. They feel almost like a mosaic–broken shards or tesserae tiling over a pre-determined surface.

I was honored and shot off a quick, honest reply:

These poems are from a collection entitled diffuse, which started out as an attempt to explore my aesthetic boundaries. I had previously written another collection that was predominantly narrative, which put me in an aesthetic rut—so much so that I wrote only two poems in a period of six months. During that time, the only indication that I was a writer was an immense log of fragments—images that I couldn’t escape, ideas that I wanted to revisit, disparate bits of information, etc. I referred to them as gobbledygook. I began to experiment, employing techniques suggested by some mentors to let poems “leap” in terms of logic. The idea was to trust the reader to follow you, and in return, the reader would trust you enough to experience the poem and subsequently make distinct/individualized connections. It opened up an exhilarating way to approach language and allowed for a sustained period of time in which I could (re)discover my craft.

For a while, I over-analyzed my response. Was it too simplistic? Were they looking for more theory/poetics? Am I not academic enough?

I had written a similar but more direct commentary for FRiGG, a few months prior:

These poems are part of a manuscript tentatively called diffuse, which started out as an attempt to explore boundaries–love, culture, nature, art, logic, etc. That these turned out to be disjunctive, nonlinear, fluid was a positive consequence, I think. Previously, I’d held on to ideas that poems should make sense and be accessible because ideas should not be limited to specific audiences. Poetry–especially academic poetry–tends to be abstruse, so for many years, I fought the idea that poems should be something only a few can grasp. Well, in attempting to explore my own boundaries, I decided to leave the audience to fend for itself, to figure out how to grapple with these ideas, to make conclusions or connections only she/he/they can. I did, however, provide some structure in terms of form (10 lines), refrains, and themes. Still, people don’t know how to respond to these. A friend who’s an engineer read this manuscript recently. (She previously read another manuscript that was mostly narrative.) Her reaction to diffuse: “Picture me balled up in a corner, reaching for something in the air that doesn’t exist.”

Yesterday, the senior editor responded, declining the other poems, citing that it no longer fits with the other sequences:

After reviewing the statement that accompanied your last email and deliberating a bit on your project, the Blackbird editors feel like it does not quite align with the other sequenced work we will be presenting in v10n2. We are happy to have the poems we’ve already accepted and we thank you for your response to our request for some elucidation of that work.

I understand their editorial needs and am grateful for the two poems they have accepted, but what changed, exactly? Did the poems become less poetic after I clarified my intent and process?

The rest of the email hints at my lack of craft, apparently:

Maybe this close call with the idea of sequenced poems will inspire you to work more deliberately in that direction?

So, because my poems did not fit the journal’s editorial needs, it means that the editors can define them as non-sequenced? Hm.

Thanks for the “inspiration.” As expected, this left a bitter, slimy aftertaste—a reminder of academia’s elitist, maniacal standards and intangible expectations. They want an opportunity to see magic, to be floored by poems that they wish they could have written, believe these poems somehow come organically from the gods—or if not organically—through precise craft and technique that mirrors, thus validates, their own scholarly pursuits. They want a circuitous elucidation on meaning when sometimes it’s just simple, human experience.

D.A. Powell recently said (well, tweeted) that poems just are—that attempting to deconstruct them through literary criticism kills the original intent: to be experienced, to reach another person’s soul. [Of course, he’s not alone in thinking this, and please do pardon my source of poetics–through tweets, nonetheless.] How the poems came to be written is not important. Our experiences are disparate and fragmented, with stretches of narrative; sometimes we encapsulate them in this art form. Sometimes, we have the balls to share them with others.

So thank you, Blackbird, for the reminder. Please feel free not to publish the other two, if they no longer fit either, after you read this post.

–O. Ayes

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