Taking the plunge: sharing your work with others.
“Hi Claire… Basically I have noticed that on Onenightstanzas you write a lot about people who want to publish their work in magazines [...] but I have only just started writing and I just want to know if it is OK first. Shall I show my poems to people? I don’t know which people to show them to and what to say.”
That’s a bit of an email I received the other day. And it’s a good question! Beginning to share your work with other people — even if those other people are just your very nearest and dearest — can be as terrifying a prospect as getting onstage at a poetry reading for the first time or sending off your first submission to a magazine. So if you’re feeling a little uneasy about the whole situation, I hope that the following may just help…
1. Be ready.
Yes, I know, this is ‘the number one piece of advice’ for everything (actually, no, the real number one is “read the submission guidlines”!), but it’s very important. Poetry is personal stuff, no matter how many alternate voices you employ, and if you’ve never even shared the fact that you’re a poet with anyone before, it’s a big deal. And you do have to be prepared for some potentially unpleasant stuff: there’s more to the phrase “I’m a poet” than three little words… it carries a lot of baggage with it. I’ve had people laugh in my face in response, or throw their hands up in shock, or tell me I’m an idiot. And that’s before you even show them any of your poetry! Make sure that, if people react this way, you’re ready to bounce back from it. The best way to deflect any kind of attack is to be cool, and to just point out that writing poetry is as worthwhile an activity as playing football or campaigning for charity or digging the garden. And anyone who reckons it’s “gay” or “emo” (standard responses from some young’uns!) doesn’t deserve any of your time.
2. Choose carefully who you share your work with.
Fair enough, you might feel ready to take on every poetry-basher in the world, but it’s still better if your first response is a good one. Therefore, pick someone who’s likely to be supportive and, more importantly, geniuinely interested. It doesn’t have to be someone particularly close to you — sometimes a former English teacher is a better bet than a best friend. If you guess wrongly and the person you approach is a skeptic or couldn’t give a monkeys, try elsewhere. Not everyone has a dismal opinion of poetry, I promise!
3. Voice your fears.
If you don’t want people to be too harsh when they first respond to your stuff, don’t be afraid to say “I feel a bit vulnerable.” If people know that your poetry is important, personal stuff, and that you’ve trusted them to see it in spite of the fact that you’re a bit wary, they’re more likely to be civil and hopefully even encouraging. Many people don’t realise quite how personal poems are to poets — I’ve heard a lot of people say that their poems are like their babies. While you don’t have to be quite this honest, putting things in context can be a good idea, so people don’t unwittingly steamroller your feelings!
4. Get an honest response.
Everyone is a reader, whether they read poetry regularly or not, and every reader is valuable on some level… so no matter who you get to look at your poetry, make sure you do listen to what they think (unless, as I say, all they think is “poetry is gay”). Sometimes, asking your mum or best friend might seem like the best option, since they’re less likely to be cruel, but they’re also unlikely to be honest with you either. Someone who’ll say “it’s OK but it could use some polish here and here” is infintely more useful than someone who’ll say “it’s all perfect.” And even an “I don’t know much about poetry but I liked the way you did X” is a useful response.
5. Ask for specifics.
Once you’ve got someone to agree to read your stuff over, you can try asking them some specific questions that will help you improve your work. There are questions that anyone — no matter what their knowledge of poetry — can answer, and often the answers will be more useful than grilling a poetry professor on iambic tetrameter might be. Ask “did you understand what was going on?” — that’s important. Sometimes, things can seem insanely clear in your own head but insanely confusing to anyone who’s not you. “Does it sound convincing?” is another good question, as is “did you get bored anywhere?” If you ask people to respond honestly then the answers may sting a bit, but this information is the stuff that makes your poems perfect, so take it on board.
6. Filter the feedback.
HOWEVER, you don’t have to take the advice you get, no matter who gives it — even if your favourite poet tells you to, you don’t necessarily have to take out that hard-wrought stanza. There’s a fine line between utilising constructive criticism to improve your work and just handing your poem over to someone else for them to pull to bits. Often, when you first get feedback on your poems, your immediate reaction will be HOW DARE YOU QUESTION MY GENIUS THIS STUFF IS PERFECT AS IT IS, but you have to learn to strike a balance. Retain the things you worked hard on, liked, and want to keep… be willing to sacrifice things that other people say they don’t understand, or which you don’t think really work. It takes time to get the balance right and it can be hard, but learning to take criticism — and to know what criticism to reject — is a really valuable skill, and the sooner you master it, the better your writing will become.
7. Keep writing.
No matter how careful you are, eventually, it will happen: you’ll show your poem to someone who’ll steamroller your self-esteem. Whether it’s a lecture on how poetry is a useless pasttime, or a harsh critique that rubbishes everything you always thought you were good at, eventually someone will burst your bubble. HOWEVER, when this happens, it is ESSENTIAL that you don’t allow it to stop you writing. There will always be people out there who hate your work, and who always will no matter what you do… it’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time. So, as hard as it may seem, keep ploughing on — keep writing, and keep showing your poetry to other people. For every jerk there will be whole bunch of normal people who want to help and encourage you rather than flatten you. Keep seeking them out… and see the (often unwitting) jerks as an unfortunate part of the job-description.
If you’re really freaked out, you can always share your poetry with me. Drop me a line to firstname.lastname@example.org — I’m always happy to hear from you!