Poet Steve Fellner on the Joys of Insignificance; Pat Strachan on When Not to Edit

Poet Kate Greenstreet blogs at Every Other Day, where she’s compiled an archive of over 100 interviews with contemporary poets about the road to first-book publication and how it changed their life (or not). I especially treasure these tongue-in-cheek words of wisdom from Steve Fellner, whose book Blind Date with Cavafy won the 2006 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize:

I had been sending my book out for many years, and I was crazy determined to get a book of poetry published. I got an MFA and PhD in creative writing. During all this time, I was sending out various incarnations of the book. No one wanted it. It was (and still is) an uneven book, but there were a lot of worse books out there, and I liked sending things out in the mail. Even when you get a rejection in the mail (and I got a zillion of them), it’s always fun to have opened the envelope. It’s like watching the Oscars. Even if the actor you love loses, you at least enjoy the spectacle.

I knew my book would never be accepted by a huge press, but I was completely comfortable with the idea of being insignificant. Still am. The world is nice that way: no one holds insignificance against you….

It’s hard to get readings when your book comes from a small press and you’re an insignificant writer. Again I don’t mean insignificant as pejorative. Most of us are. There’s comfort in being insignificant: you’re free to do what you want; no one is watching you. In fact, I want to write an essay, a meditation about the power and positive consequences of being insignificant. There’s so much pressure to matter in the literary community. This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be significant writers who win major awards, but aren’t there any other alternatives to aim for?

I have a friend who is a significant poet and he’s working on his second book. Occasionally, I’ve watched him work, and he is constantly looking at his first book when he writes poems for his second. He wants to make sure his new poems are as good as the first. If I were a significant poet, I would engage in this behavior. But I don’t, because no one is watching me, and as a result, I don’t need to watch myself as closely. To draw an analogy, if you are a beautiful person, the world expects you to leave your house looking attractive, well-groomed. If you’re a person like myself, no one cares if you leave the house wearing dirty socks or if you have a stain on your shirt. You’re free. Significant poets and beautiful people shoulder a great deal more responsibility than the rest of us.

Fellner also encourages authors not to lose confidence in their own vision, with one exception:

I also find it sad that I read so many young poets are constantly changing their manuscripts after not placing in a contest. When everything is so oversaturated and so many contests are run by committee, taking your losing to mean anything is dangerous. Having been a screener for contests, I can say that I’ve seen so many manuscripts look overlabored. You need to let go of your manuscript. There’s only so much you can do.

Unless you have a bad title. Here’s an embarrassing confession: for years I sent out my manuscript and never placed. I called it the dumbest, dullest things! Aesthetics of the Damned was one. Hoaxes and Scams was another.

As soon as I called it Blind Date with Cavafy (all the poems were basically the same ones that appeared under the other titles), I started being named a finalist. And I won pretty quick. After many, many years of bad titles. This is my theory: most screeners, most poets are insecure in making aesthetic judgments. The mention of Cavafy made it clear that I knew something about poetry. The humor of the phrase “blind date” juxtaposed with the literary allusion signaled I was a poet. I am very embarrassed to admit this, but I think it’s true. There’s so much out there, and most people are tentative, they need clues that they’re giving the right book the award. That isn’t to say this is why I won, but I did notice that I started making it past the initial rounds much more often. Choose a smart title. Most titles suck. They’re boring and pretentious and vague.

Read the whole interview and a sample poem from Fellner’s book here. Find out about Marsh Hawk Press’s contest and other new titles, and sign up for their e-newsletter, here.

On a related note, I was heartened by these comments from legendary editor Pat Strachan (formerly of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, now at Little, Brown) in an interview in the latest Poets & Writers:

Q: Do you have any sort of guiding philosophy that shapes your editing?

A: Not a guiding philosophy, but I do think it’s extremely dangerous to mess with a novel structurally, because it’s close to poetry in that it’s almost pure consciousness. The way it comes forth from the writer is the way it should probably be, even though maybe the beginning is unclear or not enough action happens in this part or whatever. With a literary book—I hate to say literary, but a piece of serious fiction that isn’t genre fiction—I try to stay away from structural suggestions because they can be very damaging. One big change can make the whole house of cards fall apart. So with literary fiction I really try to stick to line editing. I also think the less done the better, and I consider myself a fairly heavy editor. But I do as little as I can do, because a work of serious literature is a very fragile construction.

I personally have something of a schizophrenic relationship to editing. As the editor of the Winning Writers newsletter, one of my tasks is selecting subscriber poems to feature in our “critique corner” with revision suggestions and possible markets for their work. However, as a writer, I have always belonged to the Howard Roark school of aesthetics: I’d rather blow up the building than incorporate someone else’s changes to the blueprint.

This rugged individualism is harder for me to maintain now that I’ve shifted from poetry to the novel. I can see all sides of a poem, whereas a novel is too big for me to get my bearings. It’s the forest rather than the treehouse. So I’ve begun seeking out advice, both about my work-in-progress and about the craft of fiction generally, which often leaves me more confused than before. How do I know whether someone else is right? Sure, she’s a reader, but is she my reader? Would she naturally pick up the type of book I’m writing, if we didn’t know each other? On the other hand, if I’m more selective about whom I ask, aren’t I predetermining the result by seeking out people whose answers I can predict?

And so once again I find myself between the Scylla of legalism (must get the RIGHT ANSWER!) and the Charybdis of radical doubt.

8 comments on “Poet Steve Fellner on the Joys of Insignificance; Pat Strachan on When Not to Edit

  1. David Ochs says:

    hey steve, re;The Joys of Insignificance.

    Its funny that you would call yourself insignificant because you haven’t published a well known book of poetry. I haven’t even published a chapbook but I feel my poetry’s significant.

    I’ll bet your friend whose working on his 2nd mass market book IS insignificant for as you state now he has to conform to his publisher and therefore becomes less significant.

    Most of the known poets are insignificant because they’re poetry is tepid and bland.

    Your confusing popularity with significance but one has nothing to do with the other.

    I think your selling small press writers and maybe yourself (maybe not) short.
    David Ochs
    significant poet

  2. Steve says:

    I really enjoyed this post – lot’s going on here. I found myself reading it from the point of view of a poet (not that I am one, but I have a vivid imagination) AND from the point of view of a painter. The insignificance section hit me THREE ways, as I read it as both artists AND as a parent, thinking how my oldest is always saying how he prefers anonymity because then he’s free of expectations. I understand this, identify with it, even, but I’m not sure how to react.

    I left the gallery I helped found in town (I’m pleased that it’s still going well without me). The reason I left was two-fold. I wasn’t selling enough to cover my costs and gallery time, and I was increasingly watching every paint stroke for how it would be received in the gallery. Like that poet writing the second book, I was looking over my shoulder. That had to stop or I’d be blocked again, just as I had been several other times over the last 30 years. So I chose more anonymity – insignificance – and I paint to figure out what I want to paint, and I paint for the wall of my office (day job).

    Editing paintings is like editing literature. Some pieces are easy to understand, and improvements seem obvious. You can grasp the entire work, as you describe holding a poem entire and knowing what to do. Others are so large and complex that they remind me of the Kerplunk! game I played with my youngest this evening. Pull out anything and it all tumbles out and the marbles all roll away.

    But one of the greatest joys is to learn to see and fix paintings. When I work on a composition for weeks, knowing something is wrong but unable to put my finger on what, it can be frustrating. Sometimes I never figure out what’s the matter, and I may erase the concept without setting brush to paper. But other times the whole thing snaps into place when I see something to remove or add. (More often remove – I am a fussy composer, a lover of clutter, putting in too much). That moment of clarity is worth all the struggle – it’s like a Mount Tabor experience. Suddenly everything makes sense and nothing else matters. I want to stay there and build a booth to live in so I can just look at the light shining on everything.

    And your last point really rang in my ears. How do you know someone else’s advice is worth anything? Are they just unable to hear your muse? Are they trying to turn you into the kind of artist they DO understand? For me, I find that most comments that matter take years to emerge from the crowd. Once in a while, though, I hear something I know is right, because I can immediately tell how much I didn’t want to hear it. That’s usually a sign that I really already know it and don’t want it. Probably exactly what I should do.

  3. Hank Rodgers says:

    I have read something about editors and editing; and it seems to me that “editors” should rather write, and that writers should not be edited (though good proofreaders and typesetters are necessary) — and, of course, readers should discriminate.

  4. Jendi Reiter says:

    Thanks for reminding me why I write. It’s that aha! moment when just the right word or plot twist comes to mind like a miracle, and I *know* it’s right with a certainty I don’t have in many other moments of my life. A little glimpse of the divine harmony. I had a lot more of them in the first year of working on this novel, and I have to remind myself that life is not all about the highs — the honeymoon ends and the discipline of faithfulness must begin.

  5. funnyshirt says:

    Write more often

  6. Alldramas says:

    Had already seen something like this

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