A poet I follow on Twitter recently posted about something along the lines of how she sometimes feels she’s writing the same poem over and over. I have thought about that post a lot.
My first reaction was, yeah, I feel that way, too, and it would be nice to start out with fresh subject matter now and then rather than harken back to familiar pain, a familiar event. As if it’s wrong to write incessantly about those intimate pieces of ourselves, as if editors are rolling their eyes and saying, oh great, here’s another poem from her about (fill in the blank.) Editors want range, right? They want not just to enjoy and appreciate a poet’s actual writing and a grasp of craft; editors also want validation that this poet is multidimensional and capable of taking on a variety of subjects in their work. Right?
Maybe so, maybe not, but as I write this, I have to laugh at the way we script and imagine not just what constitutes success as a writer, however we define it — publication, period; publication in “the best journals” or those that regularly include the work of other writers we admire, etc. — but also how we project what editors from the journals we seek to publish in are looking for, and therefore how we must write in order to please them.
Everyone has different taste in what appeals to them and every journal has its own aesthetic—the sort of work they’re looking for, the identity they wish to cultivate or feel most strongly anchored to, what they “stand for” and which literary traditions they might embrace. I’ve been heartened to see many journals I read or follow take a more visible position on seeking diversity in writers they publish, specifically inviting submissions by voices from marginalized groups. Some journals publish work I have to struggle to follow, for various reasons, and others always seem to include work I immediately resonate with.
While many journals I’d love to be published in will likely never take my work, because: l) It doesn’t fit with their aesthetic 2) it may simply not be good enough based on whatever standards they are using, and that’s OK. That doesn’t mean I can’t still aspire to be in that journal, or can’t read the work in it and respond to it, be moved by it, even be moved by it to improve my own writing.
Didn’t Browning say, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
But I’m digressing. I have come to see that for me to keep writing — in the midst of a busy professional life, family/friend/household responsibilities — it’s essential that I put pen to paper (or fingers to keypad) when the urge arises, and almost always that urge involves a detail or story or a line that comes to me from familiar reservoirs.
That’s hardly a revolutionary thought, but for me there’s a time for exercise poems, or writing prompts, or for exploring one’s work with fresh approaches and subject matter. Most of this year hasn’t been that time for me.
For me recently, almost all writing roads lead back to my father’s death this past March. Whether writing about his illness, my family’s sense of impending loss, his actual death and the details surrounding it or the aftermath of loss, I found my dad’s presence inhabiting almost all of the poems I’ve been writing this year. Even when working on poems touching on current events, such as the recent hurricanes, as subjects, Dad’s presence wafts its way into those poems.
I have a feeling that this will continue to be true for a long time. And it’s OK.
If these poems never end up being published, they were nonetheless what I needed to be writing at the time I wrote them. I have no doubt about that, and no matter what, I’ll always have those poems, in whatever stage they ended up, to refer to as a sort of emotional chronology of my own healing.
So it’s OK if, in a way, I’m writing the same poem over and over.
For the most part, I trust myself and my process. I believe that to grow as a writer, one has to write one’s pain and one’s experience until perhaps, when enough of that truth has been wrestled with, the light of others’ pain and experience shines through and something unexpected, yet universal, happens on the page.
When that happens there’s not much more satisfying.