I attended Colorado State University at the turn of the century (sounds so long ago when I phrase it that way), studying English Literature and Creative Writing. I had already published poetry, but wanted to hone my skills, so I took a senior workshop course under the state’s poet laureate, Mary Crow.
The class was excellent. I submitted poetry and the class workshopped each piece. Later, Ms. Crow went over my work, praising some and making spot-on suggestions for many. One poem caused her to pause. She handed me the poem—no comments on the page—and said, “This subject isn’t worthy of you.” I’d written the poem to be funny (and I had a strange sense of humor). She was right. The poem wasn’t worthy.
So, what makes for a worthwhile poem? Craft matters, of course. What about subject matter?
I’ve given this a lot of thought. What prompted my answer to the question I just posed was a piece of advice that got me thinking. My writer’s group had been discussing a member’s difficulty with a novel. The subject was autobiographical, and the writer in question kept restarting the project. “Maybe you’re too close to the subject. Maybe you need a little distance.”
Being a contrary sort, I set about thinking of reasons to ignore that advice. And I remembered Mary Crow’s assessment of my poem.
I think my writer’s group’s advice was wrong. I think that if a subject makes you uncomfortable, touches a raw nerve, leaves you conflicted, then that subject is worth exploring. If you the act of writing becomes painful (more so than usual), then the emotion may well find its way to the page. If you finish your poem (or story), it will be important because it’s important to you.
In short, poke a wound.
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By Brian Kaufman