First poem tossed in the shark pool

(aka first poem posted on an online workshop)

I know exactly why I posted my poem to the No Holds Barred workshop on CompuServe on Friday, April 18, 1997: ego. I’d written a sestina and thought it was the best thing ever. I wanted someone to tell me how amazing it was. Isn’t that why all beginners post to online workshops? You bet. The very first line of the very first critique I ever received is this:

“When I read your poem, my first response was to laugh.”

I know you’re thinking: hey, it’s a comedic poem! Um, no. Hate to break it to you, but this poem was/is a melodramatic pile of adolescent angst. Sadly, I wasn’t anywhere near adolescence when I posted it, though I admit I was 22 when I wrote it (which is near enough to puberty to merit a bit of mercy, right?). It contains metaphor and personification. It follows the sestina form nicely. It uses concrete imagery and active verbs: “Cars like intermittent wipers. . .” and “I punch the glass. . .” Unfortunately, all these poetic devices are at the mercy of a poem which says nothing except: I exist and it kinda sucks. It’s just like all those other badly written poems floating around in the universe, pining for an eraser.

My response to that first sentence of critique? Devastation. Possibly a bit of anger. But what about the rest of the critique? you ask. Here is the second sentence of it: “I expect that you didn’t intend it to elicit this response, but the piece comes across to me as almost a parody of over-imaged poetic angst.” Oh snap! I think I might have cried, but I can’t remember now. The reader continued with some excellent details about why he found the poem impossible: “You start with the sound being a wild animal and by the third stanza, the animal is you and it is in agony for some completely unexplained reason.”

I didn’t see his point at the time. I was using creative license to make comparisons, all of which failed (hindsight! my old friend!). However, the point is that I had NO IDEA what the hell just happened. I posted my darling and it came back to me eviscerated. I’d never participated online before. I read the rules of the workshop just enough to know where to post without completely falling all over my virtual self in stupidity. Little did I know that here, online, people were going to read the poem and actually tell me the truth. See, I’d gone to college for creative writing. Some of the workshops there were brutal, but it was my fellow students who were red-lining everything, not my professors. Since what they’d written was also barely comprehensible drivel, I was confident in my contempt for their opinions. In this online workshop, however, I had no idea who this person was or what he’d written. How could I believe what he had to say was valid?

By noon I’d formulated a response. It contained a great many exclamations points, question marks, and I’m sure it would’ve had a ton of smilies if they’d existed back then in animated form (I have the universe to thank for sparing me that humiliation). To my credit, I was polite and answered some of his points with the barest inkling of reason since even then I knew that a reader, any reader, had to be able to at least comprehend my work once I released it into the pool. I revised a bit. I found it hilarious that this person didn’t even realize he was critiquing a sestina. My favorite part, the one which makes me writhe in embarrassment for my youthful self, is where I explain thus: “I actually wanted the reader to guess at this to provide an emotional atmosphere.”

His response?

“If, in the main character’s point of view, anything and everything is an animal, then I would regard the main character as psychotic and I usually find psychotic statements confusing. The poem is, to me, so highy [sic] internalized that it fails to communicate either a mood or a point of understanding to the reader.”

Did I find this helpful at the time? NO. Of course not. I was so traumatized by his use of the word “psychotic” in reference to my poem that I ignored everything else he said. Unfortunately, every word of his second sentence about the poem being highly internalized was an extremely useful and valid critique. There is a bit more, but the result is that he basically wiped his hands of me and my poem due to my complete and utter incomprehension of the situation. After that, three moderators posted apologies for him. Another person posted an excellent critique of my poem, all of which I ignored.

Fourteen years later I find myself in charge of an online workshop:’s discussion forums. I’ve been at the job off and on since 2005 (several years hiatus in-between). I am the shark. I eat poems for breakfast. Now, you may be wondering: what is the point of this long, self-absorbed post already? And why the hell did she save her very first critique online? That’s kind of weird. My answer: I deserve to feel that sense of horrible dismay now and then because it’s good for me. It reminds me of what it felt like before I knew how to write a poem. Before I’d mutated into one of the evil sharks who munch on passive verbs. Because now people are tossing their poems into the pool and I would like to remember that while I can provide good, solid critique, there’s no need to eviscerate the poem while I do it.

I’ll be the first to admit, sometimes I fail at this. Just the other day I posted a somewhat sharp critique of a poem because after years of reading the same cliches over and over again, we who critique poetry grow bored and find ourselves fiddling with language just to keep ourselves awake. Snark is a great, freaking blast to write. So much fun can be had at the mercy of some poor, unsuspecting novice. When this happens and when I recognize it in myself, I pull out that first critique of mine and force myself to read it. I remember the sting. And instead of writing snarky criticism that delights in itself (oh, ego again!) I try to be merely truthful instead. And then I go write a poem. Maybe sometime soon I’ll post it and see what happens.

2 thoughts on “First poem tossed in the shark pool

  1. Christine, though painful it must've been, that person's critique was, in the end, more useful to you than the feedback you would've received in college because it helped you progress. Its sharpness woke you up. Perhaps a little bite from the shark's tooth isn't all bad.

  2. Ivy, I don't think it woke me up, though. I stopped posting for a few years after that happened, though I'll admit my second child was an infant at the time and that made it difficult to concentrate on poetry. Whatever the case, something told me (finally!) that I had better start learning a whole lot more about poetry before I dared consider anything I wrote a "poem." Thanks for commenting!

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