I recently started querying my novel. After spending years to get to that point, it felt a little bit like spending years getting ready for a party and finally feeling ready to fling open a door. And so I flung. Only there was no party on the other side of the door. There was just a long empty hallway with 50,000 more doors that other writers were also flinging open, hoping someone would want to dance with them. It was, to say the least, anticlimactic. And as the months went by with some polite rejections and a whole lot of non-responses, the thrill started to go out of the whole process. That was when I turned to one of my favorite coping mechanisms—writing poetry.
With a novel, you are working on one project for years. And it’s a certain kind of project—it’s book club fiction, or a historical romance, or SciFi, or a YA mystery. Experimenting in the middle of your book is just going to lead you off track. But, you can write 10 different kinds of poems in a day and not feel like you’ve wasted any time. Quite the contrary—it makes you feel like you’ve been at an amusement park trying out all the different rides.
Writing poetry also keeps me connected to writing at a time when I might be tempted to take a break from it altogether. A poem needs tension and character and voice—just like a novel—and a twist at the end is always good. It lets me play with form and content without worrying that the entire thing will fall apart, and is almost like going back to the basics of telling a story you hope people will want to hear.
But unlike a novel, a poem is a manageable size. I can go for my evening walk and recite a poem over and over, making small tweaks to words and phrases. I can print one out on a sheet of paper and make edits in the line to get into the grocery store. If I wanted to work on my novel away from my desk, I’d have to either print out 300 pages or try to read it on a phone screen.
One of the other nice things about poetry is that the whole business of publishing them moves a lot faster than book publishing. You can write a poem, revise it 17 times and then submit it to a journal all within a week or month. If an editor likes your poems, they can be published not long after submission, depending on the publication. And if they don’t want them, you find out much quicker, too. There’s something to be said for instant gratification, even if it is in the form of rejection.
With poetry, when you’re rejected, you at least know they read the poem (or the first couple of lines), and they are rejecting the actual poem. Someone didn’t just read a letter in which you’ve tried to entice them with the idea of your poem and your letter writing skills (which is an entirely different skill than poetry or novel writing), while remembering to tailor the letter the way a particular agent wants. Better yet, there are no agents. It’s just you, Submittable, and someone on the other end trying to cull through 800 submissions.
If your poetry is published, it’s easier to get your friends and family to read them, instead of pretending they’re going to buy and read your whole novel someday. You can post them to your Facebook page or Instagram, text your friends screen shots of them or sit with your mother, whose memory doesn’t last longer than a few lines these days, and read them to her.
When I write poetry, my novel feels a million miles away. That is a good thing; I can return to it with fresh eyes—eyes attuned to the tiny details—able to believe that I can hold the whole of something in my hands again.
My first poems were published in the March 8, 2021 issue of Pink Panther Magazine.