In part three of this conversation series, Georgia Poets Anya Silver and Sara Hughes discussed how their cancer diagnoses affected their creativity and their writing process. You can also check out parts one and two. In this final installment of their dialogue, Sara and Anya discuss how having cancer affects the revision and submission aspect of being writers.
Anya: We have talked about the writing process, but now, I am wondering about revision. Has having cancer changed your approach to writing and revising your poetry, or even the way you send it out for publication?
Sara: I didn’t write when I had cancer. I would journal, but I wasn’t writing poems. But I still felt this urgency when I was going through chemo to send out my completed poems, and send them wherever I could. I just needed to get them out into the world, so I aggressively submitted every poem I knew was finished. In the six years leading up to my cancer diagnosis, I was in a PhD program, so I’d written dozens and dozens of poems that I hadn’t tried very hard to get published. But having cancer made me refuse to sit on my work any longer, and over the past two years, I’ve been racking up journal publications because I’ve been so persistent in sending things out. I realized I didn’t have time to wait for the perfect journal to have a call for poems on a specific theme that I’d written about; I just needed to send my poems out without overthinking the process, and see where they landed.
Anya: I had a similar experience.
Sara: Having cancer did give me a sense of urgency with my own writing after I was done with treatment. When I started feeling healthy again, I became determined to really work on my second book and not let fear distract me, but let it motivate me. Still, my cancer experience made me feel more impatient with the revision process. Now, when I write a poem, I want to send it out immediately, and I don’t think that’s the best idea with brand new poems.
Anya: Right! I feel like I go against my own advice because I used to wait many months to allow a poem to develop before it was ready to send out. Now, I give each poem two months, and if it’s not working by then, I just move on to the next thing because there are more poems to write. I have this limited time span always in my mind, so I’m not as likely to sit around on something. I don’t think that’s really the ideal way to write and revise, but I just don’t have that luxury of time.
Sara: For many writers, the passage of time is a factor when it comes to revision. Before I had cancer, I’d write a poem and then tell myself, I’ll go back to this in six months or a year to decide if it’s any good. I don’t feel like I can do this anymore. What about you? Do you feel like you send work out that’s not ready?
Anya: Ideally I would spend more months revising than I do, but now I am more likely to send poems out before I have revised them enough. Luckily, the editing process has worked and I’ve never had anything accepted that I wish I hadn’t sent out. There’s this idea of legacy that’s kind of cheesy and false, but I really want to get the poems published that are important to me, for the sake of my son. I’m always aware of time and I feel like I have this thing I want to say, so I end up feeling this pressure to send work out sooner than I would have at an earlier time in my life.
Sara: On the other hand, that urgency to get work out to the public probably works in your favor. It’s possible to overwrite something or to overanalyze an experience…
Anya: Or to be too cautious too…
Sara: Exactly. That stagnates the process. I can’t help but think of a story I heard about Elizabeth Bishop. She wrote a poem and left a blank space in the middle of it because she didn’t know what word belonged there. She put the poem on the wall and decided she wouldn’t take it down until she figured out what word was missing. It took her years to decide the right word to fill that blank. I love Elizabeth Bishop and I respect her writing tremendously, but I don’t ever want to do that – sit on a poem for years that is one word away from being “perfect.” I’d rather choose an imperfect word and move on!
Anya: It can be paralyzing to search for perfection. All of that waiting and waiting, and revising and revising, enables people to put off submitting their work.
Sara: Right! Expecting work to be perfect or waiting until you’ve worked out in your head the precise way you want to say something gives people an excuse to not have publications.
Anya: Being aware of the limits of time can be an advantage to a writer because it forces you to concentrate time. When I had a child, I no longer had huge amounts of time to work on my poetry. I had to snatch segments of time when I could. It’s a similar dynamic now; I know I have a certain amount of time to say what I want to say, and I can’t sit around forever waiting for inspiration to strike. I just have to sit down and write.
Sara: On some level, I have this fear that once a poem of mine is published, it’s finished and if I don’t like a line or an entire stanza, then I just have to deal with it. But the truth is, as long as I’m alive, I can change it. I think that’s a common fear among writers, and it’s the reason some writers don’t submit their work. Publication doesn’t make a version of a poem permanent, and fear of that imperfect permanence can paralyze a poet. I’d rather have a poem published even if I think one or two of the words could be better or a line isn’t working, if the majority of the poem is doing something that I’m proud of. That’s more authentic to the human experience anyway. Nobody is perfect, so why should we expect that we can write something perfect?
Anya: The idea of the poem as this perfectly formed Grecian urn is unrealistic. There’s no such thing as perfection in writing. Some of the poems in my books are different from journal versions, and even now when I give readings from my books, sometimes I’ll skip a stanza that I don’t like anymore. I don’t ever think a poem is fixed for good, so I’m glad I got those poems out there. I don’t ever regret publishing a poem.
Sara: I see journal publications as a representation of who I am at the time the work is published. They’re like tattoos. When I was growing up my parents always warned DO NOT get tattoos because you can’t change them. But when I look at my tattoos, even if I think maybe I wouldn’t get that same one today, at the time that I got it, it meant something to me and it said exactly what I wanted it to say.
Sara: I’m a different person now than I was before I had cancer. But I can still be proud of the poems I wrote in my “Pre-Cancer” life because they represent who I was.
Anya: I feel that way about my first book. I was in remission, to use a phrase that you hate…
Sara: <laughs> I don’t hate it!
Anya: <laughs> I’m just teasing. But I wrote those poems when I was feeling like, Oh, I’m done with cancer, yay! When I look at those poems, I think they don’t reflect my experience now, but that’s okay! Human beings are always changing so we shouldn’t expect a poem that we wrote twenty years ago still to speak to us in the same way. Your voice changes just like your face changes; you don’t want it to be the same for decades.
Sara: Exactly. If our subject choices and writing styles didn’t evolve we wouldn’t be growing as writers.
Anya: There are some poets who I’ve stopped reading because every book is exactly the same. I don’t want to read the same poem over and over again. It ceases to interest me after book four.
Sara: Just because you’ve figured out one way to write a poem doesn’t mean you should just stick to that for your entire career, because your poems will start to seem unnecessary. Speaking of which, how do you feel about the generalization that many poems published today don’t contain “necessity”? Do you find this to be true when you are perusing literary journals?
Anya: I really like that question. Do you feel like poetry being published today just doesn’t feel like poetry that will last?
Sara: I don’t want to name specific journals or specific poets, but I have encountered poems in very good journals that I aspire to publish in that seem to lack necessity. I used to think when I’d read a poem like that that I was missing something because if it was published by a reputable journal, the poem must be doing something right. But I have a lot more confidence in my ability to discern good writing now, not only because I have years of experience writing and publishing, but also because I have a PhD in poetry, so I spent a lot of time studying poetry intensely. A lot of poems being published these days make me ask, So what? Why does this poem even exist? I don’t exclude my own writing from those questions. Even after a poem of mine has been published, I ask, Does this poem matter?
Anya: When you ask that about your own poems, maybe those are poems you’ve just written for yourself.
Sara: Robert Frost used to call poems of his that didn’t work “exercises.” I’ve published some of my “exercises” that I later realized didn’t really go anywhere. I don’t think of those poems as failures, because it’s important to exercise the poetic muscle. But those poems didn’t make it into my book manuscript.
Anya: I’ve written poems for my son that I think he’ll enjoy someday, but there’s no reason to share them with the rest of the world.
Sara: Do you ever feel like poems are published because of who wrote them? Like, the value of the poem resides in the poet’s name, not the poem? I get that feeling when I read certain journals and anthologies, and it’s frustrating because I know poets who don’t have recognizable names who are writing amazing poems full of necessity, but they are having a hard time getting published.
Anya: That’s how I feel about books. Sometimes I don’t understand why certain presses publish certain books — books that seem kind of flat, either in terms of language or in terms of subject. Then I know poets who are brilliant writers who don’t have books published, and it confuses me. I’ve read enough poetry and I’m a good enough critic to recognize when I read something that is just not a good poem. I know it’s subjective, but I can give you ten reasons why a poem isn’t working or isn’t finished.
Sara: Which journals are publishing work you do like to read?
Anya: I tend to be drawn to journals that look for a poetry of witness or poems that speak to what it means to be human, poems that deal with the profound in meaningful ways. I think poetry should bear witness to the important parts of the human experience.
Sara: Sometimes poems are published simply because they express an agenda that a journal also embodies or because they fit a topic or theme that an anthology is centered around.
Anya: I’m guilty of publishing in themed anthologies!
Sara: There’s nothing wrong with writing a poem that fits a theme as long as it still deals with something human. But writing toward a theme or agenda from the outset limits the potential of where a poem could go.
Anya: That’s why political poetry is so hard to write, because it’s essential for the poem to both address a specific political issue or cultural experience but also be used to discuss another political situation. I’m thinking in particular about Wilfred Owen’s WWI poetry.
Sara: There’s a universal appeal to Owen’s work that gives it longevity, as opposed to a poem that is, say, specifically about 9/11 and only works in the context of that event.
Anya: Which is why when The New Yorker published Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” it was the perfect poem because it wasn’t really about 9/11 but when you read it through the lens of 9/11, it was totally about 9/11. He is such a great poet because his poetry is political in a larger sense of the word. Political poetry is important and there are poets like Yusef Komanyakaa who write it well, but there are people who don’t do it well.
Sara: Do you think the reason so many poems today lack necessity is because there’s a saturation of literary journals on the market, and the journals are just trying to fill their pages?
Anya: I don’t think so, because there are so many great poets who aren’t being published. I think there are other reasons, such as editors who are overworked, and when they recognize a name, they go ahead and publish those poems because of the poet’s prestige.
Sara: I spent years reading the slush pile for various literary journals, and it’s so overwhelming to have to find something spectacular when you’re inundated with submissions. I rejected thousands of adequate poems from people I’d never heard of. The poems didn’t have anything wrong with them, but the writing still didn’t grip me. So I understand when an editor opts to just go with a recognizable name, even when it ends up hurting writers like me who are trying to get published and don’t have a name that stands out.
Sara: When we discussed our urgency to send work out, you mentioned that the editing process works for you, and you haven’t had a poem accepted for publication that wasn’t ready to be published. Do you mostly rely on editors for feedback, or do you have other writers that you send your writing to before you send to literary journals?
Anya: I have a few people to whom I show my work, but not many. I profoundly miss being part of a writing community. Writers who have stable groups of readers and critics have such an advantage over those of us who don’t. I probably rely more on myself and on editors than is ideal.
Sara: Whom do you trust to read your poems and give you honest feedback?
Anya: I show my poems to my husband and occasionally to three or four poet friends who live out of town—and to you.
Sara: I also show my poems to my husband, but his aesthetic is so different from mine. He likes really short, imagist poetry, so often he’ll suggest that I cut more than half of an already short poem. While he’s often crossing out lines that are weak, sometimes after he takes that samurai sword to my writing, I don’t think what’s left is a poem. When that happens, I’ll email the poem to my dissertation director or to you to see what you think. But generally, I rely on myself to make choices about my work, primarily because I don’t want to impose on other writers.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Sara Hughes earned a PhD in English from Georgia State University in 2014. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, The 2015 Best of the Net Anthology, and the 2015 Independent Best American Poetry Award. She has published in Rattle, Reed, Rosebud, TAB, Atlanta Review, Emrys, and Atticus Review, among others. Sara has also received two writing fellowships from I-Park Foundation and one from The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. She teaches literature and writing at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia.
Anya Krugovoy Silver is a poet living in Macon, Georgia. She is the author of three books of poetry, The Ninety-Third Name of God (2010), I Watched You Disappear (2014), and From Nothing (forthcoming in September 2016), all published by the Louisiana State University Press. Her work has been published in many literary magazines, including Image, The Harvard Review, The Georgia Review, Five Points, Crazyhorse, New Ohio Review, Witness, The Christian Century, Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, Shenandoah, and many others. Her work will be included in Best American Poetry 2016. Her poems have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac,” in Ted Kooser’s syndicated column, “American Life in Poetry,” as an Academy of American Poets’ poem of the day, and on Poetry Daily. She was named Georgia Author of the Year/Poetry for 2015. She currently teaches in the English Department at Mercer University. She shares her life with her husband, son, and cockapoo. Since 2004, she has been living and thriving with inflammatory breast cancer.