POETRY TRAPS Into Which We All Fall

—Illustration by Sam the Snake Man

Here is a wee compendium of various types of traps that wait for us when we pick up a pen:
Writing traps:
•••Excess lines at the beginning: Where does your poem really start? As in all writing, you need to start as late in the action as possible. Often your first lines/ideas are just a warm-up; prune 'em!
•••Excess lines at the end: Where does your poem really end? Resist the temptation to put a "button" on it, to tell the reader what you think it means, to "write past your ending".
•••Forgetting the music: Are your poems poetry, or just prose with short lines? Do you forget to listen to the sounds that go by as you read your own poetry or someone else's? Even if we don't use formal rhyme, our ears respond to alliteration, rhythm, repetition, internal rhymes, and other "sound" devices. (When is one syllable better than two, and vice versa?) One of many places to start: The Sounds of Poetry by Robert Pinsky.
•••Forgetting to use unexpected words: Your ideas start to come, so you get them down on paper. But then we need to go back and replace the over-used, obvious, clichéd words with unexpected, surprising ones. Pull out the thesaurus if you need to [see below for a great one], but keep your writing fresh with unexpected gems.
•••Neglecting our titles: Poems start with the first word, and that's the title. Fine-tune them: "The Red Wheelbarrow" is so much more intriguing than "The Wheelbarrow".
•••Disrespecting punctuation: Those dots and squiggles are not there to be-devil us; like musical notation, they tell the reader when to pause, when to breathe, when to hurry on. "George the canary escaped" is very different from "George! The canary escaped!" For interesting uses of punctuation, see Simon Perchik or e.e. cummings—and of course the King of Colons, A.R. Ammons.
•••Thinking we have to make sense: What does this line mean, and this one, and this one...? Poets get to make what Robert Bly called "Leaping Poetry"—we get to use language and sound and meaning however we choose! Isn't that liberating??? Don't be too didactic; not everything makes sense in the world. Watch for chances to "leap" and then take them—guilt-free!
•••Love/Heart/Soul—The three trickiest words in the English language: These three little words can go treacly on us in a hummingbird's heartbeat; use with great caution to avoid "greeting-card" sentimentality.
•••Over-using mundane words: Why stick to ordinary words (walk, shut) when there are so many more interesting ones that say the same thing?
•••Over-using adjectives: Sacramento Poet Jane Blue (now passed) wrote: I find myself using too many adjectives. Then I go through and take most of them out.
•••Over-editing too early: Pulling our punches by editing as we write. Let 'er rip—find out what the muse really has to say. The red pencil can come later.
•••It's versus its: I know, I know, it's confusing because most of the time the possessive uses an apostrophe. But not with the lowly its—and I can't tell you how much time I spend editing itses into it'ses and vice versa. ITS is possessive; IT'S is the contraction of it is. Deal with it; memorize it; keep your itses straight.
•••Writing poems that are too short: We all know about going on too long in our poems, about the importance of editing. But sometimes we get an idea or an image started, but don't develop it enough. I've been in workshops where I've heard, "I'd like to hear more about this"—and sometimes I think the same thing when poets send me itty-bitty poems. It's a tough call, isn't it? How much is enough...?
•••"Shaggy Dog" poems: Remember Shaggy Dog jokes—ones that went on and on and on and then, hopefully, had a groanable punchline? (I remember "If the foo shits, wear it," about flying foos, and "Opporknockity only tunes once" about a cranky piano tuner named Mr. Opporknockity). A strong last line helps save a poem, of course, but we still need to keep the guts lean and mean, and that means the hard work of (sigh) fine-tooth-combing every word.
•••Neglecting the silly: In the movie, My Favorite Year, Richard Benjamin says "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." I know that, so I stay away from humor in my poetry. But there are lots of ways to lighten things up, and letting some silliness creep in reflects the way life really is, yes? Right in the middle of a fight with my Other, the dog does something ridiculous. Or Other does. Or I do. Balance—don't you think that's the key, in fights and in life and in poetry? Remind me not to neglect the silly.
•••Forgetting to let poems simmer: This publisher has gotten her snakes in a tangle many times over poets who send in a poem, then send in revisions. It still happens... but this is not to scold, even though Medusa may be the only publisher in the world who accepts this gnarly behavior. Anyway, poets sometimes get excited about poems and put them right into the mail, neglecting a final step of letting them settle and simmer and stew on a back burner. This is not to say they'll need major revisions, necessarily—but those tiny fixes seem to float to the surface better with time.
•••Dumbing down our poetry: Time was, poetry was full of mythological and other classical references; if you didn't get it, well, you looked it up, expanded your mind. Today we sprinkle pop cultural references around liberally, but some of us shy away from the more erudite ones. Sometimes those references have stories to tell us, though, that we just can't get from talking about pizza or pop music or TV. Don't be shy about the past. If your readers don't get it, let 'em look it up! Expand their minds!

Reading-in-Public Traps:
•••Mistaking attention for acclaim: Sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll will get us whoops and hollers from the audience, as will pop cultural references, and it's easy to get intoxicated by all that attention. But will they respect us in the morning?
•••Writing a beautiful poem and then reading it poorly: Poetry is drama, or at least public speaking, and deserves the same attention when you read it to an audience. Practice! Are you loud enough? Slow/fast enough? Do you know how to project, when to speed up, when to slow down? Do you know your poem well enough to look up, make eye contact? How about those introductions—are they longer than the poem? (How much is enough?) Go to www.astarrynightproductions.com/poetryseries/poetryseries.htm and click on "Advice" in the menu at the top of the page. Another resource is Carlos Santos Perez' article in Poets & Writers' online magazine at www.pw.org/content/craig_santos_perez_on_bearing_the_gift_of_poetry_and_spam
•••Neglecting to make eye contact with the audience: Practice looking up a lot. Eye contact is vital to communicating with your listeners. If nothing else, it'll make 'em feel guilty for falling asleep!
•••Dropping the volume of the last line when we read our poems: Just because our last line moves us (and, hopefully, the audience) is no excuse for mumbling it. We need to keep rolling until the very end! Get 'em right between the eyes—don't tuck your head and drop your volume and kill your punchline.
•••Thinking our introductions can be quiet even though our poems are well-projected: Pick a decent volume and stick to it, fer criminentlies!
•••Outstaying your welcome: (This one comes from Sacramento Poet Trina Drotar): Too often, I see both featured readers and open mic readers go far, far beyond their allotted time. The readers should ask how much time they have available to read, and the hosts should, I believe, communicate the time limits to the readers.
•••Thinking workshops have nothing to offer us: It's all in the attitude. Listen carefully, accept what helps, file that which doesn't seem to at the time, but might start to make sense later. Workshops are not going to "ruin" your work; that's silly. Like I said, it's all in the attitude.

Publishing Traps:
•••Shoddy bookkeeping: It’s 2AM; do you know where your poems are? It’s important to keep track of where you send work, whether and where it’s published—all that boring, tedious stuff. Publishers do have rules, though, and you need to keep track of things in order not to break those rules. Worst case: Publisher (who doesn’t accept previously-published poems) nominates your work for a Pushcart, then finds out it WAS published somewhere else before. Yikes. KISS—keep it simple... Get a system and maintain it.
•••Putting the "copyright" sign on the poems we send out for submission: That isn't the way to copyright a poem, and putting it there just (1) makes us look ignorant about the proper process, and (2) implies that we think the publisher is going to steal our poems! Not the best way to make a first impression... And hell—so what if someone does steal your poem? (By the way, Cal. Lawyers for the Arts offers frequent copywriting workshops that will answer all your questions; watch MK for the next one.)
•••Forgetting to put our names on EVERY poem, including emailed ones: It's easy to think that, just because our name is on our emails, it's on our poems too. Nope; t'ain't necessarily so. Medusa, for example, sometimes does some shifting around of poems once they're in her files, and, being senile, she sometimes forgets who wrote what. Just put your name on EVERY poem, to be safe.
•••Sending things to editors and then sending "corrections": Get it right the first time! Need I say more?
•••Forgetting to thank our publishers: Being published is a privilege and a gift, not a right. Don't forget a thank-you note—including online publishing.
•••Taking rejection personally: If you ever want to be published, you have to accept rejection. It may not even be your poem that's the reason for rejection—editors have agendas, bad moods, personal quirks. He or she make think your poem is too long, too short, too this, too that. Get over it. Get back on the horse. Pick your venues carefully (does your work sound like something this one might publish?) and stick with it. You WILL be published!

Other Traps We Fall Into:
•••Doubting ourselves: Failing to submit to publications because "we're not good enough"; "they already have too many poems"; other excuses that undermine our confidence. Each poet's voice is different from everyone else's, and each poet has something to say. If you keep sending your poems to publications that might use your work, publications that are a good match for you, you and your unique voice WILL get published.
•••Underestimating a “bad” poem: Dismissing a poem without looking closely for the good in it, and for what makes it “bad”. Is it trite? Archaic? Too sentimental or silly? Maybe it just doesn’t fit into what’s stylish today, what we now consider “hip”. What are its “traps” that we can avoid, and what are its strong points? What can we learn from it?
•••Thinking workshops aren’t for us: There are all kinds of poetry workshops, from lecture-types with a little critiquing that are led by strong poet/teachers, to groups that just get together to read their work without expecting any critiquing. Some of these cost money, some are free. Our area has both of these types, plus others that are a combination of the two. Don’t underestimate what a workshop can do for you, either on a regular or an occasional basis. Experiment around until you find one that fits; your work can’t be “contaminated” by the eyes of others, and you’ll probably learn something by listening to people talk about each others’ work. Heck—you might even make some new poetry friends!
•••Not attending enough readings: Or going just for the open mic, and then leaving. There’s a lot to be learned from hearing other poets read—not to mention how discourteous it is to just be there for your own thing. We are SO lucky to live in a community where there are readings almost every night of the week in a wide variety of styles and shapes and colors, and happenings in surrounding areas as well as in Sacramento. Don’t short-change yourself—check it all out!
•••Not reading other poets: We all get busy, get behind on our reading. But other poets can be so inspiring—sometimes with how good their poetry is, sometimes with how bad it is! In any case, we need to listen to other voices, both at readings and on the page. Support your local independent book store! Now, with the Internet, all the poetry of the world is right at your fingertips!
•••Waiting for the Muse: "I can't write today; the Muse hasn't visited yet..." Ever see the Albert Brooks movie, The Muse? Our Muses have minds of their own: changeable, unreasonable, airheads at times—certainly not beings we'd do well to follow to the ends of the earth! And a Missing Muse is no excuse to sit and chew your pencil. Get to work, regardless: check out Calliope's Closet; do a form; start writing at random; pick a Seed of the Week—anything to keep that pencil scratching along on a page. Okay, computer tap tap tap...
•••NOT waiting for the Muse: We're busy, and finding quiet time is hard. But the Muse hides under the bed, or between the pages of a book, or at the bottom of a cup of coffee... Most of the time she whispers, and we must find time to listen, yes? Journal, yoga, meditate.
•••Not taking notes as we go: Did you read about Hank Williams' journals of song snatches/ideas that he kept while he was alive? Ever read Billy Collins' poem about the poem that came to him in the woods, but was gone by the time he got home? Do you keep a formal journal, or a pile of scraps, or a tape recorder? Might not be a bad idea....
•••Overlooking small things that might lead to poems: Today I saw a wildflower that was less than a millimeter in diameter. And a ladybug. And a dog's whisker. Small things that might lead to poems, if I listen closely enough...
•••Thinking we have to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth: Nobody cares if your grandmother's hair was brown or white—make her a flaming redhead, if that helps the story! Or edit OUT that she was shy—make her a blabbermouth or an orator or a movie star. Poets are not journalists—we don't have to get every detail accurate. As Dennis Schmitz used to say, poets lie...
•••Failing to intuit: When my dog comes to the edge of the woods, he stops, stares, gets a feeling for what's going on in there—intuits, which is more than just using the mind or the senses. Poems can take on their own lives if we let them. Somebody said to me the other day, "I didn't intend to write about the singer..." But that's what came out of that poet's intuition. Let go—intuit—follow the pencil, and see what happens...

—Public Domain Illustration
When a poem doesn't work...
(This probably isn't a good idea.)