“Navel-Gazing” and Other Writing Hazards: Interview with a Poetry Editor

Today, in our last entry before Christmas, we share the partial transcript of an interview conducted with the editor of a small poetry journal. This excerpt focuses on the controversial concept of “navel-gazing.” 

KC stands for this website, as in some writer looking suspiciously like me conducting an interview. PE stands for physical education. (No, wait! Poetry Editor, I mean!)


KC: So how much reading do poetry editors and readers get done this time of year?

PE: That depends, but for the most part, very little. Poetry editors are people, too. We’re not Bob Cratchit at a desk wearing fingerless gloves as we pore over bad poetry, feeding it to some cold fire turned roaring. We have families, too. And the Ghost of Shopping Future to attend to.

KC: Good one. Why, then, does it “depend”?

PE: Because some journals are in such deep holes with their to-be-read piles that they use so-called “free time” to catch up. Thus is a misnomer born.

KC: I’m not sure I’d want my work to be read during “free time” like that. I suspect Mr. Poetry Cratchit might be a tad grouchy like his boss.

PE: (Laughs) Well, maybe so, maybe so. Kind of like the way we used to insist certain teachers didn’t “like us” and therefore looked at all our work through some red ink darkly.

KC: Nice allusion. But I’ve been meaning to ask you about something of great interest to poets. Navel-gazing.

PE: Oh, no. Anything but that!

KC: Yes. Lint and all. Poets are constantly warned off self-obsession and treating on topics of little interest to the masses and much interest to themselves. But I’m unclear about the border between such outlying provinces. Is not the human condition universal?

PE: Of course it is and of course that’s true, but you have to go with your gut. Belly-button poetry, as I call it, announces itself quite well. Have you ever been at a party with people who never ask questions, never stop talking to listen, and just go on and on about themselves and their jobs and their health concerns and their children and — God save us — their pets? It’s a torture most exquisite. It should be banned by the Geneva Convention, but isn’t deemed worthy.

KC: Wait a minute. Are you describing Facebook or poetry writing?

PE: (Wagging his finger) Such a wise one. Is your name Melchior, then?

KC: So why can’t a poem about Fido appeal to that huge market out there known as poetry readers who own dogs?

PE: It’s not so much the what as the how. How do you go about it? Belly-button poetry can be killed one if by specifics and two if by abstractions. Too much of your particular pooch and his particular idiosyncrasies and readers will be “hash-tag who cares?” And, on the other hand, too much canine cliché and the reader will be bored by line three. Overly warmed by dryer lint and sleepy with ennui.

KC: Ah, I think I get it. The advantage seems to go, in this day and age, to political poetry and to societal poetry. Can one navel-gaze on that front, too?

PE: Yes. Navel-gazing is an equal-opportunity art killer. The poem must speak to the universal human experience in a most particular way. The particular way, however, cannot be a boring way. True, it may be informed by experience and usually is, but it’s all about the vehicle.

KC: “To a Buick Skylark,” you’re telling us?

PE: Ha! You’re showing your age there! Buick Skylarks went out of production just before the century flipped. I’m sure Percy Bysshe Shelley appreciates the allusion, though.

KC: So what might be your advice on the navel-gazing front? Something useful for our readers on this site….

PE: Stop thinking about yourself so much. Turn the ego loose for a few hours, like a kid going outside to play in the 60s. Out of sight but not out of mind. Observe the world around you and write about it.  See the ordinary in extraordinary ways. Keep your sense of humor and creative play nearby. Experiment. Read other poets’ work religiously. Read a wide swath of poetry journals religiously. Write the equivalent of questions. Write the equivalent of listening and report it objectively and faithfully. And if you’re going to navel-gaze, for God’s sake do it without being obvious. Perhaps it’s helpful to consider the world and the people around you as belly buttons. Gaze there and reflect on that in your own signature way through your own voice. Does that help?

KC: It’s a frightening image, actually.

PE: Narrative poetry, too. Humans are hardwired for stories, even yours if they are attached to meaning and universal truths that will have readers nodding their heads and connecting in their own ways. When the “I” in your first-person poems becomes the “I” for readers, you’ve pulled it off. Your “I” is their “I,” and no one’s the wiser—all while your poem “teaches” in its subtle ways. I know this is not exactly helpful, but it’s salutary to just consider the whole idea of self-obsession before writing. Some writers won’t even go that far. They are just writing for the self, for their own ego’s self-massaging. And finally, I would advise that you share drafts with people you trust. Not boiler-plate rejecting editors like me, but people who don’t pull punches, who traffic in “tough love,” which is something every new poem needs.

KC: Tough love and gut punches. Right in the button de belly?

PE: You got it. Punches to the poem’s solar plexus. Punches that feel painfully good, once the soreness wears off.

KC: Thanks for sharing your wisdom, sir. A merry and a happy to you and yours!

PE: Thank you!