The No-No of Playing Favorites

tolstoy

Je regrette, but it’s true. I play favorites among my children. No, not those children. My poetry children.

What’s weird is, often a published author’s favorite poems are not ones that ever saw the light of poetry-published day in a journal or magazine. You will not find them on the book’s acknowledgment page, in other words. Like good soldiers, these poems enlisted, went out over the transoms to the publish-me wars, but fell in battle, struck by blind editorial eyes.

It could be coincidence, in my case. Not all of the poems in The Indifferent World were treated to equal doses of marketing. Some were written closer to deadline, and therefore did not become staples at Submittable. Others may have just gone to the wrong editors at the wrong time.

“Wrong editor” can be defined a few ways. He or she could be a.) the editor of a journal whose style and subject tastes are not an exact fit with your work, b.) the editor of a journal who never even saw your work because a front-line reader slap-dashed it into the rejection pile through a hasty reading or none at all, or c.) the editor of a “reach” journal like The New Yorker or Poetry, where the air is fine and thin and fully invested in the safe, the established, and the well-known. If you send to the latter, especially those with reading fees, you’re suffering trickle-down financial losses over time. (Note, however, that the two magazines I just cited do not charge reading fees, bless them.)

Or maybe, just maybe, playing favorites means you like a poem that speaks to your own unique sensibilities more than others’. Is that a bad thing? Does that violate the writer-reader contract, wherein the two parties are invested with equal powers? I like to think not. I like to think that a poem that resonates in a special way with its author will always appeal equally to a certain reading demographic of poetry lovers out there, too.

Here, for instance, is one of my favorites from TIW. It’s about Tolstoy, for one, and I’m the number one fan of the man not from Tennessee (try Yasnaya Polyana). It was a late entry, too, so I’m not sure how much marketing it got, but it was one of a set of narrative poems in the book that I was partial to.

In case you’re one of the three dozen or so people in the world who do NOT own a copy of my book, here it is: the death of Tolstoy reimagined:

 

Astapova Station by Ken Craft

I think of Tolstoy, November of his life,
steel wool beard caught
on the sheepskin of his collar. He’s stealing into night,
steam from the engine of his lungs
twisting gaunt and ghostly
through the air, rising, dwindling, clinging
to sky: the breaths of a lifetime.

The old writer still shows an instinct
for drama, abandoning wife, estate, every past chapter
for a train, an iron deus ex machina
that sways his body til dizziness forces him to the refuge
of Astapova. Here he can restore order, touch paper schedules,
see the starch of a station master’s uniform.
But first, he lies down—a moment
like all others, he thinks—on an oak bench burnished
smooth by passengers.

Tonight their spirits
mingle, restless, eyeing the great
clock like suspicious policemen. Tolstoy lifts his feet, hears the clunk
of his self-made shoes echo from the rafters. There’s dried mud on his soles,
caked pieces of Russia falling
on guttered slats of wood. The weight of fever
begins to climbs his chest. It stretches its claws to his temples,
rests on him, rapid heartbeat blanketing heartbeats
through the night.

He starts, thinks he hears Sofya’s voice. Did he sleep? To board
the train! Is it still here, then? Is that it—black and abandoned,
frozen to cold tracks? Is it this—oblong, silver
car blinking in snow, readying to open its doors?

Tolstoy’s mouth opens, breaking
mucus, a milky thread between the lips. His tongue is a fullness,
but he must know: arrival or departure?
The window! The red and black sign reading “Astapova”!
The stationmaster’s warm hand closing his eyelids.

 

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