Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Not Feathers Yet: A Beginner's Guide to the Poetic Life

Lola Haskins provides a wealth of useful information in Not Feathers Yet: A Beginner's Guide to the Poetic Life. The book is precisely what the subtitle suggests, i.e., a comprehensive overview of what is involved in being a poet. This is nuts and bolts stuff for poets in the early stage of learning the craft. But although I've been writing poetry for a number of years, I found much that reinforced what I already knew and some new ideas as well. As Haskins suggests, we never really get over being a beginner. Each time we start a new poem, each time we try a new technique or form, each time we try to stretch into new territory, we are beginning.

The collection is divided into two sections: "Practicalities" and "Considerations." The first section has six chapters; the second has five. At times I wondered about the ordering of the chapters. For example, why is the second chapter about revision? Shouldn't that come later, after the discussion about technique? And why is "Orchestrating a Collection" in the first section? Shouldn't that be at the very end of the book? But upon reflection, I realized that a reader might dog-ear and then return to chapters. Each is part of the whole, but each also stands as its own unit. It also occurred to me that a teacher using this book as a textbook might assign chapters in any order he or she chooses. The chapter "Orchestrating a Collection" is one I found enlightening, even if I did wonder why it would be offered to beginning poets. But again, nice to have it on the bookshelf for when those poets are ready to put together a collection.

I'll provide a small sampling of what might be gleaned from this very useful book. I like Haskins' description of the writing of poems as "mystery trips." I like the first chapter's description of how poets view the world, because yes, we do have to be always on the alert. We notice things that others don't notice. We need to develop a poet's eyes and ears. Another early piece of advice I wish someone had offered me has to do with carving out and then respecting writing time. That took me years to learn. How much good energy I wasted vacuuming a floor that could have waited another day (or two).

There's useful advice about revision. Haskins covers cliches, abstractions, adjectives, connectives, punctuation, and titles. Nitty-gritty stuff. She offers suggestions on how to get your work critiqued. Here she warns against working with someone who does nothing but praise. And she suggests options beyond one-to-one, face-to-face ongoing critiquing. There's an entire chapter on publication which includes how to submit and how to accept rejection.

There's an entire chapter on how to effectively read your work aloud. Very useful, e.g., don't plague your audience with a lot of yammering before you read each poem. I've been at so many readings where I wanted to call out, "Oh please, shut up and just read the poem." I've been to readings where a chatty poet even interrupted herself in the middle of a poem to fill us in on some more background information. Another piece of advice that resonated with me is that you should go prepared. It makes me a bit cranky to go to a reading and then wait while the poet fumbles through a folder trying to decide what to read.

Each chapter ends with a generous sampling of exercises, some to help the reader practice living like a poet, some to help the reader write poems.

I recommend this book for beginning poets—the target audience—but I also recommend it for poets who might want to be reminded of all that goes into the poetic life. And I recommend it for poetry teachers and workshop leaders.

Be sure to check the back cover for one of the most unique and enticing author photos I've ever seen!

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