A few issues ago, I wrote an ed-comm-itorial for Voiceworks #93 “Cell”. Voiceworks publishes the work of writers under 25; in a couple of months, I’ll be forced to make my own way in the big world, elderly and alone. Not really — but I have had my last ever things published by VW. Gonna miss ’em. Stumbled across my recentish editorial today, so here’s a flashback. Sorry-not-sorry about the title pun.
Write of Passage
In writing, as in life, the first cut is the deepest. Baby, I know. My first time was online. On a poetry critique forum. Some punk who didn’t even understand my poem thought they could tell me, the author, how to improve it. Hot damn! That first dose of red ink can sting.
I was sixteen and top of English. I was used to my poetry taking pride of place on my parents’ fridge. Yet someone out there thought my writing could be better. Much better. I’d like to say that was the day I left the comfort of LiveJournal and became a Writer-with-a-capital-W, but in reality I was too busy making my school-friends troll this anonymous butcher who had applied his untrained scalpel to my perfect poem.
First Critique can be a significant and habit-shaping event; it can separate the diarists from the crafters. It’s an experience many of us share—perhaps even an essential writers’ rite: to undergo the painful epiphany that accompanies extreme butthurt in the face of criticism. It didn’t sink in that exact day, but it was a step towards realising that first-drafting is only a small part of writing.
That poem was titled ‘Narcissism and Existential Lust Backstage at the Con’. Seriously. I wrote it while skulking around with my trumpet in the eerie blue lights backstage at the Brisbane Conservatorium, waiting for school band dress rehearsals. Dressed in yellow crepe, I mostly gawked at a hot sound guy who looked enough like an Anne Rice vampire for me.
So I wrote a poem for our sound tech Armand, employing ultra-subtle addiction metaphors because, at sixteen, I was pretty worldly (read: drank Absinthe once):
I can’t shoot up sense
I can’t see my veins
I’m floating in opium blue
there’s no substance abuse
there is only you.
I think I may even have tried to hand-deliver a copy. Bad habits start early.
That First Critique, perhaps, sets writers apart from musicians and sports players. While other kids take piano lessons and go to soccer training, few young-’uns are sent to poetry class or writing lessons. (Start more Dead Poets Societies in schools!) In ice-skating class, the first thing you learn is how to safely fall down—but most young poets, untutored, forge their own ways in cossetted, private notebooks.
Looking back, that critic’s advice was firm, but kind—and asked me questions, rather than directed me or rewrote my work. I had to realise I’d willingly entered a workshop forum where the aim was not so much to showcase as to practise. And one of the best ways to get better as a writer is inform your editing with readers’ feedback.
Of course, the critiqued poem doesn’t exist in a vacuum and neither does the poet’s response. I empathise with each new writer struck with the revelation that Plath and Neruda didn’t just pop those poems out fully formed. The nature of First Crit can bubble-wrap, buoy up, encourage or scar a new writer.
If you, dear reader, are one whose formative First Crit is far in the past, I urge you to think back on that experience and be considerate. But the real trouble is something much more insidious: beyond the boldfaced anonymity of online critique groups, serious peer feedback can be hard to find. Be considerate, but do still be critical. The only feedback worse than ‘You suck’ is ‘Don’t change a thing!’
The poems and stories you’re about to read in this issue have all been edited in collaboration with their authors. Works that didn’t make it in this round will receive feedback, too. Voiceworks is the only publication I know of that does this. Last issue, Chloe Brien discussed the monikers writers instinctually take. I’m a poet, but I think I’m an editor first.
I submitted ‘Narcissism and Existential Lust Backstage at the Con’ to Voiceworks in 2006. It was my first national publication—but more than seeing my name in print, I remember the thrill of working with an editor who knew my poem could be better. If only we’d taken the scalpel to that title.
Voiceworks #93, 2013.