Amy Meng's craft talk, “Know Thyself,” was originally published in The Southeast Review's October 2017 Writer’s Regimen.
The problems I have with my poems are often the same problems I have as a person: too controlling, too much vague ambition without a plan, too much meanness. It took me a long time to recognize and articulate my general behaviors, and even more time to recognize that those behaviors instruct how I treat my poems.
I have a friend who treats her poems lovingly, with great generosity and tenderness. This means that if something doesn’t sound right, if a line or image or metaphor isn’t working, she’s content to let the poem coalesce around that unexpected wart. Those lines become the signature whorl of the poem; by letting the discomfort live, something undeniably interesting and usually exceptionally good arises. This also tends to be the way she treats people: by living in their particular strangeness, she amplifies their awkward bits so that vulnerability becomes amplified—and often becomes strength.
I dislike this kind of discomfort. If a line doesn’t seem like it suits the poem, I excise it – I don’t give it a chance to become something else. A poem works best for me when I have something to say and then I say it. I may not know exactly what the intent is at the outset, but I have a general feeling. The process of writing is an archaeological dig, sifting and clarifying the dust, discovering a button, old toothbrush, and finally—something that can be submitted as evidence. Proof that I existed, in my particular way. Proof the wind moved through me.
There is no wrong approach; however, I do think behavior patterns we exhibit in our daily lives usually don’t end when we start writing—so it’s important to be aware of what those patterns are. Our patterns can, for example, result in personal clichés and writing tics: favoring metaphors having to do with snow, or poems that end on a strong declarative statement, etc. I’ve often thought that when I know the animal I am, I can trap myself. Because I am so message-oriented, I’m prone to repeating the same narrative arc in my poetry (observation -> description -> revelation). To balance this out, I might task myself with the following exercise:
Take a published poem by an author other than yourself (I prefer to select one I’ve never read before) and cover it so you only see one line at a time. As you read each line, write a line in response. It’s like dancing: when their poem steps forward, you’re forced to step back.
Another example: I am prone to using imagery and abstraction to blunt, delay, or hide a point that might be better made more directly. To balance this out, I impose rules in which I need to use a concrete, mundane detail—the color of a plate, the last piece of food in my mouth, the song on the radio—to help nail me back to the moment at hand.
Ultimately, the exercises I outline above resemble a set of corrections to behaviors that I find undesirable in myself as a writer. The real discomfort for me is in asking: are these behaviors actually undesirable and in need of correction? What if I responded with curiosity and patience rather than decisive erasure, or forced counterbalancing—what might my poems become then?
My advice: be honest about what behavior is most difficult for you in daily life—then address that behavior in your writing. Just letting myself be is what scares me. Whatever it is that scares you: do that.
Amy Meng holds degrees from Rutgers University and New York University. She is the author of Bridled (Pleiades Press, 2018) and a Kundiman Fellow. Her poetry has appeared in publications including: Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Narrative Magazine, and New England Review. She currently lives in Brooklyn.