I run into a room on the third floor of Victoria College. I am late, but I have brought a chocolate cake and I am therefore forgiven. We take our seats and plan to persevere.
What we do is print all of our submissions in a big thick book, where they are anonymized. This year we have one hundred and thirteen, and some of them are really alright. They are numbered at the top and we refer to numbers around the table, saying things like "#94 was basically perfect," and "#10 made me so uncomfortable I don't even know what to do," and so on.
We said no to the first few submissions, and now stand so that our design editor can take a group picture. We assemble into a few 'ironic' and self-conscious poses; only when we are later told to stand straight and deadpan our faces do we appear comfortable. I think that this is because we are literary types and do not therefore know how to relax among others. Most of us are unconsciously practicing for authors' photos on inside covers of someday books. After the photo shoot we sit down and get back into arguments.
We fight about meanings hiding in obscure references, and whether they justify a poem. We fight about titles and endings and middles. One of us has crossed out an entire piece; next to him, one of us has proclaimed it her favorite. Soon the room separates almost tangibly into those who believe that each creation has some intrinsic artistic merit, and those who do not.
"Sometimes you can fall in love with somebody without knowing their name," A says. "That's .. life."
"I love this poem," B says. "I will die to get this in the journal."
"I can't deal with it; I think it's too Kerouac," A says.
"That's quite a compliment!" C says.
"No it isn't," A reminds them.
"It restores my faith in the written word," C says.
I laugh and disagree. For reference, I am A.
Everyone has disagreed with a recommendation I made about a strange poem, so I have turned back to my computer in disapproval. I observe that we all seem to befriend our anonymous writers in these disagreements; if one of us enjoys a piece, he or she will defend it to the point of raised voices and condescending interruptions. We are all friends here, I want to remind people. Some of us wish to contact writers and work with them on certain pieces. I imagine that they want to meet those whom they have defended, and they will expect thanks like soldiers riding home on horseback triumphant.
"This is the worst thing I've ever read," C says. She gets it now.
Some unoriginal but integral advice for all growing writers: remember to write what you know. Most mediocre writing is thus because it is uncomfortably inauthentic. It is sad to observe talented writers who waste their time repeating what they have learned about old people from television. This is our consensus.
One of us has just returned from a 'coffee break' with two bottles of wine. We are all thankful and eagerly hold out our cups. We have become caged animals.
"This sounds really good, but what does it mean?"
"Pretty description, but meaningless!"
These are common criticisms.
We have just concluded a violent half hour long debate about a story. I have observed that controversial pieces will often be well received; we recognize that our classmates will get right into throwing debates across Burwash tables, and we want that. We are not telling you to write towards the aim of controversy, but really, writing should provoke a little. We have decided this today. Publication is in just a few short weeks and we're excited to share some provocation with you. On a related note, the poetry is full of metaphors for semen.
"They bookended it with the same line again," D says.
"Those bitches," C says.
We have opened the second bottle of wine and all is well with the world.
We are nearing hour seven. Someone has submitted poems written in a code of self importance, and we cannot decide whether they have any merit. Young writers should remember not get too caught up in themselves. Most of us haven't earned that yet, and so most of us fall flat on our faces. If words are beautiful but meaningless, or if their meaning is impossible to decipher, the words will have no point beyond their beauty and will feel like a pretty picture painted by an amateur. Such poems can still be appreciated, but are rarely 'good writing'.
I throw my submission book over my shoulder and into the wall behind me.
I yell "The penis! It's all about the penis! The penis is the unnamable beast!"
"This one in the middle is the only one that has a theme," C suggests.
"Really?" I turn to her in frustrated hope.
"I mean a theme that isn't penis."
"You really don't want to put this in?" E asks. "You bitches!"
We all laugh, but arguments have mostly receded and been replaced by a comfortable pack mentality. Instead of caged animals, we are now timid wild things clustered in a nest. We debate the use of other languages in English language poetry and are generally unsure what to think. Obscurity is often desirable and useful – up to a very precarious point. Now there are just ten submissions left to go. We lean forward in anticipation.
Many young writers step into the styles of favorite authors and poets, and it is admirable; however they risk copying these figures, rather than simply evoking them. We never know what to say when we come across what is functionally a Plath or Cummings poem that has been altered to suit another subject. It is important for learning writers to use their influences primarily to find and form their own voices. Stylistic plagiarism is never enjoyable except in parody.
I have been in this room for nearly nine hours and my legs are hurting, but it is for the sake of ART and all is therefore okay. Soon we will finish the textual submissions and move on to the visual. We think that it will be easier to judge them, because it takes longer to ascertain the merit of writing than any other form of art. One can look at a poorly crafted painting and know at once that it lacks visual interest. Writing is more personal, because one must actively invest time and headspace to attempt understanding.
I do not know if I have ceased to make any sense. I have been in this room for nearly nine hours and my head is pounding and my legs are hurting but it is all for the sake of ART and all is therefore okay.
We thank our friends, classmates, and fellow community members for having submitted. I further thank you for reading.
See you soon when we bring your dreams to the big time.