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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15 thoughts on “The No-No of Playing Favorites

  1. I enjoyed that poem, too. So much depends on chickens by a wheelbarrow, what happened on the commute to work, the editor’s taste, the other submissions du jour, etc. that it’s impossible to predict what will be taken by a journal and what will have to stand in line hoping you still pick it for the team. Alarie

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    • So true, Alarie. And the irony is, human nature being what it is, sometimes a frontline reader will reject something that the editor would actually accept! Talent counts, yes–but Lady Luck is riding shotgun.

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  2. i know what you mean, sometimes i like a poem because it was the first time i felt i got something right & it has survived me not tampering with it or just because i say something i am sure has not been said, which i am fortunate to avoid as i don’t think many if any western writers have written about where i live.

    Astapova Station is a fine poem. The imagery is dense, you even get the nice incidentals in like that he wears self-made shoes, which i always like in poetry, as much detail as possible without going on a bit too much. The flow of the piece has something of the locomotive about it wending through a vast country of images. i should get some pennies together & buy your book.

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    • Thanks for those kind words, Daniel. It’s clear you’re a fellow Tolstoy fan. I must confess, though, that as much as I loved Anna Karenina, War & Peace, and a lot of his short stories and novellas, I have yet to tackle his last book, Resurrection.

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      • Sorry to disappoint but i never read any Tolstoy Ken. My knowledge of him, the little i know, is from a pal of mine who studied Russian Lit & used to talk to me about him. He had his own religion or rather, followers who sort of followed him like a leader? i recall.

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      • Not disappointing at all. I’m sure you’re well-read in other areas and have favorite writers of your own! I just went through a “Russian phase” once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away.

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      • Less so as i’ve got older & don’t have access to a book shop, which changes your habits a great deal. i read Korean poetry quite a lot, seeing as i live in Korea. i have started to read it a little more in the original without translations, but it is slow going.

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      • i live on a small island, in the country, by the sea, idyllic, but no library & if there were, they’d all be Korean books. It’d take me years to read Tolstoy in Korean. When i go to the mainland i buy a few books & read them thin.

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  3. it was said music like the William Tell Overature should not be written (it is too good for humans to endure was the thought, I believe.) And then we have this poem.

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