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Banned Words

I am a member of the poetry review board for Philadelphia Stories, a print and on-line fiction and poetry quarterly journal here in my area (please submit your work! See guidelines here). Last night was our review meeting for the Winter quarter. Our task is to sort through hundreds of submissions and narrow the list down to three poems that will be printed in the next issue.

Going over mass quantities of poetry in a review group allows for brutal honesty and sometimes hilarious moments. As a review board, we take our jobs and the submissions very seriously (these are authors’ sacred works of art), but when some writers have not bothered to re-read and revise their work before submitting, we have to giggle at the sometimes terrible results.

Because reading such poorly done poetry can cause a person physical pain, joking declarations help us lift our spirits. Yesterday, one reviewer kidded that she would never accept a poem for publication that had the word “kittens” in it. There’s a bit of sanity in this statement, as the cute cuddly image of kittens tends to be a bit melodramatic for professional-level poetry, but obviously there are no banned words in poetry submissions, not for Philadelphia Stories or other legit literary magazines; nonetheless it was a very funny moment.

Being the sarcastic stinker I am, I then started making a BANNED WORDS list. In big capital letters on my review list I wrote, “NO POEMS WITH:” Underneath this foreboding title I began to accumulate words. Number 1 on the list: Kittens! As the night went on, almost every reviewer (it’s a large member board) added a word to the list: 2. Roses; 3. Amnesia; 4. White trumpets (as per describing lilies); 5. Wonder; 6. Wander; 7. Breathless; and 8. Hasten. I’m sure the list will grow at the Spring meeting.

I may construct a poem using all of these words just to give the board a laugh, something like, “The kittens hastened/ breathlessly home / after wandering through roses, through /white trumpet lilies / filled with wonder / amnesia sets in as they sleep / so they will wander / again in the morning. (BLECH!) Give it a try and see if you can come up with something worse. We’ll have a “horrid, gut-choking, spine-wrenchingly bad poetry” contest on PurpleCar. Perhaps we can submit the winner to the Wergle Flomp contest.

As I said, poems are art, and they deserve your care and attention. In the back of this month’s issue of The Writer magazine, former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall says that he revises his poems at least 50 times before they are finished, one poem going through more than 400 drafts! This seems extreme, but this man has had a long and successful career as a poet. Revise at least once or twice, and don’t ever be shy about sending out your work. Just do yourself and us lowly reviewers a favor: be sure that it is really the best art you can produce.

Looking forward to your bad submissions here and your great ones at PhiladelphiaStories.org!

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