This letter was written in response to the article “Starving Artists: How Seattle U Could Be Failing Its Creative Community.”
In the last Spectator, a student complained that in the Narrative Poetry class “we only turned in five or six poems.” Yet if you tell an experienced poet that in ten weeks a student finished six poems they would say “Wow! Congratulations!” Why?
Because five or six completed poems—poems that have gone through several revisions, poems that use the multiple tools of the craft, poems that show technique and polish—are a veritable powerhouse.
All the opportunities that await poets—artist colonies, summer writing programs, MFA programs, publications and publication contests—call for the submission of five or six poems, never more. Why only six? Because a poet of any worth can show their skill, depth of thought, and technique in a portfolio of that size. The same is true in a course—show me your six best poems and I can see whether you know more than you knew when you started.
Six polished poems are powerful. They can get you into an artist’s colony like Yaddo, Jentel, or Hedgebrook, or a scholarship to a summer program like the New York Writer’s Institute at Skidmore College, where several of our majors are now applying. Six finished poems can get you into an MFA program at top schools like the Universities of Houston or New Orleans or Galway or SUNY Binghamton to name only a few where our alums have earned MFAs.
The key word, however, is “finished.” Six unfinished drafts of poems will get you nowhere, just as ten or twelve or two dozen mind-spills into your notebook or onto a blog may get you some “likes” but they won’t get your writing career off the ground. You can’t just pour out draft after draft of un-crafted work and call it “poetry.” An ambitious student poet will be willing to develop a draft through many levels of revision into a work that shows command of the techniques—metaphor, sound, rhythm, rhyme, imagery, and vivid language, to name only the basics.
Writing quality poems is a slow business. You have to have patience. You have to care about your work enough to revise it, revise it again, and then revise it yet again. No one is restricted to writing only six poems in Narrative Poetry or any other poetry course. But to hand in your six best poems—the ones that will go into that portfolio and get you on to the next level in your development—is to have accomplished a great deal in a ten week term. It’s an old saying but a true one that quality counts over quantity.
Sharon Cumberland, Director of the Seattle University Creative Writing Program