On Learning to Read (Literary Writing)

I’m a few days into my first gig as a reader in the Stone of Madness masthead, and I feel I need to learn how to read literary writing better.

In my circle of friends (primarily techies who have interests in some form of art), I’m the “English”/“literary”1 friend. I like reading, and I like poetry specifically.

But my primary source of poetry (up until about this year) has been from classes.2 This meant:

  • Old white men
  • So many old white men
  • Some old white women
  • Probably a lot of them were racist/sexist,3 also

This also meant that my primary source of poetry is … critically-acclaimed, for lack of a better term. It’s famous poetry. It’s famously good poetry at that, which is why they teach it. Or publish it in huge, household-name publications.

This gave me a better idea of what most people think is good, which is somewhat helpful, but it didn’t help me:

  • write better - only emulate (poorly) in style and form what has already been done
  • judge others’ works and their value to me

Earlier this year I started engaging more with the online literary community (specifically on Twitter). I found and actually completed NaPoWriMo (somehow), tried a creative writing class/workshop, tried submitting my work to a few several publications, big and small - I tried sharing my work with more people, really. And I started reading more of other people’s work.

What are people writing right now - not 200 years ago? What forms do they play with? Which of those forms appeal to me? What makes me wistful, or frustrated, or best of all, feel something almost undescribable?

Reading for SoM takes these questions to a new level. I’ve become more granular with my feelings: this stanza pulls at my heart; this one seems a bit like fluff. I really love this metaphor, but this line sounds a bit awkward. Is this nuanced enough?4

Sometimes (especially now, as I’m just starting), I feel hesitant to comment these feelings out. It’s hard being the first to comment on a piece, as there’s a part of me that is scared that my opinion will stand alone, like everyone else will love the piece, but I’m not a fan at all (or vice versa).

Add that to the fact that I’m a skimmer (which is definitely not how to read poetry), and it can take me several reads to really discern how I actually feel about a piece even before commenting. Sometime the answer is just … I’m not getting much from it.5

I suppose this is my impostor syndrome rearing its ugly head again. Being fortunate enough to be a reader, I feel like I should have a better sense of taste for what is “good” or what “fits” for SoM. But the reality is, even if I have read all of the SoM issues thus far, it doesn’t always mean that my taste (whatever that means6) will mesh with our editors.

And along that same vein, my taste might not always mesh with that of our submitters. I know, personally, I fret over every piece I send in, and I try to make it the best I can. I’m sure many of our submitters do the same. Their words tug at their heartstrings, and each piece is a special work to them. But sometimes it doesn’t do anything for me.

When I find a piece that really resonates with me, though … *chef’s kiss*.

Stone of Madness Press is open for submissions from queer, trans, and neurodiverse writers for the first half of every month. Currently, we are reading until November 15 for Issue 6. You can view our submission guidelines here.

  1. That is, my chosen form of art is literary arts, mostly because I’m an awful visual artist. ↩︎

  2. I also subscribe to the Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day newsletter, but that has some of the same problems. ↩︎

  3. Probably at least a few of them *ahem, Oscar Wilde* were gay, but probably a lot were homophobes as well. But Oscar Wilde was so, so gay. ↩︎

  4. This also makes me much, much more insecure about my own work. How have I gotten published at all? But it’s also good to view these questions as tools: how can I make someone else feel good like this? ↩︎

  5. This is actually a shockingly common feeling. For me, at least. ↩︎

  6. Kant wrote that taste (agreeable-ness) is purely subjective, while beauty a “subjective univeral” in his Critique of Judgment. I think about that a lot. ↩︎