I was reading what I thought was a poignant, even tragic poem to my writers’ group when several members started tittering, even giggling. This was certainly not the response I was aiming for. I can’t blame them. I very often read humorous verse, and they have come to expect it of me, so at the first few lines, they were prepared to have a laugh. On the other hand, one of my writer friends once was broke off in the middle of reading a chapter of her book and said to us all, “There’s nothing worse than reading something you thought was funny and nobody laughs.” The chance of being misread or misunderstood is one of the risks writers take when they begin to read or submit their work.
Years ago, I was complaining about being misread to a brilliant English professor, Ruben Quintero. He was the first one to tell me that, no, once it’s out there, it’s not mine anymore and I can’t control the reader’s response. He’s right, of course. Once something is published or submitted, you no longer have any control over how the work is viewed, or the response it gets. It’s a scary, daunting thought.
But it can also be a delightful experience. Nothing makes me happier than when I read a poem to one of my groups, and it engenders a lively discussion, not necessarily about the poem, indicating it has hit a nerve, or made the listeners thoughtful, or led them to see something in a different light. But even more delightful is when they come up with ideas, associations, or interpretations that I had not thought of myself, which had not occurred to me during the writing, but which prove the work is richer than even I thought. If I had control over all responses, the readers would miss out on the wonderful joy of discovering their own meanings in the work and I would lose out on the opportunity to touch and affect readers in new ways.
In a workshop type setting, of course, we writers listen to all responses, even if they are not what we had expected or intended, negative or positive. There is one negative response to be wary of, however. Some listeners see their own negative response as a sign that the poem “doesn’t work.” This is not necessarily true at all, of course. That reaction may be only one, single response amidst a chorus of positive ones. Not every poem is going to work for every reader. But one thing is certain: your work has no chance for any response at all if it’s not presented, read or submitted. It takes guts, but in my opinion, it’s worth the risk of losing control.