Review by Karen Rigby
NOT FEATHERS YET:
A Beginner's Guide to the Poetic Life
by Lola Haskins
The Backwaters Press
3502 North 52nd Street
Omaha, Nebraska 68104
150 pp., $16.00
Considering the number of currently available poetry guides for beginners, it seems tough to break into this market with a new outlook on familiar themes such as getting started, revising, sending work to journals, dealing with rejection, and publishing. Lola Haskin is aware of this in her new book.
Not Feathers Yet, with its allusion to pre-flight, is most suitable for mature, gifted young writers, older students interested in pursuing writing, or adults who are not expecting to read a comprehensive classroom textbook akin to Robert Wallace and Michelle Boisseau's Writing Poems editions.
Many books for beginners forget what it means to genuinely be at the start of a lifelong passion--a stage during which it is less important to think about specific tools, poetic forms and terminology and more important to allow oneself to explore.
Instead of using actual poems as examples to illustrate, for instance, complex ideas like imagery and metaphor, Haskins talks about writing in more basic terms, such as paying attention to cliches, punctuation and abstractions in one's drafts, and the need for choosing good titles. She uses clear analogies that would appeal to her chosen audience:
Do you remember when you were a kid and someone bought you animal crackers in that box built like a circus wagon? What was the first thing you did? Take a cracker and bite off the head and legs, right? Once you'd done that, a camel looked like a hippopatumus looked like a lion. In other words, heads and legs were how you told one animal from the others. Well, beginnings and endings are heads and legs.
Given the premise of the book as a true starting point for new writers, a book that is more reverent than referential, a more experienced reader might wonder why the section on sequencing poems in a full-length manuscript has been included.
Few would expect a beginner to make the leap from a first poem to a completed, published work in a short amount of time. The finer mechanics of writing poetry would have to be picked up somewhere else between these two points. This could be a possible point of contention to some. Why would the book leave out the "filling", the nuts and bolts of writing a poem, while including the "bread"?
Nevertheless, the inclusion of the section on book manuscripts is far from being out of place.
How many writers spent their childhoods putting together small books for themselves? How many ambitious students considered the prospect of one day being published long before achieving the dream? Haskins, having taught extensively in middle and high schools, is surely familiar with students like this.
Providing an overview of the manuscript process de-mystifies what it takes to become a writer--namely, patience, careful thought, work, and examining oneself. It also serves as a glimpse into what could happen next if one were persistent. Publication is not presented as a right or destination or necessity. It is, instead, a possibility, another stepping stone.
The book as a whole succeeds at presenting its message: writing as attentiveness, writing as part of a creative life, and writing as a way of seeing that is more than the how-to's of the written page.
Karen Rigby was a 2007 NEA literature fellow. Her chapbook, Festival Bone, was published by Adastra Press in 2004. Poems are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review and Phoebe: a Journal of Literature and Art.