Writer in Residence

My Plastic Bag of Words Part 1 of 2

By Dane Swan


As stated in my interview, in my closet I have a plastic bag that has poems that I've rejected. That plastic bag is slightly more than a bag of failed poetry, and it represents my writing process in many important ways.


I actually started putting together the contents of that bag when I was in University; before I decided to become a writer. On one of my last visits to Bermuda, I found some notebooks. They contained the only writing that I did in high school – rap and dancehall lyrics that I had written during the sheer boredom of school. I took them for creative inspiration, placing them in a clear plastic bag and throwing it into my luggage back to Canada. Soon after that trip, I discovered slam poetry.


Many of my notes came in handy, I used them as lyrics while jamming with bands, collaborating with producers and most importantly, for inspiration as I began to take writing poetry more seriously. Around 2008, when I finally decided to leave slam poetry, and attempt to become a published poet, this same plastic bag gained new meaning to me. This small, clear, plastic bag represented a lifetime of ideas.


By 2011, my first book (Bending the Continuum, Guernica Editions)was published. Two years from the point when I decided to become a page poet, I signed my first book contract. I signed the contract for my second book (A Mingus Lullaby, Guernica Editions, 2016) in 2012. A large reason for this, were the rules I've set for myself. That small plastic bag is an integral part of the rules that I still follow.


Before we discuss my rules, lets talk about writing for journals. I believe the first piece I had published in a journal was in 2006. I sent three poems, two were heavily crafted, and one was improvised, because the journal demanded that poets submit a minimum of three poems. Of course, the third poem was the one they selected. I don't think I submitted poetry to a journal again until 2008. Since 2012, I've only submitted poetry to journals by request.


Back in 2008. when I decided to get published, I wanted to be an author of books. The only reason I sent poems to journals was to improve my publishing history. If that's your thing, if getting published in journals is your primary goal as a poet – great. By all means, but unless you get to a point of fame, where paying journals are contacting you, and not the other way around, you're creating waste.


Rule #1: Never have more rejected poems than can fit into the plastic bag of words.


I've seen poets who have binders of poems that will never get published. Heard rumors of storage lockers filled with poems. For what ends? Consistently submitting and being published by journals is a skill. Despite what a journal may say, most journals print poems that fit certain formats, voice, and length. Each journal has its idiosyncrasies. You're writing, shaping, and editing your poems to fit the whims of a particular editorial board. You're other option is to spend money entering competitions. Now, you're totally blind to what the judges like, or dislike. A judge may love your work, but never see your work due to pre-screening. Competitions can be an expensive game.


What you end up with is waste. Poems you have little to no use for, meant for a particular competition, or editor at a journal. Most likely, these poems will never end up in your next collection. At least with short stories, you could turn an unpublished work into a chapbook.


This leads to the second rule:

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Dane Swan is a Bermuda-raised, Toronto-based internationally published poet, writer and musician. His first collection, Bending the Continuum was launched by Guernica Editions in the Spring of 2011. The collection was a recommended mid-summer read by Open Book: Toronto. In 2013 Dane was short listed for the Monica Ladell Award (Scarborough Arts) for his poem "Stopwatch."