“So, Who Do You Write Like?”

We recently had a very interesting conversation, my writing group and I, about maybe the second hardest ( and really most annoying) question to answer: So, who do you think you write like?

We determined that for purposes of submitting to lit mags, it’s an important answer to know. After all, knowing the style in which you write can whittle down where you send your precious ones, or rather, where the work of who you write like tends to be published and seen. But who wants to sit there and say, “Well, I write like him, him, and her?” We all would like to believe we are somewhat original and maybe can even do what we do better than the poet we “write like.” I mean come on now, after all, we writers love our immediate and singular gratification.

But we do have to acknowledge that our style may fall within a certain aesthetic, even if that aesthetic is a blend of various aesthetics. The tendency, when asked who I write like, is to say “Uh, Jennifer Steele” because I do, but my work carries many influences as does everyone’s work.

Maybe the bottom line is we just can’t (or do not desire to) point our finger to whom our work resembles. One of my fellow workshoppers made this great point: the writers we like to read and put in our top 10 list of greatest poets I’d like to be buried with are most likely not the poets we write anything like; even more strangely, we may fall into a section of writers whose work we don’t enjoy.

So what to do with that?

I don’t believe that saying your writing has particular influences or lies within the same “genre” as another writer(s) is necessarily a bad thing. I, myself, can see hints of writers I admire come through in my work in different ways, maybe not lyrically, but perhaps with use of white space or line breaks. Naomi Shihab Nye is one of favorite poets for reasons that have to do with pacing, lyricism, and narrative structure. My witting gleans her quietude and what I call “pow” contemplative lines that fall neatly within the narrative.

As you can tell, this conversation really got me thinking. Who do I write like? The only poet who I am ever able to identify with stylistically would be Tracy K. Smith. Now, Tracy is a baaaaad mammajamma. Her work is edgy and unexpected. My poems can relate to her placement of short statements, causing a reader to think and realize along with the speaker, pause the moment and consider for a while how we got here. Needless to say, me and Tracy could kick it.

But, Joan Houlihan is a newfound friend and what’s interesting is that I wouldn’t have immediately identified with her work, but taking a more critical look at poems I wrote a long time ago and still love, these poems seem to exist in this narrative/abstract/language realm her poems belong to. I can’t necessarily relate my content to her content, but do find myself strangely attracted to her writing.

So I guess I am somewhere mixed in with Tracy K. Smith and Joan Houlihan, plus all of the poets Amazon has recommended based on books purchased by people who also bought “Life On Mars” and “The Mending Worm.” Not a bad little crew.

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