To Pee on the Tree or Not to Pee?

When I walk Duncan the Dog, he reads tree bark the way I read books. He’s not interested in the tree itself, only the messages left by his canine tribe. I don’t know what he learns from his sniffing, maybe something like “Oh, that old lab was here today and that little Pomeranian is pregnant. Wow!” His own signature is writ in urine.

Critiquing poetry is much the same, though we write in ink and sweat, not pee. We don’t judge the poet, only the work. We neither defend nor prosecute the “tree.” It’s what’s on the bark that matters.

Today the critique group to which I belong, Gamuts, will share a potluck lunch and review a poetry manuscript. It works this way: the poet du jour has assembled her manuscript to the best of her ability. She has included a title page, a table of contents and the full text of each poem on a separate page. She has numbered the pages. She will have handed out print copies of the manuscript weeks ago. The rest of us will have read the work at least twice and written comments on the pages.

First we talk about the collection as a whole: the themes, style, structure of the book. We pretend the writer is not at the table, sipping her wine and crunching her salad. She’s eating and she’s listening and taking notes. After discussing the larger elements, we work through the poems one at a time, looking for fresh, precise language, rhythm, structure within the poem. What I like someone else mourns. We look for leaners–poems too weak to stand alone outside this manuscript. We name the keepers and the cuts, the pets and the mutts. We remain civil and somewhat objective. Objectivity challenges us because we often know the backstory of a piece and may not be alert to what a stranger needs to get the news.

Most of all we don’t lift a leg to offend the poet because each of us at some point will be the tree.

Minion Rules for Writers

The following guest blog comes from writer Fred G. Baker, author of Growing Up Wisconsin: Remembrances from The American Midwest. Thanks, Fred for the comic relief.

Minion Critique

By F.G. Baker

Rod Sterling Narrates:

In a book-publishing world controlled by one last corporation, it was necessary to create an elite cadre of editorial minions to prevent anyone from writing anything remotely original. It began in colleges, teacher’s trade schools and all classrooms, even and especially at writers’ retreats where the indoctrination could be applied 24 hours a day. The programing called ‘creative writing’ quickly generated a legion of editors, writers and agents who could group-think the mantra to the letter. All creativity was driven out of fiction until homogenous drivel was all that remained.

We look in on a typical ‘critique session’ at a coffee shop in which, by chance, the ultimate drivel was produced!

Story in the Here and Now:

The chief minion reviewed their discussion without summarizing or telling anything. “I’m not sure, but I think it meets all the limitations of the checklist: no prologues, flashbacks, or dream sequences, all showing and no telling, where, when, single point of view, drama, emotion, simple language, no semi-colons, no words beyond a seventh grade level …We have to check that. Next year they want to reduce it to a fifth grade level and we want to anticipate …Yes, I think we have perfect drivel. I am excited but not exclamatory.”

The group of four minions sat around a table at a Starbucks here, now. They were critiquing the beleaguered work by one minion, number 5,324,492, in their midst who had been revising his novel for thirty-seven years to finally get it just right. (Finally, oops, -ly word, delete.) 5,324,492, called 92 for short, was relieved and excited too, but not to the point of exclamation. He had produced a masterpiece.

The chief said, “Let’s look at it again in case we may have missed something.” He laid out the single page of text for them all to see, showing:


A Novel by 5,324,492

Here and now.

Help! I am confused, therefore I am afraid.

The End.

The minion sometimes called Mary said, “Isn’t ‘therefore’ a forbidden word now, implying too much. I think it is not on the fifth grade list.”

“Good catch, Mary. Maybe we should try ‘then,’ but that would simply indicate sequence in now and not causation. And I’m concerned that ‘confused’ implies that there may be a back story and, therefore, may be a ‘data dump.’ Why am I confused? That isn’t ‘showing’ and also implies backstory.”

92 said, “But I liked therefore and confused. It is the raison d’etre for afraid.”

The chief glowered at 92. “92, I’m surprised at you. We use no foreign terms or italics here in this group. It is rule 4,239. It causes the reader to stop to think what it means and we can’t have that. Many readers aren’t able to come back to the story again. They just sort of drift out there. Watch it, mister, no exclamation.”

Another minion said. “Shouldn’t there be contractions? It sounds formal now, ‘I am afraid.’ Nobody talks like that. It sounds expository.”

Mary said “And it’s too short for a novel. We could repeat the words but that would be redundant, wouldn’t it? It would repeat the story, tell the reader something he already knows.”

The chief said. “You’re right Mary. We have to call it a novella, but it is even too short for that. Maybe a nov, or just n. And as for the story, there’s no story but that’s OK since it’s character driven.”

92 moaned. “Then ‘the end’ is unnecessary since it’s telling the reader something he already knows once he runs out of words.” He pulled out a huge bottle of white-out and doctored the document.



An n     by 5,324,492

Help!                I’ m afraid.

92 smiled. The chief said, “I love committee-work.” They all bought more coffee.


The new n was accepted by the publisher immediately and sold in vast numbers. It was translated into 472 languages, some of which had become extinct and some of which did not exist yet. Of the six billion people on the planet, everyone bought a copy, except a few skeptics whose names and addresses have been recorded for future action. The corporation celebrated reaching its ultimate goal of producing such perfect drivel that all other publishers were driven completely off the planet.

The world waited for 92 to produce his promised, in-the-works, romantic novel ‘Fuck!’and his who-done-it, ‘Who the Fuck!’ The later title is simply a working title since it may violate the new titling rules by having too many syllables. More later.

Rod Sterling was imprisoned for using big words and exclamatory rhetoric.

The End.