Last summer Robert bravely confessed that he had once been duped by one of those poetry anthology operations. My confession may be even more shameful for someone who attempts to be a “serious” poet: I was a professional greeting card writer.
I don’t mean I wrote and submitted greeting card verses on the side for extra cash. I was on the writing staff of Gibson Greetings for nine years and was Senior Writer by the time Gibson laid off most of its creative staff in a major downsizing in 1999. (Keep in mind that there were only two writers on staff by that time; contract writers contributed a lot of the verses, especially in humor.) I wrote on contract myself for Gibson for another year, and briefly freelanced after that.
To be honest, I considered the greeting card writer position my dream job and had applied several times over the years before I was hired. I’d been working in administrative support in the college advertising department of an educational publisher, maintaining mailing schedules for promotional pieces, proofreading brochures, typing up purchase orders and generating payments, and providing phone back-up for everyone else in the department. The idea of spending the entire day writing seemed too good to be true.
I did like it. I was good at it, too. However, by the end of the first year, I began to yearn to do something of a utilitarian nature, like filing or processing paperwork. Sitting at my desk all day long trying to come up with new ways of saying “Happy Birthday” without using the words “Happy Birthday” became deadening. And my creative juices dried up from writing on demand five days a week. (We received assignments with specifications: For example, a Christmas card for family, eight lines, rhyming, with a gratitude theme and contemporary tone; any number of people in the family, no direct statement of relationship to anyone in the family, a “3” on a warmth scale of 1-5 [meaning no use of terms like “fondly,” “warmly,” or love]. I usually turned in three verses for each assignment, sometimes with multiple acceptances for that assignment; since I had over 1,500 verses of all lengths and styles accepted for publication, I probably wrote about 2,500 when I was on staff at Gibson.)
I had already published a lot of poetry when I started at Gibson Greetings, and my poetry skills served me well in writing greeting cards. And, yes, writing card verses does take skill. Besides the talent for rhythm and rhyme the traditional cards required, brevity and precision were equally important, especially for the new wave of contemporary greeting cards that companies were publishing in the early 90s: short, conversational prose. It wasn’t that these resembled poetry; but they did require a poet’s ability to compress message and imagery into a few carefully chosen words.
One of the most common “doesn’t want” statements I see in Poet’s Market listings is “Doesn’t want greeting card verse.” I know just what kind of poetry the editors are citing because Gibson editors saw the same kind of work submitted for greeting cards. “All my friends love my poetry,” the cover letter would read, “and they say my poems would make wonderful greeting cards.”
Well, no, they wouldn’t. Except for verse by writers like Helen Steiner Rice, whose lines are used as “featured quotes” on the covers of traditional and religious cards, greeting cards require a “me-to-you” message, even if it’s subtle and implied. So many of the poems submitted to card editors, besides being badly written, were often all about the writer’s view of the world, whether it was a description of a fall scene or perspectives on aging with grace. A poem might go on and on about spring as a season of joy and rebirth but never get around to saying “Happy Easter” to the card recipient.
Greeting card editors want quality for their “publications” as well; and they get worn down by having to wade through badly written poems with clunking rhythm and ay-oo singsong rhymes. It would probably come as a shock to most magazine poetry editors that they have more in common with greeting card editors than they could ever imagine (or want to admit).
What was the biggest downside to my long tenure writing greeting card verses? The primary detriment was the blow to my creativity. The more I wrote verses (and I had to produce daily), the less poetry I wrote. I’ve never entirely recovered. I don’t find the joy in sitting down to tackle a poem that I once did. I resist even pursuing a few lines of inspiration jotted down in a notebook. Sometimes a poet can express herself so much that she winds up not being motivated to express herself at all, regardless of the style or venue.
The second blow to my poetic ability: I find it difficult not to produce formal poetry that sounds too smoothly metrical, too carefully rhymed. These poems don’t resemble the greeting card verse that poetry editors warn against so much as they seem as overly polished as card verses. They’re too clean, their veneer too spotless and shiny. Even a serious sonnet winds up with a patina of what could be defined as glibness (to me, anyhow). I liked my attempts at formal poetry better when I wasn’t so practiced in assembling rhymed, metered lines.
I haven’t written cards for several years now, except for brief messages in handmade cards. (Funny that I rarely buy a commercial greeting card any more. Maybe it’s because I go into “professional” mode as soon as I step up to the card racks, evaluating everything I read and automatically brainstorming for verses of my own that I don’t even need to write.) Over time, I may be able to refine my skills in formal verse. In the meantime, I sympathize with editors who cry “No greeting card verse!” but I balk at the implication that actual greeting card verses are always without craft or technique. I know better.