Soft in the Middle: Poems by Shelby Eileen

Soft in the Middle is a self-published collection of poems coming in at 153 pages. This collection was brought to my attention because the author, Shelby Eileen, writes about fatness. While I appreciate the recommendation, there were maybe two poems that are about fatness, and the rest were about love and heartbreak.

Overall, this poetry collection is not for me. Eileen writes from those deep feelings after break ups that plague all twenty-somethings, myself included when I was that age. She asks those familiar questions: Am I anything without [other person]? Will I ever get over [other person]? Is it ever going to stop hurting? My whole entire world was [other person]. Thus, the target audience appears to be girls ages 14-22. If you enjoy the following poem, you’ll love this collection:

I can't look at beautiful things
because every beautiful thing
reminds me of you.

While I get the sentiment, it’s tedious to read 157 pages of the same thing written in a juvenile fashion. There is no attention to consonance, assonance, alliteration, and little paid to metaphor or imagery — all things that make poetry pleasing to hear and read.

The really aggravating part of twenty-something break-up poetry is how much weight is given to [other person]. Eileen gets lost in her own works, and instead readers come away knowing more about [other person]. Most poems begin with “I” but quickly pivot to “you.” More than anything, Eileen’s poems read like a young adult’s diary that needed some hard feedback from peers.

When I taught creative writing, my students were not forbidden from writing about love and break ups, but they had to do so in a way that paid attention to the needs and expectations of a reader of poetry. I told them the same thing I would tell Shelby Eileen: just because you write, that doesn’t mean it’s for an audience. If you want to write for an audience, you have to care about their stake in the work. Otherwise, your best reader will just be your mom. It all depends on your goals, but publishing a work tells me Eileen wanted more readership that her family.

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24 comments

  1. Wonder if this is what they call modern poetry? I remember trying Milk & Honey, one I kept seeing people rave about. I borrowed it from the library and read maybe 3 or 4 of the poems and returned it without finishing. It didn’t work for me so I can understand how you feel, it fell short. On the other hand I do hope to read more poetry this year and I think I will start with a reread of Langston Hughes. I know you don’t review men on your blog but I always have enjoyed his work.

    • Poetry like Shelby Eileen’s isn’t really a genre so much as it’s unpolished and lacks editing. I think poetry like Milk and Honey might be called more accessible, but also not a genre in particular. Langston Hughes is great. Paul Laurence Dunbar is my favorite. I’m reading him now and have another book of his coming up in March. I could read him all day! I also love The Erotic Poems by Ovid, and as scummy as Garrison Keillor is he edited a nice collection called Good Poems.

  2. Great review! There’s been such a flood of poetry of this kind recently. Whilst I totally embrace people empowering themselves by using their voice, it’s fair to say the true gems often get lost in the process. Like you said, writing is a wonderful means of processing personal thoughts and emotions, but that doesn’t mean it warrants a public release. Not if it offers nothing new to the dialogue.

    • I feel bad when someone takes their deeply personal thoughts, releases those thoughts to the world, and I cringe through them — all 157 pages of them. I feel like someone loaned me a book but accidentally gave me their diary, and now I have all this stuff I wasn’t supposed to see.

  3. Sorry to hear that this turned out to be so bland – the collection sounds similar to most Instagram poetry. I also have mixed feelings about the style. This kind of work commodifies the poem, turning it into something that can be easily consumed/bought/read without thought, but I also think it can act as a gateway into more complex work for readers who don’t read poetry at all.

    You might be interested in this article (relevant part starts at paragraph opening with “Instagram and other social media, Daley-Ward told me”) : https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/instagram-poetry-atticus-duncan-penn_us_5bb2df2de4b0ba8bb2104b1b

    • I completely forgot to consider the way poetry is being distributed. A young man I went to college with has a whole scheme for distributing poetry and making money on it while denying traditional means of becoming a poet or published. He was in an MFA program and quit — Columbia, I believe. Apparently, his prof told him something like “save your Twitter poems for the internet.”

      Okay, wow. A simple Google search shows me he is now mildly famous, has a Wikipedia page, and is an utter scumbag: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Roggenbuck

  4. I always feel vaguely embarrassed reading things like this. I really love some accessible modern poetry (Wendy Cope, for example, has written almost all of my favourite poems), but if it seems more like a journal than a poem I just feel uncomfortable.

    I like the cover, though!

    • You’re right, I did feel embarrassed. My husband would have died (hyperbole, of course, but think that make him feel awkward actually scare him). I liked Micki Myers, who wrote an accessible collection about breast cancer. I also really like Nick Demske.

  5. Well thank god you give your students that writing advice, because lord knows they need to hear it! I must say you were brave to approach a self-published poetry book about love in the first place-especially one that’s 153 pages long! Good on ya for getting through it.

  6. […] Soft in the Middle by Shelby Eileen: Right away, I could tell this collection of poems was not for me. The speaker goes through a gamut of emotions after a break up, and I was both overwhelmed by the number of poems about pining away and underwhelmed by the lack of attention to basic poetry tools, like imagery and alliteration. […]

  7. It’s great to see poetry reviewed though disappointing this turned out to be a dud. I’m in agreement – sad love poems have their place (and I’ve written them too!) but that place might be just your personal diary!

  8. Ugh. I’m sorry about this experience. I’ve been running into this more and more often when it comes to modern poetry. I think it’s a trend which has come of the world of Twitter and Tumblr. Do you have any contemporary poetry collections you’d recommend?

    Also — you taught poetry, too?! Is there anything you didn’t teach?!

    • I taught three levels of composition. I taught a intro to creative writing class, which was half poetry and half fiction. I taught literature, either contemporary or Black Lit. Those are my areas. Give me anything not in Black Lit that comes before 1970 and I’m like “Merh meh mer muh?” I struggled spectacularly in classes about Shakespeare, Chaucer, James Joyce, and modernism. I can’t even decipher the phrase that captures modernism: “shore against the ruins.” Shore. Shore being used in what way. Shore.

      I would recommend Nick Demske’s poetry collection, which is self-titled. I think he does some clever work with line breaks that draws you in.

      • Can you, in 1-3 sentences, explain the difference between writing classes and literature classes? With all my pondering, I realize I might not realize the difference in content– other than you write more in one and read more in the other? #Neophyte

        I can COMPLETELY hear you saying “Merh meh mer muh?” It makes me a little happy to know some literature doesn’t connect with you. Why? Because it’s means you aren’t perfect. Perfection is boring. ❤

        • In a lit class, you read books and stories (and sometimes poems and plays) and then the teacher practically tells you what to think about it. Then, you go off and write a paper, the contents of which the teacher has read 100 times before from previous students. Okay, that’s really Downer-ville, but not far from the truth.

          A writing class (often called composition) is writing papers and essays.

          A creative writing class often starts with an intro level. Your instructor may ask you to write a short story in third-person. Or write story in which you focus especially on describing the setting. Or write a poem following the form of a Villanelle. None of these works come out beautifully; you’re meant to practice the elements of writing. After that, pretty much all creative writing classes are workshops. Students will be assigned a date to turn in their story, everyone in the class will read it and formulate feedback as homework, then they sit in a circle and talk about their feedback in class. As someone who has now taught both types of creative writing classes, I have to say my professors did a really poor job of teaching students how to craft meaningful feedback other than “I liked it” and “I didn’t like it.” I used to force my students to revise using the feedback whether they wanted to or not just to practice doing so. I also assigned them a practice story to criticize so they could try it out without worrying that anyone’s feelings got hurt. I made them focus on the elements of writing (plot, character, POV, setting, etc.) instead of their personal likes and dislikes.

          • Ohmygosh! YES. Your description of Lit class is why I never got into an English degree! I was just tired of being told what to think and how to interpret literature. So, I stopped participating. Oops.

            Are composition classes often themed? Like, short form vs. essay? Is it about understanding how to write? How is composition different from creative writing?
            So many questions!

            I love how you describe creative writing classes. These sound like a way to condition people to actually get into the habit of writing when there is time, instead of only writing when you’re “in the right mood” or brain space or whatever. That’s where I feel most authors struggle.

            • Composition classes aren’t typically themed, but the curriculum is decide on by the school. For instance, Notre Dame wants every paper to focus on the rhetorical elements, regardless of what kind of paper it is (report, causal, argument, etc.). Other schools just pick X types of papers that they think will best serve students in future classes.

              Composition is all persuasive writing, whereas creative writing is all made up. Both have extensive tool boxes from which one must choose the best tool to tackle their writing project.

              In terms of writing all the time: I think it’s typically people who don’t write well who write when they are in the mood. Good writers know that’s not a thing. If you take writing seriously, you can’t say, “I’m not in the mood to work.” Athletes do the same thing. Carli Lloyd, who is on the U.S. Women’s Soccer team, works out every single day, holidays or no, rain or shine.

              • I definitely just read aloud the last part of your comment to David. He glared at me (in a loving, sorta silly way) and then stated, “Well, I obviously dont know my craft and need to learn a damn thing or two.” and stalked off. I am hopeful. 😉

                • Tell David not to hate me because I’m right. And if this makes him feel better, please share: I haven’t written any fiction in months. My anxiety goes up immediately when I do. I’m trying to put out little anxiety fires that crop up from other parts of my life. It takes a long time, to be honest. While I deeply enjoy my new job, I’m still learning how to have a job and deal with daily stress that is a natural part of working without breaking out into an eczema rash. I started at the theatre in August. I’m just now smoothing out my feelings. It’s nothing to do with the theatre, but how my brain processes information and turns most info into a warning alarm (unnecessarily). Thus, when I get myself all settled with work, I may go back to writing fiction again. I’ve been thinking about picking up my violin again, and I’ve felt more at ease blogging. So, you know, one day at a time!

                  • I’ll be sure to tell him. 🙂 If writing was easy, more people would do it. I’m just impressed that you keep at it, even if you take breaks. That’s okay!

                    I’m glad that things seem to be settling down for you. Routine is important for stability and it can be difficult to establish. I love that you’re be patient with yourself too. That’s so hard!

                    Oh man. Picking up the violin again! ❤ ❤ This fills my heart with joy.

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