Journal

698 posts

UPDATES ON A FREE VERSE LIFE

Waiting for Ideas (vs. Godot)

spaniel

Sometimes waiting for an idea for a poem is like waiting for Godot–some kind of existential joke. You can see Camus laughing in the barn. Or Sartre’s mirthful eyes through his thick glasses. Or angst from the corner of your wary eye. But after a while, you grow impatient.

So I flipped open good old Ted Kooser’s good old The Poetry Home Repair Manual to the section titled “But How Do You Come Up With Ideas?”  A reading, then, chapter and verse:

“The poet Jane Hirshfield wrote: ‘A work of art defines itself into being, when we awaken into it and by it, when we are moved, altered, stirred. It feels as if we have done nothing, only given it a little time, a little space; some hairline-narrow crack opens in the self, and there it is.’ She goes on to quote Kafka: ‘You do not even have to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, remain still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you unasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.'”

A lovely image, that. The world rolling at your feet like a submissive spaniel. An idea bringing you a stick called “brilliant poem.” And all because you waited, because you said to the Muse, “Heel!”

See how easy? You may now begin writing….

Rejection

thumbs down

Rejections. They’re part of the game when you’re a writer. You bundle up some poems, send them out, hope for the best.

But sometimes you feel confident. The reason? You do what you’re supposed to be doing. You heed the editors’ cries and actually read the poems they publish “to get an idea of what we like.” And sometimes you wonder about poems they like. Why on earth would an editor say “I do” to a poem like that? Why would she marry herself to such a lame excuse for poetry?

There are a few reasons. Sometimes, just as you want to promote your own poetry by getting it published, editors want to promote their journals by publishing known names they can splash on their covers, thus upping the “prestige factor” of their magazine. In that case, real estate is sucked up by writers who sometimes live on past reputations as much as present merit.

Or sometimes questionable poems just fit an editor’s personal quirks. He likes that style. He likes form poems. He likes rhyme in a free-verse world. He likes that topic.

The same holds for rejected poems that, by all accounts, seem as strong or stronger than what goes into the journal. It could be you’re not a known entity and thus, don’t even get a true hearing. Private country club-itis stops you at the door. End of story. Or it could be, as is true with students taking high-stakes tests in schools, the mood, health, or temperament of the editor that particular day worked against your poem.

Then again, it could be a numbers game. Many submissions are only partially read by readers helping an editor out. They may stop reading, mid-poem (or even four lines in) if, quite frankly, they don’t like how it starts. I dare say (but fear to say it), some submissions are rejected without being read at all. Is this really possible, you ask? Of course. Anything that’s possible can and will occur. Who knows, really?

Which is not to say I’m questioning the integrity of editors. The vast majority are overworked and dedicated to a cause we mutually deem important. I’m simply saying editors are human, and thus subject to human weaknesses.

To think of rejections this way can only be helpful to writers, who have to understand it as a numbers game being played in an existential world of organized (Submittable, anyone?) chaos. If your work is good–or certainly as good as work you’re seeing published–it will eventually take root somewhere. But it will not necessarily be automatic. Or quick.

The system does not work that way. Not until your name is Billy Collins or Mary Oliver.

You’re Not Getting Older; They’re Getting Younger

adroit

I once wrote a poem (it’s lying around here somewhere) about how young some of these doctors I’ve seen are getting. Do they really know what the hell they’re doing? I wondered. For some reason, I prefer seeing white-haired-but-healthy-looking sorts behind a scalpel. Behind a jet airliner’s controls, too.

But part of the Isaac Newton “for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction” logic of the universe is that any society getting older is by necessity also getting younger. I mean, philosophy courses that start with syllogisms were the death of me, but this much I know.

One great example of this phenomenon is a newish poetry site called The Adroit Journal. Check out its ancient editor-in-chief. Move over, Methuselah! I sent some poems to this journal because I admired the poems already published there. Only after I clicked the “submit” button did I stumble upon the link to Adroit’s poetry readers.

Look again. Not a white-haired-but-healthy-looking sort in the line-up. Just healthy-looking. And very young-looking. The average age must be, what… 23 or less?

To me, this is a good thing for poetry. A very good thing. Some readers out there consider our fair outpost a bit too exotic for its own good. You know, poetry as precious kingdom. One ruled by a clique in a tower with its own rules.

Something tells me Adroit’s poetry readers have little use for rules and even less for ivory-towered kingdoms. They just know what they like and publish it.

The moral of this story? The world is not getting older; it’s getting younger. And that includes The Poetry World. Thank God and other deities…

Talking with the Buddha of Poetry (Part 2)

buddha2

Q: Do you see any return in popularity to form poetry?

A: It’s impossible to say. Certainly there are proponents and practitioners. Some poets are of a mathematical mind, which surprises many readers but shouldn’t. Meter and rhyme bring different skills to the table. Read the masters who fill poetry anthologies. While you may find variations on a theme (Shakespearean vs. Petrarchan sonnets, for example), it’s nothing like now where any 14-line poem is knighted as “sonnet.” It takes a free-verse imagination to call every orange an apple. (Laughs) Why can’t a 14-line poem just be a 14-line poem? Must it be a “sonnet” no matter what? Can we not love it by any other name, to coin Shakespeare?

Q: Wait. Was that an answer?

A: Not really. I must be running for higher office.

Q: Speaking of, what do you think of political poetry?

A: Again, we come to semantics. What do you mean by political? If it’s to change a reader’s view, even on the simplest concept, it can said to be political. Definitions of argument writing or persuasive writing are also problematic. It can be said that writing designed to inform or to entertain is at the same time making an argument, because knowledge from information has the power to change the reader’s perception. Ditto humor. It can be a form of ethos, finding humor in unexpected places, inspiring respect and appreciation. So yes, both overtly and covertly, politics has a place in poetry, but it need not be as obvious and painful as an “Ode to Donald Trump’s Hippocampus.”

Q: Are there any out-of-bounds topics for poetry, then?

A: I hope not, though there might be topics in poor taste or ill-advised topics. The non-poetry reading public has this notion that poetry chiefly concerns itself with love and nature. It is essential, then, that poems be written about most everything and anything (including love and nature, of course). As the prophet says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun anyway, so we might as well look for variations on a theme of everything. There’s no choice but…

Q: Do you read the Bible?

A: The King James Version is poetry, no? How many titles and allusions have come from this great book? It’s a shame some public schools avoid it in the name of church and state boundaries. The Bible can be taught as literature, too. In fact, it is essential if readers are to understand the many allusions made to it in their reading of literature. Unfamiliarity with the Bible and Greek mythology, to name two, has hurt modern readers’ ability to fully understand what they’re reading. The shift to quick and passive entertainment in general (TV, Internet, video games, et.) has hurt reading, vocabulary acquisition, and therefore comprehension in general. As citizens of the world, we suffer a great loss because of this. But now I’m answering questions I wasn’t asked.

Q: Do you support the Poet Laureate movement, wherein you have Poet Laureates to individual states, towns, etc.?

A: (Laughs) Oh, yes. Every marketing gambit you can make, by all means. Poetry on subways, on sidewalks, on walls, in newspapers and magazines, on NASCAR racers’ helmets, etc. It has a place as much as America’s much-beloved advertisements for goods. Get poetry out of the margins, the shadows. It is a sun-loving organism. Only at high noon in full sun will it shed the stereotypes that have grown like moss upon it.

Q: Which are?

A: That it is frighteningly esoteric. That it is an insiders’ game. That it is for a highbrow club of snobs in smoking jackets. That it is only good if people are left scratching their heads, going, “Huh?”

Q: So what can poetry do to help itself?

A: Be. Laugh. Breathe. And if there be pretenders in love with the concept of old stereotypes, let them have their private country clubs. Open your poetry to the public and find like-minded poets. There are plenty out there and, like anything else, numbers will only make them stronger.

Q: Thank you!

Talking with the Buddha of Poetry (Part 1)

buddha

I had a chance to visit an oft-published (now there’s an infrequent modifier) poet of late, a calm and reasonable man who sipped Kusmi tea (French? Russian?) and tossed bon mots (French!) with gentle abandon. As a newly-published, newly-perplexed acolyte, I had plenty of questions. He didn’t lack for opinions. Here are a few:

Q: I don’t want to go all chicken-and-egg on you, but which should it be–write for yourself or write for prospective readers?

A: It is a non-question. You write for yourself and, if it speaks to the human condition that is in you, it will speak to the human condition that is in your readers. We are all unique, yet the same. Life flourishes on shady banks of paradox and irony.

Q: Why is the reading of poetry declining?

A: Is it? Poetry hides in fiction. It has even infiltrated non-fiction, or what we sometimes call “creative non-fiction,” perhaps. I don’t see it declining so much as assimilating.

Q: But poetry packaged and sold as poetry in books. The sales are dismal. The readership is anemic.

A: With few exceptions, it is as it always has been. Veneration of poetry is also cultural, more prevalent in some countries and languages than others. Schools have done poetry no favors, either. In some cases, poets themselves are guilty of self-inflicted wounds.

Q: Meaning?

A: Meaning when people compare a poem to “modern art” in a scoffing tone, they feel the work is purposely impenetrable and meaningless. If it is so obtuse it can mean anything to any reader, it becomes the punch line to a joke in the public eye. If it is a secret shared by an elect few, it becomes the poetic equivalent of the 1%.

Q: Some argue that poetry, both writing it and reading it, is too precious for its own good. Your thoughts?

A: Labeling is too precious for its own good.

Q: Why do you write?

A: Expression is by nature imperfect, and just as man is driven by the desire to know, to destroy all mystery with his curiosity, the poet is driven by the desire to capture nameless feelings in writing that has a name. It can never be, really, but the desire to make it be is what makes writing worthwhile, beautiful, and human.

Q: Do you reread your own work?

A: (laughs) If not me, who? I read my work aloud to myself, a separate me. Of course, I read other poets’ work aloud, too. I must nurture my ears as much as my eyes.

                                      …to be continued

 

Submittable, Reading Fees, Coffee, Et Cetera

submittable

If you traffic in poetry, by now you’ve registered with Submittable, the Portal of Hope. It used to be called “Submishmash,” I think, but that unfortunate name was retired by a blender. So the more common-sensical Submittable it is.

For those of us who need order in our disorderly lives, Submittable is a blessing. Of sorts. The good news? It keeps track of what poems went where when, because Odin knows I couldn’t, and my paper system is, to be kind, quixotic.

The bad news, you ask? Not all markets play ball with Submittable. Some stubborn sorts still demand their acronyms: USPS, SASE, P.S.: No email.

Yeah. Those “Last-of-the-Mohican” sorts.

And some take submissions strictly via email. You have the attached tribe and the body-of-the-email tribe.

Others still have their own little Submittable system. Try coming up with a password for each one. And tracking it with your paper system. You will soon become a disciple of the “Forgot Password?” deities.

The increasingly big deal now is reading fees. It’s spreading like kudzu, like peanut butter, like room-temperature butter on sourdough toast. I used to be 100% opposed to reading fees and refuse to submit to any “Evil Empire” that used them to gouge starving (for publication) writers. Now, I’m 90% opposed. For one, the money sometimes goes to paying writers. For their work. Can you imagine? And for another, there’s something to the argument that you used to always spend money anyway–both for the mailing and for the return SASE–so why are you griping now? (Hey, Zeus, but I hate logic in all its majesty.)

Bottom line: Sometimes I pay journals to reject my work (nice business–for them–if you can get it!), but for the most part, I still avoid these fee-fi-fo-fum sorts.

On Submittable, everybody’s favorite is the “Status” column. When you send it in, the light goes on saying “Received.” Good to know. In the old system, the occasional submission wound up behind some credenza at the Topeka Post Office and no status column in hell would tell you as much.

“Received” is a noncommittal blue font. Then there’s the dreaded “In-Progress” in purple. This torture device makes writers believe that there work is now (this very minute) the subject of extended editorial board (as opposed to “bored”) meetings. “Which of these five poems do we want? There’s something to be said for all of them. Now let’s take turns saying those ‘something to be saids.'” That sort of thing. Every day. Marathon sessions, all meaning your work is getting the old, Shakespeare line-by-line scrutiny and is someday destined for the SparkNotes treatment.

Then again, sometimes “In-Progress” is simply “Received” in sheep’s clothing. Meaning: The status could remain “In-Progress” for a full three trimesters, for all you know. A pregnant pause, so to speak.

“Prolonging,” meet “the agony.”

Finally, there are the stop-light status markers. The dreaded red “Declined” and the rare but relished “Accepted” (green relish, to be specific). If I could muster enough “Accepteds” it would give my status column a festive, Christmas look, but it has, over the years, taken on more of a Rudolph glow.

Admittedly, things are looking up of late. I have been making like St. Patrick, wearing more of the green (as long as we’re not talking money, I mean). Perhaps it is the cover letters with notice of other “Accepteds.” Editors are herd (not seen) animals. There’s nothing they like better than the comfort of other editors when it comes to saying, “Yes, this guy is new and good and we’re willing to say I was one of the first to discover him….”

But wait. I’m waxing delusional again (and wishing there was a status marker called “Dreaming”). When I should be writing poetry. To feed to Submittable, the Portal of Hope.

But first, another black coffee. HOT. (You actually have to say that when ordering a cup these days–another sign of the approaching Apocalypse!)

You Won’t Find This Quiz on Goodreads*

gr2
*But if you did and took it, you’d probably be in first place thanks to this sneak preview.

 

Nota bene: This quiz is for experts–that is, anyone who has ever read a poem (ANY poem, even “Roses Are Red–Still”). Having read The Indifferent World itself is not a requirement. It only helps a little, I promise. So go ahead. Impress yourself!

 

What is this poetry collection about, anyway?
___ Non-GMO Corn Flakes
___ John Calvin, predestination, and midnight Skip-Bo games in Plymouth
___ our world
___ nobody knows

What does “indifferent” mean, anyway?
___ quiet, shy
___ perspicacious
___ shrinking
___ Who cares?

How many rhyming poems will I find in this book, anyway?
___ one
___ eleven
___ twenty-one
___ none, which makes it more fun

In an earlier Goodreads life, the author went by what pseudonym, anyway?
___ Bwana
___ Newengland
___ Talleyrand
___ Alfred E. Newman

What lake is pictured on the cover of The Indifferent World, anyway?
___ Lago Maggiore (Frederick Henry’s favorite in A FAREWELL TO ARMS)
___ Lake Tahoe (Mark Twain’s favorite in ROUGHING IT)
___ Lake Victoria (Queen Victoria’s favorite in Africa)
___ Lake Anon (Anon Ymous’s favorite in Goodreads quizzes)

What is the author’s favorite infinitive, anyway?
___ to eat
___ to sleep
___ perchance to dream
___ to craft

After writing a novel (unpublished), a collection of vignettes (unpublished), and numerous short stories (unpublished), why did this author choose to write poems at such a very late age, anyway?
___ It was free (verse).
___ He was out of options.
___ He met a Muse on Facebook.
___ It was the only genre to take the “un-” out of “published.”

The first poem in this collection is about what pressing social issue, anyway?
___ A hunter choosing to shoot a deer.
___ A hunter choosing NOT to shoot a deer.
___ A hunter choosing to watch “Bambi” or “Old Yeller” on Wednesday night.
___ We’re going to build a wall.

According to GR reviewer Alex, poetry is WHAT, anyway?
___ “…sublime” (as opposed to sub-lemon)
___ “…supreme among the arts.”
___ “…like an onion left in the root cellar too long.”
___ “…dumb.”

How difficult was it to create ten questions about a 98-page poetry collection containing 80 poems, one that POETRY magazine said nothing about and THE NEW YORKER chimed in with “We’ll second that!” anyway?
___ very
___ very
___ very
___ all of the above

 

Answer key: 
Do you really need one?

 WHAT IT MEANS:

None Correct: Now that’s indifferent (then again, who cares?)
1-2 Correct: You know, infinitive! A verb with to in front of it….
3-4 Correct: Poetry. You’ve heard of it, right?
5-6 Correct: It was the sub-lemon that threw you, right?
7-8 Correct: Very, very, very (all of the above) good!
9 Correct: Call Mr. T! You’re on the A-Team!
10 Correct: You know me better than I know me. Drop me a line, why don’t you. I’m still trying to find myself and California’s a long way aways.

Student-Friendly Poems: The Super Heroes of the Classroom

English teachers’ usual approach into literature is inductive. They read a poem aloud — usually two or three times — perhaps ask students to mark it up or analyze it in pairs or a group, and then wonder if they might write a thesis statement that includes the theme. Thus, to determine the author’s purpose, students must first consider the details within the work and then think their way up the ladder of abstraction to a thematic balcony.

For a switch, teachers could create a sense of balance by occasionally taking deductive forays into literature. That is, either give the students a theme in advance, or provide the purpose of the work as given by the author himself. In this scenario, the heavy lifting would be done before anyone mutters ready, set, or go. With the “gift” of a thoughtful, abstract statement already in hand, students could begin an Easter egg hunt for literary evidence that will directly line up with the author’s own reflection on the work.

To test drive this theory, I give you one of my favorite, student-friendly poems: “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too” by James W. Hall. On his blog, Hall provides not only the poem (at the end of his entry) but some insight into the work. Taking his direct words, teachers can fashion a thesis statement that looks something like so:

In his poem, “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too,” James W. Hall uses humor and some harsh truths to show that “it’s a hard thing to… recreate yourself, reinvent yourself. Become someone different, someone new. Throw away one identity (and mask) and put on another. We all struggle with [this] in some way or another. We want to change, to grow, to abandon one set of personality features for better ones,” but this is not easily done.

With this statement, much of it from the poet’s lips, students in groups could determine importance by marking up the poem’s key textual evidence — words and lines that will support the claim in the provided thesis statement. This deductive angle might be considered a type of scaffold, but it is simply an equally-legitimate approach with the same learning goals — getting students to connect abstract to concrete as they analyze literature for author’s purpose (OK, with author’s purpose).

Highlighting important lines and writing comments and inferences in the margins during small group discussion or paired academic conversations, students will be better suited (if you’ll forgive) for the perils of such venues as a Socratic Seminar. Why? Because they will not have to “find the grail” (in poetry, so often a “hopeless cause” in their minds), but instead will have to explain how the provided grail materialized in their hands in the first place.

Will this bestow confidence in young literary speakers? I would guess yes, much more so than with the inductive approach. Should teachers abandon inductive analysis altogether, then? Hardly. Students should see deductive as Castor to inductive’s Pollux, Scylla to its Charybdis, and (to bring it down a notch) pepperoni to its pizza.

In short, teachers should see if providing themes upfront now and then leads student discussions to more interesting (and vertigo-inducing) places where they can build on each others’ ideas (or challenge them) until they wind up confronting one of the pieces of evidence they are sure to dredge up head on: the burning suit.

Note that, in his blog, Hall claims “”buining” one’s suit is the punchline of the poem.” This, according to the poet, is paramount among other important lines. Will students see it that way, emboldened as they’ll be by having “the answer” up front and “for free”? Will they compare the “fwame-wesistent” suit to jobs, to personalities, to economic classes, to themselves? Will they make metaphoric leaps and bounds that have their teachers swooning with deductive joy?

Time (and Elmer Fudd-like dramatic readings) will tell how this approach might work. Still, students’ “spidey sense” should be tingling, as they say….

 

(This piece was originally published, in slightly different form, in a teaching blog I kept.)

Tips Picked Up at a Poetry Reading

ocean

I fought Boston traffic (without even broaching the city limits) to reach Salem for a reason. I wanted to learn. Learn by listening to a poetry reading. And learn I did.

In Ocean Vuoung, Sandra Beasley, and Martha Collins, I got three distinct readers and styles for the price of one. This at the 8th annual Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Here’s what I picked up:

Listeners:

  • Sit in front if you can. As you know from the movies, human heads can be distracting as all get-out.
  • Don’t sit too far to either side unless you want a neck ache.
  • Put your program on the floor, lest it noisily slip off your lap mid-reading as mine did (oops).

Speakers:

  • Ask your introducing host to remind audience members about putting away their binkies (read: cellphones). As in off. In their pockets and out of sight. For the entire reading. (Remember: You’re the good cop. You just get up and read.)
  • Thank everybody, just like the Academy Awards. And don’t forget your fellow speakers (if you have any). You are not worthy (even if you are).
  • Beware oversensitive mics that pick up every dry-mouth lip lick and mouth sound.
  • Speak slowly. This is not the Indy 500. Poetry and checkered flags are a bad mix.
  • Dress relaxed. Feel relaxed. Look relaxed. (And if at all possible, be relaxed.)
  • It’s OK to draw out words a bit in the name of enunciation. Just don’t overdo it. That’s not drawing out in the name of enunciation. That’s drawing out in the name of the rack, a Medieval torture device.
  • Be yourself, even if no one knows who you are. Like dogs sensing fear, listeners sense naturalness (or lack thereof).
  • Keep the context for each poem brief and to the point. Make it interesting.
  • Good humor is always welcome. (Plus the sound of ice cream truck bells sends listeners back.)
  • Don’t be overly dramatic with your gestures, your mouth, your bulging eyes. If listeners start to focus more on your body than your body of work, you’re as cooked as the Cratchit family’s goose.
  • Be sure listeners know when your poem is finished. Without some signal (voice, head bow, looking up while slightly closing book), some endings can be awkward in an “Is That All There Is?” kind of way. Like Wiley Coyote, they just fall off a cliff.
  • Look at the audience now and again. And, hey. There are people to the right and to the left (just like the Do-Nothing Congress), too.

Listeners:

  • Buy a book. Get it signed. Say something nice to the poet. This is a small tribe we live in. We need each other’s support.

Going to a Poetry Reading in the Witch City

mass poetry

OK, I’ll admit it. Not only have I never been to a poetry reading, I have never even considered it. The very idea of it is rife with clichés, for one thing. You know, some hippie-type who forgot time wearing an Existentialist, black turtleneck and beret while muttering navel-gazing notions into a malfunctioning mic.

Whoo-we! Sounds like fun!

Seriously, though, I wondered about the listening challenges as an audience member, too. I like to read as I hear, and poetry readings are one-trick ponies where you listen and make do with only one of your senses. No following the bouncing ball. No sing-along-with-Mitch screen behind the poet, showing each line as it comes up. Just me and my two ears. On our own like grown-up eustacian tubes.

But I’m told that I will have to do readings myself now. Me. A guy who speaks for a living but is afraid of speaking before groups.

Impossible, you say? Hardly. I know plenty of experienced teachers like myself who have no problem performing for students (on an Academy-Award-winning scale, too) but pale at the very thought of addressing a group of adults. (Perhaps it would help, then, to consider any group of adults as overgrown children?)

In any event, with my wife by my side, I will be attending the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem tonight where I will hear not one, not two, but THREE poets read. They are Jennifer Beasley, Martha Collins, and Ocean Vuong. Three styles, three approaches, three mentors. Surely I will gain SOMEthing from the experience. I even own Vuong’s latest book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (meaning I can get it signed either before or after the reading). No doubt I will also have an opportunity to buy Beasley’s or Collins’ work.

With this initiation, the thinking is, I will be able to go boldly where many poets (especially the hams) have gone before: to a reading where I will have to be the sage on stage reading poems from my own book.

But first things first–attending this first.