Smart Poets Pay Attention to the Asterisk

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In the back of every issue of the august (for some reason it’s always the dog days) issue of Poetry magazine is a list of contributors to that issue. Me, I pay attention to the asterisked names, for the little star denotes “First appearance in Poetry.”

Each time you submit your babies (read: humble, home-hewn poems) to a poetry journal or e-zine, the guidelines beg you to read sample issues of that journal to understand the type of work they publish.

My asterisk to that plea (in Poetry, anyway)? Take special note of the first-timers. For, unlike the veterans and well-knowns, they crashed the (august, did I mention?) gates on their poetry’s own merits. Period.

For example, from the September 2019 issue, I give you Amy Woolard, whose bio in the contributor sections reads “is a legal aid attorney living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her debut poetry collection, Neck of the Woods, received the 2018 Alice James Prize and is forthcoming in 2020.”

Legal aid attorney? I rather like that, as it casts shades of good old Wallace Stevens sunlighting as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut, each day before going home to count blackbirds and crown emperors of ice-cream.

Laura Palmer, from what I researched, is a pivotal character in the old Twin Peaks TV series once upon a time. She lived a classical good and bad double life and died young. The secrets attached to her would subsequently turn her home town inside out (and drive some nice Nielsen ratings while they were at it).

 

“Laura Palmer Graduates”
Amy Woolard

I can’t love them if their hands aren’t all tore up
From something, guitar strings, kitchen knives & grease

Burns, heaving the window ACs onto their crooked old
Sills come June. Fighting back. That porchlight’s browned

Inside with moth husks again & I can’t climb a ladder
To save my life, i.e., the world spins. Even when it’s lit,

It’s half ash. Full-drunk under a half-moon & I’m dazed
We’re all still here. Most of us, least. For the one & every

Girl gone, I sticker gold stars behind my front teeth so
I can taste just how good we were. I swear I can’t

Love them if they can’t fathom why an unlit ambulance
On a late highway means good luck. I hold my cigarette-

Smoking arm upright like I’m trying to keep blood
From rushing to a cut. What’s true is my shift’s over &

I’m here with you now & I’m wrapped up tight
On the steps like a top sheet like the morning paper

Before it’s morning. Look up & smile. What does it matter
That the stars we see are already dead. If that’s the case well

Then the people are too. Alive is a little present I
Give myself once a day. Baby, don’t think I won’t doll

Up & look myself fresh in the eyes, in the vermilion
Pincurl of my still heart & say: It’s happening again.

 

So, there. Newbie work to compare your own to and for a very good reason: it’s a realistic standard and an appropriate goal. I like the “moth husks” and the “gold stars behind my front teeth” and the “unlit ambulance on a late highway” meaning good luck, among other things. Lots of concise imagery throughout.

Take it (and other newcomers’ work in various poetry markets) as encouragement, then. With enough discipline, you too will graduate.

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