writing poetry

7 posts

Brodsky and the Business of Writing

Sorry jumbo shrimp, but there is no bigger oxymoron than “the business of writing.” Even Thomas Jefferson would find this truth self-evident.

I was reminded of it while reading Shauna Osborn’s poem “panic stricken uncertainties & the business of writing” in the June 2018 issue of Poetry. The poem kicks off with a Joseph Brodsky quote, to wit:

“In the business of writing what one accumulates is not expertise but uncertainties. Which is but another name for craft. In this filed, where expertise invites doom, the notions of adolescence and maturity get mixed up, and panic is the most frequent state of mind. So I would be lying if I resorted to chronology or to anything that suggests a linear process. A school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic.”

A great definition of the business of selling poems, I think. It is equal parts panic and confusion. Brodsky also was prescient in seeing uncertainties as another name for Craft. (I wonder if he said this before I was born.)

The string of metaphors in the last line of the quote tells us that Brodsky hasn’t a clue as to methodology. “Selling” poetry is like shooting in the dark. Sometimes something yelps. It’s called a willing market.

The trouble with marketing poetry is time. Poets can lose a year of their lives waiting for a single editor to say yea or nay, and years are finite. Imagine, then, what four “no’s” cost you. Four years of your finite life!

For this reason, among others, time interested Brodsky, too:

“Basically, it’s hard for me to assess myself, a hardship not only prompted by the immodesty of the enterprise, but because one is not capable of assessing himself, let alone his work. However, if I were to summarize, my main interest is the nature of time. That’s what interests me most of all. What time can do to a man.”

In the end, Brodsky understood that society and readers played a role in the business of writing, too. Somehow poetry has become ghettoized by the storm troopers of literature, fiction and nonfiction.

Readers are complicit as well, spending with abandon on the uniformed thugs of writing genres while never even considering a walk toward the poetry section in a bookstore (“What? There’s a poetry section in bookstores?”) Some final Brodsky words of wisdom:

“By writing… in the language of his society, a poet takes a large step toward it. It is society’s job to meet him halfway, that is, to open his book and read it.”

Meet a poet halfway today. Read his or her poetry book.

Fernando Pessoa & Literary Children


After lazily wending my way through Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, I found a like-minded soul and poet: a quiet man, a homebody, a literary enthusiast.

Most interesting to me is this passage about children and their “literary” way of thinking (as opposed to those conformists like that one in the mirror — a.k.a. “adults”). For me, this brought to mind the video of Naomi Shihab Nye quoting William Stafford about how we are all poets as children and just have to readopt the facility if we want to write poetry as adults.

Here’s the quote from Pessoa:

“Children are particularly literary, for they say what they feel and not what someone has taught them to feel. Once I heard a child, who wished to say that he was on the verge of tears, say not ‘I feel like crying,’ which is what an adult, i.e. an idiot, would say, but rather, ‘I feel like tears.’ And this phrase — so literary it would seem affected in a well-known poet, if he could ever invent it — decisively refers to the warm presence of tears about to burst from eyelids that feel the liquid bitterness. ‘I feel like tears!’ That small child aptly defined his spiral.

“To say! To know how to say! To know how to exist via the written voice and the intellectual image! This is all that matters in life; the rest is men and women, imagined loves and factitious vanities, the wiles of our digestion and forgetfulness, people squirming — like worms when a rock is lifted — under the huge abstract boulder of the meaningless blue sky.”

This is the gospel according to St. Fernando (thanks be to the writing gods)….

Exploring Your Inner Ignorance


Advice givers (and their numbers are legion) often say, “Write what you know,” as if that would never occur to us. Of course we write what we know! What they don’t say is that it is also good practice to wander out of your comfort zone, to “go deep” into those dark areas we previously considered “ignorance” by writing what we “don’t” know.

One interesting way to explore your inner ignorance is to check out poetry journal calls for thematic issues. It used to be, when I saw guidelines with rigid thematic guidelines, I’d quickly take a pass and move on to the next “general submissions” market.

Mistake, turns out.

For example, let’s say you come across a magazine that wants to publish an issue devoted to the theme of monsters. “Monsters,” you say? “What is this, Marvel Comics? I’m a poet, for heaven’s sake!”

Calm yourself, Mr. Poet Laureate. Remember that your lack of interest in and knowledge of monsters might actually be the kick in the creative pants you need. You might tackle something you don’t know and, out of the blue (or any available color), have a eureka moment.

Poetry editors love expansive interpretations of thematic topics, so pull that poetic license out of your wallet and write about monsters that don’t have green skin or one eye: the monster called rush-hour traffic among horn-blowers, the monster called pain in your body (its cave), the monster called your mother-in-law in the kitchen on Thanksgiving.

Why so literal, in other words?

Sometimes your ignorance is more informed than you think, too. Recently, I found a market that focused on the environment but lamented it had been receiving too many poems about birds and beaches and magnolia bushes. It was interested in more urban environmental poetry, for a change.

My knee-jerk reaction? I’ve never lived in a city (well, not since I was two) and have no experience with urban living, so why would I abandon the security blanket of “write what you know” and write about cities?

But before I moved on, I thought again. Deep in the darkest alleys of my urban ignorance, there was a light. When I was a kid, my mother would take me to Hartford to visit my great-grandparents in an apartment building that was so different from my suburban home that I found it fascinating.

I wound up writing the first draft of that poem in a burst. I was amazed at the number of memories I had boxed up in the basement of my so-called ignorance and lack of experience. Details about that cluttered apartment, inside and out, came rushing to the fore, ready for service.

Presently I am revising this poem and hoping to gussy it up for market. It serves as a lesson, too: The narrow confines of themes can often liberate a writer, whether it is to look at a topic in new ways (the monster of only writing what you know, for example) or to find that perceived ignorance (of city living, for example) is just that–mere perception.

Stop. Think. Go deep using themes as inspiration. It might just shake things up and lead to new, productive places.

You, Too, Could Write a Poem


I am closing in on the final page of New York Times poetry columnist (now THERE’S a job) David Orr’s You, Too, Could Write a Poem. Naively, I thought it was a book about writing poetry from a man who reads poems for a living. Not quite. It’s a collection of Orr columns that have already appeared in the Times, the first of which is called “You, Too, Could Write a Poem.”

But even that is a curveball of sorts. If you think that the first essay, at least, is about the democratic nature of poetry writing, you’d be wrong. It is Orr’s take on the notorious “Best of” series, wherein bookstore shelves are annually littered with titles like The Best American Poetry (and, beyond that, you can scratch poetry and pencil in words like “Essays,” “Sports Writing,” and “Short Stories”).

The trouble with any “best of” book is that it is only as good as its editor. The other, even bigger, problem is that choosing the best of anything in any given year is positively Sisyphean. We might as well call it The Approaching-Best Poems According to Our Guest Editor of the Year, Who Has Many Connections and Prejudices That Will Surely Show Themselves on These Pages. But that would be unwieldy. And tough to fit on a cover.

Orr gets into this a bit himself, when he writes, “What this series stands for isn’t excellence, aesthetic or otherwise, but the idea of poetry as a community activity. ‘People are writing poems!’ each volume cries. ‘You, too, could write a poem!’ It’s an appealingly democratic pose, and it has always been the genuinely ‘best’ thing about the Best American series. The only problem is that poetry isn’t really an open system; it’s a combination of odd institutions, personal networks, hoary traditions, talent, and blind luck. It’s both an art and a guild, in other words. And if basic participation is possible for anyone with a heartbeat and a laptop, the requirements for the deluxe plan — the true ‘Best American’ plan, if you will — are obscure to all but a handful. The negotiation between what we now call the ‘best’ and what we’ll later call the ‘great’ never ends; each year the Best American Poetry offers a new compromise, and each year the truce is broken, the sides are marshaled, and the oldest argument begins again.”

Being a neophyte to the world of published poetry, I cannot help but wonder at words like “odd institutions, personal networks, hoary traditions, talent, and blind luck.” From that suspect line-up, I feel most ready to point at personal networks, for isn’t that true in ALL institutions — political, commercial, academic, and beyond?

And in the name of clarification and elaboration, what are these odd networks and hoary traditions Orr speaks of? The talent and blind luck make not only sense, but dollars. You need talent to write “good” poetry, I’m sure, but it is not necessarily the coin of the realm in the country of the published. Sometimes blind luck is the only currency that gets an outsider through the customs gate. And which gate? With which poem as ID?

So, yes. I’m well into Orr’s book and, even though it was misleading, the title essay did entertain and intrigue me, only I wish Orr would share more of what he knows about this byzantine world, this mysterious oligarchy of poets rich in connections, talent, and traditions (both time-honored and for-breaking, which is equally time-honored).

Sure Things: Food and Loneliness


What to write about?

Seems like an easy enough question. Some say your topics should be determined solely by the dictator that is you. Others say have mercy on your readers’ souls. Consider them. Others still–the agnostic wafflers of the bunch–say, “Why not both?”

I’ll be political and not take a stand because who really cares what I think? I do know this: You’re in trouble if you think you can write about something you know nothing about or don’t care about.

Which brings us to two sure things: food and loneliness. Like air and water, they will keep you grounded.

How do we know food resonates? Easy. People eat it up. And people with cellphones (there are a few, apparently) actually photograph and upload the stuff before eating it. Curious case closed!

And loneliness? True, most confuse loneliness with being alone, two different animals. Unlike many in this world, I cherish alone time. It sustains me. And my writing. But I know the world also harbors manic social sorts. They get frenzied by lack of sound, technological input, people. They believe they are unpopular, neglected, or sad if not buoyed by activity and input. (How sad!) Can you go wrong, then, when writing about the poignancy and beauty of alone-ness? Rhetorical, I assure you.

My thoughts turned to these two staples of writing after I read Li-Young Lee’s poem “Eating Alone,” which nicely breathes and drinks the two poem-sustaining wonders in one fell swoop. And check out the last line! It speaks to the ages (if you’ll pardon the pun). See if you agree:

“Eating Alone” by Li-Young Lee

I’ve pulled the last of the year’s young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.

Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can’t recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.

It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.


— from Rose by Li-Young Lee, BOA Editions

Eating Poetic Fruit–and Words


Simplicity. In poetry, it’s tough to embrace and get away with. You read something as simple as Galway Kinnell’s “Blackberry Eating” and say, “How easy. I can do that!”

And then you try.

It’s like those foolhardy fiction writers who make the terrible mistake of imitating Ernest Hemingway. Seems simple enough. Only the emulating stylists wind up producing something akin to Frankenstein’s monster playing violin. Badly.

As writing inspiration, simple poems can be deceiving. They sometimes scatter common writers’ “Thou shalt not’s” to the wind, too. For instance, “Thou shalt not overindulge in adjectives.” Here we have a 14-line (sonnet-like) poem that serves up not one, two, or three, but FOUR adjectives in Line 2 alone.

Explanation? Simple. Eating is a sensory experience. A reader needs adjectives to fully digest it.

For me, “Blackberry Eating” recalls the simple joys of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say,” wherein WCW helps himself to “delicious,” “sweet,” and “cold” plums in the icebox:


“This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the iceboxand which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


Summer’s on the wane. Harvest time continues. Time to pick some fruit (your choice) and release yourself to juicy simplicity. To whet your appetite, here’s Kinnell’s love letter to blackberries and words:


“Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry — eating in late September.

Czeslaw Milosz on the Indifferent World


Many words–even simple ones–hold multiple meanings. Add connotative undertones to their pedigree and they grow even more fascinating. The word “indifferent” is such a word. Seemingly simple, there’s more to it than meets the eye. That’s one reason why I chose to name my first book The Indifferent World and placed the word itself in many of the collection’s poems.

First, a more conventional look at the word’s meaning, as seen through a beautiful poem written and translated (with the help of Robert Haas) by Czeslaw Milosz. This poem appeared in my copy of All of Us: The Collected Poems by Raymond Carver. It gains momentum and strength as you read it–a trait I admire in poems.


Return to Kraków in 1880
Czeslaw Milosz

So I returned here from the big capitals,
To a town in a narrow valley under the cathedral hill
With royal tombs. To a square under the tower
And the shrill trumpet sounding noon, breaking
Its note in half because of the Tartar arrow
Has once again struck the trumpeter.
And pigeons. And the garish kerchiefs of women selling flowers.
And groups chattering under the Gothic portico of the church.
My trunk of books arrived, this time for good.
What I know of my laborious life: it was lived.
Faces are paler in memory than on daguerreotypes.
I don’t need to write memos and letters every morning.
Others will take over, always with the same hope,
The one we know is senseless and devote our lives to.
My country will remain what it is, the backyard of empires,
Nursing its humiliation with provincial daydreams.
I leave for a morning walk tapping with my cane:
The places of old people are taken by new old people
And where the girls once strolled in their rustling skirts,
New ones are strolling, proud of their beauty.
And children trundle hoops for more than half a century.
In a basement a cobbler looks up from his bench,
A hunchback passes by with his inner lament,
Then a fashionable lady, a fat image of the deadly sins.
So the Earth endures, in every petty matter
And in the lives of men, irreversible.
And it seems a relief. To win? To lose?
What for, if the world will forget us anyway.