Oh, No! Not Perspective!

Don’t make me be aware of how gigantic and complicated the world of writing is! Let me stay in my little bubble of blogs and local poetry readings!

This week I’m trying out a new submissions tracker online. You can use a lot of filters to search for publishers or agents that accept the things you want to send out. I decided to look into it because they really keep their listings current–when I used books, I’d often go to a publication’s website to find they didn’t exist any more or hadn’t accepted new material in years. The tracker also has stats on things like average response time.

I’ve really done very little submitting to non-local things, and I want to change that. But I have to admit it’s intimidating to read some of these sites. I have a tendency to look at whatever I am thinking of sending them and think “nah, they’d never want this.” Especially the heavier literary sites. I suspect some of the guidelines are written in such a way as to discourage as many people as possible from adding to their undoubtedly huge slush pile.

But submitting is not just emotionally intimidating, it’s a pain in the ass too when you’re a newbie. Many publications only accept submissions electronically these days through an engine like Submittable. It’s not too bad once you get used to it. However, they don’t all use that. Some want you to set up an account on their very own server just to do a one-time submission. And everyone wants you to tweak your files in a different way.

And then there are submission fees. They usually run about $3, except for contests and book-length works. It’s an amount designed to feel like no big deal, but they add up! I’ve heard an author brag that she never, ever submits anywhere that has fees–well, that leaves the majority out. She can afford to be picky now that she’s well-known, but…at any rate, I’m budgeting to do about 8 submissions a month. It’s what I can afford.

It’s always overwhelming being the new kid at school. On the bright side, it’s a role I’ve played many, many times. I’d like to think I’ve become more comfortable with it. Or at least comfortable with being uncomfortable, if you know what I mean.

Cinderella

I spent yesterday in a fairy-tale world, feasting on delicacies and dancing with handsome princes and princesses. But the ball had to end, and I departed without leaving so much as a shoe behind.

Okay, so it was really a one-day writing workshop at the office of ZYZZYVA magazine in San Francisco. They accepted my piece for the event, and I’d promised myself that if I got in I’d go. So I did.

I call it a fairy-tale world because it’s so unknown to me; I had never been to that type of workshop before. I compare it to the ball because I associate it with having more money than I have; the cost was such that I don’t expect to be able to do such a thing again any time soon. Let’s just say I got my Christmas present early this year.

I enjoyed myself very much. The author who led it, Joshua Mohr, had insightful things to say about writing personal narrative. Here’s a distillation of what I feel was the most valuable reminder for me as I work on my book:

When you write a narrative that’s about yourself, you still need to treat the “you” in the story like a character. You need to pay attention to the same things you’d look at when working with a fictional character you’re creating: Are they interesting? What am I doing to let the reader get invested in them and want to know more? Is it clear what they want, or think they want? What are their obstacles, internal and external? Am I building complexity; giving the reader new perspective on them with every scene? Do I avoid either idealizing or demonizing them?

This kind of perspective will help me as I make choices about the structure of my book: order of chapters, what to keep and what to cut, and what isn’t written yet but needs to be.

I’m aware of a part of me that feels envious when I think of how many workshops and classes some of my fellow writers go to, or that focuses on my wistful desire to be someone who can do the same (or, for that matter, who can submit a ton of stuff without worrying about how those submission fees will add up.)

But that’s my baggage talking. It’s understandable that I want these things, but focusing on what I don’t have is toxic. I create things when I am focused on what I do have, what I truly want, and what I can do to move closer to it.

Poetry Speed Dating

Here’s one challenging thing about poetry readings: You have to pick something to read. Usually you have about two minutes at the mic. That’s enough to read one poem or perhaps two or three short ones. You don’t get to lay out your entire body of work like a huge tapestry to be admired.

Tomorrow there’s going to be a poetry reading at the gallery show that’s featuring pieces done on one of my poems. I am supposed to read that piece and one (repeat: one) other poem.

Which one?

This is a special reading, and I want to do it justice. I’m working on a draft of something I think is appropriate, but if it is not done to my satisfaction by tomorrow which poem will I choose instead?

It feels like speed dating, or like a job interview with only one question. No piece could give a stranger a full sense of who I am as a poet. This is why doing a feature was so much fun, but it may be a long time before I get to do another one of those.

I have to accept that I can’t convey all I want to convey on any given occasion. I can only leave the impression of the pieces I am able to read.

Actually, that’s not the only impression I can leave. My presence leaves an impression: my voice, my expressions, and my body language speak to a discerning eye of who I am.

Tea Works Better When You Drink It

Pretty frequently, my daughter reminds me that the untouched tea, or coffee, or snack near me is doing me no good sitting there.

By the same token, getting my writing seen and appreciated by more people is a lot more likely if I actually send it out. Submitting pieces might not lead to them being accepted by a certain publication…but not submitting them definitely won’t. Reading at an open mic might not help me get new connections and meet people who like what I have to say…but not reading definitely won’t.

Recently, I sent out a couple of different pieces in response to submission calls I had heard about. Just local things, but I was very excited when one was accepted. I would like to get into a more regular habit of submitting work. I have everything I need to do it; I just need to acquire some discipline and get into a rhythm.

It helps when I have a clear notion of why I want to submit work to publications; what I want to get out of the process. I suppose what I want most is to be more open to possibilities. Also (and this part is important) I enjoy a childlike pleasure in having something out there because it means there’s always the possibility of a nice surprise coming.

Sweet, Sweet Deadlines

They can be stressful sometimes, but some of my poems owe their very existence to the presence of a specific commitment about when and how a certain poem will be communicated to another person.

A blessed deadline helped me break out of my winter slump recently. It was an especially useful deadline because it is an event being held at an art gallery and I had agreed to write two poems about two paintings. It wasn’t like submitting to a magazine…miss your deadline and they just don’t consider you. Missing this deadline would have meant flaking out on something that was specifically expected from me and creating a blank slot in the program.

So I got the two poems done. I got them done in time to send them off. I had to finish a version of them even if they felt stupid or awkward or forced.  In doing so, I was reminded that finishing a poem is satisfying even if doesn’t seem like my best poem ever. I was also reminded that sometimes a poem can grow on me.

It will be interesting to see what the artists think of my contribution, but I have gained something from the process no matter what happens.

Porn for Poets

If the main purpose of porn is to inspire and facilitate fantasy, the poetry equivalent for me would have to be ads for workshops and retreats. Magazines such as Poets & Writers contain multiple listings that render me dreamy-eyed and wistful, imagining myself scribbling away under a linden tree on a remote estate or perched, bright-eyed, on a chair as a teaching poet reads my work.

Some workshops are priced lower than others, but aside from the rare scholarship offers   they are all out of my reach.  Alas, just as in porn, sometimes you get what you pay for. On the other hand, there do exist some good, free online resources and opportunities for writers–certainly a cut above the internet’s jungle of free porn options.

It’s important for me to be aware of these and understand that when I feel isolated as a poet, it isn’t because I lack money. Sure, workshops are fantastic, exciting, sexy. I’m getting excited right now just thinking about a couple of notices I read this month. However, a poet can form ties and get criticism in other ways. My most important barriers are emotional and psychological, not financial. My level of connection and my development as a poet are my responsibility. “But I had no disposable income,” is not a suitable epitaph to rest above a grave filled with unwritten truths.

Poetry Dress-Up

I’ve been trying outfit after outfit on my newest poem in progress, and nothing works.

Advice essays by poets for poets often advocate experimenting with different poetic forms. Though free verse is incredibly popular, and is often a go-to, using a form can take  a draft in new directions. I haven’t done it very much–tried to do a pantoum with one draft, but usually blank verse is as close as I come to a form.

However, my current project has me so stuck I am desperate. So I tried doing it as a ghazal. (Basically, that’s a series of couplets that all end with the same word.) Then I tried doing a set of tanka (a five-line Japanese form with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern.) No dice.

Experience with forms is something I’ll get more of if or when I manage to take some actual poetry classes. For now, I suppose I’ll try a couple more forms–then, perhaps, give up and put the draft aside for now. There are other fish in the somewhat murky sea of my imagination.

An Honest Poet

As I approach my first experience of featuring at a reading, I need to remember the importance of honesty. To be an honest poet is to present myself and my poems in a way that reflects who I really am as a poet, not what I think my audience might admire the most.

I’ve noticed that I am nervous about my reading taking place the Monday after the presidential inauguration. Emotions may be running high, and it is not unlikely that the open mic will reflect this. My insecurity tells me that I should try to generate some work that would address current events.

I worry that people won’t want to hear a bunch of work that has nothing to do with any of the topics so present in our minds and hearts right now. But that’s not for me to decide: I think being asked to feature means being asked to let people see a broader picture of my work. Presenting a hurried and forced set of work, out of fear or out of a desire to be accepted, would be dishonest. Holding back my most authentic works out of fear that they’ll be seen as self-indulgent would also be dishonest.

Just Call Me Ebenezer

Not because I hate the holidays (even though I do.) It’s because I am being a miser with my poetry lately.

Last post, I talked about how I’ve been asked to do my first feature. At the poetry readings since then, I’ve had trouble choosing what to read at the open mic. I don’t want to read my “best” stuff, or my newest stuff, or the stuff that feels most personal…you get the idea. I want to save the good stuff to read at the event, which is in late January.

Understandable, but I shouldn’t get too fanatic about this for two reasons. One, there aren’t going to be a huge number of people there, and something I read at an open mic will be heard by many who won’t attend this event. Two, and more importantly, I need to stop worrying that a member of the audience at an open mic has heard my poem before. It is OK for a poet to read the same thing more than once.

All of these feelings are part of my desire to show people who I am as a poet. I don’t want to waste any opportunity to speak to someone, and that’s a good way to feel. However, I do my best work when I am not approaching things with an attitude of scarcity.

Twenty-Five Minutes

I’m featuring at my first poetry reading!

To “feature” means that you are the poet who spends a larger chunk of time reading your work, as opposed to the 2-5 minutes during an open mic. I will have 25 glorious and terrifying minutes to read multiple poems and give the audience a greater sense of who I am than a single poem can do.

It’s a small and intimate venue in Berkeley, and there will probably be less than 20 poets there–but it’s still exciting to me, and it’s a great compliment to be asked. Usually the featured poet is more established and published, and I am what is diplomatically referred to as an “emerging” poet.

At first, I told myself that the host who invited me was just being supportive and wanted to give me the opportunity as a growth experience (Me finding it hard to take a compliment; what a shock) but the next week another of the hosts, who doesn’t know me, asked me independently.

I’m really grateful for the kindness and welcome I’ve found so far in the Bay Area poetry community, and I can’t wait until January 23! I’m having such fun imagining which poems I will read and in what order, as well as being inspired to finish some new ones.

It’s Alive!

I am the mad scientist of poetry! I have taken something apart, put it together in new ways, injected it with new essence and created LIFE!

There’s a lot of great writing out there about revision, and I love reading it. I love hearing about the ways other poets try to shake up their poem in hopes of finding a better version of it. But I think many of us fear revision because we imagine it as some painstaking, word-by-word nitpicking that will never end…and will suck the joy out of our creative process.

I’ve been known to do that kind of revision; I’ll take out a comma and put it back ad nauseam. It’s important, however, that I understand I’m doing it not to please some omniscient editor but rather to please myself.

What’s really amazing, though, is the type of revision I got to do a couple of days ago. The starting material was an old draft of a poem that has never really pleased me–it existed as a draft, but I wasn’t in love with it.

I opened the word processing document containing the old poem, and opened a blank file next to it so that I was writing a “new” poem using the old draft as reference. My starting point was a change in voice I’d decided to try, so I began with that. As I typed, it took on its own direction with new rhythms and transitions.

I revised the revision a lot, going back and forth to make sure that the things I loved in the original were preserved or given a transformed role in the new version.

The magic moment happened about a third of the way in: the poem surged into life before my eyes. It was not only a better poem than its source, it was alive in a way that the source was not. Where I had not considered sharing the original at a poetry reading, I couldn’t wait to share this.

This is why revision is worthwhile. It isn’t about judging my old draft–after all, without it this one could not have come to exist. It’s about creating something that makes me happy.

Sudden Ease

Two days ago, over a bowl of oatmeal, I was ambushed by a poem. The seed of it had appeared the day before, and was suddenly mushrooming into near-draft form. Obediently, my half-awake self reached for a pen and wrote things down. In half an hour flat, I had something better than the things I’d been staring at sporadically for two weeks.

“You will find that you may write and rewrite a poem and it never seems quite right. Then a much better poem may come rather fast and you wonder why you bothered with all that work on the earlier poem. Actually, the hard work you do on one poem is put in on all poems. The hard work on the first poem is responsible for the sudden ease of the second.”
—Richard Hugo, from The Triggering Town

If I were reading this in a church, this would be the time to shout “Amen!”

I have thought about abandoning a poem when it feels awkward or stuck…and sometimes I do put it aside for a while. This passage affirms what I think I already knew: working on a poem is never wasted time, even if that version of that poem isn’t destined to become a star. The work of the past two weeks bore an unexpected fruit, that’s all.

Think Small

“Think small. If you have a big mind, that will show itself.”
Richard Hugo

The above quote comes from my latest acquisition in the “poets writing about being a poet” genre. It’s called The Triggering Town: Lectures and essays on poets and writing. I recommend it highly; there are some sections that caused me to get out my highlighter because yes, that phrase, I want to remember that one. I could write a post about each of those phrases, and I might.

So what does he mean when he writes “think small?” He’s talking about how some of the best poems come from a small triggering subject as opposed to tackling a huge, monolithic  one. A small, finite experience or image is used as a starting point, and the mind expands from there.

It makes sense to me. What scenario sounds as it if will lead to a better poem? A poet sitting down saying “I’m going to write a poem about Death now” or a poet musing about the birdsong that distracted them during their grandfather’s burial?

The advice to “think small” is helping me in other ways right now. I’ve been to several poetry readings and open mics lately, following up that first experience, and it’s having a Pandora’s-box-like effect on my feelings about poetry and my generation of new poem ideas. It is very easy for me to get overwhelmed, especially since I now realize there is more going on in my local poetry scene than I could ever have the time or strength to attend.

Think small. What event am I going to next (and for God’s sake, don’t overcommit yourself!) What am I going to read there? Is it ready?

Training Montage

What would a poet’s training montage look like?

Recently, even in the midst of being quite dysfunctional, I experienced a surge of enthusiasm about poetry. It got started when I attended a small poetry event and committed to reading at the open mic next month. This renewed fire energized me so much that I created the first new draft I’ve been able to do for months! (No, it isn’t Aquamarine. That one’s still a stubborn bitch.)

The point is, I fucking love poetry. And I love how I feel when I create a new piece. I wonder, what would it look like if that love really showed in my daily life? What if there were no barriers between my desire and my ability to act on it?

What if a part of me were not always trying to get me to destroy myself? Would my fire be strong enough to burn through the ordinary barriers of laziness or inertia?

In my fantasy, my desire to write would invade every aspect of my life. My life would be a training montage.

I’d eat well, take my medicine, never miss a doctor’s appointment…to be healthier and live longer to write more poetry.
I’d clean my apartment…to create a better atmosphere for writing.
I’d exercise…to be strong and fit so that the tasks of daily life wouldn’t exhaust me too much for writing.
I’d sing…to keep my voice limber and resonant for readings.
I’d pray and meditate…to clear the path of daily fears and let inspiration through.

It would all, in some way, be about the creating. Every positive action I took would be a way of showing how much I love the magic of the word.

But in my real world, the positive actions I manage don’t meld into a stirring training montage. The love letter to poetry I want my life to be is divided into scraps and snippets.

You Say “YES”

I think of myself as a poet these days, and this change in the way I see myself gives me a lot of pleasure. Not being published yet doesn’t stop me from thinking of myself as a poet. However, it’s one thing to embrace the identity within my own mind and another to lay claim to it with a stranger.

Recently, I found to my chagrin that when put on the spot, I struggle with identifying myself accurately. At a reading with open mic, I was introduced to several poets. “Are you a poet?” they asked, and I got words stuck in my throat.

Well, I’ve never been published yet, my insecurities wanted to say. I’m just getting to the point of doing my first submissions, I wanted to qualify. Well, I’ve only been writing for a few years. With the words came the urge to duck my head sheepishly.

How easy it was to turn my back on my beliefs about what a poet is, or to apply them only to others!

Then an iconic line from Ghostbusters came into my head:

…when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say “YES!”

When someone asks me if I’m a poet, I need to say yes. It’s harder than I thought it would be, but it’s the only answer that makes sense.

There Are Spiders

“There…there are spiders.”
“Enormous spiders, yes. The size of houses, they tell me.”
“And they eat men?”
“Poets, I am told. Twice a year a number of spiders come from the forests into the square of the one town and they must be fed a poet or they will not leave. There is a ceremony.”
“…A reason not to write poetry?”
“I am told they make prisoners compose a verse in order to receive their meals.”
“How cruel. And that qualifies them as poets?”
“The spiders are not critical, I understand.”

–from “River of Stars” by Guy Gavriel Kay

Something about this makes me smile every time I recall it. Maybe it’s the idea of poets as a unique food; desired by spiders the way virgins were legendarily desired by dragons. Maybe it’s the image of forcing a hapless prisoner to become just enough of a poet to be appetizing to an arachnid.

Are poets really different from other people? Of course not…or if we are, it varies from poet to poet as it does with all humans. However, any differences are more marked in societies that don’t see poetry as a part of mainstream life. The book above takes place in a world inspired by certain Chinese dynasties; a world in which poetry was the province of every educated man…the knowledge, analysis, and even writing of various styles of poetry a part of the civil service exams.

The society I live in is far removed from this. My sense of identity seems to have been altered by beginning to think of myself as a poet…is this evolution, or just a delusion catering to one’s natural desire to feel like a special snowflake of some kind?

Does it feed my ego to think of myself as especially delicious Spider Chow?

Hurt You Into Poetry

Lines from Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” keep going through my head, after referencing it the other day. Here’s the verse that is resounding the most:

…Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Hurt you into poetry. Something hurts us into poetry. I’ve written about the role of pain in art, and the different kinds of pain that carry power, but this phrase is talking to me. It’s pushing an image at me, an image of our lives pressing and pressing on us until we start to bleed words.

I once read somewhere that a writer writes when they’re forced to admit they are useless at anything else. I thought it was a vast and inaccurate oversimplification at the time, and I still do. However, I can see the spirit behind the comment. Certainly, many of us have tried to live lives for which the contents of our psyche make us less than suitable–and we hurt, floundered and failed ourselves into writing.

We flee into the valley of its making, where executives would never want to tamper.

Follow, Poet

Sometimes I wish I had what it takes to be the kind of poet who serves as a voice of our times. Oh, I occasionally write things in response to a current cause for passion, but they don’t come quickly and I don’t have the emotional and spiritual fortitude–or the consistent functionality–to narrate with poetry a real-time cry against the things happening to us.

Indonesia burns, children go hungry, black lives end in travesties of justice, masked gunmen open fire…does poetic language not come to my mind when I feel about these things? Of course it does. If I were a stronger person, with more time and energy, perhaps I could make of myself a poet who responds to the news. In one browser window, I’d gather information about every cause for distress. On a notebook in my lap, I’d scribble responses and mutate them, then type the results into another browser window and post it.

I know what you’re thinking. Nobody could keep up. But there’s another reason my poetry isn’t going in that direction more consistently. I will tell you a secret: poems I write are often influenced by the news, but the link isn’t obvious. By the time my response makes it through my subconscious and out the other side, it may be unrecognizable. This makes them less useful for purposes of consciousness raising.

Must it be this way? For me, as I am now, it would appear so. Maybe W.H. Auden said it best:

…Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

–From “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”

I’m not strong enough, not resistant enough to despair, to get a poem out until I’ve somehow “made a vineyard of the curse.” I can’t just paint the darkness until I can somehow make it shine. It’s selfish, in the short term. But it’s what I am, and I need to accept it in order to unlock the abilities I do have.

Marinating

We have our finalists: the four poems for my submission. I’m determined to stick with those four, the product of much thought and second-guessing. Now, for the first time, I get to have the experience of doing a final revision of poems that have been around for a little while.

Revising this way is different from revising and polishing a new work. Experienced writers advise giving a work space and time before coming back to it with fresher eyes, and I have tried to do this sometimes. Preparing poems for submission, however, is causing me to do it with a new intensity.

I made my choice of the four about two weeks ago, and I’m aware of them marinating in my brain. It’s kind of like when a poem is simmering in its preliminary stages, but different. They hang around, whispering to me when I’m bored. Bits of them recur, telling me that they want to be altered in some small way. I want them to be their best, yet I want to be careful not to strip them of their energy.

It’s wonderful, and strange, and it feels so, so narcissistic at times.

Emily Dickinson’s Twitter Feed

I’m starting to think of myself as a poet, and a writer. The past two years have seen a slowly creeping transformation in my self-image: despite a deluge of inputs from the self-critical or self-destructive peanut gallery, despite my doubts about ever finding an audience, my conception of who and what I am has become intertwined with the arrangement of words and ideas to tell a story or evoke an experience.

One thing that troubles me is my lack of aptitude (or energy) for social media or networking. Not only lack of aptitude, but actual insecurity, fear and a feeling of being drained and exhausted after very little participation. It seems, these days, that a writer who wants to be heard must be a social media guru, and I am not one. I’m an introvert with chronic pain, mental health issues, and daily responsibilities that leave me wanting to assume the fetal position rather than do a status update.

Continuing to write requires that I have faith about the worth of what I am doing whether I am ever published or not…and I need to think about poets like Emily Dickinson.

I don’t think Emily would have been very good at the social media thing either. Really, can you imagine it?

@EmilyBroods: Thought about death some more today #HeardaFlybuzz #Stopforme
@EmilyBroods: Looking at the light through my window. Thinking about death. #acertainslant
@EmilyBroods: Having a better day! Maybe it’s not so bad. #Thingwithfeathers

She didn’t write in constant touch with an audience, and when I write poetry I don’t either. I need to be at peace with that. I get huge satisfaction when my prose touches someone, and I’m sure I would feel the same way about poetry when I am ready to get more of it out there–but it’s frosting. My truest self wants to go on doing it even in isolation.

That being said, I want to be open to learning more about reaching out. But I can’t stop writing to do it, and if the act of writing uses up all of my energy for that day–that’s how it is.

Oh, Well, “iamb what iamb.”

All right, I’m probably going to hell for that one. But seriously, I seem to have fallen into a ditch filled with iambic pentameter.

I’ve been thinking about meter in general lately. When I first began to write poetry, it was mostly free verse–no rhyme, no meter. Nothing wrong with that. But in my recent poems, I’ve noticed that when revising a draft and paying attention to the sound of the line, I am tending to change words and phrases in such a way as to fall into a regular meter.

The biggest catalyst for this was when I began to follow advice from writing guides and make a habit of reading my poems out loud as I revise them. In doing so, I came to know how pleasing a rhythmical line is to me.

Rhyme is still not often present, and when it is there it’s more likely to be slant rhyme than full rhyme. So I suppose you’d call these poems blank verse as opposed to free verse.

Nothing wrong with that either–as long as my paying attention to meter doesn’t make me suck energy or juice from the poem’s language. But I’ve noticed that several poems have evolved, specifically, into iambic pentameter. Hey, it was good enough for Shakespeare…but I don’t want to get into a rut.

So, I suppose I should do some deliberate exercises about writing in other meter structures. Trochees, anapests, dactyls, varying number of feet–and if I worry about loss of spontaneity, I should remember that none of these are a commitment. The poem is mine; I can tear it apart and rebuild it as many times as I want.

Do you know the little verse about the main types of metrical feet?

“The iamb saunters through my book,
Trochees rush and tumble;
While the anapest runs like a hurrying brook,
Dactyls are stately and classical.”

By the way, an even better way to remember the dactyl is Benedict Cumberbatch.

Which Four?

It’s time.

At long last, I’ve chosen a place to send my very first submission.
I’ve recently found a small magazine I like very much, and I’ve subscribed to it.
I’ve looked up and read its submission guidelines.

I am fully prepared to be rejected; I shall buy a frame to display that rejection letter.
It shall be a sign of this milestone in my writing.

I’d be lying if I said there is not a tiny part of me that fantasizes about being accepted.
That believes my work will fit very well on those pages.
I acknowledge this part of me, while willing it to remain of manageable size.

The guidelines say to submit up to four poems.
Now comes the fun part: Which four?

No, really. It is fun. Maddening, but fun too.
Considering poems, and combinations of poems.
Considering final tweaking I might want to do.

I hope to do more submissions soon, now that the ice will be broken.
But only four will live in my memory as being the first!

The Right Flavor of Pain

Pain fuels creativity; we all know it. Strong emotions make good art.

Poetry spins darkness into a million shades of beauty.

Poetry even spins darkness into light sometimes; light that is made more beautiful and whole by the process.

I have no problem believing this. I affirm that pain has been a catalyst for some of the greatest written songs of consciousness I have ever witnessed.

I do have a problem with hurting in a way that won’t let me use the hurt to grow or create.

It’s not a matter of degree. My most intense despair makes great fuel, when it’s felt cleanly. Its impetus might even push out a poem I’ve held back out of insecurity, because I am less likely to feel I have anything to lose.

It’s the flavor of suffering that makes the difference. Authentic emotions, each with their own spice, are all usable. Even the bleak and thin taste of loneliness has its place. But there’s one flavor that sucks out all others and turns a potentially unique recipe into mush.

It’s not an emotion, but rather a condition. You probably know what I am going to say. It’s depression. Deep, clinically significant depression.

When my depressive symptoms are elevated, poems don’t want to come. The poems come when I’ve clawed my way out far enough to scream; far enough to feel the need to scream.

I know poetry is more than a cat’s cradle of pain. I know the ability to transfigure emotion is only the beginning, but it’s a pretty important one. Of all the reasons I have to despise my mental illness, its periodic theft of my creativity is one of the strongest.

Unicorn Evils

Right now, literature students somewhere are probably writing a paper about what “unicorn evils” means.

They are probably not the first.

It comes from “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” by Dylan Thomas. I ran across the poem in the library the other day, and I was blown away by how wonderfully weird it is. People think of it as romantic or inspirational, because of the theme of overcoming death and the most quoted couplet:

“Though lovers be lost love shall not, 
And death shall have no dominion.”

But when I read the whole poem, I fell in love with some very different phrases.

“Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through…”

This is what can be so wonderful for me about knowing nothing sometimes. The aforementioned graduate students probably have an idea about what Thomas meant when he wrote this. They’ve got mythological references, or information about the poet’s life and how it’s really a reference to some actual person, or they’ve linked it to some other writing somewhere.

Don’t get me wrong–if I won the lottery, you’d find me in those classrooms in a heartbeat. But because I know nothing, I’m free to put my own interpretations on the phrases. Even if I knew a lot, I think I’d try to preserve the ability to do this for my personal pleasure.

Also, “Unicorn Evils” would be a great band name.

Sometimes You Just Need to Ask

You mean that’s it?

I just needed to ask some poetry to come and crawl into my head?

I knew that; I really did, but I had forgotten. I have had the experience of asking for a poem to get past the fragment stage and having it happen within a day or two. It seems counterintuitive that creativity, that most capricious of things, should be at my beck and call.

But it’s true. To a degree, it is responsive to my requests when they are made humbly and honestly.

Prayer, in its most primal form, is a formal statement of desire and intention. It takes an inchoate longing and frames it into a concrete wish (or states for the record that one needs help figuring out what the wish is.)

Any time I ask for something in a way that draws aside the curtain of pride and shows my truest need, I am praying.  By praying, I make room for something numinous to answer.

The Poet of Wickedness

“I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also.”

—–Walt Whitman

Today’s picture prompt made me think of the Shadow.

The jagged, irregular boundary of it in the picture reminds me of how I live inside my head.

Now, I know what Jung says about the Shadow, and how important and valid it is. But right now, I’m just thinking in child’s fairytale terms of light/dark, life/death. Indulge me.

Part of me would like to believe that I am 99% a child of Light (whatever I define that to be) but that is not even close to true.

Suicide prevention is a cause dear to my heart, and the creative pursuit of one more day is part of what my other site is about. I believe I write as a force on the side of life–but when it comes to poetry, it may not seem so clear in my words.

The poet I am is not a nice person.

Even when I write about nice subjects, dark stuff can creep in. When I write about something that’s already not so nice–look out. I’m usually not happy until the result gives me a creepy feeling on the back of my neck and a vague disturbance in the region of my belly button.

So, when I let the darkness run rampant on my page, am I still fighting on the side I believe in? The side I need to pour energy into if I want to stick around here?

Yes.

If “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—then yes.

I Took Out a Comma

“This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back again.”  — Oscar Wilde

I have done this. I have done this actual act, as well as many other “trivial” changes to a poem.

I have altered a line break by one word, and returned it to the first break.

I have changed a word, changed it back, come up with a third and fourth word, juggled the choices, and come to the conclusion that the first word was fine: it’s the following word that needs to be changed.

Why?

There is no logical reason. This is poetry, not geometry, and no two poets would make the same set of revisions. It’s not supposed to make sense to anyone but me. Half the time it doesn’t even make sense to me.

For instance, one of my poems uses the word gray several times. Now, in the US, either gray or grey is considered an acceptable spelling for this word. But in this poem of mine, grey looks and feels wrong, wrong, wrong. It would ruin the whole work in my eyes. It has to be gray with an A.

No logical reason.

I read somewhere that Elizabeth Bishop would tack up poems with one blank space for months until she had just the right word. I’m not sure I have that much patience, but I can understand.

Today, embrace your illogical microtinkering, and I will try to embrace mine.

Here is today’s picture prompt:

 

The Sensibility

“If it is all poetry, and not just one’s own accomplishment, that carries one from this green and mortal world–that lifts the latch and gives one a glimpse into a greater paradise–then perhaps one has the sensibility: a gratitude apart from authorship; a fervor and desire beyond the margins of the self.”
–Mary Oliver

I, like many of us, love and admire much of Mary Oliver’s published poetry. I have to admit, though, that my favorite things written by her are lines like the above: prose meditations about the experience of writing poetry. Why to write poetry. Why poetry matters. I believe the above comes from “A Poetry Handbook,” and when I read it I felt a rush of comfort and belonging. She knew. Someone knew, and someone was telling me it’s a good thing to love what I love.

What does “a gratitude apart from authorship” mean to me? I think it means that the words stand for themselves; that a configuration of words has magic that speaks to me whether they were written by me, or you, or my worst enemy.

It means I ask myself whether I would still want to write this poem even if I knew nobody in the world would ever see it. If I knew I would die soon and I’d never get to read it again. If I knew the linear life of this universe was about to depart its track and the words were destined to come apart into cosmic mists.

Would I still want to read? To write? Does it lift that latch; give me that glimpse?

Yes, Mary Oliver. Yes.

I Will Very Soon Begin

Here lies a poet who would not write
His soul runs screaming through the night,
“Oh give me paper, give me pen
And I will very soon begin.”

Poor Soul, keep silent. In Death’s clime
There’s no pen, paper, notion–and no Time.

–“Here Lies” by Stevie Smith

 

“Very soon.” That is the key phrase. Even in tormented regret, it’s still “very soon” and not “right now.” 

I wonder what stands in the way of “right now” for that poor dead poet?

Does what stands in the way of “right now” for us make any more sense?

So Let it Be Written

What’s the deal with me hand-copying poems from books, anyway? Why am I doing it, and what do I get out of it?

It’s become a pattern lately: I go to the library. I walk immediately to the poetry section, find an anthology of twentieth century poetry (because I am working on modern poets) and take it to a table. I scan, being a lazy reader and waiting for poems to catch my attention. When one does, I read it thoroughly. Then, perhaps, I read it again. If, after I’ve moved on, a phrase is stuck in my head, I return to the poem: it just might have made the cut. I think about it; about how it makes me feel–and if I feel that way about it, I get out my pen and paper.

I have favorite paper, and favorite pens. Copying a poem is a sensual experience as much as an intellectual one. I have a notebook where I place the written copies, handy for later rereading. I fantasize that one day it might be useful to my daughter to know what poems spoke to her mom.

I write in cursive; less legible but it feels right. In writing each line of the poem I have to hear it in my head. Because I fear getting a word wrong, I have to look back at the phrases and repeat them. By the time I’m done, I know the poem far better.

That’s the obvious benefit, but it’s more than that. It’s a ritual; a process of making something more real to me. The phrase “it is written” used to imply destiny or fate–by choosing to write this author’s words down with my own hand, I take them into my world and my fate.

Today’s poem: “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford.

(Don’t) Tell Me You Love Me

Love: one of the most universal subjects for a poem. A poet can expound, at great length, upon the reasons the beloved is loved. Metaphor and simile are showered upon the admired object.

But my favorite love poems are those that never mention love.

They might not even seem to like the person they’re talking about; or they might come across as ambivalent.

Yet I am left with an impression of love; love that is felt and not described.

A few days ago, I “discovered” the work of Billy Collins in an anthology. His poem “Litany” spoke to me this way, so strongly that I added it to my handcopied collection. He begins a series of metaphors describing his subject:

You are the bread and the knife, 
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are…

But then he changes gears and starts with:

However, you are not… and writes some of these;

…and you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

He also writes some I am metaphors in contrast; but ends with

…But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife…

I was astonished to find that not everyone feels the love soaking this poem. Look it up; read it; what do you think? Can you see love in a poem that is not full of compliments; that points out what the object of love is not?

Welcome, Sister

Last week, Anne Sexton showed up and informed me that she is part of my family now.

Some educated readers may be saying “How can you not have read Anne Sexton before?”

But remember, I am new to the more avid pursuit of poetry. I have had no courses, no structure; no homework to guide me. I don’t read poetry to educate myself, although I want and need to learn more about the art of poetry. Educating myself is not a strong enough yearning to keep me reading when intense depression makes learning feel pointless.

I read it because it brings people like Anne Sexton into my life in a way that time, death, or dysfunction cannot take away.

Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and took her own life in 1974. She had a long history of psychiatric hospitalizations, and credited the practice of poetry with extending her life by many years. She wrote about everything you might imagine, with occasional emphases on themes such as fairy tales and God. She was a confessional poet, shocking people at the time, and an important force in feminist psychology.

I don’t like everything of hers that I’ve read so far. As with many poets, it’s a case of little gems popping up here and there.

But she is one of my circle now; her words belong to me and live in the house of my imagination. She joins all of my sisters and brothers, created by words and shaped into my council of meaning.

T.S. Eliot is pouring her a cup of tea. Sharon Olds hangs up her wet raincoat and offers her a towel. John Donne bows and kisses her hand as Emily Dickinson moves over to make space on the sofa.

Welcome, Anne, and thanks for coming.

What We Think About That

On the topic of what’s poetry and what’s just therapy or self-expression–in the library today, I found myself sensitive to how many poems do in fact tell stories about the poet’s childhood, or relationships, or an incident (unusual or mundane) in their lives.

I found a thick tome claiming to be a collection of Pushcart Prize-winning poems and flipped through it (it’s one of my guilty secrets, that I’ll flip through an anthology and only finish reading the poems that catch my eye quickly.) Among those few that caught me today were two that most definitely tell personal stories.

“Penumbra” by Betty Adcock creates an image of a six-year-old girl out on a backyard swing the day of her mother’s funeral. “Sequence” by Marilyn Nelson is a series of ten slices of a woman’s life, ranging from childhood through relationships and back again. One person’s story, in each case, but they had phrases that speak to me.

Yes, we overcomplicate the idea of subjects for poetry. In Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams describes a fictional most-beloved-poet:

He wrote about the light in the forest, and what he thought about that.
He wrote about the darkness in the forest, and what he thought about that.
He wrote about the girl who had left him and precisely what he thought about that.

Here’s a Poem, Now Sleep With Me

Romantic poetry is–well–romantic. But some of it stands out to me as a more blatant bid not only for a partner’s affections but for very specific acts. These poems often reflect the times and culture of the poet, especially when they are a plea by a male poet for the female object of his affections to “come across.”

John Donne’s “The Flea” is one of the examples I remember strongly. In it, Donne argues with a female companion who is resistant to getting physical. He uses the image of a flea that’s just bitten both of them to claim that their blood is now mingled in this creature and that wasn’t a sin, so what does it matter what their bodies do? “Thou know’st that this cannot be said
a sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead…”

Another commonly taught example is Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” In this one, the male character uses time and mortality as an argument, spinning images of history and eternity to convince the object of his desire that it’s folly to waste time on this whole getting-to-know-you business. He warns that if she is obstinate time will snatch away all chance of joy:
“then worms shall try
that long-preserved virginity,
and your quaint honour turn to dust,
and into ashes all my lust.”

When I look at poems like this, I remember the cultures these women lived in. Sex is complicated in my current culture, but the stakes were higher back then. Sometimes I feel anger on behalf of a woman like this, being cajoled into a decision that involved far more risk for her than for the man. An irrevocable decision, one that, according to current beliefs, imperiled not only her future prospects but her immortal soul. Hey, Donne, flea or not there’ll be plenty of shame for that girl if she’s found out. Hey, Marvell, notions of honour aren’t “quaint.”

Well, I suppose poetry is a more ethical weapon than alcohol or drugs for a would-be Casanova. Seduction poetry can be amazing, too; I just prefer it a bit more subtle. I like it to be sensual and evocative–but not directive. Make me have interesting thoughts–but don’t tell me what to do, and why I should do it! I can make my own decisions.

Poetry or Therapy?

I’ve been holding back on rough drafts. I’ve been overanalyzing whether an idea should even be allowed to get to the rough draft stage or not.

I’ve been obsessing over some commentary I read from a poet who runs workshops, one who stressed that aspiring poets who apply for her workshops should be very sure that their work is “poetry, not therapy.”

I’ve been turning that lens on my poems, asking myself sternly whether a poem has any kind of larger impact or is simply a novel way to express my feelings.

I have no problem with a poem being both art and healing–but how do I make sure it’s not only the latter? I tell myself I should simply apply my normal standards: Is there attention to word, to sound, to image? Does someone besides me find it moving in some way? Do bits of it stick in someone’s head?

Nevertheless, I’m struggling with a drive to censor any would-be draft that is inspired by anything to do with my personal experience, especially experiences from childhood or youth. I’m struggling with a voice that tells me I should only write about universal, non-personal themes.

After all, no famous poets ever write about their own experience or internal world *coughbullshitcough*

I pushed through some of this to complete one draft last week; a draft for which the notes have languished in my folder for months. Is it something that would pass muster as more-than-therapy? I don’t know. Do I care? Yes, but not enough to keep from being glad it exists as a draft now.

Without Ever Saying It

Several days ago, I read Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts” from his longer work “Lessons of War.” “Naming of Parts” is, justly, the most famous excerpt of this work, and I cannot get it out of my head.

Take a look. It’s online. Maybe you can tell me why it touches me so. What I know is that it’s a poem that creates a mood and a feeling in an organic way; it brings you into it without ever saying anything about how it wants you to feel.

A lecture, outdoors, on a spring day, about how to assemble a rifle. Imagery of the beauty of flowers and the flight of bees, interspersed with instructions about the rifle parts.

Images of color, of stillness. Images that parody what will come later. But never obvious.

The poet never, even remotely, says, “How ironic that we are assembling instruments of death in a beautiful, living garden.”

The poet never writes, “This serene garden will soon be replaced by a bloody battlefield.”

The poet never says to us, “These young men, attending to these practical lessons, will die far away from this peaceful place, and that is sad.”

If you examine the poem in detail, you can draw the metaphors and parallels from each phrase, and admire the subtlety of the word choices. But, today, I am responding to the poem as a whole.

It did what I would like to get better at doing. It made me feel something and have no idea why; it carved a niche in my brain and made itself at home.

A Tedious Delusion

I came across a poem by Marge Piercy in the library today. It’s called “For The Young Who Want To,” and it begins like this:

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Artists of all kinds have felt this way; experienced these attitudes. The thin and blurry line that separates talent from delusion is so nebulous, so subjective–yet the way others see us, and often the way we see ourselves, is based upon it.

We fear not being taken seriously. The young fear being looked at indulgently, their work dismissed as unpolished or shallow. The older fear being dismissed as “not good enough” and not even having the excuse of youth.

We fear. We fear the “tedious delusion” more than we fear harsh criticism. We’d almost rather be called bad than banal.

Why do we expose ourselves to this kind of judgment?
Oh, right. Because writing means too much for us to stop, ever, unless our soul dries up.

And what’s so bad about knitting, anyway?

The Whisper

Do you get lines from a poem stuck in your head?

I do, just as often as I get lyrics from a song in there. But lines from a poem linger in a different way; they seem to be trying to tell me something. The choice of lines is diagnostic.

Poets through the centuries have furnished us with a marvelous dictionary of terms describing grief, depression, infatuation, anger, fear and every other emotion. When I’m in a certain emotional state, my subconscious dredges up an appropriate fragment.

“Oh,” I might say to myself, “I’m depressed, so these lines fit.” But I’m cheating myself if I do that, because it’s more subtle than that. There are a thousand nuances to despair, and looking deeper at the choice of lines might give me clues to what lies beneath.

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is one of my favorite somber and despairing poems. It rings with love, and pain, and twisted hope that seems to ebb with the waves.

But that’s not my whisperer today, or for the last week. What’s whispering to me is from “Bereft” by Robert Frost. Specifically, the end:

“Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known,
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.”

If I welcome the whisperer, and consider its words, and apply their shades to my view of what’s going on with me, I get bits of insight. I find there’s a reason for this particular whisper. In this case, I needed a way of painting that cold, bleak feeling that comes when I know it’s up to me; that no human agency is going to have mercy on my soul. I needed to see that I really have been thinking about God a lot, and thinking about my need for God. Frost’s lines beat in my head with a gentle but implacable rhythm, wanting me to stay with this cold and this emptiness until I find the right remedy.

The Poet in the Poem

I have always been someone who likes to let a story or poem or painting speak for itself. When I like a television show or movie character, I sometimes don’t even want to know too much about the actor who plays him or her.

When I take a poem to my heart, I make it my own. Its language is translated into my personal archetypal code and drawn on the cave wall of my mind, and that’s as it should be for me.

That being said, it’s interesting to learn more about the lives of my favorite poets. It’s inspiring to learn about how, when or even why they wrote what they wrote, or see world events through their eyes. It’s touching and motivating to see some of the sources of their personal pain and notice how they’ve given it unique voice and used it as a creative force.

I don’t believe it’s possible to write a good poem without putting something of ourselves into it. So every time I read a poem, I am taking a look into the author’s psyche. I just don’t want to overanalyze–or make assumptions about–what I am shown.

Some poems appear to invite us into a specific realm of a poet’s personal experience. For instance, when a poem’s written in the first person and involves the narrator being sexually abused, it’s not too far a leap to imagine that this particular poet has had this in his or her life. And, if we do imagine this, we might be right a good deal of the time.

But not all of the time. Poets can write in imagined voices, and although what they imagine also says something about them as a person it isn’t a simple one-to-one correlation.

I’m a woman, and I’ve written several first-person poems in which the speaker is a man. I’ve read some amazing poems written from the perspective of a character very different from the author. Some of the poems I fear to write, but know I will someday, might contain the first-person musings of abusers and perpetrators I have known or who have hurt me.

How scary it is to think a reader might be affected by one and think I did everything my poems do! I’ve done many things I regret, but my writing scours the shadows and comes up with things I hope I won’t ever encounter. So I try not to make assumptions–I am honored to be invited into a poet’s inner life by their work, but I don’t presume to think I know them because of it. They remain a juicy mystery, as are we all.

When the Right Word Starts With “F”

I like to swear.

Not all the time, and I’d never want to use cursing as a substitute for the eloquent and nuanced expression of a feeling. But I like to swear sometimes.

I like to use the word “fuck.” It’s my favorite swear word. I like to use it judiciously–infrequently enough that it has an impact when I do it. It has to carry a punch, whether that punch is angry or sensual or irreverent or anything else.

Especially in a poem. Some poems are dripping with four letter words, and that’s good–if the words, and the frequency of their appearance, serve a purpose toward the voice and the emotional impact of of the poem. Look at Ai, or Sharon Olds. When they use certain words, it’s far from gratuitous. And if they make us uncomfortable, it’s because that discomfort has a part to play in the poem’s impact.

But I think some poems make the mistake of thinking that certain language will, in and of itself, make a poem gritty or raw or visceral. It won’t. It’s only a paint color. We still have to paint the picture.

On the other hand, there’s no need to recoil from any words if they are what’s feeling true. We need to treat them with the same consideration, and the same thoughtful editorial eye, needed by any words we’re using to refine a poem.

Let’s play with them the way we try to play with other words to sharpen our craft and pleasure. Play with their appearance, or their absence. We can try putting them in the mouth of a character one might peg as a more demure type, and use the surprise of them to make a tone shift or heighten a moment. I have a 25-line poem in which “fuck” appears only in the penultimate line, and it’s needed there. No other word would have worked, and it also wouldn’t have worked if it had appeared any earlier in the poem.

We can appreciate their qualities of sound. If I write “fuck” in a poem, it needs to work in terms of the poem’s sound and not just the meaning: the fricative f, the shortness and compactness of the word, and the primitive-sounding “uh” vowel should form part of a conscious arrangement.

I love words, and if you read this you probably do too. Let all words be piled around you like jewels, available for your loving and discerning hand.