How the Moon Became a Poem

Storm Moon photo

In Tuesday’s mail came the May 2017 issue of POEM.  POEM is a journal of the Huntsville Literary Association, and has been continuously published since 1967—fifty years. They publish perfect little poems—the journal itself is not quite 5”x7”—and I had submitted a pack of poems to them just to say I tried.

So when I got the acceptance last year, I was thrilled—especially because it was one of the Moon Poems from my narrative manuscript (you know, the one I’ve submitted like 50 places).  The Moon Poems, with maybe two exceptions, are “perfect little” 15-line lyrics, that appear throughout the manuscript and (at least in my mind anyway), represent the poetic output of one of the main characters, thought the voice in this particular poem is Vidalia’s, not Tallulah’s.

I’ve been trying to remember what initiated my interest in writing the Moon Poems.  While it may be true that I wanted to demonstrate a range of my writing ability (that I can write something other than narrative), it seemed important to incorporate the moon almost as a character in the manuscript, especially as it is about witches and women who harness energy and strength from the moon in order to enact their spells.

The poems each take as their title one of the (many) colloquial/ northern Algonquin names for each month’s full moon—though the February full moon is technically the “Snow Moon”—but of course, there’s no such thing as snow storms in February in Louisiana, but there is rain, so I fudged a little, and made the poem “Storm.” (Actually, this poem could also represent July—which is the month of  the “Thunder Moon” as well as “Buck Moon” but I believe I meant it for February.  But the word “thunder” appears in the poem itself…maybe the connection to February is wrong?)  As I think about it, February actually has two poems in the manuscript, this one and “Hunger Moon.” Anyway, writing about the moon felt authentic to me, and authentic to the experience of all the women characters in the manuscript.  (Not surprising—as Marge Piercy reminds us, “The Moon Is Always Female.”)

With this publication, the total number of poems in the manuscript that have been published in journals comes to 11—when the manuscript is 83 poems, my publication rate looks feeble, a mere 13%.  But it has been difficult to publish poems from this collection because it’s narrative (the Moon Poems not withstanding), and they are interdependent, and how do you take individual poems which all contribute to a story out of their milieu and make them make sense as stand-alones?

I’d very much like to have at least 20 poems from this collection published—that seems like a reasonable goal—then I would feel like maybe the manuscript would finally have a chance.  And getting the rest of the Moon Poems published might be the way to accomplish that goal.

On the other hand, there is still the other idea I have been kicking around in my head…taking out the line breaks in nearly all of the manuscript poems (except the Moon Poems), and trying to get it published as a hybrid flash fiction/poetry work.  So far I’m not that desperate—I mean, I conceived the book as poetry, and would hate to lose the beauty of well-wrought-lines, so I’m going to hold out the hope until I get the next batch of manuscript rejections that it will get published as the verse novel it is.

But the line break removal thing is still a possibility… because it has worked for me before, transforming what I thought were poems into flash fiction and flash nonfiction—or rather, perhaps the conversion process only revealed what their true form meant them to be.  And in many cases, these erstwhile poems found homes in journals like right away.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy “Storm Moon.”  Let me know what you think.

Gun Violence, Academic Poetry, & Who Cares About White Pain?

I started writing the post about poetry below (after the horizontal line) a few days ago.  It’s still worth sharing, because it’s about writing meaningfully when all of this tragedy is happening.  But I have to have to say that now, with the death of the African American man hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park (Atlanta’s “back yard”), which the Atlanta Police Department called a “suicide,” I’m at such a loss—I don’t even know that I could write any poetry about the insanity of death and violence that are perpetrated against American citizens because they’re black and brown.  (Does anything I’d have to say even matter?)

If calling this particular death a “suicide” is not an example of institutional racism, if that’s not racist “criminal justice” and a racist “law enforcement” system at work, I don’t what is.  What African American would choose to hang himself from a tree?  What African American would choose to commit “suicide” through a method that clearly smacks of historical racism and slavery?  The answer:  no one.  The night before the murdered man was found, Klan members were seen hanging fliers in Piedmont Park.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  Thank heavens, the FBI is now investigating this death—but only because Atlanta’s African American mayor Kasim Reed referred the case to them, not because the police did—and let’s not forget that the FBI is also part of a racist criminal justice system.  If they agree with the Atlanta coroner and the APD that this man’s death was indeed “suicide,” I wouldn’t be remotely surprised. Devastated yes, but not surprised.

And let’s talk about Dallas.  Yes, it’s awful and horrifying that five Dallas officers were shot and killed at an anti-violence rally.  No, these officers didn’t “deserve” to die.  But let me tell you, I can sympathize with the shooters’ anger and frustration.  Maybe these five particular cops didn’t deserve to die.  Maybe these five particular cops were upstanding citizens who would never use their power against African Americans to harass and murder them.  But other police officers every day act on their racism and abuse and kill African Americans with impunity.

The fact is, the attack on these cops is an emblematic strike—it’s the way these suspects felt that they had to deal with constant, racist murders of other African Americans by police departments.  It’s fighting the system, when no one else will.  President Obama has said that there is no possible justification for the attack, but it’s hard to deny that “law enforcement” doesn’t profile and target and harass and murder black and brown suspects just because they can get away with it.  When our lawmakers and President can’t seem to get a hold on the police department’s institutionalized illegal acts perpetrated against African American citizens (and other minority groups, such as Latinx, who are also targets of racism), it doesn’t surprise me that African Americans turn to vigilantism for justice.

In an earlier interview about the slaying of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile the President said, “’All of us as Americans should be troubled by these shootings,” he continued. “These are not isolated incidents, they are symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.’”  Yeah?  Then do something about the shootings.  Our society has never been less civil.  Mr. Obama, you’re the President.  You have Executive Power.  Do something.  Demilitarize the police.  Take down the NRA.  Take guns away from people.  Please, I beg you.

If you’re like me and feeling especially helpless and sick right now about all this violence, here are some things worth reading/ doing: writer Justin C. Cohen’s Advice for White Folks in the Wake of the Police Murder of a Black Person, former police officer Reddit Hudson’s I’m a Black Ex-Cop, and This Is the Real Truth about Race and Policing, faith-based consultant Joshua Dubois’ letter to police chiefs (in .docx form, so you can cut and paste when you download it), and psychologist Karyn Hall’s suggestions for self-soothing (because we need to take care of ourselves in the midst of all this tragedy).

Anyway, with these latest murders in mind, like anything I say is worth a damn, here is the original post…


I am struggling lately with poetry.  Call it a genuine crisis of faith—or aesthetics.

I am trying to reconcile what I think art should do—which is comment on our time, take a stand, reflect reality and emotions and rage—with what my art is doing—or rather not doing.  That is to say, in the light of the constant stream of mass shootings, and shooting violence in domestic relationships, and officer involved shootings (so many of which our white justice system just gives a pass to), how can I write poetry that is meaningful and worthwhile?  How can I make art that responds to the insanity of murder and the American adoration of and addiction to gun-enhanced power that we see every day reported in the media?  How do I respond to that?

When I consider the writing I have done lately, it seems vacuous and crass that I have not responded to these constant shootings.  It seems so much the purview of academic poets (a group I belong to) wrapped in their laurels of white privilege to ignore what is happening around us.  Do we white academic poets need to be shot or to see someone we love shot before we are galvanized to action?  Do we have to live through the horror (if we’re lucky) of gun violence before we use our art for good?  What is art for if not to rally people around a cause, if not to comment on and critique the way we are living our lives?  What is art, if it doesn’t challenge us to change?

I think academic poets are averse to risk and to reaching out in their poetry, and they take a dim view of political poetry as a genre.  Maybe it’s something to do with the perceived sanctity and safety of the ivory tower that we are privileged to write little lyrics about our families or the natural world or trips we’ve taken oversees—but where’s the risk in that?  Where is the connection to the greater world? I see plenty of poet friends on Twitter tweeting their outrage at every example of injustice and murder perpetrated by cops against minorities—but what are they writing?  What are they doing to stop this?  How are they using their art to say no more?  How am I?

Maybe it’s a class issue—maybe academic poets think political poetry is the work of the laboring classes, or the work of oppressed groups, or maybe the work of spoken word and hip hop artists.  Maybe those of us in the ivory tower are just closing our eyes and pretending we don’t see what is happening around us—because we don’t have to.  Because we believe in the myth of NIMBY.  But even in the ivory tower, we can still be taken out by a sniper or a bomb.  So why are we silent?  Why am I?

Which brings me back to my struggle with poetry.  I can’t think I was ever taught in any of my writing classes about how to write political poetry—I think, maybe, while it was never stated overtly, it was certainly implied, that art was “above the fray.” I barely even read any political poetry—at best, the political poetry I read was women’s poetry, and just reading women’s writing, by virtue of writing the very fact of their lives was theoretically a political act (i.e. the personal is political), maybe I thought that was good enough.

And maybe because it’s white privilege that tells us art should be beautiful, and art is “universal,” that I didn’t ever think I needed to use poetry to discuss politics.  As if you could ever divorce art from politics.  The very choice in deciding what to write about reveals our politics, aesthetics, and values. 

I find that my own writing—which honestly, I generally think is pretty good—strikes me now as deliberately obtuse, privileged, and empty.  As I said in my last blog post, people are dying—we do nothing.  Poets have power—so why haven’t I written about this constant barrage of death?  Why haven’t I used my anguish and anger to write poetry that matters, that speaks to these atrocities?  Poetry that pleads for change?

Part of it is, I don’t know how to write it.  I don’t know how to express my fear and distrust with our “justice” system, I don’t know how to say “these deaths are wrong” and “guns are killing us” and “fuck tha police” (N.W.A. said that first, to be fair) and that “racism is evil”…in an artful, meaningful way.  I don’t know how to write about those things so that it won’t come across as facile or false or like I’m an ignorant white liberal who is trying to write Meaningful Poetry So We Can All Learn a Lesson at best—or at worst, write poetry that somehow appropriates the experiences of oppressed groups, a type of colonizing act, making their pain all about me.  I don’t know how to express these things.

Part of me feels that maybe I don’t have a right to write about these things.  Who am I, but a privileged woman with a Ph.D., an academic poet whose life in every way is impacted by and benefits from my whiteness?  If I get pulled over, I don’t fear for my life.  So how can any poetry I write even speak to the horror that is everyday experience for African Americans who get stopped because they’re missing a license plate?  They know one “wrong” word, one quick movement, and the cop who is stopping them will escalate this moment to death. I can never know this.

And maybe I really don’t have the right to write about these things like racism—because I don’t suffer its effects, though I sure as hell benefit from white privilege.  Still, every day there’s another murder (euphemistically called an “officer involved shooting”).  Every day someone dies; Alton Sterling died on Tuesday, Philando Castile died on Wednesday.  And every day I feel sick.  I feel like I have to express my pain about these deaths.  I want to use my art to do so.

And I know these deaths are not about me.  And nobody wants to hear about a white person’s pain—because it can never compare to the pain of racism and its effects on society.  It can never compare to the quotidian fear for one’s life that African Americans suffer.  And yet here I am, poor me-ing about my feelings of artistic impotence, anyway…when people are dying because they are people of color.  Dying every day because of the color of their skin.  I can’t wrap my head around that.  I can never wrap my head around that.

Maybe it’s white privilege again that makes me think I should use my art “for good”—maybe it’s the white savior complex rearing its ugly head that lets me believe that if I wrote a political poem about gun violence—gun violence on a large scale, and this incessant disgusting racism that is killing African Americans in “routine traffic stops”—that anyone would care.

Not writing about it seems wrong.  But I come back to those voices of recrimination in my head that say, Who am I to think any poem I’d write about this subject matter is worthwhile or right?  Who am I to speak about this?  What right does any white person have to express her pain about these murders?

My pain can never compare.  It’s just so much white noise.

AWPost Mortems

It’s no secret I didn’t want to go to AWP.  In fact, when Karen Head announced to me that she had arranged it, fait accompli, that I was going to the conference, I pretty much decided to permanently take to my bed with the vapors.  My attitude wavered between considering how amputation of all my limbs or a lobotomy without anaesthesia would be preferable to flying out to Los Angeles (a city I was happy to be rid of the last time I left in 2002) and being thrust into a situation where I always have to be “on” and charming and cheerful, like a carnie, trying to tempt people to part with their cash.  (Although, of course, buying poetry is a better deal than any carnival game—and at least you don’t get snookered.)  But I’m always fine once I get to a place.  It’s the getting there, and the pre-anxiety (and the fact that I had a raging case of bronchitis—can I ever get through a Spring without it?  Geez!), that always cast a pall.

2016-03-31 08.53.04But I had a great time at AWP.  While I missed some interesting panels (being married to the booth for the entire time), I made up for it by being excellent at getting people to subscribe to the Atlanta Review.  Among the three of us—Dan Veach (now Editor Emeritus of AR), Karen (the new Editor), and me—we sold 42 or 43 subscriptions, sold out of all the journals that Dan brought with him (he brought 120 copies!), and met and encouraged lots of poets to send us their work.  I expect we’ll have quite the slush pile once Karen and I take over!  And that’s good because the more people who know about the Atlanta Review, the more we can spread our influence and get new readers and conquer the poetry world, Mwahahahah!  (Ah, sorry, I lost my head for a minute.  But you take my point.)  We want to continue Dan’s success with the journal, and between Karen and me, I think we waded into this new endeavor with aplomb.  And Collin Kelley was at the table off-and-on, and he is always one of my favorite people.

write buttonsOf course, what I always forget about AWP is how much fun the Book Fair is.  Especially when the swag is so good.  And it was pretty good this year.  The hot giveaway was buttons—everyone was giving away buttons, and so my AWP lanyard was bespangled with them from all manner of journals, the London Review of Books, PoetLore, Five Points, Sierra Nevada College’s “This Sh*t Is Lit,” “Poetry Changes Everything,” and nearly two dozen more. (I was all about the buttons—and even got several compliments from random peeps about my lanyard.  The best one sported a picture of a catalope (cat with antlers)—of course I can’t remember what journal I picked that one up at—I really wanted to buy a tee shirt from them, but they were out.)  (Also, we’re totally giving away buttons next year at the AR table—we totally need to swag it up.)

write poetry fresher

 

Other swag of note:  Poetry gave away car air fresheners.  I am totally mystified by this choice.  It smells vaguely piney, and also like antiseptic.  And ass.  Not really the smell your car longs for.  But on the back is the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, published in Poetry in August 1913, which is kind of nice.  Permafrost gave away a squishy stress-ball in the shape of a polar bear (awesome) as well as free copies of their journal.  There was one booth that as I was leaving the Book Fair for the day had some earbuds lying around.  I’m pretty sure they were giving them away…they had several pairs sitting on the table… but if not—if I accidentally liberated them—then I can add kleptomania to my list of skills, along with poetry and sarcasm.  (It’s good to diversify, you know.)

write bear

 

Then there was the booth with this one woman who apparently is a self-publishing machine. (I’m withholding her name in case my ridicule gets out of hand—but she shares a name with a famous early 20th century woman poet.)  I mean, she was probably 80, wizened like the Southwest—she looked like New Mexico—and draped in scarves and flowing skirts, and had stacks of her books in front of her like a fortress—all published through Amazon.  No matter how I tried to extricate myself from her clutches, she would not let me leave—she kept wanting me to purchase her books.

As soon as I’d inch away, she’d thrust another of her books into my hands, telling me how her life had been changed and how these poems represent her experience.  She gave me one book to take with me—which I totally thought was a catalogue describing her various books, with a few poems in between ads for her other books—and when I got back to the hotel, it turns out she was actually selling that book—there was a price of $18.95 stamped on the back.  (I was like, dafuq?  Really? Who would buy that??) Anyway, when she saw she could not entice me to purchase her whole corpus of books, she foisted her most recent one on me—which actually, from a graphic design standpoint, seems really kind of nice—the cover is lovely, and it looks like a real book of poetry, not something from a vanity press.  But I mean, how good can these poems be?  The first line of copy on the back cover states, “These new poems were all written during the first two months of 2016…” and the pub date is March 5.  I guess I am being a poetry snob.  I haven’t read the book yet—it could be wonderful.  But I’m not holding my breath.

Another book that was given to me for free was Jessie Carty’s Practicing Disaster (Kelsay Books/ Aldrich Press 2014).  I have a bit more faith in this book, although its title on the cover is written in shitty Comic Sans.  (Really?  Like who thought that was a good idea?)  The inside cover has the author’s name signed and the line “Not a joke—free poetry” with a smiley face.  And the acknowledgements list at the front of the book is quite impressive—among the places that Carty has published work include Eye Socket Journal, The Dead Mule, Blue Fifth Review, and Poet’s Market 2013.  So, I’ll try to read through it at some point.

write booksAs far as purchased books, I bought Parades by Sara Deniz Akant (OmniDawn 2014), and Hungry Moon by Henrietta Goodman (Colorado State 2013) (which kind of got banged up on the flight home—c’est la vie).  And the stack of journals I picked up is impressive—Moon City Review, New South, Southern Indiana Review, Rock and Sling, Michigan Quarterly Review, Sugar House Review (which has a beautiful cover), the Laurel Review, and several others—all of which will be seeing submissions from me in the near future—hahah.

write journalsOf course one of the things people flock to AWP for is all the famous people, as well as catching up with old friends.  I didn’t meet any famousy-famous people, though I did get to meet Kelli Russel Agodon, of Two Sylvias Press (a press that makes lovely little books), who is one of my heroes (I love her as a poet and as an editor), and who tweets great material always (follow her if you don’t:  @KelliAgodon).  So meeting her at the Two Sylvias table was so nice—I was fulsome enough in talking to her, I think she felt like she had to hug me.  But we had a nice little convo.  And I did get to see some old Nebraska alums—Liz Ahl, who I always forget how divine she is (we had drinks with her at Tom’s Urban, in L.A. Live, across from the Convention Center), and Darryl Farmer, who was here at Georgia Tech too for a little while, before moving off to the wilds of Alaska.  But overall, not as many Nebraska folks as I expected to see.  (I went over to the Prairie Schooner table, thinking there might be someone from the old days, but I didn’t know any of those people.)  I would have liked to see a few more, at least.  (I did see another UNL alum, who, as always, looked right through me, the putz.  I refuse to mention him by name, but a pox on his head.)

2016-04-01 16.41.19

View from the Santa Monica Pier

Not at the conference, I met up with my old best friend/ enemy/ boyfriend-ish/ not boyfriend-ish/  “I’m gay” “No kidding” “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I thought you knew” / best friend again from back in my USC Trojan days.  We spent late Friday afternoon and Friday evening walking all over Santa Monica—we walked from Wilshire Blvd. to the Pier, and up and down the Pier, and along the beach for a long stretch (geezus, the water was cold as fuck), and then up and down the Third Street Promenade about three or four times, tried finding a movie to watch (we went to the movies all the time when I lived out there), went out to dinner, ate liquid nitrogen ice cream at Creams & Dreams, and then hung out at his place in Venice to watch Brooklyn—a great (if slow-paced slice-of-lifey movie… about 10 minutes into it, I thought, “This is so my Mom’s kind of movie”).  I didn’t get back to the hotel till well after midnight.  But it was so good to see him… and fun to tool around L.A. like we did when we were younger.

Anyway, I’m glad to be back, I won’t lie.  I need to recharge my introvert batteries which were sadly depleted while I was away.  And mostly I need to…

write like a mofo          …And so do you.

Oh,Venice, Mi Manchi

Underneath day’s azure eyes,
Ocean’s nursling, Venice, lies—
A peopled labyrinth of walls,
Amphitrite’s destined halls,
Which her hoary sire now paves
With his blue and beaming waves.

—from P.B. Shelley’s “View from the Euganean Hills”

I’ve been dreaming about Venice off and on for the last several weeks (in between dreams about houses missing an outside wall, pun-offs with Bob Wood—not as funny as it sounds, btw—or reading books with weird languages in them).  It’s almost strange how Venice has crystallized into this mythic place in my mind—and I want so much to go back there, and enjoy it in a way I didn’t enjoy it two years ago.  Like I really want to get lost there for maybe 3 weeks—but this time, I’d have my phone and a good map and I’d be on my own time table, and so it would be a controlled “lost”—I could explore at my will, and learn the city at my own pace, and see all the art (that I didn’t see before), and find interesting little alleys (that I didn’t have to map in my notebook so I could find my way back out of them), and visit the churches and the gardens and the other islands and the shopping districts (that I had to skip).  I just didn’t have that time before.

(To wit:  think about how the first day I was there was a complete wash, stranded as I was in the airport; the second day, I stayed in bed trying to recover from the emotional trauma of first day as well as from jet lag, and I was completely money-less except for maybe like €3 [which I spent on 2 cans of ambrosia of the gods Lemon Fanta] because I needed to find a bank—so that was 2 days out of 6 down.  And then of course I was there for work, and I was on someone else’s schedule.)

By the end of that week, I was finally getting a feel for the city, and could make my way around with some autonomy—and then, hello, I had to leave.  But it was in those last couple of days that I fell in love with Venice and realized that there’s a Venice book in me (right?  all the writers who’ve been to Venice—Shakespeare, Henry James, the Romantics, plus gobs of others—fall in love with the city and thinks there’s a book in them about it), but I really need to get back in that milieu and absorb the rhythms and sounds and textures of the place to be able to write it.  Or at least to write it with some authenticity, with the flavor of presence, and not just the hazy taste of memory.

I want to experience some of the touristy things—like take a gondola ride or visit the Peggy Guggenheim museum—and drink Aperol in every bar, and walk until I’m so tired all I can do is stumble upon little out-of-the way cafes and write for a couple of hours before I’m ready to walk back home.  That would be my dream:  to go back there (not in high summer—maybe, February, when it’s cold and rainy, the off-season for cruise ships—such weather would not deter my enthusiasm at all) and write and write and write and eat and drink and write.  There’s a reason that staying in Venice was an expected stop on the Grand Tour for like centuries—because it’s a capital of culture (yes, yes, dead, white, male, upper class, Eurocentric culture—spare me the lecture), and putting yourself in that space, away from your home space, gives you a different perspective on the world.  Maybe not a big difference in perspective—it’s still Western, it still has wi-fi—but it certainly influences your thought patterns.  It’s certainly also influenced my writing—and I keep coming back to writing those little prose poem/ memoir hybrid pieces (like the one I was nominated for a Pushcart for).  I have a number of them.  I think there are more inside me though.  Another trip to Venice would coax them out, I bet… (Haha.)

Speaking of things (roundabout) Venetian, I have to go to AWP’s annual chaos of a conference at the end of the month in Los Angeles as part of my new duties for The Atlanta Review.  I do not look forward to the conference; it’s gargantuan, spread out over multiple hotels, full of 50,000 writers (and that’s not my usual hyperbole) rushing to panels and readings (and apparently, I’m reading too—so great, now I have to figure out what the hell to read)—but I hope that I can get out to Venice Beach (or Santa Monica) for a little bit of time.  I need to see the ocean up close and personal, because it’s been a while (at least 14 years since I’ve seen the Pacific).  And Venice Beach, for all the times I’ve visited, always amuses me.  It’s quirky and endearing and strange, and I dig that.  Again, like so much of my time in L.A. in past, I will be sans auto, so not sure how I’ll get out there.  And a $60 taxi ride wouldn’t be my first choice for transportation, much as I’d like to go… But I’ll figure that out when I get there.  Who knows, maybe I’ll write a few Venice Beach poems.  That could be interesting.

As for Venice, Italy, I’ll get back there some day.  My book will still be waiting for me to write it.

grand canal image 06.24.14

A picture I took, maybe of the Grand Canal (I can’t remember), June 24, 2014.

Contests, & Waiting, & Rejections, Oh My

What does it take to get a book of poetry published in this country?  I wish I could write a blog where I list out all the steps a person needs to follow to help ensure success in this process.  These are the things I would mention:

  1. Write a book of poetry.
  2. Get friends to read it and make suggestions for revision.
  3. Edit and polish the hell out of it.
  4. Send it out to publishers.
  5. Get published.
  6. Become the latest darling of the poetry world.
  7. Repeat for Books 2, 3, 4…

Except, it hasn’t worked that way.  Well, I mean, I’ve got Steps 1-4 down pat.  I’ve sent out my manuscript (at this point) 42 times (which as you know is the answer to life, the universe, and everything), so you would think that perhaps the universe will come calling for me pretty soon.  (And to be fair, after a hiatus of several blues-ridden months where all I was getting was rejections, I’ve sent it out 10 places in the last month, 5 of which are contests. I guess you could say I’m feeling hopeful again—so technically speaking, it’s only received 32 rejections.)

And I get rejection is part of the gig.  Your manuscript has to find the right person who loves, loves, loves your writing, someone who will pass it along to the next reader, who also needs to love, love, love it.  And so on.  And contests aren’t the best way to ensure that your manuscript finds a loving audience, because readers simply don’t have the time to invest—particularly if your book is a little odd. (Which I fully admit mine is.)  Readers barely have time to invest even if the poetry they read is something they expect and understand. I know this.  On an intellectual level, I know this.  Everyone is getting rejected (well, except for one person).  Most contests report that they’ve had anywhere from 600-1000 entries.  Lots of people are getting told to take their manuscript and go bite the big wienie.  I get it.  I just wish that the process didn’t suck so hard.

I have a writer friend who told me that he knew someone for whom it took 70 times before her book won a contest and got published.  70 times.  Considering that most contests only award $1000 and run $25 a pop to submit, that times 70 contests comes out to $1750, meaning the contest cycle put her $750 into the hole.  (I don’t even want to think about how much into the hole I am.)  (Not that anyone goes into poetry to earn a living.)  (Honestly, what kind of business model is this, where the poet has to take it on the chin, nose, or other body part to get her work into the world?)

Of course, railing about it here is not going to change the status quo.  For whatever reason (because hardly anyone reads poetry anymore and contests are one of the only ways that publishers can make any money), this is how the process goes if one wants to be published by a reputable press and hopefully receive accolades for it.  And I buy into the system (literally and figuratively), which makes me complicit, and I have to be ok with that.   I am ok with that. Because, hey, who doesn’t want to win the Academy of American Poets Walt Whitman Award and spend 6 weeks lounging around and poeming in Italy plus get their book published and sent out to everyone who is on the rolls of the AAP?  If you won that, the $35 fee you invested (for me $70, since this is my second time around) when you submitted your manuscript would be hella worth it.

I could just wish I knew what the magic number of submission times for my book  to get published would be.  Because that would so alleviate my anxiety.  Like, let’s say the Goddess of Publication were to come down from On High and whisper one night when I’m asleep:  64 times, JC!   Then I would know that I only have 22 more rejections to go.  That would be great.  I could send them out all on one day and get it all done, knowing that soon I’d hear the good news.  Ah well.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

I haven’t been working on Hecate Applebough.  I was thinking about why this is, and it’s a combination of factors—the weirdo exhaustion, a preponderance of tennis matches in the evening when I would normally write, and a renewed vigor about writing poems.  But actually, those aren’t the biggest reasons.  I think the biggest reason is because I’m waiting to get notes back about the first book…and so I’m kind of feeling like I don’t want to write any more on the 3rd book in case there are repeated mistakes in the 1st one that I could prevent myself from writing in the 3rd book if I just knew to avoid them.

That’s certainly a true enough statement.  Avoiding mistakes if they’re preventable is always preferable to making a bunch more and having to go back and fix them.  But if I’m honest, another thing making writing the 3rd one a pain right now is I’ve dug myself into plot hole and I really don’t know how to get Cate out of it.  When I sit down at the computer and see that last chapter., I’m like, “Bleah” and then I get up and do something else.  It’s the first time since starting to write this series that I’ve just felt like I’ve lost control over the story and over Cate’s life.

And so in your endless wisdom, you might say, just throw out that chapter and start fresh.  And that’s really good, practical advice.  But the thing is, I don’t know what to replace it with.  I don’t know how I can make it better.  I have a blind spot right now.  So I kind of thought it might be ok to just set Hecate aside for a little while, and focus on writing poems and sending them out.  Maybe when I get the notes on the 1st book, it will help me see the 3rd one with a fresh eye too.  (There is no pressure on the person reading the book right now to hurry up and make those notes… I need some down time from Cate, so it’s totally ok.  Take as long as you need.  Srsly.)

And maybe this weekend, I’ll get a bee in my bonnet and suddenly figure out how to proceed with Hecate.  Or maybe I’ll write three more poems.  When it comes to my writing, it’s always just a mystery what will happen.  I kind of like it that way.

And, as a total non sequitur, please enjoy a photo of Jenny, who has been keeping me company:

2016-03-09 20.05.25

Big News in My Writing World (But Not a Manuscript Acceptance, Let’s Not Get Crazy)

It’s chilly—44 degrees out, and blustery.  There are few leaves on the trees, but they rattle as the wind blows, and somehow the weather is fooling me into believing it’s October.  I want to believe Halloween is right around the corner…because it would mean that November was right around the corner too, and that would mean it’s time for another NaNoWriMo.

I’ve been missing the energy of NaNoWriMo.  I’m still in the early stages of Hecate Applebough 3 (still untitled), and part of my lack of progress has to do with a weirdo persistent migrainey exhaustion I’ve been suffering for the last month (and which my Mom has nagged me about going to see a doctor for—ugh), and also not feeling that compulsion to write every day those 1,667 words because I have nowhere to chart the progress, no pep-talk e-mails from the NaNo people coming every few days encouraging me.  It’s just me now, and it’s harder to write, without the community.

But, a couple of days ago, a fortuitous tweet put me on to an app called Writeometer, which exists only for Android (sorry iPhone folks) and which gamifies the writing process, kind of the way NaNo does—you can set a daily/ monthly/ word goal, use its timer, enter your daily word count, and get reminders about writing, and you can earn “guavas.”  I don’t know all tricks of the app yet, so I’m not sure what earning the guavas can do for you, but I’m sure I’ll find out as I become more familiar with the app.  I’m looking forward to using it—I need the motivation.  So I’ll let you know how it goes.  (If any of my Five Readers have tried the app, I’d be curious to know what you think about it—but I suspect most of you are Apple users.)

Other than working on Hecate, I’ve produced a few short pieces lately—a few honest-and-for-true prose poems—one of them came out so well that I’ve “given” it to Hecate, and shoehorned it into the second book…although if I can get it published on its own, I will—and a few bits of flash that I want desperately to be prose poems, but I knew they aren’t.

Prose poems have a certain surreal quality—and so does my flash, except that the surrealism of prose poems is its own little thing.  When I try to do surreal flash, it just comes out as nutty.  Like maybe I’m trying too hard.  But hey, two pieces of just such flash were accepted by a journal on Monday, so I guess nutty works too.  In general, I just have a little “heart on” for prose poems, because they’re hard to do well, and because I think, in my mind, I still privilege poetry over prose as being Important and Worthwhile… while fiction just seems like something you do for cash.  (Not that I have received any cash for ANY bit of fiction I’ve produced—not ever—but you take my meaning, I’m sure.)  And of course, even as I write that, I know that’s a false dichotomy—but there it is.  The poet’s bias against fiction writers.  Hmm.

How’s this for burying the lede?  In other news, now that Dan Veach is passing the editorial reigns of The Atlanta Review over to Karen Head, she has asked me (WHAT????) to serve as the managing editor.  OMG OMG OMG.  This is an amazing opportunity, and I can’t wait to sit down with her and discuss all the ins-and-outs, and really sink my teeth into this project.  Reading some brand-new poems (that aren’t mine—haha) that are searching for a home is exciting.  It’s been a long time since I did any work on a literary journal, and The Atlanta Review is a Big Deal—this isn’t any dinky fly-by-night online journal, this is prize-winning print journal with an international following.  The work that Dan Veach has done on the journal (founding it and running it) is amazing and impressive, and I’m so thrilled that I get to be involved…and so grateful to Karen for asking me to assist her.  Read Collin Kelley’s article in Atlanta INtown, about the transition of editorship to Karen, because it’s interesting and offers some history about the journal.  (As my first order of business as managing editor, I propose we update the website!)

What else is there to share?  I’m still working on reading those three books of poems I mentioned in my last blog post—I got a little distracted by my manga habit, and my weirdo exhaustion that makes me want to fall asleep at 6 p.m.—but I hope to finish them this weekend (in and around the 85,000 tennis matches I’ve scheduled).  And, I’ve gotten yet another rejection on my poetry manuscript, but I sent it out to two more places, and I’m crossing my fingers. At some point, SOMEONE is going to want it, right?  Maybe I need to “attach a few more zeros” onto the contest fees I send off… maybe bribery would work?  (You never know!)

Time to Get Reading

In my push to work on Hecate Applebough 1, 2, & 3, my poetry has been getting somewhat short shrift.  True, Cate is a poet, so I include some of “her” poems in the text, but as for my own (“real”) poems, I’ve hit a dry patch, which tells me I need to begin a Reading Phase.  (Either that, or I need to win a trip back to Venice, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.)  Reading poetry is helpful on so many levels—among other things, it exposes you to new ways of looking at the world, it offers creative connections with language, and it reveals beauty and anguish and sudden bursts of weirdness.  But more importantly, it lets me escape the dolor of my own head.  I mean, honestly, that thing is like a coffin.  I need outside influence in the worst way.

But what to read?  I have plenty of books on my shelves that I’ve either never cracked, or I read long ago and forgot what it’s them.  (Also, as an aside, “long ago” could mean as recently as a year ago—I have a piss poor memory for poetry, which is kind of pathetic for someone who counts herself a poet.)  There are new books of poems out every day, some of them by acquaintances that I need to buy at some point—all of them equally good, I’m sure, but I think I’m going to choose some “free” ones—and by free, I mean, ones off my shelf.

(Closes eyes and chooses)…And here are the first three winners of my Random Poetry Picking Sweepstakes:

  • Mohja Kahf’s E-mails from Scheherazad (UP Florida, 2003)
  • Molly Peacock’s Original Love (Norton, 1995)
  • Evie Shockley’s A Half-Red Sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006)

My goal, then, is to read these books in the next few days and be amazed by their words, and maybe after that I’ll read a few more, etc., etc., and maybe after that I’ll be ready to start a Writing Phase again.  I might even include some mini-reviews next week.

I do read journals off and on (especially when I’m in a Submitting Phase), but sometimes, I find what passes for poetry in them unintelligible.  Like, I just have no idea what the person is trying to communicate.  I don’t believe it’s because my brain has certainly turned into marshmallow—I think there’s just a real movement to putting words together for no damn reason other than to see if editors will be fooled into thinking that word-bag poems mean something.  Now, not every journal, and not every poem, obviously.  But it seems to happen more frequently than not.  Recently I read a few poems in a journal (that will remain nameless, but suffice it to say it’s Big and Impressive) that I was considering submitting to, and once I read the kind of poems they’ve published lately, I was very certain that what I write would fall directly into the round pile.

(I’m not talking about The New Yorker though, in case you’re curious what Big and Impressive Journal I mean.  For at least the last 20 years, they publish the shit poems of brand-name poets.  I’m saying it out loud, right here.  The New Yorker prints the absolute worst poems I’ve ever read.  And if this claim on my part means that they will never publish any of my poems, far far into the future, when I am myself finally a brand-name poet, then so be it.  Their poems are the pits, and honestly they should be ashamed of themselves that they can’t pick better ones.)

(Does that sound like sour, jealous grapes?  It’s not.  I know getting published in The New Yorker is a big benchmark for a poet, but I think I hold with Groucho Marx here:  I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.  So, sayonara New Yorker.)

Anyway, in my distaste for The New Yorker, I’ve meandered from my point (it happens, forgive me)… which is this:  it will be good to get back to reading quality writing (instead of what I have been reading, which is fun [manga], but not particularly conducive to inspiring my poetic side).

And if you have any poetry book suggestions that are current and wow, leave them in the comments.  I might go on a buying spree soon.  Goddess bless Amazon Prime.