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Hello, Reader. It is Friday, and I’m afraid there has been more laundry than poetry this week. To wit:
Ah well, some weeks are like that.
did you work today? But there has been some reading and writing, too. I have a deadline coming up for my MFA program, and I’ve been thinking about (yet another) Stanley Plumly quote:
“If tone is one way, historically, of describing the voice within and of a poem, then rhetoric is the way tone of voice is achieved. Rhetoric ought to be no more or less than the presence of the poet, made manifest, in his poem.”
That’s from Argument & Song again, which has taken over my life. I mean that in the best possible way.
Anyway, so I have been reading poems and poets, trying to identify the locations of “tone of voice” and the tools of rhetoric that create it. I have been scribbling notes like: “diction: spectrum from spare <——->lush”; “particularity vs. anonymity”; “structure of progressions: accumulation vs. leaps (also consider sound)”; “use of the appositive as means for discovery”; “entrances into poems: the utterance vs. the set scene.”
I have no idea whether I will succeed in coming to conclusions that could constitute an argument for a paper. What I do know is that flailing around is my process, and that there will be more flailing before it’s all said and done. What I do know is that even if all the flailing is for naught and I have to switch topics three days before the paper’s due, I will still have learned something about what Plumly calls “tone of voice.”
Same with poems. All the failed (and flailed) attempts are for learning. They will never desert you. They will make of the ruins of themselves the poem that actually works, perhaps many years hence. Nothing is wasted. (I am reminding you of this, but really I am reminding myself, so thanks for indulging me).
did you eat? As I’ve said many times before, reading is my creative nourishment. None of my poems would exist without the poems I’ve read and studied before writing them. And so even when I’m flailing around for paper topics and writing only a little, I am always reading.
I’m still reading Laura Jensen, this time her third book, Shelter. I’m still in love with the strangeness of her poems. Hers are poems in which the presence of the poet is made manifest. Here is a poem that has captured my attention this week; it made me think of that quote by D. W. Winnicott: “It is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found.”
CHILD HIDING by Laura Jensen
The sun just now when it was hidden
was like a child in white behind the fish tank
and a breath of rain that was plummeting
nearly brushed my face. I must have moved
my head momentarily to protect my glasses,
then the cloudburst eased and came to the stop
it makes, eaves yet in the wet dim marbled way
they drip. I never saw such sunlight
in the yellow-green leaves of the cherry,
in its velvet black trunk. The lustrous
sun and the lustrous shades on the grass blades.
The sun was moving back of the wet white
clouds and the color through or inside
everything was where and what it wanted to be,
and wanted to emerge from laughing. May every
one of us come running out glad. That prayer
depends on such a light, depends on life
going well, and right. So often we are saddened
like a child that leaves off hiding when he sees
it never mattered, his hiding place. To know
and to come away is what I would finally have to
learn, to suddenly grow chilly and close the door.
did you love? Next is an essay on the writing life by David Allan Cates, one of the faculty members at my MFA program. He delivered the essay as a talk on the last day of the residency in August. Many tears were shed. You can read it now for sure, but if nothing else, print out a copy (or bookmark it) and tuck it away for a time when you’re down and discouraged about your writing and/or the writing life. Here’s a little morsel, but the whole thing’s a meal:
Finally: You—We—have got to love this stuff. The aching beauty of the words. How they sound, and then the silence. How our mouths form them from breath. How like our lives they are here, then they are gone. Their vaporous essence should make your skin turn inside out. Because how else to endure what you’ll most likely have to endure as a writer? To stand and look out at the world and to let the bottom fall out of the moment. Let’s face it. This is not a career. 99 percent of you will earn very little money. 99 percent of you will get little acclaim beyond a few dozen, a few hundred, maybe a few thousand readers. You’ll endure what every other human on earth has endured: all the lost, lost things. And you’ll endure it by answering these three questions: Did you work today? Did you eat? Did you love?
May your answers always be: yes, yes, and yes.
In this post I said I’d write more about getting to know lit mags, with an eye to figuring out where to send one’s work.
(I confess, the song “Getting to Know You” from The King and I is now going through my head. You’re welcome for the ear-worm).
Here is a hurdle that kept me from submitting widely for years: that place in the guidelines where it says something along the lines of, “The best way to find out what we’re looking for is to subscribe and read what we publish, so that you’re familiar with our particular aesthetic.” Which is, of course, obvious. But I was hung up on getting to know journals because I felt like I’d have to read a journal for years to get the hang of each one’s particular aesthetic.
That’s when I took a class called “Getting Your Work Out” with the poet Molly Fisk and, regarding particular aesthetics, she said these magic words to me: “Just be in the ballpark.”
Knowing with confidence each journal’s particular aesthetic felt impossible; being in the ballpark felt possible.
And frankly, I’ve read many, many lit mags for many years and here’s what I have to say about particular aesthetics: Most journals publish a wide variety of work from the spare, highly lyric, near-fragment of a poem to the rambling narrative. Not all, but most. Or most that I read, anyway.
So, okay: just be in the ballpark. How do I know if I’m in the ballpark? (Note: these tips apply mainly to print journals)
- Yes, subscribe and read. But most of us can’t realistically subscribe to and read the, let’s say, 100 lit mags we’d have to send poems to each year to place 10 poems (see this post for the math). So…
- Subscribe on a rotating schedule. At any given time I’m subscribed to 8-10 lit mags, maybe a few more or less. There are some I subscribe to every year because I feel like one must know what’s going on in their pages (e.g., Poetry, APR). Then there are those who must take turns because I don’t have an unlimited budget of dollars or time. On the off-years for a given journal, I stay in touch with what they’re publishing by:
- Swapping journals with friends, and even coordinating subscriptions with them;
- Visiting a journal’s website, where many journals feature a few poems from each issue;
- Buying single issues, which usually cost less than a subscription;
- Tracking down recent issues through EBSCOHost (or other online content databases) at the library. This method is a bit clunkier, but it works and it allows you to say in your cover letter, “I particularly enjoyed (Name of Poet’s) poem, (‘Title of Poem’), from your most recent issue.”
- Pay attention to where your “kindred” poets are publishing–those who work in approximately the same aesthetic as you (again, be in the ballpark). If Journal X likes one of your kindred poets’ work, it’s probably a reasonable place to send your own.
(Of course, if you have access to a university library that subscribes to a wide variety of lit mags, OR an unlimited budget, you’re golden. These tips are for those of us who don’t.)
And don’t forget: One learns to play the harp by playing. You might, with good intentions, send your poems to a journal and later realize you might’ve been a bit outside the ballpark. It’s okay. Finding journals that are a good fit for your poems is a process like anything else.
Up next, Lord knows when: guidelines.
Hello, Reader. Sorry for the lack of roundup yesterday… bodies of offspring, half-days of school, etc. … . And I’m working on the next post on submissions (getting to know lit mags), but it’s not finished yet. Stay tuned.
Today’s roundup will be short and sweet: three quotes on voice and a poem of praise.
three quotes on voice
From Mark Doty:
“(H)ow the texture of subjective perception find its way into speech” and also “(you) sounding like yourself, your unmistakable self.”
Read more in this talk.
From Stanley Plumly (referring to Pound’s idea of absolute rhythm: “a poetry which corresponds exactly to the emotion being expressed”):
“This sense of fullness, of something being worked out and worked through, relative to the length of the passage, relative to the timing of the particulars, is what the voice in free verse is all about.”
Read more in this book.
From Mary Ruefle (always my personal favorite):
SHORT LECTURE ON VOICE
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
When students are searching for their voice, they are searching for poetry. When they find their voice, they will have found poetry. When they find poetry, they will live to regret it.
From this classic tome.
I think the Doty and Plumly quotes speak to an individual mind/consciousness making itself manifest on the page. I think the Ruefle quote (actually a whole essay) is hilarious and true.
praise This week’s poem is from Ross Gay‘s book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. I remember first reading it in APR and spending a long time with it. Now I return to it when I need a dose of wonder/praise/gratitude for the world. Here is “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian.”
Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!
And sorry for the radio silence. There have been things happening involving the bodies of offspring. Everyone is fine now.
Nonetheless I have added to my list of hospital books. These are the books I’ve lived with at various points of my life while frequenting hospitals.
They include (but are not limited to):
- From Dawn To Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Cultural Life by Jaques Barzun
- The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
- And Her Soul Out of Nothing by Olena Kalytiak Davis
- The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt
- The Forest of Sure Things by Megan Snyder-Camp
- Paradise, Indiana by Bruce Snider
- The First Four Books of Poems by Louise Glück
- How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher
These are not books I took with me to hospitals because of something intrinsic to the books, but are just what I was reading at the time, what I grabbed on the way out the door, and what crossed over the threshold with me to that strange, time-warped world of hospitals. These books have some fairly interesting marginalia, like:
“IV antibiotics and/or surgical drainage” and “PICC line insertion on Tues. a.m.” and “varying line lengths increases speed of poem down the page” and “Here is where I part company with (insert name of author here).” List of medications, times administered, ideas for revision (
bare bleak), snatches of news caught on the drive to/from: “taking a break from your career is like hang-gliding with your child’s future.” (Well, God help us all, then).
Anyway, all this is just to say I’ve been thinking about how books are more than just books. They become companions. When I pull these books back out I say, Hello, old friend. I remember things forgotten (and instructions from doctors) as I page through. I feel known by them somehow.
I wish for you very, very few hospital books, but many, many companion books that know you somehow.
to weave a needed rope Last week, I brought not a book (well, I brought a book, too) but an interview I’d printed out from the Writer’s Almanac. It was an interview with Jane Hirshfield, and here’s the best part:
“To write a poem, for me, is to weave a needed rope out of thin air, often in desperation, while falling.”
There are many other good parts, and you can read the whole interview here.
the perennial Halloween poem I’m sorry, I just can’t help myself. I’m sure I’ve shared this poem before. And I’m a little wounded regarding this poem right now, because my daughter came home from school this week and said, “Mom! You can help me! I have to bring in a Halloween poem!” She was so excited that there was something tangible I could help her with (typically, my poetry background is considered more liability than asset when it comes to helping with school). “I know the perfect poem!” I said, and referred her to the perennial Halloween poem. She read it. “No way, Mom,” she said. Which I probably could’ve predicted, but I live in hope that someday one of my children will appreciate a poem I recommend (other recent losers include “I Feel Just Fine in My Pants” by Yehuda Amichai, which I was inspired to read aloud when we recently (finally!) had a day that was cool enough for pants, and I felt just fine in mine; and the last three stanzas of Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” — I mean, who can resist a passage that begins, “Darkling, I listen…”?).
Well, anyway, here is the perennial Halloween poem, Louise Glück’s “All Hallows” which I will never tire of, which I will forever recommend to anyone who will listen.
So that’s a wrap for today. I’m hoping to get back to some more posts on submissions sometime soon. Until then, Happy Halloween!
In this post I wrote a little bit about submitting poems, and the hurdles that might keep someone (or kept me) from submitting. I’ll cover a couple more points today, namely:
- What do I send? and
- Where do I send it?
I wrote a bit about figuring out what to send in this post. I won’t repeat myself in detail here, but the basic idea is to create mini-manuscripts of poems that play well together, with maybe one or two that show a bit of your breadth as a poet (so are somewhat, somehow different from the others). Yes, the same and different.
Poems that play well together might be related by subject matter, form, voice, similar images, tradition… you get the idea.
When I first started out making mini-manuscripts, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. Like everything else, I learned by doing it. There may be a certain amount of zombie-walking involved at first, but after a while you get the hang of it. Zombie walk: a technical term meaning “to walk around and put poems in small groupings until you have them in some kind of organization and order that only afterwards can you articulate your reasons for.” Or something like that.
If you’re just starting out, set an achievable goal. Try for three mini-manuscripts of five poems each, with no overlap (that way, when one packet gets rejected, you can simply send the next and the next to the same journal).
As for where to send your poems…. ay. I could write a book. Let me try to be practical instead and direct you to a few resources:
- Your bookshelf, bed-side table, end table, the stacks on and next to your desk, and similar environs. What are the journals you read and love best? You probably love them best because they publish the kind of poems you love to write.
- The acknowledgements pages of the poetry collections you love. Look at the collections you go back to again and again, and see where those poets are publishing.
- If you have access to a university library (O, how I wish I did!), visit their periodicals room (Most municipal libraries that I know of do not carry lit mags anymore. Bookstores sometimes carry a few.).
- This list of the top 50 print journals. This list of the top 20 online journals. These are only starting places; there are many excellent journals that are not on these lists, so don’t get hung up on the lists.
- Calls for submissions in Poets&Writers and Writer’s Chronicle
- New Pages
- Your poet-friends. Ask what they’re reading and loving, journal-wise.
If you’re just starting out, set an achievable goal. Identify 10 journals that you think might be a good fit for your work. Don’t define “good fit” too narrowly (like I did for several years), just be in the ballpark. Find journals that are publishing a variety of styles and voices (this is most journals BTW—more on this in another post) where your poems could join the chorus. If I were starting over, I’d aim higher than I did when I first started submitting. You can always come down.
Next up regarding submissions:
- Getting to know a journal
- Guidelines, guidelines, guidelines
Did someone say Friday? I guess it’s time for another roundup then. I will try to be efficient, because someone just asked me, “Mom, what are we going to do that’s fun today?”
I have no response to that.
obstacles I wrote last week of being a bit stuck in terms of creative work. That has continued to an extent, but has eased some as I (for lack of a better term) gave in to the process that seemed to be working best, or rather stopped trying to force the process that wasn’t.
Long-time readers know that the bedrock of my writing practice has always been what I call my morning reading and writing, in which I get up early, read poems, and do a few pages of free-writing based on what the reading evokes for me. I’ve continued that, to an extent, but the free-writing has been tough going. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Zen concept that “the obstacle in the path becomes the path.” So, I decided, if the free-writing wasn’t working, I should try something else. It’s been a sort of collage-like process of writing new lines and using images and phrases from old free-writes. I have a couple drafts that might grow up to be poems, which is all I ask of myself in a given week. And while I don’t know if this process will stick, or if it will ever feel natural, it got me through one week.
Either way, having long since given up on the Muse in favor of plain old hard work, it was good for me to learn to work in a different way.
anguish One reason I read is to console myself. “We read to know we’re not alone” (that’s C.S. Lewis). Just in time for the fits and starts in my writing process, I read, in The Writer’s Chronicle, an interview with Vijay Seshadri. One of the questions had to do with what the interviewer saw as his relative lack of prolificacy compared to many American poets (“Why the eight or nine year gap between collections?” she asked). His response was a great comfort to me:
“(T)hough I haven’t published much, I’ve written a lot… . My ratio of fragments—some of them large fragments, some of them sixty or seventy lines—to finished pieces is about ten to one.”
“(T)here is nothing easy or obvious or regular or reproducible about the way I write a poem. It’s all anguish.”
So there’s that. And although I think “anguish” is a bit of a stretch—I mean, it’s not like we’re shoveling coal in hell here—it’s comforting to know that even Pulitzer winners struggle with process, leave things undone, work slowly, and all the rest.
(Also, for the record: eight or nine years between books doesn’t seem all that shabby to me).
the recognizable fowl And since we’re on a little theme on the making of poems here, why not a poem about making poems? I’ve been reading Laura Jensen‘s Bad Boats (and, I confess, constructing a parody to the tune of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”… cuz baby now we got Baaad Boats…). I knew a couple of Jensen’s poems from classes over the years, but had never read a collection. Bad Boats is rocking my world. I love the way that, in making the world strange, she makes it recognizable. Here is her imaginative take on subject matter:
SUBJECT MATTER by Laura Jensen
On the good day, it cracks out,
the recognizable fowl that falls in love with you,
nothing to offer but itself in your eyes.
When you keep walking it starts after, helpless,
unrejectable. It would never harm you, you are certain.
Someone has seen one go fighting, taking a chevron
in lieu of the humming garden. Roses are red
because their ears are burning.
Someone hears the ocean and repeats its sound.
In your favorite country, the one no one remembers yet,
the hen, the duck, the other ones that settle—
all of them are minor deities. It is with composure
that they see flocks turn to the other mothers,
the peculiar foreigners they look in the eye.
[In pencil next to line 5 (“It would never harm you, you are certain”): Bwhahahaha!]
Well, that’s it for today. The child who asked about doing something fun is working on a needlepoint project #winning. I may just be able to sit down with a book and have a cup of tea. Have a great weekend, and thanks for reading.
That’s a paraphrase Aristotle up there in the title: One learns to play the harp by playing.
I have this quote forever pinned to the cork board above my desk. It’s how I learn to write poetry: by writing poetry. It’s how I learn to be a mom to a teenager: by being the mom of a teenager. It’s my comfort: knowing I can only learn to do something by doing it, which inevitably means making mistakes and picking up knowledge as I go. Which inevitably means looking back from time to time and realizing how much I didn’t know back then, back then, and back then.
It’s also how I learn to submit poems to literary magazines. O, by playing. Yes, by striking wrong notes, practicing till my fingers bleed, building up callouses and having them split open again. But after four years of submitting poems on a regular basis, I’m finally to the point where I can breeze through the scales, play some songs by heart, tackle more ambitious pieces. The callouses generally hold.
So I thought I’d write a few posts about submissions over the next little while, sharing a bit of what I’ve learned, am learning.
Today I’ll cover a couple of hurdles—those obstacles that kept me from beginning to submit poems at all—and how I eventually cleared them.
hurdle: how do I know when a poem is finished? (and therefore ready to send out)? I find it adorable that I ever thought a poem could be declared finished. I’m with Paul Valéry, who said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. (Frankly, I’ve often felt a poem abandoned me #justsayin). Over time, by continuously drafting, revising, resting, and re-revising poems, I’ve learned that a poem may never feel finished, but that doesn’t mean it’s not send-out-able. I’ve found it’s more helpful for me to think of “send-out-able” than “finished.” I’ve learned a poem can be revised even after it’s in print; not on the page where it exists in the published version, of course, but in future incarnations (perhaps in a collection, in an anthology, etc.). To wit, Marianne Moore famously revised her poem “Poetry” over the course of 50 years.
So clearing the first hurdle meant forgetting the idea of finished and embracing the idea of send-out-able.
(Note that I am not even wading into the waters of “How do I know if it’s good?” I am of the Merwin school of thought on this).
hurdle: fear of rejection This was not a huge hurdle for me, since by the time I started sending out poems I knew rejection was just part and parcel of being a writer. However, having some data around rejection helped me to feel freer about submitting.
Shortly after I began submitting, I read an article in which a writer who I admired was quoted as saying that even a 10% placement rate is really solid. Knowing that for each submission I sent out there is (at least) a 90% chance of rejection makes me feel like there is less at stake for each individual submission.
Armed with the 10% statistic, acceptances became pleasant surprises rather than hoped-for results. It also helped me see that—as every seasoned writer I know says—submitting is a numbers game. The more you send out, the better your chances of placing something somewhere. Ten percent on 3 submissions could mean zero pubs; ten percent on 50 or 100 and you’ve got a much better shot at some publications.
So each time I send out a sturdy little pile of poems, I have a conversation with it: Sturdy Little Pile, chances are you’re not going to make it, but hey, we’ll give it a shot. And I believe in you either way. Very freeing!
Okay, that seems like enough for one day. The next hurdles I’ll cover (who knows when, but sometime soonish) are:
- what do I send? and
- where do I send it?