#poetrymonthfail and other news

Studies of Water Passing Obstacles and Falling -- from Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks via wikimedia

Studies of Water Passing Obstacles and Falling — from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks via wikimedia

I am forever learning new ways of speaking from my kids. My middle-schooler has begun saying “hashtag (fill-in-the-blank)” as a way of commenting on something. A frequent example is when I forget something or otherwise goof: “hashtag mom fail.”

Thank you, middle-schooler.

If I were to say anything about my poetry month this year, it would be: “hashtag poetry month fail.” I won’t be surprised if on my gravestone my survivors decide to put: “She had good intentions, but…” (also in the running: “She always started tomorrow’s dinner today.”).

In this post I wrote about four things I was planning on doing for poetry month: submitting, revising, trying out Scrivener (a writerly software application), and creating and sending out a The Handout.

The ugly truth:

I am still reading the instructions for Scrivener. In my defense, there are a lot of instructions, and they lead me to believe this could be a very useful application for poets and writers. But I haven’t taken the leap to using it, mostly because I feel like I still don’t understand it well enough to use it well. What I’d like to do is go to a class or workshop where they teach you how to use it. A quick search on The Google tells me that such workshops exist, so I’ll be looking for one in my area.

I have not finished the The Handout. I have started it! I will finish it! It will be mailed before June 3rd! This is all I can say about The Handout. This and: sorry.

I did do some (revising and) submitting, but I was not a (revision and) submissions machine. As I have always aspired to be. As I have never been. And now, I’m seeing advice from editors on Facebook to just focus on next fall at this point — the academic journals are clearing the decks and some submissions probably won’t even be read before getting rejected. This is an argument in favor of submitting early in the reading period. I think this is probably good advice especially regarding academic journals, but I’m also keeping in mind that there are many journals that read during the summer. Diane Lockward usually publishes a list or two or three on her blog (the links I just used are from last year’s lists, so double check guidelines for this year if you plan to use them, or wait for Diane’s 2014 list if she posts it).

Really, though, for a poet every month is poetry month. I just keep doing the best I can with the time I have. And I keep reminding myself that the obstacle in the path becomes the path (credit: Genine Lentine — to whom I am trying to link and getting an error — I will update later). Amen.

(By the way, speaking of to do lists…. if you want to see Leonardo da Vinci’s to do list rendered beautifully by one of my favorite Bay Area artists, Wendy MacNaughton (to whom I am also trying to link and failing but find her on The Google) until I can update this, go here).

Oh yeah, I almost forgot the other news. Many thanks to Kathleen Kirk and Escape Into Life for featuring my poem “Argument for Staying” in their Mother’s Day feature (Ugh. Ugh. I cannot link to anything today. And the truth is I won’t really have time to update it until at least tomorrow. So the obstacle in the path becomes the path. The path is The Google. Go look! Try: escape into life mother’s day). I’m in good company there along with Martha Silano, Sarah J. Sloat, Sandy Longhorn, and others. I’m happy to see that this is a Mother’s Day feature that also looks at the choice not to be a mother.


four things I’m doing for National Poetry Month


photo from wikimedia

photo from wikimedia

Happy April is Poetry Month, no foolin’.

(BTW, I’ve always found it rather hilarious that National Poetry Month begins on April Fool’s Day).

I’m not writing a poem a day for poetry month. I took a look at where my work is, and decided instead to:

submit — I have submissions out at only three journals right now. Only three! And before we know it, many journals will be closing for the summer. So my number one priority for poetry month will be to send out a few submissions a week to my list of kinship journals (an always-evolving list). And if I’m going to be submitting, it means I will also need to…

revise — Submissions and revisions are joined at the hip for me. I’ve always wanted to unhinge one from the other, but so far haven’t figured out how. Maybe someday. For now, to the revisions/submissions process I say: I accept. I’ll be looking through promising drafts and using these tips, these tips, these tips, and also these tips.

So that’s two things… . The third thing I’m going to do for poetry month is a 30-day trial of Scrivener software for writers. Scrivener is a software program that allows you to electronically organize your notebooks, index cards, drafts, notes, updates, jottings, etc. It also allows you to compile large documents — say a poetry manuscript — from various smaller documents within the program. I can see immediately that this would be useful for long form writers: fiction writers, essayists, academic writers. I have a hunch it could be a good tool for poets as well, but I’m not 100% sure. And I’m always a little nervous when leaving behind one process for another, so I’ll be shadowing my Scrivener adventure with my usual Word documents that contain background notes, free writes, early drafts, and each revision. I’ll use the 30-day trial this month both for poetry and for a book review I’m working on, and I’ll let you know what I think about its utility for poets. Stay tuned.

Lastly — and here’s where there’s something in it for you — I’m going to revive my unintentionally-abandoned practice of sending out The Handout (You will note if you read the link that this is not the first occurrence of unintentional abandonment. Mea culpa.). All month, I’ll be setting aside poems that I find a.maz.ing in some way, and then I’ll cut and paste and copy and mail the poems to your mailbox. If you want them.

If you are already on my The Handout list, you don’t need to do anything. If you’d like to be on my The Handout list, send me your name and snail mail address with “The Handout” in the subject line to: mollycspencer (at) gmail (dot) com. I’ll add you to the list. The stamp’s on me.

Happy National Poetry Month!


did someone say National Poetry Month?

Reader, I may be returning to the surface (gurgle, gulp). Then again, it might just be a good morning. Either way, I’m glad to be here for a few minutes of poetry talk before I return to my mothering/nursing duties.

Rumor has it it’s National Poetry Month? I know many poets are writing a poem-a-day. As for me, other duties call and I’ll be taking my cue from Rita Dove, whose advice to young poets is pictured above. (BTW, I don’t think I could be accused of being a “young” poet. “Middle aged” poet, yes. “Apprentice” poet, always). There’s lots more advice, for poets of all ages, at this link.

Yes, I have lots of books on my to-read shelf. The latest addition is on its way, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it: Alison’ Seay‘s To See the Queen is finally out. I’ve been waiting for it since I came upon this poem, which I know I’ve linked to before, but trust me, it keeps.

Speaking of poetry books, Powell’s is offering 15% off all poetry titles this month. Tempting, verrrrrrry tempting.

Speaking of poetry books, Susan Rich is hosting the Big Poetry Giveaway this year, and there’s a list of participating poets in the left margin of her blog. I will probably participate in this, too, but give me a few days (gurgle, gulp).

Speaking of metaphors (uh, well technically, I guess we weren’t, but…), here’s a short but informative craft essay by Mark Doty about the making of his poem “A Display of Mackerel.” Amongst other things, he says,

“Our metaphors go on ahead of us. They know before we do.”

He says,

“I need something to serve as a container for emotion an idea, a vessel that can hold what’s too slippery or charged or difficult to touch.”

He says,

“Will doesn’t have much to do with this; I can’t choose what’s going to serve as a compelling image for me. But I’ve learned to trust that part of my imagination that gropes forward, feeling its way toward what it needs; to watch for the signs of fascination, the sense of compelled attention (Look at me, something seems to say, closely) that indicates that there’s something I need to attend to.”

There are more gems in this essay, which is called “Souls on Ice.”

As for my own work, I know it will be at least a couple weeks before I can count on what I think of as “real” pockets of time for writing. But I’ll keep reading, and I’ll keep slipping into cracks of time, jotting things down in my notebook like: Who knows which brother it was? He was / on his bike. It was summer. And, We made… Even the ruins… We went back to them… . And, There was more to be undone.

Who knows when or whether these scraps will become poems (Hey, maybe I can do a scrap a day, rather than a poem a day!?)… but middle-aged poets…, we do what we can.

Happy National Poetry Month!

April was poetry month: winners and wrap up

31 revisions

Reader, National Poetry Month has passed us by. I’m excited to announce the winners of free poetry Margo Roby and Tara Rae Mulroy. Thanks to everyone who threw their name in the hat.

I know many poets who are heaving a sigh of relief this morning — no mandate to write a poem today. As for me, I counted up my revisions for the month of April and ended up with 31 (sometimes the Muse strikes in revision mode, you know; I never pass up a date with the Muse, so I did one extra). The thing I love about a poem-a-day (or, in my case, a revision-a-day) challenge is that it reminds us that having a focus can lead to real results. For April, my first priority after my morning reading and writing was revision. With the exception of one or two poems that are still knocked out on the operating table, I now have a stack of poems that are ready for the spit and polish. The one-a-day rate, whether drafting or revising, isn’t sustainable over a long period of time, but it’s good to make a push every now and then, isn’t it?

In other news, I’m very happy to have learned that my poem “Aubade For Peter Pan” received an honorable mention in the Tupelo Press Winter 2012 Poetry Project. You can read my poem and many other wonderful poems at this website.

From the Keeping It Real desk, we have news of a rejection or two and a grant proposal passed over. I’ve found that, over time, my skin is thickening. For one thing, I don’t expect to win anything the first time I try. For another, I’ve learned that submissions are, to a certain extent, a numbers game — the more you submit the more publications you’ll have. Sadly, I’ve submitted very little since January (must remedy! must remedy!). It helps, too, when the rejections are the good kind of rejection wherein one is asked to submit more work. Little nudges from the universe that say: Poet, persevere! And I shall.

Lastly a big thank you to Diane Lockward, who included links to my revision tips in the May edition of her poetry newsletter. If you aren’t receiving this newsletter, may I recommend that you sign up here (scroll down — the sign-up field is in the right hand margin). Every month Diane provides a book recommendation, a craft tip, and many useful poetry links. It’s a great resource for the working poet. Thanks again, Diane!

And now, Reader, May is Moving Month. It’s true. Currently the wee, small house is shrouded in a red tent and lethal gas — termites are a fact of life in this subtropical climate, and most houses are fumigated when they change hands. Husband asked me if I took a picture. Um, no. No, I don’t want a reminder that my house was filled with lethal gas and the entry sealed for three days. I suppose I’d better issue unto myself a box-a-day challenge. Yeah. We’ll see how that goes.

Happy end of poetry month, happy May Day, and happy Tuesday to all of you. Thanks, as always, for reading.

last day for free poetry! plus bonus volume from The Poet AOD

Happy Monday everyone! Today is the last day you can enter to win free poetry through the Big Poetry Giveaway. To throw your name in the hat, go to this post and leave a comment.

And now there’s an added bonus: My excellent friend, known on this blog as The Poet AOD, has just had her first chapbook published. The two winners will also receive a copy of Alice O. Duggan’s wonderful collection, A Brittle Thing.

I’ll announce winners tomorrow. Happy last day of National Poetry Month!

friday roundup: more on working parents, naporevmo update, and Night-Pieces

photo from Spirit Rover; public domain from NASA via wikimedia

Happy Friday, all. I “slept in” — it’s already 5:30 — so let’s begin the roundup without further adieu:

more on working parents  We had quite a discussion on parenthood and work earlier this week. I enjoyed hearing from everyone who commented — thanks. My sister-in-law and I were talking about it more and we agreed that no matter how you choose to be family, there is always some ambivalence and uncertainty — are we doing this right? And it’s always hard and exhausting (though not without a joyful element). Also, parenting brings one into daily confrontation with one’s flaws and imperfections. When one is feeling ambivalent, flawed and exhausted, it’s all too easy to try to justify one’s own choice by denigrating those who’ve made a different choice. Perhaps I should’ve added one more article to the treaty: let us all attempt to live peacefully in the mess of it.

I also heard from people who have chosen not to have children, who receive their fair share of comments and insults because of that choice. Corollary to Article 4: we will honor the life choices of all people, parents or not.

naporevmo update  Those who have been reading along know that I set a goal for myself to accomplish one revision a day during national poetry month. I’m happy to say I’ve kept up so far. The hardest part has been leaving one poem for the next — revision could be an infinite process, no? The thing I haven’t kept up on is submissions. I’ve sent out only a handful of packets since the first of the year. Perhaps that can be my next pledge to myself — a submission a day for May?

Night-Pieces And speaking of putting children to bed, and feeling our flaws and imperfections, and ambivalence about our choices, here is a poem by Adrienne Rich from Necessities of Life. In my reading of this poem, mother and child become actors in the bad dreams of the other — not much of a stretch for any parent “swaddled in a dumb dark”:

Night-pieces: For a Child

1. The Crib

You sleeping I bend to cover.
Your eyelids work. I see
your dream, cloudy as a negative,
swimming underneath.
You blurt a cry. Your eyes
spring open, still filmed in a dream.
Wider, they fix me —
–death’s head, sphinx, medusa?
You scream.
Tears lick my cheeks, my knees
droop at your fear.
Mother I no more am,
but woman, and nightmare.

2. Her Waking

Tonight I jerk astart in a dark
hourless as Hiroshima,
almost hearing you breathe
in a cot three doors away.

You still breathe, yes —
and my dream with its gift of knives,
its murderous hider and seeker,
ebbs away, recoils

back into the egg of dreams,
the vanishing point of mind.
All gone.

But you and I —
swaddled in a dumb dark
old as sickheartedness,
modern as pure annihilation —

we drift in ignorance.
If I could hear you now
mutter some gentle animal sound!
If milk flowed from my breast again…

Reader, that’s it for today’s roundup. Happy Friday, happy weekend, and may all your dreams be happy ones. Thanks for reading!

friday roundup: NaPoRevMo update, finding the time, and parallelism

The Flight of the Prisoners by J.J.J. Tissot
public domain from wikimedia

Reader, my alarm went off this morning but apparently I didn’t hear it. There was a mad scramble of lunch packing and sunscreen application instead of my usual dark and quiet writing time. So I’m a bit later than usual with the roundup. Here we go:

NaPoRevMo update  Those who’ve been reading along know that instead of writing a poem a day for poetry month, I’ve decided to revise a poem each day. So far, I’ve kept to my goal, which feels good. I arranged the poems by subject, and this week tackled three in the Mail Order Bride series (including my fave title right now: “Fifteen Years Later the Mail Order Bride Finds Her Answer to His Ad in the Sock Drawer”), and two long-ish prose poems about my experience of chronic illness. Some of the revision was a simple spit-and-polish; others were full re-drafts. Stay tuned next week for some posts on particular revision strategies that have been useful for me. How is poetry month going for you?

And speaking of poetry month, don’t forget to sign up for your free poetry books on this blog and many others (look in the left hand margin)!

finding the time  Many times when I tell people that I’m a poet with three children, they ask me: “How do you find the time to write?” Well, there are many ways. Mostly I find it by getting up really early. Other times I skip housework, let laundry pile up, or serve scrambled eggs for dinner. I’ve been known to draft and/or revise poems on the way to the zoo, on the sidelines of a soccer game, and even while driving — by having my kids repeat and remember a particular phrase until we’re home and I can write it down. For many years I kept my hair long so I wouldn’t have to spend much time having it cut, styled, or otherwise fussed with (in fact, I’m considering doing that again). And then there have been the times when I’ve just accepted that life itself was going to have to be my poem for a particular week.

But the thing that has helped me most in finding time to write is this mantra: do your own work first. Before your blog post, before checking in on Facebook, before working on the review you said you’d write, before critiquing your po-friend’s latest draft, before all that — do your own reading and writing. You’ll find ways to get the other stuff done, but it’s much too easy to put off your own work and let it go undone. Don’t.

Read more on this topic this from Anne Lamott in Sunset Magazine. And please note: this is not to get all rigid and shaming and inflexible. There are times when life really does (and really must) interfere with writing time. Be gentle with yourself during those times, and during the rest of the time, get ‘er done. **Updated to add: the poet Molly Fisk sent me the link to this article, for which I am grateful.

parallelism  Some of my favorite poems in all of literature come from the Hebrew scriptures and wisdom literature. Regardless of whether you read this particular literature as part of your spiritual practice, there are things to learn from the ancient texts. As a poet and pilgrim, I’m particularly fond of the Psalms. If you read the Psalms as a writer, you start to notice the conventions they use to express praise, lamentation, love, desperation, etc. In particular, the Psalms are known for their use of parallelism, in which an idea or image is presented in one line, and then expressed again, sometimes more specifically, in the next line.

My favorite translation of the Psalms is by Robert Alter who teaches at UC Berkeley. On this Good Friday, I share with you and excerpt from his translation of Psalm 137, which scholars believe was created at the time of the Babylonian Captivity.

“By Babylon’s streams,
there we sat, oh we wept,
when we recalled Zion.

On the poplars there
we hung up our lyres
For there our captors had asked of us
words of song,
and our plunderers — rejoicing:
“Sing us from Zion’s songs.”
How can we sing a song of the Lord
on foreign soil?
Should I forget you, Jerusalem
may my right hand wither.
May my tongue cleave to my palate
if I do not recall you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my chief joy.”

If you are running out of ideas for NaPoWriMo, try a poem that employs parallelism and see what happens. (P.S. Please forgive me for not using Alter’s form of cascading indents — I could not get WordPress to let me do it!).

That’s all for today, Reader. Blessed Good Friday, happy first week of poetry month, and have a wonderful weekend.

NaPoRevMo and the usual suspects

my list for NaPoRevMo

Reader, remember? We were talking about revision (here and here — scroll down). Rather than write a poem a day for Poetry Month, I’ve decided to work on a revision a day. I’m calling it NaPoRevMo for fun.

Did I say fun? Uh, yeah, not so much. There has been mucho moaning and groaning and gnashing of teeth at my desk this week as I pick apart the weak moments of current drafts, as I try to re-see, undo, and do again. And yet, I feel a certain sense of righteousness — kind of the same feeling you have when you eat a lot of spinach or kale.

In our series on revision, it’s time to talk about the usual. This is all the revision advice you’ve heard a thousand times before. I’m covering it because, well, it’s good advice. It’s all stuff we need to think about as we polish our drafts. The key word here is polish. These tips and pointers are less about re-seeing your draft and more about making it the best it can be. It has its place in the revision process — you can implement these tips all along the way, and certainly at the end of your process — but probably none of them is going to transform your draft from one poem into another. I’m just going to hammer these out in list form. Ready? Here we go:

1. The no-brainer: check spelling, punctuation, subject/verb agreement, point of view, etc.

2. Cut any overused or cliched language unless you are using cliches for effect, which should be rare.

3. Punch up the verbs (this is my personal least-favorite revision advice, but still, it’s good advice).

4. Be specific: don’t say “bird,” say “crow.” Be concise: don’t say “cold, hard, icy rain,” say “sleet.” (Speaking of which, check out this lit mag).

5. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Hint: if you’re using an adjective, perhaps you have the wrong noun (see #4 above). If you’re using an adverb, perhaps you have the wrong verb.

6. Cut unnecessary syllables and words. Hint: fewer syllables are usually better unless you are using a many-syllabled word for effect, e.g., Poe’s “tintinnablulation.”

7. Maximize sounds. Make sure you understand the sounds you’re using, especially vowels, and what their work is in the poem.

8. If there is rhyme, make sure it’s subtle enough not to sound sing-songy and that it works for a purpose in your poem.

9. Use sensory details to bring your reader into the scene. You know: the five senses. Don’t forget smell (it seems we often forget smell in writing, no?).

10. Review linebreaks and beginnings to see what’s emphasized — make sure linebreaks are intentional and work for a purpose in your poem.

11. The title feels right, does its work, and you can say how/why.

12. Exposition is moved up into the title and/or epigraphs as much as possible.

13. The form feels right and you know why you’re choosing it. The white space does its work for the poem and you can say how/why.

14. The voice(s) of the poem is/are consistent, and if it/they change(s) you have a good reason for why.

15. Your ending works for your poem and you can say why/how.

And now, the one you’ve all been waiting for:

16. Read your draft aloud. Listen for places where you stumble, drag, get tongue-tied (O! I cringe here at all the places I’ve stumbled, dragged, been tongue-tied so far this week). These are places you need to look at.

As in revision, so, too, in life. This is all about putting your best foot forward: recycling the clothes that make you feel frumpy, replacing the jacket with frayed sleeves, getting a good haircut.

And now, what am I missing? If you have a few usual revision pointers that I’ve forgotten about here, share them in comments. Next in the series will be the useful — specific revision strategies that have been most useful to me. Until then … .

friday roundup: free poetry, ‘a smell of the sea,’ and to know again

It’s Friday morning, early. All my people are sleeping. I have nothing planned today for the first time all week. I’m at my desk and happy to be at my desk and planning to stay at my desk most of the day – joy! And now, Reader, it’s roundup time.

free poetry  For the last few years, poets and poetry lovers across the blogosphere have participated in the Big Poetry Giveaway during poetry month. Poet-blogger Kelli Agodon Russell is the wizard behind the curtain for this event. I’m mixing up the formula a bit this year to give away one book of poetry and one subscription to a lit mag (rather than two books). Stay tuned for details on how to win free poetry.

a smell of the sea Many poets and lovers of poetry are mourning the loss of Adrienne Rich who died this week. In her life and in her poetry, Rich was a feminist, an advocate for the marginalized, and a person who put her money where her mouth was. I admire her activism, and I’m grateful for her poetry. I can’t imagine my life without these words: “A wild patience has taken me this far.” Rich’s death made me think of a poem by Denise Levertov, “September 1961,” which explores the subject of the world losing important artists, and the feeling of those left behind, “alone on the road”: “we wonder // how it will be without them… .” I love that this poem ends with a smell of the sea — place of endings (the end of the land, the vast somewhere where many have been buried) and a place of beginnings (the source of life on earth, for example). Read “September 1961” here (you will have to scroll down a bit).

And then click over to Kathleen Kirk’s blog. She wrote a wonderful piece about the experience of being an artist in the world, and reflects on Adrienne Rich’s directive, “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.”

to know again Yesterday, I wrote about revision from a philosophical point of view. I want to say just a bit more about that before moving on to more practical notes on revision. If we look at the etymology of the word revision we see that it comes from the PIE weid, “to know, to see.” And from the Latin re-, “back to the original place, again,” also with a sense of “undoing” (source here).

If we approach revision literally, then, we must know (or see) a poem again. We must go back and undo.

I happen to think this is the very hardest thing about revision because it’s easy to become attached to those words we already have on the page. Again, time and the Resting Drawer enter the mix. But I’ve also had good success and lots of fun by revising through re-drafting, by holding on to the idea and the impulse of a poem (and maybe even a few key phrases), but writing it over and over again, differently each time. Once you’ve re-seen to your satisfaction, other revision strategies can enter the mix. The Mail Order Bride’s letter home came out of several rounds of redrafting. Have you tried re-drafting as a revision strategy?

Ok, that’s the roundup. I’ve gone on longer than I intended. Also, none of my people are sleeping anymore. It’s on to the next phase of the day. Happy Friday to you, and thanks for reading.