one learns to play the harp by playing: on submissions

She looks serious. (wikimedia)

She looks serious. “Teika” by Janis Rozentāls (wikimedia)

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?

friday roundup: “and so I sing,” another room of one’s own, and a poem

...of the burying ground... photo from wikimedia

…of the burying ground… photo from wikimedia

Hello, Reader, and happy Friday. It’s Friday! The fevered little bodies are cooled and back at school! Break out the hot tea with honey, and clear a path to the desk! I am so happy to be here! I will waste no time getting to the roundup and the things I’ve been thinking about and reading this week! I promise to stop using exclamation points now! 🙂

“and so I sing”  A week ago tonight, I went to a reading sponsored by the Peninsula Literary Series. I love this series and the writers and artists they bring together in the very cool space at Gallery House. At any rate, after the reading, several of us went out for beverages and writerly conversation and the question came up: “Why do you write?” Always an interesting question and the answer that leaps to my mouth unbidden is: “Because I can’t not write.” Sigh.

There are a some famous answers to the question “Why do you write?” George Orwell answers the question like this:

“My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to m yself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”  (from this essay)

Joan Didion has said:

“Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind? (from this essay)

But the winner is, in my humble opinion — and I might be biased — but the winner is: Emily Dickinson in her April 26, 1862 letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

“I made no verse, but one or two, until this winter, sir. I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does of the burying ground, because I am afraid.” (from Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present)

(BTW, she wins not for the content of her reasons itself, but because of the way she wrote it. She wins!)

As for me, despite the truth in my knee-jerk response, I think I write mainly to figure things out — to understand things that mystify or puzzle me. And also to spread the word. There are some things the world needs to know and apparently I am compelled to tell them.

What about you — if you are the writing type — why do you write? Share in comments if you like.

another room of one’s own  I came across a cool project on Facebook this week, and I wanted to spread the word (speaking of spreading the word). The wonderful folks at Sundress Publications have founded an artist’s residency program and space called Firefly Farms. Here is more info directly from the horses’ mouths:

The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) was founded in February 2013 at Firefly Farms in Karns, Tennessee. Nestled in an old-fashioned “holler” just twenty minutes from downtown Knoxville, this picturesque 29-acre farm is the perfect artists’ getaway; visitors can hone their creative crafts as they escape the routine of modern life. Whether hiking, camping, foraging, or hunting, SAFTA guests will reconnect with nature and be inspired by a part of the Appalachia landscape that is often forgotten. Attendees can also expect to learn a host of new skills from the staff to enrich their work.

Because I know how important having the time and space to create is, I wanted to spread the word about this worthy endeavor. If you’re moved to make a donation toward the completion of this project, the link is here.

and a poem  Sandra Beasley wrote a post this week about the books we don’t write. Or the books we write that never become books. Here’s an excerpt:

One of the brutalities of publishing is that a collection of worthy pieces does not make a worthy whole. Just because you’ve placed every poem with a literary journal does not mean the manuscript has the heft and clarity of vision that’s going to win a book prize. Just because you’ve placed three of your chapters as personal essays does not mean your memoir proposal is going to sell. For publishers to make the forward investment of an advance, production, distribution and publicity, the work has to be not only solid, it has to glimmer. It’s not enough that the editor likes the book; the editor has to fall asleep dreaming about the book. That seems like a hopelessly high expectation–“Just bottle the lightning, please”–but it’s the way it is. 

And she is right about this, no doubt. But I also think there are books that never become books, or that take a really long time to become books, just because of bad luck, or editorial preferences, or po-world trends, or the malevolent forces in the universe, or, I dunno, maybe because of Maleficent herself. I’m reading a book like this now.

Although I don’t know the story of this book’s journey into bookdom, what I do know is that it was written by a Stegner Fellow — whose books frequently snatch up prestigious prizes shortly after their authors’ tenure as Fellows. I do know that I’m reading this book and the work is of high caliber — really excellent work — and that the book holds together as a book — it is not just a bunch of poems shoved together between two covers.

I’m not an editor, but I’ve been falling asleep dreaming about this book, which, if I’m reading the poet’s website correctly, has been the labor of over 16 years, and was just recently published by Jackleg Press. This book is Trapline by Caroline Goodwin, and today’s poem is the second poem of the collection. I was sure that HTML was not going to cooperate with the form of this poem, and I couldn’t find it online, so here is a photo:

–by Caroline Goodwin

That last line just about split me. You can buy Trapline here.

Have a wonderful weekend and thanks for reading.