Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Caretaker's Manual

After a few months of organizing and revising earlier this spring (I went back to work full-time in
January), I'm happy to say that my book, titled "The Caretaker's Manual," is finally done. In the excitement of finishing it, I somehow neglected to mention it here, where I've been tracking the development of said collection. Good lord. Anyway, click on the link to take a look and order a hardback copy of your very own from Lulu.com.

Thanks to everyone who followed my posts and offered encouragement for this little project. I hope you like the poems.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Ending A Writing Year

Officially at least, today is the last day of A Writing Year. Tomorrow I return to my regular job full-time, and resume writing the way I did before -- whenever I can.

Since I know from past experience that "whenever I can" is not very often (except for some regular writing time in the mornings, which I aim to continue), I've done my best to set things up so that I can complete the manuscript of poems I'm working on by the end of January. Out of the 75 or so decent drafts that I wrote this year, I've settled on about 40 to be included in the collection and have retyped those line by line, editing them in the process. I've also started on the Afterword to the manuscript, where I hope to reflect on my experience of the year and draw whatever small conclusions I can from it.

This is not to say that the prospect of ending AWY is entirely somber. I'd say it's bittersweet. The year has gone by quickly, and I can't help but wonder if I used it as well as I could have. In many ways, AWY was my chance to try out a writing life and see if I could make poetry work for me in a more significant way, so in some respects ending AWY represents the winding-down of a certain whirring set of aspirations.

On the other hand, my regular job has grown far more engaging over the past six months, and I think I'll feel relieved not to have to balance my commitment to it and to my own writing any longer. Also, having had an opportunity to devote this time to my writing, I feel satisfied to move on. I started AWY because I felt the undertow of everyday life and knew I'd regret not giving myself a chance to be a poet before it swept me out. Now that I've had that chance, the currents feel less threatening. Writing poems may never be a full-time occupation for me, but it will continue to keep me occupied.

So what's next for this blog? Over the next month I'll continue posting updates here, if sporadically. Once the manuscript is complete, I'll post a link to the Lulu.com page where you can order a copy for your personal library. Then you will be able to judge for yourself whether this was a worthwhile endeavor or in fact a regrettable waste of time. After that, I hope to write a few more things about the process of transitioning back to work, and maybe to shop around pieces of the collection. I do hope to leave the blog up and running for a while, in keeping with my goal of providing a resource to others.

Anyway, that's about it for now. Check back for more over the next few weeks.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Final Week

With the holidays coming up next week, I'm in the final days of AWY. There's still a lot to do, but I've been lucky enough to get this week off of work to concentrate on finishing. By Thursday night, I hope to have retyped all of my stronger poems into the manuscript and started the afterword I want to write about the process. That seems--at least from the vantage point of 9 AM on Monday--well within the realm of possibility. Talk to me Wednesday night and I will almost certainly be in despair. Well, we'll see.

Also, I'm very happy to have received a positive response from the Virginia Quarterly Review about a poem I submitted late this summer. Editor Ted Genoways wrote to suggest a few possible areas for improvement and invited me to return a revised version. I'm optimistic that he'll take the poem, provided that I do not manage to make it worse through my fiddling. Consequently, I'll also be spending some considerable time this week thinking through those edits so that I can respond soon after the new year. Needless to say, I would be enormously excited to place a poem in VQR.

How do I feel as I look toward the end of AWY? That's a question I've heard from many of my friends, and one for which I lack a clear or definite answer. Forlorn? Anxious? Relieved? It's complicated. It varies by the hour. It will have to be the subject of another post.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rate the Rejection -- Shenandoah

Just days ago I wrote about Shenandoah's novel approach to subscription solicitation and noted--though not with a great deal of optimism--that my rejection fears had not materialized. Yet.

Sadly, I was right not to expect too much. But in the interest of science I'll put aside my disappointment and carry on. Let's assess:

Rating Summary: Shenandoah's rejection slip is printed on card stock and nicely formatted. It fits neatly into a standard envelope, which I realize isn't saying much, but it beats the carelessly folded and wrinkled rejections of some other journals. I think it's clever that they have left space on the slip for an editor to write comments. It's not visible in the image above, but the card is also printed on the back, with a short description of the journal and additional space for notes.

The content of the pre-printed note itself is mediocre. It's hard to get around the awkwardness of starting out, "Although the poems, story or essay in this submission...." They might as well have put a check box next to each possible genre. Why not just keep it to "your submission"? Also, though I appreciate that they appreciate my "fine work," I wish that they would have left out that particular adjective, which clearly is not sincere. I'd prefer to see something that recognizes that what I wrote took effort and a certain commitment, without making any claim as to its quality -- after all, it's a rejection, so that's already been done.

I can't tell from this note whether the penned "Thanks for trying us!" comment is actually or only apparently personalized, but I think that it was inscribed by a real human being. I suspect the hand of an intern at work, but I'm okay with that. I much prefer it to a blank pre-printed note, which is far more common.

As for turnaround time, Shenandoah was fast, responding to my submission in just four weeks. I appreciate that more than anything else.

The Grade: A-. Shenandoah got just about everything right. They lose a few points for the quality of the note's content, but give me little to complain about overall. See? It's not that hard.

Click here for more about the Rate the Rejection series and links to other rejections I've rated.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Counting Down

With the end of AWY fast approaching, I've continued to prioritize ordering and editing the poems I've produced so far. Now that I have figured out the basic structure, I'm focusing on organizing each of the four sections and revising the individual poems they contain.

Last Friday I spread each section across the floor and arranged and rearranged the sequences until I was satisfied with the basic progression. I also took out a few poems that I'm not sure are salvageable, and shifted a few others between sections. It looks like I'll have about nine poems per section. Now I'm retyping each of those poems into the document that will be the full manuscript. It takes some time to do, but I find that retyping my work draws my attention to flaws and possibilities for revision in a way that nothing else does. It has already helped me to identify significant improvements in two poems I felt needed a lot of work.

So that's the recipe for the remainder of this week: retype, revise, repeat. I hope to have at least three of the four sections in good shape before the end of the year, but that won't be easy.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Piling Poems

Yesterday and today I spent some more time sketching out the structure of my collection. I started by trying to figure out which poems I wanted as the first and last of the manuscript, which turned out to be easier than I'd anticipated. Both are poems I like a lot and they just seemed to make sense in those positions.

After that I began looking through the remaining poems that I'd triaged for further edits, thinking about where I wanted each one to fit in. I printed them all out and put them in piles on the coffee table. This was hardly a sophisticated or especially careful process; I just went with my gut reaction of whether each one should be towards the beginning, the end or the middle. Ultimately I realized that I'd begun ordering them into four different groups, so perhaps "beginning, middle 1, middle 2 and end" is more accurate. (I meant to take a picture, as this is one of the few occasions where a photo could benefit a writing blog, but couldn't be bothered. Sorry -- I realize I am lame.)

Anyway, I did not make any effort to pay much attention to the specific order of the poems within those piles, though I did make a mental note when I discovered one that seemed to hold promise as the first or last of a section. Now that I've got them into these smaller groupings, I've started to go through each one and think about what makes the most sense in terms of the internal progression, and identify any holes. Much to my amazement, it's gradually coming into shape.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Not a Shenandoah Rejection (Yet)

A couple of weeks ago I sent a few poems to Shenandoah, a journal published from Washington and Lee University. When I got an envelope back from them this weekend, I steeled myself for the rejection slip and hoped that it wouldn't be something so awful as to undermine all the positive things I'd heard about editor R.T. Smith.

Interestingly, though the letter was response (of sorts) to my submission, it wasn't a rejection. Instead, it thanked me for my submission, reiterated the journal's typical response time and requested that I consider subscribing. All in all, I found it well-written and considerate.

Now, I realize that this is a solicitation more than anything else, but it's also a clever way of acknowledging receipt of a writer's work, showing a little respect for the writing they've received, and setting expectations for what will happen next. Moreover, by pitching the subscription offer now, Shenandoah avoids the awkwardness of rejecting the work and begging for subscriptions simultaneously--a situation in which many other magazines find themselves.

The communicator in me rejoices. A round of finger snaps for the good editor, please.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Thanksgiving Poem

I don't normally post my poems to this blog, but what the heck, right? Happy Thanksgiving everybody.

On Thanksgiving

Black spasm
of starlings from
the lone spruce,
like a silenced cough or
the sudden
sloughing of each
branch’s shadow.
Mutely they
pulse among
the gusts—not like
us, walking
loud on the packed gravel,
about the spiced
sweet potatoes,
the hike up
the bluff, the time
it will take
to get home
tomorrow. No,
none of us is
so graceful but
like them,
sometimes we find
the shape of grace
in our very

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Kiss-Me-I'm-Poetical Junk

I've been making my way through Kenneth Koch's Collected Poems (and what an odd and brilliant way that is) and thought I'd share his rules for knowing when a poem is ready for the wide open world. (Kenny, forgive the scrambled line breaks -- blogger wasn't made for long-lined poems.)

"... Just how good a poem should be
Before one releases it, either into one's own work or then into the purview of others,
May be decided by applying the following rules: ask 1) Is it astonishing?
Am I pleased every time I read it? Does it say something I was unaware of
Before I sat down to write it? and 2) Do I stand up from it a better man
Or a wiser, or both? or can the two not be separated? 3) Is it really by me
Or have I stolen it from somewhere else? (This sometimes happens,
Though it is comparatively rare.) 4) Does it reveal something about me
I never want anyone to know? 5) Is it sufficiently "modern"?
(More about this a little later) 6) Is it in my own "voice"?
Along with, of course, the more obvious questions, such as
7) Is there any unwanted awkwardness, cheap effects, asking illegitimately for attention,
Show-offiness, cuteness, pseudo-profundity, old hat checks,
Unassimilated dream fragments, or other "literary," "kiss-me-I'm-poetical" junk?
Is my poem free of this? 8) Does it move smoothly and swiftly
From excitement to dream and then come flooding reason
With purity and soundness and joy? 9) Is this the kind of poem
I would envy in another if he could write? 10)
Would I be happy to go to Heaven with this pinned on my
Angelic jacket as an entrance show? Oh, would I? And if you can answer to all these Yes
Except for the 4th one, to which the answer should be No,
Then you can release it, at least for the time being.
I would look at it again, though, perhaps in two hours, then after one or two weeks,
And then a month later, at which time you can probably be sure.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Rate the Rejection -- Kenyon Review (Strike 2)

Put yourself in the position of an editor at a respected literary magazine. (Nice, isn't it? Now stop fiddling with your smoking jacket and pay attention.) Say you received a submission from a writer a while ago and decided not to take it, but encouraged him to try again a few months later. You're feeling generous, maybe. Time goes by and, like magic, a new submission appears. But eh, you're not so excited this time around. You decide it's not publishable. Now the question is, having spurred this writer's hopes, having extended the literary magazine equivalent of a come-on, are you obligated to respond with anything more than a standard rejection letter?

That's the question I'm pondering, having received this email from the Kenyon Review yesterday:

Which is obviously about as generic as you can get. So, Editor, do you owe me anything more than this?

I'm really not sure. On the one hand, as a human being, I'm offended that I got diddly in the way of follow-up. Not even a "sorry, thanks for trying again but it just isn't going to work out." On the other, I realize that it's impossible for editors to invest the time that would be necessary to keep up a meaningful dialogue with their submitters, and I wouldn't want editors to hesitate to offer encouragement to writers for fear of signaling a kind of commitment that they aren't prepared to make. It's complicated.

In absence of a clear answer, and in absence of any sense at all for the editors' actual reaction to my work, I'm forced to return to my usual criteria. Let's have at it.

Rating Summary: It's an email message. There's little or no sign of an actual person behind it, and no individual's name at the bottom. Finally, as ranted-about above, there is clearly no acknowledgment of the fact that I had submitted before or that I'd been invited to try again. In appearance it is woefully plain. All in all, an efficient little dart that highlights the worst of email-based submissions systems. Efficient it is, however -- the Kenyon Review spat it back in just under two months.

The Grade: D. That's what I said the earlier one would have deserved, were it not for the editor's encouraging words. This time around, the only thing saving it from complete failure is the Review's relatively rapid turnaround time. If you're going to inflict pain, at least make it quick.

Click here for more about the Rate the Rejection series and links to other rejections I've rated.