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.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


As I was considering how best to start organizing the poems I've written this year into a coherent collection, I realized that I first needed to better understand what I had to work with. I could easily keep in mind my most (and least) successful drafts, but the remainder -- those that still needed work, but were promising -- were a blur. Likewise, I tended to forget about some of the older poems I'd written, which were eclipsed by newer drafts that retained the shine of recent experience.

I decided the easiest way to take stock of what I had written and determine where I needed to focus my energies in the weeks to come was to catalog my drafts systematically. I created a simple spreadsheet with the names of all my poems in one column and a kind of status rating in another. Then I spent about an hour and a half on Monday briefly reviewing each poem and assigning it a rating of 1-5 (1 being, "this poem is technically finished but deeply, embarrassingly flawed;" 5 being, "ready for publication and possibly fame and fortune"). I expected that most poems would earn 3's and that very few would earn 1's or 5's.

It was unscientific, to say the least, but if nothing else it gave me a sense of how the collection was shaping up. Curious about the results? Here you go.

Out of 74 total drafts:
  • 9 got 5's -- all have been submitted to journals at one point or another
  • 23 got 4's -- I consider these solid poems that just need a little more work
  • 23 got 3's -- these strike me as good starts that require reshaping
  • 15 got 2's -- wow, I really wrote a poem about shopping for housewares?
  • 4 got 1's -- let's not talk about these anymore
An interesting if somewhat odd exercise. What I intend to do now is focus on the 4's and then do another screen of the 3's to figure out which of them really deserve further work. I'm also considering adding a third column to this spreadsheet that would provide an assessment of each poem's potential fit with the larger theme I have in mind for the collection; that way I could further triage which poems get my attention and which do not. In the end, I'm hoping to emerge with at least 40 poems that would rank as 5's. With 74 drafts right now, it's not looking so good for the 1's and 2's (seriously, housewares?).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Two Months to Go

Now home from New York, I'm looking to get back into rhythm as quickly as possible. The official end of AWY is on the horizon (just two months left), and I'm increasingly conscious of the limited time I have remaining -- especially since a couple of those weeks will be eaten up by the holidays. I don't expect that the end of December will bring an abrupt and complete halt to all things writing-related, but I do know that I shouldn't count on getting anything major done after that time. What I hope to do is have the first draft (at least) of a manuscript complete by January, so that I can work on revisions and final details in the following weeks.

Right now I'm focused on several things. First, I want to send out another submission -- it's been a while. Second, I need to review the poems I've drafted so far and start cataloging which ones are in good shape and which need work. That will also provide a foundation as I begin organizing everything into a coherent collection. Third, I'd like to begin work on an essay about this experience -- something I've had in mind as a goal from the outset. Finally, I'm going to start planning for some of the other details involved with getting a manuscript together (cover design, etc.).

Right. So, back to work.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Travel Writing is...

... not as interesting when you're only going to New York for a conference. Yet that's where I'm headed for most of this week, which unfortunately almost guarantees zero productivity from a writing standpoint.

I don't know how writers who travel frequently manage to work despite the disruption it causes. I guess they must get used it, but for me it seems almost impossible. The distractions are endless, the process exhausting. That said, I do find that I tend to return from trips with new ideas for poems, so it's not a total loss. We'll see if this trip finds me coming home with souvenirs. I'll let you know next Sunday or Monday.

Also, late last week I sent another batch of poems to my readers. This is the ninth group I've asked them to review, and I expect to send at least two more before A Writing Year is up. I'm excited about these recent poems and looking forward to getting feedback.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

October Update

A long silence between posts, owing to back to back trips out of town and general work craziness. To shake off the lingering effects of not writing for the last few days, I thought I'd take this opportunity to take stock. Here's what's going on:
  • Submissions: I'm still waiting to hear back from VQR. No clue whether the mounting weeks my poems have been under review is reason for optimism or not. I suspect not. Before I left for my trips I also sent off some poems to the Kenyon Review. I don't expect to hear back from them for a while. Finally I'm hoping to submit at least one other batch before the end of the month, maybe to Shenandoah or a local Chicago journal.
  • Poems: I've drafted around 15 reasonably solid poems since July, some better than others. About a dozen of those were written in the past two months or so and embody the new style I've embraced.
  • Reading: All told I've read 33 books for AWY so far, including 24 collections of poems and 9 books on writing/poetics. Eventually I'll get the full list up here.
  • Events: I have to say I've done terribly in this respect. It has seemed all but impossible to get to readings and other literary events after work, especially, but really there's no excuse. It's downright shameful.
  • Manuscript Preparation: I've got the concept. Now I just need to get everything in order. I expect to spend a lot of time in late November and December combing through what I've produced and revising older poems. Figuring out an effective structure could be a challenge, but I'm looking forward to it.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Published in Poetry

Well, technically at least. The editors at Poetry haven't changed their minds about not wanting my poems, but they called yesterday to say they're going to print a letter I wrote in full in their November issue. As I said to my wife, if my dream of being a poet doesn't work out, at least I'm well on my way to an equally glamorous and enriching career in letter-writing about poetry. It's always good to have a backup plan.

UPDATE: The November issue is now available. You can check out pieces of it online, here.

Friday, September 28, 2007

What's in a Name?

The new poems I'm writing now are a lot more playful than many of those I've written in the past. I thought I would give you a peek through the keyhole at all the wackiness by listing some of the draft titles from the past month. Probably these are illuminating to some, alarming to others:
  • "Babies"
  • "Feeding Your Neighbor's Cat"
  • "Lunatics"
  • "What You Don't Know"
  • "Weathermen"
  • "Wipe On, Wipe Off"
  • "The New World"
  • "Kryptonite"
  • "Dragonflies"
  • "To Paper Towels"
  • "When Walking on the Beach"
  • "Being a Superhero"
  • "Zombie Uprising"
  • "Picnics"
  • "When You Are Gone from Home"
  • "Watch Out for Eagles"
Oh my. I should emphasize that many of these drafts will never, ever be allowed outdoors, but at least a third or so of them are keepers. Having submitted a few to the Kenyon Review yesterday, I can only hope I'm not delusional about that.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Running perilously low on reading material ("perilously" because of the way an hour or so of reading kicks off my writing day, every day), I went searching this weekend and returned with some great stuff. I've found that the work of a few poets in particular resonates with the new kind of poems I'm writing now. For the most part they're poets I've always liked, but now I'm seeing something new in them. People like Kay Ryan, Kenneth Koch, August Kleinzahler, Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, Ruth Stone, Kevin Young, etc. Very exciting. Anyway, here's what I brought home this weekend:
  • Ambition and Survival (essays by Christian Wiman)
  • Embryoyo (poems by Dean Young)
  • Halflife (poems by Meghan O'Rourke)
  • Donkey Gospel (poems by Tony Hoagland)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Just an Update

I'm feeling guilty, as usual, for not posting frequently enough. The truth is I've been running out of time in the mornings, when I've been prioritizing new poems. A few days ago I wrote about the lucky moment when I realized what kind of collection I wanted to put together, and fortunately that realization has continued to be a source of energy and inspiration. I've gotten some good feedback from my readers on the initial drafts that emerged from it and have been moving forward with others that I'm excited about. So good news there.

Speaking of readers, this weekend I also enjoined my friend and certified AWY reader Lars (who works in design) to help create a cover for my collection whenever I finish it. My current idea is to self-publish what I'm able to compile this year through or a similar site -- not so that I can claim I'm a published poet or anything ridiculous like that, but to have a record of what I was able to accomplish this year. I feel like that's important, regardless of whether I'm able to get the poems published elsewhere as well. In any case, I'm happy to have Lars on board.

What else? I need to send out a few more submissions, whenever I can get my act together on that. VQR still has a few poems of mine. I need to send a few more to Kenyon Review this month or next (to try to capitalize on an encouraging rejection I got earlier this spring), and I'm considering sending a few to a new literary journal here in Chicago, the Packingtown Review. As always, I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


The September 2007 issue of Poetry has an essay by Brian Phillips on "Poetry and the Problem of Taste." It's a good piece, but like many other articles about the culture of contemporary American poetry, it puts too much emphasis on the extreme factions. I got so worked up about it I wrote a letter to the editor. Who knows whether they'll print it, but I will, right here and now:

Dear Editor,

I appreciated Brian Phillips’ exploration of taste and beauty in the context of contemporary poetry (“Poetry and the Problem of Taste,” Sep. 2007). Mr. Phillips’ careful articulation of this inherently abstract issue is especially praiseworthy. It’s one of the few essays I’ve read recently that made me think about a much-belabored subject (the problem of poetry, call it) in a new way.

However, I wish that Mr. Phillips had more steadfastly resisted the pull of the prevailing narrative about the American poetry community, which insists on dividing its members into two neatly oppositional camps; in his words, the “poetry activists” and the “anti-activists.” I understand that he embraces this structure in part for the sake of argument, in part because that’s how everybody else talks about it, and in part to save time. But like so much other rhetoric that relies on rigid binary relationships for its foundation – “red states and blue states,” “you’re either with us or against us,” and so on – the end result is oversimplification.

I think it’s fair to say that, in real life, most poets, poetry critics, and poetry readers are somewhere in the reasonable middle, watching the volleys arc far overhead with bewilderment. They don’t really care which side you’re on, just whether or not you’re writing good poems. That takes me back to the issue of taste and the central question of Mr. Phillips’ essay: how and if anyone can make such a judgment. Well, to paraphrase the late Justice Potter Stewart on the challenge of defining pornography, those of us in the middle may not always be able to articulate what a good poem is, but we know it when we see it.

David Keeling

Friday, September 07, 2007

Restrain Yourselves

This morning I re-read W.D. Snodgrass' masterful essay on poetry, "Tact and the Poet's Force," which he wrote just under half a century ago (and which is included in a book I've raved about before, Claims for Poetry). In it, he states that, "it is a poet's business to say something interesting.... He always says something we have not heard before; he always suggests possibilities," and explores the three ways poets create something "worth stopping for":
  1. Through a new idea
  2. Through new details or facts within old ideas
  3. Through a new style
What I find most compelling about the essay, however, is Snodgrass' exposition on the critical role of tact and restraint in poetry, and the necessity of restraint in order to write effectively about the extraordinary and difficult truths that characterize human history. He makes the case that poets must be ambitious in what they write about; discussing Randall Jarrell's poem about the holocaust, "Protocols," he writes, "Such subjects become almost impossible to write about--during the war, in fact, Auden said they were impossible. Yet, if you cannot write about these, almost the key subjects to our civilization, why would anyone go to the terribly hard work that writing is?" It's a great piece -- a reminder of what poetry is all about and how poets can approach even the largest looming subjects.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Straight Workshoppin

The Sep/Oct issue of Poets & Writers has a curious article by poet and professor John Poch ("Pimp My Writing") in which he compares the workshop he teaches to an episode of MTV's Pimp My Ride. This is awkward, to say the least, though it does yield some interesting, statistically improbable phrases, such as "Did Ezra Pound pimp T.S. Eliot's ride when he helped him with one of the greatest poems of the last century, 'The Waste Land'?"

I don't mind odd comparisons, but in exploring the challenges of a creative writing workshop, Poch manages to find fault in everyone but himself, from the kids on Pimp My Ride ("You know he's going to chop the car up into pieces and sell the parts on eBay. If he doesn't, the stuff's just going to get stolen or smashed by his jealous friends. The kid is probably pretty lazy. Just look at the car he'd been driving.") to Americans in general ("Americans want it easy. We want to win the lottery. We want somebody to pimp our rides for us.") to his students in particular ("What's the solution when a teacher has to confront unimaginative minds?").

I've never met any of Poch's students so I can't confirm whether they're as dim as he thinks. As for Americans, sure many of us want it easy, but so does most of the rest of humanity. And I think it goes without saying that laziness is not the only reason that the kids featured on Pimp My Ride drive busted up cars.

What I can say is that Poch consistently contrasts his own virtues against everybody else's vices. "All I did during the semester was pimp their rides," he says of his students' poems. "And I'm pretty good at it.... I'm like the sound technician who has been working with woofers and tweeters for years.... I can trick out your poem. Shoot, I can even stick some neon lights under the poem's chassis if I put my mind to it." When he remarks on his own faults, it's mostly to show how he has grown past them and become a better person as a result.

In the end, the conclusion Poch comes to isn't a bad one: "Creative writing teachers who want to best teach the art must strike a balance. The teacher must weigh offering suggestions with remaining silent, general discussion with exposure to the masters," he writes. Sure, sounds great. But the best creative writing teachers are also those who don't go into the workshop assuming that all of their students are a bunch of lazy, entitled, unimaginative morons.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

My Eureka Moment

I've written over and over again about the difficulties of writing and my struggle to find direction, so having a chance to share more positive news is thrilling. The short of it is this: the night before last, just before turning in, I had an idea for a poem. That doesn't sound like much, and it wasn't much, but I snapped the light back on and made a few notes so I wouldn't forget, then went to sleep.

The next morning, I came to realize that my late-night impulse was in fact just a small part of a larger epiphany. As I thought it over, I had the sensation of my confused thoughts and blurry writing inclinations suddenly coming into alignment. It was as if a single idle turn of a Rubik's cube made clear the solution. The collection of poems I wanted to write snapped into focus. Within an hour, I knew the theme, the types of poems it would include, the subject matter and tone, my approach, even a possible title. I saw how older poems I had written could be adjusted to fit the larger structure, and I realized that many of these poems would actually be far more successful with those changes -- that I was writing in that direction all along, I just didn't know it. Finally, I understood why one particular poem I had written over a year ago continued to resonate so strongly with me. It embodied all the qualities of the poems I now knew I wanted to write.

I admit I'm superstitious, so I don't want to say too much about the details right now, for fear of jinxing my own momentum. What I will say is that I've drafted two new poems since this realization, and I think they're good ones. If this keeps up, I'll share more of my thinking soon. In the meantime, huzzah for direction.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A Writing Year A-Welcomes You

My morbid habit of dwelling on rejection slips has been drawing some new visitors to AWY lately, courtesy of the Perpetual Folly blog (thanks Clifford) and Writing in the Mountains (thanks Kris) as well as a few others. Welcome all and enjoy the site. There are sure to be more rejections soon.

In other news, my friend and official AWY reader Jeff Navicky has quietly launched Four Quarter Review, a peer-based lit review / online workshop. I offered up one of my drafts as a sacrifice and had steeled myself for the blood-letting, but Jeff went about his business with characteristic generosity. Check it out here, if you like.

This week's agenda: Sending out another submission, finding some more books on poetics (suggestions anyone? I'm running low) and, ah yes, getting some actual writing done.

Friday, August 24, 2007


What a week. Over the last couple of months my job has gotten busier than ever. I've been waiting for the hectic pace to abate but increasingly it seems the new normal, as they say. Except for a few especially chaotic days I've been able to stick to my writing schedule, though the pressure does take a toll.

One of the writing challenges I'm having now is staying loose and permitting myself freedom to wander without getting lost in the woods. In the past my habit has been to pick a direction and write to it, which too often leads to stilted and predictable poems. Yet some of the drafts I've been working on lately go nowhere at all. From the campsite that is their beginning, they try this trail or that, distracted and aimless. The other problem is that they're in a hurry. Predictably, they aren't very good.

So: slow down. Explore, but with purpose. Follow whatever deer path you find rather than hacking your own, and stick to it. Sounds easy, right? But it isn't.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Round 2 with VQR

My last unsuccessful submission to the Virginia Quarterly Review prompted the inaugural entry in my rate the rejection series. It also attracted some attention from VQR editor Ted Genoways and put me back in touch with an old high school friend, Waldo Jaquith, who is now leading the charge to bring VQR into the digital age.

Waldo recently contacted me about testing out the magazine's fancy new online submissions process. I agreed, which you can take as evidence of one or all of the following, given my previous experience with VQR: 1) that I am an incurable optimist; 2) that I am a glutton for punishment; 3) that I am just barely hanging on to this side of sane (at least if you follow Einstein's definition).

I'd say it's some combination of all of those things, plus a real interest in making sure these systems work. I've mentioned previously that I support electronic submissions processes (for the sake of efficiency and postage, if nothing else), but the danger is that they further dehumanize what has become an increasingly impersonal experience. Editors need to figure out how to take advantage of technology while staying meaningfully connected with the writers who invigorate their magazines' pages. Waldo promises me that VQR has taken steps in this direction. I'll keep you posted on how graceful those steps turn out to be.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Worstest Verse is running a new bad poetry contest, with the winner to be announced this week. There's still time to enter!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Rate the Rejection -- Beloit Poetry Journal

Lately the cardboard armor I made for myself with the Rate the Rejection series has been showing its weaknesses. The fact of the matter is that getting a rejection note is still dispiriting, and each one saps a trickle of the energy I have to write. Well, here's another little leech, from the Beloit Poetry Journal:

Rating Summary: It's obviously an email, which is unusual given that I did not submit electronically (and which makes me curious about what happens to all the SASEs they get). Though terse, it comes directly from the editor's own email account and is at least somewhat personalized. I like the idea that, in theory, I could fire off a response ("Thank god! The New Yorker wants those poems instead and I had no idea how to tell you.") and I appreciate Mr. Rosenwald's willingness to expose himself to the hoards of embittered, attention-starved poets who submit to BPJ. I am sure that many of them take it as an invitation to dialogue rather than what it is: Simply, "no, thanks."

[UPDATE: I received my poems and a printed rejection slip by mail yesterday afternoon. Apparently I owe the post office in Eastern Maine 2 cents postage.]

The Grade: B+. Direct communication is everything. Plus, turnaround time for this submission was incredibly fast -- just about two weeks. But it remains an email message, and there's just something cold and impersonal about that.

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

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Rate the Rejection -- Poetry

I've been curious for a while about what kind of rejection notes the grande dame of the American poetry community sends to the hopeful poetish masses. Turns out she's rather a polite and thoughtful old bat.

Rating Summary:
There are a lot of poets who question the current editorial direction of Poetry (and the motives and methods of its publisher, the Poetry Foundation). But something you have to give them credit for is respecting their submitters. In response to my submission, I received not the poorly reproduced and cut-out rejection slip that has become commonplace among literary magazines, but an honest-sounding note, addressed to me specifically, on stationery, signed by editor Christian Wiman (or whoever on staff best forges his signature). Not much to expect, is it? Yet anonymous newbie writers like me so often get so much less. They've turned us all to beggars.

The Grade: A. It's respectful, forthright, and shows evidence of a real person on the other end. Also, the response came back in a short four weeks. There isn't much I can complain about, except for the fact that it remains a rejection. That still stings.

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

Thursday, August 02, 2007

More Fists Fly Over the Poetry Foundation

In the ongoing saga of The Poetry Foundation Is Ruining Everything, Everything!, John Casteen unloads on David Orr in the Virginia Quarterly Review (for attacking Dana Goodyear in the New York Times Book Review, for besmearing Poetry in The New Yorker). This is getting complicated.

Luckily, Casteen's essay is not. The gist of it is basically that Poetry doesn't know what the hell it's doing or what proper poetry criticism looks like: Thank you Dana Goodyear for pointing out what all the rest of us were so worried about; shame on you David Orr for questioning the prevailing wisdom of the poetry community (that Poetry is running amok, sinking fast, a bajillion-dollar disaster, a disgrace to its own history and poets everywhere). Or something like that.

I continue to be a bit befuddled by all the hand-wringing and righteousness, but the spectacle is entertaining. Who will step up in David Orr's defense? Stay tuned as there are certain to be more rounds to come.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Assembling Submissions

I've written a few times before about submitting to literary journals, but this morning, as I was considering what to send out next, I was struck by the arbitrariness of the whole process. When is a poem ready to go blinking into the big bright world? At any given moment, there may be four or five poems that seem strong enough to put in front of an editor, but rarely do I feel that any are perfect. Having lived with them for months or years and through multiple drafts, I'm keenly aware of their faults and inadequacies. But I also know myself, and I wonder if a poem could ever be good enough to truly satisfy me, or if it would really do me any good to wait longer and revise further.

Not sending work out is always a temptation. For one thing, it precludes the possibility (which is not to say, inevitability) of rejection. No one can judge your writing if they never see it. Hooray for genius me! For another, there is the valid argument that young writers, in particular, should not be in a hurry to publish. But the impulse to communicate is at the heart of my interest in writing. Little good it would do me to keep my poems to myself.

So where is the line between "almost ready" and "ready"? I don't know, but it's clear to me that it isn't fixed. It varies by my frame of mind, by what I'm reading, by the journal I'm submitting to, by the feedback of my friends and fellow writers, by my thoughts that day or hour about why and how I want to write. What a wreck. In the end, the uncertainty provides another reason to procrastinate submitting anything, and another reason why submitting is a valuable activity -- because it forces me to judge my own work and, if I take it seriously, to question why I write at all and if it's worth it. Damn that's a dark tunnel to look down.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Real Sofistikated

It's been a while since I've raved about a particular book, but Tony Hoagland's essay collection Real Sofistikashun deserves a few cheers. In it he does an exceptionally good job representing a centrist perspective on poetry, keenly assessing contemporary trends while modestly advocating for poems that resonate with human experience. His essay "Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment" contains one of the most insightful and balanced explanations for the tendency of contemporary poets to reject meaning and narrative that I've read yet -- as well as a persuasive argument for poets to be cautious in following that impulse:
"One can understand how disassociative poetry has become fashionable, celebrated, taught, and learned--it is a poetry equal, in its velocity, to the speed and disruptions of contemporary culture. It responds to the postmodern situation with a joyful crookedness. And one can also see why poetics that assert sensible order (which, admittedly, can be predictable and reductive) have fallen a bit from fashion: after all, the pretense of order is, in some way, laughable. Art has to play, it has to break rules, to turn against its obligations, to be irresponsible, to recast convention. Some wildness is essential to its freedom. Yet every style has its shadowy limitation, its blind eye, its narcissistic cul-de-sac. There is a moment when a charming enactment of disorientation becomes an homage to dissociation. And there is a moment when the poetic pleasure of elusiveness, inadvertently, commits itself to triviality."
Hear, hear! If you're looking for a smart, humble exploration of American poetry today, check out this book.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Rate the Rejection -- RHINO

Et tu, RHINO? You're in Evanston, I'm in Chicago. Our zip codes share four digits. We are practically family.

You should be NICE to your FAMILY.

Rating Summary

Dear Editors,

I understand. Publishing a literary magazine is hard. All of us writers/masochists send you reams of paper filled with our scribblings, but we're all too cheap to pony up for a subscription. Probably the last issue was partially funded by your grandmother. And I am quite confident that you are not getting paid for your hard work, or not enough.

But surely, surely you or your intrepid band of interns could find a way to raise the 50 bucks you need to buy a paper cutter. Heck, your local office store will let you use theirs for free. It's a small thing, but for those of us on the receiving end of your rejection slips, it helps to get something that doesn't look like it was cut out by a third grader.

Also, it is absolutely right for you to push subscriptions. As mentioned above, we submitters are, on the whole, self-interested cheapskates, and you deserve more support. However, it would help if you provided some explanation, not merely a subscription form or the somewhat bewildering listing of current and back issue prices. If you're not ready to make your case, leave it out. You understand if we are not eager to give you money right after being told that, unfortunately, we do not meet your needs at this time.

The Writers

The Grade: D. Uniformly crappy in paper, cutting, and ink quality. A fine example of the form. Only a relatively snappy turnaround time of 8 weeks saves it from rejection perfection, which in this case means abject failure.

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

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

David Yezzi: MFAs "only almost completely worthless"

My colleague and alert AWY reader Adele spotted this gem in a interview with poet David Yezzi:
"It’s not that masters degrees in poetry, which function as excellent cash cows for universities across the country, are completely worthless. I have one myself, and I can say that they are only almost completely worthless. They do have one serious downside however: students seeking preferment begin to write like their teachers. They then graduate with a degree that is really only useful to teach creative writing in a program much like the one from which they have just graduated. Their students learn to write like they do and so on. This has had quite a deadening effect on contemporary poetry in general, I think."
Granted, Yezzi is the Executive Director of The New Criterion, a bastion of dour conservatism in the literary world, so it is fair to assume that he is a grumpy man to begin with. He and his colleagues liked things better the way they were before, when people wore bow ties (like co-editor Roger Kimbrall) and wrote poems that rhymed, goddammit. Still, it's one more voice of dissent against the prevailing model of creative development. He may not be completely right, but he's not completely wrong either.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tony Hoagland on Loftiness

From Tony Hoagland's essay collection Real Sofistikashun:
"And here is one explanation for the lack of rhetorical experiment in much contemporary work: we are constrained by our own belief in the precious individuality of the poet, and by our conviction that poetry equals sincerity. We are oddly ready to become poets by getting down and dirty with the details of our private lives, but oddly unwilling to get lofty and public in our speech."
This impulse towards rhetoric and public speech in poetry is one I've felt keenly over the last several months. What's interesting to me is the task of reclaiming that hilltop for poetry while engaging in the kind of personal exploration that can so powerfully propel a poem along. As usual, I want it both ways.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Funny Peculiar

Poets often get caricatured as humorless, brooding party-spoilers. So I was happy to see that Poetry magazine used its summer issue to bash away at that image like a dark piñata and scoop up all the hard candy hidden inside. Ah, piñatas. Blind rage and destruction rewarded with sugar -- what's not to like?

In addition to some vivacious poems, the July/August issue features several very funny essays by writers like Nareem Murr, on living with a poet ("The secret to a poet's soul lies somewhere in the little cells of that dungeonish dictionary, in the slow languishing of those old, mad, forgotten words. It's also in the very particular kind of art she -- and every poet -- seems to love. Joseph Cornell. I guarantee you will not find a single poet who doesn't start rubbing herself against the furniture the minute you mention Cornell and his little boxes full of human residue, the pleasures of the miniature."); and Michael Lewis, who imagines poetry infecting the New York Giants ("11/13... Apparently Eli [Manning] told Coach that he no longer trusts our offensive coordinator, John Hufnagel. He claims that he wrote his first villanelle, but Hufnagel just sneered and called it 'an inferior form, for poets who've run out of things to say.' Eli said that if the Giants couldn't create 'a safe space,' he wanted to be traded to a team that could.").

Funny ha-ha, funny peculiar, a little of both. Pick up a copy before your flight out of town.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Halfway Through

Now that it's July, I'm over halfway through this little project. Thinking back on what I've been able to accomplish and what I've learned so far, it strikes me that there haven't been any major surprises.

By far the biggest challenge has been effectively balancing my writing time with my work time and, more to the point, conserving enough energy to be able to focus on writing. I thought that writing in the morning, before starting work, would mitigate this challenge. While that schedule has certainly made things easier, I underestimated how difficult it would be to clear my mind of each day's commitments during those morning hours.

I also realize that I was far too optimistic about my prospects for getting my poems published. When I set my goals for the year, I (naively) imagined that I could get into six journals. Having received my fair share of rejection letters before, I should have known better. I've received some encouraging feedback (well, as encouraging as a rejection letter can be), but so far, no dice. I'm tempted to say, a la Rilke, Donald Hall, and many other, wiser writers, that I should not have focused on publication at all, and instead turned inward and used this year to build up a solid collection. But the fact is that my goals for sending poems out have been a significant motivator for me at times when I felt most dispirited; at least then I felt like I was doing something, not just sitting by myself, scribbling away.

Along the same lines, having a group of readers to respond to my work has been essential. They give me an audience--however small--and have consistently illuminated facets of my poems that I had not noticed or fully explored. That's not to say that all of them have been reliable or fast in their responses, but I didn't expect them to be. After all, they're busy people. It has been hard enough for me to find enough energy for this work, and I've carved out at least 20 hours a week to do it.

Looking ahead to the remaining six months, I'd like to be better about not only drafting poems, but completing them. So far I've given myself a lot of room to explore and make mistakes. In my daily writing I feel free to create spectacular poetic wrecks and half-formed freaks of nature. That's fine, but as time begins to become more of an issue, I need to rededicate myself to not just starting, but finishing poems. It sounds obvious, but it requires patience and determination.

Relatedly, I have to start more consciously exploring connections between the poems I'm working on and begin thinking of ways to gather them into a coherent manuscript. I want to emerge from AWY with some kind of collection, even if it is imperfect. That will take work and planning. By November I hope to be well into the process of culling and editing the poems that will be included, which means I only have a little over three months to build up a stockpile of material. Jeezus.

More focus, more finished poems, and more work towards a manuscript. Sounds about right. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Attending to Trivialities

From William Stafford:
"This witness would note, confess, or assert, how small--how trivial--the elements which lead to a poem (or any work of art, or theory, or a truth) are. That is, the beginning impulse and perhaps the successive impulses too are often so colorless, so apparently random, so homeless and unaccountable, that most people would neglect them: they don't seem to amount to much. It is by lending faith and attention to these waifs of thought that we allow their meanings to develop, sometimes. And their mutual reinforcement is the composition of the poem, or the realization of any creative endeavor."
(from The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life)
Thus, the problem of stress, of busy-ness: it limits the writer's ability to attend to those "waifs of thought." Without energy, without a kind of quietude, those small voices can hardly be heard at all.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Reading List Update

With a workweek chock full of deadlines behind me, I'm looking forward to some more restful and productive writing time in the week ahead. I'm also making progress on my reading list and thought I'd share what I've read so far. Here's what's done and on the shelf:

  • Bogan, Louise. The Blue Estuaries
  • Fennelly, Beth Ann. Open House
  • Goldbarth, Albert. The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems 1972-2007
  • Heaney, Seamus. District and Circle
  • Homer, The Illiad (trans. Robert Fagles)
  • Hopler, Jay. Green Squall
  • Keats, John. The Major Works (Poems and Selected Letters)
  • Mehigan, Joshua. The Optimist
  • Oliver, Mary. Thirst
  • Phillips, Carl. Riding Westward
  • Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus (A. Poulin Jr. trans.)
  • Sandburg, Carl. Complete Poems
  • Strand, Mark. Man and Camel
  • Whitman, Walt. Laws for Creations (ed. Michael Cunningham)
  • Wojahn, David. Interrogation Palace
  • Young, Kevin. For the Confederate Dead

  • Gioia et. al. Twentieth Century American Poetics
  • Hall, Donald. Breakfast Any Time All Day
  • Packard, William. The Art of Poetry Writing
  • Simic, Charles. Orphan Factory
Somehow, this list seems short to me now. Maybe because a few of these books were real heavyweights (that means you, Messrs. Sandburg and Keats). In any case, I've got more good stuff waiting for me. I'm especially excited to dig into Tony Hoagland's essay collection Real Sofistikashun and Carl Phillips' poems in Riding Westward.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Next Submission

With the Southern Review's rejection behind me, I'm looking ahead to my next beat down. As I mentioned earlier, Poetry magazine claims that they are reviewing only poets they haven't published before (now through August), so I'm thinking of sending them a batch. I know my chances are low, so I also hope to send a second group out at the same time, perhaps to Beloit Poetry Journal.

In the meantime, I've sent my loyal readers three more drafts to look over and comment on. I'm interested to see their reactions, as the poems are something of a departure from the work I've done in the past.

And in the more immediate meantime, it's Monday, and I'm having trouble getting anything going. It occurred to me earlier that writing poetry is like surfing;* you paddle out into the depths of language and test the incoming swells until you find one that can bring you roaring to shore. Some days the waves are lousy, or you just can't catch them. No surprise that Monday should be one of those days....

* For those keeping track, I have also previously claimed that writing poetry is like painting shadows or making useless pottery. You probably should not pay too much attention to what I say on the matter.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Rate the Rejection -- Southern Review

Nothing says 'Welcome home!' quite like a rejection note. After two weeks' absence from my usual AWY schedule (week one: work madness; week two: travel madness), I returned to find a little Dear John letter from the Southern Review waiting for me. Damn. And I thought she loved me 4ever.

Anyhow, here's the heartbreaker:

Rating Summary: I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Southern Review uses nice stationery for its rejections, a certain humid gentility being one of the hallmarks of the fine folks living below the Mason-Dixon line.* Though small (a sixth of a regular sheet of paper) and still somewhat thin, it sports some background color and graphical elements that indicate at least someone thought it would be worthwhile to pay attention to how the thing looks. Since some other journals can't even be bothered to include a rejection slip at all, that small step yields a plus for the Southern Review in my book. Pathetic, isn't it?

The content of the note itself is characteristically vague and polite. Inoffensive, you might say, which is about the best one can hope for from these things. The inclusion of the phrase "finding a home for it elsewhere" strikes me as a risk -- just a touch sappy, as if one's poems were a basket of cuddly kittens -- but there's also a kind of humanity in that line, a recognition that a writer's work deserves care.

As for timing, the Southern Review responded in about six weeks -- reasonably fast for any literary journal, especially in the spring and summer months.

* Also, the Southern Review won first place for Best Journal Design in the 2006 CELJ International Awards Competition, so apparently they have some artsy people on staff or on contract. Nice work, kids.

The Grade: A solid B. All in all a decent rejection that shows the editors have some concern for their submitters. I still maintain that generic rejection slips like this one should contain some human scribbling, even if just the editor's initials, but I realize that's a lot to hope for.

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

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

An Off Week Before a Week Off

Lordy. It's been a whirlwind of a week so far, and I've been shamefully unable to hold the line dividing my writing time and my work time. It doesn't help that I'll be out of town all next week (heading to the Pacific Northwest to visit Jen's family and see my sister graduate), a trip that I'm looking forward to but that also requires a lot of advance work on the job side of things. So, apologies for the lack of new posts.

Despite the craziness, I have been able to draft at least a few poems over the last several days. Now it's just a matter of getting them revised and typed up. Before I leave, I hope to get a new batch out to my readers, at the very least.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

(Almost) An Argument Against MFAs

In New York Magazine, Australian-born novelist Peter Carey has a smart and humane article on coming of age as a writer by way of MFA programs: "A New York Writer's Catch-22." (Thanks to my colleague Adele for drawing my attention to this one.) It includes a pithy description of one of the major issues MFA students face -- the cost of their education and the unlikelihood that they will be able to recoup those costs through their work:

"And here is what seems most insane—young and not-so-young writers take out student loans to get M.F.A.’s in creative writing. This does not add up. I once taught in the M.F.A. program at Columbia, and so I know the extraordinary gifts that student debt can confer. But the Marshian in me says it’s impossible to start a life committed to literary fiction when you are $60,000 in debt. The very size of the loan assumes there is a market, a business to go into, a living to make. But the hard truth is that only a sucker writes literature with the intention of making money. This was so obvious in Australia in 1961, you never needed to say it. Today, when people seem to be breaking through all around you, it might be good to bear in mind that the only reward you can rely on is in the work itself. And, of course, they do know that. A while ago, I went down to Strand with my then 13-year-old son and we were, of course, selling books and we watched the buyer separating the sheep from the goats, without understanding which was which. When the judgment was made, he pushed back at us a pile of really good novels. These, it turned out, were the goats. I said, “But surely you can sell Rohinton Mistry.” And he said, “We don’t need fiction.” And I thought, Where am I?

And I thought, quoting Beckett to myself, Imagination Dead Imagine.

But those twelve students sitting round the table have to forget way bigger things than money. In particular, they must forget that they’re walking out onto the same field as Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Conrad, Austen. This should be enough to stop anyone. Of course, it never has been."

Surprisingly, despite a lengthy discussion of his own development as a writer in Australia, outside of the MFA system ("There was just one literary agency in Australia in 1962, but I didn’t know what a literary agent was," he recalls. "As for an M.F.A. in creative writing, I’d never heard of such a thing. Denied these distractions, all I could do was write."), Carey does not follow this argument to its logical conclusion, that maybe his students could become equally talented writers without the expense of the MFA.

If the chances of emerging as the next great author are so slim, why not suggest that they do as he did, and go someplace far off, and work, and write? Maybe that's just a silly and naive proposition. Then again, he is part of the MFA system now, so maybe the "extraordinary gifts that student debt can confer" have gotten to him more than he thinks.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Kevin Young Kicks Ass

And really, that's about all I have to say. I've mentioned previously that I frequently turn to his book Jelly Roll for inspiration. His poems are witty, musical and seemingly effortless, all at once. Now I'm reading his latest collection of poems, For the Confederate Dead, and enjoying it mightily. Here's a fragment for you, from his poem "Bedlam":
"No such thing
as sleep--just the noise
of night, cars kicking

up country roads--
even the silence
shouts. No one raises

glasses or hell--
just kids, well-
behaved, who walk

home old ladies
refusing tips.
No thanks. What

are we coming to?..."
Good stuff. Go buy it!

And by the way, as someone who appreciates books as objects as well, let me add that designer Gabriele Wilson at Knopf has done beautiful work for Young's books. Ms. Wilson's cover designs have been praised by many others but I gladly add my name to that list. In the publishing version of fantasy football, she'd be my designer and Graywolf my publisher. Well, I can dream, can't I?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Muse Smells like a Bar

I went to The Danny's Reading Series last night to see three poets including Sam Witt, who's shown some staying power over the last few years. Not sure if it was the poetry, the beer, or just a couple of hours out of my head, but something clicked and lo, a path forward to poems did appear. Today, writing outside (per one of my Not Working strategies and because it's getting toasty in our non-air conditioned apartment), I felt more relaxed than I have in a few weeks and was able to draft two poems that I think are pretty good. If I'm lucky not too many holes will have appeared when I read through them with fresh eyes tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Strategies for Not Working

Writing part-time and working part-time has generally made for a good balance. I feel like I have enough time for writing but am still connected to and invested in my job, which I honestly enjoy. I expected that I would have some difficulty maintaining a boundary between the two; after all, my job is fast-paced and I work from home, so that boundary is really just a click of the mouse on my Outlook account. I worried that my own neurotic tendencies and workaholic nature would get the best of me, and I'd find myself laboring on a proposal when I should be drafting poems.

I've found those anxieties to be warranted, at least to some extent, but not in the way I expected. Not working is easy; not thinking about working is another matter altogether. It comes down to an imbalance in expectations and pressure. No one but myself is holding me to account for my writing, but I'm accountable to a number of people for doing my work. If I don't write, nothing much happens. Maybe two or three of my readers will ask what's going on. On the other hand, if I fail to do my work, I will get in trouble and eventually be fired (and rightly so).

So keeping my morning writing time free of work tasks is generally a simple matter of refusing to open my work email or open the folder on my desktop that holds all my work-related files. But on weeks when work is hectic--when I have too many deadline-driven projects and time starts to become an issue--just focusing on my writing can take real willpower. Reading Keats this morning, my attention kept wandering ahead to my to-do list for this afternoon. It's a frustrating experience that has motivated me to find ways of clearing my head. Here are some of the things I'm doing:
  • Making work lists: I'm being more diligent than ever about tracking projects at work and clearly listing out daily and weekly priorities. I find this helps me avoid some of the mental hand-wringing that happens when I'm worried about forgetting something.
  • Setting daily/weekly writing goals: In addition to the overarching goals I set for myself at the beginning of AWY, I'm trying to come up with smaller, weekly goals to keep myself on task. The hard part here is not allowing myself to get away with busywork -- going through the motions of writing without actually investing myself in it, purely for the sake of meeting the goal.
  • Changing my writing environment: I'm a creature of habit but that doesn't mean I can't recognize a rut when I'm stuck in it. This doesn't necessarily entail huge changes, but small adjustments, like where I sit when I'm writing (since it's spring here in Chicago, I've tried writing out on our back deck a few times) or putting some quiet music on (jazz or blues I prefer -- nothing with lyrics, which are distracting).
  • Righting the pressure imbalance: In other words, doing things like redoubling my commitment to sending out new work to my readers, or asking my wife to demand to hear new poems from me at the end of every week -- anything to balance out the pressure I feel to get my job-related work done.
  • Practicing rigorous focus: Which is not to say I know how, exactly. But I'm trying to find ways to block out all thoughts of work during my writing time. For example, I've discovered that reading aloud, or at least moving my lips with the words, decreases the chances that I will space out. The rest is a kind of mix of meditative practice and sheer stubbornness.
Having listed out these strategies, I notice that I'm still essentially accommodating my behavior to the demands of my work (without addressing what may be real issues on that side of things as well). So I should say another thing I'm doing is communicating more clearly with the people I work with about my capacity to take on new projects and meet the demands I face. To date, they have been flexible and understanding when I cry uncle.

Friday, May 18, 2007

First Local Submission

When I started AWY, one of my goals was to submit to a range of journals, including at least a few in the Chicago area. I have been lax about that so far, but today I'm sending off a submission to RHINO magazine in Evanston. RHINO publishes only poetry and comes out once a year. Qwerky, somewhat, but hopefully they will like one of the four poems I'm sending.

Speaking of Chicago-area literariness, I'd recommend that anyone interested in keeping up with local readings and events check out Literago, a (relatively) new site run by two ladies hoping to show Chi-town is no chump when it comes to writerly affairs. I check the site daily these days.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Reading Keats, Considering Comix

I'm reading Keats' poems and selected letters at the moment, both of which have proved inspiring except for when I recall how much he was able to accomplish in so little time. Then it's almost overwhelmingly humbling. The contradictory responses I have when reading this kind of poetry are alarming in their extremity; one part of me clamors to write poems that are just as good while another asks why even bother trying? Fortunately (for me, if no one else) the clamor usually prevails. "Try again. Fail again. Fail better," right?

On an entirely different note, I've also been considering what form a new kind of poetry, befitting a culture of assemblages, collage and remixes, might take. I've envisioned something that draws on and adds to the shape and force of other writers' work: the poem as symbiont, perhaps literally attached to its host. I think of the telescoping tangents and intricacies of Chris Ware's graphic novels. Words inspiring additional reflection or reaction. The poem as a small system of planets orbiting a central star. Well, it sounds interesting in theory. I'll let you know how things turn out in practice.

Monday, May 14, 2007


(Because I've always wanted to title a post with that word, that's why.)

As part of my ongoing reclaim-some-momentum campaign, I'm gearing up for another submission this week. Boston Review, Shenandoah and TriQuarterly are some of the possibilities, though I'll be looking for others over the next few days.

Of note to anyone else out there who is looking for publishing opportunities, Poetry magazine has announced that, in June, July and August, its editors will only be considering work from poets who have not previously appeared in its pages. It may not mean a lot, but it could at least improve one's chances. See you in the slush pile.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Who's Ready for a Trust Fall?

Reading William Logan's 1999 essay "Four or Five Motions Toward a Poetics" this morning, I was struck by his discussion of the "trust" between reader and poem. "Trust," he writes, "... is the poem's ability to proceed without distracting the reader with clumsiness of technique, while offering benefit to the reader's imagination equal to or exceeding the energy expended in reading." Essentially, he characterizes "trust" as that which keeps the reader going when she or he has no idea what the poet is talking about. The reader continues in good faith, with the assumption that some illumination will come later. Readers whose trust is rewarded, he suggests, will tolerate increasingly greater risks.

For many, Logan is a controversial (some would say reviled) figure in poetry, but I think the contract between poet and reader is worth keeping in mind. I think it provides at least some explanation for why contemporary poetry is not more widely read; readers, whose trust has been betrayed by poems that lead them into labyrinths and funhouses, can hardly be expected to follow without hesitation. That's not to say that poems must avoid labyrinths and funhouses completely, only that, eventually, they have to show the reader the way out.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Finding a Goodly Writyng Notebook

This weekend I bought a new writing notebook, having realized that the old one had only two or three blank pages remaining. I'm not hugely picky about my notebooks but I do have certain standards. Criteria, you could say. Buying a new one got me thinking about what those criteria are and my reasons for sticking to them, which I shall present here forthwith:

1) Light weight: Because where I go, it goes. Heaviness is a disincentive to keep it with me.

2) Paperback-sized: Because that makes it easier to stack with the other books I'm prone to carrying around.

3) Durable: Because coffee is bound to be spilled and it is sure to be dropped and generally banged around. I'm especially careful to look for notebooks with strong and flexible bindings, and I prefer those that lie flat when open.

4) Plain: Because it is above all a working journal and I need to feel free to make a mess of it. Like other writerly types, I frequently receive truly lovely journals as gifts, but I can't use them -- filling them with my scribble just makes me feel guilty. The writing notebook has to be both canvas and dropcloth.

5) Unlined: Because it allows my creative spirit to roam blithely about the page.

6) Black: I don't know, it just feels right. Plus it hides the scuffs and stains (see #3).

Looking for a good one? I highly recommend the classic Moleskine notebooks (which is what I ended up with this weekend). Simple sketchbooks sold by art supply shops will fit the bill as well. I'm also a softie for the old black-and-white speckled composition books, though they are a little too big for my liking and the pages are lined.

Friday, May 04, 2007


After a couple despondent weeks, today I finally was able to write something worth keeping (or at least I think so), and I've got another idea for a poem in the chamber. No telling whether this spell of creativity will last but I'm happy for the time being. Check back next week for an update.

In the meantime, since I've been thinking so much about the conditions necessary for writing, here's a Friday quote for you:
"For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of mind is needed--freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away."

-- Adrienne Rich (from "When We Dead Awaken": Writing as Re-Vision)

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Poetry in Motion

Maybe it's because I've been traveling more often lately, but I've found myself fixating on the strange rhythms and patterns of business life, the purgatorial cab rides and waiting rooms. What's interesting to me is the way people strive (with varying effort and degrees of success) to remain individuals and retain some humanity despite spending vast amounts of time in environments that are designed specifically to minimize individualism for the sake of efficiency. Small gestures stand out: the stewardess mothering the exhausted businessmen and women on the late flight between cities, the cabbie telling his life story to someone he's just met and will likely never see again.

It isn't easy to write poems about any of this without floating off into the realm of sociology or descending into cliche, but I do think there are poems here, however transient they may be. In the context of huge, otherwise dehumanizing systems, small gestures become disproportionately meaningful. I think good poems mimic those small gestures, connecting what is individual and specific to what is larger and more universal.

Thursday, April 26, 2007


I'm not happy with the poems I'm writing right now. For one thing, there aren't many of them. And the ones I do produce strike me as boring and predictable (and based on a few initial comments on the latest batch from my readers, they think so too -- although they say so far more graciously). It's disheartening, not only because it never feels good to create crappy poems, but because good writing depends on a kind of momentum that I'm not currently able to achieve.

I have a feeling that this is one of those situations when you have to resist your instincts to forcibly regain control and instead loosen up -- like not slamming on the brakes when your car skids on black ice. But it's not easy. Relax. Relax! RELAX! I yell at myself.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Against E-Z Poetry

Speaking of Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate has published an interesting article on, "In Praise of Difficult Poetry." "The issue of difficulty in art is far from new," he writes, "though people may like to refer to some unspecified good old days, when stuff was easier." A fine point to keep in mind, especially since both sides in the argument of "difficult" vs. "accessible" poetry have summoned armies of straw men and flotillas of cliche to fight for their respective causes. But such is rhetoric.

I'd prefer to be neutral in this little war, but I'll admit that I side with the forces of accessibility when drawn into its skirmishes. Still, what I like about Pinsky's article is its suggestion that difficulty can be something we enjoy rather than resist, as well as the way he inveighs against our tendency to view poems as puzzles to be solved, a bad habit most of us learned in high school. That said, I'd suggest not that all poems should be simple or easy to understand (complexity and uncertainty being some of the hallmarks of great poetry), but that complexity and obscurity alone are insufficient to propel a poem beyond its creator.

Which brings us back to extremes. When I write that, I envision the kind of linguistically-occupied poems that are baffling and, frankly, a bore to even educated readers, just as Pinsky envisions the "genial, simple, and folksy... work of Edgar Guest [whose book] Heap o' Livin' sold more than a million copies" in the first half of the twentieth century. Both are over-simplifications. I am confident that most of those arguing for "accessibility" do not hope to bring about another Edgar Guest. Conversely, I am also sure that poets like Pinsky are not eager to see the rise of ludicrously obtuse verse. It's a false dialectic, like red states and blue states. In reality, most of us are somewhere in the reasonable middle, shaking our heads.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Prime Time for Poet Pinsky

Imagine my shock last night when Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report brought out poet Robert Pinsky (he of the honeyed and vaguely lascivious voice) to host a "Meta-Free-Phor-All" with Sean Penn. And further shock when he proved to do pretty well. Bob Barker, look out:

Sure, the show was mostly about Penn's politics and one particularly colorful (if not nuanced) metaphor he employed vis-a-vis our misguided President. Still, I can't remember the last time a living poet appeared on national television outside of the token features that the news networks tend to run in national poetry month (which we're in the middle of, and which for most people is really national file your effing taxes month), much less one as popular as Colbert's. Three cheers for Colbert for bringing Pinsky on, and three cheers for Pinsky for showing poets are (A) actually still around and (B) not incapable of humor.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Irritable Reaching

Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952.

"A painter like Pollock," John Ashbery writes in his essay The Invisible Avant-Garde, "... was gambling everything on the fact that he was the greatest painter in America, for if he wasn't, he was nothing, and the drips would turn out to be random splashes from the brush of a careless housepainter. It must often have occurred to Pollock that there was just a possibility that he wasn't an artist at all, that he had spent his life 'toiling up the wrong road to art' as Flaubert said of Zola."

No one wants to spend life "toiling up the wrong road." So the question becomes, how do you overcome those doubts? How do you know if you're the real thing or a sham? What separates the amateur (in the least derogatory sense of the word) from the artist?

Lately, as has consistently been my bad habit in poetry as well as in life, I have been jumping ahead of myself and thinking about what will happen at the end of A Writing Year. I can't help but dwell on what's next. Does writing become just another hobby, something to do at night or whenever I can find a few quiet moments? Do I cease writing poems altogether, having had my year to make it work and failed to find that elusive, undefinable proof that I Am A Poet And The Struggle Is All Worthwhile?

Keats would say these are all symptoms of weakness in Negative Capability, "that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." What is so insidious about these questions and that "irritable reaching" is the way they infect the mind. The question, "is this poem really any good?" spawns others: "Do I know what a good poem really is?" "Do I have the passion and strength to create good poems?" "Is a 'good' poem really enough?" "Why continue when so many others can do better?" Each one adds its small white ribbon until they form a kind of mental straitjacket.

I recognize that all art requires a kind of faith. As Ashbery continues about Pollock's work, "It is a gamble against terrific odds. Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing." I agree with Ashberry that a degree of recklessness is necessary. But finding the confidence to be reckless (or again, call it faith) isn't easy. I worry I may not be reckless enough. I worry I may not be reckless at all.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Rate the Rejection - FIELD

Here's a stumper: How to rate a rejection letter that doesn't exist? It seems like a task for one of Samuel Beckett's characters. Yet that's exactly the task I'm faced with, as FIELD, apparently having nothing nice to say, says nothing at all. What that means for me is my SASE returned, with my poems, and no explanation. It's baffling. Here's what I've got to show you:

That's right, just the empty envelope -- that's all I've got. Nevertheless, I persist.

Rating Summary: It could be ingenious: just skip the rejection letter altogether. You save some money and time and skip over all the difficult sentiment. Alternately, it could be accidental: one of the interns forgot to include the standard rejection note. Whoopsy daisies. A third possiblity: laziness and inertia. Whatever the case, the lack of any letter at all, the mute returning of poems unmarked in any way, suggests an appalling lack of respect and consideration. It's a cop-out, a mistake, or a sign the editors just couldn't be bothered. It may have enabled a faster turnaround time (six weeks, give or take), but the means to that end are brutish.

The Grade: 0. As far as I'm concerned, the folks at FIELD didn't turn in their assignment.

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

Back in Action

Did you miss me? Last week was a doozy. Two rejection letters (or rather, one actual letter, but two submissions rejected -- more on that later) and a four-day conference for work meant I was distracted and off-schedule all week. I'm still feeling a bit down and uncertain, but hopefully I'll be able to get back into some sort of rhythm and regain my focus. We'll see. For now, please accept my apologies for the long stretch of no-posts. I know how AWY readers (all six of you) depend on these rants and inanities and I hate to disappoint.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Rate the Rejection - Tin House

Sadly it's time for another episode of Rate. The. Rejection! Today's contestant: Tin House, the pretty magazine from Portland. Someone responding to a previous Rate the Rejection mentioned that the House was particularly loathsome in its refusals, so I was (morbidly) curious to see if that really was the case. To the slip, shall we?

Rating Summary: Well. Where to begin? Let's start with the paper. I'd say it's somewhere between Kinko's cheapest and prison-grade toilet tissue. Classy. That it's poorly cut out only adds to the elegance. Editors, listen up: If you're going to skimp on paper by printing multiple rejection slips on 1-ply, how's about at least investing in a decent paper cutter? Just a thought. And you know what else? Twenty-one words doesn't cut it. I spend a lot of time putting my submissions together. I think about where they're going and I write short, careful and respectful cover letters. It's fine with me if you're going to print out the same rejection note for everyone, but put just a modicum of thought into it. Try to avoid being utterly spineless. That goes for the name at the bottom too. "Sincerely, Tin House Editors." Sincerely my ass. If you're sincere, man up and put your name on it.

Any upside here? Well, to their credit they responded quickly, with a turnaround time of about 6 1/2 weeks. That certainly counts for something. Other than that, no.

The Grade: A solid D. It's a fine example of what makes trying to get your writing out there such a lonely and dispiriting endeavor. And I thought people from Portland were so nice.

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