Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Poems Every Which Way

A lot going on this week as I continue to keep up a steady writing pace. That feels lucky and I'm eager to maintain it as long as possible. From past experience I know that everything can dry up quickly, and getting as much as I can on paper now will help carry me through future droughts.

I also sent three new poems out to my readers and flipped the ones I got back from Kenyon Review out to Tin House. That's the fastest I've ever turned a batch of poems around, but after looking over them again they still felt right to me. Ideally I'd like to have four or five such groupings that I can easily keep in rotation until they find a home. I still intend to get another submission out by this weekend (leaning toward FIELD for that one), so that may become the second set.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Poetry Under the Monocle

I'm a little tardy getting to this, but The New Yorker's Dana Goodyear has a nice piece in the February 19 & 26 double issue on Ruth Lilly's jackpot gift to Poetry magazine. In it she explores the recent dust-up over Poetry Foundation president John Barr's essay "American Poetry in the New Century," which I previously wrote about here. Goodyear is clearly skeptical about Barr's background (among other things, she repeatedly and colorfully references his personal wealth) but her article is more open to his ideas about poetry in America than the raised-eyebrow paragraphs that introduce it. She also provides an interesting account of the little-mentioned lawsuits that emerged with Lilly's gift.

Goodyear's description of the controversy following the publication of Barr's essay wryly captures the shocked-and-appalledness of many in the poetry community ("The poet Robert Wrigley... wrote a letter, which, in twenty rhetorical questions, performed back flips of outrage and stuck a landing on the single-word sentence 'Bullshit,'" she writes in one part). Many of these critics have valid points and concerns, but sadly the picture of the poetry world that emerges is an ugly one: sneering, defensive, elitist and entitled.

Which brings me back to what I first wrote about Barr's essay and the scorching response. What's everybody so afraid about? It occurs to me that much of the passion may stem from the fact that poets are, more often than not, the starved dogs of the cultural community, quick to snap at those who near their small territories or eye their picked-over bones. And with Lilly's gift, the Poetry Foundation is suddenly a big dog to contend with. Ergo, hackles.

What remains to be seen is how Barr and the Poetry Foundation handle their newfound strength and bulk. I, for one, don't see anything wrong with the initial steps they've taken to bolster the prominence of poetry in American culture. I wouldn't want to see every poem become a Billy Collins poem, but trying to encourage poetry that appeals to the widest possible spectrum of readers seems laudable enough. Poets and poetry critics often seem surprisingly dualistic and unambitious in their conception of what poetry can be; accessibility and innovation, they presume, are fundamentally incompatible. Yet in his time, Robert Frost wrote poems that not only commanded large audiences but also daringly advanced poetry as an art form. Why shouldn't we strive for the same?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Rate the Rejection - Kenyon Review

Yes, it's time for another Rate the Rejection! This time, The Kenyon Review is in the hot seat, having declined a batch of four poems I submitted in mid-January. As you'll recall, the journal has moved to an online-only submissions system, so the note came via email. But let's get right down to business. Here's the message:

(By way of explanation, KR requires that multiple poems be submitted in one document -- hence the weird "4 poems -- see file" title.)

Rating Summary: Well, it's an email message. As I mentioned in my post on submitting to The Kenyon Review, the efficiency of their online-only system deserves praise but is also inescapably cold and transactional. The rejection note looks a lot like the receipts you get from On the other hand, KR does get points for their fast turnaround time -- well under six weeks. The note contains the usual expressions of regret and subtly emphasizes the journal's selectivity. If that were all, I'd find the note as discouraging as any, especially in its automated quality.

HOWEVER, as you can see at the bottom of the message, poetry editor David Baker was kind enough (and I mean that) to include a short note praising the poems and asking for more in the fall. As anyone who's regularly submitted material to literary journals knows, that's a rare occurence. It's enough to lift the spirits of even this jaded submitter, and I'll certainly be taking him up on his invitation.

The Grade: A-. Thank you, David Baker. Your encouragement restored my faith in editors and pulled this one out of D territory.

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

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Workshop Poem

William Packard, who taught creative writing in New York for more than 40 years, has a cutting section on workshops in his curmudgeonly, old-school tome The Art of Poetry Writing. I couldn't resist reprinting a poem by Norman Stock that he finds illustrative of their faults:
Thank You for
the Helpful Comments

I sit quietly listening
as they tear my poem to shreds in the poetry workshop
as each one says they have a "problem" with this line
and they have a "problem" with that line
and I am not allowed to speak because that is the
etiquette of the workshop
so I sit listening and writing while they tear the
guts out of my poem and leave it lying bleeding and dead
and when they're finally finished having kicked the
stuffing out of it
having trimmed it down from twenty lines to about four
words that nobody objects to
then they turn to me politely and they say well Norman
do you have any response
response I say picking myself up off the floor and
brushing away the dirt while holding on for dear
life to what I thought was my immortal poem now
dwindled to nothing
and though what I really want to say is can I get my
money back for this stupid workshop what I say
instead is... uh... thank you for your helpful
comments... while I mumble under my breath
motherfuckers wait till I get to your poems
Sad but true. And hilarious.

Stafford's book, by the way, is better than most so-you-want-to-be-a-poet books. He's straightforward, if distant, and he takes a back to basics approach that emphasizes reading and discipline. He's not politically correct, he's not comprehensive, and he has a decidedly Western focus, but his determined attention to the fundamentals sets him apart.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

February Submission

There's that word again. I'm getting ready for my next submission, this time probably three poems, perhaps including a couple inspired by or drafted during my trip earlier this month to Negril. Those will also be going to my readers, who I'm confident will tell me straight whether they've survived the long flight back. I'm cautiously optimistic -- after a week or two, they still seem worthwhile to me, at least.

The lucky recipient this time around will likely be FIELD, the Southern Review, or Shenandoah. All have been recommended to me by other writers in the past and would be good matches for the kinds of poems I'm thinking of sending.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Priorities and Pendulums

I'd been feeling guilty about neglecting the AWY blog over the last several days, until it occurred to me that not blogging because I was too busy working on actual poems might not be such a bad thing. It already feels a little strange not to be posting any of my work here (though not strange enough to warrant a change, yet), and I think it would not be difficult to slip from simply documenting my writing year to commenting on all things poetry-related. That's not to say that the former is more valuable than the latter, or more worthwhile, or even that the two are incompatible--only that it's a writing year, not a blogging year, so the poems come first, always. That said, I'll try to keep the stretches between posts as short as possible.

Now, back to the writing. I've been thinking about form poems lately, and villanelles specifically, which allow for a kind of exploration of sound and image that I find appealing. With their constant refrains and insistent rhyme patterns, they always remind me a little of the Foucault pendulum that used to hang in the Smithsonian, touching and re-touching the same points, but shifting with each stroke over the course of the day, its arc changing constantly if imperceptibly. Like the pendulum, villanelles seem to provide the hypnotic proof of some greater movement.

I've done a few villanelles before, and the urge to write one always seems to catch me by surprise. A line will occur to me, and something about its rhythm or imagery will suggest its suitability to the form. "The kids got guns, they say" is the phrase that's been haunting me all week. Whether there's motion behind it isn't clear, but I'm going to set it swinging and see what happens.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Big Red Hearts

Valentine's Day, which of course is one of the few days when poets actually seem useful. Good love poems are hard to write. I'm working on a couple right now, and since I am, and since it's a love-hungry day, I thought I'd mention Isn't It Romantic: 100 Love Poems by Younger American Poets, an especially good collection that Verse Press (now Wave Books) published in 2004. Here's a sample from poet G.E. Patterson, characteristically quiet and careful (for him, I mean -- others in this anthology are not so quiet):
"The Saint's First Wife Said"

I woke to your face not looking at me
but at the bird that settled on your wrist,
lured by food. Its trust, for once, was rewarded.
You offered the bird everything you had.

I remember. That is how it began
with us: You held out your hand; I took it.
Other great poets included are the likes of Nick Flynn, Peter Gizzi, Lisa Jarnot, D.A. Powell, Terrance Hayes, Rebecca Wolff, Kevin Young, etc. All around a nice grouping. Plus (but wait, there's more!) it's accompanied by a CD of love songs by various indie rock all-stars and others.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Respite and Inspiration

It's amazing what a little time away will do. Although it's depressing to be back in typically cold, monochromatic Chicago, I've had a lot of energy for writing this week. That's largely the result of last week's leisure, but I think some of it also comes from the experience of being someplace foreign, doing something entirely new. Jen and I were fortunate enough to connect with someone who knew Jamaica well and showed us the non-resort side of Negril. We were hardly trailblazing, but even so it was stimulating. Since then the tensions I observed and felt have been playing out in my notebook. What remains to be seen is how much that seems flush now pales over the days that follow. Hopefully not as much as my skin.

Monday, February 12, 2007


Still making the brutal transition back from lush Negril to snowbound Chicago, so I'll steady myself on the shoulder of W.S. Di Piero today (from Semba!: A Notebook):

"Poetry doesn't have much to do with other arts, but there are coordinates. I'm bored by theatrical prophecy, by poetry that makes one fraught statement then another, without shapely sound or rhythm, without an availably complex density of phrasing and patterning, and I'm bored by poetry that achieves its effects only tonally or by clever invention. A coordinate: De Kooning's brushstroke enshrines its own passage: in its moist, elided, sumptuous impasto we see color broken down and surging. We get, as in certain kinds of poetry (Weldon Kees, Alan Dugan, Louise Bogan), both dreamily episodic eruptions and the entire shapely course of the surge, the rush and flush of the whole."

Friday, February 02, 2007

Mind the Gap

Next week AWY will endure a short hiatus while I enjoy a long-planned vacation in Jamaica. In my experience, poems written during such trips tend to resemble the palm tree-busy art you bring back to hang in your living room; what seemed stunningly beautiful there just looks embarrassingly out of place here. Nonetheless, between Red Stripes I intend to do at least a little writing to keep up my momentum. I swear I will keep the mango, rasta and reef references subtle. Mega-resorts and tourists are totally fair game, though I hope to avoid both as much as possible.

Those of you who are Chicagoans and need a lit fix in AWY's absence would do well to check out Kim Addonizio's pre-Valentine's Day reading next week. I haven't read much of her newer work, but I'm a fan of her violent and lovely 2000 collection Tell Me. Details are below.

DATE: Thursday, February 8
PLACE: The HotHouse (31 East Balbo Ave.)
COST: Free

Thursday, February 01, 2007


Slow-going this week, as I grapple with some fundamental questions about subject matter. Bukowski says the poet is like a cat; it doesn't think about killing a bird, it just kills it. But what if there aren't any birds around? It seems to me that writing poetry involves a lot of waiting and hunting. You find a quiet place to watch for something with a heartbeat, or stalk it in the shadows. The beginning, especially, demands patience, focus and timing. In silence you calculate what is catchable and when to pounce. If you move too quickly, the commotion scares it off and you're left hungry.

So how do you decide when to go off hunting? In the morning, before I start actively trying to write, I read for an hour or so. If I'm lucky, something will occur to me during that time, some piece of a poem or just an interesting image or idea. It's like the cat spotting movement along the treeline. It gives me something to work with later on, and that's when the words seem to flow most smoothly. The poems that result tend to be the ones I like most.

But there are so many days when it feels like I'm sitting in a quiet field, and nothing's moving. Just me and a few vague ideas floating overhead, ungraspable as clouds. A lot of people would call this writer's block, but to me the problem is not so much that there are obstacles as it is that everything is so wide open. My time is not limitless, so I can't just sit around waiting--even cats realize that's a good way to starve to death. So, always somewhat hesitantly, I trod off in search of something to sustain me.

The problem is, as I get hungrier, it becomes increasingly easy to hallucinate poems where none exists. I start pouncing on dry leaves that blow by or I waste my time chasing grasshoppers. I might catch something, but it's never very filling. It's a frustrating experience, and the question becomes, how long to persist? There are days when I spot a cardinal while stalking a cockroach, and that makes everything worth it. On the other hand, there are many more days when all I get is leaves and bugs, or I convince myself that a ragged bundle of cloth is a bird. I might as well have just given up and hoped for better hunting the next day.

What's worth writing about? What's not? It's like knowing which kind of day it will be for bird-hunting. There's no way to know until afterwards, so I go out there and follow whatever movement I find, and hope it all works out. Maybe what Bukowski really means is that you can't go into the hunt looking for one particular bird; instead, you act on instinct, not thinking about what you want, but taking what the field provides. If that's right, then maybe the real trick of it is knowing where to hunt in the first place.