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.