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.