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?).