New Notes from a First Round Reader

It’s that time of year again, and I am wading through the entries. Here’s how it works with this publisher: They amass a cadre of first round readers for this full-length poetry manuscript prize, then randomly assign 20-25 titles to each person. Our assignment: Find only a handful to recommend on to the second round readers. The few, intrepid second round readers then choose one or two from their piles to recommend up to The Final Committee, who hash it all out in some hidden corner of the world until the white smoke rises on a new winner.

Here’s the thing: I have an aesthetic. There are kinds of poetry I am highly unlikely to connect with.  There are topics I tend to be bored with. That being said, although I thought no more interesting work can ever be generated at this point, for example, about dead parents, I have found yet a new and inspiring take on the subject. I am always happy to be surprised, happy to be contradicted. I know I have a perspective on poetry that will inevitably exclude collections that others might fall upon gladly and lift to the heavens. I am, at least, aware of my biases, and there are times when I have the sense that a collection might be considered of high merit by someone other than me — in such cases I might throw it back to the editor to suggest someone else read it, or I move it forward in the hopes I’m somehow on track with that intuition, even if the poems themselves are not of great interest to me.

But mostly I just accept that I like what I like, and I’m doing the best I can to remain wide-eyed and open-minded. Ish.

That the publisher has identified a group of readers with varied aesthetic I believe is true, as there are years when the winner is a manuscript I would probably have passed over. This terrifies me, but should be of some comfort to you. When I, yearly, confess my terror to the publisher that my narrow view will fail to catch the Next Great Poet, the publisher waves me off with aplomb, assuring me that they know that good work will be passed over, but that good work also will rise. And there’s always next year.

If your collection is one of those that might fall outside the pie-slice shape of my taste in poetry, I now and publicly apologize. But contests are a crap shoot. You get the first reader you get. That’s why persistence is key. You might send the exact same manuscript to this contest next year and get a more sympathetic reader. It’s just the game.

So, please, I beg you, as a first round reader who knows my limitations, try, try again.

Post-script: Some notes:

– If the instructions say to take out the Acknowledgments, then TAKE OUT THE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. That you’ve had a poem published in Poetry is not likely to make me more likely to move your work forward.

– Insert page breaks between your poems. Do not just hit return until a new page appears.

– Don’t do fancy formatting with titles. All that work happens when your manuscript gets accepted and goes to layout, and you’ll just have to strip out the fancy stuff anyway. Don’t underline them or bother to italicize them or indent them or such unless you have some particular reason for doing so.

– As I’ve said in previous posts, make sure every poem kicks ass. The more poems you put into a collection, the more likely it is that you’ll include ones that aren’t as strong as others, which weakens the collection. Remember, there are a lot of poets out there, and a lot of people doing good work, and I’m only supposed to forward a handful of the manuscripts, so in the end, I’m looking for reasons NOT to move your manuscript forward. Don’t give them to me.

Previous posts about this experience:…und-reader-redux/…sts-depresses-me/

Ready About, Hard Alee; or, The Strength to Change What I Can, Etcetera

I was reading recently about Stockholm Syndrome — when captives fall in thrall of their captors; that is, when a bond is formed between captive and captor in the psychological intensity of the situation, even as the captor abuses the captive — and I worry about it. When I complain and complain about some situation but seem to be unwilling or unable to take any steps to either change the situation or change my attitude toward it, it occurs to me that I have bonded with whatever it is that is apparently holding me captive — the hell of the fears I know versus what I don’t know and therefore have not yet imagined to fear. (This is a stretching of the strict definition of the syndrome, which was developed in 1973 after the study of a bank robbery and hostage situation.)

At base, I guess, it’s a way to survive, but over the long term, it’s a continuation of an imprisonment even after the door is unlocked and open. I have to remember to stop on a regular basis and ask myself what captors I’m in the thrall of, what dynamic am I wedded to as the hell I know, what is it that I keep complaining about that I can change or change my attitude about. And I always have an answer or two or four. And often over time, it’s the same damn thing.

Yeah, I know you friends to whom I complain think I can’t hear myself…but I can. It takes time to move the giant, lumbering vessel of mind and spirit sometimes. One might hope for epiphany and instant change, but mostly life is about little lessons learned and forgotten, relearned and reforgotten, effortful tugging on the intransigent wheel and infinitesimal shifts of the inner ship of state.

Ahoy, there. Ahoy.

Line Item; or, On Poetic Lineation; or, Don’t Just Break a Line, Make a Line

I see an awful lot of earnest, heartfelt prose that’s broken up into poemy-looking lines and stanzas and called a “poem.” But I just can’t agree. Such work has ignored the most primary and powerful tools of the art and craft of poetry.

Let’s just start with the idea of a line. A line should start strong and end strong as much as possible, and should have some reason for being a made line that ends deliberately and with purpose rather than one that ends because you think a line should be about so long, or one that haphazardly strolls across the page until the automatic right margin shunts it downward.

A line must have some integrity. That integrity should be in the form of:

– idea — that is, it should do the work of building on, refuting, suggestion something other than, developing or moving along the idea of the poem,

– rhythm — the line should have some relationship to the lines around it such that it carries along or disrupts established rhythms,

– sound — the sounds in the line should have some kind of resonance with the idea of the poem or, again, be part of a larger sonic pattern in the poem.

And that’s just what I come up with off the top of my head.

The line break itself should have a purpose — to suggest, to control the reader’s pace: hurry the reader along or stop him in his tracks, to hint or wink, to emphasize, argue, and again it also can have sonic responsibilities in the form of, well, silence.

Not every line in every poem necessarily carries weight. Sometimes you just have to get from point A to point B. But the editing process should include serious consideration of each line and its integrity. This is the great fun of writing poetry, for heaven’s sake! Otherwise, just write prose. Prose is fine too.

Hobbes, Locke, and Kant Walk into a Bar; Or, Can’t We All Just Get Along

I’m reading American Philosophy: A Love Story, by John Kaag. It’s an example of those creative-nonfiction approaches that intertwine personal story with, well, whatever…in this case a brief overview of the history of philosophy, especially American philosophical thought.

Kaag likens his first marriage, departure from that marriage, and tentative approach to a new relationship to the idea shifts and insights of the American philosophers he studies. I’m not sure it’s entirely effective — (No, dude, I don’t think the fact that you couldn’t see fit to sit down with your wife and have a frank discussion about the problems of your marriage and so instead hocked your ring and caused a scene at a party so your wife would agree to a divorce is like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s courageous departure from the expectations of marriage into the world of ideas, and eventually to find love with another woman.) — but I enjoyed it overall.

The book provides this stark description of a very contemporary schism:

“Hobbes and Locke diverged in many ways, but they agreed that people were generally moved by sensations, fears, and desires rather than by profound moral principles. For them, human reason was predominantly instrumental, an extension of an animalistic drive for self-preservation, and the wisest thing to do was to set up political institutions that could keep base instincts in check…Kant argued that humans were not simply moved by the forces of their world but, at their best, were motivated by an internal, almost divine force he called rational will….By virtue of their active rational capacities, human were the only beasts that could set duties for themselves, and therefore the only ones that could be morally responsible.”

So that is the question, people: Are we assholes or are we assholes with a glimmer of sense that we don’t need to be assholes all the time? The jury is out.


No, Mary, YOU tell ME; or Life in the World

Mary Oliver in Upstream wrote in the eponymous essay, “In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.” I feel like I’m still in this state, that I’m still rediscovering, redefining.

I admire the way she is so attuned to her environment, noting the shifts with each phase of the passing seasons, how she daily consumes that notice and transforms it into her work in poetry. I react to the world in similar ways as when I was young. I think I have long paid attention to details, both out of an interest in the natural, and out of a watchfulness born of fear of what is scary and uncontrollable in the world. But it’s what I am to do with those reactions that I continue to find puzzling. How to live a life.

As Oliver said in “Summer Day,” “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild, precious life?”

There are many hours in the day in which to live out an answer to this question, but an unknown number of years to figure it out. I am grateful for the question and how it haunts me. She writes, “May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful.”

Pema Chodron wrote, “The future is completely open, and we are writing it moment to moment.” I am grateful for the possibilities that crack wide open with that quote, but also daunted by the responsibility. Blue sky today and a breeze bobbles the rhododendron already unpinched from the cold night temperatures to the warming air.


Comma me down; or, Commas and the Appositive; or, Commas and Nouns Describing Other Nouns

There’s this thing called an appositive. Feel free to forget that word, but remember the rule of commas associated with it. If the renaming or descriptive noun or noun phrase that accompanies the central noun is essential to the identification of that noun, you do not need commas. Examples:

– I am not a polygamist. My husband, Gilbert, gets all my ire. [In this case, there is only one husband, so his name is not essential to the definition. The husband is the one husband; there are no other husbands in this case.]
– I am a polygamist. My husband Gilbert gets all my ire. The other guys get a pass. [In this case, the husband named Gilbert is essential to the definition of husband, to distinguish him from John, Ted, and Arthur, my other husbands. Poor Gilbert.]

– My book Best Seller is a best seller, far outselling my other five books.
– My book, Best Seller, is a best seller, which is amazing, as it is my first and only book.

-There are a million famous authors. I met the famous author Joe Schmo the other day.
-According to narcissist Joe Schmo, there is only one famous author. I met that famous author, Joe Schmo, the other day.

-She is the founder of the girl band Girl Band. (As there are a million girl bands, there would never be any reason to put a comma between girl band and Girl Band. Nor should you ever actually use the term girl band, unless, of course, you are talking about Girl Band.)

Okay, go off and err no more.


Another One Down; or, How Fiction Betrays the Hopeful Heart

Regular readers of this blog, all three of you, will recall that I have freely admitted to being an impatient reader, quick to judge, quick to become crabby. I rarely read fiction anymore, as it so frequently incites my worst selves. I ghostdrift the aisles of the library, lifting them up to read the back blurb — “ugh, who cares,” I think of one, “ugh, I don’t want to read that,” I think of another. So when I, with fear and trembling, finally check out a volume of fiction in an attempt to be at one with the world, who seems to greedily consume fiction and laud the praises of books hither and yon with “best books of the year” designation, national and international awards, interviews on public radio, etcetera, I yearn to be satisfied. My latest pursuit: a “comic” “genius” at the “top of his game” in a book that was just given a Very Important Prize. As you can tell from my tone…ugh, the disappointment.

When a book disappoints me, I feel it personally, viscerally, deeply. I love books. I read, therefore I am. I forced myself to plod through this thing, through all the author’s jiving and winking, his self-satisfied jocularity, but by page 70 with no discernible plot in sight, I closed it for good. I had been betrayed. How am I so out of step with literary opinion? What does this say about me? Surely something is wrong with me.

On the radio I just heard about a bright new talent in singer/songwriting. “I had never heard anything like this before,” said the Famous Person who discovered this New Talent who sounded EXACTLY LIKE ALL THE OTHER “NEW” POP TALENT I’VE BEEN HEARING FOR THE PAST 10 YEARS. No, for longer than that, as I have a CD from 15 years ago that sounds exactly like this “new sound” — the thin voice that peters out toward the end of notes, the near-glottal stops, the discernible leap between chest and head voice. Heard it. All. Before. What is wrong with me? Surely the emperor can’t be walking around with no clothes to the extent that I seem to perceive.

I’ve counseled myself in the past to read more slowly, be more forgiving, open my mind to the new. All that is true. But certainly taste is real and not every single person can be expected to like the same things as every other person. I read a book of poems recently and thought, “yes, I can see why the editor chose this, I can see the editor being attracted by this,” even though it was not my taste. I was able to move on without feeling grief and ire. So I am capable of some rational maturity when it comes to reading and taste. But then there’s all the other times.

I do worry about my own discernment, that I’m hopelessly limited. I’m not a music aficionado. Perhaps there is something this woman is doing that I’m not picking up on. Maybe this novelist is doing something very important with all his jazzing around. (Or maybe the emperor ought to at least put some underwear on, for crying out loud.)

And maybe it’s just that I owe so much to fiction — I grew up with it, in it, formed by it. It saved me, succored me, awakened me, instructed me. It was a parent to me, and thus prey to all the expectations a child has for a parent. I guess I’m not a grown-up when it comes to reading fiction; I’m a needy child. But just as a parent is only a flawed human being, a novel is too only what it is — a message in a bottle thrown out from one flawed human being into the sea in hopes of finding a sympathetic, nay empathetic reader. And maybe I’ll go back to nonfiction for a while until I grow up a little more.