All I Have Is Empty Pockets Now; or, The Submission Fee Dilemma

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have a full length and a chapbook length collection of poetry submitted out hither and yon for rejection — I mean, for publication. (I mean, “publication!” — positive thinking requires exclamation points, don’t you think?) Then just recently while thinking about a recent poem I wrote, I realized it sort of fit with a few other older poems that I still like. And they fit with some other drafts of poems that I’m interested in. And suddenly, I think I have another chapbook!

I greeted this realization with a groan. I can’t afford to have another chapbook!

I’m spending hundreds of dollars on the two I have, each contest, reading fee, sucking at my pocket.

How much is it worth spending on any one manuscript? To torture myself, I totted up how much I’ve spent on the full length manuscript, which started its life as a chapbook, which I also sent out a bit as I was working it outward into full length. A lot of money. At what point do I give it up as good money thrown after bad, a lost cause?

At some point (soon!), I will focus on sending only to publishing companies with free open calls. But I know I can’t do that until about half the poems are published, according to conventional wisdom. But that’s getting expensive too! My list of target lit mags to send to is rapidly diminishing as I refuse to pay reading fees. (Yes, yes, I know the arguments for supporting lit mags with reading fees, and yes, in theory I support the idea, but in reality, it’s budget busting. I buy individual print-based magazines and books at the bookstore.) So I need to do some research and revamp my lit mag list.

If one believes, and I do, that part of the equation of being a writer is having a reader, and if one suspects, and I do, that a more well known publishing company offers the opportunity to have your work read by more readers, or reviewed toward that end, and possibly put you in touch with a wider range of other writers who may inspire or offer collaborative or other kinds of interesting opportunities, then to some degree I have to do this forking forking-out dough to get my work considered.

Or, at least, I think I do.

But for how long? How much? Or do I rethink the whole enterprise?

I’ll pay someone to tell me.


That’s So Touching; or, On the Power of Words

I saw The Post recently and was struck by the tactile nature of old typesetting. At one point the typesetter held the news in his hand, cupped it as each letter jabbed the air with its shape.

It made me yearn to run my fingers over the alphabet of my poems, to feel the jagged space between vowel and consonant, the smoothness of silence. I’ve met bookmakers who use letterpress and have wondered at their oddness and passion. I think I get it now.

I remember as a child liking to feel the raised letters on a book cover, the dimply gold of a Newbery medallion. My fingers rest now on the slippery cradles of my computer keyboard, only a tiny ridge under the F and J to let me know I’m in the proper typing position. Usually when I write, one hand is wrapped around a Bic, its hexagonal planes, but of the letters I feel nothing. Not even the dampness of fresh ink. The letter and the page become one, featureless. It’s my eye only that gives it substance.

There was something earnest about the old method, so exacting, time consuming. You had to really want to print fake news to make the effort of gathering the flock of letters, ordering them, pressing them to ink and page.

It was typical Spielberg. I mean, I cried.

In typical Hollywood fashion, it was a torqueing and beautifying, a slithery kind of history. I’m not quibbling this time.

In the end, people in the theater spontaneously clapped. There was no one there to clap for — no director, no actor in attendance, just the handful of us citizens, needing something to believe in, needing something true to feel beneath our fingers.

Take It Away; or, Some Thoughts on Editing Poems

I’ve been writing some crappy poems lately. As I brood upon them I think most of them suffer from, at the very least, a problem of tone. I’ve written in other posts about the issue I have with poems of mine that sound overly grandiose. Like I’ve suddenly taken on a British accent or something. I want to say to the poem, “Get over yourself.”

The poems are stumbling around some fairly abstract concepts and this tone is the trap I often fall into when I’m writing from an intellectual interest in an idea rather than from a more visceral reaction to some stimulus.

But I love poems that do a good job of getting their fingers gripped onto the elbow of a good hardy abstract concept. I know it can be done.

One of the crappy poems has a tone I love, but the poem itself goes nowhere. I think the problem with that poem is it doesn’t have a central concept around which it’s stumbling.

The balance of idea and tone is crucial; one must match the other, and one cannot move forward without the other, it seems.

It occurs to me that one of the editing approaches I can take with tone is to radically pare down the words, to move away and away from prose, to introduce white space and silence. Sometimes this can unsettle the plummy tone and begin to allow the poem to get its feet under it.

In contrast, with the poem that goes nowhere, one approach I can take is to keep writing, to write toward something, often starting with the prompt “what I’m really trying to say is:” and asking my mind to move around the image or memory that presented itself, and why it arrived, and why now. Then once I’ve got a lot of prosaic words that may be heading me toward the central idea the poem is wanting to consider, I can begin paring back toward something interesting.

At least these approaches are a place to start. If I get nowhere, well, then I guess I’ll just move on (see post:…

Eye for an I; or Thinking About Louise Glück essays and Art for Our Time

Louise Glück’s critical eye reminds me of the red-tailed hawks that patrol the highways, sharp of eye, beak, and talon. Even in my car I feel like prey.

In American Originality, a book of essays published previously, mostly in The Threepenny Review, and introductions to books she chose as award winners for Yale University Press, Glück examines the state of contemporary poetry with her baleful eye. Even her praise is fierce.

Here are some choice bits I’ve been thinking about:

“Contemporary literature is, to a marked degree, a literature of the self examining its responses…The self, in this sense, was the nineteenth century’s discover, an object, for a time, of rich curiosity…And as long as it was watched in this spirit of curiosity and openness, it functions as an other: the art arising from such openness is an act of inquiry…dynamic rather than static. Narcissistic practice, no matter what ruse it appropriates, no matter what ostensible subject, is static, in that its position vis-à-vis the self is fixed: it expects, moreover, that the world will enter into its obsession.”

(She then goes on to consider the ways in which Whitman and Dickinson skirted narcissism in their own ways, but then pecks at poor Rilke, who rankled her with his guilt-ridden paean to Paula Becker.)

Then: “By the mid-seventies, poets looking inward have begun, simultaneously, to watch themselves looking inward…” and later she he warns: “Our too-eager welcoming of the facile experimental, the derivative experimental (if that is not an oxymoron), suggests that a gulf has been widening between the world as it has been perceived in poems (mysteriously ready to yield insight) and the world as we live it.”

Certainly the world as we live it these days often seems an ironic and edgy place, full of injustices, inhumanity. The poems I’m often encountering these days are perplexing in their codedness, their strings of non sequiturs, or strident in their purposefulness. Is this what she’s talking about?

Did poems once consider the world ready to yield insight and now they do not? Do poems set out to wring insight from the world?

She writes: “Our journals are full of…poems in which secrets are disclosed with athletic avidity, and now, more regularly, poems of ravishing perception, poems at once formulaic and incoherent: formulaic because all world event directly sponsors a net of associations and memories, in which the poet’s learning and humanity are offered up like prize essays in grade school; and incoherent because…the overall impression is that there is no plausible self generating them….The problem of this art is that it lacks meaning, vision, direction.”

This is often how I feel about our times, the chaos, the division, the absence of reasonable discourse. We seem to be struggling with meaning, vision, direction.

At the turn of the previous century, art shifted from representational to abstract, reflecting a time of darkness and fear, the end of one war and the ramping toward another. German thinker Wilhelm Worringer wrote a thesis at that time suggesting that art veered between empathy and abstraction: empathy arising from times of prosperity and abstraction from turmoil.

But look at our tumultuous times right now even as the stock market has been soaring, unemployment rates relatively low (but discounting the chronically, societally discounted). What kind of art arises from this, when we seem to be sorely lacking in empathy and awash in the angular abstractions of mistrust and hate?


So You Say You’ve Got a Lot to Learn; or, Being the Mentee You Want to Mentor

I have a full length and a chapbook length manuscript of poems submitted out hither and yon, and rejections are trickling in. I know that instead of brooding over my submissions list and awaiting a boop from email, I should buckle down and start something new.

But I’m having trouble settling down to anything, and I’m wondering how to push myself into new territory, to reach toward doing work that might exceed my grasp.

And for the manyith time I wish I had a mentor, someone who would say, okay, you’ve come thus far and you clearly need to head in that direction; here’s what you’re doing well and why and here’s what you are hiding from and how I can tell. And I think grumpily back to times when I shoulda/coulda/woulda had such a person. And then I admit that in fact of course there were probably many times when I DID have such a person but failed to recognize it.

I am sure people in my life have said many important things to me with regard to my work that I either:

  1. Didn’t hear because I didn’t realize they were talking to me (Why would they care about me?)
  2. Heard but was thinking about Y when they were focusing on X. (But what about Y, I would cry. Y? Y?)
  3. Thought I heard, but they were talking about Y when I was focused on X. (What? What are they talking about? What does Y have to do with X?)
  4. Heard but couldn’t understand what they were talking about because I just wasn’t developmentally there yet (Sorry, master’s thesis in public policy advisor…. NOW I get what a “conceptual framework” is…)
  5. Was too scared/freaked out to really hear what they were saying. (Ahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!)

I believe there have been people who thought I was arrogant and not listening. Would I doth protest too much to suggest that I don’t really think that was the case? That it was more likely to have been, oh, e.g., #5 above? Anyway.

When I took voice lessons, if I showed up early, I would get to hear the tail end of the lesson before me, and I realize pretty quickly that our teacher was communicating the same things to us in different ways. I realized she had listened to us with great sensitivity and was figuring out how best to communicate something in such a way that we could hear it, altering her style to each of ours. She was allowing us to teach her how to teach us. I found this to be a revelation about what a teacher can do.

Now I realize it was also a revelation about what a learner or mentee can do. A mentee can be open to all the ways in which a mentor may address him.

But learning has its own cycles, with the individual learner whirling around inside them. In any given lesson, a teacher may be trying to convey 5 things, but a student is likely only to be able to pick up from 1 to 3 of those things, her mind only able to absorb so much, easily distracted by all the newness, and/or all the oldness. This requires the other items to be repeated some other time when the learner has half a chance of hearing them. I realized this when skiing with a friend who, several years earlier, I had given some instruction to. She was saying, “This very helpful young man last year told me to do X,” and I thought, “Um, I told you to do that very thing myself three years ago.” But she could only hear what she could hear at the time, could only absorb so much at any given point in the learning cycle.

But it seems to me that if we learners are very alert and aware, we could actively try to grasp some part of all 5 things, allowing them to bubble up over time. I’d like to aim for that, anyway.

I am hoping that I can learn how the world is teaching me, can be open to being a mentee of whatever mentor stumbles along, whether he or she intends to hold that role or not. I aim to try to be an open mind, an active listener to the world, a grateful recipient of useful lessons and ideas.

I am hoping that I am learning how to learn how to learn.

You can’t fire me…; or, the Challenges of Overcoming Self-Doubt

I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary poetry, hot off the presses kind of stuff, from well published, lauded, awarded, fellowshipped, granted authors. And I have NO IDEA what is going on in these poems. NO IDEA. And I think, well, no wonder my work is getting rejected left and right; I’m clearly COMPLETELY OUT OF TOUCH with the contemporary poetry world. That’s it. I am NEVER GOING TO WRITE AGAIN.

Then I encounter a poem coming through my email here, shared over Facebook there, a book handed on, and I find poems that make me think wow. That is good stuff. I am loving this work. Wow, how did that poet do that? And I think, well, no wonder my work is getting rejected; there is NO WAY I can write work as good as this. That’s it. I am NEVER GOING TO WRITE AGAIN.

My Inner Voice kindly says nothing in the wake of these outcries. I do catch, however, an eye roll. What. WHAT? She turns on the vacuum cleaner, mimes an inability to hear what I’m saying. I know she’s thinking this too shall pass. Oh, shut up, I say to Inner Voice, into the din of the vacuum. You missed a spot.

In her provocative essay “American Originality,” Louise Gluck writes, “As American poets increasingly position themselves against logic and observation, the American audience (often an audience of other writers) poignantly acquiesces…The literary art of our time mirrors the invented man’s anxiety; it also affirms it. You are a fraud, it seems to say. You don’t even know how to read.”

I certainly have felt this with these books. That I am at fault, and ashamedly so. If I only learned to read better… But the other part of the equation Gluck presents is that the writers themselves are deliberately resisting connection with the reader. Is that true?

In what is so far a lively telling of the relationship between Rodin and Rilke, Rachel Corbett in You Must Change Your Life, in an aside, briefly outlines shifts happening in their era in thinking about the brain, art, aesthetics, psychology. She describes the new premise this way: “The moment a viewer recognizes a painting as beautiful, it transforms from an object into a work of art. The act of looking, then, becomes a creative process, and the viewer becomes the artist.” She discusses the idea of an empathy between the artist and the observer: “When a work of art is effective, it draws the observer out into the world, while the observer draws the work back into his or her body.”

So I must believe that I am lacking in the requisite empathy as I encounter these poems. I am insufficiently open to and sensitive to what is being expressed.

But does the creator also have a role in the empathic relationship? If the sentence above about the effectiveness of art is true, doesn’t it suggest that the maker must take some responsibility for the observer’s/reader’s/listener’s response?

As a maker, I resist that. On the other hand I do believe that I must fully feel my own response to the world in order to create work that will engage you the reader in that response.

On yet another hand (octopusishly, now, as I believe I’ve run out of hands) as I said, many of the authors I’m reading have been published/awarded. So SOMEONE is “getting” their work, someone (and important, fellowship-judgish someones at that) are responding empathically.

So again I must conclude that I might be able to respond to this work if I tried harder. But I also conclude that I am creating my own work, in my own response to the anxieties of my world. So if I must have empathy with someone, let’s start with me.



Wind of the Wings of Madness; or, On Three Billboards and Greek Tragedy

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri struck me as great in the way of Greek tragedy, complete with tragedy’s alter-ego, comedy. All the characters want something utterly understandable and completely impossible. The horrible things they do to try to get what they want are completely traceable in a direct line from that passionate wanting and the doubtless also deeply passionate knowing the impossibility. It is humanity at its most complexly and awfully human: ridiculous/sublime, fear-ridden/love-addled.

Yes, the characters’ actions are extreme, their own logic is stretched to the shredding point. But none of it is entirely beyond the bounds of what we know is possible, given human history, given, even, if we’re honest, from some aspects of our own personal histories. Is there not some time you acted out of deep passion to do something stunningly stupid? Yes, maybe it was not horrid, not criminal, but was it not a kind of insanity that came out of a deeply felt moment? Did you not act, even a little, out of a madness?

I watched these characters, most of whom I could feel at least a moment of empathy with, and felt the horror when I wondered if I wasn’t watching madness, madness with a very normal face, a plottable trajectory from sane. There is a ruthless vision at work in this movie, and I admired writer/director Martin McDonagh’s willingness to create layered characters who are neither entirely likable nor entirely detestable, and events that tumble outward in chaos that seems controlled by vengeful gods. Like a Greek tragedy, events unfold that are large and looming as a train bearing down and you’re stuck on the tracks: the situation seems improbable, but the outcome terrible and inevitable.

There is tenderness in the movie, sometimes inadvertent. There is grace, often unexpected. Is there redemption? What confounds me about humanity is our capacity for redemption, and our resistance to it. I’ll let you decide for yourself.

But as a writer, I challenge myself to write as unblinkingly of what we are capable of, to be as ruthless in my gaze, and as empathic.