It was fascination; or, On Writing the Same Damn Poems Over and Over Again

I was feeling rather smug about having a new collection of poems for which I could start gathering rejection letters, until I realized that at least 10 of the poems in the 50 poem collection seem to be the same damn poem over and over again.

Yes, they differ in imagery and rhythm and movement, but they land in the same place, with they same no-duh realization.

I know I often feel like I’m writing the same poem over and over, but to have it so plainly in my face is, well, annoying.

I thought I could get clever and tried to turn one poem on it’s head, so it at least STARTED in the same damn place but ended someplace else, but I wasn’t fooled by my trick.

It’s funny, of course, because I hadn’t realized how obsessed I’d been. But clearly I’ve got issues. Or one issue, anyway.

How many such poems can a collection can get away with having? Two? Three? Four if I hide them throughout and distract the reader with shiny objects?

I don’t know. Is it so wrong to be frankly obsessed with the same idea? I mean I am climbing the same mountain yes, but it is indeed by different routes.

It’s not wrong, I guess; it’s just boring.

Well, I’m staring at them all now to see who gets to stay and who gets tossed off the island.

And if I’m going to do what I can to get obsessed with something ELSE.

I’ve made a few; or, On Imperfection and Finding Mistakes Too Late in a Manuscript; or, Oops

Welp, I found a  mistake in my newly released chapbook. Oops.

I even sort of remember now what happened. In this chapbook I have poems, but also a running essay across the bottom of each page. I tried to, in some degree, have the sections of essay have some kind of reflection on the poem with which it shares the page. I think I took out a poem, then had to figure out how to rejigger the essay. But then I revised the essay, and needed to juggle the sections, but couldn’t figure out how to re-cut the sections effectively. So I set it aside to think about further, and stuck as a placeholder a copy of one of the sections.

And the brain being the ragged blanket it is, I never went back.

And in the processes of revision and proofreading, I never ended up reviewing the actual essay in one read-through from front to back, only in a page by page. Somehow it escaped me that one section of the essay is repeated twice.

It could be said that the repetition does serve as an emphasis on that particular passage, perhaps the most central passage of the essay. The shift of poem does add a slightly different coloration on each segment. That in itself is sort of interesting. Yeah, that’s it. I meant to do it that way.

Still, I feel very foolish, as it is such an incredibly obvious error. And I’m a professional proofreader! But, that said, my publisher didn’t find it either. Anyway. What is the lesson here?

Happily, my first response when I found it was to laugh. My second was to shrug. Oh well. Shit, as they say, happens.

I do know that after spending much time with a piece of work, especially a whole manuscript, a veil seems to lower over the thing. I can’t see the trees, can barely make out the forest. It seems a blur of what it has been, what it has become, what it might have been, what I perhaps had intended but since have forgotten. I can’t even answer questions about work after the veil has fallen. People ask me what I meant by things and I just make stuff up on the spot. At some point the work becomes no longer mine but something that has escaped into the world.

That’s why we need copyeditors and proofreaders. Long may they reign. Or rein, as the case may be, as in “in.” Sometimes rain, as in “on the parade.”

But how freeing it is not be upset by a mistake. I mean, I didn’t back over the neighbor’s cat. Nothing was injured or killed in the making of this mistake. This is less a mistake, in some perspective, as an imperfection. The stakes are not particularly high, here. I don’t think the Pulitzer Prize committee will even notice. This is not one of those errors that will haunt me in some 4:00 a.m. self-hatred session.  And believe me, I have made some of those kinds of mistakes. To be able to look at an error and think, well, look at you, being human, is a very nice thing. Mistakes are made. The book as a whole I think is interesting, diverting, creative. Not to mention the gorgeous cover. So. What’s a little imperfection among friends?

So there we are. Live and learn. Now read up.

I don’t know I don’t know; or, On Writing a Chapbook: The Story of Being Many Seeds

So with the birth of a new collection of poems, I thought I might share the backstory, as the poems came together in an unusual way, for me.

The poems in this book began as a monthlong exercise in imitations. Each day I’d choose a poem from a literary magazine or book of poems I had lying around, and I’d try to do a word-for-word imitation, but trying often to use opposite words. That is, if the poem started “One early morning…” I might say “Every late night….” I tried to choose poems that seemed unlike anything I might write: longer lines, narrative rather than lyric.

I didn’t overthink the process, I just let words rise up as prompted by the original poem, and figured whatever subject matters were lurking in my brain would arise naturally from this process. So then I had thirty or so of these, and looking back through, I was interested in many of them.

I began revising them back toward my own voice and rhythms. But they never felt entirely OF me, there was always something a bit different about them. So I thought I’d try a radical revision, really strip each poem down. That was fun.

So I decided to strip them down again.

Then I realized that each of these stripped down versions had something interesting to say to the version before. When I began understanding them as erasures of themselves, I got interested in presenting the poems in all three versions, particularly when the erasures began heading in different directions from the originating text.

Still I felt something missing. I remembered a couple of Rebecca Solnit books had a separate text running across the bottom of each page, like a murmured conversation happening elsewhere in the room. In real life this would have made me crazy, such an eavesdropper am I. But on the page, I loved that view out the corner of my eye of this sort of secret subtext.

So I thought about what the poems seemed to be talking about and around. And I got thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I’m not sure why. I had read bits and pieces of his work over the years, and I knew I had a book or two hanging out on some dusty shelf. So I began reading his work again, and thinking about his ideas, and having my own response to his thoughts. And so I began to set my thoughts running across the pages of the poems.

I had begun to envision this as a digital object, something you could watch while the erased words disappeared before your eyes, and the essay text appeared down the side of the virtual page. But I didn’t know how to do this, nor did I know how to contact an organization or person that did, nor did I know how I would get such a thing out into the world. So I created a paper-based version, at first having the essay text running sideways on each page, so you’d actually physically have to turn the page around. But some beta readers questioned this, so I ran the text across the bottom.

But the idea of a visual version haunted me, so I began experimenting with what software I did know how to use to try to approximate my vision. This was arduous and had several dead ends, but I finally figured out how to make it all happen in iMovie, and created some music/sound and manipulated some of my own photos.

So more than any other collection of poems, this one came together through a series of “lemme try thises” and “maybe I’ll try thats.” I felt through much of the process that I was moving through a combination of instinct and blunder, like walking around a familiar room but in the total dark. I was never entirely comfortable. It was a really stimulating process, and fun, in the end, if a bit bumbly in the middle.

So I encourage you to get uncomfortable. Turn out the lights, get up and wander around. Let something catch your eye and turn toward it, try it. Don’t think too much. Have a little fear, but not too much. Whether my book or video appeal to you or not, you will have a very interesting experience, I can promise you that.

Being Many Seeds, the book: www.graysonbooks.com

Being Many Seeds, the movie: www.vimeo.com/marmccabe/beingmanyseeds

 

Little Red Corvette; or, In Praise of the Chapbook

“Cheap” book or “chap”ter-sized, whatever the origin of the word “chapbook,” it requires some ‘splainin’ to the non-poetry world, during which I invariably feel apologetic and defensive. “It is a book…sort of…I mean, it’s short, shorter than…well…it’s like….”

But I lament the short shrift given the chapbook, poor spineless thing with a funny name, shunned by bookstores, its pale staples lost on a shelf amid its bulkier brethren shouldering each other with their fancy colors and sideways words.

Not infrequently I find myself reading through a full length collection and think, hm, this one is filler, that one seems like it wandered in from another author, these aren’t half as good as the half dozen before, and other musings that take me away from the collection as a whole, and conclude that the volume I have in my hand would have made a damn fine chapbook.

A good chapbook packs a punch. It’s tidy, compelling, digestible. A good chapbook is a joy and inspiration, and leaves one wanting more…but just as happy not to have it. A good chapbook invites a second read.

Look at Nickole Brown’s fantastic To Those Who Were Our First Gods. When I say it’s a page-turner, I don’t mean I was eager to turn the page, but rather, I was eager to linger, and then to find out what the next page had to offer.

A chapbook by Frank Bidart was a finalist for the Pulitzer. But that was back in the early 2000s. I’m not sure any other chapbooks have received that much industry love.

In fact, calls for manuscripts are specifying longer and longer page counts. What a mistake! Maybe that’s for discerning editors to have some leeway to fling some poems out, which seems a wrong-headed, backwards way to find a good collection of poems to print. I cannot imagine any other reason for such a crazy notion, except that the poetry world seems intent on shooting itself in its own foot.

When barely comprehensible poems and poets are touted as the next big thing, it narrows and narrows the number of people who actually want to open a book of poetry, much less pay an increasing sum of money to buy a volume. (On the other hand, witness the rise of heart-on-the-sleeve stuff of slam and Instagram.)

The savvy publisher (thank you, Bright Hill Press, for example) is wise to reduce the dimensions of a chapbook, thereby increasing its page count, enabling the book producer to do a perfect-binding, that is, a binding that shows on the shelf, that proudly hails the title and author and the publishing house name.

In this time of short attention spans, isn’t the chapbook just the right thing — a subway ride, a coffee cup, and, if it’s the right size, shoved into the other back pocket where the cell phone isn’t. Plus a small size would make the book feel inviting even to the poetry-shy. Such a cunning little thing, this book of poems, approachable, nibble-able, something you can cup in your hands, a butterfly, a bird.

The Cheese Stands Alone; or On Ordering Poems in a Manuscript

Does order matter? I go back and forth about it.

Here’s how I approach a book of poems that I have not yet read. (I just got Bruce Beasley’s All Soul Parts Returned. Very excited. Love his work.) I check the acknowledgments page (professional curiosity — how many of the poems in the volume have been published and where. If there’s lots of good lit mags, I get to feel intimidated and bad about myself). I read any notes in the back, just to get oriented. (This one has lots of notes. I love notes.) I open to a random page and read a poem. I open another random page and read. I look at the cover art. I read the bio. I open another random page. I look at the table of contents to see if there are sections or some organizational system. Only then might I start from page 1.

But even then, I don’t read the book in one sitting, so if there is continuity at work, I might not even “get” it, as I might not come back to the book for another day or so. If there’s no clear narrative in process, the poems may still feel somewhat random, unless the sections clearly group like-oriented poems.

And yet, when I do feel a system at work inside a book, I really enjoy it. “Oh, look,” I can say, “see how this poem refers back to that poem on an earlier page.” I feel like I’ve gotten more access to the poet’s brain, feel a greater togetherness with the poet. Like I’ve gotten some inside joke, or we’ve shared a wink.

I recently got hold of a friend’s fresh manuscript. She is concerned about the order she’s established for the book of poems. So with this in mind, I started from page 1 and read right through. The sections were grouped with a clear idea of why. This appeals to my orderly mind. (Or maybe it’s a disorderly mind, which is why I like order.) But did the order enhance my enjoyment of the collection? I’m just not sure. Under ordinary circumstances, I’m not sure I’d notice much.

Nevertheless, because I was asked to think about order, I started wondering what the collection would read like if the distinctive poems in one section appeared dotted throughout the section. Would this give me a little thrill of insider perspective when I encountered this kind of internal rhythm of certain kinds of poems woven throughout? Maybe. Again, that is, once I settled to read from cover to cover, and if I read from cover to cover in one sitting or in sittings that were relatively close together so that that mind referenced above would remember.

So, does order matter? Maybe. Of course, if it’s a “concept” collection in which something is unfolding or the reader needs to be familiarized with how to read the poems in the collection, then certainly order concerns matter. But how many of us are writing collections like that?

I know that when I read for a contest, I taste from beginning, middle, and end. If every poem I encounter interests me, then that manuscript goes in the Maybe Yes pile. If even one poem falls short, the ms goes in the Maybe pile. If several of the poems fail to interest me, it goes in the No pile. That’s just the way it is. (For more on my experience as a first round reader, see links below.) So in this case, order doesn’t matter very much. But as an author, I want my collection to have a flow, a weave, a pulse of some sort. So in that, case order does matter, if only to me.

So I guess here it is: Does a disorderly order sink a manuscript? I don’t really think so. Can an interesting order enhance it? Yes, indeed.

Am I finding it enjoyable to think about the order of my poems in my ms? If yes, then I should go ahead and shuffle them around as long as I’m having fun. Is it a drag? I guess I wouldn’t expend too much energy, then.

But I’m enjoying shuffling this friend’s poems around, so maybe it’s worth asking someone else to look at order, if that person finds it fun.

But the bottom line is, if every poem doesn’t pull its weight, then no reordering is going to save the ms. It’s all down to the individual poem. Again.

And, by the way, Beasley’s book is fantastic.

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/notes-from-a-first-round-reader/

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/notes-from-a-first-round-reader-redux/

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2017/03/27/new-notes-from-a-first-round-reader/

Another Round of Notes from the First Round

It was time again for my task as first-round reader for a poetry book contest. Once again I approached with self-doubt and angst. Once again, I learned some things to apply to my own work.

The twenty-five or so manuscripts I looked at were uniformly pretty well-written, which tells me that people are taking the time to learn something of the craft of writing (or at least reviewing the rules of grammar) and the art of poetry.

But I found that several of these full-length manuscripts felt more like solid chapbooks with other stuff stuffed in around them. This is interesting and a useful cautionary tale. I need to examine my own current full-length ms to make sure I have truly a full group of good poems and not a core of good ones and some bubble wrap.

A corollary to this is that it seems like collections are getting longer and longer. And I’ve noted in an earlier post that contest rules are asking for mss that are of higher and higher page count. I just don’t think this is a good thing. I want a book of poems to be a small world I live in, roaming around, revisiting streets and vistas. I don’t want to wander forever in strange terrain. Too many times I’ve encountered collections that after a while make me say “Enough already.” This is not good for poetry, already fighting an uphill battle for readers. Too many poems invites too many weak poems. I favor shorter and stronger throughout. Whack ’em with some good stuff and go.

“Ahem ahem”: I found that, no lie, 80% of the manuscripts were chock full of epigraphs: epigraphs for the ms as a whole, for sections, for individual poems. And 98% of the time the epigraphs added nothing to the experience of the poem. Why why why do people do this? It seems like a lot of throat clearing and paper shuffling. Unless they provide some vital context, I just don’t see the point. I began to resent this imposition on my time. They’re unnecessary ruffles. Think of Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. If you want to use someone’s line in your work, have at it; just give them a nod in an end note. But epigraphs? Enough. Stop hiding behind someone else. Just start the poem, poet.

I also found often that I didn’t understand people’s line break decisions. I tried counting syllables or beats, in case I was missing a form or something. But an awful lot of the time the line breaks seemed suspiciously random. (I’ve written about line breaks before: Line Item) So I need to go back and stare down my line breaks, justify them to my now line-break crabby and hyper-vigilant self.

Finally I read a couple of mss that were interesting in content but in the end never transcended their own material. I talked about this a little bit last time with regard to essays. Where is the emotional center and how is my vision being shifted? The same goes for poems: experience has to launch to something beyond itself. Otherwise a cigar is just a cigar. And where’s the art in that?

Putting Together a Manuscript of Poems: Everything I Can Think Of; A Megablog

Putting Together a Poetry Manuscript: Everything I Can Think of at the Moment

You have been working diligently. You discover one day that you have 50 or 60 poems, maybe more, you think, gee, it’s high time I had a book of poetry published. What comes first? I’m not talking chicken/egg, I’m talking about which of the poems in the pile in front of you should come first? Gaah! you cry. This will not be the last time you cry gaah, but here are some ways to approach the process.

The Collective

You are putting together a collection of poems, so you might take a moment and think about the collective. A bunch of disparate poems may not a collection maketh. Nor does a tight group of thematically or otherwise related poems necessarily make a good collection. Too much difference makes a collection feel random. Too much sameness makes a collection feel boring.

If you’ve been lucky in your life, at some point you’ve been a member of a group that has cohered, has been able to embrace a level of diversity, strengthen the connective tissues, and make of itself a functioning thing. Experiences like this are fun, and fine. This is what you want to make of your poems. I was part of a singing group that started as the Five Fabulous Females. Tall, short, prim, ribald, soprano, contralto, Broadway-oriented, bluesy. Viva les differences. Things quickly fell apart, however, as one member seemed to want different things from the group through a different process, and we never actually performed together as five. Then we were Four Fabulous Females. A performance or two later, things fell apart as one member seemed to approach things with a different sensibility to the rest. Then there were three. We three went on to perform together many times and remain friends to this day. So it goes. You could put out a collection of poems some of which live uneasily with each other. Or you could hold out for a good team.

So taking a deep breath, ruthlessly read through the poems, and by instinct and without much thought, put to one side poems that cause a little hitch in your confidence, a tiny question of readiness, any momentary hesitation. They might be able to be saved, but for this first round, anything questionable has to be put aside. Don’t worry about how many you’ve set aside and how many are left. You want the core of your manuscript to be the best poems you have. Then anything new you have to generate or revise you know you need to raise to the same standard.

Ordering the Disorderly

Go through again the group that is left and again in a quick sort, without too much thought, mark poems that seem to be addressing similar themes or issues. Maybe put a different color dot for different themes.

Go through again and mark in some other way poems that are similar in form or approach.

Go through again and mark in some other way poems that use similar imagery perhaps or share some other similarity.

Now put all the like-themed poems together. You might find several streams of themes — put the groups in some (at this point perhaps random) order and read through the whole thing. Make any notes on what you’ve learned or poems that seemed particularly well suited together and poems that were too similar and should not appear next to each other.

Now maybe reorder them using the form markers and read through again. Make your notes.

Now reorder in whatever other similarity markers you have used and read through the whole thing again. Make your notes.

This is exhausting and you will periodically want to just go to the top of the stairs and throw them down and then leave them in whatever order is left when you clean them up. This is also legitimate. Do it. Read through and make notes.

You will probably come to find that there are poems that seem to want to be in close proximity and poems that do not. You should begin to find that some kinds of bunches work together and some do not. You may begin to feel that too much similarity of some of the poems will dictate that they should be spread throughout the manuscript, their similarity functioning as stitches that tie the whole thing together. Trust this process.

You will likely have some outliers. It could be that they belong to another manuscript all together. You will feel panicked by this, because you have now lost a number of poems and no longer have a full length collection. This is the way things go. Better to build from a good base than to shove 60 random poems together and hope they work.

Your chosen poems may be falling into natural groupings. Should you make them into discrete sections? Not all manuscripts have to have sections. But sections can help to focus the collective attention of both the poems and the reader. So if groups seem to fall naturally into sections, make sections. If not, don’t worry about it.

There are all kinds of ways to order poems. Try as many as you can think of, but keep in mind the idea of “collective.” I attended a dance performance recently in which one piece was made up of short dances to 24 short pieces of music. In the end, I felt that what we’d watched was 24 short dances, not one coherent dance. The performance seemed to go on and on because there was no arc connecting the dances together. The same can be found in poetry collections. Try to find and highlight some kind of connective tissue, to reveal some kind of arc.

Filling It In

At one point I thought I had a manuscript just because I had a bunch of poems I wrote in a certain (lengthy!) period of time. But in the end it felt like a collected works instead of a slice of a concentrated period of a mind working. In the end, as a collection it did itself a disservice by meandering and feeling jumbled and uneven after a while. I had to identify some central concerns and…yes…write new poems. Once you have a pile of your best work set in some kind of order, you will begin to see where the gaps are and/or where you need to create more work that supports and lengthens what you’ve collected thus far. Thus your assignment: write on.

But Wait

Give some thought to what the collection is getting at, what themes are being considered, what of your obsessions are being visited, or are you exploring a kind of form, or an image, or a period of time, a person, an event. If you had to write a blurb for the back of your book, what would it say? Once you’ve captured that, are there poems that clearly lie too far outside that statement? Maybe put them aside for another collection.

Take a Step Farther Back

You will not thank me for this, but I have to raise the issue: Is what you’re saying compelling? Is how you’re saying it compelling? The fact is the poetry publishing world is competitive. Many able poets are writing very competent poems in collections that are not very interesting. Many interesting writers are offering collections that are not very competently written. Why not strive to be both writing well and thinking deeply, imaginatively. Push your work into places where you don’t entirely know your way. Wonder does wonders for work. Imaginative + vivid + fully felt = winning combination. By imaginative, I mean evidence of a lively mind at work. By vivid, I mean something special in the language (my preference) or the form or the approach. By fully felt, I mean some emotional gravitas.

I was reading a manuscript of someone else’s poems recently, and they were really good poems. Very competent, lovely poems of domesticity and parenthood. But, I thought to myself, some element is missing. Is the problem that I’m just not that interested in poems of domesticity and parenthood? I didn’t think that was it. I decided finally that what I was missing was a kind of reaching. This very able poet was not reaching beyond her grasp. She knew the world of her poems too well. If I call what I wanted from this manuscript more risk-taking, what do I mean by that? It’s a sense, I think, of a mind in motion rather than a mind at rest; questions asked and pondered rather than answered. What does it mean for any of us to take risks in our work? How do I write a poem that feels risky to me, that feels like I’m peering over the edge of something, and something that makes the reader tremble there too? Is risk about subject area, form, language, meaning?

A friend says, “I demand emotional risk. Not necessarily confessional, but someone willing to open a vein, or why are we there anyway?” I think I agree about “emotional risk,” but I’m just not always sure what that means — both in what I read and in what I write. And I actually don’t always need “emotional” risk, but SOME kind of reaching, whether emotional, craftish, wordish, conceptual.

You do not want to hear this. You do not want to do this. You may not have sufficient distance to look at the collection from this perspective yet. Either put the collection away for a little while until you can get a fresh perspective, or…ignore me and sally forth. Whatever you do, do not give up.

Where To Begin

There is likely one poem you think is terrific and should open the collection, and one or two poems that feel conclusionary in some way. You may be wrong. Don’t settle too quickly on the opening poem. It may very well be the last decision to be made, once you settle in to the feel of the whole manuscript.

The first poem should teach the reader how to read the whole manuscript. It should give some sense of what the reader can expect.

The last poem should open out somehow, so the reader feels like they’ve opened a new door back into their own life through which they see things differently.

This is a lot to ask of opening and closing poems, I know. But if our reach does not attempt to succeed our grasp, etcetera.

And Then

Proofread. Proofread. Proofread.

Regarding typeface and format: Make sure the way you designate titles is simple — all caps for example, or bold. Don’t make it too fancy. But make it consistent. The same goes for section headings. In headings and text, don’t use obscure tyepfaces. If you are playing with spacing or other odd presentation on the page, be prepared to submit your work as a .pdf in case transmittal screws up your careful play.

The End

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 really good work. Be one of them.

 

No Good News: Notes from a Second Round Reader, or Why Judging Poetry Contests Depresses Me

This is a continuation of previous posts called Notes from a First Round Reader. This year, by reason of computer glitch and miscommunication which led to a slight sense of desperation on the part of the publisher, I was asked to be a second round reader. This time I’m to review a dozen or so of the manuscripts that have filtered up from the First Rounders. I’m to pick two or three to be sent up to the Powers That Be. I am one of four people with this task. Terrified with power, I quickly sweep through the first several poems of each manuscript. I more slowly read several more poems in each manuscript. Damn. There is not a damn thing wrong with any of these. If I were to encounter any of them between the covers of a nice looking book, I’d be perfectly content. None of my snarky “Really?”s, none of my “What the…?” or “Are you freaking kidding me?” These are all fine manuscripts. DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS? Not only am I going to have trouble picking three, it also means that I now even more profoundly understand the competition when I send my own manuscripts out.

In the face of a dozen perfectly fine manuscripts, I must now try to identify factors that raise a few above the crowd. Now I’m searching for innovative, imaginative approaches — to language, to subject matter, to perspective or approach. I’m looking for something special, new (or, new to me), something to make me say Wow. Mere thoughtful autobiography is not enough, however lovely; musings on motherhood not enough, however, witty or gritty; that death comes to us all — insufficient; the way herons drag desire across a marsh, no; inexplicable juxtapositions of nonsensical utterances however whimsical, nope. I’m looking for guts and invention, for idea and blood.

And all the while I’m nursing a terrible sinking feeling that my poems do NOT yet have that something special, my collections are NOT yet innovative, inventive, or addressing something particularly compelling or in compelling ways. I HAVE TO UP MY GAME. Oh. Large sigh. Damn you, fine poets. Can’t you just go write fiction?

DSCN0508

Please, sir, could I have some blurb?

I have a new book of poems coming out in the spring, so that means I’m working with the publisher on cleaning up the poems, finalizing their order, and dealing with the cover, which includes the dreaded task of seeking blurbs for the back cover. I thought it might be useful to other people facing the same task to share how I went about it.

Who on earth to ask? You want to have as recognizable names as you can get, so people picking up your book will say, “Oh, I’ve heard of Blinky. If Blinky likes this, it MUST be good.” (Of course, reality check: Few people pick up poetry books at all and even fewer would recognize ANY name on the back. So you can’t sweat this too much.) So first I scrolled through my mental addressbook for better-published friends. They would be the easiest touch. But this is my second full-length collection and third collection overall, so I’ve already hit on many would-be blurbers already. I had two or three friends left on that list though, so I chose one of them.

I was fortunate enough to attend an MFA program, so I had a few people left from that experience whom I hadn’t already hit up for blurbs for the other books. (I had previously asked one of the people I worked with closely for a semester, but that person said “No, I don’t write blurbs for anyone.” Meeting faculty who will help you get your work out, including by writing blurbs, is one of the understood functions of MFA programs. So that person’s unwillingness, to me, is a violation of the understood contract of these expensive degree enterprises. Certainly, it could have been an excuse not to write a blurb for work the person did not believe in. But I really don’t think so. He/she had never been anything but supportive of my work. I would rather have been told “I’m too busy” than “I don’t do that.”) So I was left with: a mentor who had given me the impression he/she didn’t really think much of my work, the second reader for my thesis, and the program director, neither of the latter of whom I’d worked with directly at any depth. And I finished my program 5 years ago — would they even remember me? So I chose the latter two, figuring one of the two would be too busy, or I’d never hear back.

Then I thought, what current poet would I love to have see my work? Could I be ballsy enough to reach out to a stranger? Why not? What — I’ve never heard “no” before? So I found contact information for a poet whose book had come out to much acclaim and which I had greatly admired (and written a book review about), and sent off an email.

What on earth to say? I kept the emails brief and light. I gave them the option to opt out on the request entirely if they were too busy; and I requested only that they give the manuscript a read to see if they were inclined to write a blurb. I didn’t want to act presumptuous that if they read it they would automatically begin to spout praise. I wanted to at least offer them the option, however awkward, of begging off after they had seen the work. I thought this was important. I wanted to recognize that not all work speaks to all readers, and to make that okay. This was especially important for the person who didn’t know me at all. I also wanted to make sure I asked early enough that I could give them at least a month, preferably more, to read the ms and write the blurb.

I am happy to report that they all said yes. I was able to give them all plenty of time. I only had to gently nudge two of them, who responded immediately.

I now have an embarrassment of riches of blurbage, and am now negotiating with the publisher and book designer about how to fit them all or some portion of them all on the back cover. This is a good problem!

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More Better Blues

I asked a group what they do to move their poetry to the next level. I got a lot of advice about writing prompts at first. But is the key to writing better poetry writing more? I guess it’s a multi-lock door requiring several keys. More is surely not necessarily better. You could just be generating more of the same. Engaging in translation projects has sometimes, I believe, helped me re-engage with my own work with new spirit, which can lead to work that feels more interesting. “Read widely in other arenas” is another useful piece of advice, I find. Reading in the sciences often jumpstarts me to try interesting things, which can often make for better work. Other good advice I’ve received is to examine my poems’ ambitions and in what ways the poems may fall short. Also, are there things I tend to do in my poems that end up being a crutch or a habit rather than a conscious decision that enhances the poem? Someone suggested reading outside my comfort zone, which seems like an interesting idea. Although given my tendency to be an impatient and crabby reader, that may not be the route for me. Another key must be to read more and to read with more of a “how’d this poet pull that off?” eye. I think the old arts tradition of imitation is a good idea too — painters recreate old master paintings, musicians copy great phrasing, we can write imitations by substituting our own words and leaps and silences into the structure of others’ great poems to try to get an intimate sense of how they did what they did. So anyway, write more, yes, but write more better. Now, if I only I could stop procrastinating.

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