Apr 14

“My Poems Used to Get Published. . . But Now, Nothing”

The following is a recent  exchange between myself and a poet acquaintance, used here with her permission.

Catherine,


I’m looking for some advice from an expert.

I’m working on a manuscript and, in doing so, have submitted the poems to literary magazines. I’ve gotten a lot of rejections. Also I’ve lost contests when I thought my poems should have at least gotten an honorary mention.

So what to do? If I can’t get poems in magazines, I’m surely not going to get a manuscript or chapbook published. Should I just write because that’s who I am and give poems to friends or what? I don’t have an MFA. I’m 66 and don’t have the desire to get an MFA.

Very confused as to what my next step should be, if any. As you know, I’ve self-published two books. Should I try for a third and to what end? I’m not requested to do readings, and I have more than 50 of my second book sitting on the floor of my study.

If you have time to answer this e-mail, I’d appreciate your advice. I know you’re probably pretty busy. –E.


Dear E.,


Your poems are very good but like mine are not contemporary or spectacular. Nor are they the snow-globe type that wins more conservative contests. It is okay. I am thinking of going back to writing what I really think with no holds barred now that no one cares.

Eff contests that will only make you sad and mad.

No accounting for tastes.

Why not volunteer to read more often, or ask organizers who are always looking for someone, and then you will be asked.

Publish a third book because you are made of stars and God wants you to.

I have dozens of unsold books! So does every writer! Love. -Catherine



Catherine,


I love that you think we’re all made of stars and God wants us to publish.

I didn’t think about my poems being contemporary or not. Back in 1983-1986 everything I sent out was published. Now, nothing. And I think my poetry is a lot better now than then.

Well, I think I’ll take your advice and just write “my thing” and not worry about submitting. No, no one cares.
Organizers say they really like my poetry, but never ask me to read even though I continue to tell them I’d like to.

Shown below is a recent poem, “Answer,” and attached is another, “Directions for My Funeral.” I don’t understand why they’re not contemporary.


Answer


Dying at home
in her hospice bed,
mother asked for her
Conservative Lutheran Pastor,
wearing cross, carrying Bible.

Pastor, she whispered,
I believe in evolution.
What he said into her ear
wasn’t heard by any of us.

Then she slipped away

into the answer.

Didn’t you win Poetry Center first place? Congratulations. -E.



Dear E.,

I really think “Directions for My Funeral” is outstanding, especially the first stanza, but it and the “Answer” poem break three laws of contemporary poetry publishing:

-Don't write about writing.

-Don't write about aging.

-Don’t write about old people dying.

Forbidden phrases: “my mother,” “my father.” Overused, and no one really cares about other people’s parents, especially if dead.

Most editors are in their 30s and 40s and don’t see themselves aging, and in their view only old people die and old people don’t count. Your poems in the 1980s got published because editors were around your age and you probably didn’t write about aging.

Poets who write nostalgia about the barber chair and The Parkmoor restaurant—it is so sad no one wants their poems although I like them. Younger cannot appreciate them.

I won Poetry Center’s 1st in 2010 or 2011 with poem about submarine war movies. It also had a masculine pseudonym on it. Anything that could possibly be labeled as “women’s poetry” is devalued. Try new subjects. -Catherine



Catherine,

I really appreciate hearing this. It makes a lot of things clearer. Again, thanks for your time and advce. You’re the best! Thanks for letting me bend your ear and patience.

What poets should we be reading to get a sense of what they are writing? –E.



Dear E.,

Read not poets but litmags. Many are online free or have online samples. I have Rattle magazine deliver me a daily poem. They’re pretty good (except for the children’s poems) and they are what let me know my work doesn’t meet the current standards. Read River Styx to see mid-level poets and poetry. Read Midwestern Gothic to see high-level regional poetry. If they ask for money, invest a few bucks, the education is worth it, and you write it off as an expense.

My favorite poet I wish I wrote like is Cate Marvin. Look up online her poem “A Windmill Makes a Statement.”

Good luck, star person. God loves poetry. -Catherine

May 28

Blue Material

cabaretPeople said hello and I briefly replied and excused myself to the rearmost room and its rearmost booth, where I sat quietly alone and ate a mozzarella stick for fuel to get through the 25-minute reading for Chance Operations last Monday night. The Chance Operations series run by St. Louis artists/poets Tony Renner and Chris Parr just celebrated its second anniversary. I had read there before and loved it; anything goes. So I had some risky / risque poems to read, work that, shall we say, painted with a broad brush, poems that normally would not see the light of day nor be aired. I didn't do "blue" material just to do it. The poems had actual content, and I am also interested in literary expectations and the boundaries between what is and isn't acceptable. Also at this point I have nothing to lose and for an artist this condition is ideal.

It went well. This entry is not about the work or how it was received (just fine!) but on the exceptional demands that "blue" material makes on the speaker. First I had to slenderize the poems so none of them sounded blue for blue's sake, making sure each line carried genuine content. At Chance Operations delivery really counts: Entertainment is valued. And real entertainers don't falter, shuffle through papers, get self-conscious, apologize for their material, mumble or mess up, and they care about timing and shadings in volume, speed and tone. They can't be worried about their clothes or looks, so I wore the simplest possible thing. I wanted first to have no patter at all before and between poems but saw I needed to give context at least twice but kept it very short. While rehearsing I kept revising, so the poems were not completed until the day of the reading. It was evening and I knew I would be physically tired before I even started, so I asked to "go first" and carefully geared myself up with a cup of coffee and protein, and sat alone to get focused and centered. It was going to take enormous confidence. I have never disciplined myself so severely for a poetry reading. The preparation paid off, though. Entertaining is no joke!

My co-readers on that evening were Eileen G'Sell and Gabriel Fried. The photo was taken by Tony Renner. Thanks to Chance Operations for the chance!
Mar 14

Ten Reasons to Sleep With a Poet

An earlier form of the "Ten Reasons Not to Sleep with a Poet" screed was circulating even before the Internet, but the amusing hepcat literary site TheRumpus.net, maybe thinking it new, has it online, and among all the responses that said "Here's the 11th reason not to do it" "the 12th reason" was this beautiful rejoinder by "Grey," whose real name is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and who gave me permission to post it here. Not for everyone, it's an antidote to cynicism and a hymn to the way poets can love.

Ten Reasons TO Sleep with a Poet

  1. If they were raised without religion, their use of imagery and metaphor will be straightforward; they will call you simple, endearing names like, “honey” and “dear.” If they were raised in some fundamentalist religion, you will sense the pain and anguish in the depth of their eyes and experience the back and forth of the dogmatic right/wrong hold from which their heart is still trying to get out from underneath; you will excuse this because of the ways in which they often make you feel holy.
  2. They will sigh softly in their sleep when they wake up intermittently and realize that you are lying next to them and express this satisfaction and elation through whispers that slightly resemble their waking voices. This sound will echo in your ears as you are moving through your day.
  3. In bed, they will say things like, I want you to fuck me with your huge cock, which said by anyone else might seem crass and disgusting, but it does nothing but turn you on more and you are even sure that this might be a line from a more radical poem on the politics of queer sex that they have written.
  4. They will listen deeply to everything that you say, and at the beginning you might wonder if they are really listening, and then two weeks later they recite the exact thing you said and this is both a little embarrassing (did I really say that?) and wonderful at the same time.
  5. They help you believe that you, too, are really a poet. They sometimes (obnoxiously) rephrase observations that you make about simple, mundane things to point out the beauty so much so that when you are alone and notice something simple, you can imagine what they might say about the way the jade plant in your living room leans slightly forward to take in all of the sun that it can.
  6. They imprint your life with small details that drive you crazy and that you never realized you had room for before, like the way they describe the line from your hipbone to your chest, which they describe over and over again as “open.” They notice how you slouch in your chair when you are angry and tuck your thumbs into your fists when you are feeling anxious.
  7. They will laugh with a sense of joy that feels pure. They tear up at sunsets. They have loved deeply, over and over again.
  8. Their preferred form of communication is (clearly) the written word, and they will send you emails and texts with lines from their favorite books of poetry. They leave you notes in the morning written on napkins, wrappers, and bits of paper you had lying around.
  9. Sleeping with a poet will set a new precedence in the act of gift-giving and celebrating holidays (especially birthdays) from there on out. They will give you gifts they have made themselves or buy you something you never directly asked for but happened to mention one day, like when you told the story about longing to play catch with your older brother growing up and then they bought you your own glove for Christmas. Or they will write bits of Rumi on the pots of houseplants they give you and say things in cards, like: “You were in my dream last night. I don’t remember the whole of it, but you kissed me. The potency of the sensation was incredible—even in a dream. And when I woke up, I still felt the kiss in my body.” 
  10. Nothing will ever be just what it is. Getting brunch will be a reason to write a joint poem on a napkin together, each of you authoring alternating lines. Reading to one another from your favorite books will take the place of meals because you will forget that you are hungry, a walk in the spring will be full of wind and smells and colors and tastes and textures that you never imagined before, especially not before you slept with a poet.
Nov 17

Poetry and the Economy, Part 1

Nobody asked me, but I think the depressed economy -- which looks like it will last, and affects everything -- will bring about a new esthetic. Everything new in literature starts in poetry, so I was interested and then uneasy when an accomplished poet friend wrote me that she was enrolling in this writers.com online poetry course, for which I give you the course description and outline:

Imperfectly Simple: Write Wabi Sabi

Write to see the light shine through the cracks in your life. Wabi Sabi is a hip alternative to measuring value solely by degrees of perfection or profit. Originating in Japan, it celebrates intrinsic value in what is lean, spare and rough hewn. Do you appreciate vintage patinas? Do you want to make peace with your life’s cracked pots or ragged edges—even your penchant for messiness? This class is for anyone who sees value-added in simply what is—and wants to write about it.

We’ll write from a Wabi Sabi perspective (and technique) in short essays, stories, poetry, or journal entries. We’ll even get visual to create an "altered book” documenting class experience. Bring your flaws to class. We’re going to write from the space between the lines. Class theme will be the following quote by Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Week 1: Imperfect & Uncertain: Learning what Wabi Sabi is, I'm beginning to appreciate its value for my life and work. I question the drive to be certain, competent and confident about my writing.

Week 2: Quirky & Transient: I celebrate what’s offbeat about my work, my home, my family, my life. I look more closely at the immaterial and what is not seen with the eye.

Week 3: Simple & Rustic: I write simple, spare and lean in form and/or content. I explore the rugged patina of my experience and my writing practice.

Week 4: Broken & Incomplete: I allow what’s wrong to be wrong—and understand that’s all right. I make sense of the “end” of things, and value what’s left unfinished.

This course sounds so intriguing and exotic. How fun to try it (only $160 for four weeks). It sounds so punk rock and carefree! To lighten up, devolve, loosen my grip, and see and write like a kid again! I don't doubt that Wabi Sabi is good poetic exercise. Yet its values remind me of Facebook. Facebook encourages communications that are simple and incomplete, lean and transient, imperfect and uncertain, rough-hewn and quirky. (It is, however, strangely intolerant of any posting that is not hip, and I would bet my lunch that Wabi Sabi is the same way.) Facebook is a quirk fest, a quirk museum. We revel in our own and each other's quirks there, while Facebook compiles our quirks for marketers, employers, and surveillance. Nobody much cares about that.

Nobody cares much about poetry either, but they are going to care more, and soon. Nobody collects poetry for marketers and surveillance--yet. That is its glory. To get casual about the way we write poetry--saturating it with the personal and offbeat, being satisfied to leave it unfinished--I think is a mistake.

I'm particularly troubled by that one sentence: "I allow what’s wrong to be wrong—and understand that’s all right."

More later.....
Jul 21

What is "Greatness"?

21 February 2009

NYT article today in "Books" section about how poets aren't "great" anymore. Don't waste your eyesight reading the familiar whines about poetry going to hell in a handbasket and that there are JUST TOO MANY POETS because of writing programs. The NYT simply isn't looking hard enough for great poets -- perhaps not west of the Hudson. The author is way, way off if he's honestly still thinking that great poets have to be dashing, cosmopolitan, and deeply troubled, with Anglo pedigrees.

Today's great poet:
  • Is a good friend to other writers, famous or not.
  • Doesn't kill himself/herself if NYC publishers or lion litmags aren't into his/her innovations.
  • Keeps learning and eagerly shares what he/she knows.
  • Acts locally.
  • Consciously contributes to the greater good.
  • Keeps writing while being chided for being one of JUST TOO MANY POETS.
  • Studies in a writing program if he/she wants to, and doesn't worry whether there are JUST TOO MANY WRITING PROGRAMS.
Jul 21

Surprise, Surprise

10 January 2009

Ten months passed and I forgot about the poem. Then two months ago I heard the mag had been published. Was too busy writing new stuff to inquire as to why I didn't get a contributor's copy. And I'm kind of far along in life and in art to grouse about contributor's copies. But through my own efforts I got a copy. Today, read it. So much good stuff that I went into that altered state that readers of poetry get into. And when I met my own poem I began reading it as a stranger might. It's better than I remembered. It belongs. It's worthy. I'm pleased with it.

How refreshing! And quite a boost to morale. Basked in it for about 15 minutes.

Now, place fingers on keyboard, both you and I, and let's hunt up the next good poems we're going to write.
Jun 28

After Walter Bargen's Critique

Walter Bargen’s critique of a poem I brought to the St. Louis Poetry Center Workshop shifted my philosophy of revision. He said, You use too many words. Get it going with the first line. Make sure that in every line something happens. Shorten your sentences. Cut every word and phrase not absolutely needed. With these in mind I revised and think I improved the poem. Its first two stanzas will illustrate. See what you think:

Before:

Seekers and pilgrims leave rosaries and coins
at each of the seven grottoes engineered
like sand castles, frenzied
in conception and scale,

each begetting another, life-sized, more sensual:
a stone tent for the slumbering plaster disciples;
for the satiny skins of the plaster Pietá
a stone canopy inlaid with bottle glass and scallop shells;

After:

Seekers and pilgrims leave rosaries, coins.
The seven grottoes engineered
like sand castles, frenzied
in conception and scale,

shelter strangely sensual scenes.
Plaster disciples slumber
beneath a canopy of masonry
chased with beach glass and scallop shells,

Jun 28

I Get Intimidated

Thought I was immune by now, but at this month's "Loud Mouth" hootin' & hollerin' open-mike reading at The Mack, a bar in South St. Louis, which I'd dared myself to read at, I got intimidated. I didn't read the poem I planned to road-test -- a feminist poem that would have filled my entire five-minute slot. Instead I played to the mostly-male audience's Bukowski fixation and lost all my respect for myself and whatever respect the audience might have had for me. I was one of two female writers on the bill of ten. The other wore a tube top. The emcee, a student of mine five years ago, now a stand-up comedian manque, had never recovered from the final "B" he had earned in my class. He introduced me thus, "Have you ever really wanted to get back at a teacher? One of those mean teachers who tried to destroy you?" --and so on. (I fail to see why "B" is such an injurious grade.)

Most of the readers knew one another and had brought their own entourages. I had sensed I would need one, so I dragged in a long-suffering, patient couple, the husband a fine poet I thought might get a chance at the open mike. He was cajoled to read a poem, but refused to be part of this historic lineup. At least one of the readers, volcanically loud and incoherent, was certifiable; and the others were terrible, or terribly impressed with themselves -- like the bewigged 70-year-old Parisian who stopped his reading to accuse me of laughing at him (I wasn't laughing, just unable to repress a smile). A kindly nebbish read a 9/11 poem he had laminated. The other female reader actually said, "I wrote this this morning, about 11 o'clock" -- and then there was yours truly, all rehearsed, who jumped ship on myself and gave a terrible performance. Final grade for me: D. Pride goeth.

A good learning experience and proof that I still need to work on confidence. If it is at all possible for you, learn from my mistake.
Jun 28

How to Anger a Poet

Now, I know enough to PICK my battles, but for Christ's sake PLEEZE, America, cut me some slack and don't show me any more course descriptions like this one I saw today:

"POETS AT HEART": We’re all poets at heart. In this course we will address several poetry forms and devices. Class reports will be made defining these forms and devices and each week we will write and read poems (our own and other poets’). Our goal is to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of poetry, along with enhancing our abilities to write poetry. Remember, anybody can write poetry. (Text: Poetry For Dummies.)
Jun 28

When Poets Gave Orders

"We order that the poets’ rights be revered:

  • To enlarge the scope of the poet’s vocabulary with arbitrary and derivative words (word-novelty).
  • To feel an insurmountable hatred for the language existing before their time.
  • To push with horror off their proud brow the wreath of cheap fame that You have made from bathhouse switches [clearer translation: "from toothpicks"].
  • To stand on the rock of the word “we,” amidst the sea of boos and outrage."
The above is from the Russian Futurists' manifesto, "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste," 1912. By comparison, our poets are people-pleasers and wusses. Each of these century-old demands is, for poets in 2008, a total taboo. We say, "I don't think your experiment with coining new words is very successful," and "I don't know where you'll find a market for this," and "If only I could make it into Best American Poetry 2009," and "I can't figure out who is that collective 'we' being referenced in your poem."

By comparison, how timid we are! And how powerless! Are those things linked?
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