May 20
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The Ten Poets on U.S. Postage Stamps

Delighted to see at tpoetsstampshe post office -- and purchase -- a set of first-class postage stamps featuring first-class 20th-century American poets: Brodsky, Brooks, Williams, Hayden, Plath, Bishop, Stevens, Levertov, Cummings and Roethke. Seems like some of them were here just yesterday -- like Denise Levertov -- and I'd rather give that space to Howard Nemerov, whose poetry I like better -- but it's a fine gallery to start with. It's a sheet of 20 but features only 10 poets. Here's the Sylvia Plath stamp we have all been waiting for. Read or re-read the early works of Gwendolyn Brooks: wonderfully gymnastic, mind-bendingly original formal poetry. Of this entire group Brooks is the most underrated.
May 14
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I'd Rather Be Rejected

A contest notice said, "One overall winner will be awarded First Prize, $400 plus publication. Nine other authors and poets will each win publication."

Like everything else in publishing, terminology changes. One's manuscript was either accepted or rejected. Now, with writing contests so pervasive, if one finishes out of the money, one at least might "win" publication. It's really very nice of this contest to offer publication to nine -- a large number -- of also-rans. With a prize of publication they will surely feel like winners.

A truth is going bald here. "Winning" and "losing" was how writers always took the matter spiritually, although we said "acceptance" or "rejection." I am first to agree that "rejected" is a horrible name for the fact that an editor did not select my manuscript out of the 3,000 he received. But I'd rather my manuscript be "rejected" than have it labeled "a loser."

Do you prefer that too? You can still publish in periodicals without entering their contests. Publishers still accept "submissions"!
Apr 30
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"Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry"

Perhaps you've already read this NYT article of April 29, 2012 about Afghan women who secretly phone in their poems to another woman, perhaps an older one, who dares to transcribe them. The women speak in metaphor to avoid beatings and death. If caught writing love poems it's assumed they have boyfriends, and they are beaten by their brothers. If caught writing political poems -- but they don't dare write exactly what they think. They use metaphor.

As human rights diminish, the power of poetry increases. The most oppressed people depend the most on metaphor; that is, on poetry. I believe we are looking here at a version of our own future. Perhaps mass illiteracy will mean poems are called in to somebody who's literate. Perhaps we will even bypass the writing of poems and record them ourselves, and pass the recordings on to a middleman who can keep us anonymous yet get them disseminated; or we will just stand outside of our dwellings and speak our poems and people will gather around to hear the one who dares to speak.

Poetry is serious business!
Apr 27
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The 13 Most Common Errors on a Novel's First Page

Jane Friedman, e-book editor and publisher, wants to see on a novel's first page "an interesting character and the problem they face." She read a stack of opening pages aloud and told her audience at the Missouri Writers Guild conference about the red flags that tell an editor that a novel in manuscript is not yet ready to be published. She stressed that she reads at least the first 10 pages of each manuscript, but listed these as the most common first-page errors and cliches:

  • Over-explanation. This includes prologues. "Prologues are never needed. You can usually throw them in the garbage. They're usually put on as a patch."
  • Too much data. "You're trying to seduce your reader, not burden them," Friedman said.
  • Over-writing, or "trying too hard." "We think the more description we add, the more vivid it will be; but we don't want to be distracted from the story" we open the book for.
  • Beginning the novel with an interior monologue or reflection. Usually this is written as the thoughts of a character who is sitting alone, musing and thinking back on a story. Just start with the story.
  • Beginning the novel with a flashback. Friedman isn't entirely anti-flashback, but the novel's opening page is the wrong place for one.
  • Beginning a novel with the "waking up sequence" of a character waking, getting out of bed, putting on slippers, heading for the kitchen and coffee...a cliche
  • Related cliche: beginning the novel with an alarm clock or a ringing phone
  • Starting out with an "ordinary day's routine" for the main character
  • She sees a lot of manuscripts beginning with "crisis moments" that aren't unique: "When the doctor said 'malignant,' my life changed forever..." or "The day my father left us I was seven years old..."
  • Don't start with a dialogue that doesn't have any context. Building characterization through dialogue is okay anywhere else but there.
  • Starting with backstory, or "going back, then going forward."
  • Info dump. More formally called "exposition."
  • Character dump, which is four or more characters on the first page.

And, Friedman said, the "biggest bad advice" about opening a novel is "Start with action." She said she thinks, "But I haven't been made to care about these characters yet." Ideally, the first page introduces a character the reader feels he or she knows and understands.

Apr 27
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Silence as a Tool in Poetry

Missouri Writers' Guild annual conference was last weekend in Chesterfield, well-organized with very good speakers and fantastic attendance including writers from neighboring states as far away as Arizona who came to talk to the editors and agents. I volunteered to "shepherd" speaker Walter Bargen, first poet laureate of Missouri (2008-2010), author of 14 poetry books, and attended both his seminars including the fascinating "Silence in Poetry," a topic I'd never considered in any depth. Here are some of his valuable insights into silence in poetry, each worth a ponder:
  • The difference between poetry and prose is silence.
  • Every poem is written on a backdrop of silence.
  • The poem is packaged in silence.
  • Rap is poetry that is afraid of silence.
  • Silence is not monolithic; there are different kinds.
  • Between every written word there is silence.
  • Learning how to break lines is learning how to handle silence.

Apr 18
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The Idea Box

ideaboxA former student had a carpenter husband who made this graceful box, and she brought it to me in thanks for the class, and it's gorgeously made and I love it. But what to put in it?

For a long time I kept writing ideas for poems on passing scraps of paper, would lose them, and then lose the chance to write the poem, because the moment of conception, if not captured, never returns. I have actually gotten out of the shower to write down a fleeting idea, or stopped in the middle of a block, put down my things and got out some paper and a pen, and recommend this -- taking your ideas THIS seriously. respecting them THIS much -- to everyone who writes. I've written ideas on post-its and the backs of business cards and the strangest paper scraps. And when I want an idea I go to the idea box and poke around. Today's scrap, a recently inscribed one, said "Polite Applause." So I drafted a poem about polite applause. Yesterday's pick from the idea box was "Hostas." I got partway through it and finished it today. There's a scrap in there that says "Diana Cancer," as in "Her mother's Diana Cancer," and that idea needs to be thought out, but I think it's a good one. Oh, these scraps say all sorts of things, such as "A dinosaur bit me" and "bare metal." They needn't make sense. They're seeds of a poem. The idea box is my best way to keep intact ideas that need to wait.
Apr 15
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If You Don't Come to My Reading, I Won't Come To Yours, Etc.

I sometimes do not feel up to attending a literary reading, and if I am not up for it I can't enjoy the event. If there were a live feed I would tune in. But I can't be there because of work, tiredness, weather, a second round-trip commute to the city when I was just there that morning, previous commitments, and so on. But what I never do is "boycott" a reading because the readers "didn't come to my reading, so I won't go to theirs." Being there is certainly a show of support for the readers and for the literary community. But not being there is not declaring non-support. I have no right to expect specific people and get bent out of shape if they aren't there, even if they promised to be. Even if I have a new book out and they should buy it. Even if they are friends of long standing. That I have the privilege of reading, and that anybody at all is there, should be experienced as an honor. And if the crowd is small -- well, am I there to nourish my ego, or to nourish the audience? I am there by grace and should be gracious as possible, and my focus should be on literature, not me.

A few "take attendance" at their readings, and micromanage their own attendance as if it were a game. Sure, a reading is a social event, and I like to see a crowd and familiar faces, and to chat and gab and catch up, and I know about give and take. But to hear that someone is "hurt" because so-and-so did not show up, or that he or she deliberately avoids events or book-buying until the score is evened -- well, that's a Christmas-card attitude. Either you send holiday cards because you like people and want to send good wishes for their holidays -- or you send cards to see if you'll get one in return, and if not, that's instant Memory Hole. At that point it's not about love anymore.
Apr 09
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Deleting the Unfinished Work

Like empty storefronts, the hollow bodies of unfinished poems haunt me. I hoped to finish them all someday. I have in fact waited years to finish them and have indeed finished a few at long last, after tussling and struggling and workshopping. But many others remain to haunt me. I'm tired of facing them. I want a fresh start. So I began thinking of deleting them. All the unfinished. To make room for more poems.

In fact I've started deleting. I asked advice about this, and was told, "Copy down the good lines you wrote before you delete. You might be able to use those good lines in other poems." In the larger scheme of things, what are my 100 or so unfinished poems but monuments to vanity and neglect? Is that what I want around me right now? Don't think so.
Apr 03
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Poems About the Past

Assessing my accumulation of poems, thinking most of them bad, wondering why most of the good ones among them haven't been published, I think I hit on why:

The poems are about the past!

Yes, indeed! From Captain Kangaroo to grape soda, to partying in the '80s, to way-back school days when they gave wiggly-block IQ tests, to the thirty-year-old spools in my sewing box (a what box!?!?!), to the Thresher submarine disaster in 1963 -- they're about the past! Yes, Galway Kinnell got away with writing a book titled The Past. It's been done.

Literary editors tend to be younger these days. We know for sure their screeners are very young. Remember how we used to glaze over when the old folks told us about Fibber McGee and Molly, etc.? How wonderful for us to remember the Sinclair dinosaur or the Gemini space program! And how incomprehensible and irrelevant to the young!

I've been writing poems that are like memoirs! A poem ain't a memoir!

I know "you write what you have to write," but I hope to consciously write more about the present and future. Thank you to Adrienne Rich, whom I now see kept her poetic focus on the present and future -- risky, in the way writing about the past is not.
Apr 02
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A. Rich vs. the Literary Equivalent of Boned, Skinned, Chicken Breasts

The work of Adrienne Rich, her prose and poetry, led me to books by Andrea Dworkin, Judy Grahn, H.D., Louise Bogan, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Eleanor Ross Taylor and many more: Good and great poets who didn't catch on, are shunned in institutions, because these poets' work is "tainted" by anger, or by politics critical of the system, by what they had to say. The present world prefers the shimmering, the ineffable, the duende, the amusing. Poems we write hoping they are tickets into the system. Poems that are the literary equivalent of boned, skinned chicken breasts. Maybe she left a key somewhere as to where  poetry can go next.

I and my friends at one time read Rich's works like scripture, but tired of Rich's politics when they weren't just about women anymore. I tried to read later books of her poems, but after Time's Power, they embarrassed me. Their politics were hemispheric and inclusive. Even she didn't sound convinced of them. But still to this day I read her prose with admiration. She was a poet who was also a thinker. When it was first published, there was nothing like he book Of Woman Born. There was no essay like "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence."

She's gone. There's nobody I can think of who can take her place. What will happen? Here's a quotation posted by playwright Joan Lipkin on Facebook. Worth re-reading:

"Whatever is unnamed, un-depicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language–this will become, not merely unspoken, but unspeakable."- Adrienne Rich
Mar 14
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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.
Mar 05
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The Surprise Package of Life

The Feb. 28 "Giving Voice" poetry concert, "a chapbook you could hear," was well attended (beyond my hopes) and begot lots of ideas: "You should do this every year," someone suggested. But, better, I suggested to some poets that they set poems in their chapbooks or books for choral reading, and that would be a great way to promote the poetry and therefore their books. All they need to do is to create an arrangement, set a date, get a venue and then some good people game to read. Gratifying.

Then on Thursday I get called by an MTV producer in New York. They are filming a "The Real World" episode about a young first-time self-published St. Louis author, Joel Ehrlichman, marketing his book with his ex-girlfriend's help. They'd heard I was an editor. Would I read his book, Gateway, and give my opinion on camera? Legal tangles quashed filming at Wash U, so the author and crew ended up at my house Sunday with their lights and two cameras: one focused on the author and his girlfriend and one on me. As a first book it's a good effort, but it's the common drugs-and-degradation story that young people feel compelled to tell. All young writers write these things, but back in my day we didn't have the technology to publish them (thank you, God). Now and then a drug novel like Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero, or Jim Carroll's Basketball Diaries makes a hit. But I think the drug novel market is saturated and his good effort is going to have a hard time. Told him I was eager to read his second book. The MTV Segment airs in April, I was told. Gratified again.

Wake up this morning with to email message from Cerise Press (I'd heard of them) saying my book Meet Me made their list of Editors' Favorites. Gratified again. But wait, there's more....an interview with me published on David Alan Lucas's blog, "Coffee with David." It was an honor to be asked.

Have I now reached the "survivor stage," like, say W.S. Merwin or May Sarton, where I matter just because I'm still alive?