Jun 03

The Chapbook Solution

Former student and friend, artist Tony Renner, actually prepared pocket-sized booklets of poems and handed them out free on Poem in Your Pocket Day, April 18, when we are all supposed to carry a poem around and read it to people and discuss it. Cool idea, and perhaps the future of poetry.

Those of you who've written many poems: Have you considered making of them and marketing a nice portable chapbook? Most every poet can winnow from his or her work at least 16 or 20 very good poems (usually a maximum of 24 actual pages), and it's all the better if they have a common theme. I did this recently for a client whose chapbook came in third in a national chapbook contest just three months after the chapbook was assembled. The poems came from his full-length manuscript. The chapbook poems share a theme and are all of excellent quality.

Those of you with completed manuscripts you're trying to publish: It feels good to have two manuscripts circulating. If you publish the chapbook first you can use the poems in your full-length book. What you probably can't do, unless all rights belong to you, is winnow a chapbook out of an already-published volume. That's recycling, anyway. You can write a new chapbook: all you need is to create 16 to 20 good poems, maybe on a theme, or maybe a poetic "cycle." That could be fun. So often, poetry is not fun. A chapbook is!
Jun 15

I've Had Enough of "You" (second person singular) in Poetry

The second-person "You", usually conjoined with present tense, as in (example)

"You take your mother's wedding dress from your closet,"

appears way too often in poetry drafts, including my own. Contemporary poets seem worried that using "I" is too "confessional" or too assertive. Some years ago poets wanted to be assertive, but currently it's important to seem humble and modest while practicing this most egoistic and self-indulgent of professions.

A "you" implies that there is an "I" but doesn't say so. I say, if it's an "I" poem, please come out of the closet and use "I."

The second-person "you" is technically an address either to the readers or to a specific person the poet knows. The "you" poem very often addresses an impaired, unlovable, absent or somehow guilty person. Therefrom comes the pleasure of using the "you," because you can expose him without naming names. "You" could also be the poet addressing himself or herself, especially regarding a past self such as the one who made a bad marriage. ("You put on the dress and veil/dreading your walk down the aisle to your father" usw.) Why should the rest of us read a poem addressed to your ex or your former self? Please be conscious of addressing poems to "You." It is bad if it is a habit. I catch and correct myself in later drafts.

The other alternative to "you" is the third-person pronoun "he" or "she." Here is where it's clear why the "you" is such an attractive option. Both "I" and the "he/she" demand greater nerve and attention to detail. The "I" should bare it all and articulate the unpleasant truth such as "I didn't want to marry him, but I was pregnant and married him for the sake of the child having a father and so my parents wouldn't harass me." The third-person "She" and "He" indicate people -- characters that must be detailed so as to resemble real people with mixed thoughts, feelings, and experiences. "You" is an outline, a faceless shadow figure -- to the audience. The poet uses "you" to hint at an entity rather than taking the trouble to describe it. It's just easier! The reader must figure out from the poet's dropped hints whom "you" might be -- an ex, a dying grandmother, a former self. I wonder what cultural rule poets are upholding when we could be direct and forthright but choose not to.

Jun 09

Two "Things" That Will Improve Your Poems and Prose

Here's an easy way to improve your poetry and prose. I've noticed that many drafts, mine and others', include "placeholder" words. We use these words so often on a normal day that we might not realize they are like empty railroad boxcars. They exist to be filled (later) with specifics and meanings. The most common of these are:
  • Something
  • Nothing
  • Anything
  • Everything
  • Everywhere
  • Anywhere
  • Someone
  • Someplace
  • Somehow

If you're not careful you can end up with a line such as "Something happened and things changed," and it will sound so much like everyday speech you won't even notice it until "someone" in your workshop points it out! Especially, red-flag the word "thing" wherever you see it!

There are two "things" to do with these words (or rather, here are two suggestions for improving upon such wording when you find it):

1. Be precise; replace the vagary with the truth of the matter. Is it true that "There was nothing there"? Or was it more like, "The room had no furniture"? Was it "Somehow she got the money someplace," or "She tapped her relatives for money and borrowed from her friends"?

2.  See if you can excise the word. Example: "I will see her again sometime."

Mar 24

I Want to Be Another Poet

I'd like to be another kind of poet, writing poems that really get taken seriously. A few years back I tried this. Only one of those poems was completed. It was somber, serious, international in scope (the subject was the great Korean poet, Ko Un. I was not at all making up what I felt when I saw him read: respect and awe). I described the sweaty-warm spring day. The poem was also highly referential (if you couldn't deduce that the poem was about Ko Un you wouldn't get it), sharply observed (he wore a wrinkled dress shirt too big for him), and ultimately my poem was really about the power of poetry. Top that!! I titled it "How to Change Everything" and asked a poet friend for an opinion.

"What were you trying to say here? Makes no sense," he complained. I said, "But this, and this..." He wasn't buying. I saw that I was not going to become an author of serious, ominous poems about important international and social currents -- at least not by deliberately trying.

Not long ago tried a longer, solemn poem about something else important. Responses said it started out okay, had some good moments. Greatness was not mine.

Alas, like a singer I apparently have a range. Quirky, "jazzy" and "cute." I guess as long as I'm healthy and have enough to eat there is no point in wishing things were different. I've tried working within my range with very serious subject matter: In one poem I think is a good one, the speaker verbally abuses an ugly girl on a crowded greyhound bus. While I read it, the workshop laughed. "What are you laughing at? This is a very tragic poem," I said. The reply: "It's just the way you put things, like, her stye looked like a tomato seed." "But that's what a stye looks like," I said, chagrined.

Think it's time I gave up.