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Friday, February 26, 2010

Happy Birthday to Millay, Bishop, Hughes, Lorde, Campion, Dickey . . .

It turns out February is a big month for famous poets' birthdays. It's quite a line-up--all those mentioned, plus Christopher Marlowe! Below are my favorite poems by some of the birthday guys and gals . . .
Love Is Not All by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.


by Elizabeth Bishop

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

- Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

They will soon be down

To one, but he still will be
For a little while still will be stopping

The flakes in the air with a look,
Surrounding himself with the silence
Of whitening snarls. Let him eat
The last red meal of the condemned

To extinction, tearing the guts

From an elk. Yet that is not enough
For me. I would have him eat

The heart, and, from it, have an idea
Stream into his gnawing head
That he no longer has a thing
To lose, and so can walk

Out into the open, in the full

Pale of the sub-Arctic sun
Where a single spruce tree is dying

Higher and higher. Let him climb it
With all his meanness and strength.
Lord, we have come to the end
Of this kind of vision of heaven,

As the sky breaks open

Its fans around him and shimmers
And into its northern gates he rises

Snarling complete in the joy of a weasel
With an elk's horned heart in his stomach
Looking straight into the eternal
Blue, where he hauls his kind. I would have it all

My way: at the top of that tree I place

The New World's last eagle
Hunched in mangy feathers giving

Up on the theory of flight.
Dear God of the wildness of poetry, let them mate
To the death in the rotten branches,
Let the tree sway and burst into flame

And mingle them, crackling with feathers,

In crownfire. Let something come
Of it something gigantic legendary

Rise beyond reason over hills
Of ice SCREAMING that it cannot die,
That it has come back, this time
On wings, and will spare no earthly thing:

That it will hover, made purely of northern

Lights, at dusk and fall
On men building roads: will perch

On the moose's horn like a falcon
Riding into battle into holy war against
Screaming railroad crews: will pull
Whole traplines like fibers from the snow

In the long-jawed night of fur trappers.

But, small, filthy, unwinged,
You will soon be crouching

Alone, with maybe some dim racial notion
Of being the last, but none of how much
Your unnoticed going will mean:
How much the timid poem needs

The mindless explosion of your rage,

The glutton's internal fire the elk's
Heart in the belly, sprouting wings,

The pact of the "blind swallowing
Thing," with himself, to eat
The world, and not to be driven off it
Until it is gone, even if it takes

Forever. I take you as you are

And make of you what I will,
Skunk-bear, carcajou, bloodthirsty


Lord, let me die but not die

The Electric Slide Boogie by Audre Lorde
New Year's Day 1:16 AM
and my body is weary beyond
time to withdraw and rest
ample room allowed me in everyone's head
but community calls
right over the threshold
drums beating through the walls
children playing their truck dramas
under the collapsible coatrack
in the narrow hallway outside my room

The TV lounge next door is wide open
it is midnight in Idaho
and the throb easy subtle spin
of the electric slide boogie
around the corner of the parlor
past the sweet clink
of dining room glasses
and the edged aroma of slightly overdone
dutch-apple pie
all laced together
with the rich dark laughter
of Gloria
and her higher-octave sisters

How hard it is to sleep
in the middle of life.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Always a Bridesmaid: Singing the Finalist Blues

Just call me your maid, your matron, your maybe yes, but then again maybe no. Just call me your my what a good read, definitely worth its weight in taffeta, in tulle, though not quite bridal. Not quite as good as this other one . . . this one over here with more brocade, more bric-a-brac, more moxy. My, my that's what's missing: moxy! mitzy! glitzy! More with the rondeau, less with the run-around Sue. Your manuscript needs a tiara. Your manuscript needs more tamari. Your manuscript should be wearing a sari. No, no! Now you've made it too salty (bring me, please, a cool glass of water, a cruel gaff of saunter). The middle poem needs a saltapus. The first poem needs more rumpus. Get your sections in line, sexy. Get out your suctions, lazy. Get to the back of the line, you crazy almost-bride.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sweet Lucille

I love "Homage to my Hips" and "Wishes for Sons." I remember as a newbie teacher bringing these poems to class and positively freaking out the backwards-capped dudes in the back row (did she just say tampon???). Seriously, who else starts a poem about her last period "well girl, goodbye . . ."? Who else would refer to her uterus as her "black bag of desire"?

I loved Clifton for her female body part poems, but it's this poem (below) that got me even more hooked on her work. Her subtle and non-confrontational way of writing about taboo subjects, including helping white folks who'd rather not think or talk about slavery to think and talk about slavery, was one of her many gifts. She could read a "universal" poem about big hips, and then the next thing you know she could bring you to a slave cemetery, a place this reader will never forgot:

at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.
nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentioned slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.
tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and i will testify.
the inventory lists ten slaves
but only men were recognized.
among the rocks
at walnut grove
some of these honored dead
were dark
some of these dark
were slaves
some of these slaves
were women
some of them did this
honored work.
tell me your names
foremothers, brothers,
tell me your dishonored names.
here lies
here lies
here lies
here lies

If you ever get a chance, track down Bill Moyer's 1995 video interview with her on The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets series, where she reads and is interviewed about this poem.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Planning for Next Valentine's Day

I love love poems (and love songs), and have since I was a tortured teenager--in love (aren’t we all at some point?) with a someone who would not love me back.

Let me clarify. I love good love poems, that is. Bad ones are the worst kind of poem out there, even worse than bad political poems.

What makes a good love poem? Pretty much what makes a good poem in general: specific images (your images, not Hallmark's), surprising rhymes (if you’re rhyming, that is), and a creative take on love and/or the beloved. If you've been raised on red roses, you'll need to step out of your comfort zone--it can't be all moon and June. Sometimes, in fact, love is hate (see my poem titled "Love," featured in The Best American Poetry 2009).

Examples? I don't think I'm alone in my admiration for Shakespeare's love sonnets, especially the one that begins "That time of year though mayst in me behold / when yellow leaves or none or few do hang / upon these boughs which shake against the cold / bare, ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang." And John Donne's "The Sun Rising"

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Love is Not All” is another one of my favorites:

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink

Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;

Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink

And rise and sink and rise and sink again;

Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,

Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;

Yet many a man is making friends with death

Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,

Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,

Or nagged by want past resolution's power,

I might be driven to sell your love for peace,

Or trade the memory of this night for food.

It well may be. I do not think I would.

Memorizing image-rich and ear-delighting poems like these is a great way to alert and prepare your brain for the kinds of images and rhythms you’re going to have to drum up and/or dig down deep for when you sit down to write your own love-induced (love-wracked?) verse.

As you’re composing, keep reading the best love poems you can get your hands on. Search out the oldies but goodies (Thomas Campion, William Blake, John Keats, Robert Herrick, Anne Sexton, William Stafford . . .), but you must also your contemporaries. Kary Wayson writes incredible love poems,; so does Olena Kalyatiak Davis. Adrienne Rich's love poems taught me how to write about sex.

A good anthology of love poems? When I was trying to find poems to be read at my wedding, I came across Robert Hass’ Into the Garden: A Wedding Anthology: Poetry and Prose on Love and Marriage. There I found some of the world’s best love poems by Sappho, Whitman, Dickinson, Milosz, May Sarton, Sharon Olds, James Wright, and WC Williams.

And then, off in its own galaxy of love, is Pablo Neruda's "I do not love you."

As you become more acquainted with the territory, your attempts at writing love poems will likely improve. You might write a sappy poem or two, but if you've done your homework, if you shared what makes your relationship and/or your beloved unique in your own true voice, you'll end up next Valentine’s Day with a love poem you can share not only with your beloved, but with the world.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Crockery Cookery; You Must Change

Am I a crack pot? Do I own a crockpot? Well, maybe both. Poet Mom January O'Neil's blog post "Cooking in My Sleep" got me thinking about the need to get my dusty crockpot dusted off. I cracked open my trusted cookbook, Crockery Cookery, and found a trusty recipe for Corn Tortilla Casserole. The great thing about this recipe is that most people have all the main ingredients in their cupboards: a can of green chilies, a can of tomato sauce, some garlic powder and oregano. All you need to go out in buy is some chicken and 1/2 a dozen corn tortillas, and maybe some sour cream to dollop on top. You layer the tortillas with the chicken and the sauce, then smother the whole thing with grated Monterey Jack. Along with a pot of brown rice, it's 100% guaranteed comfort food. Ole!

I wanted dinner preparation out of the way, so I dumped the ingredients into the Rival at 10 am, set the timer for 4 hours, and headed down to the Frye Art Museum for Speaking Pictures: A Poetry Workshop co-taught by two wonderful Seattle poets, Susan Rich and Lillias Bever.

When I saw who was teaching it I knew it was going to be a great workshop, but these two fine ladies outdid themselves. I heard excerpts from the very first ekphrastic (Homer describing Achilles' shield in The Iliad), learned of Edward Steichen's advice on looking at visual art ("look at it until it becomes alive and looks back into you"), and got to take a stab at writing not one but two ekphrastic poems . . . one based on a Chagall painting, and the other inspired by a painting in the Frye's permanent collection.

Susan shared her initial skepticism toward ekphrasis. She quoted Valery, who stated "We should apologize that we dare speak about art," then she compared ekphrasis with trying to make a delicious pastry or an evening gown out of words. I loved that!

Valery later concedes, stating that each work of art demands a response. And Rich, too, pushes past her own initial reluctance with the (lucky for us) outcome of sharing, along with Bever, a breadth of knowledge using poems by Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, Rainier Maria Rilke, Robert Hayden, John Ashbery, Mark Doty, Yusef Komonunyakaa, and Natasha Trethway to discuss the way poets have successfully approached this sub-genre. After their workshop, I felt buffeted on in my own attempts at writing poems that respond to visuals.

I left the museum with these helpful suggestions:

1. Pose questions to the object or painting;
2. Enter into the work of art;
3. Participate (don't just examine);
4. Let the art talk back to you, change you;
5. The more subtle about the artist/title, the better.

Much thanks to Susan and Lillias!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Time to Hula!

Okay, so you've made peace with the rejection slip, you've studied very closely the magazines you want to be published in, and you now have great respect for The Editors and their thankless toil. You can write a cover letter that is respectful and brief, but . . . without the perfect pink hula skirt, your poems are never getting out of purgatory and into publication heaven.

What can you do to increase your chances of kaholo-stepping your editor into submission?

1. Subject Matter. John Poch, editor at 32 Poems, suggests avoiding tired subjects, such as grandmothers, the beloved, the view from your window, the act of writing a poem, etc. He has a point. Even with my limited experience as an editor, my brain glazes over when I come upon yet another poem about (drum roll) getting older. HOWEVER. Don't fall into the trap of thinking any subject (even the most tired) is off limits. Instead, strive to find fresh ways to approach tired subjects. James Hoch, who visited my poetry class at Bellevue College last winter, provided my students with some expert advice in this department. He said it's okay to begin a poem in a very familiar place--a couple having an argument in their kitchen, say. But then the poem needs to take an unexpected turn. In his example, the couple suddenly began to float around the kitchen. This sudden weightlessness definitely helped get at least one editor's attention.

2. Voice/Persona. I am sure you are just as interesting as can be in real life, but let me share a little secret: nobody wants to read a poem about "you." They want a heightened you, an exaggerated you, or they want . . . well . . . not exactly you, but a funnier or wackier or more pathetic you. In other words, don't be yourself in your poems. I know, I know--in real life "just be yourself" is all you ever hear. But when it comes to artistic expression, it's better to be someone kinda like you but not quite. Be that someone else the best you can be, in the voice that someone would speak in. Then, belt it out full blast!

3. Line breaks. Read Denise Levertov's "On the Function of the Line." Study the line breaks of every poem you love. Then carefully consider each of your line breaks. Are you heightening suspense? Ending a line on an article (usually not a good idea, unless you're Herbert)? Calling attention to a word you didn't mean to call attention to? Making a joke you didn't meant to make?

4. Syntax. If you're writing convoluted sentences, do you have a good reason for doing that? If you're going gang-busters with short, choppy sentences, is your choppiness appropriate for the subject matter? Make sure your sentence structure makes sense, is interesting, and doesn't change course mid-stream unless you have a good reason for doing so.

5. Use the dictionary. Spelling, definitions, etymologies: all of these deserve checking.

6. Polish, polish, polish. Remember that musical number in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her entourage get all guzzied up before the big trip to meet The Wizard (I love the part where Dorothy asks "Can you even dye my eyes to match my gown?")? Your poem must endure a similar grooming process. Snip, snip here, snip, snip there, etc. You can't afford to have a hair out of place. Smile for the camera! And don't forget to double check your teeth for poppy seeds. Now off to the merry old land of Oz, but don't forget the . . .

7. Jiffy Lube 23-Point Inspection. Please excuse the mixing of metaphors here, but when you think your poem is done, put it away for a few weeks and let it cool off. Then, bring that sucker out, along with your wrench and oil pan. Check the tire pressure and the rear-differential fluid. Flush that radiator, and change those wiper blades before they scratch your windshield something awful. Finally, vacuum out the crumbs and lint.

8. Before you send it off. Have 2-3 poet friends read it over. Even when you think it's been detailed with a toothbrush, I guarantee one of them will find at least a small error--a word you used twice (and didn't intend to), a missing comma, a title that could be stronger.

9. Consider very carefully where to send it. Which editor(s) will be most receptive to this particular poem or poems? If they are funny poems, which magazines publish humorous poems, or is there a mag you like that's having an upcoming humor issue? Have you written a New Yorker poem, a Ploughshares poem or a Fence poem? It's difficult to know for sure, but do your best to match poems with aesthetics and poetic philosophies (i.e., if a mag's submission guidelines mention how they tend toward experimental work, don't send them your best Petrarchan sonnet).

1o. It's hula time! There's no guarantee the editors are going to go wild for your coconut tree motion, but at least when the poems come back to you with that little measly slip of paper, you know you've definitely, definitely done all you could possibly do to make that little engine purr. Here's a final tip from the mouth of Linda Bierds: when your poems come back, have an envelope already addressed and stamped for the next place you're sending them. Repeat till you get what you're after.

Helping Editors Accept Our Poems

Now that you know who The Editors are, it's time to seriously figure out how to get that hula-hoop/hula-skirt poem out of the slush pile and onto the editor's desk.

I'm no expert, but over the years I've learned a few things about getting past the grad students in their black turtlenecks . . .

1. Read the magazine. Get acquainted. Try to read more than one issue, if possible; if you're strapped for cash, buy a back issue at a reduced rate. Subscribing to said mag is even better. We wouldn't dream of trying to sneak into a movie theatre, yet there's this assumption we can waltz right into a full house without paying the price of admission.

2. This will be on the quiz. You should be able, upon being asked, to describe a mag's aesthetic, the writers whose work s/he tends toward accepting, to characterize, in a few words, the magazine or publisher's jizz. If you can't, don't send.

3. Cover letter etiquette. I learned this back at UW where I did my MFA and worked in the creative writing office: watch it with the cover letter. If you sound like a novice, you ain't making it to the editor's desk. Tell-tale novice signs: (1) listing every publication, including your illustrious appearance in Dog Shit, (2) explaining your poems, (3) scented stationary, (4) name dropping, (5) being overly chatty and cozy-cozy. Brief and to the point, please. I liken it to the Soup Nazi Seinfeld episode--get in there, politely state your needs, and get OUT. With one exception: if you read the last issue, and you love a poem they published, share away!

4. Don't get nasty. I know it bruises your ego to pieces and causes endless nights of sweaty sheets wrapped around your ankles, but do you have to take your rejection out on the poor editor? Keep you disgruntled self to yourself. If you have to vent, pin the rejection slip to a dart board and aim good and hard. If you get mouthy, you'll be 86ed faster than you can say "ABABCDCD."

5. Think of it as a lifelong pursuit. When I was a wee bud-ling poet, Michele Glazer gave me a priceless piece of advice: think of it as building a relationship with a magazine, not a one-shot deal. She showed me her files, one for each magazine, and each file was THICK. She went back and forth with The Georgia Review six or more times about . . . a semi-colon. I don't know about you, but I like long-term relationships; I like making friends and keeping them. And I don't believe in friendships happening overnight. Editors feel the same way.

6. Cherish your rejection slips. Yep, that's right. All kidding aside, I've kept every single one of mine, and they're all neatly filed with a date scrawled on the back. I'm not a masochist; I just like having a record of my 30+ year devotion to poetry and the pursuit of publication.
Yeah, I hate rejection, too. Yelling You'll regret this! stops the temporary bleeding quite well, and then I go upstairs, staple the envelope to the slip, write the date on the back, and add it to the file. Why? Because my goal is to eventually get my poem into whatever magazine just rejected me.

Next post, how to make your poems hula!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

More About Rejection: Editors

"Editors are our friends," William Stafford said.

What did he mean by that?

Editors keep us from having work out there that sucks.

We should thank them, he said.

I couldn't agree with him more.

In fact, I'll up him one or two.

Editors tend to contact us on weekends. Do you know what this means? Editors work day jobs, and don't put on their editor hats till they've already put in a full work week. What editors do is a labor of love, dudes, not a paying gig.

Editors care. They care about words, about invention, risk, about a poem staying true to its intentions, about logic, about each and every fucking line break. If you can't justify all your line breaks, don't expect the editor where you sent the poem to send you anything close to flowers.

Editors take a look at our poems and liken them to little engines that could. They write and say, I've made a few changes; if you're amenable to them, may we publish your poem in this version? (Our answer was--and will probably always be--thanks so much, yes, of course you may).

Editors often let us revise our work and resubmit it.

Editors have told us they would like to consider others, which we have to say we never did not mind, because they were preventing us from having work out there that sucks.

Editors have had to read our bad poems--ones we had no business sending them--and find a way to tell us (politely) "while I enjoyed moments in each of these, I could not quite find one I like enough to keep."

Editors get excited about our best work; they love when a poem jumps up from the slush pile and starts doing the tango with them. To get accepted, a poem has to be that good--it's gotta be doing a wild, wild hula dance (with a light-up hula-hoop) Shake that hula poem, baby!

Editors are our friends.

Monday, February 8, 2010

What to Do With Rejection Slips

1. Make paper airplane; aim for nearest recycling bin.

2. Hang on fridge with "You'll regret this" scrawled across it in red Sharpie.

3. Cut into tiny pieces; use as confetti the next time you write a great poem (i.e., tomorrow).

4. Cut up, along with photos of birds and flowers from magazines. Decoupage!

5. Paste it into your writing journal and draw a beautiful "frame' around it using lavender and pink crayons. Cross out "we are sorry" and write "we are so very stupid."

6. Pin to dart board.

7. Shred; feed to worms.

8. When you have one hundred, cut in strips and fashion a paper chain to hang across your workroom ceiling.

9. When you have one thousand, kneel for the editor with the bleeding finger cut on your submission.

10. When you have ten thousand, self-publish.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

How to Write 5 New Poems in 4 hours or Less

plus laugh a whole lot, gab, kevetch, present an impromptu Twitter tutorial, scarf down a tuna melt, and watch a pile of chocolate Dove hearts vanish before your very eyes. What was I up to?

I arrived in Edmonds a little before 10 am and landed a 3-hour parking spot in front of the local Starbucks. As I gathered my wares and headed in, two ladies out front complimented my parallel parking prowess. I took it as a good omen.

Stellar poet Kelli Russell Agodon waltzed in at 10:03 am to join me at my quaint window table. Ready, set, write! We warmed up with an ekphrasis using an oil painting from the Museum of Modern Art (courtesy their website, with a catalog of its entire collection), then got into some serious Write a Poem from a Paraphrase of an Un-known Poem-ing. We were afoot!

After an anagram-inspired poem, we delved into an exercise created by Naomi Shahib Nye that asked for questions, for images, for what we'd done in the last 36 hours. I listed baked chocolate chips cookies, made split pea soup, took my son to his swim lesson. (I didn't end up using any of the things I'd done, but I got a decent draft from the questions answered by the images).

In between exercises we sipped, munched, swapped mommy tales, and hoped Kelli's sweet golden retriever was only temporarily lethargic (he couldn't lift his head up when Kelli left to meet me, so her husband had taken him to the vet).

We packed up at 2:45 pm, five new poems in each of our satchels--enough revising to keep us busy till our next meeting (hopefully in March). As we were saying our goodbyes, Kelli's husband called to say the vet figured out the problem with Buddy--a pinched nerve. What a relief.

And off I sailed onto I-5 and into the southbound traffic.

If you are trying to figure out a way to get poems written without having to spend money for a class/workshop, I highly recommend this method. Enlist a friend, set a time to show up at a coffee shop--a place where you can be fairly certain neither of you will run into anyone you know. Bring along a book of exercises prompts--The Working Poet is a great one; so is Kim Addonizio's Ordinary Genius. Bring your favorite writing utensil and some paper, a timer, a little baggie of yummy treats, and your to-go mug. You can each pick 2-3 exercises in advance, or you can pick them randomly from either of these books. When the timer goes off, share aloud what you've each written. Whatever you do, don't offer criticism to your poetry pal, although saying "that part where you go from being a hawk to being a chipmunk was really cool" is perfectly fine. But since no one regularly writes a kick-ass poem in 10-15 minutes, and since the goal is quantity, save your analysis . . . and get onto the next prompt.

Happy poem-ing!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ekphrasis Poetry Workshop

I'm gearing up to teach a writing workshop on ekphrasis poetry on Bainbridge Island (Kiana Lodge) this April 17, as part of the Field's End Writers' Conference. You can register at Field's End. Bruce Barcott will be the keynote speaker, and Sheila Bender will lead a workshop on "Writing Through Grief." Also, Novelist Anjali Banerjee will present a session on "Knowing When to Stop Revising." Other workshops will include “A Dozen Steps to Find a Literary Agent or Publisher,” led by Alice B. Acheson, and “Capturing an Oral History,” presented by Kit Bakke. Besides my illustrious poetry workshop, you can choose from “The Prose Poem” with Oliver de la Paz and “Eating Poetry,” led by Nancy Pagh.

The admission price includes breakfast, lunch, and a wine-and-cheese book-signing reception.

Hope to see you there!