2015 poetry goals

January 2nd, 2015

My first residency begins January 8th; I fly out the 6th. My goals this year are dictated almost entirely by the requirements of my program and are fairly simple:

* 24 -30 polished poems
* read 40 works of poetry or poetics
* 24 annotations of works read

Taking full advantage of my MFA is my top priority for the year. That means not just doing the work, but taking advantage of the opportunity to work with other poets (both my teachers and my fellow students). Make friends, find writing partners, develop relationships with faculty and students. This will be challenging from afar (though in a low-residency program we’re all “from afar” – none of us can wander down the hall and pop into office hours, after all, so in that regard all of us are facing the same challenges of maintaining relationships through largely electronic means) but not impossible. I’ve long believed the community component of a writing program is one of its most valuable aspects, so the goal that I can’t put numbers on, that I can’t check off as accomplished, that should be the on-going goal of any writer is to enter my community fully, contribute to it, sustain it, and stay connected to it.

And somewhere among the rough drafts and the essays, always find the joy in writing.

So you think you have a chapbook; now what?

May 13th, 2013

I’m starting to think about where and how to publish a chapbook, and I thought I would think it through out loud and share what I’m learning. If it helps somebody else, that’s wonderful and if not – I find that writing things out really helps me clarify my own thoughts on the matter. The standard caveats apply, of course; I’m no expert – I’m muddling through this for the first time myself – and obviously if you’re thinking about publishing a chapbook you’re going to want to do your own legwork, but maybe my questions for myself will trigger some questions of your own, or a I’ll mention a press you hadn’t come across and want to investigate further.

It seems to me the first question regarding publishing a chapbook is, should I enter contests or not? That’s one you really have to answer for yourself, but in my opinion a poet should ask herself the following big picture questions:

  • Is my manuscript ready to go? Really ready? Really, really ready?
  • Where am I in my life-cycle as a poet and where do I want to go next? Would winning a contest help me with that goal, and if so, how?
  • Are the costs worth the potential rewards?

It can be a little hard to imagine that there’s a downside to entering contests. If you have faith in your manuscript (and if you don’t have faith in your manuscript you shouldn’t be sending it anywhere yet, contest or otherwise), what’s to lose? You could win, and most contests come with a cash reward, a print run, and bragging rights. What’s not to like about that? And if you don’t win, you’re out your entry fee but there’s no harm done and your entry helped support a contest that contributes to a healthy poetry community. I’ll confess that my own first reaction is that contests are a win-win situation – if you set a budget and stick to it – so why not?

And I think that gut reaction is exactly why a poet needs to ask the big picture question Where am I in my life-cycle as a poet and where do I want to go next? Would winning a contest help me with that goal, and if so, how? For me – and remember, this is just me thinking out loud about if I want to enter contests or not – that’s the key question. When would winning a contest be particularly helpful, helpful enough to be worth the entry fees and the waiting for results and keeping track of all the various rules and regulations and submission requirements? (I don’t know about you, but I find the practicalities of trying to get published – cover letters and proof-reading and submitting and submission tracking – take up an awful lot of time and occupy too much space in my head so I definitely consider this part of the cost of a contest.) Bragging rights are great, but are bragging rights alone worth several hundred dollars in entry fees?

Here’s when I think contests would be particularly helpful:

  • If you’re getting ready to apply to MFA programs or other advanced programs, and if the results will be out in time to include on your application package, being the winner of a chapbook contest could be pretty nice.
  • You’re applying for a fellowship or residency (I suppose that falls under the above).
  • You’re looking for academic jobs.
  • You’re already half-way through a full-length manuscript; having an existing publishing track record, as a contest winner no less, might be helpful shopping the next project.

It seems to me all of that is a way of saying, if you’re in a position to genuinely take advantage of the momentum winning a contest might provide then contests could be especially worthwhile. The more prepared you are to take the next step, to see where you want a contest to take you, the more worthwhile it becomes. Of course, not everybody can win a contest and probability dictates that most entrants won’t, so the benefits of entering a contest are only potential benefits whereas your costs are set. It will never be bad to be a contest winner so the question each writer has to ask is if the potential benefits are worth the certain costs.

If you’ve thought about the big picture issues and you decide to enter contests, here are a few more questions to consider:

  • What’s my budget? Fees vary from contest to contest; my limited research at this point shows a lot hovering in the $25.00 range. And don’t forget about postage costs: like fees, page limits vary from contest to contest, so your manuscript could be 16 pages or it could run up to about 30. Once you’ve finished your really, really ready to go manuscript, print it out on the paper you will be using for your entries, include a cover letter and any other pages of documentation required (for example some contests want two title pages, one containing identifying information and one with no identifying information), and bring it to the post office and find out how much postage will be. That is part of your costs. Personally, I think a poet should set a firm budget first and then see what contests look interesting; there’s the danger of “oh, just one more, it’s only $25.00″ and before you know it you’ve sunk a lot more money in contests than you thought you would.
  • What are the simultaneous submission policies? Is entering this contest going to lock up the whole manuscript and for how long?

Now you’re down to the nitty-gritty and you need to ask some specific questions about the contests you’re looking at:

  • Do I meet the eligibility requirements? (Age, gender, race, residency or citizenship status but also if the contest is limited to poets who have not yet published a book or chapbook.)
  • What are the possibilities regarding simultaneous submissions?
  • How is the contest judged? Are entries read blind? Does the organization adhere to the contest code of ethics established by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses? Basically, are the contest’s policies transparent?
  • Is there a named judge? Am I familiar with the judge’s work?
  • Is this a new contest or does it have an established track record? Who are some of the past winners?
  • If winning comes with obligations such as giving certain readings or attending a ceremony, can I fulfill those obligations? (Probably not a big issue for most people, and more likely to be a condition of book prizes than chapbook prizes, but still worth looking into.  Writers living abroad especially need to think about these things.)
  • How long will it take for entrants to be notified? Will all entrants be notified or only the winners? Do I want to have my work out for that long?
  • What is the prize? What is the print run and distribution plan?
  • And finally, set up a tracking system to keep track of what contests you’ve entered and when, who judged them (if known), fees paid, and expected notification date if known.

Poets & Writers includes a special section on writing contests every year in the May/June issue; this year’s issue should be on the newsstands now so if you’re at that stage with your work (in any genre) you should run out and pick that up. And as always, search engines are your friend.

I’ll be posting on and off as I continue to look into my options. Happy submitting!

Writing goals: 2012 wrap up and 2013 goals

January 1st, 2013

I was almost afraid to look back at the writing goals I set for myself this year, so sure was I that I’d fallen short. Although, I don’t know, I’m starting to think that if you meet all your goals you’re probably setting the bar too low in at least one area; or maybe I’m just a striver – the American in me – ambitious, ehrgeitzig (not always a complement in Switzerland – more often than not, rather the opposite actually). Positive or negative, it’s what I do: set the goals, write the to-do lists, plot out numbers to reach and the timeframes in which to reach them. A goal, a destination, a fixed point on the horizon by which I might guide myself – it’s how I operate.

I set out some pretty specific goals last year, inspired by January Gill O’Neil’s “poetry action plans” she sets out on her own blog every year. My goals were to:

  • Produce 52 decent drafts – I wrote 45 poems last year, and I’m disappointed I fell short because for awhile there I was on a real tear, and then the wheels came off the poetry bus in November and December. I think I might just have exhausted myself. I noticed that in 2011 I wrote 42 poems, so it might be that with the shape of my life right now, 40 -45 decent drafts a year is how it’s going to be. We’ll see.
  • Continue to strive for a daily writing practice – I might never pull this one off. I’m not sure why this is so hard for me.
  • Post to my blog twice a week – I fell short here, too, but I’ve been rethinking the blog and starting to use it in different ways so I think I might just be in transition here.
  • Enter poems in one contest – I actually entered two, and didn’t place in either of them. Oh well.
  • Send out 20 packages – I submitted 15 times in 2012, and this is not enough.
  • Participate in two writing workshops, either live or on-line – I attended the Geneva Writers’ Conference in February and attended a workshop in Virginia with Ellen Bass, Marie Howe, and Dorianne Laux. Both were fantastic experiences. I also worked on-line with Kim Addonizio. I said it last year and I’ll say it again: her on-line workshops are fantastic.
  • Finish the in progress chapbook (if only in terms of sheer number of poems). I’ll eliminate the requirement that it be “contest ready” but dang it, I want to finish this project at this point if only for the sake of finishing the project. – Ah, the chapbook. Ever the wild card. This is a yes and a no, actually. I did finish what I’m calling a chapbook manuscript and I printed it out and read it through many times, taking notes along the way, trying hard to read it as if it were the work of a critique buddy and not my own. I asked the question, “what is my manuscript doing?” I moved poems around, grouped and re-grouped. The more I read the manuscript, the more I realized I had only begun to touch on what I really wanted to say. Many of the poems are simply “backstory” – necessary for me to write, I think, to get my head to the place where the real work begins, but they do not bring anything to the manuscript. They are, in fact, not the real story. So over the past six weeks of reading and note-taking I’ve decided to remove nearly half of the poems from the manuscript, leaving my chapbook… incomplete. But I only learned that it was incomplete upon completing it, if that makes any sense. So I’m calling this one a draw.
  • Build relationships with other writers – Ah, yes, I’ve found some wonderful writing companions.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my 2013 goals, and at the top of my list is to take greater risks in my writing. I noticed this when I reviewed my manuscript – a certain grouping of poems is much stronger than the almost all the other poems, and these stronger poems are the ones where I feel the most vulnerable. You know when you write something and you’re almost afraid that your friends and family will read it and think you’re telling the actual truth about your actual life? Those poems? The ones that scare you, make you feel like you’re climbing without a safety harness? Those are the best ones. They’re my risky ones and seeing those poems sitting side-by-side with much safer poems really drove home the need for me to take more risks, to go closer to the edge and to stay there a beat longer than is comfortable. So that’s my number one writing goal for 2013. Write the poems that scare me.

I do believe in the value of quantifiable goals, so I’m going to say again: 52 poems this year.

I should be submitting my work more often, so I’m going to say again: send out at least 20 packages this year.

I’m going to pull back from workshopping, but if some amazing opportunity presents itself I’d probably go for it. But I think if I’m trying to take risks and write the poems that scare me, if I’m trying new things, I might need to do that inside the safety of my own head for a while.

So there they are, my writing goals for the new year. What’s on your agenda – writing or otherwise – for 2013?

And ig wünsch üch en guete Rutsch is 2013! (Happy New Year!)

I’m taking a deep breath and calling this pile of papers a manuscript

November 5th, 2012

I read through my manuscript from start to finish today. It’s uneven – the poems in the third section are by far the strongest, making the weaknesses of some of the earlier poems really stand out – but it’s essentially complete and has “good bones” as a critique partner of mine likes to say. I’ve added a voice, so I’ve now got three characters and each one of them gets their say at least once; this has complicated things a bit but I think I can keep the voices clear for the reader through titles. There are a few holes I need to fill in, meaning writing a few new poems to address an aspect of a relationship that’s not fully explored, and once those are written – I think I need six – NO MORE NEW POEMS for this project: I’ve written too many poems that the manuscript doesn’t “need” as a way to avoid revising the poems that exist.

Do any of you do that? Continue to write new material as a way to procrastinate on the hard work of revision? At least it’s productive procrastination, but it’s procrastination nonetheless and I want to finish what I’ve started here.

Also: I write a bad sestina. And by bad I mean actually bad, as in the opposite of good.

Writing goals: 2011 wrap-up and 2012 goals

January 2nd, 2012

I took a look back at my writing goals for 2011 and I see that I didn’t accomplish a single one of them. I started the year intending to:

  • Write 52 new poems. How did I do? It’s possible, if I count all the jottings and rushed drafts that are clearly going nowhere, that I wrote 52 drafts in 2011, but I think the real count, still a bit generous, falls at 42.
  • Submit to 20 journals. How did I do? I sent out fifteen packages last year.
  • Attend a juried workshop. I didn’t attend a live workshop last year, but I workshopped twice on-line with Kim Addonizio and both workshops were amazing, challenging, and extraordinary helpful. I’m starting another eight week session with her on the ninth, and for anybody out there looking for an on-line poetry workshop that’s really going to kick your butt and be worth the money, Kim’s is it.
  • I wanted a contest ready chapbook by September, and here I fell furthest from the goal. Not even close. In fact, now I have two half-way chapbooks instead of one finished one because half-way through the year I started writing a series of poems on a theme.
  • Two blog posts a week. Also, no. I had 77 posts in 2011; twice a week would have been 104.
  • Read 52 poetry collections. I read 32 books for the first time and re-read some old favorites.

And yet I feel like it was, on balance, a good year. I got a lot done, even if I didn’t reach my target numbers on, well, anything. I learned a lot, had some mild successes, and got better at what I do. It feels like a win.

Not having a chapbook together is starting to sting; it seems like that’s something I should have put together by now. Maybe the problem lies in not knowing how to put a collection together; perhaps I’m trying too hard to have everything relate to a theme; perhaps I’m simply not ready to be thinking about collections yet. I don’t know. The chapbook goal, that’s the wild card every year.

My goals for 2012 are essentially the same:

  • Produce 52 decent drafts
  • Continue to strive for a daily writing practice
  • Post to my blog twice a week
  • Enter poems in one contest
  • Send out 20 packages
  • Participate in two writing workshops, either live or on-line
  • Finish the in progress chapbook (if only in terms of sheer number of poems). I’ll eliminate the requirement that it be “contest ready” but dang it, I want to finish this project at this point if only for the sake of finishing the project.
  • Build relationships with other writers

Watching the Small Boy at hockey practice is one of my greater joys; I love to watch him give his honest best, to work so hard. I tell him, honestly, to just keep doing what he’s doing. If he continues to work as hard as he does now, improvement will come and he’ll be fine. He’ll surely be ready for the next age group up when he ages out of Bambinis if he keeps doing what he’s doing. He’s vastly better than he was in September, and he was making really rapid progress until he was side-lined by his concussion. Just keep doing what you’re doing, I tell him, and you’ll be fine. That’s the ultimate goal, to be as clear-eyed about my own progress as I can be about his, as I’m trying to teach him to be about his own self.

Whenever Small Boy has to play a team he’s lost to before, I tell him: “That game is over. Today is today. You play today’s game.” I think that’s going to be my motto for the year.

Just what I needed to hear

October 20th, 2011

After last week’s pity party, I read this today. (Go read it; I’ll wait. It’s short.) So I’m hanging in there. Because yeah, I’ve got killer taste and hell yeah I’ve got potential. So I’m hanging in there. You hang in there too.

Most of the time

October 13th, 2011

Most of the time, I feel like giving up. Most of the time, the rejection email makes me want to stop submitting. Most of the time, the latest blindingly good book of poetry I’ve been reading makes me want to stop writing. Most of the time, I feel like it’s too late, that I missed my chance, made all the wrong decisions in my 20s, will never write the kind of poetry I want to write. Most of the time, I can’t see the way forward. I recognize good poetry when I see it, but I don’t know how to get there from here. I don’t know if I can get there from here, or if I’ve already reached the far limit of my modest ability. Most of the time, I am consumed by ifs: if I had followed through in college, when more than one teacher thought I had talent; if I had taken chances when I had them; if I hadn’t opted for the practical path; if I had been braver. Most of the time, I think about the classes I could take if we lived in the US. Most of the time, I know I need teachers if I’m to have a hope of getting any better and most of the time I think I could get better. Most of the time, it kills me that this is not really possible. Most of the time, I do not have enough time to work. Most of the time, I do not work well enough, the work is not good enough nor is there enough of it in terms of sheer output. Most of the time I am wracking my brains trying to figure out how to claw more minutes out of the day. Most of the time, I read some new poet’s first book and despair. Most of the time, I wonder why I bother. Most of the time, I feel like giving up.

2011 Writing Goals

December 30th, 2010

For the past few years, inspired by January O’Neil, I’ve listed out my writing goals for the coming year. I want to push myself, but I want my goals to be manageable: I have learned at last in life – perhaps from mothering these boys, from leading them gently from one stage to the next, from three-letter words to six letter words, from standing on the ice to walking across it – that setting the bar unattainably high tends to discourage more than it inspires. It’s been a fine line with the Small Boy, for example, teaching him to read: leading him to what I know he is capable of without pushing him there so fast that he gives up in frustration. We had some false starts as I tried to move him too fast, and we had a long lull over the summer when I did not move along the ladder fast enough. Certainly the first year he was in hockey school I expected too much of him and very nearly turned him from the sport that has become his six year old passion and which has taught him so much; because of that experience we are handling Boychen’s time on the ice much differently. I try to treat myself with that same balance and gentleness – pushing but never too hard; setting goals, but never too high – that I’ve finally found with the boys.

I also believe in making specific goals, goals with numbers and dates, whenever possible – I learned that from January’s poetry action plans. It’s easier to be accountable with numbers attached: did I write 52 poems or did I not? And making my goals public, here, also pushes me to accountability.

So here are my writing goals for 2011:

  • write 52 new poems
  • send out 20 submission packages
  • attend a juried workshop, preferably this one
  • have a contest-ready chapbook manuscript by 1 September (did I really just say that out loud?)
  • write two blog posts a week
  • read 52 poetry books in 2011

And just to make sure I keep my life bigger than my notebooks, I plan on continuing with my armchair bird watching (which Marge would say could only improve my poetry) and registering for a photography class.

This woman’s work

May 21st, 2010

In less than a month I leave for Boston where I’ll spend a few days recovering from jetlag and enjoying one of my favorite cities before heading on to Wellfleet for the poetry workshop. R asked me to make up a general schedule for him to help him stay organized and on top of things while I’m away – just keeping track of when I do what I do so that he doesn’t suddenly wake up one morning to find that Small Boy has no underwear and Kindergarten starts in 12 minutes. 

I’d been starting to feel some creeping guilt about this upcoming trip, the kind of guilt that I’m sure some of you moms, especially fellow stay-at-home moms, will understand and perhaps find familiar. I’ll be away for twelve days (two of which are lost to trans-Atlantic travel) and I’ve been starting to think that’s rather a long time. I’ve been starting to think it’s a bit selfish. I’ve been starting to think it’s a lot of time and money for a poetry workshop. (It doesn’t help that the work I have chosen – or the work that has chosen me – holds no financial promise. I mean, even the Pulitzer Prize for poetry only awards ten grand. From a purely financial calculation, every poetry workshop I attend is a net loss – more so if R has to take vacation days so that I can get away.)  I’ve been starting to wonder if I actually deserve this all-about-me trip away from my family. Why do we do that? As women, generally, and mothers, specifically, our wants and needs end up on the low end of the totem pole more often than not.

So I started making this list/schedule for R, and it’s two pages long – and that only covers Monday through Friday! (Though I’ve put some effort into organizing things so that I don’t have to do routine house chores on the weekend.) And I’ve left off the intermittent stuff that he won’t need to deal with(recycling, washing the car, migrating boy toys back into more orderly storage) as well as the blindingly obvious stuff like “feed the children.” We let a lot of things slide around here (ironing, for example, and washing the windows), it’s part of our agreement, but apparently I still do a lot. Laundry alone takes up half the list. Grocery shopping. Picking Small Boy up from Kindi (R does the morning run), shuttling him to play-dates. Keeping the plants watered. Vacuuming. Heavens, do I vacuum. Now that we don’t have a cleaning lady, I’ve picked up the cleaning, too, and I try to stay on what was her schedule but one week out of four that probably gets lost in the shuffle. When I write down everything I do to keep this house more or less running, it runs to two pages – and here’s the scary thing: in spite of all that I do do, we don’t exactly run the tightest ship around here plus R’s chore list would probably go on for quite a bit as well. It’s exhausting, all the stupid stuff I do every day just to keep our heads above water. But seeing it listed out like that, I have to say: I’m feeling a lot less guilty about this trip. Seeing it listed out like that makes me realize that I have a full time job, and this is my two-week vacation.

Do you see yourself in this post? Do you feel a pang of “I don’t really deserve this” when you take time for yourself? It’s the time, I think, more than anything, we feel guilty about. I don’t have a problem buying things that I need (clothes, a new bike) or want (books), but when I carve out time for myself, when I get out of the house for the day (or twelve), there is a twinge of conscience. Is this ringing a bell with any of you? What do you do to push through the nagging voice and take what you need?

Happy dance

January 20th, 2010

Oh my god, I actually got in!

I’ll put together some coherent thoughts on this when I’m feeling more coherent.