Robert Bly on the music in poetry

May 22nd, 2015

“Exactly. Poems can become musical events in a number of ways. Two I’ve been brooding on are these: First, the seven holy vowels, as they were understood in ancient times, can come in. (Joscelyn Godwin has a charming book about the mystery of the seven vowels.) The great vowels bring radiance and add energy when they enter; they even encourage the arms and legs to move in a certain way. The seven vowels, one could say, penetrate through the intellect to the body. Then there is such a thing as chiming. Chiming means that tiny sounds chime with each other inside the line. It’s a sort of interior rhyming that the writer does without alerting, or even telling, the reader.

Suppose you decide, like Stevens, to chime with the syllable in. Then you could say: “The trade wind jingles the rings in the nets around the rocks / by the docks on Indian River.” It is the choice of in that determines the name of the river at the end.

One little chiming poem of mine begins: “How sweet to weight the line with all these vowels: / Body, Thomas, the codfish’s psalm. The gaiety / Of form lies in the labor of its playfulness.” Later it goes: “The chosen sound reappears like the evening star / In the solemn return the astronomers love.” Most good poems have repeating sounds. But one can make chiming into a sort of principle. If the chiming sound returns three times, it becomes a tune. Then the whole stanza turns to music.”

From The Paris Review. You can read the entire interview here.

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!

On revision

January 23rd, 2013

As I cull poem after poem from my chapbook, I’m drawing strength from these lines by Annie Dillard (in The Writing Life).

The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin.

I had thought my chapbook was about an event in the narrator’s life, but it’s not. It’s about the aftermath, and all the poems about the event are just background in my head. Only the aftermath poems matter.

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.

Of peacocks and pianos

May 14th, 2012

I read this post on Sandra Beasley’s blog a couple of weeks ago, about writing about more than what is already inside your head, about infusing your writing with information gleaned from research. Beasley wrote about the peacocks at the zoo near where she lives, and how seeing the peacocks led her to read about peacocks – to research peacocks – so that when she sat down to write a poem about peacocks she actually knew something about peacocks. (In this spirit, Marge Piercy once told me the best books a writer can own are field guides.) Beasley wrote in her post, in what is possibly the best pithy summation ever: “Write what you know, yes. But know things beyond your own navel.” (Go read the whole post, it’s worth it).

That came back to me today as I was reading Andrea Barrett’s short story “The Particles” in the current issue of Tin House. The story involves more genetics and the intellectual development of the field of genetics – the story hinges on the science of genetics – than she possibly could have “known” until she went looking to know it so that her story might ring true. So that her story could exist at all, frankly. And now, as I’m writing this, a line in the acknowledgements of Claudia Emerson’s poetry collection Figure Studies comes to mind: “and a special thanks to Bruce Dalzell, who burned a piano for me on the banks of the Hocking River in Athens, Ohio, so I could conduct research.” She burned a piano. For, presumably, the poem “Piano Fire” in Figure Studies, in which the burning of the piano occupies ten lines of a thirty line poem, Claudia Emerson found somebody to burn a piano for her, so that she could write lines like this

when true ivory burns the flame is playful,
quick and green. And in the ash, last lessons:

and get the colors right.

Let’s get the colors right, people. Poets, essayists, fiction writers of all stripes: let us burn our figurative pianos.