“Secret Written From Inside a Shark’s Mouth” by Jeanann Verlee

September 28th, 2017

Originally published in Foundry, you can read Jeanann Verlee’s poem here.

This poem grabbed me starting with the title. The poet Marge Piercy once gave a great piece of advice to a workshop group I participated in several years ago: the title needs to serve the poem and stand out in a table of contents with maybe fifty other poems listed so that readers want to turn to your poem. Verlee’s title does that right – it was in fact the first poem I clicked on in this issue of Foundry. The title promises to reveal a secret – that right there is inducement to keep reading. And the shark – is the poet/speaker the shark or has she been swallowed by the shark?

Verlee introduces tension with the first line: “It wasn’t all booze and inching toward death.” We’re taken to a place of danger “booze and inching toward death” but also defensiveness or self-protectiveness of the speaker – “it wasn’t all” bad (italics mine). The speaker is directly acknowledging a bad situation but immediately complicates it, and makes it explicit in the next line: “Love lived there too.” I’m interested right away by the push and pull of a complicated relationship, the push and pull of the speaker’s own complicity in this “inching toward death.” Isn’t it often like that? Very rarely is anything ever wholly good for us or wholly bad for us, and the immediate introduction of this tension makes me believe the poem and want to keep reading. I want to see what wins out in the tug-of-war between “inching toward death” and “love.”

The poem then swiftly describes the speaker’s boyfriend or lover or husband – the relationship remains undefined and the man is never named in the poem although the speaker is – re-roofing the house (suggesting husband) and calling to the speaker to “admire his handiwork.” His handiwork is not only the roofing job but, on the felt upon which the shingles will eventually be laid,

“scrawled in bright white chalk
across the entire width of the roof:
“I ♡ YOU, JEANANN!”

A grand romantic gesture, but the opening lines of the poem have warned us that not everything in this relationship will be grand and romantic. Then comes what for me is the tipping point of the poem, him, “balancing on the high pitch, a beer in his fist.” I love the rhyme and meter in this line and how the rhyme and meter contribute to the pivoting: the image of the boyfriend/husband/lover balancing on the roof, the line itself rhythmically in balance and balanced by the rhyme of pitch and fist on either side of the comma, and the poem moving at this point from recollection of the past to imagining a moment in the future. The moment in the future the poem imagines is some future owner of the house re-roofing the house and finding the message  – a reminder, the speaker says, not of their love but of “exactly to whom I belong.”

I love how this poem keeps the tension largely under the surface – like a shark, like the message beneath the shingles, like the way troubles often linger beneath the surface in a relationship before we fully recognize and name them, like the shark in this poem that is introduced in a series of footnotes emerging slowly the way threat usually does.

Reading Jane Kenyon

April 8th, 2017

I’ve been reading Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems lately; I have something to learn from her, from how she wrote out of her quiet life poems that spoke to and beyond that life. For example, “Afternoon in the House” with its final stanza -

“The house settles down on its haunches
for a doze.
I know you are with me, plants,
and cats – and even so, I’m frightened,
sitting in the middle of perfect
possibility.”

The house is quiet, the cats and plants too, and so is the speaker. She turns on a radio but then turns it off again, wanting no noise but that of “the sound of a voice reading a poem.” Kenyon is attentive to the position of the cats, the tilt of a flower, the quality of sound or silence in the room. She’s not afraid to write a poem that stays in that room, that seems small – but isn’t, of course, because it extends out into that final moment of “perfect / possibility.” It’s frightening, the possibility, the going out of the quiet room, but Kenyon lets the poem open to the possibility. The quiet certainly of the room rubbing up against the expansiveness of possibility charges the poem. Kenyon’s quiet is deceptive, the way the stillness of a woman, in writing or in life, is often deceptive. I’m trying to take apart her poems and see how she performs that balancing act.

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.

New poem up

September 10th, 2013

I’ve been having a long dry spell of a summer, the kind of dry spell between new poems that has passed unsettling and has moved on to disturbing. So having my poem “The Kindness of Ravens” up at Heron Tree this week is a real shot in the arm (even if I did write the poem some time ago – you know how long it can sometimes be between completion and publication). Many thanks to the editors at Heron Tree for including me!

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!

New poem up

February 19th, 2013

My poem “Winter Passage” is up at Heron Tree this week. I really like the Heron Tree format: they publish one poem a week and it’s featured all week. New poems are published each Sunday and previous poems are available in the archives. Check them out!

The dangerous edge

January 19th, 2013

How set yourself spinning? Where is an edge – a dangerous edge – and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?
          Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I’ve had a poem accepted at Heron Tree – it’s not up yet; I’ll be sure to link to it when it goes live – but this isn’t about that. It’s about the earlier version of that same poem that a different journal passed on (and I’d like to thank those editors for passing on it; they were right, of course) and the revision that made the difference.

It’s a tricky thing getting that notification back from a journal: sorry, we’re unable to use this piece. So far, in my short experience in sending out work for publication, the rejection letters/emails I’ve received have almost always been of the form rejection variety. I understand that and don’t begrudge editors one bit for not commenting on the whys or hows of the rejection process – editors are busy, generally unpaid, doing their best to keep up with what I understand to be a steady increase in the number of submissions they receive. They can’t comment on every piece and I don’t expect them to; it’s wonderful when it happens, but I understand why it’s not common practice. Once or twice I have received feedback from an editor: one editor commented that the particular poems she read aren’t for her but she liked the voice and would I please send new work in the future (taking the advice of Kelli Russell Agodon from this post, I did submit again and sooner rather than later) and once I received the comment that a translation of a Swiss phrase I used in a poem would have been helpful. But for the most part, I’m never sure why a particular journal passed on a particular work.

I always take a hard look at my poems after a rejection letter. Generally, after looking the poems over, I still believe in them as they stands and assume that they just weren’t right for the journal for whatever reason but not that the poems are on their face artistically unsound. I’m so slow about submitting my work that I rarely send out something that hasn’t been worked over and over (which sometimes can be the problem, I suppose, if I edit the poor thing to death, dousing the initial spark that set it off in the first place). Sometimes I do see that I sent the piece out one draft too soon: I’ll see a place where I could push a little harder; a word that could be fresher or more precise (perhaps use “vestiges” rather than “traces” or the other way around); an image that isn’t working. And sometimes, I can see that I was just holding back.

That’s the case with this poem, and I’m not sure why I didn’t see it in the earlier submission. (Well, that’s the Holy Grail, isn’t it, to read your own work as clearly as your best critique partner reads it? Clearly I’m still on the quest…) The earlier version used lovely language but it was…reserved. Careful. The revision brings the narrator more clearly into focus, and the narrator has something at stake. I’m even willing to say that Imight have something at stake in this poem now. I thought there was something at stake in the earlier version, I must have believed that or I wouldn’t have sent it out – I generally don’t go off half-cocked when it comes to my work – but looking back at that version now, I can see how it skirted the issue. It leaned heavily on language to disguise the fact that it was still keeping its secret; the revision (I think) lets the reader see past the language to the truth.

This goes right to the heart of my writing resolution for the year: to take greater risks in my writing, greater emotional risk, to go as I said in my writing goals post “closer to the edge and to stay there a beat longer than is comfortable.” I think the later version of this poem does that, and I think that’s why it was picked up this time around. Now, to learn how to recognize that sooner.

Now, to learn how to climb the trail to that dangerous edge.

Sad

January 10th, 2013

Not looking for any poetry comments, just sympathy – especially for the Boychen. The horse in this old poem of mine is going to the animal hospital tomorrow, and she won’t be coming home.

Of Apples and Autumn and Small Boys in Love With Horses
       for Boychen

I choke on the calendar like an apple
I tried to get down in one bite when

even the horse knows to break it
open, crush it to a juicy softness

before swallowing. We have brought
her orchards of apples autumn after

autumn. You used to roll them under
the fence, and when you press now

your fingers together and reach out
over the wire, apple balanced in your

outstretched palm like an offering,
I see how you have grown.

I try to count autumns, the apples
that have crossed this fence line.

The horse lips it from your palm,
cracks it open, drools saliva

and apple juice. You pat her muzzle,
she sniffs around for more.

Finding nothing, she returns to the grass.
You walk up the road towards home.

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!)

New poem published

December 21st, 2012

My poem “The Moment In Which You Are Surprised” is up in the winter issue of IthacaLit, a lovely on-line journal that also features art and artist interviews. I’ll confess, I’ve always been fond of this particular poem so I’m especially happy that it’s found such a lovely home.