My 2018 Poetry Action Plan

January 1st, 2018

I first read about a Poetry Action Plan on January Gill O’Neil’s blog Poet Mom in 2009. Has it been that long? I guess it has. January’s four basic guidelines for a Poetry Action Plan are pretty straightforward and I’m stealing them from this post of hers.

1. Clearly define your goals. Do you want to finish putting together that manuscript? Finally write sestinas without a cheat-sheet? Attend a workshop? Give more readings? Be clear about your specific goals and priorities.

2. Be realistic. You might not be able to publish 100 poems in 2018 – because if for no other reason, the vagaries of what journals pick up which pieces are at the end of the day out of the writer’s control – but you can set a goal to submit 100 poems in 2018. (Although, as I suggest below, there are a lot of reasons why a writer might decide not to submit work even if it had been, at the start of the year, a goal.)

3. Track your progress. I finally explored bullet journals last year and discovered I love them. They satisfy the list-maker, the box-checker in me. So for me they’re a great place to list the journals I want to submit to and to cross them off the list when I’ve done that.

4. Be kind to yourself. Be prepared for setbacks, life changes, or dry spells and don’t beat yourself over the head when they happen.

Clarity, specificity, and setting priorities are key to putting together a set of goals that will feel like a practice, an enhancement that energizes the writing life, and not a burden.

So here are my poetry goals for 2018:

1. Be useful. Do I know about a fellowship? Spread the word! Can I write a review? Do it! Did I read an amazing poem the other day? Share it here or on Twitter. Link to interesting interviews, spread the word about that great new podcast.

2. Become a regular review-writer by the end of the year. I published my first review last year – of Zilka Joseph’s Sharp Blue Search of Flame, in Dunes Review – and want to write more reviews in 2018. This goal dovetails with goal number one – be a generous and useful member of the poetry community – and with another goal of mine, which is to become a better reader: to read more deeply and to be more critically engaged with the books I read. Actually, more accurately expressed, I want to return to the reading style required of me during my MFA program and which I enjoy but have somehow slipped a bit away from since graduation. Maybe, for the year since graduation, I needed that change of pace, a period of reading in a different way but I don’t want to lose those critical reading and writing skills I honed during my MFA program.

3. Re-invigorate this blog (how many times have I said that) and write about poetry here once a week. A lot of poetry bloggers are deciding to rededicate ourselves to our blogs in 2018 and Donna Vorreyer has a great list of links on her blog. I’ll be updating my blogroll throughout January. This is also part of my community-building goal.

4. Draft a poem a week. If it’s garbage, who cares? Garbage can be mined, mulled over, and revised (or thrown out). But I can’t revise nothing.

5. Send poems out to journals three times a month. I find setting a number on submissions a complicated goal to set for a several reasons. Maybe my work dries up; maybe my work goes in a new direction that feels risky and vulnerable and not ready to share; maybe something happens in my personal life that makes me not want to share. Maybe I get a series of rejections that suggest to me that I’m sending out work too soon or for the wrong reasons or to the wrong places and I decide to stop and re-assess. Who knows? But I do want to share my work when it’s ready to be shared, so I’m putting down a number here so that I can hold myself in some way accountable.

So those are my 2018 poetry goals. I’d love to read yours either in the comments or a link to a blog if you’re blogging your goals.

And Happy New Year or, as we say in Switzerland, guten Rutsch!

“Revising It Into Something I Can Bear” by Lisa Mecham

September 29th, 2017

Originally published at The Shallow Ends, you can read Lisa Mecham’s poem here.

This poem is small and tight on the page, contained in relatively short lines of even length (4 – 6 words; 4 – 8 syllables) so that it appears as a short column. This sense is enhanced by the first line, “What if instead, a cathedral”, making us think of literal cathedral columns. The title tells us that whatever “it” is, it is painful to the speaker (unbearable), and the poem will be an attempt to recast this “it” into something the speaker can bear to look at. The first lines fulfill this expectation with the gentle imagery of “cherubs and doves, glass stained.” But the poem introduces a shiver with the next lines –

My small back
cool upon the smooth
stones.” –

which both continue with a gentle imagery of smooth stones and allow a glimpse of the unbearable the poem is seeking to revise – “my small back” gives us an image of a child, and in light of the title we begin to suspect the harm done to this child that the poem does not say. This double vision continues with the lines

Look! I too can make
an angel, arms, legs cast
apart.”

I simultaneously imagine a child making snow angles and a child spread-eagle in a sexual position: the bearable and the unbearable contained in the same lines the way the picture on a tilt card changes with just a slightly different angle. It’s an extraordinary line doing double-work, carrying two completely different meanings with it, both of which are essential to the poem. The childlike innocence of a snow angel cannot be sustained, the shadow is always there –

My sweet one, this baptism
is always gonna hurt.
” –

and the poem which started out reimagining the scene ends with not being able to look away from

“the oval mouth
at the rise of the child’s why.”

 

“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.

Blog version which point-0?

July 29th, 2017

Trying, once again, to revitalize this space. Maybe I will re-create this blog as I re-create myself: six months out from my thesis presentation and one month out from the formal graduation ceremony, I am now a post-MFA-er trying to establish and hold on to the rhythms of a post-MFA creative life, to hold on to that community and to join the larger creative community as well. Freed from the beneficial tyranny of deadlines, will I write more? Less? Differently? Freed from the beneficial tyranny of reading lists, will I read more? Less? Differently?

At any rate, I doubt I have a reader left in the world – freed from an audience, let’s see what happens.

What I’m reading now:

This essay by Adrienne Raphel on the 50th anniversary of the publication of M.S. Merwin’s The Lice. “The most frightening aspect of The Lice,” Raphel writes “is its brutal cyclicality. We have felt these bruises before, felt them disappear, and then been re-bruised.” And it is now my dearest wish that my poetry manuscript one day ends up in Merwin’s compost heap. Read the essay – you’ll understand.

Forest Primeval, always, always Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis. This book has changed my poetry in ways I can hardly describe. I turn to Vievee’s work again and again for lessons in writing into discomfort.

Female Dragonflies Fake Sudden Death to Avoid Male Advances” by Ava C. Cipri in Stirring: A Literary Collection. “Dragonfly, girl, I feel you.”

 

 

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.

The perfect is the enemy of the good, or something like that

April 30th, 2015

So I dusted off my blog and allowed it to get dusty again, and here I am almost finished with my first semester and I’ve hardly said a thing.

So here’s some of what I’ve learned:

* An MFA takes a lot of time, but it is manageable – especially if you’re willing to allow your blog and your bedside table to get a little dusty.

* Writing critical reviews of poetry collections is a lot more fun than I thought it would be.

* Writing critical reviews of poetry collections forces me to deconstruct the poems and analyze how and why they work.

* It’s important to read poets who weren’t previously on your radar; it’s important to read poets whose styles differ from yours; it’s important to read poets you don’t necessarily “like” on a pure enjoyment level but who nonetheless demonstrate mastery. In all likelihood, reading these poets will teach you more than reading the poets to whom you naturally because you will have to read these poems very closely to identify the masterful turns.

* If I wait for things to be perfect – poems, critical reviews, or blog posts – they will never be written. As Marvin Bell says, “No good stuff without the bad stuff. It’s all part of the stuff.” Just write, the good stuff, the bad stuff, mix up all the stuff and see what happens.

* It can be difficult to sustain relationships with your teachers and classmates over a distance, but try. These are the people who will support you and who you will support, so stay in touch as best you can.

* Everybody’s probably got their own system for organizing drafts in progress, notes for future ideas, interesting lines, submissions, and deadlines. However you do it, do it. There’s a lot to keep track of.

* It’s not everybody who gets to sit down with cup of tea, a copy of Seam and a pencil and call it work, so take advantage of it while you can. My first semester has already gone so fast, I can’t believe I’m nearly one-fourth of the way through this already.

* This is really, really fun.

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.

The adventure begins

December 2nd, 2014

I’m dusting off my blog. A new adventure is about to begin. I’ve been accepted to the low-residency MFA program in poetry at Pacific University in Oregon and my first residency begins in January.

I want to use this space to write about the experience – both logistically, as an international student; and intellectually, as a place to think out loud about what I’m learning and to share poems and poets I find exciting.

I’m expecting a lot of hard work and not enough hours in the day. I’m expecting to be doing homework during the boys’ hockey practices and waking up before the rest of the family. I’m expecting a lot of packages in the mail and international shipping charges. I’m expecting to be challenged. I’m expecting a lot of revisions.

I’m expecting to have the time of my life.

Poetry roundup: Maxine Kumin

February 7th, 2014

I was saddened to read of Maxine Kumin’s passing at 88 yesterday; and grateful that her long life gave us so much of her poetry. In her honor, here’s a selection of her poems I was able to find available online in the short time since I read the news and which I am fairly confident have been reproduced in the public domain with permission.

From Poetry Magazine, July 2002, “Getting There.”

At the Poetry Foundation, “After Love,” “How It Is,” “A Calling,” “Finding the one Brief Note,” and “Together.”

At Poets.org “Looking Back in My Eighty-First Year,” “In the Park,” “Jack,” “Purgatory,” (which you can also listen to), “The Hermit Goes Up Attic,” and “Woodchucks” (also available as audio).

From The Writer’s Almanac, “Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief.”

From the archives of The New Republic, “History Lesson” and “Saying Goodbye.

At The Hudson Review, “Red Tape and Kangaroo Courts I,” “Red Tape and Kangaroo Courts II,” and “Old News.”

From The Poetry Center at Smith College, “Waterboarding, Restored.”

From Poetry Daily this essay by Kumin “Metamorphosis: From Light Verse to the Poetry of Witness” originally published in The Georgia Review, Winter 2012.

And I’ll leave you with Kumin’s words from a 1973 conversation with Pearl London as recorded in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets, edited by Alexander Neubauer (if you don’t have this book, get it!):

Because, you see, this is what I conceive the function of the poet to be. Not to moralize, not to polemicize, not to grieve, not to praise, and not to damn. But to name, to tell, to authenticate, to be specific, to report what he [sic] sees and what he [sic] feels. I suppose if I have a credo, that would be the credo that I have.