Speaking of February, here’s a poem trying to make amends for my dislike of the briefest month. This apology appeared in Prairie Wolf Press Review*, and I may include it in my next collection (whenever that may be).
For years I have held February
answerable to many sorrows
as though the month itself
were responsible for its appearance:
the dour days too short, long nights
steeped in frosty bitterness.
Resigned to hibernation,
February made me sleepy.
Dulled my skin, sucked dream
into a cold vacuum
like a vacant acre of outer space,
a stone of ice upon my chest.
But today, I watch a small herd
of yearling deer file gingerly along
the hedgerow over crusted snow
and sense thaw within.
The days, brief, are nonetheless
beginning their shadowy
stretch into spring. It is the month
owls urge themselves
toward mating, their querying calls
strung along night’s bare branches;
the month buzzards return
from foraging the more southerly dead.
Skunks break dormancy amid
tussocks of snowdrops;
sometimes, the hellebore blooms.
I have been observing February
from all the wrong angles.
No, this is not the wild greening of April
nor the fragrant abundance of June,
but it is something that deserves better
than repudiation or scorn.
To February, which has given me much
besides unhappiness, I offer my apology.
Poetry and publishing: two topics that seem diametrically opposed, if you look at them under the perspective that’s the norm in the USA—that of business, capitalism, popular culture. Shake off that norm, however, and publishing can be re-imagined as aural/oral, visual, textual, cinematic, digital, interactive…who knows?
When a reader begins to deepen her understanding of creative literature, she will also find it necessary to widen the concept of publishing. Some folks say this is a new world. Or they’ll claim things were better in the old days. Curmudgeons and prejudices abound.
In my lifetime, I have observed and been part of significant and constant changes in what constitutes publishing, from Linotype to Huffpost. Recently, I participated on a panel of poets talking to students who have just begun an MFA program. The panel was a discussion, but it jogged reflections on the process of getting poetry to an audience. So here’s a compressed version of getting poems published, as I experienced it.
I began to submit my work in the very early 1980s to the indie-publishing journals which were extant at the time: photocopied, stapled zines with print runs of 300, or maybe just 150. I was new at writing and aware that my work wasn’t ready for Ploughshares or Poetry and the so-called top-tier journals I purchased and read carefully and tried to learn from.
As a 20-year-old woman, I was not exactly full of self-esteem. Why did I submit at all, when I knew my poems were juvenilia? Well, I know that now…at the time, let’s say I knew they weren’t up to the work of Elizabeth Bishop or Audre Lorde. The reason was mentorship. I had two good friends who encouraged me to send work out but to be realistic. To read the journal first and analyze my work in comparison to what appeared in the magazine. Good advice—and let me tell you how much harder that was in the years before the internet! As I lived in New York and Brooklyn and Philadelphia, however, and it was the 80s, there were good independent bookstores to browse, and good libraries. And there was Dustbooks.
So analysis was crucial, not just for deciding where to submit but to learn how to be a better writer. It was important to compare, to take apart, to hear meter, to recognize rhythm and consonance and the fabulous image and the fresh metaphor, to say how does that writer achieve what she does and can I learn it? Without slavish copying?
Damned difficult. But thanks to publishers, at least the materials were available. If we hadn’t had poetry publishers, it would have been even harder to learn the craft; and I’m not the sort of sui generis writer who just creates out of genius. I had to study, practice, revise, and learn the hard way. Alas.
In the later 80s, I started doing some editing and publishing of other people’s work. My dear friend, David Dunn, and I had a small press that put out two broadsides and four chapbooks. Taught me a great deal. I helped to edit a Xerox-zine in Philadelphia in the 80s. Meanwhile, I kept getting work into small press journals nationwide, mostly these photocopied deals with tiny readerships; but the minor successes kept me going. After awhile I had enough hubris to try the better-recognized journals, with some success. This is how it works: persistence, but not bull-headed, blind persistence. One persists through the learning process; revises, practices, finds trustworthy people for feedback.
My sister, my spouse, and I all have worked in the publishing business-as-business, in how-to and B2B magazines; I was a typographer, proofreader, copyeditor, writer, indexer. All of that background was valuable in its way and never kept me from pursuing creative work. So I did eventually go for my MFA, in my 40s, and I got chapbooks and a collection published at long last in spite of—oh, you know—life.
Because I feel that poetry needs audience, I was early to jump on the online publishing wagon, despite colleagues who warned that it wasn’t really as acceptable a venue as academically-affiliated print journals. Nonetheless I’ve found myself enthralled by online journals, by audio-poems, moving-poems (video), podcasts, blogs. I’ve watched well-respected magazines migrate to the internet. And there are problems with online publishing. I know about them, wrestle with them, yeah—keeps life interesting.
My route has not been the academic route, although I work at a college today; I am more of an outlier. Poets and writers can be nurses, doctors, mechanics, or landscapers, grandparents, people with disabilities, insurance industry managers, post office workers, tutors. Each of us discovers her own process for writing and for getting the poems into the world. Mine is pokey and slow and frequently interrupted, and my next long collection won’t appear until 2021, nine years after Water-Rites, my first. But I feel satisfied with my publishing record, such as it is. People do read my work, which is kind of the entire point of writing, no?
When everything is easy and there’s no chance of failure, life is boring. Writing creatively means taking risks, creating tension. Publishing creatively requires the same things. Risks, imagination, persistence, curiosity, analysis and a willingness to be open-minded. Fun pursuits, but not always easy ones.
I have been lucky in print this year. Two literary journals that I’ve long admired, Bellevue Literary Review and Prairie Schooner, published my poems, and so did the newer journal Naugatuck River Review. This is “a big deal” to me, because it is always exciting to be admitted into the pages of a magazine I like and because, despite the advantages of online/cloud-based literary journals, I love print!
There’s something inexpressibly marvelous about holding a book in my hands, turning the pages, and having a physical object–paper, binding, print–to carry with me.
Online magazines, theoretically at least, have a longer reach and can capture more readers (“hits”) than print. Literature requires audience, and the interwebs offer potentially millions of visitors to the poem online; but the operating word here is potential. What’s possible isn’t what generally happens. The readers of online literature, those people who stay on the poem long enough to read it–and then read the next poem, and the next, on-site–are not as legion as we poets might wish.
Through moderate use of social media, I do publicize my own work when it appears online (see links to the right on this page!). I welcomed the appearance of literature on the internet because one of my purposes for writing is to communicate with people. Readers matter to me. Getting my words into the public domain is the only way to begin that process of communication, and though online journals seem like the most ephemeral form of ephemera, they do make it easier for me to “share” (thanks to Facebook, I am beginning to despise that word) the poems or essays I’ve crafted.
Print journals, like books, lack the immediacy of the online publication. They are not interactive in the way some online journals can be (see my recent audiofile and poem in The Maynardas an example), although some print journals are pretty experimental and interactive in quite innovative ways, such as Ninth Letter.
I encourage anyone who reads my blog to check out other bloggers on literature and poetry, and a good place to start is with Dave Bonta’s Poet Bloggers Digest. Searching the internet will open up a world of excellent poetry in carefully edited and curated literary journals.
The internet platform permits poets to read their own work, in podcasts and on YouTube, and to launch videopoems into the world. It has been a boon for poets to find audiences of all kinds, not just people who read poetry journals.
However, my cat will never circle and then settle on an online literary journal. So there’s that…
[I tried to snap his photo when he sat on Prairie Schooner, but he jumped up and moved on.]
A friend read the piece and responded to the poem by saying, “This is a beautiful poem. It’s so visual–also, different the second time you read it. And I know how interested you’ve always been in saints and iconography and art, but where did you come up with the idea of imagined paintings? What’s that about?”
This is the best kind of question, as far as I’m concerned. It is a question about ideas, not inspiration or meaning or even craft–though I love questions about craft. It does beg the writer to reveal, however, a bit of the story-behind-the-story/poem/narrative, etc.
“Backstory” may seem self-explanatory. It’s a term used more frequently in drama, particularly screenwriting. Poetry critics are less inclined to employ the concept because–see last post–it is too easy to fall into explaining the poem, which is generally considered a no-no. My friend, however, is a reader and not a poetry critic. I felt free, therefore, to address the question on a personal level.
I began writing about a saints in less-than saintly pursuits. The idea interested me. Surely the saints could be imagined as real human beings, not only as intercessionaries between the human realm and Heaven. I wrote about St. Sebastian purchasing a tunic, Saint Agnes braiding her mother’s hair, and St. Anthony fetching a pail of water. Saints as human beings (rather than as symbols, icons, and religious items) led me to the depictions of saints in art as other-worldly, pure, suffering, or in all ways saintly; and I entertained thoughts of paintings I had never seen but would like to see–theoretically-possible paintings. In the case of St. Mary Magdalene bathing–would Da Vinci have painted it? Rubens? I can only imagine. The poems are a kind of ekphrasis.
I wanted to be a painter when I was a child. This imagining may be as close as I ever get to realizing my youthful ideals.
There is not much more backstory than that. None of it leads to meaning or interpretation, although the story above may cement some allusion or confirm referents in the reader’s mind. I hope, however, that the backstory here might interest one or two readers enough that they pick up a book on Renaissance or medieval art, on hagiography or history. Or perhaps someone will go to Amazon.com and purchase the anthology at the link above.
I blog, therefore I am part of the digi-technological consciousness.
Here’s a situation Descartes might have had fun imagining…have we invented our own “evil genius” in Boolean or algorithmic forms? I won’t venture there, as I am not tech-savvy or social-media savvy enough to philosophize around tech aspects of modern culture; though, yes, I do use portal systems when I teach; I do use (limited) forms of social media for communication and to publicize my work; I do take part in the networks community online; my poems and essays appear in online journals; I read blogs and online journals although in general I prefer paper, especially for book-length works.
It isn’t as if I don’t consider the intellectual challenges these communication platforms offer. It would be silly to ignore them. They are not going to go away any time soon. One question is, however, to what extent should I employ or embrace them?
Recently, I’ve had a poem published in Carbon Culture Review, an online and print journal that states, as part of its mission, that the publication “advocates a creative, thoughtful and visually appealing dialogue about our complex relationship to technology. We strive to promote the work of those who employ technology and utilize technological designs and terms in art and literature.” The Intersection of Technology + Literature + Art, says the masthead; interdisciplinary in scope–that’s something I find fascinating, so I’m happy to report a rather atypical poem of mine has found a place in the new issue (“21st Century Research”).
I read Chronicle of Higher Education online and have linked to several of its essays in past posts. Lately, I find much of interest in Hybrid Pedagogy, a fairly new digital source about technology, teaching, radical re-thinking of the educational framework, and exploring the possibility of intentional, compassionate connections between teachers and students–even in the digital world. Here’s a recent essay that appeals to me: “Teaching as Wayfinding.” I am still wrestling with the challenges of how to create a genuinely interactive and personal learning space in the classroom, let alone via distance education. There is so much to learn, and welcoming interdisciplinary synthesis into the discourse of the humanities offers intriguing potential.
Speaking of the interdisciplinary: I am pleased to report that The College of Physicians of Philadelphia chose one of my poems, “How the Body Works” as an honorable mention in its Poetry Month contest celebrating medical/health themes in poetry. [You can also check my Events page for information and tickets.]
The College, a professional medical organization founded in 1787 (same age as the U.S. Constitution), is also the site of the Mütter Museum, which has a terrific slogan: “Are you ready to be disturbingly informed?” The College boasts a library of historic significance.
It’s a great venue for a reading, and if you are in the area, please join us. My brother says the food is really good, too–the ticket price includes a dinner. How festive is that!?
Snow fell on Boston. Not a big snow, however, and rather typical for a late-winter storm: damp, swirling but not biting, swift-melting once the sun appeared two days later. Early Friday morning, I trudged with a friend over the as-yet unshoveled sidewalks to breakfast on Newbury Street at Steve’s. We met with conference buddies who are all members of the WOM-PO [women’s poetry] listserv. It is lovely to meet face-to-face people who have been virtual colleagues and splendid to discuss poetry over a good breakfast.
It is also a relief to realize that I have finally learned how to manage conference-going. It is all a matter of pacing and, I suppose, of taking poet William Stafford’s advice and lowering one’s expectations. The hardest challenge is making the choice between blowing the budget on terrific food (in a big city, wonderful restaurants abound) or on books, because the bookfair at the Associated Writing Programs’ annual conference is enough to inspire swooning among literary bibliophiles.
In three huge exhibit rooms, small presses and literary and university presses displayed chapbooks, literary journals, and books that range from minuscule to tabloid-sized, books that are handmade, letter-pressed, offset, print-on-demand, stapled, ribbon-sewn, die-cut, fancy-boxed, reprinted, spare, florid, illustrated, edgy, deckle-edged, marbled, second-hand, one-of-a-kind, limited-edition, mass produced, commercial, educational…in all genres including mixed-genre, collaborative, collage, anthology, with an emphasis more on the literary than the commercial text. These books can be devilishly hard to locate, even with the existence of Amazon and online sellers; and holding them in your hands is a far more convincing sell than seeing a picture file on your computer screen.
Heaven for poetry-readers, there are also wonderful creative non-fiction books, collections of short stories, novels, books on prosody and poetics, the craft of writing, on creativity and inspiration and toil and revision and on the complex and controversial topic of teaching writing. Oh, and there are people, too. Most of the attendees are writers of one stripe or another who are congenial and curious or else walking about with the glazed expression of the overwhelmed.
Or some combination of the two.
I exercised considerable restraint and managed not to load my bedside table with two months or more of reading material (see a related post here). And I got some terrific ideas for teaching writing to college students and found some wonderful poets whose work I want to study. The last night of the conference, I listened to the mesmerizing Anne Carson read an indescribable take-down of the fifth book of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, the section titled The Captive (Albertine). It’s been years since I read Proust, which I did almost out of stubbornness in my junior year of college, but the book came back vividly enhanced by Carson’s peculiar approach to pacing, language, scholarship, whimsy and satire. I like what the Poetry Foundation’s biography says about her after the release of her text The Autobiography of Red:
According to John D’Agata in the Boston Review, the book“first stunned the classics community as a work of Greek scholarship; then it stunned the nonfiction community as an inspired return to the lyrically based essays once produced by Seneca, Montaigne, and Emerson; and then, and only then, deep into the 1990s, reissued as “literature”and redesigned for an entirely new audience, it finally stunned the poets.” D’Agata sees Carson’s earlier work as an essayist everywhere in her poetry, along with her deep absorption in Classical languages. Carson’s work, D’Agata alleges, asks one to consider “how prosaic, rhetorical, or argumentative can a poem be before it becomes something else altogether, before it reverts to prose, to essay?”
Altogether, Boston provided nourishment of many kinds: gustatory, intellectual, emotional, poetical…food for thought.