You’re Not Getting Older; They’re Getting Younger

adroit

I once wrote a poem (it’s lying around here somewhere) about how young some of these doctors I’ve seen are getting. Do they really know what the hell they’re doing? I wondered. For some reason, I prefer seeing white-haired-but-healthy-looking sorts behind a scalpel. Behind a jet airliner’s controls, too.

But part of the Isaac Newton “for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction” logic of the universe is that any society getting older is by necessity also getting younger. I mean, philosophy courses that start with syllogisms were the death of me, but this much I know.

One great example of this phenomenon is a newish poetry site called The Adroit Journal. Check out its ancient editor-in-chief. Move over, Methuselah! I sent some poems to this journal because I admired the poems already published there. Only after I clicked the “submit” button did I stumble upon the link to Adroit’s poetry readers.

Look again. Not a white-haired-but-healthy-looking sort in the line-up. Just healthy-looking. And very young-looking. The average age must be, what… 23 or less?

To me, this is a good thing for poetry. A very good thing. Some readers out there consider our fair outpost a bit too exotic for its own good. You know, poetry as precious kingdom. One ruled by a clique in a tower with its own rules.

Something tells me Adroit’s poetry readers have little use for rules and even less for ivory-towered kingdoms. They just know what they like and publish it.

The moral of this story? The world is not getting older; it’s getting younger. And that includes The Poetry World. Thank God and other deities…

Talking with the Buddha of Poetry (Part 2)

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Q: Do you see any return in popularity to form poetry?

A: It’s impossible to say. Certainly there are proponents and practitioners. Some poets are of a mathematical mind, which surprises many readers but shouldn’t. Meter and rhyme bring different skills to the table. Read the masters who fill poetry anthologies. While you may find variations on a theme (Shakespearean vs. Petrarchan sonnets, for example), it’s nothing like now where any 14-line poem is knighted as “sonnet.” It takes a free-verse imagination to call every orange an apple. (Laughs) Why can’t a 14-line poem just be a 14-line poem? Must it be a “sonnet” no matter what? Can we not love it by any other name, to coin Shakespeare?

Q: Wait. Was that an answer?

A: Not really. I must be running for higher office.

Q: Speaking of, what do you think of political poetry?

A: Again, we come to semantics. What do you mean by political? If it’s to change a reader’s view, even on the simplest concept, it can said to be political. Definitions of argument writing or persuasive writing are also problematic. It can be said that writing designed to inform or to entertain is at the same time making an argument, because knowledge from information has the power to change the reader’s perception. Ditto humor. It can be a form of ethos, finding humor in unexpected places, inspiring respect and appreciation. So yes, both overtly and covertly, politics has a place in poetry, but it need not be as obvious and painful as an “Ode to Donald Trump’s Hippocampus.”

Q: Are there any out-of-bounds topics for poetry, then?

A: I hope not, though there might be topics in poor taste or ill-advised topics. The non-poetry reading public has this notion that poetry chiefly concerns itself with love and nature. It is essential, then, that poems be written about most everything and anything (including love and nature, of course). As the prophet says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun anyway, so we might as well look for variations on a theme of everything. There’s no choice but…

Q: Do you read the Bible?

A: The King James Version is poetry, no? How many titles and allusions have come from this great book? It’s a shame some public schools avoid it in the name of church and state boundaries. The Bible can be taught as literature, too. In fact, it is essential if readers are to understand the many allusions made to it in their reading of literature. Unfamiliarity with the Bible and Greek mythology, to name two, has hurt modern readers’ ability to fully understand what they’re reading. The shift to quick and passive entertainment in general (TV, Internet, video games, et.) has hurt reading, vocabulary acquisition, and therefore comprehension in general. As citizens of the world, we suffer a great loss because of this. But now I’m answering questions I wasn’t asked.

Q: Do you support the Poet Laureate movement, wherein you have Poet Laureates to individual states, towns, etc.?

A: (Laughs) Oh, yes. Every marketing gambit you can make, by all means. Poetry on subways, on sidewalks, on walls, in newspapers and magazines, on NASCAR racers’ helmets, etc. It has a place as much as America’s much-beloved advertisements for goods. Get poetry out of the margins, the shadows. It is a sun-loving organism. Only at high noon in full sun will it shed the stereotypes that have grown like moss upon it.

Q: Which are?

A: That it is frighteningly esoteric. That it is an insiders’ game. That it is for a highbrow club of snobs in smoking jackets. That it is only good if people are left scratching their heads, going, “Huh?”

Q: So what can poetry do to help itself?

A: Be. Laugh. Breathe. And if there be pretenders in love with the concept of old stereotypes, let them have their private country clubs. Open your poetry to the public and find like-minded poets. There are plenty out there and, like anything else, numbers will only make them stronger.

Q: Thank you!

Talking with the Buddha of Poetry (Part 1)

buddha

I had a chance to visit an oft-published (now there’s an infrequent modifier) poet of late, a calm and reasonable man who sipped Kusmi tea (French? Russian?) and tossed bon mots (French!) with gentle abandon. As a newly-published, newly-perplexed acolyte, I had plenty of questions. He didn’t lack for opinions. Here are a few:

Q: I don’t want to go all chicken-and-egg on you, but which should it be–write for yourself or write for prospective readers?

A: It is a non-question. You write for yourself and, if it speaks to the human condition that is in you, it will speak to the human condition that is in your readers. We are all unique, yet the same. Life flourishes on shady banks of paradox and irony.

Q: Why is the reading of poetry declining?

A: Is it? Poetry hides in fiction. It has even infiltrated non-fiction, or what we sometimes call “creative non-fiction,” perhaps. I don’t see it declining so much as assimilating.

Q: But poetry packaged and sold as poetry in books. The sales are dismal. The readership is anemic.

A: With few exceptions, it is as it always has been. Veneration of poetry is also cultural, more prevalent in some countries and languages than others. Schools have done poetry no favors, either. In some cases, poets themselves are guilty of self-inflicted wounds.

Q: Meaning?

A: Meaning when people compare a poem to “modern art” in a scoffing tone, they feel the work is purposely impenetrable and meaningless. If it is so obtuse it can mean anything to any reader, it becomes the punch line to a joke in the public eye. If it is a secret shared by an elect few, it becomes the poetic equivalent of the 1%.

Q: Some argue that poetry, both writing it and reading it, is too precious for its own good. Your thoughts?

A: Labeling is too precious for its own good.

Q: Why do you write?

A: Expression is by nature imperfect, and just as man is driven by the desire to know, to destroy all mystery with his curiosity, the poet is driven by the desire to capture nameless feelings in writing that has a name. It can never be, really, but the desire to make it be is what makes writing worthwhile, beautiful, and human.

Q: Do you reread your own work?

A: (laughs) If not me, who? I read my work aloud to myself, a separate me. Of course, I read other poets’ work aloud, too. I must nurture my ears as much as my eyes.

                                      …to be continued

 

Submittable, Reading Fees, Coffee, Et Cetera

submittable

If you traffic in poetry, by now you’ve registered with Submittable, the Portal of Hope. It used to be called “Submishmash,” I think, but that unfortunate name was retired by a blender. So the more common-sensical Submittable it is.

For those of us who need order in our disorderly lives, Submittable is a blessing. Of sorts. The good news? It keeps track of what poems went where when, because Odin knows I couldn’t, and my paper system is, to be kind, quixotic.

The bad news, you ask? Not all markets play ball with Submittable. Some stubborn sorts still demand their acronyms: USPS, SASE, P.S.: No email.

Yeah. Those “Last-of-the-Mohican” sorts.

And some take submissions strictly via email. You have the attached tribe and the body-of-the-email tribe.

Others still have their own little Submittable system. Try coming up with a password for each one. And tracking it with your paper system. You will soon become a disciple of the “Forgot Password?” deities.

The increasingly big deal now is reading fees. It’s spreading like kudzu, like peanut butter, like room-temperature butter on sourdough toast. I used to be 100% opposed to reading fees and refuse to submit to any “Evil Empire” that used them to gouge starving (for publication) writers. Now, I’m 90% opposed. For one, the money sometimes goes to paying writers. For their work. Can you imagine? And for another, there’s something to the argument that you used to always spend money anyway–both for the mailing and for the return SASE–so why are you griping now? (Hey, Zeus, but I hate logic in all its majesty.)

Bottom line: Sometimes I pay journals to reject my work (nice business–for them–if you can get it!), but for the most part, I still avoid these fee-fi-fo-fum sorts.

On Submittable, everybody’s favorite is the “Status” column. When you send it in, the light goes on saying “Received.” Good to know. In the old system, the occasional submission wound up behind some credenza at the Topeka Post Office and no status column in hell would tell you as much.

“Received” is a noncommittal blue font. Then there’s the dreaded “In-Progress” in purple. This torture device makes writers believe that there work is now (this very minute) the subject of extended editorial board (as opposed to “bored”) meetings. “Which of these five poems do we want? There’s something to be said for all of them. Now let’s take turns saying those ‘something to be saids.'” That sort of thing. Every day. Marathon sessions, all meaning your work is getting the old, Shakespeare line-by-line scrutiny and is someday destined for the SparkNotes treatment.

Then again, sometimes “In-Progress” is simply “Received” in sheep’s clothing. Meaning: The status could remain “In-Progress” for a full three trimesters, for all you know. A pregnant pause, so to speak.

“Prolonging,” meet “the agony.”

Finally, there are the stop-light status markers. The dreaded red “Declined” and the rare but relished “Accepted” (green relish, to be specific). If I could muster enough “Accepteds” it would give my status column a festive, Christmas look, but it has, over the years, taken on more of a Rudolph glow.

Admittedly, things are looking up of late. I have been making like St. Patrick, wearing more of the green (as long as we’re not talking money, I mean). Perhaps it is the cover letters with notice of other “Accepteds.” Editors are herd (not seen) animals. There’s nothing they like better than the comfort of other editors when it comes to saying, “Yes, this guy is new and good and we’re willing to say I was one of the first to discover him….”

But wait. I’m waxing delusional again (and wishing there was a status marker called “Dreaming”). When I should be writing poetry. To feed to Submittable, the Portal of Hope.

But first, another black coffee. HOT. (You actually have to say that when ordering a cup these days–another sign of the approaching Apocalypse!)

You Won’t Find This Quiz on Goodreads*

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*But if you did and took it, you’d probably be in first place thanks to this sneak preview.

 

Nota bene: This quiz is for experts–that is, anyone who has ever read a poem (ANY poem, even “Roses Are Red–Still”). Having read The Indifferent World itself is not a requirement. It only helps a little, I promise. So go ahead. Impress yourself!

 

What is this poetry collection about, anyway?
___ Non-GMO Corn Flakes
___ John Calvin, predestination, and midnight Skip-Bo games in Plymouth
___ our world
___ nobody knows

What does “indifferent” mean, anyway?
___ quiet, shy
___ perspicacious
___ shrinking
___ Who cares?

How many rhyming poems will I find in this book, anyway?
___ one
___ eleven
___ twenty-one
___ none, which makes it more fun

In an earlier Goodreads life, the author went by what pseudonym, anyway?
___ Bwana
___ Newengland
___ Talleyrand
___ Alfred E. Newman

What lake is pictured on the cover of The Indifferent World, anyway?
___ Lago Maggiore (Frederick Henry’s favorite in A FAREWELL TO ARMS)
___ Lake Tahoe (Mark Twain’s favorite in ROUGHING IT)
___ Lake Victoria (Queen Victoria’s favorite in Africa)
___ Lake Anon (Anon Ymous’s favorite in Goodreads quizzes)

What is the author’s favorite infinitive, anyway?
___ to eat
___ to sleep
___ perchance to dream
___ to craft

After writing a novel (unpublished), a collection of vignettes (unpublished), and numerous short stories (unpublished), why did this author choose to write poems at such a very late age, anyway?
___ It was free (verse).
___ He was out of options.
___ He met a Muse on Facebook.
___ It was the only genre to take the “un-” out of “published.”

The first poem in this collection is about what pressing social issue, anyway?
___ A hunter choosing to shoot a deer.
___ A hunter choosing NOT to shoot a deer.
___ A hunter choosing to watch “Bambi” or “Old Yeller” on Wednesday night.
___ We’re going to build a wall.

According to GR reviewer Alex, poetry is WHAT, anyway?
___ “…sublime” (as opposed to sub-lemon)
___ “…supreme among the arts.”
___ “…like an onion left in the root cellar too long.”
___ “…dumb.”

How difficult was it to create ten questions about a 98-page poetry collection containing 80 poems, one that POETRY magazine said nothing about and THE NEW YORKER chimed in with “We’ll second that!” anyway?
___ very
___ very
___ very
___ all of the above

 

Answer key: 
Do you really need one?

 WHAT IT MEANS:

None Correct: Now that’s indifferent (then again, who cares?)
1-2 Correct: You know, infinitive! A verb with to in front of it….
3-4 Correct: Poetry. You’ve heard of it, right?
5-6 Correct: It was the sub-lemon that threw you, right?
7-8 Correct: Very, very, very (all of the above) good!
9 Correct: Call Mr. T! You’re on the A-Team!
10 Correct: You know me better than I know me. Drop me a line, why don’t you. I’m still trying to find myself and California’s a long way aways.

Student-Friendly Poems: The Super Heroes of the Classroom

English teachers’ usual approach into literature is inductive. They read a poem aloud — usually two or three times — perhaps ask students to mark it up or analyze it in pairs or a group, and then wonder if they might write a thesis statement that includes the theme. Thus, to determine the author’s purpose, students must first consider the details within the work and then think their way up the ladder of abstraction to a thematic balcony.

For a switch, teachers could create a sense of balance by occasionally taking deductive forays into literature. That is, either give the students a theme in advance, or provide the purpose of the work as given by the author himself. In this scenario, the heavy lifting would be done before anyone mutters ready, set, or go. With the “gift” of a thoughtful, abstract statement already in hand, students could begin an Easter egg hunt for literary evidence that will directly line up with the author’s own reflection on the work.

To test drive this theory, I give you one of my favorite, student-friendly poems: “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too” by James W. Hall. On his blog, Hall provides not only the poem (at the end of his entry) but some insight into the work. Taking his direct words, teachers can fashion a thesis statement that looks something like so:

In his poem, “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too,” James W. Hall uses humor and some harsh truths to show that “it’s a hard thing to… recreate yourself, reinvent yourself. Become someone different, someone new. Throw away one identity (and mask) and put on another. We all struggle with [this] in some way or another. We want to change, to grow, to abandon one set of personality features for better ones,” but this is not easily done.

With this statement, much of it from the poet’s lips, students in groups could determine importance by marking up the poem’s key textual evidence — words and lines that will support the claim in the provided thesis statement. This deductive angle might be considered a type of scaffold, but it is simply an equally-legitimate approach with the same learning goals — getting students to connect abstract to concrete as they analyze literature for author’s purpose (OK, with author’s purpose).

Highlighting important lines and writing comments and inferences in the margins during small group discussion or paired academic conversations, students will be better suited (if you’ll forgive) for the perils of such venues as a Socratic Seminar. Why? Because they will not have to “find the grail” (in poetry, so often a “hopeless cause” in their minds), but instead will have to explain how the provided grail materialized in their hands in the first place.

Will this bestow confidence in young literary speakers? I would guess yes, much more so than with the inductive approach. Should teachers abandon inductive analysis altogether, then? Hardly. Students should see deductive as Castor to inductive’s Pollux, Scylla to its Charybdis, and (to bring it down a notch) pepperoni to its pizza.

In short, teachers should see if providing themes upfront now and then leads student discussions to more interesting (and vertigo-inducing) places where they can build on each others’ ideas (or challenge them) until they wind up confronting one of the pieces of evidence they are sure to dredge up head on: the burning suit.

Note that, in his blog, Hall claims “”buining” one’s suit is the punchline of the poem.” This, according to the poet, is paramount among other important lines. Will students see it that way, emboldened as they’ll be by having “the answer” up front and “for free”? Will they compare the “fwame-wesistent” suit to jobs, to personalities, to economic classes, to themselves? Will they make metaphoric leaps and bounds that have their teachers swooning with deductive joy?

Time (and Elmer Fudd-like dramatic readings) will tell how this approach might work. Still, students’ “spidey sense” should be tingling, as they say….

 

(This piece was originally published, in slightly different form, in a teaching blog I kept.)

Poetry-Writing Advice–There’s No Shortage

books

As is true with most things in life, there’s no shortage of advice when it comes to writing poetry. Don’t consider the source, though. Advisors are seldom names you will find in the poetry aisle. (Well, if poetry even had an aisle, that is. It’s more likely wedged between Romance and Manga.)

In truth, books about writing are like the “self-help” aisle, which by now probably has a more euphemistic name like “pre-owned cars.” Think about it. The guy who writes a book called “How To Be a Millionaire” wouldn’t have to slog through the writing of a book if he heeded his own advice, no?

So, some advice I’ve heard over the years and my reactions:

  • Write every day. My first thought is, “Really?” But then I remember that people get distracted. For me, writing is more fun than talking and listening, those staples of the daily sensory diet, but maybe I am in the minority (again). Thus, this is preaching to the choir (though I promise not to sing).
  • Read every day. Hoo, boy. Stick it in Aisle Obvious. If you are not going to learn how to do it from the masters (or even how not to do it from the mess-ups), then get out of Dodge.
  • Keep a notebook. Easy. Check my shelves.
  • No, Fool. Carry a notebook, I mean. To write ideas as they come to you. Oh. These pearls for a guy who doesn’t even carry change or a wallet in his pockets? And what about those ideas in the shower? As for me, it’s during a run the ideas come. All that blood flow and jostling of gray matter stirs up ideas, but I can barely breathe, never mind jot notes. So I memorize the ideas like they’re already a poem. A Frost poem. A “Whose Ideas These Are, I Think I Know” poem.
  • Copy by hand the poems you love. The ones by the greats or the contemporaries you love. Wait. Aren’t there lawyers for this?
  • Take chances. Live outside the box. I haven’t slept in the back yard for years. In a word: No. But I’m willing to take chances in a 5-star hotel!
  • Let poems sit for awhile after you write them. I get a lot of help with this from poetry journal editors. They let my poems sit for six to ten months, then send form e-mails asking about my day job.
  • Cut to the bone. As long as your knife is metaphorical, sound advice. Especially for wordy sorts who jay walk in the poetry zone each day without realizing it.
  • Never write a poem about dogs. It’s a four-legged cliché. Whenever I hear “never” followed by subject matter, it’s open season on writing about that subject matter. Never tell me never. I’m like a kid. Try reverse psychology or something. I’m easy to trick.
  • Marketing your poems is as important as writing them. And a logistical nightmare for some of us, too!
  • When some editor says, “Close call. Try us again,” try them again. See nightmare comma logistical above. Or get a secretary.

Anyone else have some gems to share? Though I don’t always take poetry-writing advice, I love to hear it!