Ideal Conditions for Writing? Hear Ye, Hear Ye!

What are ideal conditions for writing? Far be it for me to offer advice, but since you didn’t ask, I’ll relent.

First of all, it is a myth that poetry, unlike it’s more verbose cousins (novels, plays, essays) is best written on paper. Sure, many famous poets wax poetic (what else?) about blue ink on long yellow legal pad, but me, I find the blizzard-like beauty of Word-.docx white just as enticing. Why? To preserve erasers. Nothing gets revised as many ways to Sunday as a poem suffering birthing pains. The confetti of eraser sheddings gets bothersome.

Writing position? As the Poles say, in their poetic way, on your dupa. (If you’re Polish and notice a misspelling, please forgive me.) I love Mark Twain, but never understood his elderly habit of writing in bed. Isn’t there a famous blues song, after all, called “Don’t Write in Bed”? (Ear worm works its way into my cochlea.)

Writing atmosphere? We cannot control the high and low pressure systems the Weather Gods (and their inept interpreters — read: meteorologists — on TV) send our way, but we can adjust ambience. For me, poetry is best written to classical music. Reason? The aforementioned ear worm. It doesn’t turn and do its night crawl when the music lacks lyrics.

Music with lyrics is like someone reading over your shoulder. Or worse, someone whispering another man’s poem in your ear while you are trying to compose your own. Have you ever tried to recall a song while another is playing? It puts the caco- in cacophony, let me tell you.

Some of my favorites? I love the Estonian wonder, Arvo Pärt, and his tintinnabulation. Kind of like Poe’s bells, bells, bells, only Pärt does it with more than bells. Like Bach, he’s also fond of repetition. Wave upon wave of musical refrain and echo and repetition. Are these not musical tools in the poet’s toolbox, too?

When Pärt is not around, I go with Johann Sebastian himself. Or Sibelius, whose music has a nice Finnish to it (don’t groan–the Bard is fond of puns, too, and no one groans).

Finally, before I sit down to classical music at the word processor and begin to write, I like to read good poetry for at least a half hour. Wonderful word play by masters sets the tone. Inspires. Fools you into saying, “Shoot. I can do that!” And, make no mistake, this conceit must be present, even if it is a wild conceit.

Results may vary, as they say. As will definitions of “ideal.” As long as you have some, that’s all. As long as you could write this column, too.

Ten Honest Rejections

reject

Your poem has been rejected. Again. But don’t you wish the rejections were a bit more truthful? After all, we live in an age where “truth” is under siege. It needs all the help it can get. And boiler-plate rejections are just so impersonally vanilla. Let’s try a little chocolate pizzazz, shall we, because if we’re going to get rejected, we might as well enjoy it a little, no?

  1. Dear Writer: Thank you for your recent (as of 14 months ago) submission. We really didn’t read it because, well, we’re pretty elite as poetry journals go (and they go), and we receive upwards to 500 submissions a day, most of them as awful as yours. Thanks for the $5 reading fee, though! Yours, Kevin Ka-Ching, Editor-in-Chief.
  2. Dear Writer: Thank you for your most recent query about the considered-long-lost submission that must have fallen behind our inbox 18 months ago. We have found it and brushed off any e-dust bunnies as a gesture of respect. Please accept our sincere apologies for the length of response time for this rejection. We trust, being a poet, that you understand.
  3. Dear Writer: We started reading the first of five poems you submitted and, eight words in, knew you didn’t know the first of five things about writing poetry. We’re good, no? (Your eight words, on the other hand, aren’t.)
  4. Dear Writer: Do you really count yourself a poet? Does your house really lack a mirror? Perhaps it’s time you looked honesty in the face. Or at the very least, started bothering the short story market’s editors. End of story.
  5. Dear Writer: Thanks for the laugh. Really.
  6. Dear Writer: Thank you for your Poety Zine submission but, to be honest, these are not Poetry Zine kind of poems. We like politically-slanted work, especially ones that rail against the New Fascism taking over the world like unfree verse. In a similar vein, we like pop culture poetry–works that mention things readers care about like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, selfies, texting, and uploaded photographs of food.  Your poem about snow and birches and crows (of all things!) was lost on us.
  7. Dear Writer: We opened your submission only to find that you are not a known writer whose name would lend credence and panache to our journal’s cover. How disappointing. Try us again. When (and if) you have a name, we mean.
  8. Dear Writer: Your first poem contained the words darkness, lovely, very, cerulean, shards, and dog. News flash: No, no, no, no, no, and no poem can succeed once it’s swallowed these words.
  9. Dear Writer: Do you know the first thing (or, should I say, the last thing) about line breaks? What are you, winging it here? Is not poetry a science? An art? Are you willing to put in the time before you waste ours? We are all volunteers here, short on time and money and, like most poetry ventures, about to disappear into Internet vapor at any moment. Be kind and do your homework. Please.
  10. <a moment of silence / OK, more than a moment / utter darkness / very lovely darkness / cerulean-shards-inside-a dog-darkness>

The “Sullen Art” of Writing Poetry

dwarfs

Sure, some writers love to spout off about inspiration, about their passion for writing, about the way their precious ideas bloop out as finished products, ninth month in the first week and Hail Caesarean!

Then you have the honest writers. The ones who write quality poems, but acknowledge it as work that seems to take this side of forever. Writer as the eighth dwarf, call it, whistling as he heads off to the mines for another day’s work. Poem as dirt and sweat, then. As collar so stained you can no longer see the blue.

One poet who described writing this way was that brief star from Wales, Dylan Thomas. I say brief because his life was cut short by the black hole called alcohol (also known as “America’s drug of choice”).

In the end, Thomas writes, his work is for the lovers “Who pay no praise or wages / Nor heed my craft or art.” Now those are words a writer can identify with, as writing, even when published, seems the province of a vacuum, of a god named Hoover or Dirt Devil.

Here is Thomas’s “In My Craft or Sullen Art.” Does it look, like so many good poems do, spontaneous and born of sea or briny foam (or, God save us, of Adam’s rib)–miraculously? Or can you picture the messy process, the ink stains and half-past-midnight oil, start to finish?

I know a poet who claims he sends no poem to markets until he’s revised it for at least a year. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But if it’s true, it’s wise. Wiser than any golden potato chip.

 

“In My Craft or Sullen Art” by Dylan Thomas

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Sure Things: Food and Loneliness

rice

What to write about?

Seems like an easy enough question. Some say your topics should be determined solely by the dictator that is you. Others say have mercy on your readers’ souls. Consider them. Others still–the agnostic wafflers of the bunch–say, “Why not both?”

I’ll be political and not take a stand because who really cares what I think? I do know this: You’re in trouble if you think you can write about something you know nothing about or don’t care about.

Which brings us to two sure things: food and loneliness. Like air and water, they will keep you grounded.

How do we know food resonates? Easy. People eat it up. And people with cellphones (there are a few, apparently) actually photograph and upload the stuff before eating it. Curious case closed!

And loneliness? True, most confuse loneliness with being alone, two different animals. Unlike many in this world, I cherish alone time. It sustains me. And my writing. But I know the world also harbors manic social sorts. They get frenzied by lack of sound, technological input, people. They believe they are unpopular, neglected, or sad if not buoyed by activity and input. (How sad!) Can you go wrong, then, when writing about the poignancy and beauty of alone-ness? Rhetorical, I assure you.

My thoughts turned to these two staples of writing after I read Li-Young Lee’s poem “Eating Alone,” which nicely breathes and drinks the two poem-sustaining wonders in one fell swoop. And check out the last line! It speaks to the ages (if you’ll pardon the pun). See if you agree:

“Eating Alone” by Li-Young Lee

I’ve pulled the last of the year’s young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.

Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can’t recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.

It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.

 

— from Rose by Li-Young Lee, BOA Editions

A Poem Should Be…

macleish

Ars Poetica. According to both Merriam and Webster, it means “a treatise on the art of literary and especially poetic composition.” And strictly speaking, in the Dead Language (that’s Latin to you), it means “the art of poetry.”

Many poems carry this title, and it is considered a rite of passage to write your own Ars Poetica. Thus, if you count yourself a poet and haven’t written one, you should. I know, I know. What a pain in the ars.

So to start, think of this: What should a poem be?

Done? OK. Then here’s better advice: Think of what a poem should not be. Chances are, brainstorming this way will lead you to thoughts most no one else has had while parsing and arsing this fabled beast called poetry.

Don’t believe me? Check out Archibald MacLeish’s go at it:

Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

*

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

*

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

 

I don’t know about you, but I like this definition of poetry. As the Beatles (or what’s left of them) like to say: “Let it be.”

And if you’re looking for deeper meaning, find a beach and pound sand. Archie’s having too much fun telling us what poetry isn’t. Or maybe what it is but no one in their right mind ever would have guessed it is (poetry being for left minds, as you know).

Got it? Then good luck and get writing.

If Every Word Is Suspect, Your Writing Will Be Arresting

szymborska

Here’s something I learned from the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska: If every word is suspect, your writing will be arresting.

What does this mean? It means writing–especially poetry writing–cannot always be a prisoner of denotation. Of course, specific language serves the creative writer’s purposes for imagery, but there has to be more: not only connotation, but something even more unusual at times.

Sometimes you need to stare at a word for an hour until it begins to change shapes like a Protean gift from the Muse. Sometimes you need to consider angles and caroms that wait like a bounce in inertia’s clothing. Sometimes you need to take chances with words and be willing to write something awful on the faith that every pan of mud might contain a chip of gold.

Consider these three words: future, silence, nothing. Wislawa Szymborska did. And from those rather tired, heard-them-before-and-maybe-even-too-often abstractions, she found gold.

How? By simply handing them to her brain to play with for an hour or so while she made dinner. The result? “The Three Oddest Words.” Enjoy:

The Three Oddest Words

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.

When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

 

By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

And look what happens to words when they return to their natural habitat in “The Joy of Writing”! We even get a cameo from the word “silence” again–still breaking the rules, still escaping the bullets of denotation, still doing what writers do best when they see not only the world, but words themselves, differently. Enjoy again:

The Joy of Writing

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

 

By Wislawa Szymborska
From “No End of Fun”, 1967
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

 

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What? I Can’t Write About This?

dogfood

One of the most enjoyable aspects of publishing a first book of poetry is–what else?–readers, but less obviously, it’s readers’ reactions to poems.

Here’s irony. Reading a lot about poetry, I often come across comments from experts, critics, and even other poets, spreading rumors like, “When writing poetry, you should never write about nature because it’s hackneyed. And certainly not love. Too Hallmark. And dogs? You must be crazy. Death? Only if you want to send your readers running while waving their arms over how depressing a poet you are.”

Yeah. Something to that effect. And then, just when I begin to second guess my work, readers of my book will tell me some of their favorite poems from are ones about nature, love, death, and DOGS.

The moral of this story is clear. As a poet, you write what you want to write. If it moves you or warms up your Muse’s harp strings, play it loud and proud! The naysayers apparently haven’t read Ecclesiastes about nothing being new under the sun. The secret is taking what’s always been there and finding personal magic in it. If it’s how the sun rays hit the boulders and cast their shadows, so be it.

Here’s a poem with strange inspiration, a combination of quotidian and quirky. It notes the way my dog always leaves a single nugget of dog food in his bowl each morning. It’s from my book, The Indifferent World, and it breaks the experts’ rules. So don’t tell the poetry police, will you?

“Dog Religion”
by Ken Craft

Each morning he rises and bows
before me–parable of humility,
maw yawning, paws splaying.

The hollow rattle of dry meal
raining on his aluminum bowl
pops his ears. Every day,
novelty in the ritual of repetition;
every day, the Pavlovian ear perk.
Like heartbeats and bad breath,
autonomous tail and tongue.
Just so.

Waiting for me
to move, he approaches the orb
demurely, noses in, crunches the bland
and the brown. That lovable greed.
Those stained, pacifist teeth.

He feeds, license and rabies tag
keeping time at bowl’s edge. And always,
in the end, one dry kibble
is left in a bowl cirrus-streaked
with spit: his offering
to the food gods, his prayer
answered each miraculous day.

— from The Indifferent World by Ken Craft, copyright 2016, Future Cycle Press

One Box, Two Box, Mailbox, Inbox

mailbox

Once upon a time addictions were so innocent, no one thought to call them addictions. Yes, children. We would sit down for a leisurely hour or so and write long letters to friends and family, tri-fold the lined paper into a business envelope, affix a first-class (styling!) stamp, and away she went.

The reward for this long-attention span work? Every day we would check the raised red flag on the mailbox to see if it had been lowered by the friendly postman (what do dogs know?). Walking to that mailbox was, for writers who love to read (but what else?), the highlight of the day.

Maybe a long missive would be harbored in that tiny tunnel of tin darkness. If so, we’d find the right spot, grab the right drink, and enjoy another long-attention span activity: reading and re-reading a long letter from a fellow enthusiast of the screed trade.

Such, such were the days! And, as we became writers (read: supporters of the USPS) who constantly sent out submissions with self-addressed stamped envelopes (SASEs), the trips to the mailbox became all the more thrilling. Who would’ve ever believed that waiting for rejection would be such a high for young writers? But it was so!

Now we’ve supposedly increased the odds of feel-good hits via the mailbox stand-in, the e-mail inbox. Yes sirree Bob, writers can now get rejected at any hour of the day! And each time we do, we give a Whitmanesque yawp, saying, “Yes! I am a writer!” That’s what rejections do. Give us credentials. But only if aided by the element of surprise. What would that be? Acceptance. Publication. It happens. And it happens more and more with time and practice, increasing a writer’s inbox addiction (sigh).

The moral of this tale? For me, it’s this: I can pat myself on the back all I want for avoiding the ubiquitous and ridiculous spectacle of e-mail and, worse still, texting addiction by not owning a cellphone, but the truth is, as a writer, I’ve had to face the technological music of addiction, too. Only the hardcore writing warriors manage to get so lost in their work that they don’t worry about the marketing aspects of the trade by checking that secret inbox.

One box, two box, mailbox, inbox. It’s all one. Keep your checks to a concrete number a day (the magic number three, say) and count that as a victory. The rest of the time? Though rejections and acceptances may be washing ashore, writers have work to do, and it doesn’t fare so well with constant interruption.

As Aristotle said too many times, “I write, therefore I am… boxes notwithstanding.”

The Pronoun “I” and Poetry

i

Two cheers for the pronoun “I” in poetry! OK. One cheer, maybe? The upstanding pronoun has been under attack in some quarters because it seems to make poetry less universal to the reader… more of a diary delight exercise. But is it, really?

First off, let’s clear the air about “I” and all its cousins. Why the harsh reception? It’s easy to understand if you try this simple exercise. Pick a person any person (but especially a PUBLISHED person) online and follow his/her social media posts. Track how many times he/she says “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine,” and “myself.” Buy extra paper for the hash marks. Chances are, you’re going to need it.

People (especially PUBLISHED people peddling their wares, which might be construed as an extension of themselves) self-promote both consciously and unconsciously. They studiously pretend not to market themselves as they do just that. I should know. I’ve taken the class (and failed, dropping out of the University of Facebook, but that’s another story).

But what’s terribly wrong when the “I’s” have it in poetry? Is it that difficult to identify with the author if it’s all about her? In prose, the opposite is true. First-person point of view, a standard from way back, is considered the most intimate, hail-fellow-well-met of all the POV’s and the surest ticket to winning readers over. In fact, after a while, the readers adopt the “I” as themselves. Writer becomes reader seamlessly!

So why should poetry be any different than prose? Is it because first-person poem are so overwhelmingly popular? Is it the hipster syndrome, wherein you rebel against anything the masses take to?

You’ve got me. My philosophy on poetry is big tent. Want the first-person point of view early and often? Be my guest. How about the present tense? If it works and makes your words more immediate, you have my blessing. A form poem? Very mathematical of you in a poetic way, but it’s a free country. I’ll be cheering from the free verse sidelines!

Maybe it’s because I occasionally blog, an exercise in solipsism if ever there was one. Each of these posts is riddled with the pronoun “I.” Were I to count them in this entry, for instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were dozens.

That said, nothing surprises me anymore, including criticism of poor, innocent pronouns with simple backgrounds. In poetry, a prodigal “I” is cool. In self-promotion, even studiously undercover? Less so, but we all have to make a living–or, as they say in poetry circles, NOT make one.

December, Tinseled Traitor Month

christmas-bulb

Just like that, it’s December. You remember him, looking like a page of artwork out of Dickens. The Ghost of Christmas Past. Big and bearded and jolly in his sumptuous and colorful robes as he overlooks scenes of joy and fellowship. This would be old (and impossibly green) tannenbaums , plum puddings, heartfelt carols and (wait for it!) gifts.

Silver. And sold (as in “out to capitalism”).

Writing prompt: Write about December. Free verse (though nothing’s for free in December, not even stocking stuffers). Write about the holiday, the anticipation, the tidings of comfort and joy. Write about 24/7 Christmas carols on radio stations driving carols into the clichéd ground. Write about lists a mile long, money a mile spent, stress a month hiked.

Write on this: “Christmas Magic: Strong as Ever or Hiding Out in Amazonian Jungles with the Dodo Bird?”

C. Clement Moore made his mark writing about Christmas, as did many song writers. For writers of poetry and prose, this means there’s money in them there hills. Lots. You just have to go out, 49er-like, and mine it.

The financial opportunities are even greater in the once united States this year. With a president-elect who scares the bejesus out of the majority of voters who chose his opponent, the numbers are legion among those seeking succor. Christmas as comfort food, then. In the key of ka-ching. If you write it, they will read.

Or you can be an Eeyore, a downer, a Christmas curmudgeon. Rail against it or write your dirges to it. “On the twelfth day of depression, my not-so-true love gave to me…” and so forth.

Any way you look at it, Christmas and the much-dreaded new year are sources of inspiration for writers. And whether you cheerlead or satirize the beast, writing about it will be therapeutic. So think of your screen or notepad as a much cheaper therapist. And stop eating so much sugar, else you begin to look like a well-rounded plum with no dancing skills (or a right jolly old elf with no Weight Watchers chapter in his town).

31 days. We can do this. Just don’t take a leave from writing, whatever you do. To be left to the mercies of the holidays is against the Geneva Convention, I’m more than sure.

Page 489, column 2, footnote 3b.