In what’s probably a common response to grief, two scripts are running through my head constantly: “I wish I” and “At least I.” I’m so glad I interviewed my mother about her life for my writing; that I spent a lot of time with her in April, memorizing her the way you do when you care for a sick person in intimate ways; and that we made a fuss of her 80th birthday in February 2020. My siblings and I did two things that she loved. We bought her one of those motorized reclining chairs–lift off without moving a muscle!–and we treated her at a restaurant in Philadelphia where all the waiters sing opera. For a Mother’s Day gift in 1994, before I moved to Virginia, we had escorted her to a matinee at the Metropolitan Opera and then a fancy dinner out, but she wouldn’t have had the energy for that much travel anymore, so the restaurant was a sweet compromise. I’ll always remember her thrilled face upturned to the waitstaff during solos. “Let’s do that again next year,” she said. My head is also full of all the adventures she didn’t have, especially the travel she didn’t get to do to Bermuda, the Mediterranean islands, Australia and New Zealand, and a host of European capitols. In emigrating from England to the U.S. and then zipping around the country with my father when she was younger, she did travel more than many, but except for a trip to England that a bunch of people supported in various ways, she was both too anxious and too cash-strapped to fly in her later years (my father burnt through all their retirement savings, but that’s another story).
This week since her death has flit by strangely. I spent time with my kids, both based in Philadelphia, before driving home. I’ve written a little: a poem my hairdresser dictated the title for (he’s both a literary person and wise about grieving, and the title is “First in Line for Takeoff”); some notes of my memories of her last days; her obituary; responses to condolence notes and gifts; this blog post and the last. I’m thinking about other writing-related work: submitting mss for the virtual Breadloaf Environmental conference in June and the live Sewanee workshop in May; the Mother’s Day promotion I was going to do for Unbecoming; a short article on Eliot due at the end of May; whether it would be consoling or ridiculous to try working on my creative mss-in-progress again. The book of essays I will deliver to Tinderbox Editions before too long–Poetry’s Possible Worlds is scheduled for November publication–currently ends with my mother’s recovery from her first bout with lymphoma in 2015. Does my coda need a coda? I can hardly bear to think about it. And, of course, I’m spending a lot of time doing nothing. There’s so much to think about and avoid thinking about. I’m most comfortable perched at an intellectual distance from big feelings, noticing how the people around me process it, for instance, and my own preference for matter-of-fact conversations about her death. That’s part of what makes me a writer–metaphor itself involves displacement as well as insight–but it can also be maladaptive.
Oddly, I just published a poem about letting go this week. “The Red Door” (who knows where that image came from?) appears in the new issue of Nelle (not online but pictured below), along with a slightly longer poem called “Early Cretaceous Walks Up to the Bar,” inspired by an apparently phosphorescent gar in the Hillsborough River and very much about standing at a distance from feeling. A friend once pointed out there’s a lot of running water in my poems. O river of life, you can be a very tired metaphor, but maybe a big weird fish flying through redeems it.
My mother died early Friday morning of lymphoma in my sister’s house in New Jersey. There’s a lot to process–the good way the family gathered around and helped her through rapidly worsening illness; all that she said to us as we nursed her; great kindness and serious failures in the medical treatment she received–and the logistics have been and continue to be challenging. My brother as executor now has a million kinds of paperwork to do in Pennsylvania, where he and my mother lived together. My sister has a roomful of equipment and supplies to clear, having expected my mother to stay there for months (it turned out to be just 36 hours), and she’s taking the lead with the funeral home. I arrived back in Virginia last night after spending April as a tri-state nomad, helping negotiate facilities and doctor appointments as well as caring for my mostly bedridden mother for five or six days in my brother’s house. I’m also in charge of obituaries, and I’m sure I’ll work through the experiences and feelings of the past few weeks in five bazillion new poems. In this blog, though, where writing intersects with with the complicated business of being a person muddling through, I’m honoring the ways my mother shaped my literary life.
My mother, Patricia Cain Wheeler, wasn’t a writer, but she was an avid reader. Born in Liverpool during World War Two, in a crowded tenement that she longed to escape, books helped her imagine other, better worlds. She was the storyteller-in-chief during my own childhood, conjuring Liverpool in the nineteen-forties in all its sharp contrasts with my suburban New Jersey comforts. I learned about the coal-heated houses she grew up in, with privies and bomb shelters in their back gardens, and in at least one of them, a swing she loved to ride as she daydreamed. My sister and I mapped our respective territories by upholstery seams in the backseat of an Oldsmobile; my mother’s sister drew chalk lines to construct a sort of privacy in their tiny shared bedroom. Rationing meant food was scarce for my mother and her three siblings; I grew up on Cheese Whiz, bacon-draped meatloaf, Wonder Bread, and the British chocolates my grandmother stuffed in her suitcases when she flew over for long visits. My mother’s educational opportunities were very limited, but she won a scholarship to Calderstones High School, where she played Caesar and Macbeth in school plays because, at 5’5”, she was the tallest girl in the class. At sixteen she left to study nursing at Royal Liverpool Babies Hospital, but it was difficult work. She left it to clerk at a store then, in 1962, to emigrate to the US and give in-home care to the children and elderly relatives of rich Long Islanders before she married. I wrote about these and other stories in my 2010 book Heterotopia.They’ve always exerted a powerful hold on my imagination.
My mother taught me to understand my life as a series of tales in which I was the adventurous heroine. She also gave me books. Each Christmas, the best present was a heavy shirt box filled with paperbacks, with the implication that at nine or ten, I was plenty old enough to enjoy them. They included most of the Alcott and Brontë novels plus works by Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Homer, Chaucer, and much more. I remember walking down stairs carpeted in cream shag to ask her the difference between “impudent” and “imprudent.” When I was having trouble making sense of Wuthering Heights, she reread it and explained the story to me. Her taste wasn’t all high-flown, though. I also devoured her Reader’s Digests and Harlequin romances. It’s largely due to her that I always had my nose in a novel or play or epic poem, depending on them for escape and education. I told her how much I owed her for this a week ago, when she lay semi-conscious in a hospital bed, and it won me a rare smile.
She was also the parent who read all my poems and stories and, eventually, my published books, cheering me on. I owe certain teachers, too, for encouraging me to write poetry particularly, but I wrote Unbecomingbecause my mother taught me to love character-driven genre fiction (though she would never have used those words!). There’s a maybe-supernatural character in my novel because she loaded me up with tales about fairies and brownies and ghosts. I can’t believe that’s all in the past now, but my mother will survive as the stories we tell about her. Below are a couple of poems inspired by her life, the first from Heterotopia,the second from The State She’s In, in which she’s also a presiding spirit.
The Third Child Counts Her Options, 1949
We did own roller skates. I sometimes strapped
one over my shoe, gliding down Vronhill
Street like a sad flamingo. My sister
buzzed by on the other, pretending to
be a Luftwaffe raider. My brothers
rowed over the bicycle. There were four
of us, three fighters, and never enough
biscuits. One of us had to read the old
books instead. One of us had to sit still.
I. In ‘62, my young mother flew from known melodies, from clouds rolling up and down the Mersey with the tides.
II. Where would I be otherwise? Each curved person a lattice of contingency. Weak sunlight filters through.
III. She was born in a curved iron and glass shed, Lime Street Station platform eight for London Midlands, with a hissing exhale and a rocking momentum.
IV. Corridors of red sandstone, arched brick, concrete bearded with soot and moss. Four pairs of rails rusted pink. The city’s muscles contract.
V. Towers topped with empty nests. Where are the birds?
VI. My return ticket bought by her departure. My diplomas. My pay stub. My upwardly-mobile American refusal to pick up after men.
VII. Brakes whine softly until the country opens and I pick up speed.
VIII. Far away, joint-sore, she is throwing off a duvet, opening blinds, creaking downstairs to her son’s kitchen, listening to news of brutal collusions.
IX. Daisies, buttercups, yarrow—flowers that cannot be suppressed—and sheep-cropped hills beyond.
X. Clouds are heavy, sorrowful. They resist breakage but wind has its own ideas. Look at the azure vents it opens, with a tearing cry.
I was waiting outside a Penn Medicine dermatology clinic when I learned that the verdict in George Floyd’s murder case was near. In mid-March, a sore on my mother’s left leg had become ferociously bad; she was hospitalized for infection, seemed to improve for a while, and then got worse (her condition aggravated by poor care at the local hospital); eventually she received a diagnosis of pyoderma gangrenosum, which is every bit as bad as it sounds. A recurrence of her 2015 lymphoma is a likely contributor, but we’ve been waiting more than a week for the results of a biopsy of two small masses in her abdomen. On 4/11, right after my second Moderna shot, I arrived at my brother’s house in Pennsylvania, where my mother has also lived for many years. I finally visited her in the hospital, cleaned the house, shopped, and helped set up a hospital bed and commode in the living room. We brought her home on 4/14. She was so miserable at the hospital. My sister found a wheelchair, so we’ve been trying to make it work while my sister, in New Jersey, sets up her own house for my mother’s long-term care (plus sorting out interstate insurance, because it’s America).
It’s been hard. Excellent visiting nurses came in daily for extremely painful and elaborate wound care, but meanwhile I was learning to keep a mostly-incapacitated elderly woman safe, clean, fed, hydrated, and as content as possible. She was very grateful to get home. From her bed or the nearby recliner, she was following the Chauvin trial and news of violence across the country; she was also interested in the “helicopter” on Mars and in Prince Phillip’s funeral procession. When a phlebotomist couldn’t find a vein, my mother slyly said, “It’s Prince Phillip’s fault,” although I don’t think anyone understood she was joking but me. When she slept, I read some news, a bit of a mystery novel, and a bit of social media. I’ve been able to do maybe an hour a day of my own work, but it’s hard to concentrate. Logistically and emotionally, there’s a lot going on. I started writing a poem a few days ago involving the strange in-betweenness of illness, the haunted noises my mother’s refrigerator makes during the middle of the night, and her repeated statement that someone was trying to get in the front door–maybe those three weirdnesses could hang together? Anyway, I was interrupted.
Coming home from the dermatology clinic, it became clearer how weak my mother was–not just tired, but suddenly not able to hold a cup, sleepy, hard to rouse. I called the GP. Their verdict: get her to the ER. I phoned 911 and my husband and I followed the ambulance to the hospital (a different one). I sat in the ER waiting room during my mother’s intake. Everyone was watching the talking heads on the TV saying, We’ll know the jury’s verdict any minute now. An orderly called me backstage to sit with my mother while various specialists did an EKG, blood work, CAT scans, x-rays. Messages floated up on text chain with the long-time friends to whom The State She’s Inis dedicated. Guilty on all three counts. Mixed feelings of relief, hope, continuing anger.
“Diagnosis,” at root, means distinguishing a condition by setting it apart from others. From the Latin, “verdict” means true speech, and it has designated a jury’s decision since the 1530s. So is this week’s verdict uneven access to good healthcare, the diagnosis capitalism? In another sphere, a guilty verdict but a diagnosis of systemic racism, an illness that rots US life to its core?
I don’t know where I’ll be from one day to the next, much less what role poetry will play in the last week of this awful, beautiful National Poetry Month, but I do have an NPR StoryCorps interview lined up for tomorrow in regard to my novel Unbecoming. I have received a poem acceptance and a poetry batch rejection since I’ve been here, because tis the season. I also gave an Instagram Live reading from my mother’s upstairs bedroom, which was insane, but it was scheduled for 9 pm ET, after my mother fell asleep, so I pulled it off. It’s just 15 minutes and archived at the Instagram page of The Arkansas International (@thearkint), along with many other readings in honor of their new “Galactic” issue. My poem in that issue is “For Metamorphosis, with Bibliomancy,” so I read that along with a few other spells and invocations. Say a few words to your favorite deity for my mother, if you have the spirit for it–or call your congressional rep. There is so much to feel and to do.
This Saturday (4/10, 4pm to 5:15 ET), I’m moderating a panel called “Feeling Across Distance” with four fabulous poets: Lauren K. Alleyne, Tafisha A. Edwards, Luisa A. Igloria, and Jane Satterfield. It’s part of this year’s C.R.A.F.T. Festival: Panel and Workshop, for which you can still register here. The theme is “Empathy.” It was kicked off yesterday with a generous and inspiring talk by Molly Peacock. I’m so grateful when writers discuss not only their survival strategies but their emotions around rejection and competition. She recommended ambition to poets, by the way, defining it as “self-respect.” Brilliant!
Here’s the panel description: In this hybrid panel/ reading, Lauren Alleyne, Tafisha Edwards, Luisa A. Igloria, Jane Satterfield, and Lesley Wheeler discuss poetry that bridges geography, time, opposing perspectives, and even species boundaries. Migration can divide us from families and cultures, history is full of gaps, yet poetry is an art of presence in absence. It can create space for contemplation of loss but also for connection despite difference. Panelists will discuss desire for contact and understanding as motives for poetry, then read some of their own work addressing this theme. They will also address the craft of feeling across distance—how line breaks, metaphor, and other poetic strategies enable emotional leaps—and provide writing prompts to inspire poetic exploration.
This post functions as a virtual handout, so below are prompts from each panelist. On the panel itself, I’ll be discussing the temporal jumps The State She’s In makes through historical research; my struggle to imagine the past without projecting myself into it in a way that obliterates other truths; and the ecological aspects of the book, which similarly involve engaging the landscape and its other-than-human inhabitants without overwriting their otherness. It’s all hard work that I think about a great deal. Whether or not you can join the conversation, I hope these give you ideas for April writing.
Think of a place you’ve been
Think of a story in or about that place you’ve heard or experienced
Recall a memory/story of yours unrelated to that place
Have yourself or an object from the memory ask a question to you or an object in the other place
Answer, if you can.
Tafisha’s prompt: Think about the walk from your bedroom to bathroom during a winter night. How far is the walk to the bathroom when you aren’t wearing socks? How quickly do you need to move to get back into the warmest pocket? Write a poem about how time dilates during that moment.
Jane’s prompt: Recent lockdowns remind us of the power of technologies, new and old, to cross distances and weave connections across time and space, cultures, cartographies, and species. Is there someone—a family member, literary forebear, or familiar of your ecotone—whose presence calls out to you? Try reaching out using the form of the invocation: name a problem, include an ask, and imagine some form of consolation or healing for the future.
Luisa’s prompt: Open Google Street Views and enter a specific location or address that has emotional resonance for you, or that you once lived in/near. Take a look and “walk” around, noting the street names, buildings, houses, landmarks, landscape, vegetation. Notice where you stop and linger. Give yourself an “errand” as you make your rounds (i.e. buy bread from the corner bakery you used to visit as a child). Write a poem about what comes to meet you.
Lesley’s prompt: Choose a non-human being—a plant or animal—that dwells near you without human permission. Research where its ancestors came from, what conditions it needs to live, and what its role in the ecosystem is. Consider what it knows that you don’t, and write it a letter-poem asking for advice.
Lauren K. Alleyne hails from the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Her fiction, poetry and nonfiction have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including The Atlantic, Ms. Muse, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Interviewing the Caribbean, Crab Orchard Review, among many others. She is author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish (New Issues (US) & Peepal Tree (UK), 2019).
Tafisha A. Edwards is the author of THE BLOODLET, winner of Phantom Books’ 2016 Breitling Chapbook Prize. You can find more of her work in The Offing, PHANTOM, Bodega Magazine, The Atlas Review, The Little Patuxent Review, and other print and online publications. A graduate of the University of Maryland’s Jiminéz-Porter Writers’ House, she is a Cave Canem Graduate fellow, a former educator with the American Poetry Museum, and recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, The Minnesota Northwoods Writers’ Conference and other writing workshops and conferences.
Luisa A. Igloria, the 20th Poet Laureate of Virginia, is one of two co-winners of the 2019 Crab Orchard Poetry Open competition for her manuscript Maps for Migrants and Ghosts (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020). Originally from Baguio City, she was the inaugural winner of the Resurgence Prize (UK), the world’s first major award for ecopoetry. Her many books also include The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis and Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser. She is a Louis I. Jaffe Professor and University Professor of English and Creative Writing at Old Dominion University.
Jane Satterfield‘s prize-winning poetry collections are Apocalypse Mix,Her Familiars, Assignation at Vanishing Point, and Shepherdess with an Automatic. Her book of nonfiction prose, Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond, explores maternal legacies through interconnected essays on music, popular culture, literary mothers, and personal history. Satterfield’s honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry and three Maryland Arts Council poetry grants, as well as residencies in poetry or nonfiction from the Vermont Studio Center and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
You’ve got to keep an eye on April: it’s slippery. I’m seeking discipline I lacked this winter, wanting to make the most of this brief season, although I’m skipping #NaPoWriMo in favor of surveying and refining older drafts. Mid-March, I overhauled a lot of poems and put them under submission; two have been accepted already, and maybe I’ll earn a couple more wins as the months pass. It’s a long process, but it’s wise to submit work in spring if you can, because so many markets close in summer. I’m also writing to bookstores and submitting conference proposals, in hopes there will be an in-person future for the literary world. I get my second Moderna shot on April 9th. I’ll be careful even after the T-cells multiply, but already I feel less anxious about brief forays into the populated world, as well as happier about the down-time I’m taking outdoors.
Shortly after I hit a better work rhythm, though–moving from revising and submitting poems to overhauling some fiction projects–my mother went into the hospital. She lives in eastern Pennsylvania, so for unvarnished information (she downplays every ailment), I depend on my adult brother, with whom she lives, and my sister, who lives 45 minutes away but has seen less of my mother during the pandemic. Turned out my mother had a very bad wound on her leg that had become severely infected. The usual hell-zone of diagnosis was harder than usual because of the limits on visitors, the busy-ness of medical staff, and my mother herself being too sick and drugged to pick up the phone. Eventually they ruled out the scariest things. Her circulation is just terrible, so damage is easy to do and hard to mend. She’s in rehab now, getting on her feet again while her wound slowly heals, so the crisis period is probably over, but it was intense. Intensely concerned and wondering if I would need to drop everything and drive 5+ hours, I alternately read medical websites, texted furiously with my siblings, and distracted myself with more revisions. I rewrote a short story from scratch, for instance, without looking at the original; that’s not a strategy I’ve tried much before, but it worked really well. Yay?
This all reminds me of my last sabbatical, when my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma and I spent many months shuttling back and forth, doing what I could to help my on-the-ground siblings. (That’s also the year I drafted what became my first novel, Unbecoming–go figure.) Here’s another way time is tricky. Spring always reminds you of previous springs, for better and worse. Academe, too, is structured by seasonal recurrences: semesters and breaks, registrations and grading, and the longer cycles of teaching years and sabbatical interludes (if you’re very lucky). The latter are big markers in my memory. 2015-16, when my mother was sick; 2010-11, when a life-changing Fulbright brought us to New Zealand; 2005-6, when I wrote Voicing American Poetry in “Mod Hall,” overflow office space in a decrepit trailer by a stream; and my first leave in 2000-1, when my son was born, my first scholarly book went under contract, and in the long deep breath after achieving tenure, I thought about what I wanted for my liberated writing life. Perhaps I have two sabbaticals left before I retire–again, if I’m lucky.
All of which is to say I’m feeling the cyclicality of time right now just as much as the forward march of my precious writing year and uneasy anticipation about the difficult-to-plan future. I’m more than okay, plenty anxious, glad to be balancing different kinds of writing work, well aware of how spinning plates can unexpectedly crash. Meanwhile, the trees are budding maybe a little earlier than they have before, as the world heats up. It’s freshly amazing how beauty and danger arrive together.
Poets among you maybe be interested in an upcoming virtual conference I’m preparing for, the Poetry and Creative Arts Festival at WCU on April 7-10. $50 for general registration isn’t bad; you also get a free workshop, such as Molly Peacock’s “Snap Sonnets.” I’ll be running a panel on Saturday 4/10 called “Feeling Across Distance” with Lauren Alleyne, Tafisha Edwards, Luisa A. Igloria, and Jane Satterfield, and I’ll post writing prompts from all of them here. Finally, here’s a review I wrote of Tyree Daye’s new collection Cardinal, just published in Harvard Review. I hope to write more reviews for them in future, but not just yet, because I want a slower kind of focus. Perhaps because of a mild March 2020 case of Covid-19 I couldn’t get a test for, I couldn’t smell anything last spring, so I need to make up for lost flower-time.
I finished choosing Shenandoahpoems a couple of weeks ago. It’s such a pleasure to accept work, but there was so much strong poetry that I had to turn down, I could have built another good issue out of what I rejected. Honestly, I agonized so much I wondered if I’m cut out for this. Trying to shake it off, I figured I’d use my decision-sharpened mind to start submitting my own poems again–I’ve been delinquent–but I spent most of this week in a spiral of uncertainty (although family worries also contributed to that). I did finally get poems under consideration in a few places. It took me a ton of revision and reading through old folders, as well as research into markets, to make it happen. I’m freshly aware of the odds against making the cut, so I did a lot of hard thinking about the stakes of each poem, trying to delete or change iffy passages as ruthlessly as I could. And now I won’t know how well I managed it for months!
The Zoom conversation I recently had with Celia Lisset Alvarez and Jen Karetnick therefore felt timely. See here for a recording of “She Persists: Rebounding from Rejection” that includes readings and lots of frank talk about our personal stats. Below are some bonus tracks consisting of their answers to my follow-up questions, plus their bios so you can find out about their many projects. I bolded a few bits that strike me as especially useful and inspiriting. At the very end, look for a few footnotes from me, too.
Having work declined can be pretty dispiriting. What’s your best advice about coping with and rebounding from a no?
JK: There’s no denying that rejections sting. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling bad about them for a moment. After all, we’re poets and writers. We feel; that’s what we do. But then you just have to shake it off and get back to work. If that sounds a little too positive like a Taylor Swift lyric, well, so be it. Dwelling on what hasn’t happened can really keep you from moving forward. My best advice is to allow yourself to be disappointed, then turn around and resubmit elsewhere. A lot of elsewheres. Simultaneously submit widely. I shudder when I read a cover letter that tells us they’re only sending these poems to SWWIM Every Day. Why? We allow simultaneous submissions, and we may not get back to you for 1-2 months. Send them elsewhere, too! There are hundreds of journals waiting for your work. You just need to find the one who wants it. It’s like dating – the right editor is out there, waiting to accept the love that you’re offering.
CLA: It’s important to really believe that at least half the time a rejection has nothing to do with the quality of your work, or you’ll become so discouraged you’ll stop writing, since rejections are way more common than acceptances. When you get a rejection, you need to see it as a task. You must find a better home for whatever has been rejected, understanding that it may take many attempts before you find the right place. Never ever change a piece you feel is good to reflect an editor’s comment or what you might perceive as a comment from a rejection. You have to both be confident in your own skill and open to suggestion. If a piece is getting rejected more than you feel is normal, take another look at it. If you still feel it’s good, don’t change a word. There is always the odd chance, however, that there is some kind of flaw you haven’t seen before. If you catch it, then certainly revise. But that is a pretty rare situation; once you’ve sent something out, it’s usually because you’re sure it’s “done.” Unless, of course, you’re sending sub-par work out, which, as an editor, I know happens. Many of the poems or stories I reject needed just one more sweep before being wonderful. The work happens, or should happen, before you submit, not after.
What have you learned about rejection from working as an editor?
CLA: The most salient lesson is that writers are not doing their homework.* They don’t know a thing about the journal they’re submitting to, and they don’t even follow the submission guidelines. That is the number one reason for rejections. I’ve also realized just how hard it is to find a good piece; the myth of the gigantic “slush pile” full of gold going unnoticed is just that, a myth. Most often I am still in need of some good pieces at the end of the reading period. What that means to the writer half of me is that I shouldn’t be intimidated by the idea of sending work to a prestigious journal. Good work will stand out. It’s what the editor is looking for, what she dreams of finding. Finally, I’ve realized how formulaic writing has become, how many people want to be Walt Whitman or e.e. cummings. Writers need to think more about voice and less about style. A piece has to have weight to it; it can’t be some facile observation about the life/death cycle of nature.**
JK: I’ve learned that our work might be polished, accomplished, even wonderfully written. But it might not be as unique as it needs to be. Because being human is something we all share, there are only so many plots and themes. Every experience you’ve been through, someone else has been through — even the awful ones. Every idea you have, someone else has had — even the greatest ones. The way that you stand out is through your voice. Take a good hard look at your diction and syntax. Are they as original as they can be? Are your images fresh and striking? I can’t even count how many poems we get, even from very well-published poets, that still use adjectives like “beautiful” and “soft” and “sweet.” Too many poets and writers rely on easy abstractions when we’re supposed to be the ones making the world a more specifically observed and fascinating place.
I appreciated this conversation and sensed it could have gone on much longer. Is there anything else you wish you had time to say?
CLA: There was a point where someone asked about sending out collections rather than single pieces. I wish I would have said something of what I learned writing my latest collection, Multiverses. What editors seem to want from collections now more than anything is cohesion, not of style but of content. If you can put together a collection that has a narrative arc to it, you are much more likely to get it published.*** I’ve been shopping around another collection for near twenty years that I still feel is chockfull of wonderful poems, but they don’t build upon one another. On the other hand, Multiverses got picked up the day after I sent it out for the first time. If what you want to publish is a collection, in other words, I think it’s important not just to write good poems, but good stories. Find the architecture of your writing and write the gaps if you can. You are much more likely to be able to publish a collection that way.
Don’t waste time explaining the meanings of your poems in your cover letters unless you’re using a specific form that’s not obvious or it’s pertinent to how the editor will read the work. Don’t offer random details about your life, about how you live on an isolated island in the Caribbean island drinking freshly roasted coffee while you write every morning from 8-10 after a refreshing swim. It’s just not relevant.
Do take time to read the journal’s mission and guidelines, and don’t send if you don’t agree with them. For instance, SWWIM Every Day publishes women, and we have men submitting to us, even men who are aware of our mission statement but say things like “I think you should consider my work anyway.” No. That’s ten minutes of free labor I wasted.****
Also, it’s not personal. If your work is declined, it’s about the work, not you. If it’s accidentally declined twice, it’s because the Internet stuttered and it looked like it didn’t go through, so someone hit the button again. If you get a ghost rejection, well, sometimes Submittable glitches and sometimes a human glitches (there is a way you can decline without sending an email). But more likely it is because responses frequently go to your spam, where they sit for a month and then get erased. If it’s taking too long in your opinion to get an answer, it’s usually because circumstances have intervened; we all have jobs, families, partners, personal lives. Sometimes editors just have too many submissions on their plates and can’t get back to you as promptly as they would like–although I admit that I, too, get angry when a year (or more!) goes by and then I simply get a form rejection or the journal just disappears.
If you’re querying or withdrawing a poem, be sure that you’re using the most direct method. One thing I’ve learned about using the forms on websites is that unless the journal specifically asks that you use them, a lot of journals don’t check those messages. They also tend to stack up on each other in bunches so you can’t see them as individual messages. And no, the “Note” function on Submittable does not send emails to editors! It’s for your personal use. Use the “Messages” function to send a message – that generates an email to the editors. If the “Messages” function isn’t activated, as it sometimes is not, or the journal uses a different system, send an email to the journal.
Finally, as the person responsible for sending out declines (and acceptances), I can tell you it is something I find truly difficult to do, whether or not I know the poet or have published them before. I’m also on the receiving end of declines, so I understand how it feels. Still, that’s all part of being in the literary community and we need to extend each other grace and kindness whenever possible.*****
About Celia and Jen:
Celia Lisset Alvarez is the editor of Prospectus: A Literary Offering. She has three collections of poetry: Shapeshifting (Spire Press 2006), winner of the 2005 Spire Press Poetry Award, The Stones (Finishing Line Press 2006), and Multiverses (Finishing Line Press 2021). Her poems have been anthologized in How to Live on Other Planets: A Handbook for Aspiring Aliens (Upper Rubber Boot Books 2015), Obsession: Sestinas for the 21st Century (Dartmouth UP 2014), and Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books (Minor Arcana Press 2014). She has work forthcoming in the anthologies Poetry Inspired by Cinema (Before Your Quiet Eyes Publishing 2021) and How to Write a Form Poem (T.S. Poetry Press 2021), and in Pensive: A Global Journal of Spirituality and the Arts. She lives in Miami, Florida. You can find her online at celialissetalvarez.com.
Jen Karetnick’s fourth full-length book is The Burning Where Breath Used to Be (David Robert Books, September 2020). She is also the author of Hunger Until It’s Pain (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming spring 2023) in addition to eight other collections. Karetnick has won the Tiferet Writing Contest for Poetry, the Hart Crane Memorial Prize, and the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Prize, among others, and has been an Artist in Residence in the Everglades, a Deering Estate Artist in Residence, and a Maryland Purple Line Transit grant recipient. Co-founder and managing editor of SWWIM Every Day, she has work appearing recently in Barrow Street, The Comstock Review, december, Michigan Quarterly Review, Terrain.org, and elsewhere. Based in Miami, Jen works as a lifestyle journalist and is also the author of four cookbooks, four guidebooks, and more. Find her on Twitter @Kavetchnik and Instagram @JenKaretnick, or see jkaretnick.com.
*This is true for me too, even though it’s also true at Shenandoah that we can ultimately accept only a percentage of the good stuff. Not following the guidelines or understanding what the journal publishes gets you rejected fast. The vast majority of editors do the work as unpaid extra labor on top of day jobs–I do–and as a submitter, I want to convey respect for that. I’d rather an editor feel friendly and read my work carefully before rejecting me. At least, then, my work has found one reader!
**Among a pool of well-crafted poems, what makes a piece stand out for me is often risk. But every editor will have a slightly different answer, I suspect, about what makes them fall in love with a piece.
***How I would put it: the collection might not have a narrative arc, or a slim one, but there’s a story or a web of connected experiences behind all of its poems. Can you say what the book is about in a sentence or two, insufficient as that sentence might be for the nuances the poems deliver? I had Celia’s experience: my first collection, Heathen, was basically all the best poems I’d written to date, and I still think it’s a good book, but I submitted it for 5-6 years before it was taken. My second book, Heterotopia, was about my mother’s childhood in Liverpool during World War II. I submitted it for just a few months before it won a prize.
The poetry collection I published almost exactly a year ago, The State She’s In, roughly coincides with the moment the U.S. started taking Covid-19 seriously. I was on alert in February, to the point that when we took my mother out to dinner for her eightieth birthday, I wondered whether I would ever see her again. I was an outlier then but most people caught up soon. On Friday March 13th, 2020, my university announced that it was going virtual. A few days before, when he was at home with a friend for spring break, my son’s college did, too. I had already panic-bought a lot of food, but I snagged canned vegetarian soup for my son’s friend, because I expected us all to get sick and it was possible his friend wouldn’t be able to fly home to India (he managed it, with difficulty). No one wore masks because we didn’t know the virus was airborne and the government told civilians not to snap them up. I mourned my book party, which was organized to the hilt and scheduled for the following week. I also felt like a selfish jerk for being sad about it. I still have the favors I meant to give out then (message me if you want stickers or a signed bookplate!).
As fast as the world was changing, the material in this book didn’t date as fast as I expected. It contains a bunch of poems about approaching 50 and menopause, and I had already fallen off those cliffs in March 2020 (although the hot flashes seem like they’ll linger forever). Yet menopause has become a more openly-discussed subject than ever and it was cool to catch that wave. The State She’s In also addresses the Trump apocalypse, but as I started giving virtual readings, that topic still seemed pretty damn relevant, and continued to be so at least until January 2021. The parts of the book about learning the history of where I live and the fights about local memorializations are still very much underway.
There are lots of poems in the book, too, about the landscape I inhabit, and the pandemic has acquainted me with it more deeply. We’ve tried to take a weekly hike in a different site most weekends, and yesterday we explored the countryside north of Staunton and hiked a bit of the Wild Oak Trail along the North River (picture below). There are vestiges of a former railroad boomtown up there, Stokesville, that I’d never even heard of, and while rolling pastures are common in this region, they were especially dramatic. Driving the country roads felt like riding a yo-yo. I’m very tired of my small town and ready to travel for book promotion, if that becomes possible and/or bookstores will feature aging books among the new releases (please check out my novel Unbecoming, too–it’s fun, I swear!). Yet clearly there remains a ton to learn about where I live.
And meanwhile, who could have predicted the state I’m in now? My teacher daughter, my mother, and I all received our first shots in the last ten days. (I’m eligible because having a BMI over 25 makes me elevated-risk, which seems both bogus and dispiriting, but I’ll take it.) I received the Moderna vaccine, and the following day, I was intermittently woozy and headachey and even more insomniac than usual. Honestly, the latter could be a kind of future shock. I’m a veteran student of apocalypse, but I hadn’t imagined this.
The vaccine site epitomized the current weirdness. There was a Peebles department store on the edge of town for decades that went out of business a couple of years ago. Then it became a Gorman’s, which also died, and then the state leased the empty building for vaccinations. I arrived there Friday morning and a line snaked out the building, the most people I’d seen in one spot in ages, but it moved with rapid efficiency. Cheerful guards at the door kept us spaced six feet apart. Inside, I checked in then waited on along a switchback line made of yellow caution tape strung along traffic cones. Above our heads hung purple retail signs saying “big names not big bucks!” and “fashion is fierce!” The jab with a tiny needle was painless. I waited in the sea of chairs for longer than the required 15 minutes, just watching people and feeling stunned. It looked sf, surreal. Even more strangely, the people inhabiting the dreamscape were fizzing with hope.
You know the way somebody makes a remark and it clangs in you, your body vibrating with recognition? A friend recently told me that she’s learned a lot over the past year about what she needs to be happy. Yes. I’ve had other lesson years: for instance, I learned during my long-ago stint as department head is that I start falling apart if I don’t have an hour or so of flow experience each day, usually through reading or writing. Even class prep–rereading books, thinking about how to inspire engagement–can satisfy that hunger. Answering emails from the Business Office cannot.
The pandemic has been a tough teacher. I’ve had to be more deliberate this year about pairing periods of work-output with periods of restorative activities, and the range of possible restorative activities is necessarily smaller. I discovered how much travel had scaffolded my emotional life–choosing destinations and planning trips as well as the sheer relief of escaping my small town–and how sad the days felt without even small adventures to anticipate. I dealt with the restlessness through spring, summer, and fall by planning a new hike every Saturday, but tendonitis hobbled me in January, and February was just too icy as well as being crammed with deadlines, meetings, guest classes, and other tiring Zoomy things. I’m introverted enough not to mind some isolation, but projecting energy and enthusiasm via screens really takes it out of me. I entered March both revved up and melting down.
At my worried spouse’s suggestion, we spent 3 nights at a rented house by a deserted lake, which helped me reset. One reason I travel is because it puts distance between me and laptop-oriented work vigilance; I can’t seem to assert that boundary in my own house. I wasn’t looking forward to coming home and retethering myself to professional effort by “attending” this AWP, for which I had registered in a long-ago fit of optimism. Plus I’d learned that most of the sessions were pre-recorded, which I thought would remove that last frail shred of human interactivity. Virtual conferencing at its worst, I thought.
Somehow, though, I’ve done okay. I tried to watch multiple sessions on the first day then managed to listen to myself: I have it in me to pay high-quality attention to one session per day and reduced attention to a second, but that’s it. Why beat myself up about an incapacity to do more? The live chats enabled by the platform are more interactive and interesting than I expected, but I’m still not fulfilling that old, anxious “see and be seen” AWP imperative anyway, so, I told myself, just chill.
Oddly, I find myself choosing and enjoying the sessions on essays and fiction-writing more than the poetry events (although I particularly enjoyed a few generous-spirited poets talking about small press publicity last night). I wonder if that’s chance, or whether it’s about the pleasure of brain-expansion. I know a lot about poetry. I know something about writing creative nonfiction and novels, but I’m way lower on those learning curves, and I’m deeply interested in getting the lay of the land. In all the panels, I’m appreciating using camera-off listening time to stretch, when I’m not taking notes. And I finally did one of those AWP morning yoga sessions, and it was amazing!–not led by a super-fit woman approaching the practice athletically, but by a calm person emphasizing breathing and loosening joints, who kept reminding her invisible audience that yoga is all about feeling good and increasing happiness. Back to happiness, as if that might be an important subject.
Is that a lesson I can take to the next AWP–do less, concentrate on what’s pleasurable about the conference, what I can learn? Or should I skip the next AWP, even though it will be in Philadelphia where my kids are, and concentrate on smaller events where there’s a greater chance of really talking to people? No decision yet, especially given how unknowable the future is now, but I’m pondering.
In the meantime, a reminder that I’m participating in what I hope will be an inspiriting event this Monday 3/8 at 7pm ET (by Zoom, sorry), with poet-editors Celia Lisset Alvarez and Jen Karetnick, about rebounding from rejection. I plan to talk a little about what I’ve learned about it from both sides of Submittable, and why I persist. Sign up here (FB) or here (Eventbrite–but free tickets close a half hour before the event). Plus, I have to tell you, at the lake, there was an outdoor hot tub, and I saw a shooting star when I was lounging in the water (overchlorinated, but never mind). More happy astronomical phenomena, please, and may they be omens of good journeys ahead!
Like a sad dragon, I’m currently sitting on a diminishing hoard of potential poems for future issues of Shenandoah—Fall ’21 and Spring ’22, presuming we get there–knowing I can’t keep ALL the gold. I’m already rejecting good poems, trying to get down to 20-ish from more than 700 batches. The last couple of weeks have been largely a sifting process: holding each poem against the light, seeing how pieces might fit together.
One issue I’ve been pondering, in part triggered by a tweet from Kelli Russell Agodon: how are the poems I’m reading manifesting the extraordinary pressures of a global pandemic? The answer I gave Kelli is that the poetic worlds seem a notch smaller: I’m getting more poems about the flora and fauna close to hand, fewer about conversation and art and the randomness of being a human walking around in the built world. That’s not a bad thing, but it can make the submission pile less various. I’m certainly coming across references to Covid-19, too, as well as elegies and poems about anxiety, depression, and isolation, but not as many as I expected. This may be because poetry has such a slow burn that we won’t really see the literary results of any crisis for a few years. It may also be because a lot of people just can’t write lately–their lives are busier and their brains can’t rev down enough for reflection. I’m interested to see how things shake out in the literary world and otherwise.
“Haunted and Weird Futures” was actually the title of the final session of the poetry master class I just finished teaching at Randolph College. The assignment:
Prompt: Write a poem that looks toward the future. Some part of it should use the future tense.
It went well, although I was glad I’d lightened the reading for the last session, because the students are tired and stressed. One poem we discussed intensively was Gailey’s “Introduction to Writer’s Block”, because another group of students at Randolph, in a BFA program discussion group, asked me how I keep writing in a difficult time. I talked about switching things up–trying a different genre when one isn’t working–but also just forgiving yourself and spending time on activities that nourish what is depleted in you (whatever it is–a craft, exercise, reading, watching TV, games and puzzles, talking to friends, taking a bath). I love Jeannine’s persistence in the face of pre-pandemic calamity, her declaration that “If you wait long enough, something inside you will ignite.” She writes plenty of poems considering the possible failure of poetry, but they tend to nurture some wit and spark and hope, whatever the trampling Godzilla of the moment is. And I think she’s right: if you keep showing up to the page, cultivating whatever openness you can however you can, the words eventually come.
Because discouragement is also epidemic this year, I am joining in on an event organized by Celia Lisset Alvarez and including Jen Karetnick, both of them poets and editors extraordinaire. We’re going to talk about rejection in the context of our own recent books, and how we work to overcome it. It’s called She Persists and it’s happening at 7pm on Monday March 8th. Sign up here and I promise I’ll try to cheer you on and cheer you up!
I realized this morning that I’ve been concentrating with clenched-body intensity on my mother’s and my daughter’s needs for vaccine appointments–my mother is 81 and immune-challenged, my daughter is a pre-school teacher–as if my constant vigilance was necessary to help them rise to the top of the list. That’s magical thinking, obviously, except that it wasn’t obvious to me until I made it conscious. I’ve always been like the mother in The Woman Warrior, who must mentally hold airplanes in the sky so her loved ones don’t crash in fiery balls of flame. I’m a seriously terrible backseat driver for the same reason. I find it especially hard to release the habit of vigilance when there’s real risk involved that I might have a tiny bit of control over: what if I notice the speeding truck but the driver doesn’t, and I yell and death is averted? Could happen. Not likely.
So here I am in the backseat, struggling to relax and enjoy the scenery. This February is a holding-pattern of a month; it’s also busy. I’m halfway through the master class I’m teaching at Randolph College. I’m virtually attending the Poetry and Pedagogy Conference hosted by West Chester starting tomorrow and looking forward to hearing panels about teaching. The workshop I’m running on Saturday morning, on how and why to teach single-author collections, is nearly ready, and I’m giving a reading with the other workshop leaders on Saturday night. Meanwhile, my department is assembling a list for the registrar of our fall courses, so I’m in planning mode for my own fall offerings. The clock is definitely ticking on my sabbatical, even though the second half of the leave year remains fuzzy in many ways, for obvious reasons. (Deep breaths through the diaphragm. Amygdala, calm down.)
Nope, amygdala thinks my editorial load is fight-or-flight. It’s a privilege to work for a great magazine with a great Editor-in-Chief; accepting poems and promoting their wonderfulness is a thrill. Yet, open for submissions for the first two weeks of February, Shenandoahreceived 736 batches of poems. 736!!! I’m working hard, but when I get down to the most irresistible poems I’ll still have more than enough for multiple issues, which means more hours of difficult siftings and rejection letters that can be wrenching to write. (I have 19 spots max for Fall ’21 and Spring ’22 combined, with some reserved for a portfolio curated by our BIPOC Editorial Fellow in poetry, Sylvia Jones.) I’m trying to take it more slowly than usual and not feel so overwhelmed, but it’s a lot.
The stressy busy-ness is only partly about work, after all. Part of my brain is always rehearsing the vigilance script: steer clear of that maskless man; what can I cook over the next several days to postpone another trip to the supermarket, because it never feels safe there; my mother and daughter are on that airplane, how do I keep it aloft from down here? Oh, February. Oh, amygdala.
Please enjoy the photos below of progress toward our future screened-in porch, to replace a rotted deck that was older than our children. It’s slow work, especially with all the snow we’ve been getting, but I like to imagine sitting back there reading, come spring. Not a metaphor at all…