Ruthlessly pruning the overstuffed closet of a poetry book manuscript

After a shopping trip for school clothes on Saturday, my daughter, a rising high school senior, spontaneously cleaned out her drawers and closet to make room for the new. I cannot emphasize enough how out of character this was, but then again, she’s on the verge of so many changes. All summer she’s been doing ridiculously massive assignments for various AP courses in between touring colleges, drafting application essays, practicing with the girls’ cross-country team, babysitting, and volunteering. This time next year we’ll be packing up supplies for her dorm room at some college we can’t yet visualize. So yes, out with all those middle school notebooks and the keepsake tee shirts! Mademoiselle must be pitiless! The future is roaring toward us down the track, so pack light and zip up tight!

Madame is trying for similar late-summer ruthlessness. The biggest and hardest item on my to-do list is revising my poetry ms, Radioland. The editors at my press gave me brief notes to go on before more concentrated work scheduled for later in the year. Too many poems about poetry and famous poets, they said. And see if you can pare down all those first-person pronouns. These directives seem fair enough, especially the former. These poems concern communication and reception, so communion through reading books and letters is a recurrent theme. Honestly, Emily Dickinson is someone I talk to a lot. But you have to be careful about allusion. If a poem is just about poetry, that lowers the stakes. Plus, while a person who recognizes the reference may be delighted and feel suddenly able to place your poem in a long-running conversation, you can lose readers, too, when you get too insidery. A poem has to exert its own gravity, apart from the painting or political event or personal experience that inspired it. I can’t and shouldn’t cut all the poetry references, but I can weed out the flimsiest and hem up the trailing quotations in others. And other smart advice had been accumulating while I waited for press feedback—a friend gave me wise notes on cuts and rearrangements last February—so I was ready to eviscerate the closet.

I set to work. First you pull out the multicolored contents, try on each item, and sort the stuff into piles: essential, never fit though I wished it did, out of fashion. I had thought the former structure was successful and the poems polished, but knowing a mess of pages is really going to be a book makes you see the weak bits more clearly. Plus, I put this version of the ms together seven months ago. Then-raw poems had cooked up nicely since; magazine acceptance and rejections, plus hits and fizzles at poetry readings, had changed my sense of which poems represented my best work; and my life has moved on, so narrative threads connected to autobiography have unspooled in unexpected directions.

You have to review the whole and the pieces. I stitched and unstitched some poems, chucked others out, mixed and matched the core wardrobe with recent inspirations. Then I sought Chris’ fresh eye and perpetrated the whole process over again. My friend’s favorite section has moved up, as has the sequence about my father’s death. More theoretical poems about communication now come later, so they can be haunted by a specific and personal loss. There’s more light of all kinds in the book’s final movement. Now I’m resting and planning another read-through right before classes start, because every time you look at a manuscript you spot some new infelicity. Just last week, saving the seventh version of Radioland onto my computer, I noticed that the second and third poem both had the same word, “report,” in the title. That’s a pretty big, basic glitch, the repetition of an unusual noun on two consecutive pages, yet I hadn’t spotted it. It’s terrifying, really. I’m not a perfectionist, no publishing writer can afford to seek perfection, but the perfectionists do have a point. A book is never really done.

There are so many factors to weigh in revising a book of poems. Just a few I keep thinking about:

  • Is the book telling the most involving, interesting story I can pull off right now? Is the narrative arc complex yet clear enough to satisfy an involved reader?
  • And yet this is a collection of wayward fragments, not a wholly coherent narrative. Do the poems have some spiky independence from each other? Are they various?
  • Am I making the same moves not too often, but just often enough to keep the poems working in relationship to each other? This means reading for repeated words, ideas, stanza shapes, and other devices.
  • Who will be my readers, and how do I hope they’ll feel and think about this project? I personally believe the world is pretty awful and art should help us get through, so steering towards hope is important to me, but like many other poets I have a tendency to resort to black, the easiest hue to pull off without embarrassing yourself.

And then there’s the strategies-of-publishing level:

  • I love this one poem but it doesn’t go with anything else in the wardrobe. And since this is poetry, I’m not actually donating it to Goodwill and therefore sending it to a hypothetically happy home. If I leave it out now, is it basically gone forever? Would that matter?
  • If the poem did well with magazine editors, I should find a way to include it, right?
  • And what about the poems that keep getting rejected by the latter? For example, there’s a poem at the end of Heterotopia Chris still shakes his head over. He says “‘Forgetting Curve,’ that’s your Norton Anthology poem, man, and no one took it? What is with that?” I don’t know if he’s right about that poem, or whether I am about an orphan in this current ms called “Community Feeling,” but I bet you recognize the phenomenon, if you read acknowledgments. The Pushcart-winning ode seems mediocre, but the triolet that knocked your socks off didn’t even make Obscure but Noble Little Review.

And questions for the oracle who, sadly, does not perch on a nearby volcanic fissure:

  • Which of these poems, notes, or acknowledgment lines will upset or delight my relative/ friend/ mentor, and if so, that a fate to be courted or avoided?
  • What am I not seeing, or perhaps not admitting that I am seeing?

I don’t know, although I can tell you what the goal is: to put together the best book I can get someone to consent to publish. Whatever “best” means, knowing that five years from now, I’ll probably know better.

For the moment, anyway, it’s back to the late-summer frenzy. There’s dinner to cook, bookbags to pack, recommendations to write. I have a podcast to record tomorrow related to a recent essay in Poetry—yikes. And a son who keeps muttering about school: “I’m not going back to That Place.” I know how he feels. I’m pretty happy messing around in the closet, wearing black sweatpants I totally should throw out.

The embarrassing grant genre of the “career narrative”

Posting this feels way scarier than uploading bad selfies to Facebook. The genre potentially fuses bombast with whining: “I am the most awesome candidate in your enormous pile of awesomeness” with “please please I NEED this.” But many of us at least consider applying for grants from time to time, and I thought it might be helpful for others to see one take on a common assignment. I am not posting the “statement of plans” for a variety of reasons, but hey, this whole blogging enterprise is heavy on “career narrative,” right? Below is a draft towards some fall applications, so it is not from a winning application and probably won’t be–the odds are always terrible. As I brag below, though, I’ve been lucky before, so I can’t be the worst career narrator ever. Hope this helps someone.

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Taking Poetry Personally integrates intellectual and artistic concerns I have pursued for twenty-five years. Most of my scholarship zeroes in on lyric poetry, and since studying for a B.A. from Rutgers College in the late 1980s, I have been writing sound-driven short poetry as well. Focusing on this genre and its hazy boundaries means considering medium and reception ever more deeply—hence my current project on how and why to read twenty-first-century verse.

I earned my PhD from Princeton in 1994 with a dissertation that became the basis of my first book. The Poetics of Enclosure: American Women Poets from Dickinson to Dove (Tennessee, 2002) investigates the lyric poem as a virtual place. Each poet under consideration—Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, H.D., Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, and Rita Dove—treats the lyric as a contained space. Moreover, each poet uses enclosure as an idiom defining women’s verse and conveys a complicated relationship with that evolving tradition. Domesticity, maternity, sexuality, and other aspects of women’s experience and embodiment suggest “closure,” even as “open” form becomes the reigning ethos.

I completed this project as I earned tenure at a rural liberal arts college, Washington and Lee University, submitting final revisions in September 2000, a week before the birth of my second child. At the time, my English Department colleagues and I taught seven writing-intensive courses a year on a long academic schedule that abbreviated the summer research window. There was no junior leave, though a grant from the American Association of University Women funded one summer’s research. During my post-tenure sabbatical, therefore, as I marked up proofs and nursed a new baby, I contemplated what I actually wanted to write, now that scholarship no longer seemed like a dire emergency.

I discovered an ambition to pursue a riskier project by asking questions I felt unqualified to answer. In a new line of research, I assembled a history of poetry performance in the U.S. I also considered what it means to discuss sound in the twentieth-century lyric poem, and what poets and critics intend when they refer to “poetic voice.” All these problems extend in some ways from my first book’s preoccupations with the lyric as a genre and the complicated feedback loops between poets and audiences. The project I eventually developed—Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present (Cornell, 2008)—represented both a fresh start and a return.

Voicing American Poetry explores voice as a defining medium and figure throughout a wide range of poetic movements and affiliations. In addition to chronicling conventions of poetry recitation, I analyze Edna St. Millay’s performance persona on the stage, the page, and in radio broadcasts; Langston Hughes’ inventive translations of sound culture into print; and the illusion of poetic voice in collaborative projects by James Merrill, David Jackson, Denise Duhamel, and Maureen Seaton. A final chapter compares conventions of the contemporary academic poetry reading to slam poetry.

I remain proud of my first book, but when I developed this second project, with more publishing experience but without terror of publish-or-perish consequences, I produced a study that meant more to a larger audience. A sabbatical fellowship from the National Endowment from the Humanities in 2005-6 enabled its completion through a fifteen-month work marathon and also significantly increased the final project’s visibility. Voicing American Poetry was a finalist for the Modernist Studies Association’s book prize but also reached students and specialists in creative writing studies. I still receive notes about it from literary magazine editors and meet audience members at poetry readings who know me through this scholarship. This project persuaded me that high-stakes, accessibly written criticism still has an eager audience—and that boldness pays off.

The other commitment I made during that first sabbatical was to my own poetry. I had been pouring all available publishing and networking energy into scholarly production, desperately needing advice and new mentors: as I finished the PhD, one of my dissertation directors collapsed and was nudged into retirement, even as the other was denied tenure and left for the west coast. Yet I never stopped writing poetry, and my poetic obsessions with sound, place, and story had often intersected with my teaching and research preoccupations. Now I resolved to give this kind of writing high priority. I allowed more time to write, revise, and submit poetic work, with limited success at first. My knowledge of contemporary styles, coteries, and venues deepened after a few years of reading. Good magazine publication credentials accumulated. I published my first collection, Heathen, in 2009. Heterotopia, judged winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize by David Wojahn, followed in 2010. A 2012 novella in verse, The Receptionist and Other Tales, received notice on two prize lists that generally recognize prose fiction: it was named a James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor Book in 2013 (“for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender”) and was nominated in 2014 for the Ackies (the Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of recommended academic novels). My next collection, Radioland, will appear late in 2015.

A 2007-2010 stint as department head subtracted from research and writing time, but one transformative adventure occurred shortly afterwards. In 2011, I received a five-month Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship to Wellington, New Zealand. My original plan was to develop a book-length study of twenty-first-century poetic networks. One chapter would focus on the International Institute of Modern Letters, New Zealand’s first academic creative writing program, as an example of institutionally-fostered community. The experience confirmed my sense that while twenty-first-century poetry in English is marked by national border crossings and is liberated by virtual networks from complete dependence on urban centers, mutual presence remains vital. The increasingly electronic nature of our professional and creative relationships paradoxically makes local scenes more powerful and live performance more rewarding.

The Fulbright vastly widened my reading and my own international connections, resulting in essays, interviews, reviews, poems, a special co-edited poetry feature in Shenandoah, and other projects still in the pipeline. A related article I had envisioned as part of the book, “‘Salon with a Revolving Door’: Virtual Community and the Case of Wom-po,” appeared in Contemporary Women’s Writing. Yet this venture also persuaded me to reconceive my book project. I remained committed to writing about twenty-first century poetry and its border crossings—I intend to shape critical conversation about this emerging field in which my pedagogical, artistic, and scholarly interests so often converge. I realized, however, as I began a blog called “The Cave, The Hive: Poetry’s Possible Worlds,” that a different kind of book, a riskier one, might reach a broader audience and have a greater impact.

Blogging about poetry taught me what appeals to readers in real time. I describe above how reactions to Voicing American Poetry have unfolded over years; suddenly I had data within hours about what kinds of posts inspire comments and social media shares or attract new subscribers. These brief, informal essays incorporate literary criticism, but require weaving argument and narrative together. Doctoral students are taught to efface the personal roots of their research obsessions; university press editors often invite more autobiographical reflection; but in a blog post, the conditions of writing come to the fore, inflecting critical judgments and ideally rendering them more urgent and persuasive. I began to apply this experience in longer essays and two acceptances persuaded me I was on the right track. In a more personal mode, “Coffee with Poets in New Zealand” appeared in the Gettysburg Review and was later featured by Poetry Daily. “Undead Eliot: How ‘The Waste Land’ Sounds Now,” forthcoming in Poetry, is criticism dangling only a few shreds of autobiographical material, but I could not have written it before starting that blog.

Writing Taking Poetry Personally has been difficult in every possible way. I spent a year working out the best possible structure. Each chapter requires great quantities of research into reading and literary world-building, and then effacing that research, so the scholarly scaffolding is present but not dominant. Prose memoir, too, is more emotionally challenging to write than autobiographical lyric, in which image offers a handy bypass around the trickiest terrain. Literary pressures shape each sentence as well as the exigencies of scholarly reasoning; resolution of narrative suspense must converge with the argument’s periodic conclusions. Yet this feels like important, exciting labor for which I am well equipped. Not only blogging but programming community readings and teaching introductory poetry courses to undergraduates for more than twenty years—all have sharpened my insight about what kinds of poems and presentations appeal to different audiences. And my critical impulses have always tended in a literary direction. Why not strain every skill at my command and exercise every unlikely ambition? Whose permission would I be waiting for?

No middlebrow for poetry

There really isn’t a place for the middlebrow in poetry publishing.

I don’t like ranking people’s tastes by their supposed expanse of forehead. First, it’s mainly marketing, defining us by how we spend. Second, we’re all more mixed than that. I’m more adventurous about food than music, for instance: I like edgy vegetables and songs with round corners. I am attracted to weird art but have zero interest in experimental novels. I don’t even know how to describe my taste in poetry. Yet an artist-friend has been sending me links to articles on middlebrow art, including the recent New York Times piece. And at the same time I’ve been helping an acquaintance with a poetry manuscript and thinking, “in fiction, there would be a place for this.” Her book retells a politically complicated historical episode in a straightforward style, shifting from speaker to speaker with nary a qualm about appropriation. No lacunae, ellipses, apologetic verbal hedges about the fundamental inaccessibility of the past. Yet the writer, while not versed in the politics of contemporary verse, is ultra-competent, with a long multigenre publishing resume. It’s not that she’s writing badly. She’s just not writing for me.

Fiction does this all the time: storytelling depends on imagining points of view one person can’t truly access. Fiction I’d call literary does this very persuasively, with psychological and intellectual sophistication, in prose full of surprises. Fiction I’d call popular is more predictable, from its similes to its characters and plot, but I read my share of it and I’m glad it’s out there.

There is some range in recently published poetry collections. Some are much, much more abstruse than others, yet even the most approachable are still literary in their values. And unless you’re a former US Poet Laureate, you’re probably finding it increasingly hard to publish narrative verse in a straightforward, grammatical style.

My poetry predilections are probably highbrow, because I’m nerdily delighted when I cut my fingers on the edges of a stanza. But among the poets I meet through publishing and conferences and festivals, I feel kinda lowbrow. I’m attracted to story, and if a poem doesn’t show the author’s attention to potential readers–eagerness to be interesting, willingness to come clean about what’s at stake–I put it down and go back to poetry that seems to want my company. My own feeling of resisting certain avant-garde pieties, however, is relative to a tiny, poetry-obsessed readership, because there isn’t much of a general audience for contemporary takes on this particular art form.

It’s different for Dickinson, Frost, Eliot, Hughes, etc–non-poetry-specialists do read older verse. I’m talking about print, too, and books in particular. Poetry readings can have big, open-minded audiences–I hear accessible, middlebrow poetry more often than I read it. In slam, there’s plenty of popular stuff a professor might deem bad, and that’s good. When an art’s healthy, there’s a big enough range in contemporary practice that there’s no way one person would appreciate all of it. For instance, I can go to an art house film if I want, or sink into a high-box-office 3D noisefest, because the movies are still for everyone.

I wish there were more room for poetry books that might be called middlebrow or lowbrow or accessible or populist, stuff you don’t have to be an insider to get. My own favorite field, as in the novel, is crossover stuff: literary fiction that flirts with mystery or thriller; fantasy that’s smart and well-written. I want more poetry that works at both levels, too–highly readable but sharp and worth lingering over. But how likely is that, when the poetic equivalent of popular fiction can’t find a friendly curator or a book-buying audience? Everything is aimed at the cognoscenti.

Well, that’s enough big-foreheadism. The advance of August always lowers the hairline, but it’s worse for the woman resigning herself to a stint as department head: I have advising sheets to revise, after all, and capstone sections to sort. Time for the mid-career middle-aged medium-height poet to muddle back in the midden of middle management.