“Extended Release,” now in Guernica, is one of those poems that came to me in a rush, the kind that writers sometimes refer to as a gift, in that it arrives in near-final shape. I jotted in a dim living room during my mother’s last weeks, when she was in and out of hospitals and nursing homes as we sought a diagnosis and, we hoped, a cure. I had been taking care of her in the house she shared with my brother when she suddenly couldn’t hold a spoon steady. I called the home nursing service; they said to call an ambulance. My mother’s reproach when she saw the EMTs–“Oh, Les, what have you done”–will haunt me forever, I’m sure, as well as the difficulty of negotiating treatment for her pain. I think she trusted me to be ruthlessly kind, if you know what I mean, and she was disappointed that I didn’t catch on that she could have slipped away without fuss that night. Days later, I would be the person who discovered her death, and I have a gut feeling she waited to let go until I was on watch because she thought I could take it. She always told me women were stronger than men and seemed to think I could endure anything the world would throw at me. I guess I have, so far–not that I’ve had the hardest life by a long shot, but I’ve kept plowing along. Maybe that’s just what I need to believe, that she thought I was strong.
The balancing force to my regret was our exchange about what comes after pain. My mother was spiritually all over the map, sometimes describing her many reincarnations and other times saying, “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” But she really did talk, as I recount in the poem, about what people wear in heaven. We compared notes on what heaven might be like, for us, if it existed. That was one of the best conversations we had during those last difficult weeks. She seemed peaceful and curious. It was a gift to be there and mull over possibilities with her. People’s kind responses to this poem have been gifts, too. So many people have been through this with loved ones. I wonder if it’s any better when someone dies suddenly, without that month of pain and uncertainty. I suspect not.
Gifts are also on my mind because I was just talking to a local book club about the weird process of writing Unbecoming. Much of my novel was made; some of it was given. It’s interesting, sometimes a little painful, to contemplate the afterlife of a book. Some women in the book club said they were haunted and touched by the novel. They generally agreed that they hated the cover (yeah, I know, that’s been a theme in the responses). But I’m glad to have been in conversation with them about the process of writing it and what the book means to me now. Books follow you around like spirits, too.
I’ll have more to say in a couple of weeks about the NEXT book, but in the meantime, I’m busy making hard judgments about other people’s poems. Shenandoah received over 800 poetry batches in the recent submission period (Submittable caps us at 800/ month but a few extras tend to sneak through somehow). I’m down to about 280, which feels like progress, but they get harder and harder to cull, of course. It’s a bummer to turn down strong poems, often moving ones in which language and structure aren’t quite tight enough yet, sometimes beautifully crafted pieces that haven’t quite articulated their stakes. But I still feel lucky, most days, to do this work. Plus, as I’ve said before, it’s a reminder that even when you don’t see your work accepted, it may still be reaching one person who appreciates it.
In the meantime, a watching recommendation: Get Back. Peter Jackson’s new Beatles documentary should be insufferable. It’s LONG, sometimes baggy, and full of infighting. I’m not even one of those Beatles fans who knows every album, etc., and gathers up every crumb about their career. I turned it on, frankly, in part just for the accents; my mother’s from Liverpool, same era, and Scouse sounds like home. Yet I’m finding it utterly riveting. The characters are fascinating and not what I expected, but more crucially, it’s amazing to watch talented people in the process of making top-notch art. The documentary covers a hyper-compressed period in which the Beatles came together to write a whole new suite of songs, practice them, and figure how to get along enough to put on a show. In the first episode, there’s a moment when people are arguing about the set, and in the background, Paul is tinkering on the piano (composing “Let It Be,” you gradually realize). When they play together, even after bitter disagreement, you can see the telepathy sparking, as well as their delight in each other’s talent. It’s wonderful that some of their process lives on, as well as the music itself.
During the last few weeks, I spent 20+ hours reading and ranking national student Fulbright applications in Creative Writing so I could meet with two other jurists and wrangle amicably over the best ones to send up the decision chain. It was interesting work but EXHAUSTING and very hard to accomplish at such a busy moment in the academic year. The planned five-hour Zoom meeting, however, turned out to take half that long, largely because our moderator was awesome. She used a term I hadn’t heard since early in the pandemic: “biobreaks,” as in pauses from our cyborg virtual/ human activity for hitting the bathroom, stretching, hydrating.
YES, I thought, that’s what I need. More biobreaks! Calm my body down with good sleep and unscheduled time. Maybe even gain the mental clarity to write again. It’s probably been two months since I’ve done more than jot down ideas. I don’t worry about dry spells like I used to–I know excitement about writing always comes back–but it’s bad for every part of me when I don’t periodically enter its flow experience. I’ve been working flat out on putting out various fires, from grading (done!) to last minute proofing (the new issue of Shenandoah, full of brilliant poems, is hot off the presses!). Past those accomplishments and the Fulbright effort, my life, thank goodness, is finally cooling down.
Right now I’m at a big sf annual convention, WorldCon, this year in DC and called DisCon III. I know that doesn’t sound relaxing, especially since I’m giving two readings (fiction and poetry) and speaking on two panels (“Teaching and Analyzing Genre Fiction” and “From Grimm to Disney and Back: The Changing Fae”). But since I don’t know anyone here, I’m otherwise taking it easy, bringing takeout back to my room in a cheaper satellite hotel to get my head together, trying to take advantage of the programming but not fry my poor brain. Obviously I’m also catching up with little tasks like blogging, but I have to say, this kind of writing feels like play, not work, at least most of the time.
I’m also watching poetry Twitter, as usual, and recent poets about some beloved poet, unnamed, who paid $25,000 for a publicist to promote their first collection and, as you’d suspect, did pretty freaking well. (It’s probably terrible to ask you to message me if you know who the $25K person is–I’m just crassly curious.) I don’t have that kind of money burning a hole in my pocket, but I have thought about smaller-scale consulting with a publicist, and I know other friends who have, as well–it’s suddenly an open secret that many writers find audiences by investing cash upfront in the process. It’s one way of managing another huge time commitment, I guess, as well as a way that the publishing playing field will never be level. Certainly applying for reading series, festivals, etc. is work I strain to get done. It’s the usual quandary of whether to play the system as it exists or step aside into an alternate artistic economy. I get the arguments for both strategies. I like to think that if I spent some money and gained prominence from it (which can’t be a given, right?), I’d use any power I gained to help other writers. In some ways I already do, but that is certainly a rationalization–if your real goal is to help others, you don’t start by hiring a publicist. Anyway, as I slow down and look around, it’s one of the things that seems to be on my mind.
Oh, and I should gloss the other difficulties alluded to in my last post. The crisis was completely nonliterary, but this blog is supposed to be where art meets life, right? My husband had Covid. We knew he’d been exposed so he waited 5 days to take a PCR test, which was negative, so after consulting everyone involved, we went ahead with Thanksgiving. He ended up passing it to my daughter who lives in Philadelphia (probably–the source and timeline are a little uncertain–but that’s what I think happened). Fortunately, they had symptoms equivalent to bad colds and recovered reasonably quickly. Chris’ parents and I, who’d received our booster shots earlier due to higher risk factors, escaped infection entirely, but I went back to isolating and teaching by Zoom for a while to wait until I knew for sure. We had to divide the house into separate zones while he, an exceptionally energetic person who’s much more social than I am, sadly waited out quarantine. My main source of sadness was getting the zone with the chores. (I’m joking, pretty much.) It was anxiety-producing, although it all turned out fine. Get your boosters, friends, and if you can’t, please take very good care.
I still don’t have exact dates for my forthcoming essay collection, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, but I can see the light in the distance now. I’m STOKED to have a version of the Introduction appearing in the new American Poetry Review, where lots of people will see it. I just finished revising the whole ms according to my editor’s notes, too. It feels polished and good. I need to reread it as a whole to make sure I haven’t introduced other errors, but I’m nearly ready to share it with others!
Yet carving out this Saturday, jack-o’-lantern style, for processing those edits (and this morning for contacting finalists for Shenandoah‘s Graybeal-Gowan Prize) was HARD. I think this week and next may be the busiest of my fall–unless I’m just deluded about things easing later. My pumpkin-head is so full these days I don’t know how to quiet it. Some of the lovely too-muchness:
I’m preparing a craft talk and a reading for UNC-Wilmington’s Writers Week this week–all Zoom, all free–and full of luminaries. See the schedule and Zoom links here. My craft talk, “Led by Sound,” is about using rhyme as a way of getting past your rational brain to access the weird stuff that makes a poem powerful. It’s based on a workshop I gave years ago, but I felt the need to renovate it deeply, so it’s taken lots of time.
I’m ALSO preparing for the World Fantasy Con in Montreal next weekend, where I’m giving a reading plus participating in a panel on speculative poetry (which I haven’t prepped yet, but I know this stuff, right? I’ll pull it off, right?). Never mind packing, doing the Covid tests, etc. I’m vaccinated with Moderna and not scared of flying (casting no shade on people who are, which I think is a reasonable position), but flying was always a pain and now is an even bigger project.
Two wonderful poets, Ashley M. Jones and Sally Rosen Kindred, visited different classes of mine via Zoom this week, and each hour was an oasis of forest, music, inspiration, and transformation. I also visited two classes, the Shenandoah internship to talk about poetry selection and a fiction writing class to talk about Unbecoming. I LOVE doing that. But my head is buzzing with everything we said and didn’t say, as well as the regular discussions happening in my classes and office hours. I’m teaching books I’ve never taught before. Students are devising final projects. There’s a lot to talk and think about.
Setting up W&L’s Task Force on Chairing–wait, you do NOT want to hear about that!! Much more interesting are the whirlwind days coming up of a campus visit by Eric Tran; presentations by finalists for our tenure track job opening in postcolonial and indigenous literatures; and doing some advance training for my late November-early December gig as a Fulbright evaluator in creative writing.
In short, not much time to answer messages or haunt social media, so I’m sorry if I’ve been a Bad Art Friend by not liking your posts. I’ll catch up.
I’ll close with a Halloween scare: I am full of dread about the upcoming Virginia governor’s election. I voted weeks ago, but the outcome is very iffy because of what they call an “enthusiasm gap” (Trump fans love Youngkin; McAuliffe is the better candidate by miles, but he doesn’t warm the cockles of anyone’s heart). Youngkin, by way of one small example of potential future horrors, is encouraging book-banning. I just started reading the excellent YA novel Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez because local right-wing parents are bombarding the high school with demands to remove books from the collection, including that one. Everyone needs to marshal arguments to keep them in the stacks. As activism goes, that’s definitely my speed, but what a stupid battle to be fighting when the world is burning.
My dream-life has been off-the-scale intense, populated by strangers demanding I change my life. The tarot spreads of my daily meditations keep saying so, too–that I’m feeling a call and soon to walk away from something but resisting change so far. I must have carried that energy to Harpers Ferry this weekend, when my spouse and I met our kids for a pseudo-Parents Weekend at a rented house. They all seem much more balanced at life cruxes than I am: my husband unbalanced by midlife transitions; my college-aged son, just turned 21, trying to divine what he wants to do with his life; my 24-year-old daughter recovering from a tough summer and pondering grad school. Me, I’m just a postmenopausal writer struggling to straddle different obligations, a bunch of books behind me and more in development, although in general I’m trying to treat myself more kindly. I’m not exactly sure what the big transformation is although my unconscious keeps insisting it’s coming.
It was the perfect landscape for wondering about it, where the Shenandoah and Potomac converge in sparkling streams. Perhaps because we were VRBOing in a Civil War-era house, different histories seemed to be streaming together, too. Union and Confederate troops battled furiously over this bit of land and water; for a while it was something like an international border. Perhaps that was why I kept hearing ghost-men sobbing and moaning during the night, although there’s also a brutal history of enslavement to consider. The river is now lined by ruined mills among which we walked as the morning fog burned off. I read every bit of signage we passed, learning that this area was also home to an important primarily Black college, Storer. Important abolition movement events happened in Harpers Ferry, and the area became a hub of African American tourism later. We had to end our hike before seeing the remains of John Brown’s Fort–Chris twisted his ankle–but after I brought him back to the rental, I enjoyed tramping around Bolivar Heights by myself. It was a cool trip although I have to say I felt uneasy most of the time (well, except while sipping rose on a restaurant patio, when I felt lucky indeed).
I have lots going on this week–classes in full swing and approaching midterms, random medical appointments, a colleague’s teaching to observe, a meeting with the new Dean about a task force I foolishly agreed to run long ago, before the pandemic turned me into a skeptic of university service, which is effectively free work now that merit raises have stopped and there are no more promotions to aspire to. (Maybe that’s the change, me bowing out of the task force? Sigh.) Here’s a plug for Shenandoah‘s open reading period, though: if you’ve lived in Virginia 2+ years now or in the past, you’re eligible to apply for the Graybeal-Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets, which thanks to the donors could earn you $1000. It’s free to enter here and the final judge will be Deborah Miranda, my wonderful and recently retired colleague. Try! The submission pool is way smaller than the general call for poems that will open in January.
All right, off to rustling leaves and walnuts thumping in my backyard like student poem drafts demanding my feedback.
The Slightly-Later-Than-Spring 2021 issue of Shenandoahis live! I curated a themed section called “A Grimoire: Poems in Pursuit of Transformation.” My editorial note describes what I mean by “uncanny activism,” but in short, these are poems that try to make things happen, often by using the features of spells, prayers, charms, and other petitions to the more-than-human world. I describe how I see the poems speaking to the portfolio’s theme, but below I also provide lists and links for how these poems might fit onto syllabi for various literature and creative writing courses. Free online content can be a pretty useful way to add richness to a reading list, and of course I think these poems are amazing.
You could categorize this one under “occult” or “skepticism,” maybe: Jeannine Hall Gailey, “Divination”
I hope this list might be helpful to teachers, although I think putting poetry into thematic categories involves some sleight-of-hand. Poems transcend labels like “ecopoetry” and “about religion,” if they’re good. Yet academic study, at least as constituted here and now, depends on categories, due to the sheer necessity of narrowing down some fraction of the literary universe into non-insane portion sizes for courses. Curricula typically divide material by the author’s country of origin, century of publication, literary school, gender, sexuality, race, religion, or other identity category; genre and theme play in, too. None of these categories is “natural.” We’re just used to them. Further, no reading list is fully coherent; every one generates borderline cases. I’d be interested to hear if you think I got any of these categories wrong for these particular poems.
I’m focusing here on the portion of the issue I edited, but I proofread the entire publication (even while on leave, because I love the magazine). I can testify that there’s terrific work all through it. The comics Rachel Cruz curated about survival are very powerful; check out the special translation section on Arabic poetry; BIPOC Editorial Fellow DW McKinney presents nonfiction about home and belonging (Sara Marchant’s “Haunted,” for example, is a memorably weird ghost story). Please check out the regular fiction and nonfiction, too. Beth Staples and her partner-in-crime Morgan Davis choose riveting pieces full of strong feeling that are also often experimental in structure and voice.
Every issue is a huge collective effort brought to wonderful fruition, and it means a lot when other people read it. When any issue of any magazine delights you, let the editors know! Or share it on social media, or do whatever you do to celebrate art you like. The world needs more of that.
In the meantime, I’m revising some pieces, submitting a bit, and preparing for the literary work and logistics of attending the Sewanee Writers Workshop next week–as a student instead of a syllabus-writer, which is delightful. I’m also planning for fall teaching with the kind of open-mindedness sabbaticals can generate, because they detach you for a while from the habits that help you survive an intense job. Toward the process, I’m reading Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop. It’s full of useful, specific ideas that are smart extensions and articulations of good classroom values: anti-racist pedagogy is here a way of being pro-empowerment for students of many identities who would benefit from thoughtful support. Sewanee is kicking off with an “Ethics of the Workshop” session, too. I’m excited to learn from these conversations, meet actual (masked) human beings, and just sink into the writing life for a while, although September’s mountains loom in the distance.
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.
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…
Being on sabbatical puts a insulating layer between me and the academic seasons, but I can still sense the weather shifting via publication cycles. Even for magazines and presses without university affiliations, there are year-in-review lists and columns: Aqueduct Press just published one of mine, and I’ve just submitted another to Strange Horizons for early January publication. I’ve been reading proofs for December issues. Rejections are souring my inbox. I also received three delicious acceptances from magazines I’ve never cracked: I’ll have poems in Smartish Pace and Kenyon Review Online next year, plus an essay that’s central to my forthcoming book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, will be in American Poetry Review. I’m freaked out, sad, tired, and feeling like a shut-in, yet that is some serious holiday cheer.
I’m rarely in a good mood, honestly, when I’m processing publication’s endless clerical business, even the wins. Being immersed in writing and reading feels better. Yet there are payoffs. A big one today is getting to celebrate the just-published issue of Shenandoah. I’ve been proofing the fiction, nonfiction, comics, and translations sections, which I otherwise have almost nothing to do with, although I love what the other editors have selected. The poetry section, though, is full of my babies. I recruited a few of the authors; most are people whose work I didn’t know before last year, when I sifted their beautiful poems out of the hundreds and hundreds submitted during our brief reading period. I can’t play favorites, loving them all equally, but here’s a tasting menu, each chosen because it will make you feel replete:
There’s a wide range of other feelings and experiences represented in this suite of poems, but for now: honey, rhubarb, persimmons.
More fruit of past efforts: this Sunday at 4 pm ET, you can check out poetry readings by Anna Maria Hong and me, courtesy of Hot L. (They’re recorded.) I’ll be virtually live (oh the paradoxes) in the Poetica-Malaprops series at 3 pm ET on Sunday January 3rd, and in the Cafe Muse series on Sunday January 4th at 7 pm ET. In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out what end-of-year submissions I need to scramble up for postpublication book prizes, other random opportunities, and yes, the magazines. It’s a lot, and most of it won’t end palatably. But no cooking, no feast.
I found a new poetic form this week through Dave Bonta’s always excellent Poetry Blog Digest: the cadralor. JJS quotes a definition in the post “The good, the bad, and the ugly”: “The cadralor is a poem of 5 unrelated, numbered stanzaic images, each of which can stand alone as a poem, is fewer than 10 lines, and ideally constrains all stanzas to the same number of lines. Imagery is crucial to cadralore: each stanza should be a whole, imagist poem, almost like a scene from a film or a photograph. The fifth stanza acts as the crucible, alchemically pulling the unrelated stanzas together…and answer[ing] the compelling question: ‘For what do you yearn?’” I drafted a cadralor for the last entry in my November poem-a-day-effort. (I’m not sure anyone in my group managed consistent daily pieces, but drafting and revising any poetry at all felt like a success!) It also occurred to me that the cadralor resembles a multi-section blog post, so here’s a stab at it.
It’s gusty and cold; my son, home from college, is doing virtual math classes in plaid pajamas at the dining room table; and I suspect I’m not going anywhere for a long time now, beyond sepia-toned trails through the woods. Reading time. I just finished the new poetry collection by Heid E. Erdrich, Little Big Bully–she’s “visiting” virtually this winter as a writer in residence and a group of faculty are having a book-club-style discussion of her book, which won last year’s National Poetry Series. It’s a powerful study of colonialism, sexual assault, racism, contemporary U.S. politics, and how to live against and through it with love for people and the land. Heid is an Ojibwe poet enrolled at Turtle Mountain and she lives in Minnesota, so it’s a wintry book. Strongly recommended.
The apparition of poets’ faces on a Zoom/ petals in a wet dark month: in a weird parallel to Heid’s visit, I’m going to be the virtual Pearl S. Buck Poet in Residence at Randolph College this February! (When I proposed our writer in residence series, I actually modeled it partly on what Randolph was already doing. Here’s something on what Fran Wilde did last semester–she sounds wonderful.) This means a reading, class visits, and teaching a 1-credit master class in four sessions to a small group of advanced undergrads. Apparently some of these poets are also into sf, so I’m developing a syllabus called “Haunted and Weird.” I was offered the honor out of the blue last month, a saving spar in the usual late-fall surge of rejections.
I also recorded a reading for the “Hot L” series in Baltimore recently. Paired with one by Anna Maria Hong, it will air soon. I am reading live (virtually) on Monday, January 4th in the Cafe Muse series, too. Details forthcoming. These are lucky acceptances and I feel like I get the medium now–how to be engaging, project warmth, from a little box on a screen–but it remains, to me, a strange way to connect with audiences. I am rooting for vaccination in time for spring’s pastel emergences.
Meanwhile, I want to hibernate like a bear, which for this poet means writing, reading, and occasionally baking and decking the halls–not talking to anyone, not continuing to promote this year’s books, definitely not planning for the next book, consuming news only in nibbles. I had been hoping for a burst of energy after the stresses of November, but no. Slow metabolism. Plodding work.
In one lovely way, though, my December introversion and my dreams of eventual blossom are about to come together. The new issue of Shenandoah will be live in a week and a half, and Beth Staples and her crew have arranged a launch party this Thursday 12/3 at 7 pm eastern. I hope you’ll join us at https://wlu.zoom.us/j/97991372692 for a bunch of brief readings, songs chosen by writers, and more. The poets will be Samyak Shertok, Hannah Dow, Ashley Jones, and Isabel Acevedo, all of whom have beautiful pieces in the forthcoming issue, which I’m excited to share soon. The interns recommend the following recipe for sipping during the party, and I’ll tell you how I do cider after that. Cheers!
Bog Fog Recipe
1 cup apple cider, 1 cup cranberry juice, 1 cinnamon stick, ¼ cup of cloves, bundled in a coffee filter tied with cooking string (or loose, and filtered when poured)
Simmer concoction in pot on stovetop until the whole kitchen smells like cozying up on a cold winter day. Pour into favorite mug. If holiday cheer is desired, stir in a shot of rum or other favorite booze.
Mulling a la poetesse
Who needs measurement, much less cranberry juice? I warm a pot full of good farmer’s market cider slowly, adding the following in a tea ball: a bunch of cloves, a cinnamon stick broken in half (smashing things is satisfying), and a chunk of fresh ginger. I used to stick the cloves in an orange but that, frankly, is a pain in the butt. A tot of dark rum is strongly recommended. It’s going to be a long winter.
"This work is unlike any other, in its range of rich, conjuring imagery and its dexterity, its smart voice. Carroll-Hackett doesn’t spare us—but doesn’t save us—she draws a blueprint of power and class with her unflinching pivot: matter-of-fact and tender." —Jan Beatty