Wall, whatcha got?

My son, a college sophomore, is a fiend for math and loves teaching it, too. Since he’s finishing the term at our dining room table, I get to eavesdrop on the tutoring he does by Zoom as well as his study groups’ conversations. Sometimes he and I break for a midday walk in the middle of it, and yesterday he reflected that when he comes to an impasse in his work, he’s more willing than his friends to just sit with the problem and wait for inspiration. He told me something like, “When I hit a wall, I’ll just sit and look at it and say, “Wall, whatcha got for me?'”

This is mostly just temperament–he and I are both stupidly resistant to asking for help, and we both enjoy puzzles. But he also said that he prefers hard math problems to easy ones because the answers to easy problems are just “coincidence,” whereas you know you’ve solved a “proofier” question because the solution comes with a deep click, a sense of rightness. I’m not sure I fully understand that, but I’ve been thinking about it as I bash my head against poem revisions, unable to decide when each ornery little piece is finished.

This hasn’t been a good workweek. My simple goal for Monday was to gather some poems to submit to the annual Poetry Society of America contests. I rarely throw in, but I thought that hey, this year I have time, right? But mostly these awards are for unpublished poems so I thought I’d finish up recent ones, pieces I haven’t sent elsewhere yet, and it’s NOT going well. I know none of us should be beating ourselves up for poor concentration right now; the soaring virus rates are horrifying and the political circus depressing. I had the added suspense this week of a couple of family members waiting for test results (everyone is negative and feeling fine). I never handle suspense well! Still, my fuzzy-headedness feels frustrating.

My son is right, though, that facing hard problems can lead to more interesting math or art–and that the way forward involves just showing up, again and again. None of these poems is easy: my tabs are open right now to pieces about giant tube worms, domestic violence, viral replication, divination…So I try to solve for x, take breaks, and circle back, hoping for flashes of intuition. History suggests that tough writing patches eventually end. I didn’t like it when my phone autocorrected “I was told” to “I am old” recently (!), but aging does bring a kind of equilibrium in knowing that time, careers, etc. aren’t just linear. They’re cyclical, too.

In the meantime, here’s my latest little mag publication, two poems occupied and preoccupied by catbirds, with thanks to Carol Dorf at Talking Writing. And if you missed my unusually cheerful post-election reading with the brilliant Anna Maria Hong–part of the Hot L series, it launched Sunday–you can catch it on YouTube (and below). Stephen Reichert is a great online-event organizer and promoter. After another stupid workday, I’m about to raise a glass to Stephen and to everyone else who is helping poetry shine in these dark nights.

What’s cooking and what’s already on the table

My mother in 1966

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.

Writing and publishing poetry book reviews

I’m gearing up for a virtual weekend at the World Fantasy Convention, where I’ll give a Friday night reading as well as speaking on a panel about “The Weirder Side of the Fantastic,” both organized by the indefatigable, resourceful, generous writer Anya Martin. I’ll post about that next week, barring apocalypse, but in the meantime I’m thinking about what’s weird and fantastic about poetry reviews.

The WHY of reviewing is probably obvious. Most poetry books don’t get much love, so you serve writers, presses, and readers by bringing your favorites to wider attention. Every poet with means and time should give public service to the art they love, and reviewing is one way to do it (panel/ event organizing like Anya’s is another). Generosity occasionally pays off–if people appreciate you, they may help you in some future, unexpected way–and any byline can increase your name recognition. That’s not the core reason for literary service, though. Fandom is at the heart of it, plus desire to strengthen a fragile community. If you write a thoughtful review, you’ve shown the author they have at least one good reader out there. It makes all parties feel glowy.

Love of poetry isn’t all a reviewer needs, though. I’ve written a ton of criticism, so I’m a faster writer than many, but reviewing a poetry book is still an eight-hour commitment, more or less. I read the book once; put it down and think about it; reread it and start drafting; then take a break from the draft for a day, or a few days, and come back, rewrite, and polish. They’re typically 750-1500 words. Writing micro-reviews (250-300 words) is quicker, but I always end up writing long then boiling them down, a process that takes time, too.

Although I don’t always have the hours, I like reviewing a lot. It feels freeing to analyze a book without scholarly protocols. No bibliography, no citing Very Important Theorists! I’m trying to write a few reviews this year because I’m on sabbatical, grateful for good notices my books are receiving, and, at this bad moment, having a hard time concentrating on big stuff. Writing a poetry review is a way of procrastinating while still putting some useful writing out there.

The first thing to do if you want to write reviews is read a bunch of them and decide what you like and don’t like about them, ideally comparing published reviews to collections you’ve read. I personally find real-world models more revealing than instructions, but here’s how I approach the actual writing:

  • My first time through the book, I note striking lines and poems, trying to get a handle on the book’s through-lines. What’s at stake for the author? What are their strategies for exploring central themes and questions? You’re not writing a five-paragraph theme for English class, but you need an angle of interpretation.
  • In addition to an angle, I need a hook, some interesting remark or example to begin with. I’m always happy to read reviews that have an autobiographical entry-point (“I read this at a crisis point and this is what it meant to me”), but there are endless possibilities. Keep in mind that the review should be centered around the book itself, though, more than on you as a reader.
  • Type out favorite quotes as you take notes. It’s usual for a review to include many brief quotes as well as one or two in the 6-12 line range (micros excepted).
  • Increasingly, I make sure there are a couple of punchy sentences of praise in the review that the writer can excerpt. It’s fine to remark on problems or shortcomings, but I wouldn’t want to spend writing time on a book I didn’t like unless possibly, hypothetically, an incredibly popular poetry book was doing actual damage in the world. (But this is poetry. Not likely.)
  • As I revise, I think about the big picture. No review can cover every interesting aspect of a book, but it doesn’t seem right to get so obsessed with one element that you don’t convey an accurate portrait. Someone who reads a review might be thinking, “should I buy/ borrow this one?” They deserve to know whether a book is really what they want or need to read, because there are many good choices out there.
  • Writers should always try to be interesting in clear sentences, logically organized. I try to write reviews well. I don’t put them through the dozens of revisions a creative piece needs, though. Speed matters.
  • A note on multi-book reviews: I haven’t done many of these because the places I’ve written for steer away from them. But similar considerations apply: you need a hook and an angle. You also need interesting hinge-sentences (more substantive than “another interesting new book is”). I read this recent one by Rose Solari closely because she includes my book The State She’s In, but she’s got a strong angle–“Grief, Grace, and Anger” in books by women–and she she does a good job with linking/ contrasting.
  • On a related note: there IS a politics to reviewing. It’s good to review books you admire, but try, sometimes, for books that stretch you or make you uncomfortable; I always learn from those encounters. Pay attention, over time, to whose books you celebrate. I will always feel pulled to writing by people who identify as women, many of whom get less attention than less talented men, but spending time with work by writers whose experiences are different than mine feels REALLY important, too. BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and writers with disabilities deserve extra love in the current hellscape.

It’s helpful to have a target venue or two before you write so you can check on their rules including preferred length, when their review submission period is open, and formatting questions. To find appropriate ones, I check out where the author has published before as well as querying places whose reviews I generally admire. (Some writers mainly review for one publication; I hop around.) Some considerations:

  • If you’re new to reviewing, consider starting with a less-fancy venue, but always try to do a bang-up job. When you have a published example or two, you can use them as sample clips to query prestigious places, because why not? Here is a list of outlets, big and small, from Poets & Writers.
  • That said, it is totally reasonable to hold out for gigs that PAY the reviewer, although you might need a clip or two from a non-paying venue to start with. The $50 Kenyon Review just sent me for reviewing Anna Maria Hong’s Fablesque isn’t a good hourly wage, and money isn’t what I did it for, but it’s nice! (I just donated it to a Philadelphia bailout fund after another police shooting of a Black man there followed by protests and arrests. Hellscape.)
  • Some magazines want you to query first, others ask you to submit finished reviews, and still other editors prefer to assign books to reviewers themselves. Also, some venues will only print a review within six months of book publication, so get ARCs and/or work fast. I’m reviewing for Harvard Review right now after querying them with clips, and the editor had the presses send me books directly. You can also personally request ARCs from the publisher (the marketing department, if they have one) or from the author.
  • Some journals are sticklers about there being NO relationship between reviewer and author. I get the ethics of that, but I find it impractical because the poetry world is small. You get to know people who share your interests, especially if you’ve been going to conferences and festivals for a while. If you’re already very good friends with the writer, though, it’s often better to help them with publicity in other ways, like posting Goodreads reviews or retweeting their announcements.

Whether reviewing can be part of your life right now or not, I hope you’re hanging in there. I’m struggling to stay sane, but it was nice to see the Fablesque review come to fruition, as well as a short interview about editing/ submitting with Frontier Poetry and the announcement of a prize I judged for Talking Writing–the winner is B. Tyler Lee, whose work is new to me but whose essay was riveting and moving (it was a well-run contest, by the way–thoroughly anonymous). I gave a fun reading via my college library yesterday that was widely attended by students, colleagues, far-flung friends, and alumni–that was a treat. Finally, I just received my copy of an essay collection called Deep Beauty and I’m really enjoying the many wonderful, surprising, and often uplifting essays bumping shoulders with my own. May your days be full of small good things, and may we soon be smiling over a landslide election.

Uncanny paneling

When you write a poem that resembles a spell, prayer, charm, curse, or blessing, are you trying to make something happen, and if so, what or how?

That’s what we talked about on the Uncanny Activisms panel I organized for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference last weekend (the conference as a whole was wonderful, especially the keynote by Camille Dungy). “We” from left includes Hyejung Kook, Jane Satterfield, Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Anna Maria Hong, Ashley M. Jones, and yours truly, talking with her hands again. Some brilliant tidbits I scribbled down from this brilliant cohort: Ashley remarking that all poems are spells; Anna Lena responding that spell-poems are the poemiest kind of poem, and speaking about how poems help us focus attention; Jane musing about shape-shifting through reading and writing, and how poetry can be a means to power, sometimes as an alternative when legal recourse isn’t working; Hyejung talking about poetry as an act of transformation (and about Icelandic fart curses, which I have yet to look up). I LOVED this conversation and it seems as if others did, too, which made me happy, as if we might be a small band of spellcasters setting out to fix the world through verse. If you want to join the effort, check out the amazing prompts I gathered from these writers for a pretty handout (less prettily listed below). We will be soliciting uncanny activist work for a future issue of Shenandoah, but for the moment, note that poetry subs open today (11/15-12/15), and there’s a special prize for Virginia poets: $1000 for the Graybeal-Gowan award, no entry fee, judged by Beth and me. Everything submitted will be considered for general publication as well as the prize. I’m excited to start reading but also a little worried about managing the deluge. My novel galleys just came in, and my students need lots of conferences this time of year, and I’m trying to squeeze in time to apply for book promotion opportunities…oy.

In other news, my review of Franny Choi’s amazing collection Soft Science is up on Strange Horizons, and my poem “Spring Rage” has been posted by storySouth. Thanks to the kind and careful editors at both magazines.

I’ve been down despite all the good things happening, at least partly because I’m not finding enough time to rest and read and think and play. I didn’t bring my laptop to the conference and that gave me respite, but Monday morning I was neck-deep again as soon as I walked into the office. I’m trying to take better care of myself, and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t start with one of these prompts. Writing poetry tend to channel the simple magic, at least, of temporary self-transformation: I feel calmer when I’m immersed in the work, possibly BECAUSE there’s so little money or prestige involved. Hope you get some drafting time, too.

Counting-Out Rhyme, from Anna Lena Phillips Bell
a. Choose a category of being- or thing-in-the-world—plants local to or new to your region; particularities of the way your family or community speaks; geologic formations or soil types near you; songs from a specific tradition; birds or small mammals or insects. List as many beings or things in this category as you can think of.
 
b. Optionally, write a paragraph describing what you’ve chosen, as well as any threats to it that exist. Save this text as a plain-text file, and feed it into the n-gram generator available at http://bit-player.org/extras/drivel/drivel.html, created by Brian Hayes. Copy the resulting text into another file, print out the pages, and mine the text for new words that speak to what you’re writing about. You may wish to search for rhyme-words within the text; or you may simply highlight words you like.
 
c. Write a counting-out rhyme using the words and phrases from your list. If you’ve used the n-gram generator to create new words, incorporate some of these as well. Write in lines of trochaic tetrameter (or choose another meter and stick to it); optionally, end each stanza with a line of trochaic dimeter. Where pronunciation of a neologism is unclear, use the meter to help guide readers toward how you hear it. Employ a rhyme scheme (aaa, bbb, ccc; abab cc, dede ff, ghgh ii; or similar), however slant your rhymes may be.
 
d. Your poem will evoke one layer of the landscape or community its elements are part of. For each being or thing you include, imagine how it helps make a portrait of that layer in the time during which you’ve experienced it. Read your completed poem to the beings or things it includes. Read it to other people. Revise based on these readings and imaginings.
 
e. Memorize your revised poem: make it part of your body and mind.
 
Ambitious poem, from Lesley Wheeler: Think about something you desperately want to achieve, an aspiration you may be embarrassed to admit. Imagine how you would achieve this goal and imagine taking those steps; consider who might have the power to help and imagine them giving that help. Write a fourteen-line poem in the future tense describing this process. The first word should be “let” and you should repeat the first line exactly, or almost exactly, at the poem’s close. Weave in references to: a so-called weed or wild plant you noticed recently; a scent that makes you feel good; and something other-than-human that produces a humming sound. (adapted from a prompt by Oliver de la Paz)

Self-invocation Poem, from Hyejung Kook: In this poem, we are going to name, invoke, and invent our most expansive self. Start by doing some research into your given name–how it was chosen, etymology, other people who share it, etc. If you prefer, do this work with a different name that calls to you. From your research, choose the three words that resonate most powerfully and incorporate these words, a color, an animal, and a scientific/historical fact that fascinates you. Use “In my wildest dreams, I” at least three times and allow yourself all the possibility the phrase grants you. Once your draft is complete, remove the phrase “In my wildest dreams,” from the poem.  

Another possibility is to turn the naming-invocation outward, using the phrase “In my wildest dreams, you” while writing.

Po Go, from Anna Maria Hong: This exercise can be harnessed to jumpstart a new project, clear the deck, meditate on a question, or find a new question to guide your writing now.
 
1.   Designate 15 minutes of your day to this exercise for 40 days. Ideally, do this exercise before you speak to or interact with another human being each day (dogs and cats, OK), but if this is not possible, allocate another time free of distractions.
2.   Ideally, also designate a place for this exercise.
3.   Begin each session with an invocation to the “gods” of poetry—whichever spirits might be enlisted to help you—household objects, ancient deities, your ancestors, etc.
4.   Begin writing this invocation as a list: “I call on the bedside lamp, Jupiter’s moons, and the turnips in the fridge to assist me in my writing today.”
5.   Then, free-write for the rest of the session and/or pick up threads from previous sessions (without looking at the previous entries).
6.   Stop writing after 15 minutes.
7.   Repeat for 40 days, and then and only then, review your writings.
 
from Ashley M. Jones: Think of an experience you’ve had that you wish others could experience to empathize with you—maybe it’s a struggle or a pain, or, maybe, even, more surprisingly, a joy that’s unique to your life. Try to think of something that, if experienced, would change the reader/spell recipient’s view or prejudice or oppressive mindset against you. Write a poem commanding them to feel that thing, focusing primarily on specific image. Take photographs with your words. Find the feeling, down to the hair. Your poem might be 10 lines, and it might include each sense (that is, The Five…or Six if you’d like). 
 
from Jane Satterfield: Select a natural organism that you’ve admired or overlooked. Learn more about its species and life cycle; appearance, texture, smell. What are its beneficial or dangerous properties? Associations and attributes? What role has it played in legend, lore, and in myth?  
 
Use tercets to weave your new knowledge of this organism into a poem that purges anger against someone or something that has hurt you, or that serves as a means of countering some injustice in your life or in the larger culture. Consider the way a curse can voice an appeal for restitution: a poem that begin as a curse can banish the harm you’ve experienced. Alternately, consider the way a curse can release the harm of the experience and turn the poem toward forgiveness and healing.