Spring’s nonlinearity

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.

On submitting a poem 50 times

I’ve had my head under a giant seeing-my-daughter-off-to-college-shaped rock, so when I read Jeannine Hall Gailey’s blog yesterday, its references to scandal in the poetry world inspired me to lift my busy skull and ask, “Wha-at?” I’m not going to name the white guy who published in Best American Poetry under a Chinese-American pseudonym, because he’s getting enough attention already for what isn’t, in my opinion, an interesting poem. If you, too, have been sulking underground and need to know what I’m talking about, this piece in the Rumpus will give you the gist. And editor Sherman Alexie’s reflections on the experience are also worth a read. The man is a master of the rhetoric of authenticity, but even so manipulated (“This whole damn essay is grandstanding”) I found myself converted to sympathy for his process and goals, if not for his choice.

None of it is that surprising, really–the arrogant defensive colonialist appropriation while wearing the mask of “white guys need a leg up” is familiar enough. But I keep snagging on the factoid that he submitted the poem to journals 40 times under his own name, 10 times under the alias, before Prairie Schooner took it. That’s not incredible, as most poets can tell you. There’s a lot of chance in the submissions game and it can take forever for even a very good poem to catch a sympathetic reader’s eye. I just keep wondering what exactly his figure means.

Mr. McMichael Derrickson O’Michaels, to borrow a sly friend’s re-naming riff, says he keeps thorough submissions records. I bet he’s better friends with Excel than I am. Rather than be organized and efficient, I maintain two lists. One involves a stack of pads on which I scribble down submissions chronologically in numbered batches. Here’s a page from 2013, in which I was doing MUCH better than ten years previously. submissions

I cross out the journals that reject the batch entirely and circle the ones that accept one poem or more. I used to average ten tries or so before an acceptance; now my odds are better. I think the poems are stronger than they used to be–I hope I keep improving!–but I’m also savvier about where I send in the first place. The handwritten list helps me see at a glance which forlorn, unloved batches need to be returned to circulation.

I simultaneously log this data into a Word file that lists magazines alphabetically, so I can see, for instance, if I’ve sent these particular pieces to The Journal before, or whether I need to give those editors a longer rest from my bombardments. I bold the names of journals that have published me before and use asterisks for venues I aspire to see my poems in. I also include notes from previous readings of the magazine–my own weird shorthand to help me remember “hey, this is NOT the place to send a rondel.” This morning I looked for a magazine that has rejected 50 of my poems, since I can’t easily search by single pieces. Here’s one:

*harvard review: lyric, funny/experimental—good ear
7/03 pupal stages, cross-eyed, 2 faced, foreign bodies P, sonnet looking rej 7/03
6/04 genuine, in threes, baby’s, neighboring T, torturing rej 7/04
8/06 patter, two in the bush, 3 out of 4, just long, sabb rej 10/06
7/07 ode, shipshape, she’s doing, divine, horror rej 11/07 “submit again–C Thompson”
12/7 hawthorne, beatles, widdershins, gifts, dead man rej 4/08
6/08 woman using, inner life, exercise, underground, jesus rej 9/08
2/09 split, oral, forgetting, twilight, tub rej 7/09
2/10 douchebags, sigh, entrée, sub, adolescence rej 10/10
9/11 that shall cross community speech paternity Wallace encouraging rec 4/12
4/13 pattern my dead father radioland can’t catch holding rej 9/13

Some of the magazines that keep turning me away get moved to the “Why Bother?” or “Just Rude” section of the file. I’m not going to continue trying no-simultaneous-submissions journals that take a year to respond, for instance, and sometimes, upon further research, I’ve realized that although a venue is prestigious, I am consistently bored by their choices. I’m sure I started sending to Harvard Review simply because the name sounded fancy. I’ll keep trying, though, because I do admire their selections and feel kinship with them.  Who knows–maybe the fifty-first try will be the charm.

What neither of these lists reveals, however, is that I constantly revisit and improve poems–I would never try a batch with a different editor if I hadn’t recently cast a critical eye over their slant-rhymes. Often I realize that a poem I’d thought was a killer is actually undeveloped, or that it begins or ends with the wrong line. And that’s after sitting on it for months before submitting it in the first place–I don’t rush work out. It just takes a lot of distance for me to see my own strengths and weaknesses objectively. Some of the poems HR rejected went on to appear in journals that are at least as well-respected–I’m pretty sure they missed a couple of beauties. Others had problems I only resolved through a round of rethinking. Still other poems I eventually dumped, stopped sending anywhere, because I lost faith in them. I write a LOT of poems. They’re not all keepers.

See, that’s the thing–sometimes editors overlook a poem wrongly, but on plenty of other occasions their refusals are right. If a poem gets turned down 40 times, it probably needs medical help. Just resending and resending the same thing seems dumb to me. It’s possible to LEARN from even form-letter rejections–to learn something, that is, about what makes a poem work for readers, rather than cynicism about a system you then game through deception. And I don’t know why any of us would keep trying if we’re not in it to keep writing better poems. It’s not like there’s any glory in this undervalued art, except the glory of a gorgeous line.

One last thing: the 76th poem Alexie mentions, the one he feels sick over not including in BAP but will never identify? I’m pretty sure that was mine.