Poetry, pickled

I spent a lot of 2017 thinking about what poetry can DO. I wish poems could stop inhumane deportations and government shutdowns, and I hope poets will keep trying to make the world more kind and fair. Mostly, though, my aims are smaller in scale: can writing this poem change ME for the better? The stories we tell about ourselves really matter, and I’ve been trying to tell hopeful ones. After all, that’s what I want to read–literature that acknowledges the complicated mess we live in but ultimately tilts towards love.

Now, two weeks into a new class on documentary poetics, I find myself thinking about poems, instead, as testimony, carrying some part of the past into our present attention. That’s not unrelated to poetry as spell, prayer, or action, but the emphasis is a little different. The poets we’ve been reading–Rukeyser and Forché at first, and a host of Katrina poets now, including Patricia Smith, Cynthia Hogue, and Nicole Cooley–are asking what we need to remember. Their poetries still look towards the future but are more explicitly grounded in history. We’ll be sailing even further in that direction soon with Kevin Young’s Ardency, a book I’ve never taught before. (I’m really excited about this class, but once again I’ve scheduled a lot of new labor for myself, as if destroying work-life balance is my explicit goal.)

Then these arrived in the mail. THANK YOU, SCOTT NICOLAY!

cans

There’s art just in the words on the stickers, right? I’m excited to taste what delicious parts of an apparently bad year my friend transformed and preserved for me. And I’m thinking , too, about poems boiling up in me that I can barely snatch time to can, these days. What surplus can I doctor up and put by for another time, when I or somebody else might need them more?

Well, not much, maybe. I’m working flat out right now just staying on top of tomorrow’s obligations. But I do have some jam from April 2014 to share this Wednesday: I’ll be reading from Propagationand my colleague in the History Department Roberta Senechal de la Roche will be reading from her poetry chapbook, at 4:30 pm on 1/24 in Northen Auditorium in Leyburn Library at W&L. There will be a fruit and cheese platter, coffee and tea service, and books for sale, and I will endeavor to keep the poetry tasty–but, selfishly, I won’t be sharing Scott’s plum-pluet-Asian pear jam with amontillado. Maybe visit me with a good baguette, and we’ll talk.

In the meantime, here’s a poem from a few years back. It’s about another government shutdown, with salsa verde on the side. My thanks to One for serving it up.

In which the perverse poet is chuffed about rejection

yawnDespite the frigid temperatures, my winter so far has been poetically electric. My long-awaited chapbook arrived in early December, then several journals containing a poem or two of mine suddenly went live or hit print (here’s one), PLUS Poetry Daily honored me with a New Year’s Day feature, PLUS Amy Lemmon and Sarah Freligh at the CDC Poetry Project accepted and published my pissed-off ghazal almost as fast as a president can tweet self-serving lies.

The writing life is deeply weird this way. What the flurry of publications means is I was on fire and writing lots of poems a year or two ago, and diligent about sending them out 6-12 months ago. I actually produced very little new poetry in the last few months, “Hibernaculum” aside, although the words are coming back now. I was overworked, trying not to feel discouraged, and spending my limited writing time on a couple of prose projects with impending deadlines. I revised lots, however, and strove to give older writing its due by focusing on submissions. I sent 230 poems to magazines in 2017! Those were in batches of 5, often to 3-4 magazines at once, but still, that’s a crazy amount of Submittable action (and that’s not even counting book mss, essays, and other work I’m trying to keep under consideration). Nor are my stats brilliant. Most of those submissions were rejected, a few with encouraging notes from editors; 18 of those were accepted, plus a few more I’d sent out in 2016; other verdicts are still pending.* I’m kind of shocked, but sheer numbers mitigate the chagrin I’ve been feeling as I post social media thanks and humble-brags. If brute effort counts, I earned those publication credits.

I hope my appalling math gives somebody heart, because here we go again, trying to keep our little fires burning in another year’s chilly climate. The numbers are NOT what matters. I’ll write poems my whole life, I’m sure, but it wouldn’t shock me if one day I decide not to work so hard at finding readers, and if you’ve already made that call, I respect your sensibleness. But for the moment, I have the heart and chutzpah to keep trying, mostly failing, and very occasionally succeeding. I’m ready for 2018 to reject the hell out of me.

I’m much more glad, however, that I’m writing poems again. I’d missed it. The great collections I’ve been catching up on are replenishing the well–I’ll post on my 2017 and early 2018 reading soon. In the meantime, thanks to Donna Vorreyer, and her co-conspirator Kelli Russell Agodon, for a poke in the ribs and some publicity, too, for poetry bloggers committing to 2018 liveliness, including me. Check out her terrific list of participants here.

I won’t keep up with them: my three-prep term starts Monday, to be spiced up by tons of committee work and event planning and lord knows what ordinary-life calamities. But I feel game to try.

*As I wheedled my cat into a photo shoot that clearly bored him, Poetry Northwest just emailed asking to publish 2 poems from one of those 2017 batches. If it has this kind of cosmic influence, I may just blog about rejection all year.

 

Chapbooks, fairy tales, and spreading the word

I didn’t know, when writing the fairy-tale-inspired long poem that became my forthcoming chapbook, Propagation, that folktales and chapbooks have a long association. Here’s what Dáithí Ó hÓgáin writes for The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales:

Printed little volumes for popular reading, chapbooks were common in several western European languages. These books contained a wide variety of reading material, ranging from stories about the heroes of ancient Greek and Roman literature to accounts of philosophers, saints, and noted historical personages, and to picaresque tales of rogues and entertaining rascals. The term “chapbook” first came into vogue for such publications in the early nineteenth century. It was derived from “chapman,” the usual word for the type of trader or peddler who sold them at fairs or markets and in other public places.
The publishing of small inexpensive tracts began in France near the end of the fifteenth century and soon after became common in Germany, the Netherlands, and England. The German chapbooks—Volksbücher—contained prose versions of medieval romances and other miscellaneous tales; and in Germany, the Netherlands, and France, the adventures of the entertaining trickster Till Eulenspiegel were especially popular. From the seventeenth century onward, a wide variety of chapbooks were available in England, and they spread to Ireland, America, and other places where material in English was read.”
chaps
oh, you pretty things

I’d like to think some magic was at work when I decided to mine Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale for an April’s worth of writing prompts. I knew that chapbooks had been a vehicle for popular literature in various genres for centuries, but not, consciously, that the genre I was working in was especially intertwined with the history of the medium. At any rate, there was enough magic involved that I placed Propagation with one of my dream publishers, Dancing Girl Press. It’s due in the fall and the ms is just about finalized now.

In the meantime–partly inspired by reading a draft of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s excellent forthcoming book PR for PoetsI thought, well, what else do I need to be doing now by way of promotion? (That link, by the way, is to an especially wonderful post that gives heart to anyone who, like me, gets squeamish about the marketing thing.) I thought it might be useful to assemble a list of resources for other chapbook-writers who want to get the word out. Sure, a chapbook–called a “pamphlet” in the U.K.–is smaller and cheaper than a full-length collection, so one way to think of the marketing tasks is, well, they should be smaller and cheaper. One can post about the new arrival on social media, send out notices, give readings, seek reviews, hope it gets a few classroom adoptions–all the basic work (which is never actually small or cheap). But are there ways a chapbook is not just less than but different than?  What opportunities does the form create?

As a reader, I’m attracted to the distilled brevity of chapbooks, and how they feel in the hand. The best are tightly-focused gems you can read at a sitting, which makes them beautifully approachable. I was corresponding with a friend lately–Janet McAdams, author of the mysterious and lovely chap Seven Boxes for the Country After–who thinks that an increasing number of them seem less like baby steps towards full-length books and more like separate creatures, that is, sequences conceived especially for the compression and accessibility of the chapbook format. That’s true in my case. I don’t have any plans for Propagation to be part of a longer volume.

Yet how likely are chapbooks to have the afterlife other books can generate? Certainly there are fewer readings, reviews, class adoptions, and post-publication prizes to keep a light shining on your well-made chapbook after its debut season.

Here’s a list of resources I found–not enough, I’d say. I’d love to know about what I’m missing. Please send me notes and I’ll edit this post to include them.

  • Chapbook ReviewThis cool site includes lists of recently published chapbooks, publishers, and contests.
  • Some literary magazines do chapbook reviews in a micro- or “roundup” model. In addition to the list on the above site, including Rain Taxi and other venues, check out other venues that occasionally feature chapbook reviews: Blackbird, Kenyon Review Online (among the micro-reviews, once in a while), Pleiades, The Mom Egg, The Rumpus, So to Speak, New Pages.
  • The Eric Hoffer Awards have a post-publication prize for chapbooks.
  • Blogs: “Speaking of Marvels” is devoted to chapbooks, novellas, and other odd lengths.

Also, plenty of magazines that don’t feature chapbook reviews in any regular way would probably be open to an omnibus review, if one made a pitch. Any writer who wants attention for his or her own work should be giving back somehow, and reviewing is a great and generous way to do that.

As for Propagation, reply here, or on FB, or drop me an email if you want to be on the publicity list I really should be working on, ahem (with your email address). I’d also be happy to send galleys, eventually, and signed copies to people planning reviews or classroom adoptions–but I don’t even have a cover yet!

Reasons to be cheerful, part 4

We’re supposed to be cheery in late December, right? Ho ho ho.

I’ve been having a rough time, for reasons I can’t write about at the moment. But like H.D., when times are bad, I eat my way through it. This can be literally true: hello, Christmas pudding! But I also mean that I chew through piles of work. Writing and reading are never more important to me than when I’m feeling down and powerless. I can’t always work on the stuff I’m supposed to–my focus is more fragile–and I can hardly talk to other people, sometimes, even the kind people who don’t run in the opposite direction after a glimpse of me glowering. (Most people run, the cowards.) But I do hunker down, and this slow desperate doggedness adds up, and eventually some work bears fruit. A reference letter helps someone win a fellowship. An essay builds, paragraph by paragraph.

There are worse ways to cope than hypergraphia, I guess, even when it means isolated days of typing in pajamas.

Out of heaps of fermenting crap, small good things grow. And here I sit in that stinky paradox, feeling lucky and, alternately, choked by fumes. Ho ho cough cough.

The most surprising small good thing this December: my poetry chapbook Propagation, a fable in which a middle-aged woman in crisis enters the woods and weirdness ensues, was just accepted by Dancing Girl Press for publication in October 2017. I first drafted it in April 2014, writing a poem per day for thirty days, using Vladimir Propp’s 31 functions of the folk tale as prompts (I dropped one function and I’m not sorry). It took me a while to revise, obviously–long poems are complicated creatures. But now my protagonist gets a genuinely happy ending.

Other mss I completed last year are still gestating, but I’m receiving supportive notes and friendly feedback. This is rare, and lucky.

Additional amazements: for all the rejections I’ve received this year, and there have been a boatload, an oil tanker load, a number of generous editors have helped deliver my work to the world. Since summer, poems have appeared in Fjords, National Poetry Review, Thrush (that’s the first poem from Propagation), Tahoma Literary Review, and Queen of Cups. I’m also delighted to have a poem in the outstanding anthology edited by Jane Satterfield and Laurie Kruk, Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland. Next year will bring an essay in Crab Orchard Review and more poems in journals. Again, I labored hard to make those pieces and keep them in circulation–I’m not saying I didn’t earn a few laurel leaves. But I am also lucky.

I’ll post sometime around the new year about some terrific books I’ve been reading. The good company of dead or distant writers sustains me always. But it also feels urgently necessary to express gratitude for the friends and family near and far who keep checking in on me and cheering me on. Their persistence is the primary reason to be cheerful. Bless them, and bless leftover Christmas pudding, and bless Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and bless the antisocial hours I can spend revising mss over pots of tea.

And, finally, thanks to anyone whose reads this far. I hope, most sincerely, that whatever kind of holiday you’re laboring to create for yourself and loved ones, it bears surprising fruit, and it doesn’t stink.

 

 

Radioland, an outtake

The world’s going to hell, but my writing is going well…Mostly revising and submitting, these days. I now have THREE projects under submission: 1. Taking Poetry Personally: Twenty-First Century Verse and the Multiverse; 2. a chapbook-length long poem, Propagation; 3. and a first novel, The Changeling Professor, although that one is just at the beginning-to-query-agents phase. Meanwhile I’m keeping poems under journal submission, and in the process I keep finding verses I drafted quickly and then forgot about. Whenever you put together a poetry book a LOT ends up on the cutting room floor.

I think the poem below was just too specific to my life at that moment–it didn’t seem inclusive enough of readers outside my bubble. I’d just attended a memorial service for Severn Parker Duvall III, the grand, legendary, reportedly cranky old poetry professor whom I’d replaced at W&L (I say “reportedly” because the man left behind some astonishing stories, all of which I believe, but he was always beautifully genteel to me). The immediate scene is the lawn in front of Lee Chapel on campus, where I was leading a workshop in a writing prompt (and doing some drafting myself, obviously). Like a lot of poems, though, this one has a heterotopia, an other-place: I’d been back from my Fulbright in New Zealand for less than a year and clearly missed it.

I’m looking forward to reading from Radioland at Washington College in MD next week. In the meantime, a poem for the road. Maybe it’s about running out of time and not entirely minding.

The Opposite of Elegy

The shadow of a chapel spire ticks over
my shoulder; the students write. Severn said,
“Do you mean of my departure?”

when his granddaughter asked, “Are you scared?”
Struck like a bell but finally amused
by the notion of fearing death.

Last night’s dead-hour dream fused
everything I’ve been thinking of: I
visited an old hotel, beachy views,

near Nelson, New Zealand. Bill Manhire
was running a poetry conference
that was really the afterlife.

When told I had to jump back over the fence,
return to the living for a while, I cried…
My students are still writing. Present tense

continuous, sprawling all over a spikily
germinating lawn. Younger and smarter
every year. Sere leaves brushed aside.

I guess that’s spring for you. Clock for a heart.

April 2, 2012

roseoneill

 

Intention / haplessness

As usual, I’m tripping over my own sleepy feet into National Poetry Month, knowing I should have a WRITING PLAN but instead feeling indecisive, half-awake. April is when W&L’s winter term ends in a flurry of meetings, receptions, and papers; exam week and spring break, which are relatively calm, occupy the middle; and by the last 10 days or so I may or may not be teaching one of W&L’s hyper-intense 4-week spring courses, meeting 15 undergraduate poets for a couple of hours daily and otherwise grading and planning like a demon. It’s rough to establish a writing schedule during those transitions, but on the other hand, it’s a moment when the earth is all churned up inside and out, and those are fertile poetry times for me. I get much less done during winter’s still darkness.

I began observing NaPoWriMo in 2012, drafting a poem every day that April, and it was an amazing season: I wrote some good stuff and made real progress as a writer. It was also my first spring in two years, because of a six-month stay in New Zealand where the seasons are flipped, so I went from light-starved to ecstatic sun-worshiper in the most intense attunement to spring I’ve ever experienced. In May, my father died, so I wrote furiously all summer and fall, too. Those poems form the core of my next book.

April 2013 was less successful, even though I spent part of the month at a writer’s retreat, perhaps because I didn’t need the release so desperately. In 2014 I shifted approach and wrote a long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale for prompts. I recently revised “Propagation” for a contest submission. It begins, as the excerpt below shows, with a middleaged woman about to walk into the woods for a solitary hike; she may or may not be accidentally pregnant, but she’s also unhappy and trying to figure out what to do next. I loved researching the local wildflowers as they bloomed on our back campus as well as experimenting with different forms and styles from day to day. The first section is below, just to give you the scent of it.

The deal I’m striking with myself now: as of tomorrow I have to spend at least 20 minutes per day working on poetry. I can write, revise, or just read and think and plan, but I have to prioritize it, including during the AWP. Even if your life is nuts in April, it’s a good discipline to remember that you can carve out little blocks of concentration for what’s important. You just need to make really living your life–as opposed to checking email or hitting snooze or whatever else gets you into trouble–non-negotiable. Wish me luck.

1

An edge will sharpen later:
  bright lot / chilled shade.
Now, at April’s front door,
  the woods begin
imperceptibly.
  Wizened sycamores
crook twig-fingers—come in, come
     in—but their kitchen
vents through a thousand
  seedy chimneys. No
green shingles yet
  divide the interior
from ruminating stars.

  Inside me another
brambled sleeping world:
  another boundary to breach.
Anger / desire. Inside
  me a felted bud may
be fattening. Embryonic
  summer. Infant
premonition of forest.

In which I procrastinate with snacks, parties, and fake-writing

The peony heads slump over in their lushness. I can hear the baccalaureate speaker’s voice faintly behind the air conditioner’s hum, and I wonder again: in what sense does featuring another white Christian minister make this religious event “more inclusive”? Well, I’ll sit it out in my office but don my robes tomorrow for another long hot graduation ceremony on the lawn, then rush to the departmental luncheon to scarf down a little fruit and chicken salad before the students arrive with their dads sweating through cotton jackets and little old grandmas tottering around on the edge of heat exhaustion. I like the luncheon—praising students quite genuinely to their emotional parents, shaking damp hands, asking neutral questions that don’t imply a new BA should have firm post-grad plans yet, celebrating when they offer up good news about a job or grad school acceptance. It’s a happy kind of closure after a long hard year, especially since the mini-saunas of our dress clothes will have purged us of old grade disagreements.

I’m still in that delusional dilatory state in which I think I ought to clear the deck before I really write. This is delusional because there is ALWAYS another bit of paperwork to finish, emails to send, clean-up from the previous term or planning for the new one. Though some colleagues still linger over dwindling piles of student writing, I tend to get my grades in as fast as possible, read and summarize course evaluations, move books from the “on deck for class” spot to regular shelving, and proceed to other marginally OCD term-closure rituals. May always brings magazine rejections and acceptances, too, as faraway editors clear their own desks, and I get a little frisson of record-keeping joy as I document their decisions and list the lucky yeses on my curriculum vitae and Faculty Activities Report.

I do know this is a little crazy, even though as procrastination goes, clerical work is more productive than painting my toe nails a new color or watching funny cats on YouTube (not to cast aspersions on those venerable amusements, but I do feel pleasantly smug when that FAR comes due and I am ready to hit send). I do have to remind myself every year that it is procrastination, not some exercise of virtue. Writers write even when their desks are messy and that faculty development event they attended isn’t properly logged. My spouse is a good reminder of this. He writes even when he’s showering, running, folding laundry. This time of year—once heavy teaching work is on pause for three months—I need to seek a similarly single-minded focus instead of, say, mentally drafting memos or dreaming about my next snack.

I am showing early, hesitant signs of hunkering down. During April I drafted a crazy long poem in a section per day, using Vladimir Propp’s thirty-one functions of the folk tale as prompts; the quester is a middle-aged woman taking a three-hour walk in the April woods, pondering a career change and worrying about whether she may be pregnant. I reread it last weekend, shaped it up a bit, sought the aforementioned spouse’s feedback, revised it again, and gave it the provisional title “Propagation.” It was really fun to draft, requiring lots of, you guessed it, long walks in April woods, and at least for now, I like the results. I just shipped it off to a friend who wants to trade critiques this summer. That’s work, right?—although I always start summer’s meal with dessert.

This project has been good preparation for a presentation I’m giving on “The Receptionist,” a very different long poem, two weeks from now at the West Chester Poetry Conference. The panel is “Narrative and Non-Narrative in the Book-Length Poem” with the very accomplished and hip poets Dolores Hayden and Jehanne Dubrow (Saturday June 7th at 3:15, in case you’re around). We’re going to discuss problems of genre and composition then read from our various works. I find myself thinking particularly about how all narrative is time-management—deciding when to work through a scene in slow detail, and how to handle those sudden, disparate jumps of an hour, a day, a month of story-time. The form I chose for “The Receptionist” was highly symmetrical, involving thirty-three terza rima cantos of thirty lines each, and that made time-jumps harder to regulate and clarify. Grounding the story in an academic year, September to June, helped, as did liberal seasonal and holiday references.

I wouldn’t say I’m ready to give that presentation yet, but at least I’m finally turning my mind into the right groove. I’m hoping to segue right from working up my talk into writing a narrative-themed chapter for my prose-book-in-progress, Taking Poetry Personally. I’ll lay some groundwork, at least, and do a little more research during a work-and-pleasure trip to France in the second half of June. More on that here before takeoff, I hope.

In the meantime, back to “work” on the conference by arranging meals with friends, including poet Rafael Campo, who is sage and inspiring in this recently published interview for Shenandoah. Oh, and there’s a reference letter I have to write, and this really fun collaboration with artist Carolyn Capps that’s been languishing (see a bit of it at the new issue of Levure littéraire), and I’m really behind on my literary-magazine reading after which, whoops, it will be time to race home and get dinner on before my son’s band concert, and of course tomorrow will be all ceremonies and parties, and who could squeeze in writing time then? And maybe Friday I should begin to update my poetry submissions—I haven’t sent work out for ages, and while submission has its own agonies, it’s not as hard as actually writing. But soon, very soon, I’ll definitely, seriously get cracking.