The Value of Rejection

I’d like to start by thanking Alan Squire Publishing @alansquirepub for their thoughtful rejection of my book. I mean it. I don’t expect every publisher to leap at the chance to publish me, and I have come to expect the cursory form rejection. Alan Squire took the extra step to write a personal rejection letter that, though it didn’t go into great detail, did acknowledge the value of my manuscript and the work that went into it, even if it ultimately wasn’t right for them.

I’m also an editor and and educator, so I get it. We’re all strapped for time and overwhelmed with the number of submissions, so it’s impossible to give everyone personal attention. On the other hand, when something stands out enough to warrant an extra nod, then it makes a difference to the writer to have been noticed.

Was it that extra sentence or two in the brief exchange of emails about rejection that made the difference? Or was it just another in a series of rejections (this is normal folks; I’m not complaining) and the thought of where to submit next that got me thinking about revision? I may never know, but the morning after receiving their message, I sat down with the manuscript and put it through the wringer one more time.

It may also have been the result of working on a few more poems. In our MFA residency, I had done some warm-up excercises with my students: one was Rattle’s ekphrastic challenge. I responded to the image and wrote a poem to submit to the contest. I have no delusions that it will be chosen, but if it were, I’d be happy, and if it’s not, I’ll keep submitting the poem elsewhere. Then another poem came to me on a subject that had been bugging me. This led to a third, and with a little rearranging, I brought a fourth poem from elsewhere in the manuscript to create a new, final section that probably needs two or three more poems, which I’m working on now.

Moving that poem suggested moving others, and soon the balance of the book was thrown off enough that I felt at liberty to shuffle more. I thought the first two sections had too many poems and needed to be broken up more, but this resulted in combining two later sections that weren’t as long. I’ve also brought in a couple of poems I’d set aside but was able to fit in with significant revisions, and even found one poem I’d forgotten all about writing that fit well in this collection.

None of this would have been as possible without the new poems, and those poems wouldn’t have been possible before the current moment. Strictly speaking, I don’t think of those as pandemic poems, but they do respond to the lives we’re all leading.

This isn’t the first time it’s gone through major rearrangements. If I look back at my files the collection has gone through four titles and probably five or six major changes in the three years I’ve been sending it out so far. I printed a copy of the first version to give to my mother and one for myself, knowing full well it would change, but announcing to myself that it was a book and not a bunch of poems on my hard drive.

I’ve sent it to 36 publishers and contests so far, and only a few of those are duplicates. I’ve also sent out several queries without the full manuscript. It’s even been accepted once by a publisher that I turned down once I saw their contract was far from standard. Given that a lot of these submissions are to contests, I fully expect it to take awhile and to double or even triple the number of submissions before I find the right place. Poets: that shouldn’t be depressing, it is just reality for many of us.

With each revision, the manuscript gets a little better — or at least that is the hope. Sometimes the revisions have been to meet a contest’s page requirements, but often they are insights gained through rejection as I think about what could make the collection stronger or grab a reader’s attention sooner. I’ve taken poems out and put them back in as I ultimately have to justify to myself what the arc of the book needs to be.

I’ve also written other poems that won’t go in this book, and I’m constantly looking forward to my next projects. But a rejection, especially one that takes you seriously, causes you to look back, and with the distance that comes with time, a manuscript keeps evolving. That and the resolution to keep sending it out are the value of rejection.

WordPress Payments Block — Promising, Yet No Thanks.

This summer WordPress.com announced a new feature that seemed promising. I tried it, but I don’t think it will work for me. Here’s why.

I use WordPress Personal, and have always had the option to upgrade to WordPress Premium in order to do sales. The problem is, all I want to sell are a few copies of an out of print book now and then. It wouldn’t be worth it for me to pay the upgrade just to do that, though if I decide I want to go Premium for its other features, then it might be worthwhile.

That’s why it seemed promising when WordPress launched the Payments Block for Personal plan users. Here was a way to accept payments on a limited scale without going Premium. The email I received and the help made is seem like you could use this to allow people to purchase goods as well as services. All I had to do was set up an account at Stripe to accept payments.

I looked into Stripe, and saw that they take a 2.3% cut per transaction. There is no fee associated with it other than the transaction fee. That’s good because I don’t anticipate having more than one transaction a month, probably many fewer than that. This is not a way to make money; it’s a way to send people books without losing money. I’m not planning to charge much more than the cost of postage and an envelope: just a couple bucks to make it worth my time going to the post office. I can live with a percentage per transaction, but I can’t justify an annual or monthly fee. So I set up the account, which was a little more involved than I wanted (they ask a lot of questions), but took maybe half an hour.

Back to WordPress to try out the Payment feature. I could add the Payment block to a page, but when I tired to connect to Stripe with the button on the block, nothing happened. Reading help again, I learned that I could set up payment through the Earn tab in my WordPress app (or the web interface). I also learned that WordPress will charge 8% of the transaction, something their email or help didn’t indicate. But okay, I could live with it and build it into my charge, so no problem.

Using Earn, though, things got worse. The Payment feature there won’t let me use it for goods, only for recurring payments. There were two options, neither of which looked like it would be right for what I want to do, and one other for selling goods that requires the upgrade to Premium. So I ditched Payments for now and am probably going to cancel my Stripe account unless I can find another use for it.

Instead, I’ve put on a Contact form on Landscapes & Architectures so people can email me if they want the book. It will automatically send to my email address with a subject like “Buy the Book,” and then I can send them my Paypal link. If I want to, I can add the Paypal link to the form to send them directly to where they can pay. Paypal will also notify me that a payment has been made. That seems to be the best solution to meet my current needs.

If I were doing a lot of sales, this system wouldn’t work, but to sell one book now and then, it should be enough to meet my needs.

If I were trying to set up a premium content area on my site or to charge people for a newsletter or other electronic content, then the Payments app might be just what I need. But for a few sales of physical content, i.e. books, it’s still not the right tool.

Fresh Fig and Eggplant over Tomato Basil Risotto

Fig and Aubergine Risotto image

We’re nearing the end of our fig harvest, and we had some in the fridge that desperately needed to be eaten, so I decided to include them in risotto, which we haven’t had in awhile. Normally, we cook figs in a pasta dish with gorgonzola and walnuts, and last year, I even put them on pizza, so I figured this would work.

I decided on risotto in part because some of the figs had started to get pretty soft and even put off some liquid in the refrigerator, which I thought would carmelize well. We also had some Asian-style eggplant, and I thought they would soak up the juice and combine well with the figs.

Before starting the risotto, I sautéed garlic in olive oil with some baby portobello mushrooms and the eggplant cut in about 1/2 inch quarters. Then I added about half the figs (the ones that were juicy and a little too ripe), a little yellow squash (just because it needed to be used), and two small peppers, red and yellow. Then I halved the other figs (around 2.5 cups total) and set aside. For spices, I put in red pepper flakes and fresh oregano. I also added a little cooking sherry and a little vinegar from a jar of calamata olives, and I halved some olives to put with the reserved figs and cubed a tomato and cut some fresh basil to set aside.

While half the figs, eggplant, garlic, mushrooms, squash, and peppers sautéed, first on medium high and then on medium low, I cooked the risotto according to our usual recipe for 3 people: half an onion sautéed in butter and olive oil, 1 1/3 cup arborio rice, and 6 cups of vegetable broth, added 1/2 cup at a time, simmering until it is absorbed, then another 1/2 cup is added and so on.

When the risotto was nearly finished, I added the reserved figs and olives to the sautée pan and continued to cook on medium low. I then added the tomato and basil to the risotto at the very end and stirred in a little of the gorgonzola.

I served the tomato basil risotto with the fig/eggplant mixture on top, adding a healthy sprinkling of gorgonzola. You could mix the fig and eggplant in with the risotto, which is what we usually do with the veggies, but I thought it would look nice on top, and then the tomato basil risotto would be more distinctive both in color and in flavor. The figs and the eggplant were a good combination of flavor and texture, and the olives added just enough savory to combine with the slightly sweet figs, and the risotto made a delicious base.

If you have fresh figs on hand — either from your own backyard tree or from your local farmer’s market — give this recipe a try.

Note to Self: Start a Book Club

This morning, I had a thought. And despite my title, it wasn’t about starting a typical book club. As the first day of classes looms and work on syllabi is delayed by work on finding classrooms for face-to-face classes where they can be socially distanced and other unusual tasks that have occupied the summer and set me behind on my normal work, I was thinking about how to shake things up in my poetry workshop. In my online graduate class, I usually assign a certain number of pages from a poetry collection every week, and I may still do that, but this morning I’m thinking about how to organize it more like a book club. For instance, one of the first discussion topics I may assign is to tell about their favorite poetry books that they’ve read in the past year or so. Most of my students will have had poetry classes recently, so they should at least have read something fairly current. I might allow them to discus poetry magazines they’ve read, too.

But I might also make some changes to how and when they discuss the books I’ve assigned. I might open those discussions up early, so they can read the books they want in the order that they want to read them. They do this anyway, so why not let them write comments as they are reading. Then we can be looser in our discussion of the books and possibly incorporate more of what they’re reading in our discussion of their poems, both in terms of what they’ve written and in terms of what they’ll write going forward.

In relation to my previous post on Whole Writer Workshops, I’m thinking about ways to make the workshop less about revision of what has been written (always important) and more about what else might be written that semester or even after. A good workshop is always about discovering new things to write about and new things about how you write and what is possible, and it is not just about refining what has already been written. Treating one part of the class like a book club may be one way to move in that direction. I’m not sure how much I’ll change about the class structure that generally works pretty well, but it might be a good time to try out a few new tactics.

Whole Writer Workshops

In our low-residency MFA program, we have developed an alternative to traditional workshops that I like to think of as “Whole Writer Workshops.” These are workshops that follow up on the ones we do during the semester which are more or less traditional, depending on who’s teaching. During our summer full residency, we look at work that’s been submitted to other classes in our workshops. Because these workshops are cross-genre (we will have poets, playwrights, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers in the same room) and because we don’t expect revision for a grade during the 9 days of our residency, we try to look at the work not in terms of what needs to be ‘fixed,’ but in terms of what it says about the writer and what it suggests the writer may want to do next.

I think this is a perspective that can be useful in other, more traditional workshops, even when we do expect revision. We may look at a story or poem and have questions about one of the undercurrents in it. It can be very liberating to discuss how this strand could be developed both within the piece or in a different piece. It can be helpful to discuss different genres and forms together and to realize that the way you might develop a subject in a poem might be very different than how you would develop it in memoir, for instance. We are able to talk about how an essay might grow out of a poem or how a poem might distill a narrative or how different vantage points might be portrayed through the characters in a play. It can be energizing and constructive to discuss how essays or stories in a collection can play off each other and how the answers to questions about one piece might most productively lead to a new piece rather than being developed in the current one (which might overburden it).

Because we are workshopping pieces that have been workshopped and revised already, we can talk about how workshops frequently ask for more, and how that isn’t always the best advice. Often our residency workshops ‘get it’ more than ones that are focusing in on form or on detailed comments for revision. Thinking about the writer and not just about the text can actually help with critique, which runs contrary to how we’ve been trained.

In the typical workshop model, the writer must remain quiet and the answers are only sought in the text. There is a place for this kind of critique, and it can also be very valuable, esp. when workshop participants know what is happening and why, but it also leaves out a lot, especially the voice of the writer. So when workshopping in a traditional class (graduate or undergraduate), I try to learn from the experiences I’ve had in the residency workshops and to strike a balance between textual critique and a more wholistic approach.

Rocking MacBook Pro Fix

Anyone who has read my blog would probably know I’m not afraid to repair my own computer, but I also try to know my own limitations. This was not one of those times I thought was a DIY fix. I thought I’d write about it anyway because the symptoms are interesting and potentially dangerous.

Recently, I had started to notice that typing on my MacBook Pro Early 2015 13″ was a challenge because it was rocking back and forth as I typed. The case seemed warped, and I wondered if I could have possibly done something to it transporting it in a bag with things like a camera or iPad that weren’t perfeclty flat. That didn’t seem likely, but it was the first thought that came to mind.

After awhile, though, I realized that I was having trouble closing the case, and looking at it carefully, I realized that the keyboard was bulging. This finally caused me to do a little searching online, and with the right search terms, I quickly saw the likely problem.

The battery in these MacBooks (and several others) can sometimes swell when they get old. I’d been getting errors about the battery for some time, but figured I could live for awhile with a battery that didn’t last as long as it used to. When I read that the gas inside the battery that was causing it to expand could actually catch fire, I decided it would be good to replace it.

After a quick look a iFixIt to see how hard the repair was — Difficult — so I decided not to attempt it. Not only do you need solvents to loosen the glue holding the battery in, but if you puncture the battery, it could explode. You need ventilation, too. Though I’ve replaced my own battery in the past, it wasn’t this involved, so I decided to see how much it would cost to repair. After calling around to find a local repair shop (my usual one isn’t doing those kinds or repairs anymore), I found a cell phone repair shop that was willing to change the battery for $160.

Since leaving the battery alone could mean fire, explosion, or at best a cracked keyboard or lower case, I figured it would be worth the cost. It took a few days for them to get the part, but once they had it, they were able to replace the battery in a couple of hours, and I was back up and running with my MacBook.

The main reason I’m writing this is to say that if you are experiencing symptoms like I did — a rocking case or a case that won’t close — it’s best to get it looked at right away. Now my laptop doesn’t rock, the case closes perfectly, and typing is so much better.

Hash Brown Nest

has brown nest

The other morning, I was home alone: my wife and son were visiting her mother, and I had class, so I couldn’t go along. Tired of cereal, I decided to make eggs and potatoes, and came up with this idea for making a “hash brown nest.” Really, I just didn’t want to wash two pans, but then the idea was intriguing and I liked the name I came up with.

I’ve finally figured out how to make pretty decent home-style hash browns by cutting the potato in thin strips, rather than grating it. Grated russet potatoes always fall apart and make mush, not hash browns, and I don’t like rinsing them and then drying to try to keep that from happening. It never worked as well as I wanted, and created too much mess. But a slightly thicker, cut potato fries up nicely. I think slicing the potato keeps the fibres more intact than grating it does.

I fried the potatoes in oil for a bit until they were nearly done, made an open space in the center to create a nest (keeping it mostly free of potato, though it’s fine if a few pieces remain), then cracked two eggs into that open space, added salt and pepper, covered them so they would baste a bit, and in a couple of minutes I had my breakfast. A little hot sauce is good on top, and next time, I might melt a little grated cheddar cheese on top at the end. Tasty, easy, and not hard to clean up, this is a great dish for one person, though you might need multiple pans for multiple people to keep the nest shape going. Or on a large griddle, you could probably just shape the hash browns into nests with space between.

The Poet as Plumber

I don’t mean to brag with a title like this, but I did fix our kitchen sink this week. The title sounded too good not to use, and what I really want to do, which is one part of this blog, is just to say that poets are people, too.

Last month as we were about to go on a little trip to see family (maybe our only chance to do that for awhile, even if it wasn’t without risk), I heard a crack when turning off the hot water while washing dishes. When I went to turn it back on to rinse something, water came out of the handle, not the spigot. That’s never a good sign.

By holding the handle down and using cold water, I made it through the last of the breakfast dishes: water came out the hot side if I didn’t hold it down when the cold was running. Shutting off the water to the faucets under the sink seemed to do the trick, so with a little trepidation, we were able to leave on our trip, knowing I’d have a job to do as soon as we got home. Actually, I waited until the next day, since there had been no catastrophic leak while we were away and we could use the sink in the laundry room as a stop-gap.

Replacing the kitchen faucet proved to be more of a job that expected, though. There were several complicating factors, including that the fittings our countertop installer had used to attach the faucet had rusted. As anyone who’s worked on a undermount sink can tell you, there’s not much room to maneuver under there. Much banging, cursing, and destroying the old faucet ensued before I finally got it out, but I had already determined it would need to be replaced, not repaired.

Then I had to figure out how to attach the new faucet, since the connectors were too short, which is probably why the previous faucet installation was so weird. I found marble countertop adapters that looked like they would work, though our counter isn’t actually marble, it’s a composite made of recycled newspaper, so it isn’t quite as thick as marble. Back at Lowe’s, I found a couple of washers that had large enough inner holes to go over the adapter (1 3/8 inch, if you want to know). My last trip to the store was right a closing time, but by time for bed, the faucet was fixed.

Unfortunately, in the process, I decided I should replace the under-sink water filter, too, since it had been at least 6 months, probably longer, and was overdue. Even more unfortunately, the O-ring on the filter housing decided to give out, so it leaked everywhere no matter how much I tightened it after replacing the filter. That model is discontinued, and though I could have ordered a part, no one had one I could get that day, so another trip to the store, and I came home with a brand new filter assembly, which then had to be installed. More fun ensued, trying to get at the screws on the bracket which were in a nearly impossible location. Who knew that plumbers also have to be contortionists?

Will there be a poem that comes out of all of this? I seriously doubt it. But even poets have real lives, and some of us are brave or foolhardy enough to attempt our own repairs. At least I have most of tools I needed and could improvise anything I didn’t have — vice grips are great, if somewhat destructive alternatives when you need something to turn a stubbornly rusted-on nut. A hammer and a big screwdriver will work if you don’t have a cold chisel. And the end result is a new and much nicer faucet with a new water filter for which they ought to have parts for at least a few more years!

In Praise of Rhubarb

We’ve been up in Iowa for the past week or so, visiting my mother.* One of the joys of a visit there in the summertime is her great stand of rhubarb. She has two types: a small, dark red variety and a larger, whiter variety. Both are tasty, though the darker one is what we prefer for pies and sauces. When we feel we’ve picked enough of it, though, we move over to the lighter variety with thicker stalks. The flavor is about the same; only the color is different.

Rhubarb is one of the strangest ‘fruits.’ It’s actually a vegetable, though you eat the stalk. Don’t eat the leaves; they are toxic. The stalk is very tart, so you need to cook it with sugar (or eat raw, dipped in sugar, which was a childhood treat). Therefore, it’s perfect for pies. One legacy my mom passed down to me was making pie crusts from scratch. This lattice pie cruse uses the quick and easy method of alternating strips, rather than trying to weave them together. It still turns out about the same, and the pie dough was very flaky. The secret? 2 cups of flour, 3/4 cup of Crisco, salt, and ice water. Adding about a tablespoon of Crisco to the standard measurement of 1/3 C per 1 cup of flour helps make it lighter.

Once we’d eaten the pie, we were in the mood for another rhubarb dessert. This is Rhubarb Angel, which has a butter/flour/sugar bottom crust with a merringue and a custardy filling: 3 egg yolks, cream (though I used buttermilk), 1 C sugar. You can tell that this was made with the lighter variety. Besides pie, this was one of our favorite rhubarb desserts when I was growing up, but the most common way for us to eat rhubarb was always as a sauce, which can be put on cereal or eaten by itself at breakfast or poured over ice cream for dessert.

Rhubarb sauce is just cut rhubarb and sugar that is simmered until it makes sauce. Let the sugar sit on it awhile before cooking, so it starts to form some juice. Kim made this in the microwave, which is Mom’s preferred method, though the old-fashioned stove-top method ought to work. I don’t know that recipe by heart, though it’s pretty simple and you could experiment with the amount of sugar you use to get the tartness you want. My guess would be 1/2-3/4 cup of sugar for 2-3 cups of cut rhubarb.

However you cook it, if you have a patch of rhubarb, count yourself lucky. It’s full of vitamin C and potassium, so it’s a healthy and refreshing summertime treat.

*As a side note, the decision to visit an elderly relative during the COVID-19 pendemic wasn’t an easy one. Even as we were leaving, cases were spiking in a number of states. We had self-quarantined for 14 days before we left, so we felt reasonably safe visiting, but we had a 14-hour drive to get there. With 3 drivers and few stops, we were able to do it in one day and with only a few restroom breaks at rest areas — the only times we went indoors. While there, we hardly went out at all, only driving to the neighboring town so we could get curbside pickup of groceries. Because we kept our exposure as limited as possible, we felt it was as safe as could be. That’s not 100%, but probably not any higher than her daily activities would be.

Thoughts on Replacing the Mississippi Flag

This is a historic time in Mississippi. This week, both the state House and Senate passed a bill with more than a two-thirds majority to remove the current state flag that features the Confederate flag in the canton, and the governor signed it into law. A new flag will be designed by a commission and voted on by the public in November. The bill says that the new flag design may not contain the Confederate flag and must include the words “In God We Trust,” which means the flag will still be problematic, but it will be an improvement. Make no mistake, this is a momentous occasion, yet a lot still needs to be done.

I wish the new flag would mean that Mississippi is finally a more progressive place. It is, and it is not. For instance, during the debate in the Senate, one senator asked whether other Confederate symbols could be used on the new flag, mentioning Georgia’s flag, which is based on the Stars and Bars flag of the Confederate States. Of course, the answer was ‘yes,’ since the wording of the bill does not prohibit anything other than the Confederate battle flag. I would hope that the commission will design a flag that is more inclusive, but even if it does, it is limited by the bill and must create a flag that represents religious intollerance: “In God We Trust” presumes a monotheistic religion and arguably privileges Christianity over other monotheistic religions. Whatever ends up as our new flag, it will be a compromise, and there will be some who try to resist change.

On the other hand, there are many, many people of good will who are working hard to make Mississippi a better, more tolerant state for all of its people. This week, the legislature also put a resolution on the November ballot to change the state’s constitution so that the Governor and other state-wide offices may be elected by the popular vote. Now, they must be elected by the popular vote and by a majority of voting districts; otherwise the House of Representatives gets to select the winner. This means that a candidate who loses the election could still be installed in office by the legislature, and it is a provision that was specifically implemented in the consitution to limit the power of Black voters. Taking this step to change the constitution is just as important as changing the flag, and may have longer-reaching effects, but it won’t happen unless enough people come out in support of the resolution in November — all the more reason to register and vote!

And beyond that, much work remains to be done in Mississippi. Income inequality and education remain huge issues. Access to adequate health care and even food is a problem in many areas of our state. Our prison population is much too high and the conditions in prisons are terrible. All the problems with policing that are issues across the country are magnified in Mississippi. Our legislature has a Republican super-majority in both houses, thanks to voter suppression and gerrymandering. It’s not likely that radical change will happen anytime soon.

Still, the fact that Mississippi could change its flag when the opposition has so much power is absolutely amazing. It is a beginning, but it is only a beginning. Change in Mississippi can be a long time coming. This is a sign that it is coming. We can celebrate the victory, but the struggle is far from over.