Painting the Porch

This summer we are finally getting our house painted. We’ve been trying to do this for awhile, now, and even hired a painter last year, but it’s finally to the point where he could start working. New regulations on certifying workers who disturb paint on houses older than 1980, which might have lead paint (ours does still have some), caused part of the delay.

We’ve chosen our colors and painted one small wall to test them. That was the easy part. We also decided to paint the porch rails, spindles, columns, etc. ourselves to save a little money. We may regret that decision when it’s all said and done, though our painter doesn’t seem to mind. It’s slow work! I’ve been scraping them for the past three days and getting near the point where I can paint, though there are a few patches I want to go back to this morning, and there are a few repairs I need to make before I paint too much, so we’ll see if I beat the rain that’s forecast for this afternoon.

Painting the porch is good from the perspective that it gives me more appreciation for what our painter is doing. We talk quite a bit while working not too far from each other. He gives a lot of advice on painting and prepping, and he has lots of stories. I’ve heard about half the houses in our neighborhood, and about his college experience at Concordia in Moorhead, where coincidentally, I know the athletic director, a friend of my sister. How an African American guy from Mississippi ended up there in the 1970’s, I’m not entirely sure, though I may find out. But I won’t give away all of John the Painter’s stories.

What I learn is that he knows a lot about what he does, and that he chose this profession, or fell into it, after being educated in another field. Maybe it fit his lifestyle better than his other career. Nothing wrong with that, and we’re glad to have a good professional painter to work with. From working on the porch myself, I’m reminded of all the work that goes into painting an old house. It’s not just slapping on paint, which I’d be perfectly capable of (though I might not like climbing the tall ladders to reach the gables and I would have to rent scaffolding to do much of the work). It’s not just painting, but getting to know your house.

Just like when we’ve painted the interior, when painting and prepping the exterior, you run into things that need a little work, and as our carpenter said: ‘now’s the time to do it.’ So I’ve been re-gluing the spindles that were sagging a bit, and fixing cracked pieces of the scrollwork below. There are a few boards that have been cracked and need to be replaced here and there. So I’ve made a few trips to the hardware store, as well. Nothing is too serious (so far), but the issues need to be addressed. All of that slows me down a bit, but it’s worth it.

A Great Summer Read

One Last Good Time by Michael Kardos

One Last Good Time 5 of 5 stars
by Michael Kardos

I love the dark humor in these stories. The book is a linked short story collection in which the stories that have returning characters comment on each other and further develop the characters, though the collection does not read like a novel. Each story stands on its own, yet we get a fuller view of a small New Jersey coastal town the further we read into the book. It is wickedly funny and perceptive at the same time. Like a reflection in a funhouse mirror, we see our true selves, our nightmare selves, and perhaps even our fantasy selves all at once.

New Book Review

The Hands of StrangersThe Hands of Strangers by Michael F. Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this gripping tale of a child’s abduction and the struggles of one couple to hang on to hope despite all odds, Michael F. Smith evokes the darkest fears a parent can imagine. His prose is clean and spare, his eye for detail, impeccable. The reader is transported, not to the Paris seen by tourists, but to the small streets and back alleys, the metro stations and small cafés.

View all my reviews

Treasure your Word Hoard

Classes are over, exams are graded, and I finally have time to get back to the blog, which means I have time to write and think about something other than papers and exams! This morning on the walk, as I was processing last semester’s writing class and thinking about what I’d like to be able to communicate better to students, I was thinking about how poets use patterned language. My textbook (most textbooks) approach formal poetry with lots of terminology for meter, especially, which tends to turn students off. Terms are good to give students a handle to remember abstract concepts by, but they also make it seem as if when you know the term, you know how to do it, and if you don’t get the term you’re completely lost. Of course, that’s not true, especially with rhythm.

I’d like to get students to play with more kinds of sound patterning in a poem without worrying about strict meter or end rhyme. I want them to hear how the vowels and consonants across a line of poetry that sounds good are structured in one of many ways. Assonance and consonance are only a bare beginning to getting how sound can be repeated in different patterns. A poet chooses a word that means what h/she wants and that also has sounds that form a pattern with the other words in the line or stanza. To do this, a poet needs a large, active vocabulary.

This is when it struck me how limiting, pedantic, and stale that word is in English: ‘vocabulary.’ It hardly says anything. In Dutch, the word is ‘woordenschat’ or ‘word-treasure.’ The word ‘schat’ can also be an endearment, like ‘my little treasure’ — ‘schatje.’ This gives more of a mental picture of a collection of words that someone holds dear.

A ‘schat’ can also be the treasure that a dragon would keep, and this got me thinking about how the way writers work with words is much like the way dragons work with their treasure. A dragon’s treasure may be gold, but it may also be anything that sparkles or seems precious. The things in it may be old (ancient) or new, broken or functional. The dragon in folklore actively collects items for its hoard, flying out each day or night to find new objects to add to it. But the dragon does not ignore the things it has gathered, either. It constantly pores over the hoard to make certain nothing is missing — at least it does in the stories I vaguely remember.

Isn’t this a good image for the writer? We all have a relatively large vocabulary, I presume. We know words and recognize them when we read them, but writers are more likely to actively search through that stockpile of words to find the right one to put in the right place. Sorting is a key pastime of dragons, I presume. All writers are (or should be) constantly on the lookout for new words to add to their collection. Those words may be bright and shiny on the surface or they may be unassuming words with a long history of connotations that lend just the right nuance to our pile of language when placed carefully in just the right spot. We tinker with them and shuffle them and toy with them until a pattern emerges.

So I propose a new synonym for ‘vocabulary.’ I’d like to call it your word hoard. I know that won’t catch on any time soon, but maybe in the book about writing that I’d love to write in all my spare time, that’s what I’ll call it.

Nonfiction, what is it?

I’m constantly being asked this question, since the creative writing program I teach in has a class in it (that I don’t teach, but I’m the program director, so I get asked a lot anyway). It’s a tough one to answer, and usually I list some of the kinds of writing, I think might be in the class with the caveat that since I don’t teach it, the person who does might have other ideas.

But today we were covering creative nonfiction in my creative writing class as we start to think about genre, so I tried to be a little more specific with the help of our textbook. We discussed why some people don’t like the term. It makes fiction seem like the norm and anything else is an aberration. Is poetry nonfiction? By this definition, it is. One writer I was reading in preparation for class wondered whether there should be a genre called non-poetry (and I have to believe she said this somewhat tongue-in-cheek). And why not? Isn’t all prose nonpoetry: somewhat poetic, but not entirely?

The textbook I use (Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing) talks of creative nonfiction primarily in terms of the essay that uses some techniques of fiction (and poetry). [My beef with this book is that it doesn’t really do justice to poetry, but I try to compensate.] And nonfiction does or can use strategies from the essay, though it doesn’t have to. It can use strategies, like scene and even character, from fiction, but it doesn’t have to, and it certainly doesn’t use them the same way fiction does, usually. Plot is often less important in nonfiction. The dramatic tension of a scene doesn’t have to be as high or might not even be present. A scene in nonfiction can simply take us to a moment or a place without any drama or change — in a story I would expect that of a scene.

But in a poem, we often have scenic treatment of the material (imagism, for instance) without a plot or dramatic tension. In a poem we might speak of lyric tension. The arrangement of images in a poem or the arrangement of scenes in creative nonfiction often work in similar ways. Juxtaposition is part of the argument. Associations formed between scenes or images that aren’t connected by plot or linear logic work in a poem or in an essay. The poet or nonfiction writer may comment or may not. Associations based on the sound of the language or on the connotations of the words may be as productive as associations strung together on a plot.

As we discussed sub-genres of creative nonfiction, one of my students raised the question of whether blogging would fit. I agreed that often it would, though some blogs may be fiction or poetry, and some blogs might not rise to the level (sink to the level?) that would be called creative. Blogging may be the most ubiquitous form of creative nonfiction: the personal not-quite-essay, not-quite-story, not-quite-lyric-prose-poem. Maybe one day we’ll have to call all other writing nonblogging once blogging becomes the norm and everything else an aberration.

Publish Your Poetry Book (Without Getting Scammed)

Recently, I received an email from a local writer, asking for advice on how to publish a book of poems. I’ve never read her poetry, so I could only give general advice, and since I get this kind of question a lot, I thought I’d post my reply here.

Publishing a book of poetry can be a long and arduous process, so be patient and don’t give up! Poetry publishing in the U.S. is not extremely lucrative for publishers or for the poet, so it is hard to find a publisher who is willing to take on an unknown or little-known author. But there are are ways. There is a lot of competition and it can take awhile to get noticed. Here are a few ideas and resources that might help.

Before publishing a book, most poets publish in magazines. That gets your name out there and helps develop a readership. Publishers also look for evidence that other editors have approved of your writing when they evaluate your work (at least if the work isn’t submitted anonymously, which is sometimes a requirement). So seek out good literary magazines and send the individual poems to them before you start shopping the book manuscript around. Once poems are published in a book, they usually can’t be republished in a magazine, but poems published in a magazine often end up in a book. So you want magazine publication for a good number of your poems before they are accepted in a book.

Poets & Writers is one of the best resources for information on poetry magazines. I’ve also found that Lit Line, New Pages, and The Poetry Resource Page have good indexes of literary magazines with links to the magazine’s websites. Research many of them, read what they have online, and subscribe to some. This will help you get a sense of what is being published and where it is published. In a small way, you’ll also be supporting the industry you want to be a part of.

But you may already be doing this. Another thing to do that will help you know whether your writing is publishable (yet), is to join a writing group. If you have friends who read your writing now, that is great. If those friends also publish, even better. If you want to go to the next level, then consider attending a summer workshop or other writing seminar (or taking a class or going to an MFA program). There are many opportunities for week or month-long writer’s seminars or colonies. The sites I mentioned will have lists of these opportunities. Though it’s not required that you earn an MFA or go through a seminar to publish, it can be an invaluable experience, where you learn more about your craft, but also learn about the publishing process and make new writer friends, possibly even network.

Finally, to actually publishing your book. Many first poetry books these days are published through a contest. The entry fee helps fund the publication costs, and the reputation of the contest helps guarantee an audience for the published book. It’s nice to be able to say you won a prize (though frankly, publishing a book is prize enough for many of us!).

Just beware about the prizes that are out there. There are many legitimate ones and many scams. A legitimate first book prize will usually have an entry fee that is anywhere from $10 – $50 ($25 seems to be about the norm, though, so I’d look carefully at a much more expensive one). It will pay a prize and publish your book — often you get some copies as part of your prize. Many will publish more than just the first-place manuscript. You will enter with your whole book manuscript, and you often get a copy of the winning book or a subscription to a literary magazine along with your entry fee. A legitimate first book prize will also usually announce the name of the judge, and will follow guidelines aimed at keeping the judging legit (no friends or former students may submit, for instance). The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses has a code of ethics for contests. if a contest follows this, that is a very good sign.

Contests with no entry fee are often scams (the costs pile up later). Some are notorious for accepting anything sent to them, no matter how ridiculous (and people have tried to get rejected). There is no fee, but you are expected to purchase an expensive anthology, then flattered and offered an expensive conference and other perks that come at a price. If you’re not familiar with the source of the contest, do some searching to find out if it is legit before you send them your work.

You can also query publishers directly. You should know a lot about the publisher before you do this, though. Read their books to know whether your work is likely to be a good fit for their readers. If you feel you’re ready to go this route, then read their submission guidelines to be sure they will take ‘over the transom’ submissions. Usually you would send a sample from your manuscript, about 10 pages, along with a cover letter. If they’re interested, they’ll get back to you. If they aren’t, you’ll likely get a polite form letter. Don’t feel bad, though. Any press that will accept unsolicited manuscripts likely receives hundreds of query letters. Agents generally won’t work with an unpublished poet, either. Which is why contests are the first avenue for many writers.

Note that there are chapbook contests (for manuscripts of 24-48 pages, as a general rule), first book contests (48+ pages, though more than 80 is probably getting too long), and open book contests (open to any poet and not any poet who hasn’t published a book). There may be some other types of contest guidelines, but those are the most frequent. Obviously your chances are better in a first book competition, though that doesn’t mean you might not win an open competition. It’s all up to the judge, especially when the entries are anonymous, as they often are.

So how can you win a contest or get a publisher to notice your book? The obvious response would be to write really good poems! That may not always be enough, however. It is also important to craft a good book. The order of poems and structure of the book is integral to its success. Revising and polishing poems between submissions and reordering and rethinking the thematic structure of the book can lead to a stronger manuscript. Don’t just print them in the order that you wrote them, in other words. Look for recurring themes, emotions, ideas. Consider a structure that ties these together. Be willing to cut the poems (even published poems) that don’t fit the book — maybe they’ll make it into your next one!

As you read books of poetry, look for patterns the poet may have used to order the manuscript. Though it may not be obvious, I used a seasonal pattern in Time Capsules. Think about possible models or read about the process of composing a book. Though I haven’t read it, a good friend, poet Anna Leahy, has recommended Ordering the Storm by Susan Grimm for its thoughts on moving from manuscript to finished book. You might enjoy Anna’s conversation with three other poets about their first book experience, published on Bookslut.

Publishing a book can be a long, drawn-out process. If approached with the right attitude, it can be rewarding and not just frustrating. But it will be frustrating, more than likely, so do have a support group of friends who write and encourage each other. There is nothing better for your self-esteem when the rejections come back (and they will) than knowing that there are people you respect who respect your writing. If you don’t have a group like this yet, then seek one out. Good luck!

Write about place

I have often given my creative writing students the journal assignment to write about a place they remember from when they were 8-13 years old. This seems to work well, since we all have someplace we used to go that holds a lot of memories. The combination of memory and description can be evocative, charging the language and the imagery with emotion.

This time, since we were out with a snow/ice day and because I felt like trying something a little different, I changed the assignment a little. I still asked students to write about a place, but I made it any place they have an emotional attachment to: where you had your first date or your first anything, really, or a place that you visited frequently. I suppose it could be a place that your parents went to and then took you to. I asked them to write without naming the emotion, but trying to evoke the emotion through the language and images they choose. I want to have them do some work together in groups to begin turning these paragraphs into poems about the place, though I won’t mind if the poems then get revised back into a story at some later date.

Historical Markers

Columbus, MS, Marker
Here’s a writing exercise I haven’t given to any of my classes (yet), mostly because I’m not sure when they’ll be driving.

Stop at a historical marker. It may be one you pass on a regular basis without sopping or one that you see on a trip. Read the marker and look around you. Note at least four interesting words from the text of the marker and at least four interesting things in your field of vision. These words do not have to go together, and the more you find, the more you’ll have to draw on. Once you’ve made your lists (either while you’re still at the marker or later) begin a text (poem, story, essay, etc.) by combining words from the marker with the descriptions of things or motions or colors, etc., that you saw. Ideally you will be combining something of the past with something of the present.

The point of the exercise is not to write about the subject of the historical marker, though that might happen, but to allow both the present and the history of a place into your writing to provide greater depth. That’s why it’s best to actually be there. If you don’t have your notebook with you, take a picture of the marker. Nonetheless, having been there will give you memories and impressions of the place that a picture someone else has taken of a marker won’t provide. You know the sounds and the temperature of that place on the day you saw it. You know where you had just been and where you were going, who you were with or who you were going to see, and a million other things about the experience that give it an emotional depth for you, which you can mine in your writing.

This is an exercise that I have done, though a little less formally than I’ve described it here. A couple summers ago, my family and I were traveling around the midwest and saw markers indicating we were on a continental divide. This led to a poem or two, as I contemplated the idea of a watershed, that just a slight rise (not the mountain chain we usually think of) can mark the difference between water flowing north or south, east or west (or northeast/southwest, etc.). Subtle variations in our landscape have a dramatic effect, when all the results pool into Lake Michigan or Superior, for instance. Taoists call this principle of water seeking the downward path of least resistance wu wei and recognize its power.

Thinking of the world in those terms, human interactions on the surface of the planet seem insignificant, as my son’s science homework reminded me today. He was studying the earth’s mantle and core, and learned that the radius of the earth is approximately 4,000 miles (give or take a few for mountains or deep ocean trenches, wrinkles in the peel of the apple, as the homework assignment described it). What are we in this perspective? Spores of mold migrating around on the skin of a great, big, round potato?

(Barb Johnson’s discussion of pomme de terre, the French term for potato (as opposed to the Cajun patate reminded me that the potato is a more appropriate ‘earth apple’ — the Dutch have the same dichotomy aardappel in standard Dutch patat in dialect).

Morning Walk in Snow

This morning was a rare snowy day in Columbus, Mississippi, and Zinneke and I took our usual walk along the Riverwalk. On the way, all was quiet. Not many vehicles on the street, and only a few pedestrians. Some of our friends were down near the river, sledding with kayaks. Once we got to the main Riverwalk, we were on our own with only footprints and animal tracks. Snow on all the fields and the branches of the trees, slush in all the lower areas of the path, though the bridge over a small creek had a couple of inches of soft, white snow on it. Time seemed to practically stand still. The only sound, it seemed, was the crunch of my shoes and the dog’s paws in the snow. Walking back into town, was walking back into real life. A few more people out and a couple of dogs on the street. The snow lasted all day, along with a little of the glow of a quiet morning walk.

New Year’s (blog) Resolution

Early this New Year’s morning, I had a dream of teaching a creative writing class in an apartment. All my students showed up gradually, starting at 1:00 a.m., since the class time hadn’t been announced. I had them all do calisthenics to warm up and dreamt up several ideas for class. I probably won’t make all my creative writing students do stretches before class next semester, but this dream did lead me to make up a resolution for the blog this year — write more (obviously) and include more writing exercises. So here is a first one…

Take a Hike

Go for a walk of at least 10 minutes. Don’t avoid the weather (though it’s all right to use an umbrella, raincoat, parka, sunscreen, etc.) On your walk consider an idea for writing. The idea does not have to come from the walk, though it may. You might start out with an idea in mind or look for one during your walk. Let the experience of the walk influence your thinking. Allow the weather to influence the mood or a random event (traffic, animal sighting, encounter with a person, etc.) to enter the scene you are working on. Either bring a small notebook with you and write down your ideas at one or more stopping points in the walk or immediately upon returning from the walk, sit down and work at least 15 minutes on a draft.

This kind of exercise goes back at least as far as Wordsworth’s idea of emotion recollected in tranquility. Goethe was also well known for taking long walks when writing, and Wallace Stevens said he composed most of his poems while walking to and from the office in Hartford Connecticut. Many poets have credited the rhythm of walking with the cadence in their poems, and it is often a good idea to introduce reality through random elements in a creative work.