Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Happy 100th Birthday, Shakespeare & Co

This week marks the 100th birthday of Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris. Shakespeare & Co. is an amazing place, both for its beautiful interiors with floor to ceiling wooden bookshelves and for its long history as a meeting place for Modernist writers. It was also the scene of one of the most magical literary evenings of my life, when I talked my way into giving a reading, though I’m sure it is a long-forgotten blip in the history of this legendary store.

The date was September 19, 1988, and I was a young poet, just two years out of college. I had quit my job in Chicago and taken the summer off to travel through Europe, first visiting my brother in Poland just before the fall of Communism (which we had no idea would happen within the year), then visiting friends in Denmark and Belgium, arriving in time for the marriage of  Frank Van de Steen and Sabine Daeninck. It was an earlier and safer (or more naive) time, so much of my travel was by hitch-hiking, and I stayed in hostels when I wasn’t visiting friends.

According to an old journal I found, I had been in Paris for three days. I had already walked all over the city, seen the Louvre and the Rodin museum, and been to Notre Dame. I’d also been to Shakespeare & Co., though the first time I went, the shop was closed because it was Saturday. I lent 100 francs to an Austrian couple I met whose car had been broken into, though I didn’t really believe their story and I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t show up at our meeting place to return the money. But that might have been part of the reasong I ended up back at Shakespeare & Co.

Earlier in the day, I had been brash enough to try to arrange a reading there with a rightfully dubeous George Whitman and had talked him into at least considering me for a date in October. But when I went back later in the afternoon after waiting around Notre Dame plaza for my Austiran ‘friends,’ I overheard that the American poet whose reading I had planned to attend had to cancel. Being young and unabashed, I volunteered to step in. I had published a few poems in magazines, performed in Chicago, and even had a poem on the radio. I probably made it all sound a lot more impressive than it was, and they agreed to let me read. After all, people were about to arrive, so why not?

With that decided, I went down to the Seine to find a quiet place to practice my poems and get prepared. The reading was after hours, upstairs above the bookstore. As I recall maybe a dozen people stayed for the reading. I’m sure some went home disappointed that the poet they expected hadn’t shown up. But according to my journal, the reading went very well. Those who stuck around had a good time, there was a lot of energy in the room, and we had a great discussion afterwards when several of us went out for drinks.Of course, I didn’t get paid (other than a glass or two of wine) and didn’t have any books to sell. It wasn’t my first public reading, but it was my first and so far only international one, and it was in Paris in one of the most famous bookstores in the world.

The Personal / Universal Paradox in Art

The other day, one of my low-res MFA students, Dani Putney, and I were conferencing a poem and we got into a side discussion of the personal and the universal. Dani’s stance, which I agree with, is that the Universal doesn’t exist. (I’ll use a capital letter here, though Dani didn’t since we were talking by video, not writing out our thoughts. The capital is to indicate Universal in the broadest terms.)

The idea of the Universal is often used in the sense that an artist should make their work accessible to a Universal audience, but Dani’s point was that this often means to make it palatable for an older, white, male audience. This is not new ground, of course, but it was a good discussion to have and to keep having. Universality in this sense is a myth. What gets defined as Universal is far from universal, and what gets defined as too personal or too limited in scope is often just as relevant, but to different, less powerful communities.

Isn’t that hegemony, after all? Those with cultural power define what is good or beautiful or universal and then assume, because they can, that everything else is lesser-than if it is other or different. I get it, and I fully agree that this definition of Universal is wrong. But the question remains, where does that leave the artist—in our cases, where does it leave the poet? Is it, therefore, simply all right to write about your own personal concerns and not pay any concern to universality?

On the one hand, I would probably answer: sure, why not? After all, what feels important or beautiful or moving to you will likely find a group of people who share that feeling. On the other hand, I am sympathetic to a slight reservation: couldn’t this lead to endless navel-gazing?

The question I posed to Dani is: Do we, as artists, look out or look in? The answer may be that we should do both, simultaneously. In other words, to only concern myself with my own concerns and never consider how they might be relevant to others is probably a mistake for an artist. I say probably because there are exceptions to every rule.

When I’m drafting a poem, I am intially only concerned with myself, with what I think or feel or the words that come to me, and I try not to worry about any other audience. As I’m revising a poem and maybe even as I’m thinking about what poem I might write next, I do look outward. I want to know who gives a damn about what I’m writing, and I hope the answer might be ‘someone.’ This is where the universal without a capital letter comes in. Do I write only for my moment or do I write for a future reader? Do I write for myself or even my community, or do I hope to reach others who are vastly different from me?

Writing that is universal is relevant to many readers from many communitites and with many identities. That is its strength. Who those communities are may be up to the writer or may be impossible to predict. It comes from looking in and looking out and finding ways to connect with others. It does not fit any one definition of Universal, though.

The Universal comes from looking in and assuming everyone else should see what you see and value what you value, assuming that your experience is definitive and therefore is Universal by definition.

How personal and how universal to be is every artist’s choice. We know that sometimes the most intensely personal art (at its creation) can become the most universal (as others respond to its intensity). The more intricate and deeply felt a work of art is, the more relevant it can become; the more general and universal it tries to be, the more it loses its power to move us. We want to write about things other people will care about, yet often the things we care most about end up being what finds others who care.

Like a lot of things, there is no one right answer, and everyone must find their own balance. It is an issue we subconscioulsy weigh with every line, every image, every poem. And then we make our peace with it in a final draft (we hope) and send the poem off to make its way and find its readers. No one should tell us what we need to write to be Universal, though. No one can predict the journey a poem will take, who will read it, or how they will respond. To make assumptions about Univerality is to make assumptions about which readers matter, and to be truly universal is to remain open to all readers, regardless of their status, their community, their identity, etc.

I believe this comes first through embracing your own identity and your own community, however you define it, and then through striving to make your art relevant to anyone who cares to listen. True Universality may be a myth, and an oppressive one at that, but the goal of universality, though unattainable, may not be such a bad one if reaching it goes through the personal.

Why I Bailed on a Book Deal

There’s probably not a happier moment for a writer than the moment an email or letter comes in saying you’ve been accepted. (Excluding major life events such as your wedding or the birth of a child, of course.) Nonetheless, that excitement can quickly change to concern or even disappointment when the acceptance is for a book manuscript. Choosing a publisher is a big undertaking, and I’ve been writing and publishing poetry long enough to know that every acceptance is not equal, nor is every publisher acceptable. You do your due diligence before you submit to find out what you can, but everything becomes more real once a decision has to be made.

That was the case for me recently, when my fourth book manuscript was accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press. It was a nice surprise when the email came through Submittable that they wanted to publish.  Then I began to wonder, since they didn’t immediately spell out their terms. The email said another email would come within a month with those details. Fortunately, it came a day later, so I wasn’t in limbo for long. This did give me time to do a little more research, however, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when the terms were less than satisfactory.

Finishing Line Press appears to be legitimate. There is no indication on their website that they are anything other than the small poetry publisher they claim to be. Still, I might have been tipped off by the number of recent books they list in their online bookstore (though that could also be a good sign). They do publish chapbooks and full-length collections, and they have a couple of prizes. But many of their books appear to come from their general submissions, and they don’t charge a big reading fee to review a manuscript. Online submissions are a $3 fee, which is reasonable on Submittable; paper manuscripts can be sent by mail for free in November and would probably cost you more than $3 to print and mail. The other thing on the website that could be a tip-off is that there’s no mention of a book distributor, and they appear to be primarily focused on selling books online.

Book distribution is important to me, since I intend to schedule appearances at bookstores and book festivals, where books will be sold through the publisher. If I intended to sell most of my books myself at local events, then I wouldn’t be as concerned about it. Finishing Line says their books are available through Ingram, and they may well be, but searching around, I could find their titles at Amazon, but didn’t find them in local bookstores. That was one of the things I learned after the acceptance email that had me worried.

Then their email with the terms of their contracts came in, and I knew this press wasn’t for me. The deal breaker? Finishing Line said they do not pay royalties. I should qualify this. They say they won’t pay royalites unless pre-sales reach 500 copies. Only then, would you be considered for a royalty contract. Prior to this, your “payment” is in copies. Prepublication sales are the only factor in this. For the book to go to press, the author must pre-sell at least 75 copies. for 75-104 copies, the press run is 300 copies and the author receives 30 as payment. Pre-sales of 105-154, and the press run is 500 copies with 50 to the author. etc. Pre-sales of over 500 seems highly unlikely for a book of poems, so I suspect payment in copies is the only form of payment they do.

I’ve heard that pre-sales have become more and more important in the publishing industry and that they can influence the initial press run and even how much effort the publisher puts into marketing a book. So on one level, I get it. This doesn’t look all that unusual. The parts that I don’t get is that there are no royalties on any sales and that the publisher will accept a manuscript without committing to an initial press run regardless of prepublication sales.

Let’s think about that for a moment. The publisher is asking the author to go out and market the book before its published and before they have made a real investment. You’re expected to sell at least 75 copies, for which you receive no royalties. This gives you the right to sell 30 more copies and pocket the cash. If you sell them at the list price, you might earn close to $600. That sounds better than royalties, but let’s not forget that most book contracts include at least 20 author copies plus royalties, and often there is a provision to buy more copies before publication for a deep discount (and no royalties on these sales) of to buy additional copies at an author discount. Review copies or other complimentary copies could eat into that total.

I haven’t seen the actual contract, but the terms I was sent make no mention of an author discount. So the author has to hit up all of their friends and acquaintances to sell 105- 150 copies in order to guarantee a decent print run of 500 copies (this is poetry we’re talking about, so that amount is probably reasonable for a first run). By this point, the publisher has already gotten all the easy sales. At readings, if you work hard to line those up and pay your own transportation and lodging as needed, you might sell more copies, but you would only earn a profit if you sell the copies you were ‘paid.’ Bookstore sales would go to the publisher, and you would earn nothing for your efforts, not to mention the work put into your writing.

From what I’ve seen, it is unclear what if you discount the author receives when buying books after their initial ‘payment.’ But if there is not a significant discount for authors, you would be paying the publisher for your book, and it would be hard to earn a profit without charging more than the list price.

Then there is the question of customer service. I found several complaints by authors that those who preordered books did not receive them and had to complain to the publisher before they finally received books long after they were available online. To their credit, perhaps, Finishing Line has left these complaints on their Facebook page. Still, this does not bespeak a company that is committed to selling books.

On the other hand, the books they publish don’t look bad, judging by the covers. For a poet who thinks they can generate significant pre-sales and then still sell their ‘payment’ copies, it could be a good deal, though I would still argue that you should earn a royalty on every copy sold. I”m realistic. I know royalties from poetry will never be huge amounts. Nonetheless, that’s no reason to give up the royalties you deserve. Any publisher who doesn’t offer a standard royalty ought to be suspect. To me, it seems like they are trying to make money off the backs of poets who already face a difficult market. By basing their business model on pre-sales and no royalties, they encourage poets with acceptance, then get them to guarantee advance sales, but pay very little in return. I know there are much better options available, and I’m willing too keep looking.

Poetry as Creative Nonfiction

This past weekend, I had a wonderful opportunity to read poems as the keynote speaker at the Mississippi Philological Association annual conference held at Mississippi Valley State University. For those who are unfamiliar with this fine organization, it is a group of English and Languages faculty and students (graduates and undergraduates) from Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, as well as a few who come from further afield (Illinois and Missouri were represented this year) to read creative work and scholarship on language and literature.

My talk was a reading from Barrier Island Suite and new poems from my fourth collection. It was fun to read what I’ve been working on recently with the poems on Walter Inglis Anderson from BIS and explore some of the cross-fertilization that went on. After all, while researching and writing the poems for BIS, I was also writing poems that would end up in Time Capsules and in my fourth book (title still to be determined, though I have a couple of working titles). The poems I read are newer, but I can still see the connections in theme that grew out of the work on Anderson.

That’s what got me thinking about poetry as creative nonfiction. Well, that did, along working on my creative writing textbook, A Writer’s CraftIn the textbook, the chapter on creative nonfiction was one of the harder ones to write until I realized that I write nonfiction all the time: I just format it as poetry. I discuss the fact that nonfiction is a misnomer; it could as easily been called non-poetry (thanks to Jocelyn Bartkevicius for making this argument in The Fourth Genre).

Barrier Island Suite is my book that is most obviously like creative nonfiction. I researched Walter Anderson’s life, read his Horn Island Logs, read his wife Agnes Grinstead Anderson’s Approaching the Magic Hour, viewed his art and read art criticism on his work. All of this informed the poems, which were definitely not poems about me, but  poems on a subject. They move away from biography by functioning as poems. Though the annotiations bring some of that biography back in, the poems focus on a moment, on an emotion, on one kernel of his life without attempting to put the whole picture together in a narrative. They function as lyric, though the collection as a whole provides glimpses into the narrative, and I hope it provides a deeper understanding than biography could.

Barrier Island Suite is also filled with references to me and my own concerns. As much as it is about Walter Anderson, I also weave in references from my experience, such as allusions to Sumerian and Chinese literature that I have no way of knowing whether Anderson was aware of, and others that he refers to in his logs that are also favorites of mine. In this way, and by incorporating some of Anderson’s language from the logs into the poems, I felt that the collection became a conversation with Anderson across distance and across time.

That conversation continues in the next collection, though there are no poems on Walter Anderson. Instead they are largely poems drawn from my own experience, meditative poems like the sequence “Tombigbee River Haiku” or observations like the poems about our family’s maple tree that had to be cut down after it lost some big branches in a storm. Hardly confessional, these are poems that are both personal and about something beyond the writer. I’m interested in the same relationships between the human and the natural world as I was in Barrier Island Suite, and I’m interested in the life cycle and the cycles of the seasons as metaphor. These themes could just as easily be worked out in an essay (or blog post), but my chosen form is poetry. If creative nonfiction can have the lyric essay, it is time to recognize that poetry can have the essay-poem. There are many ways that poetry and creative nonfiction overlap and cross-polinate, as there are many hypbrids between all the genres of creative writing.

I might have said more of this on Friday night, but dinner was ready and smelled delicious, so I mostly read poems and let them do the talking.

2018 Milestones

c7ed24d8-1b1b-4364-9f31-7d483de36f04-1211-000001348bf41cf6_fileThe year is winding down, so I thought it would be fun to post a few highlights of 2018. Some I’ve written about, and some I’ve let pass without posting on the blog until now.

Personal Milestones

Kim and I have reached that big milestone of graduating our son, Aidan from high school at the Mississippi School for Math and Sciences, where he got one of the top educations in the country, and sending him off to Williams College for more of the same. He’s had a great first semester, becoming involved in campus life, making great friends, performing with the Berkshire Symphony, and even keeping up his grades. We’re very proud of him in so many ways.

img_2284Between his high school and college, we had a chance to take a family trip (with W honors students) to Peru. The picture is by the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. We also spent time in Lima, Cuzco, and Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Thanks to our friends at Perú Vivo for being our guides and taking us to two villages on Lake Titicaca and to the people we met there who were so welcoming!

Back stateside, our travels have taken us to see family in Alabama and Iowa, including a chance to meet my mother’s newest great-grandchild, Ira Hillman. We’ve also been to Williams twice: once to move Aidan in, and once for Family Days.

Writing Milestones

The biggest milestone this year for me has been finishing my fourth collection of poems. “Finishing” may need to be in quotes, as I keep tinkering with it, but I’ve been sending it out to publishers and had a copy printed for my mother. By finished, I mean that I have enough poems for a collection, and they work together well as a book, even though I’ve done dome rearranging and even added a poem or two since I printed the manuscript. Maybe next year, I’ll be able to announce a publisher, but don’t hold your breath—it can be a long process!

I’ve also published poems in Haiku Page, Asahi Haikuist Network, Tar Rive Poetry, and Ekphrastic Review. Naturally, many other publications have sent poems back to me, and I’m nearly as proud of the places I’ve submitted that didn’t accept my work as those that did. As I tell my students, you have to keep at it until the right poem reaches the right reader at the right time. There are so many variables and so much competition for space in journals that “rejection” (a word I prefer not to use) can’t be taken personally. I’ve had some good comments come back on my poems recently, even when they haven’t been selected, and that keeps you going.

Professional Milestones

The biggest change in my teaching career this year had been moving into a more administrative role. For the past 3 years, I’ve been directing our low-residency MFA program in creative writing. This year, I added department chair to my titles. I’ve taken on the role of chair for the Department of Languages, Literature, and Philosophy, scheduling classes and managing the budget for our English, Spanish, Women’s Studies majors and Philosophy and Religious Studies minors. It also involves more committee meetings and mentoring more faculty. In the transition to this new role, we were also given permission to hire two new tenure-track faculty who will teach in both our MFA and undergraduate English programs. We’ve also started a search for a new Spanish professor, and I hired adjuncts in Latin and English and worked with dual-enrollment instructors in English and Spanish at three high schools. As a result of these changes in duties, I’ve passed the main responsibilities for Ponder Review on to my new colleague Brandy Wilson and for The Dilettanti on to Kris Lee, and I’m trying to cut back some on my advising and other duties wherever I can.

I was also happy to teach a couple of new graduate courses this year. In the spring, I developed the Translation Workshop, which was a lot of fun. We read some translations together and read essays on translation theory and practice. Students translated from German, Polish, Latin, and Spanish. This fall, I taught a new course on Feminist Poetry, starting with H.D. and Muriel Rukeyser (among other Modernist feminists) and covering second-wave and third-wave feminist poets. Response from students on both of these classes was good, and I hope to be able to teach them again soon.

I also led another successful Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium and Short Residency classs for our MFA program. This was the symposium’s 30th year and my 25th (as participant; 11th as director). It was great to bring Steve Yarbrough to campus again after several years and to work with many new and returning writers. Discussing their works with our students in the days leading up to the symposium adds a lot to the experience. Making connections with Southern writers and introducing our students to them is one way I combine the two sides of my professional life — teaching and writing.

All in All

2018 has been a great year in every way, and I’m looking forward to how all the things that have gotten started this year will play out in 2019.

Why I Love Editing a Lit Mag

Poetry_South_2018_frontcoverThere are a lot of good reasons to love editing a literary magazine: for one, you feel like you’re doing something for writers and readers by providing an outlet for talent and curating content for the public. That is certainly true about Poetry South, the magazine I am fortunate enough to edit with a small staff of students and alumni of our low-residency MFA program. And it is true of Ponder Review, the multi-genre magazine our program started to reflect the kinds of writing that we practice in our classes. But my reason for loving my role as editor of Poetry South is more selfish.

As editor, I have the enviable (and unenviable) job as final arbiter of whose poems are in and whose are out of the magazine. I read every submission, but I also have a staff who reads and votes, and often we disagree — not vehemently, but our votes aren’t all identical. Naturally, there are practical considerations of length and our page format that sometimes dictate whether a poem will fit our pages or whether we have room for another poem. There’s a balancing act to try to put together the best issue that we can from the submissions we receive, and I know there have been times when we’ve sent back very good poems.

Sometimes a reader has read too many poems when she or he gets to a poem that may be quite good, but because of everything that came before, her or his vision is clouded. That’s where the process helps. We try to have at least 2 and often 3 pairs of eyes on every poem. It’s not a democracy, though. Ultimately, a decision has to be made, and that’s what I love — not the power of making the decision, but the responsibility.

An assistant editor may have loved a poem that I passed over on an initial read. Maybe two other readers liked it, and I didn’t. This challenges me to reread and rethink the decision. Or the opposite may occur, where I loved a poem (or liked it — maybe in a generous moment) and it got voted down by one or two other readers. In either case, I end up reading the poem two or three times, and I have to justify my final decision.

Yes, I change my mind, swayed both for and against poems that I voted for or against in my initial read. Often you notice things the second time around that you didn’t notice initially — reading for a magazine is an imperfect art. I learn as much when my mind isn’t changed as when it is.

To make these decisions is to constantly reevaluate and challenge myself about what I think about poetry. Yes, sometimes a theme or a voice develops for an issue and that’s why you make the decisions you do, but often what you learn is more about what you value in a poem. I’ve learned, for instance, that I like a poem with a good narrative, but that I want a poem with more than a narrative: it has to have rich sounds and be said in such a way that I can’t imagine another way to say it. I like a poem that challenges my sense of form and structure, but I want that poem to also have something to say. And I’ve learned that I can’t second guess what I like because just when I do, a poem will come along that challenges all of those preconceptions and still manages to amaze.

I love editing a literary magazine because I get to read so much poetry — not just the poetry that we decide to publish, but also those poems we decide to send back. And I learn from it all. Perhaps more than anything, I learn just how many different poets are out there, and how many different kinds of poetry they write, and how much passion each brings to their art. And I can’t help hoping they’ll all get published. If our little magazine isn’t the right fit for them this time, I suspect they’ll find the right place at the right time soon enough.

But for those we do publish, when I start compiling contributors notes and find out who the poets are — we tend to read fairly blind — I love seeing that we publish some poets with multiple books and many magazine publications to their name, and that we also publish poets for their first or second time. It’s nice to know we have a good mix of experience, age, background, etc., and that it all comes together between two covers to form a cohesive whole. Within those pages, we introduce these disparate voices to one another, and we hope we create something new and valuable in the process.

2 New Favorite Poetry Journals

This year, I’ve been happy to discover two new poetry journals. One is a journal that has accepted some of my poems, and the other is one I doubt I’ll submit to, but adds diversity to my reading.

Postcard Poems and Prose

This is a magazine that recently published three of my poems. Each week they publish one poem with an image. Usually, the image is created specifically for the poem from a photograph or art that the editors then modify. Sometimes the writer provides the image. The poem is printed on the image or if it’s too long, as is the case with short prose pieces, then the title may be on the image and the poem or prose printed on the website, alongside the image or images. Especially when printed together, the text and image form a new work of art.

I’ve enjoyed seeing what images the editors chose for the three short poems I sent them, and I’ve been pleased with the way they manipulated the image to combine it with my text. Adding color to the text sometimes helps to tie the two together. Author bios and pictures — headshot and personal photographs — complete the experience.

Poetry Journal In Print. Bao Giay

This is a journal in Vietnamese and English. The Vietnamese poems are all translated, and though the translations are sometimes a little stiff, they provide a glimpse into another poetry tradition: Vietnamese New Formalism. Each issue also includes an essay on Vietnamese poetry, followed by some English-language poetry translated into Vietnamese. Naturally, I can’t speak to the quality of the Vietnamese original poetry or translations.

Poetry Journal in Print is available as a PDF file by email. This journal magically appeared in my inbox, and I almost deleted it as spam. But I was glad when I opened the attached file to find a legitimate journal with quality poems by poets I never would have heard of otherwise. The journal is published every 3 months, and now it is also available in Issuu.