Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

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.

This Christmas, Buy Poetry

I usually don’t like to hawk my own books, but with the Christmas shopping season in full swing, it seems like a good time to promote books in general (for mine, see below). And what better kind of book to buy than a good book of poetry?

They say good things come in small packages: you get a lot of good things in a collection of poems. And because each poem is usually a page or two long, readers can digest a book of poems a few at a time. A poetry book is perfect for commuters or travelers or anyone with a busy schedule or who needs something to read after they put their phone, tablet, or computer away before they go to sleep (more and more studies say you should do this, so you need good books to make the transition). Poetry books generally aren’t as expensive as novels or short story collections, so you can give two or three — or you can add a book of poems to make an ordinary gift like a  scarf or sweater seem extraordinary.

Now, I know some people’s reaction will be that no one reads poetry or no one understands it, but that doesn’t have to be the case. First, if everyone bought a book of poetry for Christmas, then much more poetry would be read! (Okay, I know, that’s wishful thinking…) But not all poetry is opaque and impossible to understand. Some is, and some people love that, but many poets also write perfectly accessible poems that engage with current events or universal issues anyone can relate to. You just have to look around and find the book that will speak to the person on your gift list (or put some poetry on your own wish list, so someone might get it for you).

How to find good poetry?

Over at Poetry Southwe’ve started a book list of new and notable books, mostly by Southern poets. You can also read many of our issues online to find poets who might be of interest, or you could order a gift subscription for Issue 9, which will be out in time for Christmas. You can also click on the title to go to our LibraryThing bookshelf of poetry. Goodreads recently released their reader’s poll of top poetry in 2017. Small Press Distribution listed their best-selling poetry titles in November, and Entropy Magazine came out with their list. And browsing in a good bookstore can give you ideas.

If you’re still looking for suggestions, here is what I have available:

9781680030655 For the art lover, the environmentalist, or anyone interested in the Mississippi Gulf Coast or mental illness, Barrier Island Suitechronicles the life of painter and potter Walter Inglis Anderson of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. As a young man, he studied art, then suffered mental breakdowns (possibly as a result of malaria or undulant fever) and was institutionalized. Later he would become a successful yet reclusive artist, working at the family pottery and sailing out to the barrier island for weeks at a time to draw and paint. The poems in this collection are inspired by his Horn Island Logs as well as the biographies Fortune’s Favorite Child and Approaching the Magic Hour.

dunkelberg front cover smThe poems in Time Capsules are more autobiographical, though some poems or details are invented. Poems set in the present deal with marriage, family, setting down roots, and growing accustomed to Mississippi. Poems of the past deal with growing up in small-town Iowa in the 60s and 70s. Themes of travel and nature run through all of my poetry and are prevalent in Time Capsules as well. Trees, birds, and wildflowers are recurring symbols. The book’s four sections are loosely organized around the cycle of the seasons, beginning in winter with “The Land of the Dead” and ending in late fall with “Requiem.”

L&Acover

My first collection, Landscapes and Architectures is out of print, but I do have some copies available. Contact me if you’d like one or if you’d like a complete set of my three books! Landscapes and Architectures deals with the displacement of youth, modern culture (including some technology that now feels dated), love, nature, and finding one’s way in the world. The landscapes and cityscapes of the midwest, where I grew up, feature prominently in early poems set in Osage, Iowa, and Galesburg and Chicago, Illinois. Later poems take place in the wide open spaces and exotic landscape around Austin, Texas.

HRNcoverFor those who are interested in translation, surrealism, or mystical poetry, my translations of the Belgian poet, Paul Snoek, in Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus may make a good stocking stuffer. This collection of three of his books from the 1960s is a small format pocket book. One of Belgium’s most prominent post-war poets writing in Flemish, Paul Snoek was active from the 1950s until his tragic death in in a single-car accident in 1981. Recently, I’ve been reworking some of my translations of his last two books and am thinking again about finding a publisher for more of his poems.

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Last but not least, for the writer on your list, you might choose to buy a book about writing poetry (and fiction, nonfiction, and drama). My textbook, A Writer’s Craft, was published this year. Though it’s geared towards an introductory creative writing class, it was also written to be accessible for individual writers who want instruction and inspiration on the basics of the four main genres of creative writing. Each chapter ends with writing exercises to provide inspiration and more are available on the companion website and on its GoodReads community.

Book Review: Stripper in Wonderland

Stripper in Wonderland: PoemsStripper in Wonderland: Poems by Harriell, Derrick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you think the cover has energy, then hold onto your hat. These poems leap off the page with vibrant language and daring subjects. Harriell is willing to take on race and sex, falling in love and becoming a parent, living the wild life and settling down. And the speakers of these poems do not always come across as the perfect heroes. Harriell gets us to question ourselves as much as we question society. No one is off the hook in these poems and no one is irredeemable. It is a bawdy, brawling, brash celebration of life.

View all my reviews

More Advice for Poets

This is a follow-up post to the one I made recently about Poetry Submissions. This week, I placed two poems in Valley Voices, and on the recommendation of editor John Zheng, I sent 3 haiku to Asahi Haikuist Network who took them for upcoming issues in October and next May.

What I learned from this (or was reminded of) is that it is good to form friendships and connections with other editors. Without John’s suggestion, I might not have found Asahi Haikuist Network, which I’m now glad to be able to read and to publish in. Haiku isn’t the main style of poetry that I write, but I suspect that reading more will inspire me to write more. I have a series of haiku that I worked on for my 4th manuscript and may continue to add to. Most were published in Poetry South when John was the editor, but these newer ones hadn’t found a home until now (and I hadn’t sent them out until now).

The other lesson I discovered about submitting poetry is to put your best poems first. That may seem obvious, but in reading submissions I am often surprised by the number of poets who don’t do that — or maybe they think they are doing it, and I just don’t like Poem 1 as much as Poem 4. You do your best and you should try to put the best poem for the magazine you’re submitting to first — the order may change depending on where you’re submitting.

Often in a submission, I treat it like a mini-collection. Most journals want 3-5 poems, so that’s less than a cycle, but there’s still probably a logic to the poems you send out together. I hope a journal might pick up more than one, but I still feel the submission is stronger if I send related poems. Now and then, though, especially for a magazine I’m not as familiar with, I will send a fairly random group of poems. Still, I want the tone to be about the same (humorous or deep, for instance). Thematically, the poems may be different, but something should connect them.

I want an editor to like the group of poems I’ve sent and even to consider accepting all of them. I know the reality is that an editor will then choose the poem or maybe 2 poems they like the best, but giving a good total impression will help sway the decision in the favor of the 1-2 poems they like best.

Having one of those poems first in the submission file is imperative. A reader may not make it past Poem 1, and if they do, their opinion of the poet will be colored by the poem they read first, so the subsequent ones may not get as close attention if Poem 1 doesn’t strike a chord. I know that’s true for me when I’m reading. It’s only human nature and is influenced by the sheer bulk of submissions any reader for a magazine is likely to encounter.

Making a decision about the oder of poems in a submission is part of taking the proper care to submit work that is polished, proofread, and carefully revised. It’s part of the process that an editor will appreciate. And if all the poems in a submission packet are of roughly equal quality (I know as the writer it can be hard to make those determinations), then each poem should build on the previous one and lead into the next. Consider your submission as a whole and not as individual pieces of paper that you’ve thrown out into the wind.

Poetry Submissions

It’s been a busy period, getting classes started, welcoming new students to our MFA program, and working on the schedule for next semester — yes as an administrator, I always have to be thinking ahead! Yet maybe the most fun part of the new academic year has been spent with poetry submissions, which I’m looking at from both sides now.

On the one hand, all summer in any spare moments I can find, I’ve been reading poetry submissions for Poetry South. This is our second issue of editing the magazine, and this time I vowed to take a more active role. With Issue 8, I let our Literary Magazine Production class take the lead in reading through the slush pile, and I weighed in more with the final decisions and with putting the magazine together. Once the class moved on to focus on our other literary magazine Ponder ReviewI took on the slush for Poetry South.

Last semester that was a trickle and was fairly manageable to do on my own, but as we put out a call for submissions and as our annual July 15 deadline loomed, I knew I would be overwhelmed, so I did call in reinforcements with 3 volunteers over the summer. We received about an additional 180 submissions. Reading them has been fun and challenging, and it has given me insights into my own submission process:

  1. I need to submit more and to more places. Editing a magazine drives home the old advice that every journal has way more submissions than they can possibly use. So you need to get your work out to many places. I still don’t like doing too many simultaneous submissions, but I have quite a few poems, so I need to keep them out there, and when a magazine has had them for awhile, I’d rather send those poems somewhere else and then withdraw from whoever accepts first.
  2. There’s a lot of pretty decent poetry out there. Some of it may be better than others, but what gets accepted often has more to do with what strikes an editor’s fancy than absolute quality. Maybe a poem works well with another poem that’s been accepted. Or maybe the editors don’t want two similar poems in the same issue. Judgements can be arbitrary and subjective (but when you’re accepted, it’s still a sure sign that your poem was the best).
  3. I will try to avoid submitting close to a deadline — I’m looking further out and trying to submit while there’s still a fair amount of time left. I know from my reading experience that the last poems in chronological order are likely to get less attention. On the other hand, I’m still looking for a few really good submissions, so it’s never too late. The bar may be higher, but a great poem will still get noticed.
  4. I will look for calls for submission in some of the same places I post them — Submittable, CRWROPPS, Duotrope, etc. I know when I do that many others will be submitting but the journals are actively seeking submissions. I also go back to some of my favorite journals and try to catch them when their submission periods are starting. I set reminders for myself if there’s a place I really want to target.
  5. I will keep submitting even if submissions keep getting returned. I know how overwhelmed journal editors are (and Poetry South is a small magazine with many fewer submissions than most). I can’t take it personally, though I will take any individualized note about a submission personally. If someone takes the time to do that, then I’m happy.

The nice thing about working with Kathleen, Xenia, and Tammie on Poetry South is that I don’t feel I have to catch everything. If I’m tired and therefore don’t pay close attention to a poem, one of them wi’ll let me know if they saw anything in it. If someone liked it, I’ll give it another look. If it didn’t speak to anyone, then we’re probably safe passing on it and letting another editor at another magazine take it. Nobody’s perfect, and if we miss a great poem, well, so be it.

Besides reading submissions, I’ve been sending poems out. I’m trying to target my submissions better (always) and trying to shoot for better placement in magazines with larger subscription bases and bigger reputations, though I’m also looking for good little magazines that maybe I haven’t heard of. I want to send to a mix of magazines so my odds of getting accepted are better, and yet the chance of getting in a top market is good.

And I wrote my publisher, Texas Review Press and sent them a book proposal for poetry collection #4, currently with the working title of Breathe and Other Poems. Let’s see if they bite…

Talking about Meter

Meter has to be one of the hardest subjects to tackle in Creative Writing, and how you handle it can make or break your students’ experience of writing poetry. Some teachers probably ignore it altogether, which seems a shame, yet others quickly get into the weeds and make poetry seem complicated and impossible to write, which is another kind of shame that’s easy to do. In my textbook, A Writer’s Craft, I try to take a middle path by introducing concepts of meter and feet, but not stressing them too much. I also try to explain why it’s so complicated, which I’d like to get into in a little more detail here.

When working on the proofs for A Writer’s Craft, the editors wondered why I didn’t give a one-word example for pyrrhic, like I had for all the other feet. About the only example I could come up with is “uh-uh”, but even that could be pronounced differently, depending on the context. A pyrrhic foot has two unstressed syllables. But it’s impossible not to stress a syllable at all, so I like to say it has two less stressed syllables. Less than what? Less stressed than the other syllables that surround it.

In performance, I might pronounce “uh-uh”  with the accent on the first “uh” or the second “uh,” or I might pronounce them the same relative to the other stressed syllables around them. Any examples I find for the pyrrhic foot (or dibrach) can be viewed the same way, and most examples of the spondee (with two stressed syllables) are suspect: viewed in isolation, we probably stress one syllable of a pair more than the other, but in a sentence when surrounded by other unstressed syllables, the spondee stands out. (The word is a pretty good example of the foot, but whether you say SPONdee or sponDEE or SPONDEE may depend on your preference and the words in the sentence around it.) With no words around it, our example, “uh-uh,” might sound like a spondee (“UH-UH”), an iamb (“uh-UH”), a trochee (“UH-uh”), or a pyrrhic foot (“uh-uh”). The way you pronounce it may also affect the meaning. So I chose to leave the example blank.

Disclaimer: all of my examples of metrical feet in the textbook are a little misleading because they are words. Typically, when scanning a line of poetry, the feet in the line and the words in the line don’t match up. A word may have parts of a couple of feet in it, or a foot may be made up of more than one word. Often the foot starts in one word and ends in the next, and the next foot starts in that same word. Some polysyllabic words may even have parts of more than two feet in them.

Looking words up in the dictionary is only a partial help. The dictionary usually marks the strongest stress in the word, but when scanning poetry, relative stress is also taken into account, and sometimes there is a syllable in a polysyllabic word that has more stress than most syllables, even if it isn’t the most-stressed syllable in the word. “Polysyllabic” is a good example, since I would stress the first and the fourth syllables, though I would probably stress the fourth slightly more than the first. Syllables two, three, and five definitely have the least stress.

When looking for examples of metrical feet, I came across an example of a scanned poem by James Merrill that illustrates my point of how difficult and subjective it can be to  scan a poem. The example is at the OWL at Purdue, which I respect, so I don’t raise it to criticize them but to consider the challenges of scansion. For now, I’ll ignore the fact that the example poem, “A Downward Look,” is in free verse, so scanning it may be anathema. Their attempt, though often good, raises some issues. For instance, in the third line of the poem, they scan the word “luxurious” as having 4 syllables, which is true, but in performance it often sounds like 3 with the accent on the middle syllable. In the scanned line, OWL seems to end the line with an anapest (they don’t mark the divisions between feet, so it’s a little hard to tell). I’d probably call it an iamb with “ious” sounding more like “yus” than “ee-ous” and ending on the stressed syllable “bath.” The full line, scans well either way: “Foam on a long, luxurious bath” with one trochee and then 3 iambs or 2 iambs and an anapest, depending on your pronunciation. Both the trochee and the anapest would be acceptable variant feet in a mostly iambic line.

Another bothersome line is the first line of the third couplet, “Over protuberances fault,” which OWL scans as having only 3 stresses: “OVer proTUBerances FAULT.” The dictionary would agree that the most stressed syllable in “protuberance” is the second, yet it also notes a secondary stress on the last syllable. Scanning, “erances” as three unstressed syllables is problematic, since that’s rare. You could say this line contains a trochee “OVer” followed by an amphibrach “proTUBer” followed by an anapest “-ances FAULT.” But that would be a very muddy rhythm indeed, with no clear pattern and completely different from the rest of the poem. More likely is that the line falls into iambs after an initial trochee “OVer | proTUB | erANC| es FAULT.” The stresses aren’t all even, but they are all more stressed than the surrounding syllables. [This paragraph has been edited in response to Keir Fabian’s comment below.]

There aren’t always hard and fast rules for scansion, in other words. You need to listen to the pattern of stress in the line, not only think about the stress in the words. And ideally, you begin to recognize a pattern of stress in the lines and stanzas of the poem, which will help you decide how to hear the dominant rhythms and variant feet.

In this example, I would also hear two stresses in the word “radiates” of the fifth stanza, which makes that line a regular iambic line. And in the last line of the example “Happens upon the plug,” I would scan it as a trochee followed by two iambs, stressing the second syllable of “upon,” rather than the first as OWL does it. The dominate rhythm of the poem seems to be iambic, and there are a few alternate feet for variety or for effect. Usually there is only one alternate foot in a line or the difference isn’t very noticeable, such as an anapest in a mostly iambic line (which only adds an unstressed syllable).

What makes it a free verse poem, rather than a metrical poem, is that the line lengths vary  from three to five feet (trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter lines) and there isn’t a consistent pattern. The fourth stanza is even one line, whereas the rest are couplets.

It may not make sense to scan a free verse poem, but doing so can illustrate that rhythm is important, even if there isn’t a meter. Free verse has patterns of rhythm, though they can be looser and less regular.

Introducing meter as something to listen for and learn about is worthwhile in the introductory classroom, but it’s important to stress that rhythm often varies by performance and virtually no poem in meter holds slavishly to the dominant foot. Most will include variant feet for variety or to better show the emotion in the line. This is one reason I introduce rhythm in an early chapter on language, and then look at meter again later when talking about poetry.

Scanning poetry is complicated and frustrating, but it can also be a good group activity where everyone can laugh at their own attempts to figure it out. I’ve had students clap, tap their desks, or even bring in percussion instruments to break the ice and help them recognize the more stressed syllables in a line. Make it a game, and acknowledge that there’s rarely one perfectly right answer. Even the experts can get it wrong, and poets rarely scan their poems — they listen. Develop an ear for meter, and you can ignore all the Greek terms and diacritical marks, and just enjoy the rhythms of language.