Friday, April 29, 2011

Feeling in Forms

The Columbia History of American Poetry
A good book for
learning about the
evolution of
American verse.
The past century or so saw the rise of free verse and, if not the decline of Formalism, a definite rethinking of it (especially in the US). Formalism, in short, is the practice of writing in form, established patterns of poetry such as the sonnet or haiku (read more here). Because of its reliance on tradition, formal poetry turns off hard-core free verse poets who find form too constrictive or perhaps prefabricated. Whatever! That’s a subject for another post, or many. I’m not going to debate the merits of either form or free verse now, as if one had to take sides. Most poets write in both, as I often do. Beginning poets, however, usually don’t know much about forms, or how New Formalists or Neo-formalists (same thing!) use them. Apart from the sonnet and haiku, and maybe a villanelle like Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” most students are not acquainted with the many, many forms that exist, or the pleasures of writing them.

The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics
A must-have for
anyone who wants
to write in form.
There are many joys to writing in form. First, a pre-established form can guide a poetic composition from chaos into order. I find writing free verse often more difficult. Free verse is not, as some beginners assume, the same as “anything goes.” A good free-verse poem is one that finds its own form, and sometimes that just doesn’t happen (that’s another post, too). However, if, during the process of composition or maybe during revision, the poem starts to take a recognizable shape—it starts to look like a sonnet, or you find yourself repeating a line as you would in a villanelle—following a form can be a “key” to developing the poem’s fullest potential. Writing in form has a great element of surprise. To follow the form, you stretch the work in a direction you might have not thought of had you been writing in free verse. The search for the repeated line, for the rhyme, for the appropriate word can yield delicious gems. Moreover, you are connecting with a rich tradition, speaking to other poems written in whatever form you attempt. You’re not just echoing them—sometimes you’re harmonizing, or fighting. A form becomes a form because enough poets and readers found it fulfilling, and to write in form is to partake of that fulfillment. Form is the LBD of poetry.

A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women
A great starter for
reading contemporary
formal verse.
New Formalists don’t just “fill in the blanks,” not that those who wrote before did, either. To think of poetic forms in the strictest definition of the word form—some kind of dress pattern or W2—is too basic an understanding of the concept. The masterful use of form is that which innovates. Think of what Madonna did for underwear. She didn’t invent the bra—she just thought it would be cool to use it as outerwear. Let’s use Denise Duhamel as an example again and see if she comes back to leave another comment. She was sitting in a plane when she felt the need to write a sestina. In a sestina, you use six repeating words at the end of the lines in a specific pattern instead of a rhyme scheme. Because she was on a plane, Duhamel didn’t have that specific pattern handy. So she innovated. She decided that, instead of six repeating words, she would end every line with kind of the same word—a variant of Penn, as in Sean Penn, to whom the sestina is written. The result, “Delta Flight 659,” is an amazing “mock” sestina, amusing, quirky, and fresh. That’s just one example of the kind of innovating you can do with existing forms. You can use the suggested rhyme scheme, or abandon it, you can follow conventions of meter, or not. It’s pretty much up to you.

Funko Yoda Bobble - HeadThere are pitfalls to writing in form, of course. Many forms involve the use of rhyme, and you can get lazy and do a lot of trues and blues, fires and desires. That’s not the form’s fault, however, that’s you. Don’t reach for the easiest or most predictable rhymes. Experiment with assonance, or off-rhymes. Rhyme true and moon and oops. First and flask. Also, don’t contort your syntax to make a rhyme. If you would normally say “I rue the day we met,” don’t write “The day we met I rue” just so you can later rhyme it with “yet now I find myself saying I do.” Don’t sound like Yoda.

The most dangerous pitfall of all is complacency. You’re writing in form, following all the rules, maybe even innovating a little. It may look like a poem, but it may not be a good poem. Don’t forget the content! A great rhyme scheme and a musical meter can be deceptive to the ear. You’re so happy Dr. Seussing yourself all over the place you don’t realize you’re writing clichés, or abstractions, or just sheer nonsense. A good formal poem is one in which the form complements the content, not carries it.

So—which form should you try?

As many as possible! Here are a few of my favorites, as well as some ideas on which to try given the skill you want to develop. Note that all are linked to, where you can read about the form and see examples.

Haiku & Tanka

You may be familiar with the haiku, the seventeen-syllable poem in which condensed natural imagery conveys a short, condensed message. The traditional form for haiku calls for three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. A similar form is the tanka. Try either of these if you tend to be long-winded or wordy in your poetry. The joy of these super-tight forms is that they force you to excise every possible extraneous word and idea from your poetry. It’s kind of like packing for a weekend trip where you can only take a carry-on bag. Really forces you to pare down your wardrobe to the absolute best. The emphasis on imagery is also a lifesaver if you tend to overexplain your poems. You know who you are. You have a great symbol, but you can’t help but tell us what it means. There’s no room for explanations in 17 syllables. It helps you learn to trust your symbolism. A good exercise I give my students sometimes is to take a famous story—like Romeo and Juliet, and rewrite it as a haiku or tanka, but without losing its essence. If you like Twitter, these may be the forms for you.

The Sonnet

Oh how we love them. Let’s not count the ways. Somewhat like the haiku and tanka, this fourteen-line poem can help you to pare your words down to the most essential. It’s not an overnight bag; it’s more like those wheeled suitcases flight attendants use. You have more room to expand, but not so much that you feel okay with taking the “darker” pair of jeans you know you don’t really need. Moreover, although there are many different kinds of sonnets (Shakespearean, Petrarchan, etc.), most involve the concept of a volta, or a thematic turn, between the octave (first eight lines) and the sestet (last six lines). This convention, along with the limited space of fourteen lines, can help you end a poem gracefully. If you’re having trouble ending a poem, try turning it into a sonnet.

The Pantoum & Villanelle

If you have an idea and don’t know where to take it, or if you have only one or two great lines or just one stanza, try a pantoum or villanelle. These forms are based on repetition, and can be quite challenging. The pantoum, in particular, is tough to write. Two lines from each stanza are repeated in the next stanza, so that each four-line stanza has only two new lines. It’s sort of like a braid, and the challenge lies in keeping it going, in taking the repeated lines in a new direction. Most modern pantoums do not meticulously repeat the lines word for word, but tweak the repeated line a little to keep it fresh. Let’s use Duhamel again! Here are the two opening stanzas to her “Lawless Pantoum”:

Men are legally allowed to have sex with animals,
as long as the animals are female.
Having sexual relations with a male animal
is taboo and punishable by death.

As long as the fish are female
saleswomen in tropical fish stores are allowed to go topless.
Adultery is punishable by death
as long as the betrayed woman uses her bare hands to kill her husband.

Notice how in the first line of the second stanza, which is originally the second line of the first stanza, she changes “animals” to “fish,” and only keeps the phrase “punishable by death” in the next repeated line. Not only do these small changes help her syntactically, but also the small variation serves to drive the poem on into absurdity. The poem explores the fantastic, bizarre world of sexual taboos, and, with each repetition/new juxtaposition, goes further into hilarity. It’s a great marriage of content and form.

The villanelle is slightly less repetitive, but still challenging. The first and third lines of the opening tercet (or three-line stanza) repeat, alternating, as the last line of the following four tercets, and come together at the end of a closing quatrain (four-line stanza). To make matters even more interesting, the traditional form calls for rhyming as well.

The trick to a good villanelle—as to any repeating form—is to make sure that every time a line is repeated, we see it in a new way. It’s a great exercise in versatility. Any repeating form will help you stretch your use of language. I forget where, but somewhere I read that Sylvia Plath used to write villanelles obsessively, as exercises. It shows in all her poems, formal as well as free verse. There is never an “extra” word, image, or idea in a Sylvia Plath poem. Every line is tight, and every word and image fresh and surprising.

The Sestina

If you like the idea of writing in form but you don’t want to rhyme, a sestina offers a great alternative. Instead of rhyming, a sestina repeats six end words in a particular pattern. The challenge of the sestina is to find a way to land on the scheduled word in a fresh, interesting way each time. To do this, poets often use the repeated word in a new way or as a different part of speech. A successful sestina begins with choosing the right six words (duh). They should not only be thematic cornerstones, but interesting words, good verbs or nouns like slice and rock. You can slice a pizza (verb) or eat a slice of pizza (noun). You can find a rock, go to a rock concert, or rock out to a rockin’ good song. If you pick a dud like is or great, the sestina won’t be very good.  A good way to approach choosing the words is to freewrite for a little while. See where the topic leads you, and then pick words not that you repeat, but rather that stand out as particularly apt or striking. Those are the words that will take you somewhere new and exciting when you shape them into a sestina.

The Prose Poem

These freak me out. A prose poem blurs the boundary between prose and poetry. There’s only one “rule”: no lines. How is it a poem if it has no lines? That’s the big question, isn’t it? It’s a great question, and attempting to write one of these will force you to reconsider how you define poetry. If you rely on lineation too much to “poeticize” your writing, you need to experiment with the prose poem.

One final word: Put the poem first. Now that we’re free to write in form if we want to, or write in free verse if we want to, there’s no reason for you to mangle a poem to fit into a form, or vice versa. If the attempt to write in form is inhibiting your poem rather than electrifying it, change it or abandon it. No one is going to shoot you if you add a fifteenth line to your sonnet. It’s your sonnet. Call it a baker’s sonnet. Dedicate it to Sean Penn. Writing in form is all about versatility, about stretching and bending. Poets are word acrobats. There may be a form you come to think of as your favorite, but trying different ones will keep you agile.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Ekphrasis: Exercises in Ecstasy

I’m not the biggest fan of “poetry prompts,” little exercises meant to stretch your poetic muscles, such as writing down random words and making a poem out of them on an equally random topic. Some people respond to these really well, and some people just don’t, and I’m one of the latter (it might have something to do with my overall allergy to exercise of any sort). Occasionally, a prompt will move me to write something funky I would not have thought of before, but more often my attempts at writing from prompts only result in contrived lines that show the prompt from a mile away. For this reason, I don’t often use them, but I am very intrigued by them, and there have been many great prompts collected this month. Some of my favorites this year are at Kelly Russell Agodon’s Book of Kells and Big Tent Poetry.

Museum Mediations: Reframing Ekphrasis in Contemporary American Poetry (Literary Criticism and Cultural Theory)Ekphrasis is not really a “prompt,” but it’s a tradition that can work as such. From the Greek ek and phrasis, out and speak, “ekphrasis” basically refers to any type of art based on another medium. (For a more complete definition, including an excellent bibliography, read here.) Ekphrastic poetry, then, is poetry that is based on other works of art, such as a painting, a sculpture, or a song. What I love about ekphrasis is that, unlike a random prompt not based on an existing work of art, ekphrasis can help you connect to another artist’s vision, and is thus by definition an act of inspiration, a mooching, if you will, off another artist’s creation. If you’ve ever stood transfixed in front of a painting or a statue, you have experienced the moment that can begin an ekphrastic creation, a kind of ecstasy, also from the Greek ek (out) and histanai (to stand, as in place or set). The work of art takes you outside yourself to a new place.

Perhaps one of the most famous works of ekphrasis is Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the static figures on the ancient piece of art inspire him to contemplate the timelessness of beauty:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearièd,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;

One of the best results of the ekphrastic effort is that it’s an excellent antidote to abstraction, the vilest enemy of good poetry. Moved, as Keats was, by the passage of time, the figures on the urn ground his feelings in the material and produce one of the most treasured English poems of all time.

J. P. Dancing Bear, who writes beautiful ekphrastic poems (see his “New Age,” based on the painting Promise by Yu Sugawara), puts it thus: “I tend to get inside the picture and look around. Sometimes I see things outside the frame and I'm not afraid to explore that. After a while, I either become one of the beings in the painting or I become an observer (first person, second person, third person). I note all phrases that come into my mind. Words too. Then I begin to construct the narrative of the painting. I pay little attention to titles, I care very little for what the artist says about the work, or the artist's techniques. The artist has provided a window, and I climb through it.”

Thanks to the Internet, climbing through windows has never been so easy. Right here and now, on whichever device you are using to read this blog, you can contemplate at length and absolutely free the greatest works of art humanity has produced from ancient times to the present. Of course, there is something to be lost, some aura, as Walter Benjamin would have it, in the transaction. Should you have access to a museum, a gallery, an opera houseuse it. But the trick is not so much to have that coveted access to the work of art itself, but rather the ability to find art that moves you, that jars you, that takes you outside yourself and slams you down on the other side: ek histanai.

No pictures of sunsets, no puppy portraits. Cliché images make cliché poetry.

I prefer images that freak me out a little. I’m mesmerized, for example, by this series of portraits from artist Julie Blackmon called Domestic Vacations. Note how she is able to evoke emotions and ideas simply with pictures. Try to reproduce this effect in words. Choose one of the portraits in the collection and describe the scene it depicts. Attempt to convey whatever it is you felt when looking at the portrait simply through the selection and placement of detail. Do not reveal the emotion you are attempting to convey. Avoid using abstract adjectives, like “freaky” umbrellas.

Or try focusing on a work of art that speaks to some issue that is already on your mind. For example, I’ve been thinking a lot about street harassment lately, ever since I read this excellent post by Louise Melling on the ACLU blog. Immediately I thought of the famous photograph by Ruth Orkin, “American Girl in Italy,” which I first saw some years ago in an Italian restaurant. I’m still working on it, but I think this is going to be a good poem, the mixture of the issue, the old photo, my memory of first having seen it, my own experiences of street harassment. You’re welcome to beat me to the punch, but what I want you to get from this romp through my head is the way a poem can come together. You can rely on your own experiences, your own notes, or you can research. You might think poetry and research are at odds, but the academic in me thrives on the accumulation of tidbits. An experience here, a blog post there, a famous photograph, and boom! A poem springs from the rock.

Unbound & BrandedSometimes ekphrastic inspiration springs from the unlikeliest of places. One of my favorite poetry collections is Christine Stewart-Nuñez’s Unbound & Branded (Finishing Line Press, 2006), which I reviewed for Prairie Schooner in 2008. The collection is about supermodel Kate Moss, but the poems are based on a photo spread of Moss for a 2003 issue of W magazine. Each photo in the spread inspires a poem, and the collection as a whole, as the title implies, explores Moss’s career as a vessel for other artists and advertisers. Stewart-Nuñez could have written about Moss without the W spread, but the photos are intrinsic to her exploration of Moss’s role in the creation of this phenomenon we call beauty.

Another unlikely place to find poetry is Facebook or whatever social medium you prefer. One of the good things about being a writer and a teacher is that you quickly accumulate many FBFs, only a small percentage with whom you would normally share pictures. On any given day on Facebook I see pictures of people’s trips to Italy, of their children eating ice cream at Disney World, or their own versions of themselves as supermodels posing for their friends. Unlike professional photographs, these images are raw, unmediated. They are an excellent source of stories, attitudes, and the daily dilemmas that make great poetry. Oh, and don’t worry. Not all ekphrastic poetry is so enmeshed in the original work of art that it requires disclosure. Sometimes a poem begins as ekphrasis and ends just as a poem, so far away from its source as to be virtually unrelated to it. Some ekphrastic poetrythe truest ekphrasis, one could arguecannot be fully appreciated or even understood without its source. But some can stand alone, and the reader can experience it with or without its source. Should your source be a picture of someone you barely know on Facebook, perhaps it would be best to leave the source behind as much as possible. All kidding aside, however, do be aware of copyright issues, and acknowledge them appropriately.

The Voice of the Poet : Anne SextonBe open to pretty much anything as a source for ekphrasis. One of my favorite Anne Sexton poems is “Some Foreign Letters,” in which she attempts to reconstruct the early life of her beloved great-aunt Elizabeth. The poem is so rich in images it may have well have been based on photographs, and says much about the lost art of letter-writing in that Sexton was able to so vividly picture her aunt’s life through her letters. Old letters can be difficult to work with, in that they already come to you in words, thus stealing something from the process of transmogrification that defines the essence of ekphrasis. Nevertheless, the conversation can be gratifying. Some of my favorite poems are based on other poems, like Anthony Hecht’s “The Dover Bitch,” which is based on Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Hecht’s poem is arguably parody, or satire, but ultimately ekphrasis. Call it what you willit’s freaking great.

Here’s the final trick, whatever source you riff off of: make it yours. Ekphrasis can be many things, but never imitation. The source is the point of departure, but the destination must be yours.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Advice to a Young Poet from a Not-So-Young-Anymore Poet

There’s been a rash of advice given the month. Jeannine Hall Gailey has an excellent post at her blog, with links to a few more. Here is mine. It’s not intended for poets who are mainly thinking of poetry as a hobby, although you might get something out of it if so. Mostly, I’m thinking of the YP (Young Poet) who wants morea “career.”

1.       Overcome the amateur circuit.

For some, cutting your teeth at the local open mic event is a catalyst. You wrote a few poems you were unsure anyone would like, you took a deep breath, read them to strangers, and yay! They loved them. They clapped for you. You got a high. You might get the same experience from posting your poem online somewhere, some site that has no editorial process. Anyone can post. Thousandsthousandsof people have clicked and rated your poem as wonderful. This gave you confidence, and you went on from there to pursue your poetry elsewhere.

For others, the amateur circuit of endless open mics and countless open sites is the death of their growth as a YP. You get hooked on the guaranteed praise, and you can’t give it up. You’re like that teacher’s pet at the end of kindergarten who pitched a fit because he wasn’t sure the first grade teacher would let him be the one who banged the erasers. Don’t stick around the amateur circuit too long. Get what you can from it as quickly as possible and get out, or bypass it altogether. Remember that the only place where everyone always does a good job and gets a cookie is kindergarten.

2.       Beware of sharks.

Your next logical step is seeking publication, and here is where there are millions of poetic equivalents to ambulance chasers waiting to pounce on your wallet. Beware of contests where everybody wins, or where there are many winners or too much prize money or washed-up, non-poetic celebrities involved. Investigate. Who is judging the contest, and what is his or her publishing pedigree? Is the contest affiliated with a reputable publisher or institution, such as a college or university? Fishing out a bogus contest can be very tricky. For one thing, none of them are actually illegal. There is indeed always a winner or winners, and these do get the promised prizes. But so do the people who win Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, and you don’t fall for that, do you?

Similarly, there are many publishers who are eager to publish your manuscript, for a fee. In the past, this used to be called “vanity publishing,” and carried a heavy stigma. Nobody wanted to publish your poetry but you. Who was the fool? The editor who didn’t recognize your talent, or you, who didn’t recognize your lack of it? Now, that attitude is shifting. More people refer to this practice as “self-publishing,” and many fine writers in all genres are making it work for them. But they’ll be the first to tell you that it’s hard. You have to know about as much about business as you do about poetry to make it work, to get your book into the hands of readers and critics who will look beyond the self-published label and give you credit on par with that automatically conferred on writers who are published traditionally. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something. I do not recommend self-publishing to the YP.

And no, you don’t need an agent. Most poets don’t have one, including fairly well-established poets with many publications. Only a tiny handful of poets already at the very top have agents.

Two organizations that can help you sift through the sharks are Poets & Writers and the CLMP, Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. They both keep directories of magazines, journals, publishers, and presses guaranteed to be the real thing. Frankly, however, you should not seek publication too early. It’s difficult to determine when your poetry is ready for publication, especially if you’re truly young, meaning still in high school or even earlier. You have no access to professional opinions. How far can you trust mom, the boyfriend, the BFF, or the teacher who is overjoyed by the mere fact that you wrote something that actually made sense? That’s how you wind up at an open mic, searching for that confirmation. Sometimes, you have to give it to yourself. When you can look at one of your poems side by side with one published in a book, journal, or magazine you know to be reputable and say, “by golly, that’s just as good!” you might be ready to send work out. But, in order to be able to make that judgment, you need to take another crucial step.

3.       Study.

What I mean by study is more than just reading for pleasure. You have to seek out good poetryit won’t come to you. It’s not taught enough in the schools, and you’re not going to find it on the magazine rack at the dentist’s, or even at most book stores. Go to Poets and Writers, the CLMP, to or Poetry Daily. Write down names, hunt down books and similar writers. Make a point of learning about different styles and schools, read criticism. Subscribe to a few journals. Make sure your reading list is over 75% current, living authors. Go to readings (not open mics), take a class. Ideally, go to college and major in English, but pick a school large enough to offer at least a few classes exclusively on current poetry. Many English departments are watered down to survey courses, or courses in the novel, or the Romantic poets, who are all long dead. I don’t like creative writing programs that are mostly workshops and require little literary study. Writing is both an art and a craft. You learn the craft part by practicing it in workshop, but you learn the art part by studying it in class.

Model the work of poets you admire. Don’t worry about originality, or losing your voice. That’s literally impossible. Eventually, all your mimicking will mesh and evolve into something uniquely your own. That’s how you learned to talk, remember? You listened to your parents, to the television, and suddenly you spoke, and sounded like no one but yourself.

4.       Cultivate both confidence and humility.

The whole point of overcoming the amateur circuit is to find feedback you can trust, and now that you are studying, whether on your own, through a group, or in a class, you are going to get some, maybe even in the form of a rejection from an editor. How do you process rejection?

There is no such thing as a writer who is immune to rejection. The trick is to get past the initial moment where you crumple up the slip and throw it at the wall (or print the rejection, and then crumple it up and throw it at the wall). To respond to it professionally, intellectually, critically. You must always ask yourself what the rejection or criticism means. Say you sent the poem to a journal and it got rejected. Maybe the poem sucks. That’s okay. Just because oneor ten, or twentyof your poems suck doesn’t mean all your poems suck or will suck. But that’s not the only reason why a poem might get rejected. Maybe it doesn’t fit the style of that journal, or that issue. Maybe there was already a poem about French toast they had agreed to publish. Have the confidence to believe not in your writing, but in your critical judgment, which you have struggled to cultivate. You once honestly believed the poem was good enough to send out. You are a well-educated critic. Why should someone else’s opinioneven an equally cultivated opinionchange your mind?

But you must also have humility, especially as a YP. Say you are in workshop, and someone says your poem is full of clichés. You didn’t think so. Well, who does? Has that person said intelligent things about other workshopped pieces? Have you agreed with his or her criticisms in the past? If the critic is just some schmuck who pooh-poohs everything, who cares? But if it’s someone who is a good criticnow that you’ve studied you know who is and who isn’tyou should have the humility to at least reevaluate your work. Perhaps there is something you missed. If all you will accept from others is praise, you might as well go back to kindergarten.

5.       Work for money.

This one’s tough. You need money. Duh. Don’t expect to make it writing poems. There is hardly a poet in the US (and I bet we’re not alone) who lives exclusively off book royalties. Heck, there are hardly any writers at all who do. But at least there are some, popular novelists who get their books turned into movies (when was the last time you saw a poem get turned into a movie?), or genre novelists, scriptwriters. Not poets. Go ahead, I dare you. Pick random poets off the database and see how many you can find whose bios don’t include some other job. Most are academics, professors here or there whose teaching pays the bills. They got the teaching job because of being poets, but they could not be poets without the teaching job. Some have any other job—they are lawyers, politicians, pool sharks, whatever. The more successful ones have grants and awards that pay the bills, not royalties. The even more successful ones make money giving speeches and whatnot.

So you need a job. What kind? You can be an academic. With a BA, you can teach school, or you can teach at a college or university with a graduate degree. For some, this is perfect, because the teaching feeds into the writing. For some, however, this is a bad idea. Teaching is hard work, and teaching writing or literaturethe obvious choicecan backfire. It can be sort of like taking someone who loves animals and making her work at a slaughterhouse. How excited will you be to teach poetry when the mere mention of it draws groans from a class full of students who don’t want to be there and hate poetry and writing, and, by extension, you? If this thought makes you love poetry more“I will fight to make them love it!” you thinkgo into teaching, at whatever level you prefer. But if you’re the type who gets spitting mad when you see a typo in a headline and thinks anyone who doesn’t know who Milton is should be exiled from the planet, look into that pool shark option. You want a job that will give you the money you need and, if not feed your creativity, at least not drain you of it.

People worry too much about the “should I get an MFA?” question. The value of an MFA in creative writing only comes into question comparatively, and the correct answer is always personal. Should I get an MFA, or an MBA? Should I get an MFA, or backpack through Europe? Should I get an MFA, or a husband? The answers to these questions have nothing to do with an MFA. These are personal happiness questions. Do you want money? Well, no teaching job is going to make you rich, MFA-related or otherwise. Do you want experience? An MFA will get you that, but so will backpacking nowhere and buckling down to read some good stuff on your own. I met my husband when I was getting my MFA, but I don’t know if this happens at all MFA programs.

The truth is an MFA is a fine degree. You will learn. I’ve heard some people claim that MFA programs teach everyone to write the same way. I think that has more to do with you and your propensity to be a lump of clay than it does with any program, however. But does it pay off, people ask. Sure. With an MFAand at least one book-length publicationyou can get a job at a college or university. Unlike the MA, which is really just a stop on the road to a PhD, an MFA is a terminal degree. If that is what you mean by whether it pays, the answer is yes. If what you want is some sort of comparison between an MFA and a law or medical degree, that’s pretty silly. No degree “pays,” in a sense. There is always a certain amount of luck involved in turning a piece of paper into a job, and huge discrepancies in wages not just between fields but within them. For every rich lawyer in a mansion there’s at least 100 traffic ticket lawyers living in a tiny apartment with a poet for a roommate. There are many schools now offering PhD’s in creative writing as well. These are great. You study more theory, usually, are more poet-critic than poet-writer. Get that too if you can swing it. Get it into your head that there is no such thing as useless studying.

6.       Work for poetry.

At the same time, do not allow your poetry to take a back seat to your work. Whether you choose to be an academic or an accountant, don’t forget the poetry. Know a distraction when you see one. You’re offered a great promotion, for example, but it’s one of those work-all-day-and-then-some-more-at-night-and-every-weekend promotions. Do you really need it? What will you do with the extra money? If it’s feed and clothe your five hungry, naked children, go ahead and take it, please. But if it’s get a better car, better clothes, or a bigger apartment, realize that you’re paying for it with poetry. Poets don’t drive nice cars, wear fancy clothes, or live in big apartments. That doesn’t mean you have to be a Starving Artist. It simply means you have other priorities. Most people won’t understand why you don’t have an iPhone, iPad, or iAnything. There is no iPoetry.

7.       Pursue publication diligently and meticulously.

Once you are ready to start publishing, always have something out. Don’t leave it for later, don’t wait until you have a full or a better manuscript, and don’t expect anyone else to do it for you. When the rejected stuff comes back, send it right back out again the very next week. Find a system that works and keep it. Send things out the minute they are done, once a day, week, or month. But do it regularlythis is what makes you a poet more so than any degree or even the writing itself. Get it out.

Target your publishing efforts, especially if you have your eye on your academic résumé. Don’t just send your work willy-nilly anywhere. Send to places you respect, and read. Match your poems to the target’s “voice.” Don’t just enter contests. A certain amount of these is fine for your best work, but you should also send poems and manuscripts during regular reading periods.

Keep good records. Find a way. There’s software for this, but you don’t really need it. You can devise your own system. You don’t want to send the same poem or manuscript to several places at once unless they strictly say that simultaneous submissions are okay. If they don’t say so, write, email, or call to ask. Don’t sweat the cover letter. Many places are using submission software now, and you submit your work online with hardly any space for extra comment (some have none at all). I don’t think a cover letter will make an editor look at your work any differently. What matters is the poetry. The cover letter is a business letter, not some cockamamie attempt to showcase your talent. That’s what the poetry is for. Tell them what you’re sending them in the first paragraph (just titles, not lengthy explanations), and who you are in the second: where you’re from, your last three publications if you have them, or where you’ve studied if you don’t, or nothing more if neither. Say thank you and give your contact information clearly. Anything else is unnecessary. Follow any rules they give you to the letter. If they want you to submit your work as a .txt file, don’t send them a .doc. If they want you to include a 50-word bio with your submission, don’t send them a 500-word opus.

Hmm. That seems like an odd last word, but it isn’t. At the end of the day, what YPs need is demystification. The truth about poetry is that it comes down to the mundane, as all things do. Nothing is exempt from the basics of life: work and pay the bills. Not even poetry. Perhaps a better final thought might be this: don’t romanticize the thing. If I tell you poetry is a matter of correctly formatted submissions and it makes you cringe, you might have too hard a road ahead. But if you read that and love the thing anyway, looked out the window at the cherry bush and thought, “I can turn that into a .txt file,” you might be a poet already.

Friday, April 8, 2011

How to Meet Your Muse

“I meet the muse in the poems of others and invite her to my poems. I see over and over again, in different ways, what is possible, how the perimeters of poetry are expanding and making way for new forms.”

The Shadow of Sirius
The Shadow of Sirius,
the latest book from
current US Poet Laureate
W. S. Merwin
Do you know who the current US Poet Laureate is? Of your state? (Or, if you are one of my mysterious Denmark readers, the analogous position for you?) Can you name any poets who live in your city? Most people who live near celebrities (here in Miami, we have more than a few) know about them and find it a point of pride, but poets live in relative obscurity. Yet, there’s something about knowing your local poets that’s . . . alive. There’s a reason why Plato expelled poets in The Republic. Your local poets are tapped into your hometown in a way no one else is. They know things!

As we enter the second week of National Poetry Month, take the time to find out whom your local poets are. During this month, there’s more going on than usual, and you may get the chance to attend readings and events not available later. There’s something about hearing and seeing poetry read right in front of you that’s impossible to grasp on your own. Poetry is more of a performing art than prose is—to hear the way a poet delivers a poem is always interesting. Most readings also have Q&A sessions afterward where you can actually talk to the poet, ask her or him anything you want. How cool is that? If you’re unsure where live events are taking place, has a calendar searchable by state here. You can also check your local newspaper, your local bookstore (especially independent ones), libraries, and surrounding universities. If all else fails, try Google.

Kinky (Orchises, 1997)
One of my favorite locals is Denise Duhamel. She teaches at Florida International University and lives in Hollywood (Florida, not Cali). I met her once at the Miami Book Fair. Made a complete ass of myself. Went up to her after the reading, offered her my sweaty palm, and said, “You read my favorite poem of yours!” (which is “Kinky”). Then I laughed and scuttled away before she could reply. But it was so cool to hear her read. Her poetry is very messy on the page, hard to hear without her breathy delivery. There are a few YouTube videos of her reading, but they are mostly all very bad quality, seemingly recorded by someone in the audience with some kind of unsatisfying gadget. Hearing her read made me appreciate her poems better. Since then, I’ve made her a staple of my creative writing classes. Young students like her organic meditations on pop culture, and, since most of my students are locals, they stand a good chance to catch her live at a local event.

Duhamel’s poetry is often described as “ultra-talk.” To learn more about ultra-talk poetry, you should read David Graham’s excellent article at Valparaiso Poetry Review. The way I try to make it simple for beginning students, however, is to describe it as deceptively chatty. It seems like the poet is just rambling, but that’s an illusion. Behind the chatty presentation is accumulated significant detail that culminates in a surprising, serious message. Graham also discusses the following qualities: highly discursive, or “hyperjunctive”; garrulous; self-reflexive, associative, humorous; concerned with pop culture; accessible; workaday; expository; having an “anti-leap aesthetic.”

Perhaps the best way to grasp the style is to look at one of Duhamel’s poems. Here are the opening lines from “Sex with a Famous Poet” (you can read the whole poem here):

I had sex with a famous poet last night
and when I rolled over and found myself beside him I shuddered
because I was married to someone else,
because I wasn't supposed to have been drinking,
because I was in fancy hotel room
I didn't recognize. I would have told you
right off this was a dream, but recently
a friend told me, write about a dream,
lose a reader and I didn't want to lose you

You can see how she appears to be just chatting, just thinking of these lines as they come to her, almost like she’s writing about writing instead of writing, a kind of meta-poetry. She addresses you, the reader, directly, telling you of her desire to keep you. The lines are ragged, with no meter or rhyme, and this and many of her poems have no stanza breaks. The poem continues meditating on the guilt over the dream given the fact that she is happily married, and given also that she did not particularly approve of this famous poet the one time they met:

 . . . He disgusted me
with his disparaging remarks about women.
He even used the word "Jap"
which I took as a direct insult to my husband who's Asian.

After a series of seemingly rambling memories concerning her husband’s dreams and her suspicion that we are trying to guess the identity of the famous poet, she culminates in the following:

but how much fame can an American poet
really have, let's say, compared to a rock star
or film director of equal talent? Not that much,
and the famous poet knows it, knows that he's not
truly given his due. Knows that many
of these young poets tugging on his sleeve
are only pretending to have read all his books.
But he smiles anyway, tries to be helpful.
I mean, this poet has to have some redeeming qualities, right?
For instance, he writes a mean iambic.
Otherwise, what was I doing in his arms.

Unexpectedly, the poem has taken a serious turn, even within the humorous content of dream interpretation in which she places it—this seemingly quirky “chat” is really a meditation on the state of American poetry, on her unrealistic desire to be famous despite her own disdain for the wish.

It’s a particularly satisfying kind of poetry, especially for the reader who prefers poems and poets who do not take themselves too seriously or pretend to deliver The Great Truths in their poems. Duhamel’s poetry has somewhat of the same appeal as Billy Collins’s, in that respect, minus the osso bucco and French wine trappings that can be a turnoff to the pop culture crowd. In the everyday moments, in Barbie, Snow White, and Sean Penn, Duhamel finds revealing and often poignant messages that spring from the self but speak to all of us.

It’s no wonder she’s a cult favorite. You can read more about her at, and join her fan club on Facebook, Fans of Denise Duhamel OR A Group of Duhamalites. Meantime, I have an exercise for you. Read Duhamel’s poem, “On Being Born The Same Exact Day Of The Same Exact Year As Boy George,” which you can find here.

Then, write a poem called "I Google My Birthday and Find Out _____" (you fill in the blank with whatever it is you have found out; it could be a fact about something or about yourself). Actually do this. Carefully, meticulously record your thoughts and feelings and any actions that you take (including clicking, reading, or answering the phone) while you are doing this. Focus on detail. In your poem, narrate these details as if they were happening as the poem unfolds. Use natural line breaks that emphasize where you would pause while reading. End your poem by arriving at an oblique revelation or epiphany. Take care not to abandon the "ultra-talk" mode by becoming too abstract or philosophical. Use an action, like Duhamel does by writing to Boy George at the end of her poem, to reveal this final thought.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and one of the best ways to expand your poetry repertoire. One of the great things about sampling a wide variety of styles in your reading is that it helps you grow, to try new things. As you continue your poetry quest this month, try to read as many different styles of poetry as you can. They will stay with you, and eventually help you shape your own. And don’t forget to sign up for the Big Poetry Giveaway—there’s still plenty of time to enter to win, and, who knows, maybe meet a new muse.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The 2011 Big Poetry Giveaway

Thanks to Kelli Russell Agodon at The Book of Kells, poets everywhere are giving poetry books away for free!

Yep: FREE!

In this exciting campaign, meant to promote the poetry we love during National Poetry Month, participating poets are giving away a book of their own and one of a poet they admire. All you have to do is leave a comment below by midnight, April 30, with your name and contact information (at least an email address), and I will choose two winners at the end of the month to receive the free books via random number generator. That's it! I will send the book to you absolutely free, including shipping, anywhere in the world you may be.

Here are the books I'm giving away:

Shapeshifting (Spire Press, 2006)

This is my debut collection of poetry. It won the Spire Press award in 2005, and contains poems, as the title implies, that address the shifting aspects of my identity. Poems from this collection have appeared in the Iodine Poetry Journal, Tar Wolf Review, and The Powhatan Review.

The Capable Heart by Ann E. Michael (Foothills, 2011)

I pretty much owe my poetry career to Ann E. Michael, who chose Shapeshifting as the winner of the Spire contest. Imagine my delight when I discovered her to be a hauntingly beautiful poet. Since that fateful event, I have become a Michael groupie. This latest collection is a tight exploration of female identity centered on the symbolism of horses, on their--and our--"capable hearts."

Good luck, people! I will announce the winners of the giveaway on May 1. If you would like to see other poets who are participating in this event and learn more about it, please visit Agodon's blog, The Book of Kells.
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