Tuesday, January 29, 2008

How Do You Lit Mag?

For many years I tried to read each lit mag that I saw from cover to cover, forcing myself to read each piece all the way through. As you can imagine this quickly grew into a gargantuan task as I began to learn just how many lit mags there are out there, and now with the advent of online lit mags, there are even more.

Each semester I take my back copies of lit mags to my creative writing students and distribute them. My students read from various journals and comment on them for class. I find that this really helps expose my students to current writers, although I caution them about trends & etc. Recently, I amended my directions so that I ask students to start each piece. If it is a poem, they should read the first line; if a story, the first paragraph; and so on. If something grabs them, they are to read it through. This highlights the importance of first words, which is a lesson I am always learning myself.

I changed my directions because I realized that I have changed my way of reading lit mags. As I've become more and more familiar with my contemporaries there are more and more names I recognize as people I like to read. I scan the table of contents first and then jump to those pieces. Finishing with the familiar, I find myself drawn to the front and back matter, looking at announcements, ads, guidelines, etc. and especially the contributors' notes. Being competitive by nature, I'm always checking to see how I measure up. The bios also provide great research into other lit mags for possible publication. Finally, I return to the bulk of the magazine and start plowing through. At this point, I revert to first lines. I no longer feel any pangs of guilt when I stop reading and turn the page before I've finished an entire poem.

I do recognize that this is how others might read me as well, and I'm cool with that. If I don't get the reader hooked right away, then that poem and that reader weren't meant to be. I can only hope that a handful of folks will linger there and read to the end. On my side, I think, is the fact that I write relatively short, lyric poems. I hope that they pack a big punch and that the compression works in my favor. I hope the images linger long after the page is turned and that the reader is drawn back for a second read, as I am drawn to dog ear certain pages in each journal and return to them again and again.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

AWP Bon Voyage

For all those fortunate enough to be traveling next week to AWP, have a safe journey. I knew long before the conference sold out that I wouldn't be attending, but I'm still a little sad not to be going. The mad rush of the thing always exhausts and invigorates me at the same paradox. I have definite plans for Chicago in 2009 (Go Cubs!).

If you are in New York and go to the AWP Bookfair, try to find the Anhinga table and say hey to Rick and Lynne and the rest of the great people there (or even buy one of their great books).

Monday, January 21, 2008

Time After Time

Where did the extra day of the long weekend go? I've been experiencing the slightly anxious feeling of trying to balance the demands of a new semester with a different schedule with all of my goals for my writing life, not to mention having a life with my husband. I'm still working out the kinks.

In the new issue of The Writer's Chronicle, there is an interview with married writers Elizabeth Spires and Madison Smartt Bell. At one point they are discussing their different processes/schedules and Spires says, "I have a problem when my concentration gets punctured. I really just like the morning to be a blank slate. I wake up when Celia [their daughter] is ready to go to school, and we have breakfast, but I don't even want to have a conversation about the demands of the day, what we need at the grocery store, etc. I don't want to have anything like that happen until midday." Sigh. In the summers my days approximate this blank slate, and it is such a luxury. I fear I may begin counting the days for summer break before the semester has even really begun.

In the interview, the writers also discuss the difference between writing poetry and fiction. Spires says, "A poet has to start ex nihilo with every poem." She's making the point that prose writers get to come to the desk with a piece already going, for most of the time; whereas, for poets we begin fresh time after time with each poem. Having made an attempt at writing several stories, I do think there is a difference in the energy level there.

Another time question has been pestering me lately as well. When I do manage to find my 2-4 hours of writing time, I have to make a conscious choice about what I do with the time. Do I read a bit and try to start drafting something new? Do I work on one of the handful of newish poems I have going? (I can't usually handle having more than 3 or 4 different works in progress.) Do I manage my submissions, recording rejections, preparing new submissions, etc? Do I read the latest issues of The Writer's Chronicle, Poets & Writers, or any number of lit mags? Do I prepare yet another application for a summer residency? Do I blog? Being a writer whose goal is publication and reaching an audience means much more than being at the desk writing; the business side of things can eat through what little time I have without my even noticing it.

In the midst of this struggle for time, I do recognize that I am blessed with an extremely supportive husband, the financial security of a job I actually enjoy, and a community of friends to offer encouragement along the way.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Days of Daze

Well, the first week of school was a rush of activity and exhaustion. Watch for a lengthier post over the long weekend; however, I now anticipate being limited to posting once a week.

I'm happy to report that 3 days of 5 I was able to come home and get directly to the writing. Also, I'm delighted to say that I have a fantastic group of creative writing students this semester. They are inspiring in so many ways. One of the benefits of teaching at a community college is the eclectic mix of students. Today, our discussion covered, among other things, excerpts from Herman Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund and Omar Tyree's Flyy Girl.

What a ride!

Saturday, January 12, 2008


The new issue of Redivider is out with two of my poems. You can read one online here.


Yesterday, I came home from work at 1:30. As soon as I had eaten lunch, I went to my desk and removed any papers/files/bills/etc. that didn't have to do with writing new work. With the decks cleared, I sat down ready to work. I managed two and a half hours and a new draft of a poem. Yay!

This reminded me of another time in my life, when I used this "come home and disregard everything else but the task at hand" kind of technique. Being the overachiever that I am, when I went to college, I didn't just gain the freshman 15, I went for the senior 40. So, the year after graduating, every day when I came home from work I would drop my bags, change into workout clothes, and get to work on a step aerobics tape that I liked. After about 6 months of this, I was pretty consistent with coming home and working out 4-5 times a week. However, any time that I got distracted/diverted from working out the moment I walked in the door, I inevitably skipped that day's workout.

So, I'm going to practice this next week. Whenever I get home, I will dump everything else on the floor and just focus on my writing life for however long I can manage.


I have a quote taped by my desk. It is from an article written by a man named William Corbett in April of 2004. It says: "The T'ang Dynasty's Li Po folded his poems into little boats and sent them sailing away on the river near his home." I've come across this detail in several other places; however, I have never corroborated it in an academic source. It probably doesn't matter if it is "true" or not. The emotional truth of it is what I want to remember. In all practicality, Li Po must have kept copies of his poems, because we still read them today. I wonder if he was brave enough to send the one and only draft of a poem down the truly let it go without a known audience.

This reminds me of a former student who wrote poetic letters to strangers and left them in random library books.

We all have a need to connect, to send our work out into the world, and I feel the need to remind myself to focus on the sending out rather than on the desire for feedback, which is what publication is largely about for me. Perhaps the rejections will be easier to take, knowing the poem sailed at least as far as the editor's eyes.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Sidebar: God Grew Tired of Us

As my introduction states, I created this blog as a place to post my thoughts on writing and poetry; however, today I am compelled to make a side journey.

If you watch only one documentary this year, please watch God Grew Tired of Us. Perhaps you have already seen it, as it came out in 2006 and I am behind the times. The film follows the stories of three "Lost Boys of Sudan," whose lives were disrupted as very small children in the early 80's, as they seek refuge in Ethiopia, Kenya, and finally, America. The clash of cultures is illuminating to say the least. These men came from a level of poverty and loss I struggle to even imagine, and yet their capacity for love and compassion seems greater than any I can hope to achieve. While I know their culture is as flawed as any, I hope we can all learn something about the real meaning of community, no the real meaning of family, from their stories.

Sadly, as I watched, I could only think of the new "lost children" of the crisis in Darfur. I am resolved to find some tangible way to help someone in need this year and some tangible way to create change for my community.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

What I'm Rereading: Forth a Raven

I picked up Christina Davis' book of poems Forth a Raven when I was at AWP last March and have been reading and rereading it ever since. It is a quick read, filled with short intensely spare poems. The themes revolve around what makes us human and therefore how we approach our own mortality. While the poems are filled with the first person and clearly emerge from personal experiences, there is little self-narrative thread here, and the poems expand outward to include the reader.

Both Susan Mitchell and Tom Sleigh compare Davis to Emily Dickinson on the back cover copy, and both the sparseness of the poems and the electric images warrant that comparison. However, I would say that I see Walt Whitman here as well. In the poem "In Search of a Jury," the speaker says, "Am I not many and sweet / as the bushes, doesn't the gnat enjoy me // in plenty of places?" In these poems I see an attempt to include the multitudes of all things living, animal, vegetable, human, etc.

My favorite thing about these poems is Davis' use of questions. Nothing is certain. Everything is being probed and explored. In the title poem, Davis writes, "Every question // I have ever asked could be ground down to // Do you love me? Will I die?" What is more basically human than this, the need to be loved and therefore remembered? Sometimes I forget that it is good to admit the questions rather than trying to pull off a wisdom not yet earned.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

I'd Rather Write Than...

My mom called tonight to report in on the Iowa Caucuses. I have to say that I'm proud of my people tonight. By all accounts there were record numbers of people participating, many for the first time.

After we finished with the candidates my mom said, "Did you go shopping today?" I didn't have any idea what she was talking about. Then, she reminded me that the last time we talked I told her I planned to go and buy a new oven today . (Ours conked out the day after the big Thanksgiving meal...whew!) I had completely forgotten my plan. Instead, I spent the day doing a bit of school work, but mostly reading, reading, reading, and jotting new lines.

I have one more day of "vacation" and a weekend. Then, I report back to school on Monday. The students arrive the following Monday, and we're off to the races. This is the perfect time to be making home improvements and taking care of the household business.

Nevertheless, I'd rather write than...