Thursday, February 28, 2013

Drafting by the Smell of It

38º ~ bright sun for now, some clouds expected too, a definite lengthening of the days observed both morning and evening, a comfort

Last night I remembered to remind myself that today I should draft a poem.  To many people this may seem forced; however, for me it works in the way many athletes use visualization.  If I take a moment to see myself at the desk the night before, there's a better chance I'll actually get a draft done the next morning.  My record proves it.

Again, this morning, as my mind churned through several items needing attention at school, I had to remind myself that this was writing time.  I had to turn off the teacher brain and turn on the poet brain, and, yes, this required attention on my part.  It did not happen naturally.  So be it.

You might understand, then, that I was sure nothing good would come of my hour at the desk today.  Happily, not true!  A strange thing happened in the last week.  I was invited by the wonderful poet Jehanne Dubrow to participate in an anthology of poems based on perfumes.  How cool!  The poets who agreed to participate were each sent a tiny sample of a perfume and asked to write a poem in response to that scent.  This startled and scared me, but I knew it would be good for me.

My scent arrived sometime in the last week, and I immediately smelled it but didn't do anything with it.  Last night, I tossed the letter of explanation and the tiny vial on my desk in case I needed inspiration this morning, which I did.  I began, again, by smelling the perfume.  Then, I did a little research on the title of the perfume, which is based on an English nursery rhyme.  This led me down several Wikipedia roads, including how perfumes are made, all eventually abandoned.

I sniffed the perfume again and suddenly, the scent and my recent topic of obsession, the three sisters, all snapped into focus.  I grabbed my journal and drafted out the first half of what became today's poem.  I do not know if it will be the poem I send in for the anthology, as I've got a few months before that poem is due, but I do know that I'm grateful to Jehanne for the prompt.

As many news reports tell us, smell is one of our most overlooked senses, and it is often tied to memories.  While smelling my sample didn't immediately transport me anywhere or bring up any specific memory, it did shock me out of my normal routine, and it did lead me into a poem.  I'm not sure how to translate this prompt into something that would work in the classroom or for myself later on.  I suppose one could go to a department store and randomly pick a cologne or perfume and get a sample card to take home and work on.  In a classroom, too many scents might muddy the air.  Still, it would be fun to give the students a scent and have them write a poem from their own experience or a persona poem based on who might wear this scent and what might happen.

I do know that I'll be looking forward to this anthology and seeing what other writers did with their scents.  I do know that I'll chalk today up as a 'win' for getting a draft down on paper.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Heron Tree

42º ~ all clouds and bluster after a night of rain, an evening of thunderstorms, no sun today

Amidst all the chaos of a spring semester and the life of a teaching poet, the past work of reading submissions for Heron Tree bears fruit.  Chris, Rebecca, and I spent many hours this fall reading poems and making tough decisions, and it was a weird adjustment to not be reading submissions when we made it through our stacks.  Now, however, we've begun to see the reward of that work (thanks to Rebecca's diligent site management!). 

If you haven't been following along each week, I hope you'll check us out.  This week, we have a poem by Jeff Hardin, "To a Hymn Book," and all of the poems we've published so far are available in the archives.

While we won't have a table at AWP, I'll be representing and pressing a postcard into your hand if I see you there.  If you catch me early, I may be able to have a cogent conversation; if you catch me later, I may simply say, "kyowk!" and collapse in a heap of feathers at your feet.  And so it goes.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

As the World (of a Teaching Poet) Turns

37º ~ return of the full sun after an icy/rainy couple of days, inching back toward more temperate climes

Forgive me, Reader, it's been far too long since my last post (sometimes I'm sure I should have been born a Catholic for that religion's focus on ceremony and repetition).

When last I posted, it was the morning of the 14th. Sadly, that afternoon, I learned that my Grandma Merna had passed away.  Merna Slack, my mother's mother, was my last remaining grandparent.  She lived a long life, dying peacefully at age 88, a life free from all major diseases and a death so peaceful that my mother didn't know she had passed for several minutes. We are sad, but thankful for her long life and for the wonderful caregivers she had around her at Lakeview Landing at Friendship Village.  I was lucky to be able to drive up home on Friday and spend some time with my family before returning to Arkansas on Monday.

At that point, panic kicked in.  Papers were due Monday night from two of my classes.  I had a Big Rock Reading Series event to host on Tuesday and I hadn't gotten everything prepared before leaving town.  I had taxes to file (my goal always being to get them filed before Spring Break, as the Spring semester has a way of galloping on like a runaway at that point), which my sister, the tax preparer had been kind enough to review for me while I was home.  Poems and stories were due for the beginning workshop in my creative writing class, and I'm working on writing a blurb for a friend's chapbook, due by Monday!  Oh my, did I mention that it is an 11 hour drive each way to get home, and I'm not as young as I used to be?  So, there was a bit of road-weariness as well.

Those who see me on a daily basis know that I always wear a medallion of the famous British poster, "Keep Calm and Carry On."  (I also have the poster on my board outside my office.)  It helps to remember to slow down and breathe.  Oh, and there's being thankful bombs aren't falling all around me as well.  One of these past weekday mornings, as I got into the car to hustle to school, NPR was reporting on yet more violence in Syria, this time with a death count of 52.  Another stark reminder that it's all going to be okay for me, and I'm so lucky.

As the world turned this past week, the papers did come in and, as always, I began methodically working my way through them.  The reading was a huge success, and I'm so happy that I got to spend a bit of time with friends Carolyn Guinzio and Davis McCombs.  Several folks commented on how their poetry is so different and yet complementary at the same time.  I concur.  We had about 60 folks in the audience, and about 75% of those were students.  As has proved true in the past, many were there for an assignment or for extra credit; however, by the end of the night, most were listening with great respect and attention.  (Of course, nobody's perfect, and there were those in the audience who were texting or playing solitaire on their phones...we'll get them next time.)  Davis and Carolyn both read a few poems from their existing books and then read from newer work.  What a joy to get a preview of what's coming next.  Can't wait!

The taxes got filed on a blustery/icy Wednesday afternoon. The poems and stories came pouring in on Thursday.  Oh, Thursday, at that point, I wasn't even thinking of writing a draft (for shame!).  I was derailed with stormy weather (a much anticipated ice/snow day did not pan out) and grading.  Then, Thursday afternoon, I curled up with my friend's chapbook manuscript and was swept away by his amazing poems.  Delight!

Yesterday was one of those days where I was just holding on.  By 2:00 when I got home from school, I collapsed on the bed and fell into a deep, dark sleep for an amazing two hour nap (not something I usually do!). 

Today, I've woken feeling almost back to normal, and I'm trying to ignore the fact that AWP is something like 10 days away (breathe, breathe, breathe).  As the world of a teaching poet turns, there will be papers to grade, emails to answer, the business of life to conduct, a little bit more mourning in the quiet times, and many, many poems to read.  At some point, the writing will return.  I'm sure of it.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Draft Process Notes, The End? and other news

39º ~ Sunny, sunny, sunny side up

Yes, I did draft today.  Not very happy with it.  The whole process felt forced, the lines falling in thuds rather than running smoothly.  I swear my word brain is all gunked up with something sticky and foul-smelling.

I am not sure I want to continue to post about my process for each and every draft.  I'm not sure I have anything new to add as I'm not exploring any new prompts or techniques.  The habit of writing these notes developed and coalesced in the months leading up to my work on the fever series and the two melded into one project.  Now, I'm not sure that commenting on each draft matters as much to me.  I'm waffling, reader, in case you couldn't tell.

The long and the short of it: some days drafting is hard; some days all is doubt & uncertainty.  Perhaps I will feel differently if & when a draft arrives in some more graceful fashion.


In other news, I just submitted my first course description for the new low-residency MFA program at the University of Arkansas Monticello.  The courses will all be conducted on Blackboard (an online learning system), and I think this one, in particular, will be offered to grad students and upper-division undergrads.  Regardless, I'm stoked!  If you know of anyone contemplating a low-res MFA, please pass along the link.  Deadline to apply is March 16.

Contemporary American Poetry: 1960 - Present
This course surveys the diverse range of American poets publishing from 1960 to the present.  Poets covered may include Ai, Ashbery, Clifton, Dove, Ginsberg, Glück, Hahn, Hass, Komunyakaa, Kumin, Li-Young Lee, Levertov, Levine, Lowell, Merwin, Nye, O’Hara, Olds, Plath, Rich, Roethke, Sexton, Snyder, Soto, Strand, Valentine, C.D. Wright, Charles Wright, and James Wright.  We will read broadly rather than deeply, with each student choosing several poets for in-depth research that will be shared with their peers in the class.

Also, I'll be reading on Friday night in Conway at the launch for the latest issue of Toad Suck Review.  Looking forward to hearing the editorial staff read, as I wasn't able to make it to a reading in December where some of them read.  (That cover is in 3D and the issue comes with a pair of 3D glasses tucked into a library pocket inside the back cover.  Cool.)


AWP is less than a month away.  ACK!  Once again, I'd like to be in three and four places at exactly the same time.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What I'm Reading: O Holy Insurgency

44º ~ sleek gray skies, rain on the way, what serves as winter in the south

Warning!  Danger!  Hot Potato!  Mary Biddinger's latest book, O Holy Insurgency, just out from Black Lawrence Press, is an incendiary, surreal testament to passion, to the desire to go beyond coupling and become one.  It is a heart on fire and a speaker who claims in "Forensics," "All I wanted was for you to burn / me down." 

That "you" is at the core of the book.  The majority of the poems feature a first-person speaker telling and retelling both the creation myth of her Beloved and the story of their coupled love.  In "Dyes and Stitchery," the speaker claims her first sight of the Beloved is when "you were just a sprig of asphodel" and later asks "Were you born / in a field, next to a barrel filled with burning // plywood?" Later, in "Route 31" when the speaker and her Beloved have met and become a couple, Biddinger knocks us out with "We flattened into // the soil, two switchblades out / of our handles and gleaming."

These are not romantic poems in tribute to love.  These are electric, all-American (Detroit, Michigan made), fragmented, 21st century poems exploring both the desire to be twinned in love and the frantic, near-violent explosion of that desire.  Biddinger uses the language of religion as a backdrop for her speaker's coming of age, which provides depth and gravity amidst the chaos.  Here are some titles:

"Ode to Your Innocence"
"Saint Vodka"
"My God"
"A Genesis"
"An Incarnation"
"O Holy Insurgency"

and some without the religion

"Prelude to Our Escape"
"Where You Store the Gun at Night"
"Disturbance Near an Unnamed Creek"
"Committee of the Whole"
"A Bravery"

Here's a taste of "A Coronation"

... .  Youthful
defiance was best demonstrated
by my mouth's insubordination
in times of dire panic.  Translated:

no measure to calculate the drift
of my lips down your back.

And from "A Very Hard Time"

A man on the television noted
difficulties, the new trouble

with air, schoolgirls loosing
their braids in directions

that could only mean evil.

Do not open this book expecting a neat, tidy narrative of love.  Instead, expect bits and pieces tumbling and spilling, disparate images slammed together and throwing sparks. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Acceptance & Rejection; Or, How the Lit Mag Landscape is Like Dating

38º ~ brightish white cloud cover, solid, stormy weather in the offing ~ chickadees, sparrows, robins, and more, feeding in the dead leaves and brambles of our ramshackle backyard, leafy debris popping up to reveal each bird's location

If you follow me on Facebook, you know that earlier in the week, I began composing a new song, to be sung to the tune of "Conjunction Junction" from Schoolhouse Rock.  My song begins, "Rejection jection, you're an infection."

In the span of two or three days, I recorded four or five rejections, which is not unusual; however, two of those rejections were more deflating than the others.  You see, I've been trying to get a second date with Gulf Coast and a third date with Black Warrior Review for years. 

I had my first date with Gulf Coast on 4 Dec. 2004 when I received the email that the journal wanted to publish "The Empty Set, Recurring."  I'd received several encouraging rejections with personal notes in the two years before the accepted poem, so this was a confirmation that the poetry world was working as it should.  

*It is important to remember that Gulf Coast is a journal housed in a graduate program, and while the readers/editors do not rotate every single issue, there is turnover as time passes.

After my publication in GC, I continued to submit regularly, always beginning my submission letter with a gentle reminder about our first date and our apparent compatibility.  On every rejection, I received a personal note from one of the poetry editors, until the journal switched to an online submission manager.  (This is one of the bummers about many online systems; the editors have to take an extra step to include a note.)  For the past two submissions, I've gotten automatic email rejections.  However, I've just compared them, and yes, Dear Reader, there is a difference.  This latest rejection includes "keep [us] in mind for future submissions."  Well, my, my...another glimmer of hope arises.

Next, I received another form email rejection from Black Warrior Review.  This situation is a bit more tense, since the editors found poems of mine fit for publication twice in the past, but since 2007 have been sending along the "best of luck placing these poems elsewhere" emails.  In all other aspects, the situation mirrors that of GCBWR is a journal housed at a graduate program with a rotating set of readers/editors, and I send my "hey, remember, we went out a couple of times before" note with my submissions.  So far, that third date is playing very hard to get. 

Still, I persist, with both journals.  Foolishly?  Maybe, but I read both journals and think they put out stellar issues.  The rejections just make me want to work all the harder to make my poems stand out.


In the meantime, I've got a new poem that has finally, finally, finally landed a first date with The Southeast Review, another journal housed at a grad program and another journal that consistently publishes amazing work.  When I got the "let's go out on a date" email yesterday afternoon, I got all giddy and excited.  I've been submitting to this journal since 1999 when it was still called Sundog: The Southeast Review.  In fact, I mistakenly posted on FB that I've only been submitting since 2003 b/c I had lost track of the submissions in the other name. 

I've just reviewed all of my submissions and rejections.  Not one single word of encouragement over the years.  But still, I persisted.  I persisted because I read the journal and enjoy what it does.  I admire the writers I find there and I want my poems to rub shoulders with the poems, stories, and essays of those other fine folks. 


In another FB post and the resulting comments, my stubbornness was revealed in my refusal to accept Microsoft's lackluster dictionary in Word, in my refusal to update the dictionary on my personal copy of the program b/c I think it is Bill Gate's responsibility to sell a product that doesn't continue to dumb down the world.  Well, my persistence in submitting poems to journals is another example.  It's fitting that when I was waiting for Blood Almanac to appear on Amazon, I would search for "Longhorn" and what would come up?  Bone Head: Story of the Longhorn.  Yep.  That's me!

To run the dating analogy into the ground: there are are a lot of fish in the sea, and thank goodness, writers get to be polygamous when placing their work in literary journals.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Draft Process: Born Fighting

53º ~ milky, gray-white overcast with a chance of storms

Today, I have Mary Biddinger to thank for my draft process.  I have begun to make my way through Mary's new book O Holy Insurgency, which is a powder keg of what simmers beneath the surface for its questing speaker.  When I sat down this morning, I had sort of forgotten about my drafting goal and just picked up O Holy Insurgency.  It's the kind of book that pulls you in quickly and wraps you up.  I'm only a few poems in, but when I got to "A Gauntlet," I read "But we were born fighting."

And zing...I thought of my new poems and how I've been working with the group of sisters as a plural speaker.  So, the "we" in the above line connected and a bunch of flashes connected and I knew I had to put down Mary's book and pick up my journal.  I used her line to start a poem, although, quickly I realized, her line would become the title.

I ended up with a very solid 12 lines of the first stanza and then got mired down in the mud trying to write forward into a second stanza.  For some reason, I think that I need to describe all the kinds of fighting this group of sisters does.  The first stanza, the one that came easily, has to do with their births.  Then, I moved on to their coming of age fights and things didn't go so well.  Right now, I can't say if the poem will grow larger or if I will cut it down to just that first stanza, which seems to contain all of the energy.  Hard to tell.  And I think this is one of the dangers of working with a set speaker before a critical mass of drafts has developed.  Perhaps I don't know enough about these sisters to know where the poem is going.

Also, while I've hinted that these new poems touch on something autobiographical, I should note that today, more than ever, I've seen these sisters morph into their own characters and divorce themselves from my personal story.  That makes me so happy!

Another twist is that these last two drafts have been sparked by a single word or phrase that I've read, which has led me to drafting.  In the past, I've relied on the word bank for more inspiration.  Interesting.