Monday, July 29, 2013

Not Writing Poems, But Immersed in Poetry Just the Same

79º ~ the sound of cicadas drilling the air comes through the open windows, all bright sun and sweet breeze, a few more days of this before the heat returns to lock us in

As my constant readers know, I haven't been writing poems this summer, having hit one of those fallow times that I'm learning to live with as I age. In the meantime, I haven't abandoned poetry all together. I am, in fact, continuing on with all my other non-writing work as a poet. Here's a brief list, numbered for my own organization, but in no particular order:

1. I'm prepping to teach my first-ever graduate level class. This fall, I'll be on the faculty for the University of Arkansas at Monticello's new low-residency MFA. I'm teaching Contemporary American Poetry, and I'm psyched! So far, I've built my syllabus and written my first lecture. It's an online course, so writing a lecture means more than making notes. It means trying to translate the energy of a spoken lecture onto the page. I do this by abandoning MLA conventions and using indents, bold font, white space, and asterisks liberally. (Having taught online at PTC for five years has been a big help!)

My first lecture is "a brief history of Western poetry" and starts with Aristotle's Poetics, travels through the centuries hitting the high points, coming to land on the Romantics for quite a while, before pausing on Dickinson and Whitman, and then ending up in the 1970s when all hell breaks loose and American poetry finally begins to resemble America. The class reading begins with a brief look at some of the key poems of the 1960s and 1970s and then sinks deeply into the 80s through today.

My next project for the class is to lay out the beginnings of the readings. We are using A. Poulin, Jr. and Michael Water's anthology Contemporary American Poetry, and it is a bear trying to narrow down what we can do in one semester. *Have you ever tried to define "contemporary"in terms of poetry? It's one slippery sucker of a fish.

2. I've been keeping up with reading books of poetry and commenting on them here. Just search "What I'm Reading" and you'll get a list of posts. However, I've also just been asked to write a review for an online journal, so the post I wanted to put up over the weekend has been waylaid, as it will appear as a formal review later. I'll let you all know when and where.

3. I spend quite a bit of time each day keeping up with the blogs and Facebook. Yes, some of this means losing a bit of time to cat memes and outrageous political moves that make my blood boil, but for the most part, I've been reading about what others are doing, leaving comments of support and congratulations, and checking in on the ever-overly-reported death of poetry. The latest reports are that poets no longer put any feeling in their poems and are all about showing how smart they are with linguistic tricks. (Insert dramatic sigh here.)

4. In relation to my posts about the current state of poetry publishing, I've been brainstorming ways to get poetry into my community. I have two ideas that seem viable so far. A) I will contact both of the local papers (one daily and one weekly) and see about doing a column. There are many iterations of what this column could be, and I'm open to whatever might happen, although there's a strong chance those contacts may not go anywhere. B) I am contacting some local poets to ask for poems I can publish as broadsides to hang up in coffee shops, libraries, bookstores, galleries, etc. around town.

5. In two days, I'll start the August Poetry Postcard Project. Well, truth be told, I already wrote my first poem on the back of one of my collage postcards and mailed it because one of first seven names is someone who lives in Singapore. This is the 7th year for the project, in which poets sign up with names and addresses to write a postcard-sized poem a day in August and mail them off to the next 31 names on the list. A giant poetry chain letter, and you've got one day to sign up if you're interested!

6. I participated in a manuscript exchange with a fiction writer! This was awesome, as I got to read a great novel and exercise some different brain matter, and I got some helpful comments back on the angry sister poems that I wrote this past spring.

And now, I have to get on with the keeping on. The poems will follow when they must.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Some Wee Good News

77º ~ cloud cover & cool breezes ahead of the rain we've been promised

I think it is safe to announce this here, since it's already on Gazing Grain Press' blog.  A chapbook version of manuscript #2, The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths, is the runner-up for Gazing Grain's 2013 feminist chapbook contest.  Cathy Park Hong selected my work, mostly my Midwest fairy tales combined with my handful of saints, as runner-up to Meg Day's, We Can't Read This.  I'm thrilled!

As the runner-up, the chapbook won't be published, but I've been invited to read alongside Meg Day on Sunday, 22 September 2013, in Fairfax, VA, during Fall for the Book!  Wahoo.  I think at least one of the poems will also be produced as a "miniature" through Gazing Grain Press and I'll have an interview on their website.

Many, huge thanks to Cathy Park Hong and all the folks at Gazing Grain.  I confess, the name of the press caught me first (in The Writer's Chronicle or on CRWROPPS), and then their feminist focus held my attention.  I can't wait to meet everyone in September!

As many of you know, in May, I decided to chop up manuscript #2 into three chapbooks.  I sent the fairy tales & saints to GGP because it seemed such a perfect fit and it had a June deadline.  I have held off sending out the chaps anywhere else, because sometime in June, I learned that mss. #2 has one more chance at success, having made it to the final round at a publishing company I'm not allowed to name (so please don't ask in the comments or by email).  If mss. #2 finds a home there I will be delirious b/c it is a press that does all of the things I've been hoping for / asking for in my posts about the state of poetry publishing today, and I adore their mission.  If mss. #2 doesn't find a home there, then I'm ready to overwhelm the chapbook publishers of the world with these three new versions.

Thanks to you all, as well, for reading along and offering up such great support along the way.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Diminishing House

76º ~ ah, breathable air, a delight after the storms, clear skies, every living thing covered in green, green, green, on the flipside (because there is always a flipside), it's been a good year for all the creepy, crawly, flying things as well

Yesterday, I read Nicky Beer's The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon 2010) and I've been processing its waves of emotions ever since. This is another book that I meant to buy the year it came out; however, by the time I got to the CMUP table at AWP 2010, they were sold out. Three years later and I finally accomplished my mission, buying a copy on the first morning of the bookfair in Boston.

The Diminishing House is an elegy for the speaker's father combined with poems that explore the human body via a copy of Gray's Anatomy, according to the notes in the back. Interspersed are poems of awe and wonder at the natural world, especially insects, birds, snakes, and things oceanic. In my list of notes scribbled on the back of the last page I have noted this:

fossils / extinctions / artifacts / genetics / inheritance / language

These are the tropes that Beer uses to navigate a loss as massive as that of a father. The book is divided into five, untitled sections, and the opening poem of the third section, "Cardinal Virtue," poised at the midpoint, offers up a clear view of Beer's ideas on death.  As the speaker watches a cardinal swoop down and land, she states:

Bird, your life would terrify me.
Bones full of air, belly full of hunger,
the underbrush dense with murders.
Death is a twist, a pinfeather lost,
a stumble over a slow pebble.

Later, the speaker imagines the bird's death at the claws of her cats and vividly describes the physical results of that attack.  Then, she addresses the bird:

remember that we dreamed our radiant dead
would become more like you,
Incomprehensible thing, drenched in the color
of something we call joy, 

I'll save the last few lines for any reader to savor first hand. This poem is one linked to elegy and the natural world. Alongside these poems, and others set more specifically during the death of the father, are the poems of human anatomy. Here are some titles to give you an idea.

"Note on the Xiphoid Process"
"Variations on the Philtrum"
"Lobe of the Auricle"
"Cubital Fossa"

"Patellae Apocrypha"

While these poems weren't necessarily at the top of my list for dog-earing and underlining, they play an important role in the book, offering respite from the elegies and the weight of death.

I'll end with a bit from what might be my favorite poem in the book, "Erosion," although it is a close tie with "Floating Rib." In both of these poems, Beer's expert use of sound shines. "Erosion" is a long poem for this collection, at three and a half pages, and its lines vary from Whitmanesque to Dickinsonian.  Here are two examples.

From the first section:

A fossilized car's wreck with a tree spares the beach from total anonymity.
How the gastank must have bloomed into the night like a rakish handkerchief.

Wow.  All those a's and hard k sounds offset by the sweetness of the s's in "fossilized" and the low o's in "bloomed."  Then, in the second section, the speaker describes a windchime made of shells, shells

... born of beauty and warp,
bastards of moon and rock,
spit up as loose change,

Again, I'm stunned by the soundplay here, especially the consonance and assonance, my two favorite poetic elements. It wasn't hard to find examples of this attention to sound throughout the book, and I could have listed so many more, but I don't want to spoil the joy for other readers.

While The Diminishing House might appear to be a slim, trim volume of poetry on the outside, I've found the poems to be dense and lingering, in all the best ways.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Another Related Post to the State of Poetry Publishing Today

89º ~ feels like 99º (heat index), the rain finally fell for a bit last night, but nothing like the 2-3" they got to the north and west of us, this morning all the rain hovers just to our east, we are beginning to feel cursed (at this point, rain = lessening of the heat index, for which we all rejoice...yes, it's a WET heat and SCUBA gear would come in handy for breathing when out of doors)

So after the big discussion about poetry publishing today here and here on the Kangaroo, I had a great comment from a writer new to me, C.A. LaRue.  C.A. pointed me to a post on the Ploughshares blog written by Tasha Golden, "Why Poetry Can't Find its Public."

I highly recommend clicking and reading it before you continue on here.  Golden addresses, head-on, an issue I hear all the time: only poets read poetry, therefore poetry is dead or elitist or boxed in or limited in some way or etc.  I love that Golden bashes the myth that poetry is harmed by popularity (remember all the articles you've ever read about that dirty word, "accessibility").  Time and time again in my life as a poet, I have met non-poets who read poetry or are interested in it and want to talk about it.

Thanks again to C.A., I just read Golden's follow-up post, "Why Poetry Can't Find its Public, Part Two," and this post is the most exciting for me.  Here, Golden gives real-world examples of ways we can broaden the poetry audience.  Check out this list of DIY activities.  I know I plan to use some!

Of course, not every person who encounters a poem in the wild (aka in a public space like a coffee shop or a topic-specific, non-literary blog or art gallery or even the library for goodness sakes) is going to become a reader of poetry, but I guarantee you that there is very little chance of growing our audience if we do nothing beyond what we are already doing.  (This connects back to the idea that poets must subsidize publishers with reading fees, because they don't sell enough books to cover their expenses, which seems to me to be saying the audience is too small, no?)

So, let's all go out there and put some poetry in the world, in any way we can figure.  If you send me a picture or link of what you do, I'll be happy to post it, along with links to you and your work.  In that way, the world of poetry will keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keepsswimming, swimming, swimming (a la Dory from Finding Nemo) and eventually, good things must happen.

Monday, July 22, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Scabbard of Her Throat

76º ~ "rain-cooled" but so far no rain, it surrounds us even as it refuses to fall on this particular patch of dirt, I search the radar and fume...5 minutes lapse and aha!  it rains!...ack, it stalls out...and stops...the wicked witch of the weather, she toys with me ... and now, the sun returns to steam us all

This morning, I spent some time with Bernadette Geyer's The Scabbard of Her Throat (The Word Works, 2013). Bernadette and I first met, briefly, at AWP several years ago, and had a chance to cement a friendship over a pre-reading dinner at this year's conference, where The Scabbard of Her Throat debuted.

This book is filled with delicate poems that seem, on the surface, full of fragility.  It is only as they accrue that the strength emerges.  Here are poems of girl, woman, wife, mother, and widow, poems that confront fairy tale myths and expose the pain and the joy of living.  Divided into four sections, each section begins with a sonnet "Thumbelina's Mother Speaks," and each sonnet is addressed to someone different from the tale: Thumbelina herself, the Witch, the Toad's Mother, and Hans Christian Anderson.  In these re-tellings and new explorations, Bernadette sets the stage for the rest of the poems in each section, poems of nature's threat (a wasp kills a cicada, a gust of wind nearly capsizes a boat, clouds descend and obscure, etc.) and poems of love (intimate love, familial love, and love of self).

As I set out to crack the book open, I paused to absorb the title of the book again.  Scabbard: a sheath for a sword.  And this, as in "her throat."  I found myself transfixed by the implications of this connection, of all the dangerous things a woman might consume, of how this implied language trapped, scarred, or sliced, of how we are impressed by the sword swallower's skill and magic, and how women are often like this, but in the every day mundane.  In fact, the title of the book comes from the poem "The Sword Swallower Finds a New Calling," which begins:

She swallows stones, now --
throat like a creek bed.
Started with pebbles. Palmed
several to warm them
before she plucked one ...

It is not much of a leap to think of all the metaphorical stones, those heavy life lessons, we are all forced to swallow, and unlike the sword, not so easily removed.  While there are these poems from the world of Thumbelina and from the world of magic (a la the sword swallower), the vast majority of the poems arrive directly from the every day world and what it offers us (good, bad, and in between).  One such example comes from the poem "Echo," about an echocardiogram.  Here is the opening:

It's like she said Here, have some pain,
and when I adjusted to that she said Here

have some more, ratcheting up
the transducer's pressure against my chest

to find not just my heart, but each valve --

In these poems of the every day, Bernadette approaches life with the keen observant eye I look for, I hope for, whenever I read poetry.  She lets nothing slide and confronts this mad, chaotic world head on, eyes and heart at the ready.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

What I'm Reading: Far From Sudden

85º (heat index = 92º) ~ the heat dome touched on Arkansas but didn't really deviate us from our normal heat and humidity, our sympathies to our northern kin who aren't prepared for such assaults, heat and humidity pretty much sums up the foreseeable future here in the mid-south

Putting my money where my mouth is, this month I bought two books of poetry, one of which is Brent Goodman's Far From Sudden (Black Lawrence Press 2012).  I wrote about Brent's debut collection, The Brother Swimming Beneath Me, also from Black Lawrence, here.  While Brent and I haven't spent much, if any, time together in the "real world," I feel as if we are connected, loosely via Facebook and blogging and such, and more deeply via the poems.  So, I was stunned to learn that Brent suffered a heart attack in 2009, just as I was beginning to know his poems and therefore outside the time of our poetry friendship.  While others may have come to Far From Sudden having already processed the near miss the poetry world suffered, I came to it without that knowledge; this clearly influenced the way I read the book.

Far From Sudden begins with quiet, meditative poems moving between the natural landscape and the more urban world, focused on mortality, but in a general way.  For example, in "Madison, New Year's 1999," the speaker describes:

Freezing rain. Shivering past
the tagged bus stop, walking home,
my knees two broken dinner plates,
stomach a tumble of stones, tonight
each house memorizes the inner shape
of its heart.  Every tree understands
the blood's difficult passage from this world
to the next. Trees are the slowest rivers.

The poem goes on to describe the rest of the speaker's walk home and his attempt to wrap his mind around the fragility of the body, of life.  This is indicative of the poems in the first section of the book, and the first few poems in the second section, until we hit "The Ground Left Me."  This poem opens with:

The morning I had a heart attack,
gurneyed pale and shirtless O2 mask

past my coworkers.

Suddenly, the speaker and the poet merge, and here, I had my first jolt.  Often, I am one of the loudest champions for reading contemporary poetry without assuming that the speaker is the poet.  I do this in part because too often I've had readers confuse the speakers in my poems with me, with my reality. Brent's poems, here, are clearly threaded through with the reality of his "sudden" heart attack in 2009, and the title of the collection helps point us to this, if subtly.

I read on through the book, breath catching at descriptions of medical procedures and a body slowly healing, at explorations into how a person confronts mortality with dignity and grace, or at least with honesty.  A great example of this is "What to Do With My Body," a catalog poem of directions, such as:

Slingshot my eyes back into the sun.
Unpuzzle this heart from my ribs.
Tuck my left scapula into an owl's nest.
Fashion my feet to furrow a field.

If you read my work, you know that the fourth line here is one I've underlined with emphasis, the sounds! the image! Then, the end of this poem contains a zinger that I savored over and over, and so do not want to give away.

The poems in Far From Sudden tend to be short, but they build to a greater contemplation of the human body as a fragile vessel.  With the speaker as our guide, we cannot help but contemplate what it is we are doing with this "one wild and precious life" (as Mary Oliver says).  I am relieved that Brent remains among us, doing the work.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The State of Poetry Book Publishing in America Today, Redux

84º ~ good fortune weather continues today, all hail summer in the South, everything green and thriving, clear skies and sun shining down for miles and miles

When I wrote my recent post about the state of poetry book publishing, I clicked on the "publish" button with great hesitation.  Was I shooting myself in the foot with publishers? Was I creating bad karma for my own manuscripts?  Would I get a mangled and heated argument like the one that cropped up on HTMLGiant at about the same time? Or would I get a level-headed discussion?

I am so happy to thank all of you who helped make it the latter.  The comments on both the Facebook thread and on the blog post have been helpful and insightful.  We might not have solved anything directly, but I truly believe that open and honest dialogue is the only way toward a solution.

Given that spirit, I thought it might be helpful to recap and regroup here.  (I present the following information simply as information.  If I've mis-stated something, then please, feel free to correct the mis-information.)

The traditional way of publishing works like this for almost every other genre (literary novels, mass market fiction, self-help, academic textbooks, general interest nonfiction, etc.).  The writer writes; the writer submits either a full manuscript or a synopsis to either an agent or editor at no cost; if agents are the norm, once the mss. is picked up, the agent then works to sell the book to a publishing house and the agent takes a percentage of the author's advance and/or royalties; if no agent, the mss. gets picked up by a publishing house and the writer gets either an advance and royalties or just royalties.

The current state of poetry (and some short fiction) publishing relies heavily on the contest model or reading periods with submission fees.  More and more rarely, poetry publishers will host truly open reading periods in which they consider mss. for no fee.  Very few poetry publishers are willing to read mss. all year round and without a fee.  Here, things go like this.  The writer writes a complete book and attempts to get individual pieces published in lit mags; the writer then pays $15 - $30 for each contest or reading period to submit the mss., along with 100 - 800 other writers.  (There is no such thing as an agent, unless a poet has worked in another genre previously.)  If the writer's manuscript wins, the writer receives a cash prize of $500 - $3,000 (with most being in the $1,000 range).  Sometimes the writer receives a certain number of author copies and/or the chance to purchase at 50% cover price, and the writer might earn royalties after the publisher recoups that prize or sells the first press run, which can be over 1,000 copies, depending on how the contract is written.  Note: Some publishers do award royalties on top of cash prizes.  If a mss. is chosen during an open reading period, perhaps there is a royalty awarded; this information is not included in the reading period guidelines (or in contest guidelines for that matter) in most cases.

When questioned about these fees, publishers often state that poetry doesn't sell well enough to be self-supporting.  Fees are used to pay overhead and production costs.  (**Reminder:  I'm pretty much okay with the contest model, as I know there is a cash prize at the end; however, I struggle with the fee-based reading period when the terms of publication are not spelled out for the author on the front-end.)

**There do seem to be more books of poetry than ever being published, perhaps as a result of this system and poets being willing to spread the cost among themselves.

**Publishers work for the love of poetry, and I don't dispute that.

Let me say that I know I'm speaking in generalities and we can all think of exceptions to the above; however, in general, many poets end up spending hundreds of dollars on fees with very little in return.  The low chances of being that 1 in 500 whose work is chosen does lead to feelings of frustration. The comments on my previous post and on the FB thread have helped me see more clearly what is happening.  I apologize for not naming each contributor to the conversation.  What follows are some questions and some calls to action, sometimes listed specifically by a commenter to the previous post and sometimes something I'm already thinking about our doing.

What is the responsibility of the publisher?  What is the responsibility of the poet? How does money, (i.e. financial profit for both the publisher and the author) fit in? What is the goal?

If we accept as true that publishers cannot sell enough books of poetry to pay their overhead, are publishers accepting and printing too many books of poetry? (I know, sacrilege!)  If publishers aren't selling enough poetry, why aren't people buying?  Who is our market and how do we reach it? (Anecdotally, we hear that poets don't buy contemporary poetry, but when I poll my friends, it turns out we are buying lots.  Are we the minority?)

Most folks agree that each individual poet needs to decide how he/she feels about all of these issues, and I agree with that.  However, I do think there are things we can all be doing to get more poetry into the hands of more readers, increasing the number of book sales along the way.

Calls to Action, in no particular order, after the first:

1. Contribute to the American poetry community in any way you can.  While a person may be able to write in a vacuum, if that person expects others to read and buy his/her work, then that person is obligated to do so in kind.

~ Subscribe to literary magazines and journals.
~ Buy books of poetry
These two do require us to commit dollars to our beliefs; however, I argue that these dollars hold the real power.  If we do not invest in the product, then publishers truly do have no other way than charging reading fees.
I recognize that grad students and others with family obligations may not have much loose change.  One action item here would be to lobby the local libraries (both academic and public) to subscribe or buy.  Another action item is to spend a month tracking your money, dollar by dollar.  At the end, you may be surprised at what you spent on coffees, eating out, movies, popular magazines, etc.  Of course, we all enjoy relaxing in these ways, but could you cut out one or two and buy a book that month instead?

~ Read poetry being published today
Again, if money is the issue, there are some fine librarians out there just waiting for you to inter-library loan request some books of poetry.
With the advent of online journals and even books of poetry being offered online for free, there really is no excuse for not reading, unless you lack internet access and access to a public library that offers such.

~ Talk about poetry
If you participate in social media, blog, tweet, or FB about a book or poem written by someone else that excites you.  If you've found something online, send out the link.  If a poet is willing, do an online interview about that poet's work.
If you'd rather kick it old school, volunteer to write formal reviews for your favorite lit mag.
If you teach, hand out reading lists (or email them to save on trees).  Take that reading list with you to readings and conferences and refer to it often.
For that matter, carry around the book you are currently reading, and if friends or strangers asks about it, tell them, gently so as to lure them in rather than scare them away.

~ Give books or lit mags as gifts
If you spend some time thinking of the recipient deeply, I bet you can think of a book that person might like.  Remember, it might not be the exact kind of poetry you write.  Still, I've given or sold my own book to countless numbers of people who are not poets but who expressed an interest.  I've done it simply by being myself and talking about poetry, by being a poet without apology.
If you run a reading series, consider giving books of poetry (or copies of lit mags) as door prizes.
If you teach, do the same in the classroom, or just select a particular book that seems to match a particular student and pass it on.
If you've finished with an issue of a lit mag and don't know anyone else who wants to read it, leave it on a table at the local coffee shop, on a seat on the bus, or in any other public area.

~ Form a poetry book club
This can be done locally at a bookstore or library, or it can be done globally using Google chat and other social media.

~ At readings, read a poem by someone else
If you are giving a reading, open by reading a poem by a poet you admire.
If at an open mic, do the same and encourage others to join you in the practice

~ Encourage publishers to offer a book from their backlist in exchange for a reading fee
This serves the double purpose of getting more books into more hands and helping the publisher with warehouse costs (did you know part of the overhead is housing all those copies, paying for the (climate-controlled) space and paying insurance on the stock)?  *Another reason I'm an advocate for small print runs, which are much more affordable now that publishers can print from digital files.

~ Consider presses that read for no fee and support the books they've already published
Some are listed here and here (with those requiring fees marked as such).

~ If money is not the goal, and simply finding readers is, consider publishing online for free
You can read more about this option here.

~ Be generous to one another
Exchange poem drafts for workshop comments with a fellow poet.
Exchange manuscripts for revision comments.
Say "yes" when asked to blurb or otherwise support someone whose work you admire.  If you don't know that person's work, ask for a sample before you say no.

Viva la poesie! 

Friday, July 12, 2013

What I'm Reading: Pause, Traveler + "Poems that Get Their Hands Dirty" (Author Interview)

80º ~ clear skies, beautiful air as the dew point is down at 60º, the best kind of summer in Arkansas, enough rain with yesterday's storms to feed the yard and prevent us from having to water

I first came to know Erin Coughlin Hollowell through her blog, Being Poetry.  And by that knowing, I was able to follow her journey as her first book was accepted and then published.  It was super fun to meet up with Erin in Boston at AWP and get my hands on a copy of Pause, Traveler (Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press, 2013) and have Erin sign it for me.

Recently, I finished reading the entire book, and Erin agreed to participate in an author interview for the Kangaroo.

SL: First, congratulations on the publication of Pause, Traveler.  Boreal Books (an imprint of Red Hen Press) did a fantastic job on the production!  It is a beautiful book both inside and out.  Also, many thanks for agreeing to participate in this interview.

The title of the collection intrigues me.  The poems are divided into five sections that are steeped in place/setting, and yet, the speaker seems ever traveling, until the very end, when she pauses.  We begin in the grit and grime of New York City; then flash back to the speaker’s childhood and family connections somewhere outside the city, perhaps in rural Pennsylvania or thereabouts; next, a cross-country journey touching on that eastern connection and then moving through the upper Midwest and plains.  The fourth section contains few clear references, but by the fifth section, the speaker is definitely in Alaska, yet still questing and questioning in some ways.  Can you talk about both the title of the collection and the arc of the book?  Was it always titled this?  Did you write the sections chronologically or did the poems come at random with you ordering them later?

ECH: By the time I came to rest in Alaska, I had moved fifteen times in about thirty-four years. And when I say moved, I mean whole states, not just moving from one block to another. If I added those short moves in, the number would be significantly higher. I really yearned to find a home. Or at least I wanted to stay in one place long enough to begin to explore the nuance over the new. So much of the poetry I was writing was steeped in place, but in very different places because of my many travels.

At some point, I ran across the Latin phrase “Siste viator,” meaning “Pause, traveler,” that was used on crossroads and roadside tombs. There was something so evocative about the idea of pausing during life’s travels, both at crossroads and at the end point. Since so much of the book was about movement, both physical and emotional, it seemed to fit. The poems weren’t written in any sort of chronological order, but as I was putting the collection together, I separated them into New York versus Alaska sections, then a section of the poems about roadside attractions, and finally two sections in which the movement is more emotional rather than physical.

SL: In these poems, much has been stripped and fractured, even Elvis’ songs are “threadbare,” and the speaker of the poems, most definitely a woman, appears to be searching for something to believe in, something solid, an “easily mapped terrain” with “no dangerous edges.”  Do you think this speaker reflects the larger search and sense of being lost for American women who grew up post-Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem or am I reading too much into the poems?

ECH: I think that for many women, the path has not been very clear if you weren’t following the prescribed “get married, have kids” route. If you were in a bad relationship, you tried to tough it out so that you wouldn’t have to admit failure. Life is so much more complicated when you start claiming autonomy. A lot of women are still looking for Prince Charming. I know that I was, and I kept making choices that led to sadness. Part of the journey of these poems is learning how to be whole.

SL: There is also an element of the working-class in the poems.  We are not seeing the glamour and glitz of New York or the prosperous rural landowners.  Instead, we see the struggle of everyday people just trying to keep food on the table, shoes on the feet, and a roof over it all.  In fact, in one poem, you raise garbage men to the level of deities.  Do you think there is a connection between class issues and the speaker’s journey?  Do you align yourself with other working-class writers?

ECH: This is an interesting subject. I’ve never really thought about the issue, but I do come from the first white collar household in a lineage of blue collar households. My family was a success story because my father worked very hard to put us in better and better circumstances. It was never in doubt that I would go to college, but I’ve never had a clear vision of a career path. I just wanted to write, and so if that meant that I had to work as a temp in New York City, or as a high school English teacher (hoping to use summer vacation to write), or as an arts administrator (so that I wouldn’t lose my connection to the arts but could still support myself), well then I was okay with it. Living in Alaska, you quickly learn to be adaptable to whatever job opportunities arise, because your dream job probably doesn’t exist here in quite the same form it has in the lower-48.

SL: At the individual poem level, you move easily between narrative and lyric, often melding the two.  Would you say a bit about your writing process?  Do you have a comfort zone in terms of style or form (line lengths, stanza breaks, etc.)?  Do you consciously set out to write poems of varying styles?

ECH: Most of my poems arise from an image, the windows in a diner weeping with condensation, a truckload of butchered pigs. Sometimes from a line that seems gifted to me, “a small bird needs a small branch.” I am attracted to brief lyric poems, drop in with a gorgeous image and get out before I mess it up with too much thought. As I look over my work, I realize that I’m much more physical than cerebral. Things happen in my poems. For the most part they are peopled and tangible. With the new collection that I’m working on, I am spending a lot more time experimenting with form, different line lengths, prose poetry. And still, as I read over these new poems, I find that for the most part they are about the physical world, rather than philosophy or the speaker’s ruminations. I guess I just like poems that get their hands dirty.

SL: As I read Pause, Traveler, I was struck by your attention to sound, something I am always looking for in contemporary, free verse poetry, and something that isn’t always there.  For example, in “Atlantic Avenue Idyll,” you write, “Below, the surge and slack of salsa / carries through the pipes and cracks.”  And, in “His Barn,” there is this: “Askew, timbers skewer gray sky.”  In “Way of a Wave,” the poem opens with “Gusts rattle loose windowpanes, / wind hurling volleys of hard rain. / The dark sea strikes all day.”  I’m interested in your drafting and revision process here.  Does this attention to sound (particularly assonance and consonance, although also the give & take of stresses) come naturally to you at this point in your writing career or do you fine-tune the sounds during revision?

ECH: Oh, if you could read some of the poetry I wrote in high school and early college, you’d collapse under the Hopkins-ness of it. I loved Gerard Manley Hopkins and I read him quite a bit early on. And Dylan Thomas, oh, I rolled around in the richness of his work. So from the beginning, I was very aware of sonic devices like assonance and consonance, as well as sprung rhythm and cadence. At this point, I think it’s in my bones. I will sometimes try to heighten the effect during the revision process, but honestly, I usually have to cut back to keep from being too purple.

SL: And, here’s the question that comes up at every reading ever given by any author.  Which authors do you cite as your mentors; which books do you return to over and over for inspiration?  Who are you reading now?

ECH: Yeats, Hopkins, Thomas in the early days. Then Pattiann Rogers and A.R. Ammons. Lately, I return to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s books The Orchard and Song, as well as anything by Li-Young Lee. Kevin Goodan and Michael McGriff have been recent poetry crushes. I’m currently reading Erick Pankey’s incredible book Trace and C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining. The last book that set me back on my heels was definitely Rebecca Gayle Howell’s Render/ An Apocalypse, just stunning work.

SL: Finally, as this is your first book, would you be willing to share your story of publication?  If so, would you talk about how long it took for the book to find this form and how you found your way to Boreal Books?  

ECH: Many of the poems in Pause, Traveler were honed, if not developed, during my time at the RainierWriting Workshop while I earned by MFA. I sent the manuscript out to some contests, made some contacts with possible presses at AWP, began collecting a few rejections and a few perhaps-we’re-interested notes. I contacted Peggy Shumaker, one of my mentors from RWW, for further advice about where it might find a home. She suggested that she would be interested in seeing the manuscript for Boreal Books (, an imprint from Red Hen Press ( that she edits. The mission of Boreal Books is to bring Alaskan writers and fine artists to wider audiences within and beyond that great, but remote, state. The authors published by the imprint are excellent company to be in. I was thrilled to send it to her for consideration, and even more thrilled when she said she wanted to publish it in 2013.

Peggy Shumaker is a wonderfully generous editor (and amazing poet), and I have been very pleased with the support that Red Hen Press has given the book. I feel lucky that Pause, Traveler has found such a wonderful home.

SL: Thanks so much, Erin, for the book and for taking the time to answer these questions.  I will be looking forward to whatever comes next for you.

ECH: Thanks, Sandy. Your carefully considered questions were a joy to answer, even though they took quite a bit of reflection. What a privilege to have the chance to consider my work with you.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Well, Shoot, I Went and Drafted a Poem

86º ~ conditions much the same as earlier posting

As I've been repeating for the last month, drafting new poems didn't seem to be the thing this summer. And, then, what do you know, BOOM, a draft landed in my lap.  In fact, the first few lines began in the shower, as happens quite a bit for me.  Perhaps it isn't lady-like to bring this up, but there you go. I was washing my hair when I heard the line, "Beware the stick man stripped of muscles and passing lean." As I continued through my normal routine, trying to shake the sleep away, several more lines arrived via my inner antennae.

I don't mean this to sound mysterious, but I have no explanation for where these lines began. I couldn't tell you what I was thinking about just before I heard the above, and while I heard it in my own interior voice, that voice was charged with possibility.

Eventually, I scrambled to my journal and jotted down what I could remember. And just now, I've transcribed that to the computer and revised my way into a full draft. For now, I've titled it "Notice Posted to All Midwestern Women," because the stick man is a "Prairie Devil," described in the poem in opposition to what I think of as a Southern Devil, all seduction and finery. At present, the draft is only 13 lines of medium length, four tercets and a single concluding line.

While I have no plans to push myself into a generative phase, I'm pleased to know that the skills are still there, hibernating as I gather material.

Central Arkansas: Continuing Ed. Creative Writing Workshop in September

82º ~ bright sky washed clean by stormy rains last night, a bit more bearable weather

For my readers in Central Arkansas:  Pulaski Tech is expanding its offerings of continuing education classes, and I'll be leading a creative writing workshop (all levels) for three Saturdays in September.  Information on classes and registration are here, but you have to click on 2013 Spring Course Schedule, which may seem a bit confusing.  Sorry.

If you are interested, feel free to email me with questions.  If you know someone who might be interested, please pass it on!

Here's the description of the course.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The State of Poetry Book Publishing in America Today

88º (10:00 a.m.) ~ on our way up to 102º if the forecast holds true, heat index could top 115º in places, a chance of severe storms and rain as a cold front confronts the heat, crossed fingers

Yes, I've been absent.  No, this summer has not progressed as I thought it would.  I'm pretty much okay with that and am trying to embrace the fallow period of regeneration.

However, during the fallow periods, the rejections continue to arrive, and here I am speaking particularly of the book rejections.  After over a decade of placing individual poems in national journals, those minor, individual poem rejections might sting for a moment but then I'm on my way to submitting somewhere else and I forget that pang.  Also, given that I might have any number of individual poems circulating at any one time, there are enough acceptances scattered about to soothe those little paper cuts.

With the book, things are entirely different.  One manuscript circulating in search of that elusive acceptance, with each submission requiring a submission fee in many cases (more on that later).  This means that the rejection wound has no chance to heal until, perhaps, one day when an acceptance arrives.  Until then, the wound starts to heal and is then sliced open time and time again, festering, oozing, throbbing.  I exaggerate for effect.

As many of you know, book #2 (fairy tales & saints, glacial elegies) for me has been on this journey for years (I do not exaggerate).  Yesterday, I received another rejection for it, and I've been racking up rejections for book #3 (the fever book) as well.  What sparked this post was the information that came along with yesterday's rejection.  The editors noted that they received over 700 manuscripts for this one contest.  Over 700 manuscripts.  Holy poets, Batman!

How on earth does my manuscript stand a chance of rising to the top in that ocean of words?  Of course, there must be many of these 700 manuscripts that are quickly dismissed for being too short or too long or for not following any of the myriad rules required for submission.  And, I imagine that some of the manuscripts reveal themselves as having been submitted without being proofread or polished.  Still, that leaves hundreds that will be seriously considered.

When I first started on this journey I was told the following:
1.  Publish the individual poems in national journals in order to establish a reputation and show an awareness of the poetry business. (done)
2.  Have others you trust read your manuscript and make suggestions for revision.  (done and done and done again, with thanks to all my readers)
3.  Revise and polish. (done)

After that, what is there?  Hope, magic, luck? Karma? (Ack! What righteous poet did I offend unknowingly?)  Does it all really depend on networking and schmoozing? (I hope not!)

I confess, I've acquired a bit of a complex.  Consider the mixed message: my individual poems place in national journals (hooray, I'm a "good" poet); my books fail to be published (ack, I'm a "terrible" poet).

Now, back to the idea of reading fees, and let me say first that I admire publishing houses that take a chance on poetry, and I know that the editors, production staff, and marketers are doing all they can do to keep it together and running smoothly.  However, as I said on Facebook recently, I am completely open and willing to include a reading fee when I'm submitting for a contest, wanting to support the winner (should it not be me) and the publication/marketing of the winning book.  However, I am puzzled by presses that require a reading fee for non-contest submissions.  These presses often label these as open submissions but charge the same amount as the contest.  The reason why is this: presses need to subsidize the cost of publishing poetry.

*Aside, when a friend from another academic field read my FB post about this she was stunned.  "You have to pay someone to read your manuscript on the off chance that they might publish it?" she asked.

I am of two minds here.  Yes, I want to support American poetry, and I do so by buying far too many books of poetry each year (my towering stack of to-read books and the negative balance in my checkbook will prove this).  However, is it a good model to ask poets to subsidize the publishing house where they hope to someday publish?

This is a personal matter that each poet approaches differently.  I confess, I have paid reading fees during open submissions to presses that I love, but I'm rethinking that, as I simply can't afford it on a community college instructor's salary and with two books circulating.  I am open to paying a reading fee that is half what the contest fee is as a way to help with the overhead costs (minus judges, minus monetary awards to the winner).  Again, everyone approaches this differently.

And this issue of presses (mostly independent presses not affiliated with a university or major New York publishing house) needing to be subsidized makes me wonder, are they publishing too many books each year?  Ack!  Of course, I don't want there to be fewer poetry books published, but if the business model can't sustain the list to the point that emerging poets have to subsidize the house, don't we need to look at the model again?

Finally, I'm a huge proponent of poets supporting poetry by subscribing to lit mags and buying books of poetry.  That seems to me to be the healthiest model out there.  If all 700 poets who submitted manuscripts to the contest I referenced above were to buy (and read) ten books of poetry a year, well, you do the math.  Yes, books of poetry are expensive.  Most paperback copies are now around $15 with some well above that.  And, yes, if you are in grad school or raising a family, $150 a year (ten books of poetry) will pinch.  But, if we, the poets, get frustrated by the rising costs of reading fees, don't we need to be part of the solution?

I suppose then, that my challenge, my call to action, is for each of us to evaluate what value we place on poetry, and by that I mean, of course, poetry written by others.  If all a poet wants is to write his/her own poems without supporting his/her peers, then I suppose we will be fated to the current model in which more and more publishing houses are forced to charge reading fees outside of contests.

This is a touchy issue, I know, and I hope if you are still reading at this point, that my comments will be taken as intended, as a way to open dialogue, as a way through the difficulty toward a better situation for us all.  I'm open to suggestions!

Vive la poesie! 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Wandering Kangaroo Returns

78º ~ enjoying a spectacular summer here in AR, with brief periods of high heat & humidity tempered by stretches like this, stretches of pure perfection

As I stated on FB at the end of last month, the summer of poetry writing has fallen apart here at the desk of the kangaroo, and I'm okay with that.  Instead, my creative energies have sent me to the collage table more often than not.  Here are a few recent examples.

11 x 14 (Mat cut off by scanner) with 3D elements

2D postcard

2D postcard

2D postcard

I spent the last week traveling up home for my summer visit with family and my 20th college reunion, which was a whirlwind of flying, driving, dorm living, and emotion wrangling.

Now, the month of July stretches out uninterrupted and C. & I have no plans at all between now and Aug. 12, which is our return date for school.  I've got several major projects for school that need work, but I'm letting the rest unfold as it will.

Happy 4th of July, y'all!