In other news, the fall textbook rush begins this weekend, so there’s a distinct possibility that I’ll be unspeakably exhausted for a time and hence unable to update the blog. I’ll try. And I still have those 2 reviews to write. Ha! In the meantime, feel free to leave encouraging comments — remind me of life outside the bookstore, of the existence of happy, smiling people, that this too, truly, will end…
Since Stacey Lynn Brown told her horrifying story, the poetry blogosphere has been afire with responses. The most interesting to me, because it makes such salient points, is Reb Livingston’s. Just one excerpt from a long, quote-worthy post:
If you used that $250 (which in many cases is a much higher number) towards a creative project, either publishing your own work or another poet you admire, you’d be much much better off. If you spent over $500 on contests, know you could have published your own or someone else’s book for that amount — and that includes distribution and a short run of copies. You could have started your own press. You could have gotten with three other poets and created a publishing collective.
Now, I haven’t spent more than $75 on contests this year, but I’ve been sending to chapbook contests, which are less expensive to enter. But contests do seem to be the dominant paradigm under which poetry publishing operates. And it’s funny that most of us have fallen in line, because most of us don’t benefit from the contest structure at all. I don’t blame the presses, most of which are ethical, because it makes sense for them to run these contests. Even Red Dragonfly Press (introduced to me through Collin Kelley’s blog), a small letterpress chapbook press whose list of authors include Dorianne Laux and Marianne Boruch, doesn’t take unsolicited manuscripts right now, and their website states that they’re contemplating starting up a contest.
But if it makes sense for presses, does it make sense for poets? Why do we do it?
The obvious: everyone wants to be a “winner”. The prestige may be illusory, but the allure exists, no question.
It can seem the only way to get published. Even some presses with open reading periods still require a reading fee. And there are far more poetry contests than there are open reading periods — and the number of hopeful poets dwarfs both.
I don’t know where the solution lies. My friend is publishing her first chapbook with a lovely small press here in Shelburne Falls, and another friend belongs to just the sort of poetry collective Reb describes. But I know that I don’t want to be a publisher — I’m already a bookseller, my negative bottomline can’t afford more. And a publisher doesn’t just publish, good ones, anyway: they market, distribute, handle accounts.
But I think the gist of Reb’s post carries beyond just publishing & contests. As poets & readers of poetry, we need to do more to support the poetry community at large, to help it grow and sustain itself without having to resort to contests. Buy more books! And I like to think that my work with the Collected Poets Series also counts. But above all, buy more books!
Being a parent means unrelenting barely suppressed panic, a latent cancer ready to metastasize at the least provocation. Because awful things happen, all the time. Most of us, as much as we fear it, will never have our kid snatched. Nope, the prosaic is the real danger.
There’s a reason why the most common phrase you hear in an emergency room is, “I was only gone for a second…!” During my time there Monday afternoon, only one person failed to treat me with compassion, a pregnant administrator-type who was taking my insurance information. She was cold and perfunctory, dripping with judgment. I wasn’t offended, but I did want to ask her if that’s her first child in her belly. Because, simply, accidents happen. You only have two arms and two legs, and children are wily little creatures with no sense at all of their own vulnerability.
Vincent fell out of a window in our new second floor apartment. I had taken four steps out of the room to throw away a dead fly he’d found on the window sill, and, from what he told me later, in that time he saw another fly, on the window screen, and he went after it. The screen popped out and he fell.
Four steps out of the room I heard his cry, ran back to ask him what was wrong, and he was gone.
You could say there’s a simple solution to these types of prosaic dangers, window guards in this case. Well, yes, of course. We had every intention of getting them as soon as we could, and they’re certainly installed now. But we’ve only been in this apartment a week, and most of that time has been spent caring for fluey Vincent.
I guess what I’m saying is that as a parent you have a thousand fears for your child, and at some point, something horrible will happen — and I hope when it does, you’re as lucky as we were on Monday. Because I’ve never been more terrified than those seconds I looked out the window to see my sweet boy on the ground below.
Vincent fell from a second floor window (of an apartment building that has high ceilings, which makes it equivalent to the third floor of a house), landed on grass, with the window screen partially cushioning his fall as well, and suffered only a couple cuts and bruises.
Not only did he not die, he didn’t break a single bone. I wouldn’t know that until we’d gotten to the other side of the 911 ambulance ride emergency room hours, but we were so so lucky, and part of me still can’t believe it.
My friend, Laura, has a theory that, because Vincent had never experienced such a thing before, he didn’t know to be scared when he fell, so he didn’t tense up, and in that way was able to absorb the impact without great bodily trauma, aided by the grassy area and window screen.
I can’t say. But that night our boy slept close between us, while we touched him ever so often, just to check he was still there, and breathing, just as we did when he was new.
…news. One of the presses to which I’d submitted my chapbook for a contest (which I did not win or even place as a finalist) has accepted it for publication. I didn’t even know it was still under consideration, it’s been a number of months. And I’ve since revised the chapbook, retitled it, and submitted it to a handful of other contests. Bird in the hand…?
That’s what Vincent says when he’s about to do something unadvisable. I should’ve remembered that: sometimes what you get is the exact opposite of what you wished for. I said, I could use a break from my child. Instead, my poor boy has come down with another nasty flu bug, and I’ve been home with him the last two days. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s amazing the iron stomach parenthood gives you.
But Vincent is so sorrowful and lethargic, so easygoing even as he’s suffering, it would be monstrous of me to complain.
...I worked to get to know it. I worked to hear what it had to say. When you revise a poem, think of yourself as listening to it. Strain your ears and screw off your own chatter. For the longest time, I thought I knew that “Lottery” was about despair. Then the poem showed up on my doorstep of its own accord, and I glimpsed something bigger.
I often find that the poem is smarter than I am. The poem usually waits to reveal what it knows to me in its own time. The poem becomes something far outside me; in fact, I often feel that I am just its servant doing its crazy bidding.
While the essays differ in the mechanics of revision, and include plenty on that, these excerpts illustrate a perspective most of the poets share. I don’t subscribe to the whole “I’m just a typist transcribing the instructions of my muse” philosophy of writing; my poems are my poems, good and bad. But what these excerpts mean to me is that sometimes you have to get out of your own way. You limit how much you can say in a poem if you can’t get beyond your preconceived idea of “what it’s about”.
All in all, a nice break from work, but I could really use a break from my child. Especially between the hours of 7 and 10pm.
We’re in the process of moving from the 3rd floor to a larger apartment on the 2nd floor, hooray!, but the resulting chaos is wreaking havoc on my mental health. And this is the easiest sort of move there is! I’m not averse to change, but CHAOS. My deepest sympathy to those of you dealing with this stripe of strife right now.
Of course I accomplished nothing of note while I was away, though I did somehow get looped into writing 2 reviews by September 15, which is right at the tail end of textbook rush, egads. I also managed to read through most of the essays in Poem, Revised: 54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions, edited by Robert Hartwell Fiske and Laura Cherry. The quality and usefulness of each essay vary widely, but the ones I found interesting were more than worth the price of admission. Most importantly, I discovered new poets (to me), and these glimpses into their processes, and reading their poems from drafts to final version, was fun and strangely reassuring — re-visioning is highly subjective, but I can see parallels between most of the poets included, and me. This quote from Deena Linett’s essay on her poem, “Above the River,” is one example:
“Those are terrible lines,” I said earlier and, wincing, again here: how bad they are. But I have learned over the years that you have to be willing to write them. You don’t have to show them to anybody, but you have to be willing to put them down, and the reason for that seems to me extraordinarily important.
You don’t know what they’re going toward; you can’t know what they’ll yield, until you write it.
I don’t save my drafts, the early ones — I hate to be reminded of how plain awful they are, and would hate even more for someone else to read them. But it can be important to keep that inner censor/editor muzzled early on, to let those first drafts be as bad as they need to be to get you to where you’re going.
I say this even though I also revise as I go along, before I’ve even finished a poem, line by line. But I keep all the versions and fragments together in a pile until the poem is done, or nearly. Then I type it into the computer, and consign all those crappy drafts to poetry purgatory, a.k.a., the recycling bin.