Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Against dailiness: Time and attention in poetry

Lately, I’ve been trying to make some changes.
I’m trying to be kinder. Trying to watch less news. Trying to be more giving, more contemplative, more focused. Trying to soften.
I’m also trying to change the way I write, and to be gentle with myself as I do. I recently lost my friend and mentor Michelle Boisseau, a superb poet and an incomparable teacher of poetry. I was lucky enough to have her in my life for almost three decades, having met her when I was an undergraduate at Morehead State University. The first poem I handed her then was about rainbows. She handed back instruction in how to be deeply authentic—to live observantly well below any rainbow—and I was instantly hooked. That was how I began my life as a poet.
Michelle’s last advice to me had to do with my habit of writing daily poems—a practice that has been important to me, almost like meditation, for years. But a few months ago, she asked me why I was so keen on poem-a-day projects. Why didn’t I invest more time—go further in?
It had been years since my mentor had offered direction about my poems, and I wasn’t sure what to do with this guidance. Daily writing was how I worked. I specialized in small poems, sonnet-sized or below, and I labored over the page, putting hours into crafting each piece. There was nothing light about my labor, nothing throwaway about my poems, and I stand by the work. Still, I couldn’t deny it—there was something to what Michelle was telling me.
I’m realizing more and more that I have trained myself to pay big attention to small things—status updates and tweets. Magazine articles. Songs and sitcoms. Nothing in my daily life prepares me for sustained thought, and very seldom do I return today to an idea that was percolating yesterday. Each day brings some new cynosure.
Of course, we can think of many important poems that were substantively completed in a day. The Romantics offer plenty of examples. Think of William Wordsworth, practically running as he approached his door after a ramble, “Tintern Abbey” ready to spill from his head. Or think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, frantic to record “Kubla Khan” in the moments between waking from an opium-enhanced dream and the unfortunate knock on the door by that damnable Porlockian.
But my little poems about my life aren’t the same as these. Maybe they have more in common with Emily Dickinson’s work—her poems born complete on the back flaps of envelopes. I know I flatter myself with any of these comparisons, but I’m thinking about process as much as product, and of that part of writing that occurs far from the page, as we noodle and observe.
I should note that I see my friend’s advice as very targeted—a suggestion meant specifically for me, a midlife poet with a book under her belt and another on the way. This probably isn’t something she would have said to a beginner, for whom experimentation and variety can be richly instructive and rewarding. I think she was offering particular advice from a mature poet to a maturing one, and it had to do with allowing myself to follow my thoughts well into their depths, rather than staying at or near the surface.
When I first knew Michelle, she advised our university literary journal, called Inscape. It is not lost on me that the concept of inscape, that term coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins, is in back of her suggestion. I don’t think Michelle was telling me to labor more over prosody (although that’s not a bad idea, either). I think she was seeing the potential in me to explore the inscape of me and everything around me, and she was giving me permission, in a life built of student compositions and editing projects and PTA meetings, to probe the thingness of things, the instress.
It feels incomparably fine to be recognized as someone whose insights might matter. When I sit at my desk, though, this new challenge is a bit of a burden. I’d like to tell you the astonishing thing my young son said in his sleep, or maybe describe what the sun did to the remnants of the ice storm in the trees. These are not new thoughts, but they’re beautiful ones, and I’d like to nudge them around a bit, see where they take me. But I have something big to say, and I can’t be sure that ice-coated branches will get me there.

Of course they can. What I mean is that I’m not sure how to get to a big there from my very modest here. There’s no map, and the way is not direct. And that’s the real poetic challenge, and one I hope I’m up to—my new job is to lay down that path.


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Writing will always take you back

Antony Gormley, Feeling Material II (2003)

I have a thing I say to myself, and to writers I know who have hit a dry spell that they can’t seem to emerge from, and it is this: Poetry will always take you back.
When one has been a long time away from writing, the blank page is daunting. There’s just too much white. Every mark we put down seems to stain it.
I remember a Christmas day a few decades back. I’d walked behind my house through a stubbled, harvested farm field toward the railroad track that formed its border a few hundred yards away. It wasn’t particularly cold; I wore shorts and a light jacket.
And then the snow came. It came sudden and hard, and I was blinded by it. My only course of action was put my head down, turn around, and follow the direction of the empty furrows back to my far-off home.
I trusted those grooves to get me back, just as I trust my lines of writing to get me somewhere. If we lower ourselves to the page, it meets us back, and it becomes a field where anything can happen.
A lot of people have advice on how to get the words going again. (I’m one of them, actually—I’ve written many posts containing writing prompts.) But starting to write again is a simple matter, if not an easy one. We just have to write.
I like to draft longhand, so for me, it’s literally a matter of moving my hand and arm over the page. Ink comes out; the page is defaced, so just like that, a source of consternation is behind me. At first my motions are mechanical and forced, my letters crabby and precise. I have a habit of crossing out those first sputters of language, and not just drawing a line through them, but obliterating them—scribbling over the offensively bad writing until not even the merest tittle shows. This is part of it, though—scribbling just another way of moving the pen.
That’s the trick, see—it’s not to be brilliant, but it’s to allow something to come through. After weeks or months away from writing, whatever presence is on the other side of that pen, looking up through the still pond of the page, has stepped away. The sound of our scratching beckons it back, and eventually, if our heart is pure, it offers us a crumb—a good word, a phrase, an image. 
And then we’re off.
Put in more practical terms, we have to write in order to write. Writing isn’t magic; it’s just slapping down some words. Most good writing happens in its revision anyway, but we can’t revise nothing. Moving the pen, or moving our fingers on the keyboard, gives us something. And we go from there.
For me, it really is as simple as this. The way to get back to writing is merely to write. After a few dusty gerunds or infinitives shake out, the pump begins to prime, and whoosh—out comes a lovely noun, and it’s one you hadn’t thought of in a while, one with the perfect sound. Tuba. Crypt. Syzygy. You hook your wagon to that word and it carries you … somewhere. And wherever it is, it’s always somewhere new.
I think we imbue writing with the wrong kind of voodoo. It isn’t fickle; it doesn’t leave us. It really does reside in us, always, and it can emerge if we make a path for it. The real magic is that writing begets more writing. The main thing that keeps it from happening is that we can’t easily find the time and the solitude to let it flow. 
Once we do find ourselves in the position to receive, we sometimes make one of two mistakes: Either we take an agenda to the page, and our plans don’t compel us, or we sit down and file through our mental Rolodex of potential subjects, and nothing there demands to be written about.
I like to rely on chance when I’m writing. A phrase here, a word there—these can lead to some surprising conjunctions, and the interest generated by an unexpected melding of ideas takes me past my panic and into … a poem. Or a proto-poem? 
At any rate, it’s a start.


Monday, May 22, 2017

On planning to be happy

I’ve been thinking a lot about reaching my writing goals, and my last three posts discussed the basics of establishing a mission, setting goals, and managing time.

But there is so much more to life than writing, and I need to remind myself of this on occasion. I’m sitting by one beautiful example of this so-much-more as I write this; while I do my work, he does his—he’s watching an episode of Peppa Pig and eating his cereal.

My shorthand way of thinking about the so-much-more is to call it happiness. That’s a very wiggly word for it, though. Is happiness the same as joy, or am I low-balling when I revel in the simple pleasure of having my best little friend by my side? Is this contented feeling happiness? 

And as I write this, and always, at every moment, there is gut-wrenching torture and pain and sorrow in the world. Someone I love is consumed by worry that he can’t pay an important bill. Another person I know is doubled over in pain at the death of her sister. And people I’ll never meet are starving and suffering and hurting in ways I can’t even imagine. This is always true, and there’s something problematic about happiness or joy under the circumstances.

I teach composition at the university level, and in recent classes I’ve been pursuing a happiness theme as a research focus. My students and I try to pin down a definition of happiness. We talk about the relationship of happiness to work, to love, to place, to the spirit, to art—any connection we can make to untangle the idea (or to further complicate it). We ponder what our nation’s founders meant when they said we had the right to pursue it; we probe why polls find significant unhappiness in the U.S., despite our wealth and apparent opportunity.

I’m embarking on a new class, and I just posted some journaling themes for my students. These were pretty easy to generate, because they’re the very same questions I’ve been ruminating over. Here are some:

1. To what extent is happiness a choice?
2. What did our nation’s founders mean when they said we had the “right to pursue happiness”?
3. Is joy just extreme happiness, or is it distinct from it?
4. In what ways is sorrow relevant to/necessary for happiness?
5. How can we best address sadness in another?
6. Why do some polls find U.S. citizens unhappy?
7. What is the main ingredient of your own happiness?
8. How do you deal with sadness?
9. Why do we sometimes laugh in inappropriate settings, like funerals?
10. How can you increase your happiness?
11. Should you try to be happier?
12. Do you ever sort of revel in a mood of melancholy, and if so, why?
13. Does activism require anger?
14. What’s up with people telling us to smile?
15. What is the role of religion in happiness?
16. What is the role of work in happiness?
17. What is the role of family in happiness?
18. What is the role of romantic love in happiness?
19. What is the role of home in happiness?
20. What is the role of mindfulness or meditation in happiness?
21. What is the role of pets in happiness?
22. What is the opposite of happiness?
23. Why do some people feel happier in a tidy or clean setting?
24. What good can you say about sadness?
25. What is one thing you can do right now to improve your level of happiness?
26. Read any article about happiness, scholarly or otherwise, and respond to it.

One thing I tell my students, and something I believe very strongly, is that sustained happiness is not an accident. We may feel a burst of pleasure when we win some money on a scratch-off lottery ticket or we run into an old friend, but it seems to me that a happy life is the result of planning. We have to set ourselves up for it. Luck helps, too—if we have good health and a job we enjoy, we’re mostly just fortunate, although health and employment, too, are things we can strive for.

So as I’m planning for a summer of successful writing, I’m also thinking about soaking up all the happiness I possibly can—and about supplementing the happiness of the people I care about (and I like to think that’s everyone, although I may fall short in a few particular instances).

What will happiness require? I have an idea that I’ll need to write things I care about, but also that I must have time in nature, time with my family, time for navel-gazing and relaxation. My gut says that multitasking is working in the wrong direction, and that to be fully happy, I have to inhabit my life and be fully present in each moment.

I anticipate some disappointments, and maybe some very harsh ones. But right now, I’m reaching for joy, and I’m doing all I can to be ready for it.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Making the most of a writer's time

Badger, Sir Thomas Browne, 1658

To reach our goals, it’s important to have a mission and a plan. Even more than these elements, though, we need to have time—and time, in fact, is the only absolute necessity.

I’m thinking of writing, although “mission” feels like more of a corporate term than an artistic one. As long as we devote some time to writing, we can muck around without a mission or purpose, and we can feel our way without a plan. But there’s no substitute for time. Writers have to write down some words, and this happens in a unit of time—a few seconds spent scrawling on the back of an envelope, an entire day drafting at a desk. You can take away the envelope or the desk, but you can’t subtract time from the equation and still say that one has written.

This formula for achievement of goals—mission plus plan over time—works for every goal, even beyond writing. We could have a mission to get fit and a great exercise plan to follow, but if we don’t spend time exercising—if we don’t act on the plan in real life—nothing changes for us. There is power in having a vision, but most of that power has to do with the way it changes our actions. I have a lot of desires, but I can’t think my house clean; I need to dip into my limited pool of time to pick up toys or scrub the shower.

My last two posts here have talked about mission and planning as ways to make the most of summer writing time that academics frequently have high hopes for. Summer, I’ve found, can get away from us if we do what we feel drawn to—sleep in, laze about, soak up the sun. With an idea of what it is we’re about, and a plan for what we’d like to accomplish, we might be tempted to go with what feels good. Sometimes that’s exactly what we should do—and it’s undoubtedly a good idea for at least some part of our free time.

But a big part of the plan is how to execute it with the resources we have, and our most important (and most limited) resource is time.

The outset of summer is a perfect time to craft a schedule for meeting our goals (and perhaps for starting a habit of intentional use of time, even though the schedule might change). Here are some steps to consider for making the most of time:

* Take a realistic look at the twenty-four hours in a day. Figure on eight hours for sleep, even though eight full hours of sleep is a pipe dream for me; still, that’s a healthy target, and I wouldn’t advise low-balling sleep, or making a plan that steals from our need to be good to ourselves.

* Start to chart out a calendar, with the understanding that your Mondays are different than your Thursdays—each day brings its own commitments and challenges.

* Make a place on the schedule for those elements that can’t be omitted—like childcare or work. It helps to know the difference. We actually can let the dishes stand in the sink for a day. We can forego a shower or a favorite show. Children are going to need to eat, but we can forego an hour-and-a-half of cooking in favor of a frozen pizza in the oven, at least on occasion.

* Look at what’s left—and again, we can do this even if we have to steal time that we might prefer to use for another purpose. I love to woolgather in the morning before the family is awake, but that’s my best chance at a few hours of uninterrupted writing time, and if I’m focused on meeting my goals, I need to be thoughtful of what I do with pockets of time.

* Give yourself permission to regard writing time as one of those immutable elements, and place it on the schedule. For me, I might make the immutable writing time that pocket I regularly have from 6 to 8 a.m.—or I might know that I’ll be waiting out my kid’s karate class or sitting in a car line for a pocket of time. I suggesting giving a regularly available pocket of time to writing, and trying to find the best pocket available for the purpose. Sometimes we’re dealing with ten-minute increments, but sometimes we have the benefit of an entire unscheduled hour or more.

* Be both ambitious and practical about the amount of time you can dedicate to writing. If you can give eight hours to it, do! But that sounds like an unusual day to me, and the kind of overly ambitious planning that dooms a goal to failure.

* Because theoretical time has a tendency to disappear, try to identify a secondary time you might use for writing if your primary spot is taken. Mark it down, and if you find it’s necessary look for places to economize on time (the frozen pizza trick) and expand the secondary pocket.

Busy people really can’t count on writing time popping up accidentally, although waiting for (and recognizing) this kind of opportunity is sometimes my method. If we are to look back on the summer with the satisfaction of knowing that we made progress on our goals, we need to have the resolve at the outset to identify who we are and what we’d like to accomplish, and then to chart a course that takes the best advantage of available time.


Interested in maximizing your writing time? Maybe you need a personal trainer. I am pleased to introduce “The Badger,” my service for helping writers and researchers to reach their goals. Check it out here! http://www.papercranewritingservices.com/the-badger-personal-trainer-for-your-writing-life.html

Friday, May 19, 2017

Pursuing the mission-driven life

C.F. Tunnicliffe, Badgers

Why do we creative types cede all talk of mission to the corporate realm?

When I was younger, I thought about starting a business, and I attended a few workshops sponsored by the Small Business Administration. Mission was the name of the game. Over and over again, the experts stressed that to obtain capital and to communicate to prospective clients, it was crucial to have both a clear idea and a statement of mission.

I worked on a mission statement for my business. (It was a writing consultancy that I called “Your Wordsworth.” I still like the name.) As instructed, I went for a brief, lively statement that I could put my energy behind—something to say This is what I am, or, more to the point, This is what I can do—the problem I can solve, and my reason for wanting to do so.

Mission statements were also on my mind when I was the editor-in-chief of a literary journal. Journals often seek funding for their efforts, and one crisis in the field is that we all seem to share the same mission. Most magazines seek “to publish the best work available by writers both established and new.” A few magazines specialize and serve a particular demographic or literary style. The word that almost never gets unpacked is “best.” Thus, magazines all seem to compete for the same dollars with the same tired statement, while they also compete for the same work—the best work. Strangely, no one seems to want the crummy stuff.

As editor, I underwent some training with the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses—the folks who brought us the Contest Code of Ethics that most reputable journals subscribe to. Their message was the same as the Small Business Administration’s: It’s critically important to set ourselves apart with a clear picture of who we are, what we want to do, and how we are distinctive in our approach to doing it. If we couldn’t do this, why would anyone choose to subscribe or donate?

These days I’m more tuned in to writing than to entrepreneurship, and I’m no longer at the helm of a journal. However, I’m finding more and more that this notion from the corporate world has relevance to my life. Shouldn’t I be able to state in a clear sentence what it is I’m about? I think I should—and not to coax in customers or sources of capital, but to remind myself of my purpose and to doggedly pursue it, come what may.

What a poet understands better than a trainer from the Small Business Administration is that words are powerful magic, and we tap into that magic by declaring how we intend to function in the world.

For some, it’s a huge step merely to declare oneself a poet. When you love poetry, claiming that title feels like assigning yourself an honorific—might as well ask everyone to call me Lady Gorgeous De Fancypants, because it’s just that ridiculous. But the simple fact of the matter is that if we write poetry, we’re poets. We might be suck-ass poets, but bad dogs are still dogs—we don’t pull the title when they eat a slipper, because it still serves as a useful description of type.

This whole issue is complicated by all the writers we know who never write or publish. I went through a long—as in a multi-year—dry spell in my thirties, and I didn’t stop calling myself a poet during that time, but I sure wasn’t writing. I was editing and I was reading, but I wasn’t actually writing. By the time I figured out I was more of a former poet than a practicing one, I was already starting up again, and the distinction was unnecessary.

This summer, I’m thinking a lot about the power of language and the mission-driven life. Like so many academics, I keep up my writing through the school year, but I wait for the summer for high-concept work—like putting book manuscripts together, or sending out book proposals, or making a publishing plan. Summer, too, seems to allow sustained thought on writing projects, so I feel more inclined to take on ambitious work—a multi-page poem instead of something sonnet length.

But to make that sort of productivity happen, I have to tell myself the right kind of story, and those words become sort of a de facto mission statement. I devote time and energy to my writing. I make the most of unscheduled time to complete ambitious writing projects. I am driven to create in the time that is available to me. Statements like these keep me on track during those non-teaching months I think of as free time but which are really my best writing time.

What follows a clear statement of mission is a process of goal-setting—how am I going to complete my mission?—and then of working to meet those goals. With a mission that feels honest and optimistic, it’s a pleasure to scheme and then to follow through. But a great summer of writing doesn’t happen by accident, and I know that I need to plan now to make the most of the time I have.

I’m a poet. And I’m on a mission.


Would you like to make the most of your summer writing ambitions? I’m offering personal training for writers and researchers through a program I call “The Badger.” In June, July, or both, I will cheerfully “badger” you every day, by helping you to set and track goals and to stay true to your own mission, whatever it may be. Information is available here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Badger yourself to better writing habits

A friend of mine has gone a long time without writing poetry.

It bothers her. She defines herself as a poet, and because she is well published, poetry feels to her like it is the key to a better future. But nevertheless, she says that she seldom finds time to write, and when she does, the words don’t come.

“I need something to change,” she told me. “I need to make something change.”

I know what she means. This is one of my first regular blog posts in quite some time, and that’s only half by design. Life got busy and I had to let something go. To be honest, I had to let several things go. I’m having a dry spell, too, poetically speaking.

And here I am at the end of a semester of teaching with the summer looming before me. It feels good—no one needs anything from me for the first time in a long while. I have no appointments. My things-to-do list is entirely self-determined, and today it has one thing on it: Write this blog post.

Poetry remains conspicuously absent. Do you ever feel like I do—like your creative work is something you need to sneak up on? Sometimes my orange tabby cat gets out of the house. Escape is always on his mind, but he’s terrible at it. He’ll dash to the neighbor’s bush and stand under it. From that point I just reach in and grab him by the scruff of the neck—something I would never do under ordinary circumstances—and I put him back in his safe, non-bird-killing, unsquashable-by-car space.

The writing is like this, for me, anyway. It seems very elusive, but when I sit down, I can coax it out of the bushes. The comparison falls apart a bit here, because it’s not my desire to put it in a safe space, but rather to play in the traffic of the psyche. I think writing can be a little dangerous when you do it right. Poetry, in particular, is uncomfortable. There are a lot of ways to write a poem, but for me, it’s very much a process of taking my actual pain and making art out of it. Other poets may work differently, but I don’t find the practice the least bit fun.

Is it any wonder we let it slip? If our art form were something like tickle-fighting or sundae-eating, we’d never miss a day.

Maybe there was a time when writers had plenty of minutes to think and to play with words; I’m no historian, but it seems like the Transcendentalists and the Romantics spent their days walking and writing and bullshitting. Having money helped then, just like it does now, and so did having friends with money to mooch off of. But for the average Joe, or more specifically, the average Jane, I do know this: There was a time when doing laundry started with manufacturing soap out of ashes and beef tallow, and it ended with washboard-scrubbing and wringing. When could Jane write, much less ramble and get high on laudanum and swim in the Gulf of Spezia?

And I guess my friend and I are modern-day versions of Jane. While the laudanum and the Tyrrhenian Sea weren’t strictly necessary for writing, no one really wants to read poems about laundry, and no one wants to read about grading college students’ essays, either. Work gets in the way of writing time, and it also gets in the way of having experiences that lend themselves to writing—even the experience of wool-gathering while spotting animal shapes in the clouds.

I know this about writing: It has always taken me back. Like my friend, I’ve had dry days that have turned into dry weeks and months and even, I regret to say it, years. But when I’ve felt ready to go back in to those bushes, they were there—and there was nothing that said I needed to wait calmly to be lugged back to safety.

My cat is very gentle and would never bite or scratch. Maybe he should. Maybe that goldfinch is as delicious as she seems, and maybe he ought to try harder to consume her and her song.

Again, it’s a faulty metaphor. Unlike the typical house cat, killing up to twenty songbirds each year, my poetry doesn’t hurt anyone. Rather, it makes the world better—a little more gentle and less perplexing, at least for me.

The trick—for me, and for my friend—is to set some goals and to make the time to reach them. I am ready to have a word-rich summer, and so I’m starting out by making a plan.


Are you interested in setting some goals for your summer writing projects? I have a new personal training program for writers that I call “The Badger.” For the month of June or July—or for both—you set the goals and I “badger” you every day with prompts, check-ins, light feedback, and whatever other help you need to get where you want to go. Check it out! 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Poem366: VILLAIN SONGS by Tammy Robacker

The poem in Tammy Robacker’s collection Villain Songs (ELJ, 2017) that I come back to again and again is “The Cuckoo Clock.”

When I was a girl
I wanted to live
inside of one.

A wooden, small
place to hold me.
I was in love

with its bird
face. …

This is the wondrous beginning of the poem, and I’ve felt this—a sense that there was some magic in that chamber where the bird lived, or, in some versions, where the tiny woodcutter keeps his table, or the milkmaid has her bed.

But this poem goes darker, and its danger is the same throughout the entire collection. It’s an overwhelming sense of masculine oppression, built into the whorls and knots of the timepiece.

Clockmakers all carve
the same male game

in their overhang.
Reared buckhorns
and alpha beasts—

They rule the ornate
roost. …

Robacker ends the piece by referring to the pinecone weights of these clocks, “dangling / their gonadal hang.” And just like that, a child’s wonder is given over to oppression and fear.

Villain Songs calls out the dangers the world poses to its children—and particularly its girls—in poems of witness, poems of incest, a poem with a buried fetus, poems with nighttime dangers and unwelcome touch.

And they resonate. The poems in Villain Songs hit home for anyone who has encountered a cockthrust on a public bus or the weird attention of a creepy uncle—its intentions obvious in retrospect, but puzzling to a child.

Once I was at a gas station and a man exposed himself to me. The front of his pants were open, and he stood there as if the presence of his penis were an accident of which he was unaware. I called him out and he ran, and when I got to my car, where my mother waited, I worried that I had made an error. Maybe he didn’t know. My mother shook her head. “Men always know where their penis is,” she said, and I think it’s true.

In Villain Songs, my mother’s words stay with me. The men whose selfish and violating acts are recounted know what they are doing. There are no accidents here. And Robacker knows what she’s doing; she’s bearing witness. She says as much in the poem “Blocked Memories”:

             … I could never tell
the poor man it happened then.
I tucked the secret beneath my body.
Silence fell across me like down.
For forty years I have slept
on it. Blank as a sheet till now.

As Rick Barot states in his blurb for the collection, “Poetry’s work as retrieval and repair has never been more vigorously practiced than in Villain Songs.” He also cites superb craft, and poems “as artful as they are wounded.” It’s not an easy collection to process, but it houses important truths—and poets know there is beauty in that.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Writer's Spirit Prompt #9

Today, try to unlock a different part of the creative mind by engaging in a type of imaginative play that is different from your norm. If, like me, you tend to create only with words, you might consider trying to execute a drawing—a self-portrait, perhaps, or a spring blossom. You might also try singing or playing music, or attempting a craft, like paper-making or wire sculpture. Whatever you try, give it an honest but non-judgmental attempt, just to see how far you can take this other medium. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself—or maybe you won’t, but you’ll at least explore another wrinkle in your capacious, inventive brain.


I’m offering contemplative prompts for poets all through April, National Poetry Month. If you subscribe to Better View of the Moon, you never need to miss one.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Writer's Spirit Prompt #8

You’ve probably been informed that there are things you can’t do. Center a poem. Start a poem with a definition. Start with waking or end with sleeping.

But don’t some poems demand to be written in a way the workshop hates? And isn’t that the pure pleasure of leaving the workshop behind? The people who told you that there couldn't be a good essay on ___, or that no one needs another ___ story, or that there are too many poems about ___—they’re off somewhere, not writing about whatever it is they prohibit, and here we are, left to our devices, free to write about sex or motherhood or cancer or all three at the same time.

Your challenge today—again, a contemplative challenge instead of a poetry challenge—is to write down every rule anyone has ever tried to give you for your poetry. That includes anything you’ve heard outlawed or mocked by professors, classmates, or editors, and it also includes anything you’ve been telling yourself.

Read over your list when you’re done with it. Such a constipated way of thinking about poetry is at least worth a good laugh. Maybe, too, there’s a prompt in it. You could write a poem right now that is centered, or that has a single obvious rhyme, or that contains an obvious bookend, or that uses the word “love” like it’s your turf or something.


If you like this series of contemplative prompts, offered throughout the month of April, be sure to subscribe to this blog so you won’t miss a single one.

Friday, April 7, 2017

A Writer's Spirit Prompt #7

I seem to remember that as a child, I spent a lot of time in proto-science activities—splitting the stalk of a dandelion with my thumbnail to see the milk inside, watching the weird slow-fast morph of clouds, looking for the source of the birdsong. I remember the simple amazement of dirt, and how black it was beneath the surface, and what little things were in it--bugs and stones and tiny snails.

In keeping with yesterday's prompt, engage in a little proto-science today. Recapture that feeling of having a child's sharp senses, and explore anything handy—what’s in the dark recess under the porch, what the inside of rock looks like if you break it, what the cat's footprint looks like. Just look and wonder. And as always, write if you want.


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Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Writer's Spirit Prompt #6

Set aside some time today to recapture a memory of your distant past. I just did this myself. I went to the school playground all by myself and I picked out a swing. Remember that? You’d go to the swing set and look for one that was just the right height, and you’d settle in and kick off—feet pointed forward for coming and knees bent for going.

I lost some time swinging. I tried to recapture the pure memory of the motion while I forgot everything about my actual day. It worked, too. It took very few backs and forths before my musculature took over. My quadriceps remembered; my gluteus maximus; my hamstrings; my Achilles tendon. And my mind cleared itself of minutiae, and when I was done I was ready to do a writer’s work.

There are plenty of ways to reconnect to that child self, it occurs to me. I could finger paint or make cookies; I could record my height on the jamb of the door. Choose a physical action from your childhood and give yourself over to it. Afterwards, if writing comes ... let it. Maybe your child self has something to say.


I hope you’re enjoying this series of prompts, which are not for poems, but rather for fostering a poetic mindset, without the pressure a poem-per-day prompt set sometimes carries. Please consider subscribing to this blog so you don't miss a prompt—offered every day in April, National Poetry Month.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

More hubris and cruelty from editors

Sometimes literary editors are discouraging, and sometimes they miss the point—but sometimes their rejections are just … well, odd.

I recently rounded up some of my friends’ bizarre experiences with rejection, and the stories ranged from comical to heartbreaking. There was one theme, though, that fascinated me, and it happened when responses almost seemed like afterthoughts.

For almost all rejection notes, the wording is as meticulously crafted as in any submission the magazine might receive. I remember my first stab at writing the text of a rejection. A few considerations seemed vitally important. 

  1. “No” should never be tacit. A writer is looking for one key piece of information when an editor responds to a submission: Is it accepted? A rejection slip needs to say “no” directly, and early; I always tried to include my “no” in the first sentence.
  2. “Thank you” is necessary. A magazine needs submissions. Writers are critically important to any journal’s mission, and they deserve appreciation for helping to contribute in that way. (I know plenty of editors who regard large numbers of submissions as undesirable—a problem. While they are a lot of work, I welcome every one. More submissions means better work.)
  3. False encouragement should never be offered. “No” and “thank you” are the basics. “We invite you to submit again”—now, that’s special. I never offered this language to any writer unless I actually wanted to see more of that person’s work. Journals get enough submissions that they don’t need to ask for more.
  4. There should be no tone of apology unless the journal has done something wrong. If my response is late, I apologize. I’m not sorry for a simple no.
  5. There should be no excuses. A rejection should not suggest that the journal “can’t” accept work. 
  6. There should be no counseling or patronizing. It is inappropriate to point out that a journal’s decision represents only one person’s or group’s opinion, or that there are a lot of other fish in the litmag sea. Empty platitudes are disrespectful, and they have no place in rejection correspondence.

Most editors think about the message they are sending to writers, and how it reflects on (and how it will be received by) all parties involved. Suffice it to say, though, that “most” does not mean “all.”

Here are some of the less considered responses some of my writer friends have received:

  • Many writers report the new trend of the non-response: If you don’t receive a contract, you should consider yourself rejected. This is the response that shows up when you log in to the submission management system and see that your work is declined without comment. A handful of magazines acknowledge up front that this is how they operate; some just quietly click “reject” without sending word of the decision. (Sometimes they do this accidentally.)
  • R. reports that she once received a note that informed her “Only one of these even came close.” Remarked R.: “OK, then.”
  • J.’s favorite rejection told him, “We don’t publish this type of material, and even if we did, we wouldn’t publish this.” A similar magazine later accepted the pice—and sent a nice-sized check.
  • L. received a rejection that said simply, “We prefer poems that laugh down the well.” I admit I’m not sure what that means.
  • One of my most celebrated writing friends, D., reports, “I once received a form rejection from a journal and then, two days later, a handwritten note from the editor saying that the form rejection wasn’t sufficient to express his dislike of my work—that he found it flat and unmusical and completely devoid of merit of any kind.” He adds, “A few years later, this same editor published a memoir about his unhappy childhood, and I thought, nah, not unhappy enough.
  • C. says that an editor told her to read previous issues of the journal, because they publish only “phenomenal” poets. The weird part? C. herself had been in the journal twice before. “Does that make me a part-time, or an only-once-in-a-while, ‘phenomenal’ poet???!”
  • S. remembers when he was a grad student, and as a class project he subscribed to a journal to write a detailed critique of it as a class project. Later, when he sent his work to that journal, he mentioned a few pieces he particularly enjoyed. “Within a week I received an angry handwritten note on my cover letter stating that it was ‘clear I had never bothered to read their journal, that my cover letter was an insult because the editor personally knew that he had no subscribers from Arizona, and that my submission went in the trash as soon as he saw praise for the poems from their last issue that I had clearly not read.” S. sent back a copy of the issue with a mail stamp addressed to him and “drew a big, full-fingered bird on the cover.”
  • G. tells me that he has received a Post-it note rejection, as well as another rejection for which the first page of a manuscript was returned with “NO!” scrawled across it.
  • R. notes that she received an acceptance on a Post-it—“the entirety of which read, ‘I’ll take [poem title].’”
  • M. once received a standard rejection with an additional note that said only, “A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Because we all know there’s only one kind of story ….
  • H. got a handwritten rejection once that was completely illegible. She says, “It was handwritten, presumably in English, but I literally couldn’t read a word of it, and it was also super-late, like over a year.” (Incidentally, H. says that she’s been writing a long time and isn’t bothered by rejection—“But when I think of beginning writers or writers who are insecure about the value of their work receiving the responses people are describing here and being hurt by them, I’m disgusted.”
  • P. says she once received a a snail mail rejection with a flyer containing submission guidelines, with the submission window aggressively circled and highlighted. The editor had scrawled a message: “FOLLOW GUIDELINES CORRECTLY.” The problem was that the dates on the flyer contradicted the dates listed on the website, which had her submission occurring within the window. “This stuff doesn’t bother me as much now, but when I was just starting to send work out, it stung a bit.”
  • F. remembers sending a note in her cover letter explaining that she felt a particular group of poems might be a good fit. The editors responded, “No matter how you feel, these poems aren’t a good fit for XXX Review.” The editor signed the note, “I.B. Scrood.”
  • L. received a poetry rejection that said, “Your poetry is good, but alas, we can’t use it.” Alas?
  • E. received a rejection slip in the mail in the old days of paper submissions. The clean but oddly angled cut made it clear an intern had prepared the rejection with one of those guillotine-style paper cutters. As did the smear of blood across the quarter-sheet ….
  • Someone—an editor of a well-known feminist journal—once rejected A. with a note that admonished, “Only famous poets can write in lowercase.”
  • Poor J. received a rejection once that had none of the typical language of a rejection slip—just a single sentence saying, “Don’t quit your day job.”

I may need to write another post about rejections that run the gamut from the cruel to the ridiculous to the nearly sublime. There are so many stories about odd and inappropriate rejection notes that I feel affirmed in my approach: Editors should just say no, politely and respectfully—and humbly. 

There is never any need to hurt a writer. A simple rejection says all they need to say.