Saturday, October 18, 2014

Leading Poetry Workshops

I very much enjoy giving workshops. One recent really heart-warming experience was doing a two-hour workshop for seniors as part of the Tour of Poetry series held in Northfield, NJ, at the Otto Bruyns Library. This wonderful program is run by poet Emari DiGiorgio who received a grant from Stockton College to fund it. I’d been told to expect 6-8 people. We ended up with 20! They were just a wonderful group to work with, so eager, so industrious, and so appreciative. The day was well worth the two-hour drive each way. We did a writing activity together and heard a handful of the drafts. Then I gave a short reading and left the group with a take-home prompt.

I generally find that seniors don’t buy books—not because they’re cheapskates, but because they may now be on reduced budgets or more often because they’re downsizing their living space. Nevertheless, I sold a goodly number of copies of The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop. This group was hungry for poetry instruction and additional prompts, and they were anxious to continue working at home. Each month from now through the spring they will meet with a different poet.

Then last week I gave a reading and talk to a group of seniors in Upper Montclair, NJ. This was not a writing workshop and the participants were not poets, but they were a great audience. This program is run by Rose La Mantia who arranges a monthly presentation for her group which meets in a church rec room. What a wonderful gift to her community. Participants come early and have lunch together. Then there’s the presentation and desserts.

 I was originally scheduled to give this presentation two years ago during the week of Sandy, but we had to cancel. Because Rose schedules a year in advance, my visit had a long wait. But it was worth the wait. I love bringing poetry to audiences who perhaps haven’t been reading much of it but are open to it. My topic was “Poems and Where They Come From.” Before I read each poem, I talked about what had sparked the writing of the poem. My listeners were full of questions and comments. And much to my delight, many of them went home with a copy of one of my poetry books.

Kudos to Emari and Rose for their contributions to poetry and to their communities.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Cockamamie Life of a Poet

We poets often say that we work in isolation. We say that because it’s true. It can be a lonely occupation, especially for those of us without a nearby poetry community or family and friends who share our love of poetry. We often go for long stretches of time without any poetry conversation. Throw a bunch of poets together at a festival or a conference and notice how they practically fall on each other. They are so hungry for poetry talk.

I’ve thought for a number of years that blogs have been great for closing up the distance and creating a new community of poets who share the same interest in writing poems and the same frustrations. Online journals in their own way also help to bring poets together in a way that print journals do not. I’m not sure why that is or even if it’s really true, but it feels true to me. Then social media has become a wonderful way for poets to gather even though separated by many miles. Yes, it can be a great time waster, but it can also be a way of sharing trials and triumphs. I’d never think of knocking on my neighbor’s door and saying, “Hey, guess what! I just had a poem accepted by such and such a journal and I’ve been dying to get into that journal.” But I am happy to routinely post such news on Facebook and to read of such news from my Facebook “friends”—many of whom I’ve never met. We give each other Likes and congratulatory comments. Maybe it’s weird, but I like that.

All of that is leading up to sharing my recent poetry news here with you, my poetry neighbors.

For print publications I have a new poem, “Signs,” in the inaugural issue of Tahoma Literary Review. Poetry editor Kelly Davio has done a great job with this journal. She and her co-editor have even managed to create a business model that allows them to pay their contributors. The journal appears in print, but you can also download it as a pdf. Several months ago Kelly invited me to write a guest post for the website. I chose to write about how I’d gone about writing “Signs.” That piece, “Imitation and Invention,” has now been posted. Those of you who subscribe to my newsletter will recognize the Carl Dennis poem that I refer to as it was the model poem for the June issue's poetry prompt. I practice what I preach.

I also have two poems, “A Polemic for Pink” and “Pity the Fortune Cookie Writer His Muse,” in the current issue of Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. Poetry Editor Julie Brooks Barbour has put together an issue I’m so proud to be part of. I also like how she and editor Kaite Hillenbrand use social media to spread the word.

I also had two recent online features. My one and only concrete poem, “Organic Fruit,” in the shape of an avocado, was re-featured at Your Daily Poem as part of the journal’s five-year anniversary celebration. Publisher Jayne Jaudon Ferrer single-handedly manages to post a poem every single day of the year.

The other feature is at The Good Men Project. Poetry editor, Charlie Bondhus, selected my poem, “The Missing Bike,” for this feature. Each poem that appears in the poetry column is paired with an appropriate piece of art. The readership for this online journal/magazine appears to be enormous. Some of the articles get thousands of readers. Last time I checked my poem had received 258 Facebook shares from the page. What a great way to increase the readership. This is why I think all online journals should include share buttons.

Poetry Magazine is another online journal doing an anniversary celebration. I was a featured poet there about a dozen years ago so was recently invited to submit a poem for the anniversary anthology. I sent my poem “Hunger in the Garden,” a poem written in American sentences. The credit line is for some reason missing, but the poem was first published by Valparaiso Poetry Review and appears in my book, Temptation by Water.
Click Cover for Amazon
Last week I was delighted to learn that poet and blogger Margo Roby had posted one of her weekly poetry prompts and had used as her inspiration one of the Bonus Prompts from my book, The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop. Margo could easily have just taken credit for the idea, but she generously gave me credit even though she’d added a good deal to the prompt and really made it hers. Check it out and write a new poem.

The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop is making its way around the globe. Its latest stop was South Africa. Witness this short but sweet review in the Cape Times.

Finally, I learned that the editors of the Mojave River Review have nominated “Coloring,” one of the four poems I had in their inaugural issue, for a Best of the Net prize. This competition was started in 2006 by Sundress Publications with the goal of bringing more attention to and respect for online publications. Great idea! Each year’s winners appear in an online anthology. Many thanks to the editors of both the journal and Sundress. Then came more good news: the editor of Rose Red Review has nominated my poem “The Color of Magic” for a Best of the Net Award. 

Of course, then came Friday with a triple header of rejections. But that was followed this week by three acceptances, all from journals I really want to be in. Such is life. And so it goes.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Font Rant

I wish that Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and all publishers would include font size in the publication information of each poetry book they sell. Then I could avoid ordering any collection that uses a font smaller than 11. I'm attempting to read a new book now that may end up blinding me. The poems are spoiled because the physical act of reading them is so difficult. I keep misreading words that look like other words, e.g., ever for even, dirt for dart, feeling for foreleg, and so on. When the line makes no sense, I go back and discover my error, but by then I’ve already been booted out of the poem. Sure, I can get back in, but if it happens again and again, then the reading becomes too fragmented to be enjoyable and meaningful.
This seems to be a trend. I’ve experienced it several times now, almost exclusively with poetry books. I thought initially that this might be an economical adjustment, a way of saving paper. But no, it’s not. When I go back through the book, I discover that most of the poems are less than a full page and could easily accommodate a larger font. Occasionally, a small font seems to be used in order to accommodate long lines. Bad choice. There are alternatives. If it’s just a few poems that have long lines, the font on those pages could be decreased, though that's not desirable. Or turn lines could be used. Again, not desirable, but certainly better than spoiling the whole book. If many of the poems have long lines, a larger book size could be used. Another option might be for the poet to rework those long lines.
Several days ago I posted my irritation on Facebook and quickly learned that I’m not the only one who has noticed this trend and finds it bothersome. Some even went so far as to suggest that this is ageism. Some of the commenters with books said that they insist their publishers use an easy-to-read font size. Problem there is that not all publishers give that option to their authors. That’s often the role of the book design department. Who are these book designers with their very good vision?
One commenter recommended that I buy a magnifying sheet. I refuse to do that. How annoying to have to keep moving the sheet as I go from page to page, poem to poem. It’s not my job to make the book physically readable; it’s the publisher’s job.
A very small font can also present a problem for the poet at readings. I’ve seen poets at the podium struggling to read their own poems, trying to catch the light just right, misreading and then correcting.
Also there seems to be a trend to use light gray font. Combine that with the small size. No thanks!
I’ve also noticed that it seems to be in style to use a small font on covers. This means that the title and the poet’s name often cannot be read in a thumbnail image. I understand the desire to show as much of the artwork as possible, but surely the title and poet’s name are equally important?
Other commenters suggested Kindle or some other e-reader. I love the option of being able to read on my Kindle, but I do not want to have that as my only option. Also line length is still a problem on e-readers. That’s getting better, but still requires adjustment of settings. I like to mark up some of the poetry books I’m reading. I really can’t do that on the screen—at least not in the same way I can with a paper book. And I like to dogear pages. And circle favorites in the table of contents. My reading is active, not passive.

Someone sent me this article with an audio discussion on the topic. Check it out: Your paper brain and your Kindle brain aren't the same thing

So what’s a human reader to do? I order and read a lot of poetry books. I’m contemplating returning books with unreadable fonts. I’m not sure that Amazon will consider that an acceptable reason for returning a book. They’ll probably charge me the cost of the postage. That returns me to my starting point: Amazon and publishers should start indicating font size. I, for one, would appreciate that. Better yet, publishers should stop using small font sizes.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Fallow Writing Periods and Triggers

My last post, “Have You Been Wasting Precious Writing Time,” provoked a good deal of response. Many readers seemed to take comfort in knowing that Louise Gluck went for long periods of time without writing any poems. However, while they took comfort in knowing that they were not alone in going through fallow periods, many also made it clear that they felt disappointed, unsuccessful, and frustrated. They wanted it to be otherwise, They wanted to be writing. This set me to thinking some more about the subject.

First of all, stop raking yourself over the coals for not writing. It may be that you’ve earned an extended break. If, for example, you’ve just published a book, you may need to step back and just cool yourself off for a while. You may need to replenish the well inside you, that place where the poems come from. Maybe you need to concentrate on getting readings and enjoying being the author of a newly published book. Or maybe you’ve just completed a manuscript and need a break. Writing is a joy, but it’s also hard work. Sometimes a vacation is in order. Or maybe life has just been a bit overwhelming. It’s okay to give yourself some time off. Not everyone writes like William Stafford.

Understand that during the time you are not writing you may, nevertheless, be doing the work of a poet. You may be observing, storing up, gathering. You’re getting ready for the next burst of new poems. Believe that they will come. Maybe not as soon as you’d like, but they will come. They are waiting for the right trigger.

However, you may have to find or create the trigger that will unleash the poems that live inside you. Here are some suggestions for doing that:

Prepare to open a vein.
1. Make a date with yourself to write every day for the next week. Not for forever but for a week. Not to write poems but just to write. Schedule this into your day. Keep it short, maybe even as short as ten minutes per session. No topics? Look out the window and write about the first thing you see. Free write without stopping. No going back over. No revising. At the end of the week, look at what you’ve written—probably an impressive amount. Is any of it calling to you, saying, “Hey, I want to be a poem”? Can any of the pieces be combined? Is it all a big ugly flop? If so, repeat the next week. Eventually, something will click, will set a fire inside you. Until then, at least you’re writing.

2. Create a Day of Poetry at your house. I’ve done this several times and it’s wildly productive and fun.

3. Go to readings. There’s something about just sitting there and listening that gets your creative mind working. There’s something about being among other poets that reminds you of who you are.

4. Read poems. Every day. This is part of the hunting and gathering. You may not be writing, but you are doing the work of a poet.

5. Go for walks. Listen to music as you do so.

6. Write some reviews of poetry collections. The close attention this requires will feed your poetic imagination. And you’ll be doing important work, necessary work. You’ll be firming up your membership in the poetry community.

7. Use prompts. Now don’t give me that nonsense that real poets don’t use prompts. Every poem is prompted by something. Get your hands on some books of poetry prompts. Here are some suggestions:

        The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, by Diane Lockward, Wind Publications, 2013. Craft Tips, model poems, prompts, Q&As, 101 poet contributors

        Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, by Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen, Dos Gatos Press, 2011. A boatload of prompts by a variety of poets, many of them teachers

        Wingbeats II: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, the sequel, by Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen, Dos Gatos Press, 2014. Another boatload of prompts by a variety of poets, many of them teachers

        The Daily Poet: Day-by-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice, by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano, Two Sylvias Press, 2013. A quick prompt for each day of the year.

While I hope that you’ll get at least a few books of prompts for your desk, I also want to suggest that there are websites that offer prompts. One of my favorites is Adele Kenny’s The Music In It.  Adele offers a new prompt every Saturday. Her prompts typically include a good deal of craft discussion and links to sample poems.

Another favorite site for poetry prompts is Margo Roby's Wordgathering. Margo offers lots of creative prompts and does so on a regular basis.

Another blog for prompts that I like is by Rachel McKibbens. She seems to have stopped keeping the blog up to date and the site is a mess, but the past prompts are there and they look like fun.

The idea is to give yourself a crash program in total immersion. As Georgia Heard might say, marinate yourself in poetry.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Have You Been Wasting Precious Writing Time?

The Sept/Oct issue of Poets & Writers contains an interview with Louise Gluck. In the interview, entitled “Internal Tapestries,” Gluck speaks of her long-time love of mystery books. This interested me as I’m a big fan of true crime books. (Interesting that fans of one seem not to be fans of the other genre. Who can explain that?) Gluck’s love of mystery books was recently supplanted by her fascination with a newly acquired iPad.

Although she was initially resistant to the device, Gluck turned to it as it was the only way she could watch “Orange Is the New Black,” a TV show in which her niece plays a role. She then just kept on using the thing. It became her “bed buddy.” She admits to having quickly become an “addict.”

Then she says what might make us cringe a bit: “At the moment it has usurped the place of reading in my life. Part of me thinks this is dangerous; my own vocation will dissolve. Another part of me thinks this is exploratory, that if my vocation is so fragile or precarious it isn’t a vocation.”

I imagine that this resonated with many readers. It sure did with me. I routinely castigate myself for the amount of time I spend on the computer. And I’ve noticed in recent years that I’ve been paying hefty library fines on books which now seem to take me longer to get through than they did before I became addicted.

Woman Wasting Time
The interview raised for me the question of what constitutes wasting time? Is there, for a poet, anything that is truly a distraction? Or is it all grist for the mill? Gluck goes on to speak of a two-year period when she read nothing but garden catalogues. How embarrassing! Oh, not so fast to judge, please. At the end of those two years she wrote The Wild Iris, a book that earned her the Pulitzer Prize.

Gluck has come to believe that “there’s something my brain needs in such indulging,” and so she no longer resists or suffers from guilt. She knows that these side excursions, these diversions may very well lead to new writing and are necessary to her writer’s mind. The time she spends on the iPad “is just dream time, the way detective fiction is. It stills a certain kind of anxiety and at the same time engages the mind. As the mind is engaged and anxiety is suppressed, some imaginative work in some recessed portion of the being is getting done.”

Here’s what strikes me as good advice from Gluck: “Don’t prejudge your stimuli. Just trust where your attention goes.” Who knows what will lead where?

Gluck speaks also of a long period of not writing and suffering from the sense that she was losing words. Her sister advised her to write about that. Eventually this state of not writing became her newest book, Faithful and Virtuous, in which she explores the previously unexplored territory of her wordlessness.

Gluck concludes that when she thought she hadn’t been working she had indeed been working. Kind of takes the pressure off, doesn’t it? And the best part is that it’s true. I have come to regard my not infrequent fallow periods as times of hunting and gathering, though I hope to soon emerge from the current such period and start again showing up at the desk. What will I bring with me?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I Wanna Be the Next American Idol

My guitar if I were a rock star
I’m an “American Idol” super fan. I watch every single week, and if I have to go somewhere one night, I dvr it. After all these years, it’s still a show I wouldn’t miss. I even vote for my favorites. I don’t care about the declining numbers, unless that means the show gets cancelled. This year was extra special as my favorite contestant, Caleb Johnson, won.

As I watched the judges, Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick, critique the contestants this year, I kept thinking how relevant their comments were for poets as well as musicians. I took some notes as the weeks went by:

If the delivery is too introspective, you may keep the audience out.

You need to know what the words mean or you won’t feel them or communicate them to the audience.

Match your body to the words.

There must be emotional dynamics in the delivery.

Know who you are, what kind of artist you want to be—but from time to time, surprise us.

Get out of your comfort zone.

Get out of your wheelhouse. Show us a new version of you. Do what you haven’t done before.

If you’re giving us what we know, put a twist on it.

If you always do the same thing, you become predictable. Take risks. You can’t grow as an artist if you don’t.

Be dependable without being predictable.

You need both the yin and the yang. You can’t be all one or the other.

Give us authenticity.

Rehearse to get rid of the nerves.

Be self-assertive. Come out and own it.

Sing your song to someone. Imagine someone.

All good advice for poets, yes? Poetry is our singing.

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