Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Foodies Unite & Write

We are very close to the end of the year and what follows is that post holiday slump when the bills come due and the excitement goes down the drain. Think about this: I hope to teach a continuing ed course at the Westminster (Colorado) campus of Front Range Community College. It starts mid-January: "The Literature of Food." We will meet Friday mornings for ten weeks, talk about food lit, do some reading and writing, enjoy the company of like-minded folks. Register on line for WRIT1006-001. There is no text; I'll hand out materials as we go.

As I went to check on the listing, I could not find it, but I have been assured that it will appear when the catalog for Spring 2012 is finished. If online registration fails you, call (303) 404-5000 and ask to be connected to the continuing ed department. And if this fails, email me:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Cleaning Up My Own Mess

Writing is a messy business. Ideas breed like wild rabbits, papers overflow the in-basket, the out-basket and the recycle basket. Ink cartridges drain like desert aquifers. Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh, my. And whose fault is this? Mine, of course. Not only is the mess of my making, but I cannot hire a house cleaner to tidy up after me. So, here's my writer's to-do list. Feel free to nag me if I don't report back that I've done these things before Santa comes. (Otherwise, I won't get that new Mercedes. Yeah, like I would anyway. I'll be driving my used Camry with a dented door until I die.)

  • Finish the current book production project; all I need to do is reformat a couple of the poems and get the author to open her account on Create Space
  • Find another book production/coaching client
  • Update my submissions records on Duotrope and in my notebook
  • Send out submissions of the new and the rejected poems
  • File the food lit bibliography cards I've been tossing on top of the index card file
  • Finish the cover design for my own next poetry chapbook; the text is done
  • Select poems to read at Third Thursday at Forza open mike tomorrow
  • Read and comment on the poems I've received for tonight's critique group
  • Read the poetry book selected for our next poetry book club meeting at Boulder Books
  • Figure out how to write reviews for Amazon
  • Begin the script for the poetry theater which begins to roll out in February for presentation in April and get it to the director
  • Update my website news page
Oh, looking at all of this, I think I need a nap. Or a walk with the dog. Maybe I need to make breakfast. Yeah, that's it. Must be low blood sugar that keeps me from tackling all this work. You listening, Santa? Oatmeal, now.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Catching Up with Robert Pirsig

I keep a small notebook full of titles that I intend to read. My list is a mishmash of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. One title that is not in that blue notebook is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. The book is older than my grown son, but somehow in the crush of living I have missed it again and again. Until my friend Synchronicity recently stood it facing out on a display in my local library. Well, my book bag was heavy but not full, so I casually added it to the week's collection. And I read it. No, that's not true. I read most of it, no, I read much of it. I skipped a lot of the philosophy. Sorry, Pirsig, but for me the relationship between the author and his young son is more compelling.

If you have not read this much loved book, do so. Check the Wiki listing for Pirsig to get a summary of his background if you're not sure about the content. The book is far too complex for me to summarize effectively, because it's not just about motorcycles, nor is it just about philosophy. In the course of a road trip from Minneapolis to San Francisco, Pirsig explains his life and his philosophy of Quality and the Good. I preferred reading his history of having been mistreated by a too extensive use of ECT, now regarded as a safe and effective treatment for mood disorders and some psychotic disorders. Having had his memory purposefully erased, Pirsig has to deal with the ghost of his former self and the fear that his son, Chris, will also suffer from mental illness. Their journey is not an easy one, but by the end they seem reconciled. In the postscript we learn that Chris was killed during a mugging just before his 23rd birthday. That's not fair. But it's true. Yeah, that sentence is a spoiler, but the book is not about sudden epiphany. It's about the inner life of a brilliant mind almost lost to illness and unwise treatment, about a father/son relationship that reveals more than we might know about our own family dynamics.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Seasonal Affective Writer's Doldrums

The Doldrums are, according to American Heritage, a region near the equator characterized by calms, light winds, and squalls. Even though I'm sitting in my red desk chair, I'm there at some border like the equator. Sails flapping, rudderless, my internal weather lacks the gusto to carry me forward. A winter slough. Not depression, not grief, not existential angst, just feeling dull. What to do? What to do?

Do what I've long and often advocated for any writer in this leeward port dragging her anchor: keep the pen moving, even when what dribbles out is drivel. So for the past few days I have done my own version of free writing. I keep writing till I have three pages added to my journal, three lousy pages, a la Ann Lamott's shitty first drafts, although these don't even deserve the label draft, unless it's the cold air that leaks into old houses. It's lonesome at sea without my images and ideas. But if I keep at it, some mental gear will re-engage and my little boat of words will chug along and arrive at a beach party on the page. See, it's beginning to move already.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Adjectival Flu

You might remember your middle school language arts teacher encouraging the use of adjectives to "paint a picture" of whatever thing you were describing--furious Uncle Charles, beautiful Aunt Lily, the hungry turtle in the scummy pond. Well, scummy isn't bad, but the reader was forced to take your word for Charles's fury or Lily's beauty. The reality was short changed by the shorthand description, by a lazy adjective. Better far to share Charles's red face, the fists, the shouted expletives--spelled out in dingbats if necessary. Let Lily be lovely by her smooth skin, her cupid's bow mouth, her shining hair and wasp waist. There are adjectives, and then there are adjectives.

So often I see in first drafts that a writer is leaning on large, imprecise adjectives like pillows to avoid crafting language that reveals rather than conceals the textures, characters, and actions s/he is trying to coax to life on the page. This avoidance annoys me especially in poetry, where concision and high energy are, for me, absolute values. That the sky is blue, rather than gray, is useful, but what good in a poem is a word like inevitable or intense? And, no, I'm not prejudiced against words beginning with in. My bias is for precision and too often adjectives are flacid and general. Even blue--what blue, the blue that hurts the eyes at noon, blue edging toward dusk, blue between the clouds? If we must have them, let the adjectives go through a security check at the gate: are they really as precise as a three ounce tube of toothpaste? If not, please deposit them in the bin provided.

PS: I have posted that reading list for culinary fiction I promised a few days ago. Hit the "Free Downloads" page above.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Food Writing Luncheon

We went to hear from a panel of professional food writers. We went to meet and eat. We went to share what we know about the world of food writing. And guess what? Even the experts had never met anyone who writes poems about food. Nor had they heard of my favorite food fiction. I had something to offer! I even called myself a food poet, a little stretch, but with a poetry book titled The Great Hunger, I felt justified. And immediately someone said, "I didn't know there was such a genre." So now I'm a genre unto myself. Try putting that on a resume or CV.

Actually, I don't own the genre. There's Diane Wakoski's The Butcher's Apron and Carolyn Jennings' Hunger Speaks, and a periodical called Alimentum which is full of food poems. As for culinary fiction, I think that even Janet Evanovich could be stirred into this mix, given the amount of food consumed in each of the Stephanie Plum novels. Diane Mott Davidson is Colorado's own best selling food novelist. I could go on and on, but instead in a couple of days I'll post a list of foodie fiction and poetry for you to download.

Meanwhile, how do we get into these sorting and labeling situations? Shorthand, I suppose. It's easier to identify someone by her genre than to get to know her. Then someone else asked me to tell her in thirty words or less what I do. ("Let me count the ways.") Apparently, the correct thirty words came out of my mouth between bites of grilled chicken Caesar salad because she smiled and nodded. Now she can tell her friends that she sat next to a food poet whose interest is in our relationships with food. I've been pared down to a sidebar.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Drat! Curses! Coffee, stat!

Remember last post I promised a new page? Well, it would be easy to add a new page, but it wouldn't be a page to which I can post! So the food lit posts will be incorporated here on the main page of the blog. Let's drown our disappointment in a good cup of coffee, as in reading about a good cup of coffee. As in the Coffee House Mysteries by Cleo Coyle. She's up to ten books, all based on the queen of barristas, Clare Cosi, who manages The Blend, a high-end coffee house in Greenwich Village. All the requisite murder mystery characters are present: Clare, the amateur but highly effective sleuth, her handsome and undependable ex-husband, Matteo; their young adult daughter, Joy, and Mike Quinn, police detective and love interest for Clare. Oh, yes, and the doyen, Madame, Matteo's mother and owner of The Blend. You can visit and be wowed by the fast moving trailer built into the web site, or you can savor the aroma of murder and mocha at your own pace by curling up in that ubiquitous easy chair with a book and a cuppa.

In addition to providing well-paced action and consistently good characterization, these books have educated my about coffee. Isn't that one of the perks about a good novel? We learn something while we are being entertained. For instance, I may be the only person in our caffeinated world who was pleased and surprised to know that dark roasts have less caffeine than regular. Good for me, since I favor the dark roasts, that a bit of cream dropped into really fresh coffee will bloom, whereas the same bit of cream in stale coffee will sink under the oils that have floated to the top. That real espresso is made slowly, otherwise, you just have brewed coffee. I now know the difference between a latte and a macchiato--silly me for not having known before now that one is "marked" with the cream. The other one contains more milk.

This coffee science has to result from real knowledge on Coyle's part. I asked the barrista at my favorite coffee shop today about the importance of the crema--that light tan froth that floats on the surface of a well-pulled espresso. He nodded, like, duh! I could not write Coyle's stories convincingly because I don't know spit about running an espresso machine. So, Coyle ("she" is two people, a husband/wife team of writers) not only writes about what she obviously knows, but she knows what she's writing about. Good idea.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Feed the Read

You remember the phrase "made from scratch." It may have originated with the practice of scratching a line in the dirt to mark the beginning of a foot race, beginning at the beginning. This can be tricky. Carl Sagan said, "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." Well, I am not willing to go that far. Fortunately, in food prep we assume that some of the ingredients are ready made. I don't have to graft and plant the apple tree, wait for it to mature and the fruit to ripen. I don't have to pick the apples; I go to the market and pick out the apples. Same process applies in writing. We need not invent language and we pluck ideas from previous bits of text. None of us reinvents the cosmos to write a short story, although for some writers world building is their morning coffee, their "cup of tea."

Look at all the food references I've used here so far. That's because I love food, love language, love books about food. My last book was The Great Hunger. So, I plan a new page here at the Bookblog: FEED THE READ will focus on writers who specialize in food. They come in a cornucopia of varieties and I'll pick a few at a time to offer you. Our menu will include biography & memoir, fiction, history, food science, and any miscellaneous tidbits I find. I'll get this page on my plate within the next two or three days, so check back. It will be delicious.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Call of the Weird

Life gets angstful, right? Right? RIGHT! And some days I just want to run away, but I don't have the cash for that. I mean, as Robert Frost said, "Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in." So home is home, even when it's not the serene and lovely place we see in the carpet ads. And home right now in the US is not the American Dream. I'm angry and disappointed about the stalemate in DC, wish Warren Buffet would run for President, wish I had a voice loud enough to make a difference. I keep emailing my senators but they shoot back canned responses that have nothing to do with my thesis: our government is stalemated and when bread goes stale I feed it to the birds. It's for the birds, right? Right? RIGHT!

When my brain feels like it's on fire and there's no relief, I turn to murder. No, I don't intend to shoot anyone. That's ugly. I read mystery stories. Yesterday I checked out a bagful from the library and today I'll relax in the arms of homicide detectives. They solve problems, put bad guys away for a long time, and give me hope. They take my attention fully.This week I'll read six, four by Diane Mott Davidson and two by Cleo Coyle. These are culinary mysteries, the ones that focus on food, either as part of the plot or as part of the setting, not that these elements are separate in a well-written mystery. Davidson's sleuth is Goldie, a caterer in Colorado high country; Coyle's is the barista/owner of a lush coffee shop in Greenwich Village, NYC. So, while things are stonewalled in the real world, solution is possible between the covers of a good murder mystery.

Monday, October 24, 2011

My Friend Serendipity

Jung said, in effect, that there are few/no accidents. Things connect. I vote for Jung. Most recently it happened this way: over a year ago I attended an AWP convention in Denver. Like most attendees I came home laden with handouts, freebies, ideas and good memories. Among the things I unpacked and stashed were three copies of American Poet: The Journal of the Academy of American Poets. Since the unpacking they have been on my shelf, where I put them with intentions to read them "sometime." This weekend our household went into fall cleaning mode, which entailed energetic tossing of extra stuff. I sorted the shelves in my office and pulled those three journals, thinking that since I had not read them in over a year, they could go to the discard pile.

Something made me stop. I glanced at the contents on the covers and clutched them like long lost cousins before tenderly laying them on my reading pile, the one near my chair, the one that gets regular attention. In one copy was an essay by David Baker, whose book my poetry book club had read and discussed only two weeks ago. Baker's topic was "Where We Live in Poems." I've been working on a poem that was spawned by an intentional train trip wherein I rode from Boston to Denver, paying close attention to a sense of what America looks like from the tracks, let alone from the wrong side of them. The second one has an essay by James Galvin on "James Wright and the Poetry of Place." And the third has Rachel Zucker's piece on "The Long Poem." My train poem is long. How did I happen to have in hand exactly when I need it these three essays that will strengthen my poem immeasurably? Must be Jung looking down and smiling as he nudges things my way.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lambs and Clams and Titles

Donald Murray, a writing teacher from New Hampshire, says in one of his text books that any piece of writing requires me to make a long list of possible titles, like 30 or 50. I'm happy if I have two or three. Sometimes finding even one title feels like relief from a headache. But titles matter. How can I find the poem in my computer files if the title isn't distinct? How can an editor believe that her table of contents won't put people to sleep before they dip into the text? So, what makes a good title for a poem or a story?
  • Distinction--I want an individual name for a unique creation. I once had an editor tell me she very nearly rejected my poem because I had the word spring in the title and she was bored, bored, bored by spring poems. Lucky she read the poem and saw that it was unique and not just more lilacs-and-bluebirds sentimentality. Calling a poem "Spring" will not do.
  • Another thing is the energy gap that the reader must bridge between the title and the text, and a well-chosen title can make for more energy in that gap, especially if the title both leads into the poem and creates tension. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" intrigues me and leads me into an elegy. Surprise! Energy in poems, says Stephen Dobyns, comes from surprise.
  • Then there's tone. I had a real lol moment this week. I have a poem about the inevitable destruction that comes from human beings satisfying their appetites, a serious poem for a serious issue. I had called the poem "What Counts Mounts Up." My critique group critiqued that off the page, leaving me with a John Doe poem. It's in my revision folder, an unclaimed body in the morgue. But the imp of the perverse niggled my mind: I'll call this poem "The Sacrificial Clam." NO! Do not do that, my left brain shrieked, while my right brain giggled. Sigh, I won't do it.
Take any reputable anthology and study the list of titles. Which ones make you want to read the poems? Then study the relationship between the title and the text. Is it right? Will you remember it? Whitman, whether you like him or not, has good titles. Shakespeare has none, just a numbered list of sonnets, but he's Will Shakespeare, so, if we're smart, dedicated poets, we read his stuff anyway. You and I don't have that kind of name recognition. We have to study titles as if they are all we have. In a way they are.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Gawande Connection

Atul Gawande is a surgeon and one of my favorite writers. No surprise then when I opened a recent New Yorker that I turned immediately to his article, "Personal Best." And, there was synchronicity on the page. The tag line was, "Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?" Well, yes, I should.

I had an hour previously returned from a workshop on small business development. I know too little about it and want to know more. Poets get complacent about the truism that we don't make money, and I've pretty much tattooed that idea on my frontal lobes. Surgeons, on the other hand, make plenty of money. So what do Gawande and I have in common? Writing, obviously. He has a handful of excellent books, and here he was still writing in the midst of raising a family and leading a professional life that must keep him roller blading from one task to the other. Now he has added another element. He hired a surgery coach to help him off the plateau where he felt stuck in his professional development.

The synchronous issue here is the coaching. I had that very day put myself in the hands of a couple of business coaches for the afternoon and one, Mary Walewski, asked casually, had I ever thought of coaching other writers? Well, sure. I do that sometimes. I had just offered to help one of the other attendees get started on her book.

But not for money! Heaven's sakes, I do it for free. Why? Mary had just coached me into a new attitude. I wrote down my credentials and hey! I qualify. So I'll sit with Mary an hour this week and let her coach me in the art of making what I do into a respectable small business. Like Gawande, I'll accept coaching. We all have skills to pass on and I will convince myself that I deserve to be paid for sharing my knowledge and experience. Except here. Here you get it free.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Writing in Circles

This is the final piece from the list I started a month ago, "Beating Poetry Submissions into Shape." My last gasp in that post was to develop patience while your submissions are circulating. It's part of the writing cycle.

I am not a patient person. Waiting for things to happen is not my style. So once those submissions leave my hands, I have to do something. And that something is a bouquet of weedy, but sturdy things. I read--not just poetry, although that's an important part of my on-going education. I make an effort to find other writers. We read to each other, we write together, we listen to speakers. We drink lots of tea and coffee. We share news about rejections and acceptances. This is a very important part of a writer's life. Some days it is the only part. Well, that's not quite right. I journal every day. No exceptions unless I'm comatose and that doesn't happen much.

I'm mostly awake and aware of my surroundings because being healthy and active is part of this whole writing show. Yes, there have been great writers--Keats comes immediately to mind--who have written in the throes of illness, but that too is not my style. While I wait for editors to respond I walk the dog, clean my kitchen, go out to lunch, do all those things that other people do. Stephen King says in his book On Writing to put your desk in a corner and remember that it is not the center of your life. And quite frankly, if you don't have a full life, you limit your ability to write. Because everything you put on the page comes out of your patient love for the world, even when you're mad as hell. You're here, you're alive. Live and let the editors do the same. It all goes around and around.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Your Life in 75 Words

Writing a succinct bio is a little like Tweeting. As I said in the post on cover letters (Take Cover), editors want to get their work done and go home or go out for a beer or anywhere but the office, if they have offices. (I think most of the people in my local coffee shop are poetry editors looking for a home.) When submission guidelines ask that you include a bio, they often say how many words they want, and it's not many. The safe thing to do is read the bios in the current issue of whatever market you plan to send poems to. You'll quickly get a sense of their style.

Some bios, usually found on the contributors' page, are funny but don't tell you much about the writer as writer. They tell you about the family dog, the wacky diet, or the esoteric day job, like worm farming. Others will be very dry and to the point: education, day job, previous publications. Lately more and more writers include their website. (More on that another day.) Easy-peasy, lemon squeezy. But what if you dropped out of school in kindergarten and have not yet published a word? Well, you'll have to come up with something. Often the state or region where you live, what you do to earn your bread--assuming it's legal or you're not in the witness protection program--and a line about how you became interested in poetry. You might mention a favorite poet, if he or she is well known enough to lend some credence to your fanship.

I paste my standard bio into the cover letter. If the market asks that you use an electronic submission site, like Submishmash, use the comment portion of that site to include your bio. No fancy fonts, just the facts. Now, go, submit. It won't hurt a bit. Tee hee.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Take Cover

I have given you my take on critiques, organization, and market search for your poetry. Now it's time to, as Emeril would say, kick it up a notch. Let's assume that you have found a poetry magazine, online or print, that might be a good fit for your work. You have selected 3-5 poems, scrubbed them and combed their hair, made sure they have on their best clothes. They will be in a readable, unfussy font, usually Times New Roman. You are almost ready to send them to the world. Send them with a letter of introduction, called in the biz, a cover letter.

Remembering always the busy lives of busy editors in this business, you will keep your letter short and clear. After all, you want publication for the poems, not the cover letter. Here's a version of my wording:

Dear (Editor),
Enclosed/attached please find five poems for your consideration: "Title One," "Title Two," "Title Three," "Title Four" and "Title Five." None of these is in submission elsewhere, nor has any been previously published.

As requested, I have included below a brief bio. Thank you in advance for your time and attention. I look forward to your response.


Karen Douglass
(snail mail address)
PH: 000-000-0000

No, I don't italicize. This is for your ease of distinction here.

If this submission goes by USPS, I might add that the ms can be recycled after use and that I have included an SASE. However, the majority of my submissions go out electronically, so no recycling needed. As I've said before, be scrupulous in following instructions about attachments vs. pasting into the email. If you attach when the editor refuses to open attachments, well, you can see the problem. If you paste in, be prepared to re-enter any special style effects, as many email servers won't automatically copy your italics, bold, or certain fonts. Yes, it's work, but this final step takes less time than going to post office. Once you hit send, record the submission in your binder and on the Duotrope spread sheet. Then forget about it while you write more poems. Good luck. Let me know if this helps.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Your Own Marketplace

This post is part three of a general discussion about staying organized and effective in submitting poems for publication (See "Beating Poetry Submissions into Shape") . If you want to buy lettuce or a new SUV you are sure to know the difference between the grocery store and the dealership. The same idea works when you consider how to choose a publication to receive your precious poems. I want to suggest a couple of ways of knowing where to submit.

1. Read as many poetry sources as you can. Look at the poems you like and turn to the contributors' notes to see where else these poets have published. If your work is in the same vein--free verse, formal, political, nature, etc.--check out those markets in addition to the one at hand. Given the ubiquitous presence of poetry online, this is no longer hard to do. Google them and read deeper into their archives. Pay attention to whose work appears in a given source. If every poet in the magazine is a Pulitzer Prize winner, you may be in deep water. If the magazine is a "fledgling" the staff may welcome a less famous writer, like us.

Find the submission guidelines for the magazine, usually a tab along the toolbar or sidebar. I open a blank page for each on my desk top and copy relevant info to that. This eliminates the frills and furbelows that take up space in my files. Then I highlight the deadlines, number of poems requested, rights claimed, etc. And a hard copy of this info goes into a calendar file until I need it.

2. Find and learn to use Duotrope, a huge interactive file of magazines and online venues that publish poetry and/or fiction. The directions are easy to follow and the site includes a spread sheet where you can record and track your submissions. Live links take you to individual poetry sites. This is a free tool, but they often need a little help, so I shoot them $5.00 every couple of months. When I spot a market that I like, I do the same copy and paste for my calendar file.

More important than any other bits of advice I can offer are these: Read widely and follow the guidelines meticulously. An editor who asks for dark and eerie won't be pleased if you send her sweet and sentimental. (Well, none whom I know want sweet and sentimental anyway, so don't bother with that.)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Honor Among Poets

The second step in the submissions list I posted recently involves getting an honest critique of your poems before you offer it for publication. For some of us, this is an easy step. We have long-standing relationships with other poets intent on good work. We live in an urban area where writers' groups abound. We have thick enough skin to accept well-intended criticism. And ill-intentioned criticism rolls off us, puddles around our feet, drains away, dries up.

It is very important to know the difference. My current critique group meets weekly, core members (three or four) show up regularly, they read carefully and keep the focus on the poems. No one attacks another's beliefs or personality. We are specific: "I don't think the second stanza is as strong as the first and third, because . . ." That sort of thing. We also say what we like, mention specifically good line breaks, startling images, musicality, etc.

I listen, say nothing until everyone else at the table has had a chance to comment. If asked, I may explain my intent, if I had one, when I wrote the piece. Maybe I have to clarify the situation of the poem. Sometimes it is startling to hear an interpretation that diverges widely from what I thought I wrote. Ultimately, it's still my call. I revise as I see fit. Often the comments from the group do improve my poem. Sometimes I dig my heels in and keep most of the original. But at least I know how several accomplished readers have responded.

Please, if you don't have a group such as this, find one. You may contact a few poets in your area whose work you take seriously (Just don't take yourself too seriously.) and try a few meetings. Go to an open mic and take names and numbers. You may be able to find worthwhile comments on line, although in that case I see an awful lot of poems poorly conceived and carelessly raised. They are selfish, ill behaved, and ought to be kept in the corner until they grow up a bit.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Crowd Control for Your Poems

If you plan to submit poems for publication, you need poems, lots of them. And the only way to get lots, without plagiarizing, is to write, write, write. Daily is best. This means that you make time to sit down, put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard and string words across the page or screen. DAILY. This does not mean that you will create a publishable poem every day. If you get one a week, you're doing very well. I'm not about to tell you in one short blog how to write great poems. There are plenty of courses, programs and books to tell you that. I'm going to tell you how to get this mass of work organized so that you can manage the output.

  • Computer files: keep several with clear labels. I keep one POEMS, one CFP for my online writing group, one GAMUTS for my weekly critique group, and one PUBLISHED, for the retired pieces that have, hooray, gone out there and found their niche. You might also want one IN PROGRESS or REVISIONS.
  • Cloud files: explore Google Docs or Dropbox or some similar virtual filing system. When I watered my laptop as well as my philodendron I lost text that I had not yet printed out. Won't do that again. These services are not quite the same is an external hard drive for backing up work, a device I also use. (Reminds me of a friend who kept a copy of her thesis in the trunk of her car and one in the freezer, in case of fire or burglars. Would that someone stole poems.)
  • Paper files: my REVISIONS live in a paper file that I often tuck into my work bag as I leave the house. I like working in my local coffee shop, so I drag this file along, just in case. A copy of the critique poems lie in a similar portable file.
  • Binders: I could not, even with all the digital tools available, keep my poetry house in order without binders. I keep a hard copy of each poem, filed by title within alpha dividers. Published ones get a notation in the upper right corner as to where and when.
Why do you need such a mass of poems that you have to organize them? Because you will send them to editors in batches, usually three to five at a time. This poetic wealth helps convince editors that you are not lazy or of limited talent and that their readers may look for more of your amazing output in future issues. The game of publication requires that you impress your editors, not by sending flowers or key lime pie, but by offering an abundance of well-crafted, energy-filled, readable poetry. So, create your writing space, keep copies, know where they are and backup everything.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Beating Poetry Submissions into Shape

At breakfast yesterday with Lars, one of the poets I mentioned in my previous blog, we talked about the process of submitting poems for publication. He's beginning that daunting job now that he has a fair-sized body of work in his blue binder. Here's the general process as we defined it:
  • Write, revise, incubate, revise again till you just cannot see another improvement.
  • Show your work to those friendly but honest first readers to give you feedback. Consider their comments carefully and act accordingly.
  • Survey the market: read samples and archives from poetry publications and decide if you have something to offer any of them. If you're very new to the game (and that's how I think of this--as a game), probably you should not aim for the paying markets. The competition will discourage you. If you can find the name of the poetry editor, jot that down, along with her/his contact info.
  • Learn to use (and support) Duotrope, a valuable online reference to publications and a place to record your submissions. Bookkeeping is part of the process--where and when a particular poem was submitted, what the result was, which publication has already rejected or accepted the work.
  • Keep a notebook for hard copies of submission guidelines; write on each one the poems and the date when you contacted them. READ them and abide scrupulously by the various ways to contact editorial teams.
  • Create a fairly standard, short cover letter. Don't try to dazzle the editors with BS. That's all the excuse a busy editor needs to weed you out of the current crop of submissions.
  • Create a bio, usually 50-75 words that you can paste into the cover letter.
  • Learn patience. Even with the abundance of online and print markets, it often takes months to get a response. Meanwhile, write more poems. Read more poetry mags and e-zines. Keep growing your garden of verse.
This is so general that I'll come back and expand each point. But if you're new to submitting, welcome to the Big Dance. Fame and money will not follow, but you'll build your cred with other writers and readers, and most importantly, your poems will find homes other than on your cluttered desk.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Many of my poems go first to friends who critique them. One, let's call him Lars, always goes for more clarity, more development, even at the cost of compression and subtlety. The other, we'll call him Arnie, wants further compression and an adrenaline rush at the end. Together they embody one of the great arguments about poetry: Is it meant to instruct or to entertain? That word or is a bugger. The best poems do both. Would that I could count on writing only the best poems. So writing exclusively for either of my friendly critics won't do. Why care what they think? Why try?

I write to be read or heard, to inform and to entertain, to argue that the world and my life in it are more complex and more braided together than I can easily say. I write from experience, not from ideas only. And not from emotion only, but to use all the ingredients of poetry in proportion. Each poem changes those proportions, but always the secret spice, the Bam! that kicks it up is discovery, mine and the reader's. I read and write poems to discover what life is about.

So, let's make that reader plural, because I'd like lots of people in on this ongoing conversation. The little world map on my blog stats page claims that I have readers in China, India, England, people in places I cannot otherwise reach. I would like to see what those readers want from me, so I'll add poems now and again to my website, keep my publication list up to date, scatter poems like seeds even if I rarely see the harvest. I have a foolish faith in poetry and choose to believe that my silent partners are there, be they Lars-like or Arnies, invisible, nodding or grimacing as they read. This spidery link keeps me writing.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Options and Images

Third Thursday at Forza Coffee Company was great fun this month. We had an all open-mic night, with fourteen poets reading. The reading went so smoothly that we heard all fourteen before the break and several again after the break. The theme was the dog days of summer (see last post) so we heard lots of dog poems and swimming poems, etc. And a few that defied categorizing. Part of the conversation at the break centered on describing a good poem, an issue for us since, what, Aristotle? We certainly did not settle the issue or come close, but it was good to think about that pesky old definition/description.

Noodling in my journal this morning, I thought about how we get to write even marginally good poems. We read good poems and bad; we listen to other poets at readings; we practice and throw out a large percentage of what we try. Pride and ego get in on the act: we want to be respected by readers, listeners, and especially other poets, so we try hard to write fresh, insightful, musical pieces. But when that idea of reading widely came up in the discussion, an impish face next to me questioned that idea. Why do novice poets not read everything they can? Years ago critic Harold Bloom described the anxiety of influence, which I hear from poets now and again. I offer up my pleasure in reading lots of poetry, the education that I get when I'm enthralled or offended and consider why I reacted strongly. And I think of other poems as recipes. We learn to cook from cookbooks or from those we know who provide us with delicious meals. Why then should we fear to learn how to make a poem from the examples of others?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dog Days of August

Energy drains; air conditioning strains; interest wains. I've been stuck in a goo of rhymes lately and I don't like it much. One more symptom of summer doldrums. But I'm fighting back. I just updated the website, and that felt okay. I sent a revised poem to my critique group for tonight's meeting, and I've started my weekly poem for my on-line writing group. What I have not done is update my publications list here, but I think I can manage that today. Mostly though, I want to sit very still and play solitaire on my ITouch or read magazines on the Kindle. Right now out the window in front of my desk I see a vibrant blue sky, almost violent in its clarity and I know that the car will be an oven when I leave in a couple of hours to drive to a meeting in Denver.  But who am I to complain?

Just finished reading The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Having read Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath years ago, I thought I understood the Dust Bowl. I've known and loved Woodie Guthrie's music from that time. Truth? I knew nothing. Egan has educated me, which is a good thing because next month I'll be a reader at an event in Lafayette, CO called Dust Bowl Poetry. The whole town is reading Egan's book and a variety of events are planned in response to that communal experience. It's a great idea and I'm pleased to be part of it. Much better than having been part of the original event, which did involve parts of Colorado. If you haven't read this book, do so, please. It is a cautionary tale that relates to our current blind spots about global warming. We need to learn from our collective mistakes.

Monday, August 8, 2011


Just finished Jane Smiley's Moo (1995) and loved it. The characters are plentiful and distinct. That she never loses one and keeps all the reins straight through 414 pages of tightly packed prose amazes me. She could drive a twelve-horse hitch through the eye of a needle! Despite having published this book almost two decades ago, she keeps her story fresh, and the fiscal debacle that drives the plot seems particularly timely now.

As a faculty member at a midwestern university, Smiley certainly wrote about what she knew. The whole campus population is available to her and she works them hard. Faculty, students, families, towns people and the animals in the university programs, a hog named Earl Butts to a model of bad equine conformation, they are real. And her range of information has a power all its own--from animal husbandry and horticulture to gold mines in Costa Rica, university administration, economics, religion, farm machines and the hideous bureauracies of academia, all present. She has no angels, just some characters less ego-tainted than others, but they too, are fully present. Read it!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reading in Overdrive

Just back from a vacation in the Colorado high country, no wifi, no TV, no computer. So what's to do in a cabin 9400 ft up the side of a mountain? Sleep, eat, watch the dogs run, and read. In nine days I read nine mystery stories, a history of bread and part of Mrs. Beeton's The Book of Household Management. Obsessive? Ya think? Here's where the obsession really comes to light. At least five of the mysteries, which I read anyway, annoyed me to the point where I would snort and read a clunker sentence or two to anyone who happened to be in the room or on the porch. Even Duncan the Dog got an earful, and his ears are pretty darned big. I doubt, however, that he has much experience with clumsy prose or a distressing lack of editing. His ears are more attuned to deer clattering down the mountain or a chipmunk scolding from a lodgepole pine.

The books in question shall, out of courtesy, remain nameless. However, we might each take a deep breath and hope with every molecule of our being that when we publish, someone will have pointed out the places where we have dumped useless information just because it's esoteric and lets us feel smarter than the reader: like telling me that Fanny Farmer first regularized measurements in recipes. Actually, Mrs. Beeton did so to a degree a century or so earlier. (She lived 1836-1865. Farmer seems to have published in 1918.) This sort of detail feels about as right as chocolate chips in Yorkshire pudding. Then there's the snob effect where the heroine remarks that someone has used incorrect syntax in speech. Dialog is not, not, not, about correctness. Dialog is the faithful, concise reflection of how the individual characters speak. Nor do I appreciate having an author explain what has already become obvious through the action. If you write anything, especially mystery stories where plot and pacing are crucial, don't sin against your readership. If you write, edit or publish such drivel, shame!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Cooking Up a Good Story

Here's a cautionary tale: first marry a slender husband, overfeed him until he barely fits into his military uniform, vow to do better, to cook with one eye on his waistline. Take a perfectly good recipe for stuffed bell peppers and eliminate most of what's good about it--take out the fat, be stingy with the lean ground beef, shun the salt shaker, and plunk that plate with its awful burden in front of him. He'll eat it, although it takes a lot of liquid chaser to get it down, but he won't rave to his buddies about his young wife's cooking. This might be an omen of food to come, stingy as a miser, warped out of shape by ulterior motives that have more to do with weight loss than love and nourishment.

I served those awful stuffed peppers in a time when we labeled eggs, butter, cream, salt, and almost anything tasty as toxic, fatal. Now we know that everything we eat can kill us, given the wrong proportions. So I've relaxed as a cook. I know that meals need seasoning and binding, they need salt and texture. Roasted beets need honey and olive oil, salt and pepper. And stories need good ingredients and a taste that lingers, be it crisp or creamy. Good writing is like good cooking: begin with a recipe and feel free to tinker, but don't make nothing out of something. Feed the reader.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Alas, Poor Prufrock

In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" T. S. Eliot says a lot about food. There is, first, a restaurant with oyster shells, then yellow smoke licking its tongue into corners, and hands that "drop a question on your plate." There is the "taking of a toast and tea." The measuring of life in coffee spoons. Food to left of me, food to the right of me and in between a book called Will Write for Food (Diane Jacob).

Last night I ate nectarines, trying not to let the juice run into the controls of my e-reader. Also avoiding the smear of a little wedge of cheese in my left hand.  Will eat and read, read and eat. Usually, I eat ripe fruit over the sink, letting the juice drop as it will, leaving no puddle on the counter or drip on my shirt. Food stains down the front of a shirt are for toddlers or geezers, and I refuse to be a geezer. I could have cut the fruit into a bowl, eaten it neatly, in lady-like bites with a fork. Why did I not?

Because Prufrock  takes careful tea and cakes and ices, because he has fasted and returned to "the cups, the marmalade, the tea . . ." and "bitten off the matter with a smile." And ended, almost, with the famous question which he never answers: "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Yes, I dare, I do, I did, I will again, and let the juice run where it will.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Desperation Poems

No, not poems about desperation, though I'm sure there are good ones somewhere. I'm thinking about the ones I write out of desperation to meet a weekly deadline that a group of friends and I have set for ourselves. Practice, as I've said before, is as important for a poet as for a singer, dancer, painter--anyone who wants to stay in the creative game. The desperation poem is not just practice; it is a mouthful of humble pie. Pretenses of depth and beauty become a stale crust. Sharing these poems is self-mutilation. But I suspect all writers have duds in the notebook or the wastebasket or wherever we file them. At least desperation poems stretch my muscles, suggest what I need to know in order to write a valid poem.

And what is a valid poem? One that shares an experience in such a way that the personal, specific language becomes useful to another. A valid poem interrupts consensus reality and says, hey, pay closer attention to the world. Allen Ginsberg said, "Notice what you notice." Someone on line recently asked that we "Notice one thing each day, write it down and share." Chris Ransick has a wonderful new blog entry {} about what he calls "dasein"-- that feeling of being in the now that allows us to see more deeply, to sense our place in the world. Desperation, too often, turns my attention to an anxious need to comply with some expectation.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why Aren't You Done Yet?

Writing is never done, as in finished. I think it was Robert Frost who said that we finally abandon a poem. I'm trying hard not to abandon a whole lot of poems and stories, but ennui has set in, a preference for mindless TV and watching the birds in the backyard. I'm strangely attracted to dead- heading petunias, watering day lilies, feeding the neighbor's cats while she's traveling. I am not much attracted to putting the last efforts into a chapbook that is 90% done or working on one that has been long out of print and deserves, maybe, reissue. I cannot bring myself to edit or revise or create new. I have kept my promise to an online group in which we each write a new piece per week and share them. But even with this project, I'm hiking uphill.

Maybe this is summer sloth. It's hot and getting hotter. Of course, I have nothing to complain of: not digging ditches or fighting wildfires. Not training horses or planting row on row of garden produce. Not harvesting lettuce. So many things that I don't have to deal with. So why drag around my chosen work as if it were a bag of rocks? Fear. Fear of finishing and having no excuse to avoid the inevitable criticism that follows publication. As long as all these stories and poems sit quietly in their ms boxes and notebooks, no one can tell whether I'm a hack or not. No one but me and my inner critic. I wish she would go on vacation. I'd feed her cats. Oh, wait, she doesn't have cats. She has me, her pet iguana with as much talent with words as a lizard sunning on a rock.

Monday, June 20, 2011


This weekend I did two things that taught me something about my ability as a writer. First, I visited a friend's home that impressed me with its decor and serenity. Muted palette, lots of white, old moldings and door brasses retained or replicated, uncluttered space, kitchen appliances disguised as cabinetry. But my description falls flat, lacks spice and depth. The other thing I did was to read excerpts from Jack Kerouac's prose. And beat my fist against my forehead. How is it he can put me right into a buggy, deep Mexican night so effectively and I cannot say just how it felt to be in that elegant home that I visited?

I let my frustration steep and started over in my journal. Only when I added action to the mix did I begin to catch what I had seen. Experience--that's action. Otherwise I am a visitor in a museum, feasting only with my eyes. Kerouac acted in response to the mosquitoes that shredded his skin to hamburger. He took off his shirt and put it back on. He climbed onto the roof of the car to sleep. He spoke to a sleepy constable. A perfectly designed and decorated room does not move. People in it have to run their fingers over an antique music cabinet, sit in the padded wicker chairs, peer into the bird cage, empty but for three large blue eggs. Someone has to eat off the perfectly yellow plates and drink from the sparkling stemware. Without action, the scene is a still life; with action it becomes life.

Monday, June 13, 2011

More Food

Last week I was moaning about having committed my time to prepping for a course scheduled for the 2011-12 year, Literature of Food. This week I'm loving that prep, not quite the same as being a prep cook, but I have found some tasty bits to add to my course notes. A delicious source is Alimentum, a periodical out of Nashville, TN. It comes twice yearly and is packed with fiction, poetry, art, and nonfiction, all centered on food, its delights and dangers, but mostly delights. Interesting bit of synchronicity too--last week a friend suggested that we begin looking for poems that contain recipes. And here on the masthead of Alimentum is Esther Cohen, Menupoems Editor! Nice.

An interview in the Summer 2011 issue, which I carried around all day yesterday and read in a succession of coffee shops (one of those I've-run-away-from-home days) features Amanda Hesser. She is described in the intro as a former "kitchen runner and bread truck driver" who "picked grapes in France, made pretzels in Germany, and cleaned rabbits in Italy." I'm not thinking too hard about that last job, unsure whether she bathed bunnies or butchered them. Anyway, she was also the food editor at the New York Times, a much better line on the resume than cleaning rabbits, I suspect. So now I'm off to search the Kindle Store for her book Eat, Memory. I love this kind of research--the kind that falls into my hands from casual reading. Yummy!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Writing about Food

Please, think deeply before you volunteer to teach a course on writing about food. Think deeply about the history of food, its importance, its implications, its impossible size as a topic of study. I gaily sailed into this ocean, puffed along in my little boat of a book, The Great Hunger. I wrote that book and thought that my abilities as a poet meant that I knew something about the literature of food. Ha! Writing about food as a general idea, reading about food as a hobby--this way madness lies. What I wanted to do was look at how food shows up in literature. But, glutton that I am, each book or article led to another and soon I was drowning in a sea of ideas and information. Will I ever find home port, that place of certainty and comfort?

The answer is: no, I won't. I'll bob around in this oceanic topic, at the mercy of the wind and the memory of my Grandma's cooking, my own culinary disasters and triumphs (yes, a few) and enjoy the ride. I have an outline for the ten week course that will keep us, more or less, on course, but each participant will have to map her own way, set her own destination. I'll wave to them from my little vessel and watch them sail off into a world of reading and writing and discovery about our most basic need and highest art.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Gift of Writing

A good friend is overwhelmed by illness. Constant concerns about medicine, appointments, pain management and pending surgery and its aftermath have virtually erased her confidence and her sense of self. When I asked what she would like to do if she could, the answers were scarce, still connected to the need to organize a life around her chronic illness. This seems wrong. It happens, though, all too often. An otherwise smart, creative person is absorbed into the role of patient, or as my friend put it, into feeling like someone else's science experiment. As a nurse I saw this time and again. The thing is living with chronic illness is a reality. No magic pill or wand will remove it. How then to get back to some sense of who she is, of getting outside her box of pills and ills?

Here's what I am about to suggest: she might begin an autobiography of sorts, a life told on paper can build a perspective of and a distance from the all-encompassing role of patient-hood. I'm about to take her a loose-leaf binder, some index cards, some fat pens (easier on sore, stiff hands) and a set of suggestions about getting started on her book. I've asked that she commit to morning pages, a la Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. And to create a Life Line--a year by year gleaning of memories and notes that she can, at her pace, enlarge and explore. Oh, yes, and sticky notes--for whatever marking she wants to review later. I've offered to become her writing coach. Not a censor or a critic or a therapist--but someone who helps her develop a process that supports her efforts--looking at whatever interferes with writing daily, what happens when she has an AHA! moment, what resources and tools might make her more productive. What she writes is hers, not mine. After all, it's her life, and I have my own to write about.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Here's to Ebooks

Traditional publishing is languishing; but you probably know that. Borders is closing stores, B&N begs me to buy their stuff, more and more writers now publish with small independent presses, or issue DIY books. More than issuing, they celebrate their freedom to design, print, and distribute their own work, and in the process profit far beyond the traditionally amoebic and anemic royalties. Me too. My next book will be independently published, albeit in print form, not yet an e-book. But that will come. Here's why.

At the May meeting of Colorado Independent Publishers Assoc. (CIPA to its friends and family), the director of library services for Douglas (no relation) County, CO, Jamie LaRue, announced an important change in the way libraries handle e-books. Jamie's library will begin buying, FROM THE AUTHOR, e-books. Until now, the library was, in effect, renting e-books from a middle man. Given the level of technology, the borrowing of e-books will work: one borrower gets the book at a time for a limited use. Software protections will insure that the book cannot be transferred to a device other than the one checking it out. The books will be cataloged and can be signed out by using an interactive hand-held device, like an e-reader. If the book proves wildly popular, the library will buy additional copies FROM THE AUTHOR. If no one checks it out, after a time certain it will be removed from the catalog.

This makes me want to dance! The artist is back in control of her art (I almost wrote heart and that's true too.) It made the whole meeting room happy. We had cake and champagne. We toasted the arrangement that will link selected CIPA members to the library. They will be the first responders in this firestorm of free press. As Jerry LaRue said, millions of books are now blocked from public view because they lack a formal distribution process without the cumbersome system used by traditional publishers. Let freedom reign! Huzzah!

Monday, May 16, 2011


No television, no radio, no phone, no internet. Just me and Duncan the Dog. For three days on retreat I heard no human voice except that of a man who stopped his truck while I was walking the dog. He had lost his two dogs and wanted me to call the number on their tags if I found them. I did not find his dogs. What I found instead was that I am capable of parking the car on Thursday noon and not getting into it again until Sunday noon. That I can compose and revise effectively when there is little chance of interruption or distraction. True, I required breaks for reading, doing crosswords, and--guilty gulp--playing Spider solitaire. But during my time at Bloomsbury West in Silver Cliff, I worked on half a dozen poems, some from notes, a couple of revisions, read two and a half books: David Mason's Ludlow, a novel in verse; Annie Dawid's There Was Darkness Under His Feet; and Leslie Marmon Silko's The Turquoise Ledge. Interestingly, none of this reading intruded on my own writing. So there, no anxiety of influence here.

What did inform the writing was my drive down CO 9, where I had the road pretty much to myself, saw mule deer, elk--still wearing velvet on their antlers--one pronghorn antelope, and a small herd of bison. That last amazed me, about eight of the huge animals silhouetted against a vast snowfield. They were at a distance, so I felt safe in pulling off and staring at them. I could tell from the tracks in the snow, though, that they had inspected the fence line, and the fence was flimsy compared to the bison. A bit later I saw more bison, but in a small, muddy farm yard. Again I pulled over and took the dog out on his leash. He was completely oblivious to the bison, one of which kept its eyes on me with such intensity that, after snapping a couple of poorly framed pictures, I left. There was a fence and a ravine between us, but I doubt that either would have stopped a charge if I angered the herd. There were youngsters there, not small, but still, parental concern is what it is.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Packing List

I'll take non-perishable food for three days, camera, toothbrush and such, sweats, walking shoes, extra pens, pads of paper, my revisions file, Hannah (my net book), enough gasoline to drive 205 miles, notes for the next chapbook (working title Our Girl: childhood poems). Oh, index cards and binoculars. Dog food, leash, dog. I won't need a TV Guide or a wifi card. I won't need a lot of mad money. I'm running away from home for three days, with good intentions to return. Although he's not crazy about riding in the car, Duncan the Dog loves the place we're headed for.

In the Wet Mountain Meadow, in Silver Cliff, CO, sits a sheltering jewel, a tiny house—Bloomsbury West— brightly painted, fenced yard, full view of the awe-inspiring Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There is a fireplace, but no television, no internet, no one I know. This last absence is vital. Because I love/like my family and friends, it's hard at home to withdraw into the solitude that I crave right now. The perfect setting for forgetting the daily distractions and writing. And walking, a little photography (That's fancying up my crude picture taking.), and lounging, eating simply, sleeping when I want, waking when it suits me. So don't look for me in any of my usual haunts from Thursday to Sunday. I am retreating from the battle for a few days.

Monday, May 2, 2011

To Read or Not to Read, No Question!

Of course I read--I even dream of reading. Woke up this morning having dreamed that one of the books on my shelf was in backwards, its leading edges facing out, spine hidden. This is a dream joking with me. In my most recent visit to the library I succumbed to temptation and came home with yet another book about quantum physics. Over the years, I've tried hard to grasp the theory of a subatomic world, but it's like religion: I'm asked to have faith, to believe in things unseen. Things like photons (Well, I suppose they are not unseen, being particles of light.), electrons, muons, quarks, and translocation. Lovely, mysterious words, but without substance or image.

I recognize in the book my own lovely English language, understand the words, but not the sentences. Reading about physics is like trying to learn Urdu or Mandarin by sleeping with a bilingual dictionary under my pillow. It just does not sink in. Maybe I'm missing that higher math gene that leads to an understanding of the space-time continuum. Then again, I don't understand the transmission in my car, but I manage to get places. Why do I fall for the seductive idea that I can understand the universe? Given the huge flock of books that fly out of publishers' warehouses each year, I could easily find more readable candidates to stack on my coffee table. Reading about physics is like eating liver; it's supposed to be good for me, but I don't enjoy it. So, my apologies to Professor Anton Zeilinger, author of Dance of the Photons: From Einstein to Quantum Teleportation. I'm reasonably sure he's a nice man. If Farrar, Straus, Giroux trust him, so should I, but I don't understand his world. So, for now, I'm back to reading English mystery stories and drinking tea. The universe will have to take care of itself.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Critique of Pure Readings

One of my favorite poetry readings is the Third Thursday at Forza Coffee Company in Westminster, Colorado. We always have a full house of poets reading to other poets, their spouses and close friends. We usually have a featured reader, who gets three times the time alloted to the open-mic folks. Most of us are open-mic folks. We don't get screened or selected. We show up, we rustle pages, we read two or three poems. This is the most common sort of poetry reading, I think.

I could be wrong. It could be that more people attend a celebrity reading, where one well-known poet reads from her/his newest book and offers a few new pieces. The audience is attentive, there because they know or want to know the poet as a living, breathing voice in the dark. Well, the audience is in the dark, the poet usually well lighted, miked and amped. After the reading comes the selling and signing of books in the lobby or the back of the room. Fans gather and shake hands, gush a bit, then go off to eat enchiladas or home to browse their new books and wonder if there is room on the shelf for this one.

When David Mason, Colorado's Poet Laureate, and his reading buddy, David Rothman, read in Broomfield a couple of weeks ago, they morphed the celebrity reading into a hybrid. Mason talked a lot about poetry, about the origin and function of the laureate and about poets as part of community. I liked it, but a couple of people said afterward that they were taken by surprise, not entirely comfortable with the format, which felt to them like a college class with poems sprinkled in for relief. However, poetry and poets often unsettle us, refuse to fit our expectations, ruffle our feelings like a stiff wind in the mind.

On Saturday I heard, at last, Ernesto Cardenal read in Boulder at Innisfree Books. The room was packed. The reading opened with a song in Spanish by a talented woman, whose name I have sadly lost. Cardenal read in his native Spanish, while a translator by his side handled the English. In many ways, this was what I expected. What unsettled and surprised me was the poet's continued vitality and fresh work at the age of 86. His presence eroded the concept of doddering old men trading fame for admiration. He's a working poet, still wrestling with the truth, often pinning it to the mat and walking away unscathed. Ole! Bravo!

Monday, April 18, 2011

My Top Forty

A conversation this weekend with another poet has me thinking about whose work I've learned from and loved or respected. So, in more or less random order, I'd want a "desert island book" that includes poems by each of these American poets:

Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Maryann Moore, Amy Lowell, Mina Loy, Robinson Jeffers, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stephens, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Creeley, Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Denise Levertov, Robert Hayden, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Louis Simpson, James Wright, Theodore Roethke, William Stafford, John Ashbury, Marge Piercy, Maxine Kumin, Pattiann Rogers, Gary Snyder, Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Billy Collins, and Charles Simic.

This list is completely subjective, and I could make another list of poets from around the world. I'd love to hear suggestions about other people's favorites, most necessary, etc. Limiting my choices to 40 made me think hard about whose work matters most to me. At this moment, in this place, with my limited brain and resources, this is my A list.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ernesto Cardenal

At a poetry reading last week in Boulder, I thought I was hearing an April Fool's line. The owner of Innisfree Books, Brian, announced that Saturday afternoon, April 23rd, Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal would read at the bookstore. My jaw dropped and I challenged Brian: "THE Cardenal?"
 Brian smiled and nodded. The first break in the reading I swiveled through the audience to Brian. Did he really mean it? Yes, really. Did he have a bilingual collection of Cardenal's poems? Yes, just one, although he had a number in English. I had a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet, meant to be my mad money for the weekend, but I'm mad about Cardenal's poetry, so Brian got the twenty, I got some change and a copy of Flights of Victory / Vuelos de victoria. I've carried it with me since then, challenged to read as much of the Spanish as I can before glancing right to the translation.

My excitement over this find is two fold. I like the poems for their exteriorismo, what the introduction explains as poetry made of "narrative and anecdote, made with elements of real life and with concrete things, with proper names and precise details and exact data . . ." And I admire and respect Cardenal for his bravery and his concern for his people. He says in "Canto nacional" that "From the womb of the oppressed the Revolution will be born. / It is the process." This sort of statement is made more powerful by Cardenal's active involvement in the revolution that freed Nicaragua from the dictatorship of Somoza. This is political poetry with teeth. He's earned his right to speak on national issues. He's wise enough to express these ideas through concrete images--men and boys who left home for work or an errand and never came back, mothers and lovers left with only a picture of their sons and husbands. This poetry tells a tragic truth, and I cannot help but almost hold my breath till the 23rd. (I'll post the details on the News page at

Friday, April 1, 2011

Poets in the Cellar

Last evening four friends carpooled to Denver, got lost, got lost again after asking a police officer for directions, almost got sideswiped by an impatient lane changer, all for the love of hearing poetry read live. And what else did this foursome get in return?

They got shuffled right through a pleasant coffee house, past the folds of a thick curtain, down dimly lit stairs with things wrapped around the handrail so they couldn't hold on, and into a low, cavernous cellar. The overhead pipes, ill disguised with gauze and mostly burned-out strings of old Christmas lights, were low enough that anyone taller than 5'10" was in danger of a head banging. In fact one of the foursome suffered just such an insult. The featured poets, three of them, read at a remove from the small audience, no mic, glaring lamp, and accompanied by the flush of running water from the bathrooms upstairs, where the non-poets sat with tea and a hookah, food, light, and good air. There was no food or drink service in the cellar. No, no, one had to navigate that stairwell again with drink in hand. The dingy atmosphere dampened the listeners, who rarely moved or spoke.

A good time was not had by all, at all. In fact, the four friends declared this a no-reading-here-in-the-future zone. It was an illustration of what's wrong with American poetry. It's relegated to the cellar.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Please Visit

I finally have found the most graceful way to record my publication credits for the merely curious or the truly interested. On the page which is linked next to HOME, I've filled in my publication history as best I could, given the great age of some poems and short fiction. I am grateful to the editors over the years who have generously given my work their attention and space in their pages. Keeping records such as this list is part of publishing; records prevent the embarrassment of sending a piece of writing to an editor who has previously seen and dismissed it, and allows me to give credit where it belongs when the story or poem (or novel?) finds a home and a readership. Publishing means subjecting our work to critique, pleasant or ugly, but that's where courage comes in.

Without readers, the writing is never complete.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Practice, practice, practice

"What you write need not be perfect. It need only add some small observation about your world." Atul Gawande

For a long time I ran this quote as part of my email signature because I believe it. I do, though, have trouble not striving for perfection. When I relax into my journal, sometimes I can put a few words together that please me, even without their being perfect. Here's yesterday's journal entry.

In a world full of news about disasters in which people lose all their possessions, I'm fortunate to have mine. For instance, I'm writing in my favorite chair. This chair is well padded, like me. It's deep enough to cradle me if I put a small pillow at my back. The arms are partly padded, partly scrolled wood, painted with a crackle finish. The upholstery fabric is a large floral pattern in sage, beige and wine. The throw pillows are wine with beaded edges. I take my chair for granted. It's always right where I left it, between the floor lamp to my left and the end table to my right. The chair is too heavy to move easily, as I am reminded whenever Duncan the Dog rolls his ball under it and I have to get down on cranky knees to help him retrieve his toy.

The chair cost very little in the consignment shop where I found it. The cushions are detached, so I can turn them and make them wear evenly. In short, this chair suits me. I hope it lasts as long as I do. It's like Robert Frost's definition of home: when I sit there, it has to hold me. The chair is not a critic of me or my work, offers not a creak or a groan. It marks my place in the world. Who owns this chair, owns her life.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Learning from a Master

Last Saturday I spent the afternoon at the Boulder Public Library listening to Pulitzer Prize winner and former US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (2004-2006). The first part of the program was a discussion circle in which Kooser answered questions and talked about his work. After a short break, he was introduced by poet Jack Collom and read poetry in the library theater. Here are some highlights:
  • Kooser's book Delights and Shadows (Copper Canyon, 2004), which won the Pulitzer, has sold over 100,000 copies! This is amazing and encouraging. He's clearly reaching an audience beyond the poets and students who traditionally buy poetry books.
  • We give our poems to the world; thus we should be considerate of a wide audience in choosing our language.
  • Ideas are fatal to the creation of poetry. Shared experience makes the best of his work.
  • White space at the end of a line is powerful; ending a line with an active verb turns the corner forcefully.
  • He "fails" 28 times out of 30 when he writes; he's happy to get 8 good poems a year; daily writing constitutes good practice. He told us about a champion horseshoe player who said he threw a hundred shoes a day to maintain his accuracy. (Maybe then, writing a hundred words a day isn't unreasonable.)
  • Kooser is aware of accentual and syllabic structure even though he writes "free" verse.
  • Yes, he learns from other writers, and shares his work with Bob King, Dan Gerber and Jim Harrison.
  • He paints.
  • It's good to write to poets whose work you admire.
  • His students are asked to read 100 poems by other people for every one they themselves write.
  • He read 20 poems that afternoon, with a bit of banter and explanation between poems. His voice is clear, not melodramatic, not coy or self-conscious.
  • One of his favorite poems is by Tomas Transtromer, "The Couple."
  • Kooser describes himself as an introvert who was so stunned by the cold call from the Library of Congress asking him to be Poet Laureate that he could not respond, decided to go for a drive to clear his head and return some videos. In backing the car out of the garage, he tore off a side mirror and forgot to drop off the videos.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Branding Poems

As a kid I loved westerns--in print or on television. (We couldn't afford movies.) Every Sunday evening at my grandparents' house Aunt Dot, Uncle Bob and cousins Ralph and Margie would join us for ice cream while we watched a handsome guy on a horse round up the bad guys. Often enough, he also rounded up cows, and we saw the calves cut from the herd, roped, thrown to the ground and bawling as a red-hot branding iron marked them for their owner. In the days of open pasturage, the brand assured--more or less--that come fall roundup the owner and the hands brought in the right critters. Rustlers were hanged for having in their possession cattle with the tell-tale brand of a wronged rancher.

Branding poems is less dusty, I don't need a horse or rope, and so far no one has been hanged for corralling another poet's dogie. Poets and writers are now urged to market their work by branding it. This means  using a consistent head shot, creating a company name, and publicizing the work through readings--where the audience learns pretty quickly what to expect from a poet. One needs a "presence" on line. No longer is it enough to write well and throw the pages into the air with the hope that someone will catch them. Independent bookstores like Shakespeare & Company, which championed James Joyce when no other vendor would touch him, are few, and even the mega-stores, e. g. Borders, struggle against the tide of online opportunity for books and writers to garner attention. Well, I fought with this idea because it felt like bragging, but finally it has taken hold. So here I am brandishing a red-hot iron with my initials on it, stamping every poem as it lies with my mark. Rustlers beware!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Collecting Cosies

If you are not a mystery fan, you may not know that a cosy is a typical English mystery in which the murder--almost always someone dies--happens early on, often off-stage, and usually is precipitated by revenge, greed or the elimination of a witness to an earlier crime. The cast is led by a smart and minutely observant detective, police or civilian, who may even, like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, solve the mystery without leaving her fireside chair. Then there is the remote location--an old manor house, a lonely moor or desolate seacoast. An island works extremely well. The killer is likely to be among the assembled guests. Often, there is a big reveal, wherein all is explained, no plot element left hanging. Subplots serve the main plot. There are lots of Victorian fireplaces, people riding bicycles and a whole lot of walking and gardening.

I love these stories. They are like chocolate or potato chips for the mind. No education is attempted, no moralizing except for the obvious: crime does not pay, the guilty give themselves away, the good are rewarded.  Because the main characters and a few secondary characters repeat in each series, that task of character development is done after the first book, mostly. So if I love these books, understand their purpose and their structure, why not try writing one? Someone famous once advised writers to create the books they want to read. But I feel no compunction to write a cosy. I think this reluctance may be genetic: my single strand of English DNA might be warped or ripped or overshadowed by the Irish-American in me. (Given the history of these two countries, it's a wonder I'm not in a constant state of internal revolt.) Then again, I might not enjoy reading cosies if I had to work at writing one. Sort of like a sun bather having to build a beach.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Baby Rabbits & Elevators

I have no elevator speech. This is a problem. I need one, apparently, in order to tell strangers who and what I am. But can I cram a long life and a dozen passionate interests into a thirty-second sound bite? I could learn to speak like the voice-over on an ad for some dicey new medication that ends with "Ask your doctor if you should take this pill. It will change your life." (Or end it.)

No, that won't work for me. I see no possibility of summarizing three occupations, a marriage and its end, two children, a dozen or so moves around the country, the thousands of books I've read, the horse, the dogs and cats, the political fears and views, the friends, the enemies. No I barely fit into the elevator, let alone into an introductory speech delivered breathlessly between the lobby and the top floor.

This elevator speech is one of the myriad details I've been chasing like baby rabbits lately. These details of the business side of writing, too long avoided, now feel urgent and interesting. Cute as these little bits of organization are, they often skitter away to hide under the second growth of clutter, only to be spied racing across the road, about to be flattened by some eight-cylinder project roaring high speed toward my desk. These baby rabbit details, if they survive, multiply and nibble the day away. But they are so cute--like my new logo, my brochure, a business email. Fortunately, they are not as cute as a new poem or a new short story, so I'll let them hop around and catch 'em as I can.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fight Hunger with Poetry

The Great Hunger, my newest poetry book, started with a suggestion from poet Allison Adelle Hedge Coke to put art in service to an issue. When I first arrived in Colorado I took a week's workshop with her at Naropa University, and it was all to the good. I'd long been concerned about food supplies--my own, the issues of organics, the risks of agriculture, the fact that Americans are mostly too fat and other people in the world go hungry. I still have no clear process for sorting out these issues and seeing a path to what might be called Food Ethics. But I do continue to learn and to put myself in a position to help, however slight and local that position may be. And sometimes I have fun in the process.

This coming Sunday, February 20th, poet Carolyn Jennings and I will do a benefit reading for our local food bank, FISH. We are reading at West Side Books on 32nd Avenue in Denver. Price of admission is a donation for FISH. The fun comes as we read in a call-and-response pattern--one of my poems from The Great Hunger, then one of Carolyn's from her book, Hunger Speaks. It's pretty amazing to see how our poems speak to each other. Then, we hope, audience members will read poems about food that they have brought. Then, we eat. We eat so that others may eat. We read poetry so that others may eat. It's going to be delicious.

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Promise Kept--so far

In my next-to-last post, which was ages ago, I promised to make a habit of visiting libraries. More than a few friends rolled their eyes at that, thinking that I had slipped irrevocably into Dullsville. Well, fear not. Today my friend Marcia and I made the first of twelve visits to Colorado libraries. We didn't go far, mainly because it has been a spectacular day--warm, sunny, perfect for local exploring. So we went to Boulder, teased and pleased by the view of the snow covered Rockies with the bare "low altitude" Front Range for contrast. And miracle of miracles, found parking along Boulder Creek about a block from the Boulder Public Library.

The foyer through which we entered was amazing: a display of small sculptures greeted us and held our attention for a long time. I was particularly taken by wall-mounted "Lightning Bugs" in blown glass and cast aluminum by Caitlin Whitten. Then I stood a long time trying to figure out how Tiffany Lee had managed to cast highly detailed bronzes in the shape of draped fabric, complete with seams, buttons and button holes. Jaw dropping! Once we could bear to part with these wonders, we found art on every available wall in the meandering way to the main library area. The whole building was a feast--live fish in the aquarium near the children's area, live children in the area listening to stories, a water fountain, colorful displays of the books featured for book clubs, and a pleasant, helpful clerk at the front desk who gave us souvenir library cards. And for you doubters, he said they get a lot of people like us who just like to look at libraries.

To round out our bookish morning we visited a new POETRY bookstore, Innisfree, recently opened on 13th Street, just off Broadway. Already about to expand into the adjoining space, this shop is a tidy, welcoming feast for poets and readers. We had sandwiches, left a few of my books for the consignment shelf and chatted with Kevin, the owner, and another customer. What a great way to keep a New Year's resolution. Next month, another library, another adventure. I love books.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Getting Down to Business

Whew! My Imac is back from the digital doctor and that's a good thing, because the loaner PC did not have all my stuff and could not read the saved files on the USB thumb from the Mac word processor. I have a lot of projects going right now--a stack of submissions to get out, many with tight deadlines, and putting the polish to the teaching projects, the first of which begins at Front Range Community College at the end of January, and--oops--it's January already.

Getting back into the classroom feels right. Especially in this instance where the students will not be fighting for grades, will be there out of choice, not the demands of a degree program. They will be learning for fun--the best kind of education. The course is called Begin at Home, the ABC's of Living Local. I had tried this idea as a second blog, but it was frustrating to get a readership and difficult to put any focus into the thing. With a "bully pulpit" in the classroom I hope to do a better job of inspiring people to take a close look at their own municipalities and to their relationships to whatever places they currently call home. We will do some reflective writing, compile resource guides tailored to each individual's interests and read books and articles that may stimulate an ongoing love affair with home. And we all know that love affairs are dynamic, heavenly and hellish by turns. But the energy of the students will lighten, deepen, broaden and stimulate the class sessions and carry over when folks drive away from the student parking lot.