Thursday, October 30, 2014

Billy Collins on Craft

Last weekend I attended the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. I not only attended, I also worked there. One of my assignments was to introduce Billy Collins at his craft talk on Saturday morning. This was held in the gymnasium of the North Star Academy, one of several charter schools in Newark. The room was packed.
Collins began his talk with some thoughts about what poetry is. He offered the following:
    “musical thought”—Thomas Carlisle
    “emotion set to rhythm”—Thomas hardy
    “meaning that moves”—Muriel Rukeyser

He then added that poetry is “all about the love of strangers.” And he asked, "How do you get strangers interested in your internal life”? He offered two ways:
    1. Lies
    2. Application of form—give formal pleasure to the reader

Collins added that the reader is not interested in your life; he’s interested in his own life.

To the earlier definitions, he added, “Poetry is a mixture of the clear and the mysterious.” It is a “home for ambiguity.” I love that last part.

When Collins began to talk about deal breakers, i.e., what makes him stop reading a poem, the talk had the ring of familiarity. I recalled that some of his thoughts had been included in an essay entitled “My Grandfather’s Tackle Box: The Limits of Memory-Driven Poetry,” published in Poetry, August 2001. Then I googled a bit and was reminded that he’d also discussed his deal breakers in his Introduction to the Best American Poetry 2006, an issue for which he’d served as Guest Editor. Excerpts from that essay, “75 Needles in the Haystack of Poetry,” appear here.

I’ll include one excerpt here:
“The word ‘cicada,’ for example, stops me in my tracks. Sorry, I simply cannot continue. Poems consisting largely of memories tend to leave me unfurled, particularly memories of family members—parents, grandparents, especially ones referred to as ‘Dad,’ ‘Mom,’ ‘Grandpa,’ and ‘Grannie.’ The same goes for poems that seem obsessed with some object associated with a dead person: Grandpa’s tool box, Mom’s ironing board, Dad’s fishing rod, and the like.  . . . Too many poems seemed content to convey an experience followed by a reaction to it without factoring in the reader’s presumed indifference to the inner lives of strangers.”

(This entire essay also appeared in AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, September 2006.)

The talk was followed by a Q&A. Someone asked about prose poetry. Collins described it as “an opportunity to write poetry and prose badly at the same time.” Funny, yes, but I’m sure that raised a few hackles in the room. It’s one thing to say you don’t care for it or you don’t choose to write it, but to dismiss it altogether struck me as too firmly opinionated. Collins elaborated by saying that he values the line, that each one adds something to the poem, “And once you give up the line, you can’t use the word poetry.”

Someone else asked about performance poetry and it quickly became clear that that’s not Billy’s cup of tea either. He feels that the delivery is too emotional and that the performer does what the poem should be doing.

Now I need to get out my current manuscript. I think I have a poem in it that mentions a cicada.

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.

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