Monday, December 29, 2008

What Blocks the Poems?

I read in the current The Writer's Chronicle that Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts for the past six years, will leave his position in January. He will then direct a new arts program at the Aspen Institute. This will be a half-time position. Gioia says that he achieved most of the goals he set out to do for the NEA, but now looks forward to more time for his own writing. Not that he hasn't been writing; he has been, just not poetry. He says that he has not published one poem for the past six years!

Reading that shocked me. Six years is a long time to go between poems. I get antsy and weird-feeling if I go six weeks without writing anything new. But I do often go those six weeks or more without any new poems. I don't like it, but I've kind of accepted that as my particular process. A period of activity followed by a period of no activity. I like to think of the fallow periods as a time of gathering, of observing and storing up new material that's just waiting for the right ripe moment to unleash itself on the world.

I realized as I read the article that something about the work Gioia was doing must have run counter to his creative urges. And I wondered about my own counter agents. It occurred to me that I've been in one of those do-nothing poetic periods. Recently, my husband was in Florida for five days and I had the whole house to myself. I cleared off the kitchen table where I do most of my writing. Each morning I sat there with a cup of ginger day and scribbled down something. All bad somethings. Not a poem materialized. It wasn't that I wasn't writing at all. I was. I wrote a substantial article and a book review. But my poetry brain was in shut-down mode.

Maybe the pressure of Christmas shopping? Knowing I ought to be at the mall pushing myself to the counter. How about you? What stalls you in your poetic tracks? What conditions need to prevail for the poems to come? Is it possible to cultivate those conditions?

Maybe if I'd looked out the window and seen something like this:

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Yes, Virginia

Something I like to revisit each Christmas is the following essay from the New York Sun. My grandmother read it to me many years ago. I've always remembered it. If you don't already know it, I hope you'll enjoy it:

Eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York's Sun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial September 21, 1897. The work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church has since become history's most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps.

"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Online Journals I Admire

The following is a list of online journals culled from the multitude that are now available. I've visited dozens of these journals over the past few days. The ones I've listed here all have many of the features I admire and look for. They might not be your favorites, but they'll give you a good idea of what's out there.

Blood Orange Review
Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, book reviews, gorgeous art; a bit difficult to navigate--have to keep going back in order to go forward.

Coal Hill Review
Not too big, not too small. Just right.

Cortland Review
Each poem accompanied by audio.

Del Sol Review
Strong work. Generous Contributors' Notes.

Could be easier to navigate, red font is annoyingly hard to read, use of brackets is unattractive, but good poetry.

Could use a darker font but excellent content.

Innisfree Poetry Journal
Strong poetry, one well-known poet featured with generous sample of poems. List of links to poets down right side of each page is handy but a bit too close to the poems on the page.

In Posse Review
Lots of good poetry here.

Very nice. Poetry, prose, interview.

The Pedestal Magazine
Poetry, fiction, reviews, audio; excellent material.

Perihelion Review
Poetry and reviews. Recently revived. Looks promising.

Redheaded Stepchild
In order to get in here your poem has to have been rejected somewhere else first. I hope the editor will reconsider the lime green font in menus and table of contents.

Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, reviews.

Salt River Review
Plain, gets the job done in spite of a somewhat confusing navigational system.

Poetry, critical articles, pedagogical articles, reviews, art, translation. Very readable.

Sweet: A Literary Confection
New journal, some lovely graphics but some design issues, ie, pages that are hard to read because of font colors not working with background colors, cramped text boxes. Poetry and creative non-fiction.

Tattoo Highway
All poetry, organized by region of the country. Lovely art.

Valparaiso Poetry Review
This one's been a favorite for a long time; everything is here.

Waccamaw Journal
Excellent. Fiction, poetry, non-fiction.

Formal Poetry Journals:

The Barefoot Muse: A Journal of Formal and Metrical Verse
Poetry, essays, reviews, audio with many of the poems.

14 by 14
14 sonnets by 14 different poets. Poems beautifully displayed with artwork. Font color in bio notes a bit hard to read.

Mezzo Cammin: A Journal of Formal Poetry by Women
Poetry, reviews and critical articles, beautiful art by one featured artist.

ShatterColors Literary Review
Lots of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, numerous interviews. Wish the navigation didn't require me to keep going back to the Table of Contents.

Unsplendid: An Online Journal of Poetry in Received and Nonce Forms
Could use a darker font, but I like the audio element even though it took me some time to figure out that the butterflies meant audio.

Innovative Journals:

A single poet is featured along with a poetic statement. Apparently full issues also appear but not when I visited. Strong work.

A single poem featured each week with audio by someone other than the poet. Available online or by email.

Described as "an experiment in online literary and artistic collaboration." Demonstrates that it is possible to have a blog format and excellence at the same time. Each issue is themed and has different editors. Poems, artwork, audio. You have to scroll down, but it's worth the effort. Visitors may leave comments. Puts out a call for submissions for each issue.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Online Journals: What I Want

I begin above with a little visual joke—Bird on a Wire, or Bird on a Line, as an entry into today's topic which is online journals.

There has been a great proliferation of online journals; some are excellent and some are not. Because of a discussion on the Wompo listserv, I've been visiting a number of these journals. Some I was familiar with and some were new to me. I've been asking this question: What makes an online journal worth visiting and revisiting—and worth submitting to?

Here are some of the qualities I look for in an online journal:

1. I want a real website, not a blog posing as a journal. There are some blogs engaging in cool projects, but they don't seem journal-like to me. Just too easy to set up the blog kind. To my eye, they lack a professional, authentic feel. Usually.

2. Ease of navigation around the site. Don't make me jump through hoops to get to the poems. I like a Table of Contents that's no more than one page in. I want it to be easy and quick to get to what I want to see. I want to be able to move on easily from there. I dislike it when I have to use my back button to return to the main menu. I don't want to have to keep starting over.

3. No scrolling down to get to the next poet. Should be a link to take me there.

4. No menu with only picture links that I have to click in order to find out where they go to.

5. Menu on each page, at top or bottom or sidebar—and plain, not distracting.

6. No pdf download required. I want the material right there, in the journal.

7. I like it when a journal puts all of one poet's poems together or at least gives me a forward button. I want to read, not spend my time pushing buttons and hunting for things.

8. Bios with the poems or with a link to Contributors' Notes.

9. Authors' links in the bios. Just in case I want more of a particular poet. But I don't want a plethora of links which can get like flies at my eyes.

10. Archives. One of the benefits of publishing in an online journal is the long-term availability of the work. I think a journal should capitalize on that.

11. Inclusion of some reviews. A nice addition and a great way to promote books.

12. Eye appeal. It has to be good-looking. I like some images and I like some colors. Maybe this shouldn't matter, but it does.

13. Easy to read. No pale gray type in small font size. I dislike small text boxes. Too busy and crowded-looking.

14. Freedom from annoying ads. Sorry, but I just can't stand it when the journal is burdened by cheesy ads, especially if they do things like light on and off or move across the screen. More flies.

15. Good submission information. If submissions are now closed, I'd like to know when the doors will be open again.

16. I don't like it when the editor selects favorites from among the poems. That seems like implicit dumping on the others.

17. The editor should not publish in the journal. Exception for reviews and essays.

18. I like a mixture of poets familiar to me and ones who are new to me.

19. Of course, the poems should be wonderful and varied. Long poems are always a hard sell, perhaps more so online.

20. An audio element is nice. It's one benefit that the online journal has over the print one.

Next time I'll list some of the online journals that I especially like.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Online And / Or Print?

Free Lunch arrived yesterday—the journal, that is. Edited by Ron Offen, a fine poet, it's a small no-glitz chapbook-format journal, bare bones but with consistently good poetry. Offen distributes the journal widely and most often for free. He's a generous guy and one of the few editors who consistently comments on the poems submitted. You might or might not agree with his suggestions, but it's nice to know that someone is reading your work carefully. Each issue includes a spirited editorial. Offen has strong opinions, and again, you may or may not agree with him. The editorial in the current issue is one I found hard to swallow.

"Poetry and the Web: The Ephemeralization and Degradation of Poetry" is the second installment of a two-part editorial. Here Offen provides an explanation of why he believes that "by their very natures poetry and the Web are incompatible." He is not opposed to a journal having a website and Free Lunch has one; what he objects to is online journals. He argues that the Web is ephemeral while poetry "aims towards the eternal."

Now I absolutely agree that people do not read as carefully on the screen as they do on the page. And I agree that it's not as pleasant to read online as it is to hold a journal in my hands and work my work through the pages. In fact, I prefer print journals to online ones and only rarely submit to online journals.

Nevertheless, online journals are here and that's just a fact. And not such an unpalatable one. There are things an online journal can do that a print one can't: add lovely graphics, include links to other literary sites, correct mistakes. Some journals have added audio which is wonderful. I like reading the poem and then being able to listen to the poet read it aloud, especially if the poet lives somewhere far away from me. Now Offen makes it clear that he feels these additions detract from the poetry rather than add to it. I disagree.

The technical glitches that Offen cites as nasty possibilities—a hard drive crash; a bug; troubles with the hosting site, both technical and financial; the end of the journal and the disappearance of your work from the site—seem to me no worse or more worrisome than the possibility that a print journal will go out of business before your work is published (I've had that happen), that there will be delays in delivery (also had that problem, many times), that your work will be inadvertently omitted (don't even let me get started on this), that your work will appear with typos that can't be fixed and your bio with your name misspelled (again, don't let me get started).

I imagine that Offen is right when he says that some journals are online because it's less expensive than print. But if a journal simply can no longer afford the printing and postage costs, isn't an online version better than no journal at all? Less expensive doesn't mean that the poetry is less worthy. Yet Offen asks:

"Who then is visiting these sites? Given the content of many of them, which ranges from the highly questionable to the offensively inept, I believe those who view them are chiefly the poets they publish and their friends and relatives. One is tempted to characterize them as poetry dumpsters for poetry that has been rejected by the print magazines. A poet told me that he had stopped submitting to anything but ezines because it was easier to get accepted in them--as if this proved their value! So from my viewpoint what e-zines represent is a dumbing down and degradation of poetry."

I find the above statement difficult to digest. It's true that there are some mediocre online journals that are easy to get into, but it's also true that there are some terrific online journals with very high standards. Some of these journals are harder to get into than some print journals. I wonder if this editor really visited a good portion of these journals or if he merely snacked lightly from a small sample.

Things change. Poetry styles change. Journals change. We need to change, too. That's not a bad thing. I think it's okay to prefer one medium over the other, but I think it's a mistake to choose one and dismiss the other. Why must it be only one?

What do think are the qualities of a good online journal? I'll have some thoughts on that topic in my next post.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Poetry and Humanitarianism

I don't plan on making a practice of posting contest notices here, but this one caught my interest because it seems a rather good follow-up to the Times Literary Supplement contest I previously posted about. Both are unique in that readers do the judging. The finalists in the TLS one were selected by a few appointed judges. This new contest takes it one step further in that contest entrants do the judging. And please note that if you enter you must be willing to participate in the judging, but you will not read every single entry. Here are some details.

This is a new poetry competition raising awareness for MAG (Mines Advisory Group). MAG currently works in about 15 countries around the world clearing minefields and live ordnance so that communities can get on with their lives in safety.

The entry fee per poem is 6 pounds which is about 9 US$. The fee is paid online via PayPal.

The poems are posted anonymously. A snapshot of recent entries is visible on the homepage. The contest is for unpublished work.

The judging is in three rounds. In each round the entrants read 12 poems. Peter Hartey, who sent me information about the contest, says, "It's a knockout system. In the final round everyone reads the last 12. I've never seen anything like it before. The mathematics are amazing - though I generally find it is best to steer clear of mathematical explanations. In the first two rounds you have a kind of 'voting web.'"

Here's the press release:


Manchester. 26th November 2008: With landmines still threatening the lives and security of thousands around the world, a UK-based poetry group is looking to use creative writing as a way of raising funds for life-saving humanitarian work.

Peter Hartey, who pioneered the Manchester poetry forum "Poetic Republic," has launched an ambitious online poetry competition with proceeds going to the aid of the UK landmine charity, MAG (Mines Advisory Group)

The competition will enable aspiring and established poets from across the globe to submit their on-line entries for the MAG Poetry Prize with proceeds going towards clearance and development work in countries affected by landmines and unexploded ordnance. The prize fund accumulates at the rate of £2 per entry up to a maximum of £10,000.

This knockout competition will be run in a unique way with poets themselves judging the entries of their fellow participants rather than a panel of judges. “The winning poems will not reflect the taste of one or two individuals but rather the wider group” said competition organizer Peter Hartey.

“This is truly an online poetry contest that harnesses the huge judging potential that the pool of entrants represents,” says Peter. “Whilst it is a 'competition,' more importantly, it’s a fun and creative way for people to learn from their fellow poets.”

“Landmines still kill and maim thousands of people across the globe,” said MAG Chief Executive Lou McGrath. “We are extremely impressed with the efforts of Peter and Poetic Republic and grateful for these much needed funds for our clearance work.”
For more details and to submit an entry, visit Poetic Republic

The closing date for the competition is April 30, 2009.

MAG is a neutral and impartial humanitarian organisation clearing the remnants of conflict for the benefit of communities worldwide. MAG is co-laureate of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for its work with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which culminated in the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty - the international agreement that bans antipersonnel landmines.

Poetic Republic is a Manchester based not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of the poetic arts and humanitarian causes.

For more information about this please contact Jessica Sallabank, Media and PR Officer. 07979343969

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