A pebble is dropped into a deep well, and 3.0 seconds later the sound of a splash is heard as the pebble reaches the bottom of the well. The speed of sound in air is about 340 m/s. (a) How long does it take for the pebble to hit the water? (b) How long does it take for the sound to reach the observer? (c) What is the depth of the well?
Indeed–what can we determine based upon the little we know for certain? This physics problem came to mind when I was listening for responses to, say, a short poetry collection that came out recently. (Yes, Strange Ladies.) And I recalled a visit in 1984 to Goodrich Castle in Ross on Wye, Herefordshire, England, where we did just that–dropped a small stone into the well–and waited what seemed a long time for the sound to reach us. From what I understand, tourists can’t do that anymore; the National Historic Trust has upgraded the ruins to make them safer to visit. The tourist board doesn’t want anyone falling down wells.
But I digress. I meant the metaphor to apply to how writers listen eagerly for response to their work once it is published. Will anyone review it? Will anyone read the review? Will anyone post about it on social media? Will anyone contact the writer to say those words we want to hear: “I love your book!” –?
Sometimes, yes. And for those who have done so already, a million thanks.
This collection did not begin as a collection. If anything, it originated in the poems that stuck out as not belonging anywhere, poems not quite abandoned (in fact, most of them had been published in journals over the decades) but not fitting in with my other work. Which is in itself an odd statement to make, since my “style” has ever been inconsistent; I try many styles and forms when composing poems: short, long, free verse, rhyming, metrical, prose poems, telegraphic, chatty, narrative, lyric, abstract, broken, experimental, et cetera. So what do I mean when I say these poems did not fit?
From the time I began writing poetry “seriously” (with authorial and craft intent), I developed themes, tropes, and images that I have never stopped employing; but sometimes one topic or lyric current would bob to the surface and occupy my thought-flow for days, weeks, or months on end. When that occurs, I may get a collection out of it. Sometimes several collections create a sort of arc or, in some cases, a thread of resonance that results in a longer collection. Or maybe there are stylistic choices that recur, and those poems seem connected.
Then there are those impulses that just show up for one poem and vanish for a long while. Persona poems. Feminist poems. Political poems. Rants. Love poems. Dreamy poems. Surreal pieces. And so on.
For Strange Ladies, I realized that during the past 45 years I’ve written enough oddly interesting straggler poems about/in the voices of/relating to female “characters” of a mythopoetic variety that they might form a coven. Or at very least, a neighborhood. The strangeness of these women comes from their position as outsiders, exiles, shamans, rebels, goddesses, myths, heroines. A chapbook manuscript materialized, and what surprises me most about this collection is that the poems I ended up choosing date all the way back to some of the first poems I ever got into print. At that time (circa 1981), indie-lit mags were photocopied, stapled affairs often using collages of copyright-free art for graphics. My nostalgia about that era led me to go for a retro look on the cover. And yes, I wrote one of these poems in 1979 while living in New York City…but others are as recent as 2019. A span of 40 years, and yet they seem to belong together in their differences.
Here’s what one of Moonstone Press’ anonymous poetry editorial committee members had to say:
“This chapbook is like a chorus of distinct personae over time and myth and family–Hagar, Icarus’s sister, the mother, the grandmother, the daughter, each poem a character sketch, engaging, memorable. I loved lines like: ‘Women shoulder everything’ and ‘gliding brought more joy/ than soaring.’ The poem ‘Witch’ is so tight and mysterious, like a dream. In ‘Heron Heroine,’ I loved this: ‘and she who balances stands often on one leg, /as what’s precarious for others grounds her, toes clawed deep/in mud.’ Themes such as sailing, water, bones are carried through in a nice variety of forms that never got boring or repetitive. The diction is so interesting, nice use of natural terms and details, words like ‘bittern,’ ’tilth’ and ‘binnacle.’ I think my favorite might be ‘I am a Cloud,’ with its powerful ending, ‘Attached to nothing, I dance the wind.’ I vote yes, enthusiastically.”
Okay, I’ve had some setbacks in the area of publishing recently. But–another chapbook is in the works, and here is the cover reveal, a graphic throwback to the early 1980s when photocopied zines were abundant and eccentric, which suits the eccentricity of the collection.
Many thanks to the folks at Moonstone Press in Philadelphia, especially to Larry Robin, who has been the resident angel of poetry events, books, and publishing in Philadelphia for decades (and I do mean decades). I almost referred to him as a poetry maven, but he’s more of a guide and stalwart in many ways. (However, I love this definition from Vocabulary.com’s dictionary: The word maven comes from the Yiddish meyvn, meaning “one who understands.” But to be a maven you have to more than just understand a topic, you have to know its ins and outs… You don’t become a maven overnight. That kind of expertise comes with an accumulation of knowledge over the years.) At any rate, after closing Robin’s Bookstore–an indie-publishing-supportive bookstore he operated for many years–Larry started the Moonstone Poetry reading series, the Moonstone Arts Center, and has been behind many other benefits to the poetry-loving community, including virtual and in-person readings and a press that publishes anthologies and single-author collections.
More about the publication date, where to reserve copies, readings, and about the book’s theme and histories will come later. In the meantime, excitement and gratitude.
The hazel’s buds are about to open, first yellow of the season; red-winged blackbirds have returned; this morning, several flocks of snow geese in Vs high above me. Then, a brief but crazy-wild snow squall. Yes, it is February.
What I find myself assessing lately is “the need to publish” thing. I feel a reckoning coming on, personally, in which societal changes are implicated–and my age, as well.
Let me backtrack.
When I first started writing poetry seriously (reading, studying, crafting, workshopping), publishing was a paper-only endeavor that involved typing and retyping poems, sending them with SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) to various literary magazines and journals both Major and minor, and waiting for up to a year for rejection or acceptance. The acceptances were necessary if I wanted a book publisher to take my work seriously, or to have an academic institution consider me as worthy of hire, or to apply for higher-stakes literary grants and opportunities. The game, as it were, operated on those hierarchies: journal publications, chapbooks, solo collections, college stints.
I did a bit of that, though not enough, I suppose. I got my chapbooks and solo collections (see books here) and a fair number of poems in actual (and, now, virtual) print. But ambition ain’t exactly my middle name; my college work has not been tenured and doesn’t fall under the creative writing category–I run the writing center at my university, where it’s all about grammar, spelling, documentation, essay structure. I enjoy the work, but it is not poetry.
Back to poetry publication: the new assessment is about whether I care anymore.
I’m theoretically close to retirement, though academia lets us continue to our dotage if we wish. [See The Chair.] Will further publications, or higher-status publications, enhance my position at the university? No. That ship, as the saying goes, has sailed. Anyway, it was more of a daysailer than a cruise liner. And will further publications, online or in print, keep me in royalties in my retirement years? You jest, my friend! Poetry adds little to the income balance sheet.
Furthermore, the current state of literacy requires social media presence; virtual journals abound, and many of them are fantastic (seek them out! read them!). Their editors respond slightly more rapidly than lit mag editors did in the 1980s, and though there’s sometimes a submission fee, the price has not escalated much more than postage has (and is in some cases lower). But submitting to journals even online nonetheless consumes a sort of energy and time commitment that not all of us have. Or are willing to make to keep ambition going.
So. My current assessment suggests I’m past the point where it matters much where the poems appear, although I personally love poetry BOOKS and will continue to get my books in print if I can. This assessment allows me to say, “I hereby forego Submittable, etc., for the most part and will send out poems to journals if asked, and otherwise…” Hmmm. Otherwise, what?
Maybe post them here? As I did two years ago during National Poetry Month. I could do that again. Something to consider. Since I no longer have much to gain, I could at least continue my audience here.
Readers, if you want to weigh in on this concept, I’m all ears.
Somehow or another, I completed a chapbook manuscript. The longer collection is coming together, as well. Yet it feels to me as though I have not spent nearly enough time on my creative work. And when I find myself awake at 3 in the morning, it’s not poetry that runs through my mind. Usually those wee-hour thoughts are work-related. I guess that makes me normal.
The next step, once a writer has completed a manuscript, is to have another writer or two review it; I’ve done that, too. So now? I guess I submit the work and find out whether a publisher agrees the poem collection does the job of poetry.
And I get prepared for rejection. Comes with the territory.
Upon reflection, the reason I feel I haven’t been doing creative work is that I am not generating many new poems right now. Some, but not many. But let’s re-think the process of revision: it’s a process of deciding upon the order poems should appear in a book, and which of the poems ought to be there to speak to one another, to resonate with one another (and with the imagined future reader). Hey, I am using my imagination here, and I am doing creative work. If all I ever do is generate new poems, those poems won’t have a chance to go out into the world and endeavor to speak to other humans.
Figuring out how to make that happen is the creative work of revising, editing, rethinking. Imagining the reader. Striking the tone of each individual poem to see whether it adds harmony, or works with a fugue-like trope, or changes the mood to minor, or unleashes a surprise. The book of poems can have an arc or act as a chorale or zigzag about to keep the reader on her toes.
The collection of poetry, when it is not yet a book, presents problems the writer and editor must solve. Problem-solving requires creative thinking–I tell my students this almost every time I see them in class!
Will the manuscripts find homes? That’s a different “problem.” Meanwhile, more new poems, more revisions, maybe more manuscripts ahead…while I await the first frost, while the leaves turn and fall. All part of the cycle.
Every 20 years or so, my region gets a truly late freeze.
This is one of those years. It seems strange when snow flurries alight upon dogwood blossoms, but this period has been strange in many respects. What’s one more weirdness? We can adapt. It just requires employing strategies we haven’t used before.
Which brings me, today, to Marilyn McCabe’s chapbook Being Many Seeds, just released by Grayson Books…like my own chapbook, a publication somewhat muted by the coronavirus. Make note, though, that you and I can still purchase books online. It just may take a little longer to receive the text. And isn’t anticipation fun?
Her chapbook has a lovely cover. [Readers may know I’m a fan of milkweed.] And the poems fascinate as they unravel–almost literally–on the page, in a form of erasure poetry followed by brief prose that is not so much interpretation as deepening. McCabe tries strategies with her poems as words and also as meanings. If that makes any sense. Want to know more? McCabe posted about the evolution of this collection on her own blog (which I suggest you follow) here.
I walked out into the meadow and scouted the broken stems and perennials emerging, on the lookout for seed-silk. I found several varieties, mostly dandelion, milkweed, coltsfoot, and eupatorium. Translucent puffs that evolved to disperse lightweight seeds through the use of breeze. Or breath.
Effective, and also quite beautiful. When the seed is stripped from the silk, the puff drifts away. The seed, however, now has the opportunity to sprout and grow. Even when the air is full of flurries.
I reside in one of the Pennsylvania counties under “shelter in place” advisory, but I can work from home; also, we live on almost 7 acres, so outdoors activities continue. The buds bloom. The insects waken, goldfinches molt to their bright yellow, the magnolia tree bursts into blossom. The meadow is muddy, and vernal pools appear in the hedgerows.
Today, a miscellany of links and virtual or reading-related forays.
Meanwhile, I am still making my way through the 910 pages of The William H. Gass Reader, a selection of some of the prolific writer-critic-novelist-philosopher’s essays and excerpts. I love his piece on the book as a container for consciousness, and I suspect I’ll be saying more about that in future.
Two friends have come down with the coronavirus; it’s no joke, people, take the slow-down seriously and “level the curve.” Please.
Finally, here is a photo of the wonderful hospice staff at the in-patient unit where I volunteer (though, for now–no volunteers are permitted in the hospital to assist, so these folks are doing it all themselves, bless them!).
Public relations and poetry are quite separate pursuits, in my mind, yet how else will readers learn that I have another chapbook nearing publication? Yes! Barefoot Girls, a series of 24 poems winnowed from a much longer set, will be appearing in print from Prolific Press later this year.
2021 still seems quite a way off, but perhaps it isn’t too early to mention that my full-length poetry collection The Red Queen Hypothesis will see publication then from Salmon Poetry, an independent publisher in County Clare, Ireland.
Anticipation! I’m eager to see what the books will look like, eager to know whether anyone will read them, and experiencing that little frisson that comes with waiting for potential delight.
I cannot express how grateful I am to the folks behind small independent literary presses for all they do to keep poems circulating, to publish lesser-known writers, and to promote the literary arts generally. They are not making money from the process; they do it for love. Society benefits. Bless them all and donate to them if you can. But the best way to help small independent presses and publishers is to purchase books from them. Browse Prolific Press’ bookstore here, Salmon Poetry’s poetry book catalog here, and Brick Road Poetry’s books here (scroll down far enough & you’ll see my book Water-Rites, still available). Another small-press venture that has been plugging along for years is Michael Czarnecki’s FootHills Publishing. Two of my chapbooks are available from its website.
Dear Readers, purchase a few books from these stalwart independents, even when there’s a lower price used on Amazon. I’ll be thrilled if you buy one of my books but gladder still if you take a chance on an author you don’t know and discover some terrific poems and poets in the process.
Of course, when anticipation becomes realization and my new book becomes available, I will try to don my PR hat and let you know it’s in print. Thank you!!
I have read reams of advice and guidance on how to choose poems for a collection, how to order them, whether to construct an arc in a poetry collection, and so on. I have also had the excellent personal input of good poets and mentors in the process, all of which leaves me deeply grateful and still stumbling when I once again begin the process.
One challenge is excess. I have put off revising for collection for a few too many years, and now I need serious critique and culling; thus, I didn’t know where to begin (as I mentioned in an earlier post). Given a problem, however, creative people tend to develop a method. I chose the simplest one I could come up with: start by pulling all the published work that is not in my previous collections, and see what happens.
What I will discover–in fact, in the early process, already have noticed–is that not all work accepted for publication in a poetry journal reflects my judgment of my strongest poems. Then, too, down the road I will pull some good poems from the evolving manuscript because they do not play well with the others…that is, in terms of tone or subject. As I add things up, I’ll begin to see what might be missing or needed, or I’ll be reminded of an unpublished piece that ought to be included.
This work is exciting. And it takes weeks or months. It will change; my feelings about what I want the collection to say will change.
And then the reading will begin. I will read and re-read the book-as-it-exists and ask generous friends to read and critique the whole.
If I were a more ambitious and organized person, I might approach the manuscript process differently–certainly sooner, and possibly with more of a projected arc in mind from the start. I know that putting together another manuscript will be yet another learning experience, different from chapbook-writing, different from the past books I have composed. The poems differ, too–of course! My perspective, my physiology, my experiences, even my environment, though I have lived in the same house for 20 years.
At this stage, a month or so into the process, a coherence begins to occur. Yes, a book exists in the piles of poems. Probably two books, in fact–but let me begin with abundance (or perhaps, with diminishment) and proceed from there.
I have often imagined what it feels like to lose everything in a fire. Particularly if you are a writer or painter, and you work with easily consumable tools–paper, for example. Maxine Hong Kingston has been articulate and interesting on this situation; perhaps it was her well-reported experience that first got me thinking about how terribly affecting such a loss would be. In 1999, a friend of ours whose business is woodworking lost his shop, tools, work, and wood in a workshop fire. The shock was the worst part–like Hong Kingston, our friends had been away from home and returned to find cinders where their livelihood had been.
Last week, Michael Czarnecki, publisher and sole proprietor of FootHills Publishing, was vacationing in Maine when he learned his house and business had burned to the ground. I have heard that phrase before–but it was literally the case: to the ground. With the loss of clothing, memorabilia, musical instruments, furniture, etc. came the loss of livelihood and the loss of FootHills’ archive of 20+ years of small-press publishing. Many, many books went up in flames, a life’s work.
Paul Martin’s lovely chapbook Morning on Canal Street, FootHills Publishing.
Michael has been documenting the remains and posting images on his Facebook Page. Pictured here, what’s left of a copy of Paul Martin’s chapbook, one of the few that were still recognizable after the tragedy. Paul is a colleague of mine, and this photo makes me sad.
I am sure Michael has not yet done a full accounting of his destroyed inventory. The two books of mine he published are certainly among the casualties, and I feel a selfish pang over that. If he gets the press up and running again–and he plans to (he is an optimist and a hard worker)–he’ll probably try to reprint at least some of the 300 or so books FootHills has produced over the years. The more recent books will be easier to reprint, as he had his computer with him and it was not lost in the fire…pdf files of some of the books are intact. But the “history” of the press…its archival, early chapbooks, may be gone for good.
Once again, I reflect on ephemera. One of the most moving photos Michael took is one of his sons’ birth certificates, charred, the edges the same color as the tiny footprints that are still visible. We are so vulnerable.
And we endure, too. Our art helps us to manage these difficult passages. Love helps us navigate the ashes.
If you are interested in and financially able to help FootHills Publishing recover and rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes, you can go to the FootHills website and donate through PayPal or send a check to
FootHills PublishingPO Box 68Kanona, NY 14856
Thanks very much. As Michael Czarnecki says, “Never stop asking for poems.”