Sunday, December 31, 2006

How do we measure success?

I've just finished pulling together six submission packets, a big push for the beginning of the year. And I have to ask myself, "Why?"

Why do I think someone will want to read my poems, much less publish them (or the other way around)? Why do I feel so inadequate when I read the resumes of people who have had 16 books published and who have won Pushcart Prizes and other awards (a list as long as my arm)?
If the question is about how we measure success, the first question becomes: What is success? What does it look like in the poetry world?

Really, it's about writing the very best poem that I can write—a goal that is and should be always shifting. But that is difficult or maybe impossible to measure. Instead, while I'm trying to write that poem and any or all of the others, I'm looking for some tangible standard that somehow bestows validity on my efforts (yes, it's okay that you're doing this and by sharing your work you are not always wasting someone else's time and good attention). In the meantime, I'm ruing the fact that my resume comes up lacking, that my work is not good enough or I am not good enough, and trying to find ways to fit in and get the acknowledgment that it's okay.

These are not the best reasons of my reasons to write or the best desires to chase, but I guess they're human.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Strange things are not coming out of my head

The fact that I have not begun to sport antennae or horns is a good thing, I guess, and I'm not wanting to become some space alien from the Sci-Fi channel. But I'm thinking about the strange ideas. Not shock-value oddities—weird for weird's sake—but the sudden serendipitous juxtaposition of images that can take you down a different path.

I haven't really considered this consciously before. I've thought about how to get into the zone, how to get onto a writing roll, but not about how to evoke, how to become receptive to, the completely unexpected.

And every once in a while, a poem seems to come out of nowhere—different images, different voice (who wrote that?). It happened with the jackals and with the salt mine poem. But when I say "a while," I mean a long while. And how do you sustain it. (If you get one, do you need more? Do you need a little body of work that can work as a whole?)

So I'll be spending my New Year's weekend trying to find any strange things that can come out of my head, trying to open all the doors and windows, find the locks and whatever keys might fit.

In the meantime, I'll include those two strange poems from before.

From the Earth’s Own Rooms

          Wieliczka, Poland

The salt of sweat,
the sweat of love,
the love of God
that brings our knees down
in white caverns ghost-lit

with the lives of men,
the color of moon
without a sky,
sucking kisses
from our lips,

kissing tears
from our bones,
and we mine it like gold,
carve in it arches
and steps, altars buried deep.
Close to the fires of darkness,

the salt is holy
in water, is holy
in the ground,
is running through our veins,
towering in this,
our image of heaven.

"From the Earth's Own Rooms" previously appeared in Crab Creek Review.

When Lying Dogs Did Not Sleep

Jackals roamed the streets
and snarled their snarls at the pallid moon.
We sewed lace curtains into oven mitts
and scuffed our socks along the floor.

We peered from under blankets.
We thought about throwing rocks
or jars of mayonnaise,
waited for any kind of news.

No one wanted to step out,
slanting into wind and teeth.
We ate the cookies, made more,
made a liberal dent in the wines.

The paint chipped and peeled.
Tea roses turned black in their beds.
It rained, and we heard the seething
songs, gravel or cast iron.

We kept the cats inside with us,
knew when we ran out of flour
or the telephone went dead,
we’d make our move.

"When Lying Dogs Did Not Sleep" previously appeared in Cranky.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Sometimes in the bounty of rejection letters, I lose sight of the acceptances—not to mention the other happy little good things that are going on. As the year winds to its final day, I want to take a moment to focus on the acceptances—a little "accentuate the positive" action—and to acknowledge some of the people and publications who have been supportive.

These thanks go out to David D. Horowitz, of Rose Alley Press, who is such a tireless supporter of poetry and who has been so kind to me and my work.

These thanks go out to Illya's Honey, which has published my poems over the years, and to JAMA, which has published my work recently.

To Floating Bridge Press, for being such a great press for more than a decade, and to Cranky, for being one of the best new cool kids on the block. These are just a few, plus Crab Creek Review and Heliotrope and others.

These thanks go to John and Christine, for being wonderful. And to Greg and Judy and Susan and Anne and Darby and Mercedes and Laurie and Bonnie and Nancy, for their friendship and for continuing to inspire.

Finally, to my family, who puts up with me and loves me through all of it.

Here's to one year closing and another opening up just like some winter rose.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Writing your way out of the end

Endings have been troubling me for a while. Sometimes, I read a poem, and I'm hooked all the way through, and then I get to the ending, and I feel let down. The ending feels like it was just kind of tacked on (let's finish this one fast). Sometimes, when I'm writing a poem, I'll get the same feeling, so I'll go over and over the end, trying to figure out what that last stanza, those last lines, are really all about.

My friend and fellow poet Judith Skillman has a whole bagful of ways to revise a poem. Deep revision, ways to get at the heart of the whole poem. She has taught the class at Richard Hugo House (if you're in Seattle, you can look up the class). I've found these to be great strategies to use when I'm not sure what a poem is about—not just where it's going, but where it's even really starting out.

But sometimes, I feel really good about the poem—up to a point, that point near the end. Usually, I'll try to rewrite the end, and I also look for the trapdoor. Maybe, as much as I'm resisting it, that poem is supposed to head off in a different direction, or deepen in a different direction, before I even approach the final images.

I'll write the last stanza several times, completely different each time, or I'll write several more stanzas just to see what might happen next. Or I'll go back to old drafts, see what I've discarded already and whether any of it can give me a path to where I need to go.

One of the best rejection letters I ever received included a handwritten note, which said that the end of one poem was "quite good."

How do you get to the end of a poem? How do you get out of the end?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Back to the beginning?

I find that in poems, as in life, I like things tied up neatly. This, I suspect, is not a promising admission—that I want to understand everything (in a poem, I want to see it, too) and that I want it to circle back to the beginning. Not really a circle, but a spiral that ends at the same place but on a different plane.

Is it a need for closure, as though we ever really get that? Is it a desire to feel "smart enough" (I get it) and maybe a little more enlightened for having read it? I like that circle, that spiral. Maybe for the planning. A piece that comes back to its own beginning sounds well thought out. Someone was thinking even while he or she was feeling and writing and revising.

It's a desire. I see it in other poems. I tried to think of one of my own that I could use as an example, and then I wasn't able to come up with one. No representative of the ideal.

But then I suspect that—in my own efforts, at least—this could also be a form of self-repression, this desire for the neat knot, the closed loop. What if instead the poem ends with a springboard to someplace else entirely? And for some reason, I have an image of hair spread across a pillow, wild.

It's that wild woman that I'm afraid I'm missing, silencing. And if a large part of poetry is digging deeper into the inner self, then it may also be about finding, recognizing, freeing that wildness—the force that rejects the circle or even the careful spiral and instead plunges willingly into the vortex only to be sucked into some new place.

What does that look like on paper? And can you have both? Can you circle back while you're venturing forth?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rejections, redux

The rejections keep coming by mail and even e-mail, which can seem even more impersonal. It isn't really, but it's quicker. It lacks the anticipation of opening an envelope, pulling out the preprinted slip, sometimes with a handwritten note of encouragement, the moment of thinking that this might not be a rejection after all.

However, after writing my previous post about this ongoing if disappointing aspect of the writing life, I started to consider other forms of art and self-expression. I started to think about auditions—especially dance auditions (although the high school musical tryout was a pretty sad affair). I started to remember the cold studios and the combos and the crowds of talented women lining up and not getting chosen for callbacks and all the while standing in a leotard—nowhere to hide.

That thought makes even the most impersonal, anonymous letter sound kind of warm and cuddly.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Getting into the zone

Finding time to write is one obstacle. Finding my way into that rare creative space inside is another challenge. Some days, writing feels like exercise or like mowing the lawn. Other times, the ideas and images seem to flow. I've heard several good metaphors for this--divining, digging, going to the well, channeling. But how do you get there? How do you get into the zone?

Do you sit quietly? Do you take a walk, or ride a bike? Do yoga? Or do you read?

Years ago in a workshop, I met a woman who wrote her weekly workshop poem on Sunday. She would sit down with a stack of poetry books and read until around four in the afternoon. By then she was primed, ready to write.

I don't often read for a whole day, but I find that reading poetry—even just on the bus home from work--is for me the best route into the poetry zone. Any poetry—books, journals—poems on the bus--although some poetry opens me more swiftly and completely. And it doesn't have to be anything like the poetry that I might write, that I hope to write. In the early eighties, it was Ann Sexton. In the mid-eighties, it was Frank O'Hara. A few years ago, it was Olena Kalytiak Davis (And Her Soul out of Nothing). This last summer was the summer of Louise Gluck (Averno, The First Four Books of Poems). Closer to home, Judith Skillman (Heat Lightning) and Kathleen Flenniken (Famous). Right now, Lynda Hull (Collected Poems).

That's just the short list. If I stand in front of my bookcase for even a moment, titles leap out at me.

Every once in a while, I hear rumblings about a debate—is it better not to read the poetry of other people? Will it unduly influence your work? I reach for a book or head to the store (thank heavens for Open Books: A Poem Emporium).

What are you reading?

How do you get into the zone?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Getting into the rhythm

When do you write? Do you write every day? Do you have a favorite time of the day, a time when you feel more present, more creative? Do you warm up, write in a journal, do free writes or some sort of imagery calisthenics, or do you jump right into a poem? When do you revise?

I ask because this year I haven't been able to get into the writing rhythm. I'm a big believer in the "writing every day" approach, as opposed to "writing when the muse hits you over the head with a lightning bolt, or her purse."

I've heard that it's good to write early in the morning, because you are closer to your dreams. I'm still working on that one.

One year, I got up nearly every morning at about 5:00 so that I could write be for the rest of the household woke up. I'd do a little free writing, trying to drum up ideas that might turn into poems, and then I'd work on revisions to projects that were already in progress. I found that sometimes all my poems were about fatigue and darkness. I also found that at such an early hour, it was easy to turn off my inner critic. Maybe I couldn't even hear my inner critic. It was enough just to show up and make the effort (and maybe that's a pretty low expectation). Then I found that I was just plain exhausted. By October, I had to give up and sleep that extra 45 minutes.

I know that many people get up at 5:00 and even 4:00 in the morning so that they have writing time, but I'm still looking for a different strategy.

And that means that I'm still not writing every day.

I've tried to set aside "writing days" in which I can get a couple of solid, two-hour blocks of time in. This has worked well as a New Year's resolution, except that I've never made it more than four or five weeks into the year. Another opportunity is coming in a couple of weeks.

I've tried including everything as writing—letters to friends count (even in e-mail), journal entries count, when I make them, poems count and even the blah, blah, blah woe kind of venting that sometimes just needs to get out so that it's out of the way. I've tried to write at lunch, except that I don't really take a lunch break. I've set aside time in the afternoon, after work, and it rarely works.

I've thought, "I'll write on the bus!" (I even started to write a novel on the bus—bad idea in so many ways), but then I can't get a seat. It's hard to write in a moving vehicle and it's hard to write standing up, and I can't even attempt to do both at the same time unless I grow at least one more arm. Alas, I am no starfish.

Do you have a practice, a plan that works for you? How do you get into the rhythm? When do you write?

(A note on mechanics: I had a request for a serif font, so this is Georgia. If you think it's easier to read, let me know.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Bad Mommy

This morning I was the wicked mother, standing at the kitchen counter stressed and indulging in invective over lemon bars. What does this have to do with writing poetry?

Choices. We make them every day. Work on a new poem or revise one that's been collecting dust or send some out (and which ones? where?), or do another load of laundry or figure out what to make for dinner or (in better weather) pull a few weeds or sit down with a glass of wine and think about what it will be like when all of it is done. Then, in an hour or so, the process of choosing begins again. At least, that's how it works for me.

I've long harbored a suspicion that I might be a better mother, wife, and employee if I more often made the laundry-type choices and spent less time thinking about, fretting over, and forgetting how to write any given poem. If I spent less time trying to carve out a space alone to think and more time trying to be a better person. (When I'm more focused, I start by trying to be a better listener—but then I have mornings like this morning when it all goes straight to Hell. Apologies have been made, but there is a residue.)

It seems ironic to me that after my youth of feeling isolated most of the time, I'm now trying to figure out how to get a little more time to myself. I suspect that if I got all I wanted, I would feel abandoned. So I'm back to trying to balance writing, with its intangible rewards, working, loving and being loved, and acting, most of the time, like the person I want to be, or at least like an adult.

Perhaps the holidays is not the best time for so much introspection. Or maybe it's the very best time. In the meantime, I'll try to work on a poem for poetry group tonight and try to listen more and wait to tackle the lemon bars until tomorrow.

(And if all this seems random, it is. I'm still new to blogging, and I'm trying to figure out what this is.)

Monday, December 11, 2006

A phase of deletions

I'm in a phase of deletions—different from revising, in which one tries with passion and perseverance to fix what isn't working. Instead, I am throwing up my hands, sending stanzas and paragraphs to the virtual trashcan or the real recycle bin under the sink.

What leads me to give up? A sturdy realism, or an ingrained lack of confidence? Some days, nothing I write looks right. Some days, nothing I wrote the day before looks worth salvaging. But in all this refuse, my revision muscles become lax. I need to keep a thing or two just to work on it—knowing it will eventually fail, but for the things it might teach me in the meantime.

The trick, I guess, is knowing when to let it go, and that decision will come later. I'll need the confidence then.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Rejections like a flock of crows/Why write?

It's the season again: Rejections arrive in the mailbox like a flock of crows. While disappointment—and the very rare excitement of acceptance—can be delivered at any time of year, the No notes seem to clump up in larger bunches right before the end of the school year the end of the calendar year.

We've all heard it: In poetry, a plethora of rejections is almost a requirement, almost a symbol of achievement. (Having sent work out for a couple of decades, I've paid my dues, and I keep paying.) But as I open the envelopes and extract the thin, mostly preprinted slips, I start thinking of where I can send to next or do I need to revisit these poems or is this the best use of my time and why am I doing this?

Why write? Is it for the approval of acceptance? (The purist in me says, "No"; the realist, "At least partly.") Is it for the love of language? Yes. Is it the fact that, unlike dance, I don't need good knees? Or because I hunger to be good at something? It's a form of meditation, of reaching another part of myself? Or it makes me happy, even when it feels torturous?

Would I write if I never sent another thing out to another journal? Would I write if I never showed my work to anyone—not even family or friends?

I've asked these questions more than enough times (my son would say, "a frillion") and I haven't answered any of them yet.

Why write? I haven't yet figured out how not to write.


Maybe misery really does like company. And while no one wants to wallow (it isn't good for you) it can feel helpful sometimes to share stories and frustrations—as well as inspirations. To gather around the questions that we ask and ask again. To mull over new inquiries.

Welcome to Poe-Query, a blog about writing and poetry (not necessarily Poe).

Why another blog about writing poems? Writing is something I mostly do alone (even when solitude is a luxury, it's a helpful luxury). But questions come up. What am I doing? Why am I trying this? How much more paper am I going to waste? What am I going to write about? Where should I send it? Where should I send it when it comes back with a rejection slip or without a rejection slip or as an empty envelope? That's the query part—questions about the creative part of it and about the biz part of it. I trade e-mail messages with friends, and it's helpful to have those conversations, but I thought it might be good to try getting out of the inbox and widening the conversation. I have questions all the time, and I want to hear what you think. It's nice to have a little company sometimes.

Finally, because this is primarily a poetry-related endeavor, I thought I'd include a poem—one that was inspired by the old saw "Misery loves company."


Clouds push full from the south.
Beside the window, a draft
and one chair. Enough to sit,
watch the day fail,
weigh each catastrophe
as crows pinch the red berries.

Stillness covers too thinly
to comfort. Chill creeps the floor.
Find another chair
for that corner—to weather
a rain of worry and rue.
It is better with two.

Then, for a pair, why not a lamp
in the violet shadows,
a knob of light
to fend off the awful dark.
Soon, a fire burnishes the grate
and appearing in the clearing: stars.