In a dark time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood–
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks–is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is–
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark,dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

                                         - Theodore Roethke

Of the many things I would like to have explained to me some time this week is: Why the heron and the wren?

Ten Questions

For Sarah Sloat. Sarah works for a news agency in Germany, where she lives with her husband, daughter and son. Her poems have appeared in Rhino, Third Coast, Stirring  and Worm, among others. Her favorite poets include Norman Dubie, Garcia Lorca and Tomaz Salamun. A gazillion thanks to Sarah – whose lovely poems I find both addictive and inspiring — for agreeing to be Part 4 of this continuing series, and for the range of new insights given by her answers. (The ten questions, with past and upcoming contributors, are here.)

1. In this 2003 interview, Canadian poet George Bowering quotes Shelley: “The poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” Do you think the poet has a specific role to play in human affairs in this century?

The poet is surely the legislator of the poem, but I don’t think he has some large-scale role to play in human affairs. The poet, or rather the poem, plays an important role for readers, who go to poetry for the same reasons they always did, alone and as individuals. But most poets don’t set out to guide or instruct anyone. Mostly they’re talking to themselves. And the audience, which is limited, isn’t made up activists and aid workers. Only a small part reads to reflect on culture, the state of the world, the local police, etc. Many readers are looking for poems about flowers and anthropomorphosized animals. Not that there’s anything wrong with flowers. They can do us a lot of good. In winter, I am particularly fond of the amaryllis.

2. Talk about the importance of poetry workshops to you as a poet – now and in your earlier development. Do you differentiate between in-person and on-line workshops?

Since I live in a non-English speaking country, I’ve had no opportunity to participate in upclose workshops.I like to think I’m still early in my development, but I’ll say that in my absolute beginner days, the workshop (online) was crucial to me. I still enjoy participating, but with time you learn to trust yourself.

3. Comment on this passage by former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall in his 1983 essay Poetry and Ambition: “Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years; don’t let them go, don’t publish them until you have kept them around for ten years: by that time, they ought to stop moving on you; by that time, you ought to have them right. […] When Pope wrote An Essay on Criticism seventeen hundred years after Horace, he cut the waiting time in half, suggesting that poets keep their poems for five years before publication. […] By this time, I would be grateful – and published poetry would be better – if people kept their poems home for eighteen months.”

It’s my guess Horace waited 10 years to get his poems published, that Pope waited five years, and that Mr. Hall waits at least 18 months. In general, it is good to give the poem time. But it’s up to the poet and the poem. I’m sure everyone has written a poem they felt was “right” right away, and that everyone has over-revised a poem to the point of death. I have once or twice hoped a poem would be rejected because in the meantime I had a better idea for it, so there’s a lesson in that.

4. Comment on this passage from Why Poetry Criticism Sucks, an article by Kristin Prevallet in the April 2000 issue of Jacket magazine: “It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed […]. For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal.”

Well, as long as our language is degenerating let’s admit that some critics are assholes. And some poets can’t take criticism, however constructive or kindly put. It bothers me to think criticism serves no purpose but to insult, and surely it’s not true. But I have lost my arms and legs in some deliberately maiming feedback sessions and temporarily lack the means to comment further.

5. Do you have an internet presence? If so, describe it and comment on the state of the poetry blogsphere.

I participate occasionally in two online workshops. Mostly because I just enjoy writing, I also keep a blog. Personally I like the blogosphere. I like reading other poets’ reading recommendations and opinions, getting word of publications, etc. There’s a lot of schlock, too, but no one will make you click on it.

6. To what degree have you been published and to what degree has that helped or hindered your development as a poet?

This is a weird question, so let me go off on a tangent that considering it leads me to. It bothers me when I hear a poet say he has to get some more poems out so he can finish his book: “I have to get a collection together,” or “I need about 10 more poems for my book.” Do poets really go forth writing poems with the purpose filling a book? Maybe it’s a slip of the lip when poets put it that way, but I dislike the idea of forcing yourself for the bulk of it. Who wants to be known as a quantity poet?

As to the question, I have published poems online and in print. In terms of helping or hindering, I can only say on occasion an editor has invited me to submit because he has seen something I wrote elsewhere, so it can “help” to get a good poem out. On the other hand, I’m sure publishing an unripe poem at a bad-taste journal would be a nasty thing. I do like to think, though, that even in such a case editors judge the poem at hand and not the poet. This is totally naïve, I know, having read a number of crap poems by name poets at name journals.

7. Comment on today’s huge numbers of on-line poetry publications.

It’s a bewilderness. You need a research assistant. Many publications aren’t worth the time of day, not only because the poetry is poor, but because some are fly-by-nights. Two issues, and the editors figure they’d rather not continue. But there are many terrific and exciting online publications. I think of Pedestal, Gumball, Caffeine Destiny, and many others that I’m sure are going to give me something I like every issue, like Stirring and Shampoo.

8. Self-publishing has become inexpensive and relatively painless. What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

I have nothing against it. A lot of good poetry in print is the result of the poet’s own bootstrap initiative. Not that folks wouldn’t prefer having a publisher banging at the door. You want to give your friends a chapbook of your poems? Go ahead. In the spirit of Christmas, it’s better than spending money on meaningless crap.

9. What do you see as the biggest opportunity facing a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

The internet is really an enormous opportunity because of the exposure it offers both poets and readers. There was nothing comparable 50 years ago. About fifty years ago, the biggest opportunity was probably psychedelic drugs.

10. What do you see as the biggest challenge to a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

It hasn’t changed. As always, the poem.

mothers and funerals

Christmas coming up. Making gingerbread cookies for the boys, listening in my really nice kitchen with the red tile floor to the Psalms of David in Anglican chant from the King’s College choir. No. 122 comes on (I was glad when they said unto me) and: Oh, lovely! I’ve picked that one out to be sung at my funeral, says my visiting mother.

?

I’m up to swap mothers, if anyone else is.

Ten Questions

for Julie Carter. She’s funny, she’s clever, and she’s got the kind of thing about sound more of us should have.  I still have huge bat-hall lacunae in my understanding of sound, and have only begun to realize how vast they are because of Julie. If you haven’t read her book pseudophakia, you should. If you haven’t listened to her read, you should. Thanks, Julie, for being Part 3 of this series, and for continuing to make me think.  The ten questions and list of upcoming contributors here, past contributors in the sidebar on this page. 

1. In this 2003 interview, Canadian poet George Bowering quotes Shelley: “The poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” Do you think the poet has a specific role to play in human affairs in this century? If so, what is it?

No. I think, honestly, that a lot of poets want to feel better about their chosen art form, so they artificially elevate it. But it is what it is, a fairly insignificant diversion.

But, then, I think fairly insignificant diversions are what make us human and not woodchucks. We get to do things that have no other purpose but to make our lives more beautiful.

2. Talk about the importance of poetry workshops to you as a poet – now and in your earlier development. Do you differentiate between in-person and on-line workshops?

I’ve never been to an in-person workshop, so I can’t address that. Online workshops were very important to me a few years ago, but much of my current attitude toward poetry and poets is actually a repudiation of workshopping. I think that workshops foster a tendency toward deliberate conformity and toward a sort of art through the lowest common denominator. They’re dangerous and useful at the same time, like a prescription painkiller. I recommend them to people at the very beginnings of their artistic careers, when they need to hear as many voices as possible. After a point, I think many poets need to break away from workshops, to listen to their own inner critic. Then, after that while, I think many can find something useful in workshops again, a confirmation of what they thought they knew.

It’s easy to become complacent. It’s easy to workshop for the ego, not the craft.

3. Comment on this passage by former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall in his 1983 essay Poetry and Ambition: “Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years; don’t let them go, don’t publish them until you have kept them around for ten years: by that time, they ought to stop moving on you; by that time, you ought to have them right. […] When Pope wrote An Essay on Criticism seventeen hundred years after Horace, he cut the waiting time in half, suggesting that poets keep their poems for five years before publication. […] By this time, I would be grateful – and published poetry would be better – if people kept their poems home for eighteen months.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Imagine you are having a telephone conversation and you say, “How are you?” And then the person you’re trying to talk to says, “I’ll call you back in a week when I have the perfect answer for that.”

Writing a poem is like entering into a giant conversation. There’s more benefit in getting involved than in making sure every T is crossed. Just saying it out loud, just putting the poem out there, doesn’t mean the poem has to be finished. It can still be changed. Or, you may find that the poem as it is says just the right thing at the right time, asks just the right question to draw the whole room together. If you know it’s wrong, fix it first. But if you think it’s close, say it out loud and listen to the echoes.

4. Comment on this passage from Why Poetry Criticism Sucks, an article by Kristin Prevallet in the April 2000 issue of Jacket magazine: “It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed […]. For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal.”

For as much as people like to say that they don’t fall prey to the magical “poem as heart” thinking, I think we all do it. Yes, an evisceration of a poem is more personal than an evisceration of a novel, because most of us believe that poetry is more personal. It’s all about that attitude, and it isn’t going to change.

5. Do you have an internet presence? If so, describe it and comment on the state of the poetry blogsphere. If not, why not?

I have a blog where I natter on about all sorts of things, including poetry. I’ve met some absolutely lovely people through my blog and wouldn’t exchange it for rubies. The state of the poetry blogosphere? I don’t know. There are some nice people, some sensible people, and some absolute raving egomaniacs who should be smothered with their own chapbooks. Poetry seems to bring out the inner idiot in so many of us. I don’t exclude myself.

6. To what degree have you been published and to what degree has that helped or hindered your development as a poet?

Little, and I think that my aversion to being published has helped my poems and hurt my ability to write them. It’s hard to be dedicated when you feel that you aren’t being dedicated to anything. But when I do write a poem, I think it’s better than it would have been if I had been writing for a different audience. Some people are inspired by artistic pressure. I just deflate.

7. Comment on today’s huge numbers of on-line poetry publications.

Mixed emotions. I love that there are so many venues. I hate that the vast majority will only take unpublished poems, turning poems into disposable items that have no value once put in pixels. New new new new new more more more more more. Great poems are being pushed aside just as quickly as slight ones.

8. Self-publishing has become inexpensive and relatively painless. What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

I did it for my book. I wanted to put together a collection for my mother, and once I had done that, I was okay with anyone else having a copy who wanted one. But I’m unwilling to pay someone for the privilege of entering the conversation, and I’m completely unwilling to work that hard for the sake of a book that will mean nothing to anyone but me.

9. What do you see as the biggest opportunity facing a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

The internet, by a huge margin.

10. What do you see as the biggest challenge to a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

The internet, by a huge margin.

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Julie Carter lives in Ohio with her husband and their strange array of cats. Her work has appeared in The Adroitly Placed Word, Autumn Sky, Snakeskin, OCHO, and in her recent book: pseudophakia. She is one of the readers for popular internet radio programs by miPOradio.

Education by Stone

Nostalgic for Colombia and things Latin American after yesterday’s post. Dug out from deep depths Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology edited by Stephen Tapscott. Proof that I used to walk around with my head in a paper bag where poetry was concerned: I have focused for the first time on the translators in this anthology. Holy cow! James Wright translating Cesar Vallejo; W.S. Merwin, Richard Wilbur and John Updike translating Borges; Elizabeth Bishop on Carlos Drummond Andrade; Robert Bly, James Wright and William Carlos Williams on Neruda, Allen Ginsberg on Nicanor Parra, and so on and so forth. My faith in translations is a little bit restored.

Here’s Bly and Merwin doing Neruda – note especially Bly’s rendering of Ode to My Socks.

Pick of the afternoon is James Wright translating Cabral de Melo NetoEducation by Stone.

Snarling at Jesus

We have perhaps seven Nativity sets from all over the globe set up through the house and this may be why my six-year-old son chose to draw a very detailed Nativity scene in pencil and crayon this evening. We have Mary, Joseph, Jesus-sleeping-in-a-manger, a shepherd, three wise men and a sheep, all nicely arranged under a possibly rather sketchily angular but perfectly adequate stable canopy. He forgot the star.

Or did he replace it?

With a rather impressionistic drawing of a lean, snarling, crouching thing poised to leap, on a rocky overhang above the stable.

Oh my. What’s that?! I asked, startled.

Oh, just a hungry mountain lion. It smells Jesus, he said.

?!?

Levels of understanding?

I really like her work although I don’t understand a word of it.

From an email yesterday, batting around my head today. I’m guessing that we’re talking about levels of understanding here and that this statement actually means something like: I couldn’t stand up and explain the meaning of her work to a roomful of people, but I like it because I understand it on a sub- (or supra-) explanation level.

There has to be some level of “understanding” involved, otherwise, how could there be liking, right?

I think I’m seeing something like this more and more in my critiques of poems lately. Getting a little less wedded to exclamatory wtf!? commentary like: Hey, a minute ago your pancake was smoking blue curls off a griddle and now it’s stuck steaming upside the dark side of the moon?? What’s with that, O creepy obscure writer of disconnected doggerel whom no-one will read beyond next week?

Seeing more of: No idea what this means, but I like it.

If I stop and ask Why? the answers are nebulous: It sounds right. It looks right. It feels right. Maybe even smells right, or tastes right.

Does liking have to be articulatable to be credible?

Ten Questions

For Scavella. A fearsomely cool internet presence, what more can I say.  Someone thoroughly steeped in both poetry and prose writing craft and writing thought and with plenty of pertinent wisdom to share. Many thanks for being Part 2 of this ongoing series (questions, past and upcoming contributors here), and for the new insights across the board, Scavella. 

1. In this 2003 interview, Canadian poet George Bowering quotes Shelley: “The poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” Do you think the poet has a specific role to play in human affairs in this century? If so, what is it?

I believe that writers in general, and poets in particular, have roles to play in human affairs, in whatever century they find themselves. Writing is the one art that marries thought directly with craft. The other arts tap more directly into the subconscious (if that exists) or, better, the unarticulated, while writers have the challenge (often missed by this generation of keyboard-typists) of translating impulse, emotion, the ineffable, into consciousness. The process of naming is a process of making conscious the meaning of something. Words name, and writers manipulate words (or are manipulators of them). Poets do the most manipulating, because poetry is the most compressed, the densest of all writing. So the role of poets is the most dense, the most intense, of all writers. And because writing is where thought meets impulse, where the unconscious is translated into consciousness, poets have a role to play.

That role, though, is likely to change from person to person and from society to society, depending on context and the need for that translation; so my answer to your specific question would be “No”. Paradoxically, that is.

2. Talk about the importance of poetry workshops to you as a poet – both now and in your earlier development. Do you differentiate between in-person and on-line workshops?

I do differentiate between in-person and online poetry workshops. I don’t do in-person ones any more, and the ones I have participated in were far less helpful to my development as a poet (with one exception) than the online ones I’ve committed my writing to — PFFA in particular, but also The Gazebo and Eratosphere. The reason, I believe, particularly with poetry, is that face-to-face workshops get too tangled up in personalities — the personality of the leader, the personalities of the writers — and the work becomes secondary. People tend to worry too much about being kind to the face and miss the hard work that it takes to be critical of the words. In workshops such as PFFA and the others, the words are really all we have; and so I find them far more useful. There are limitations, of course, especially in my case, where my background and context have given me a completely different point of attack for poetry and writing — how many people in the USA and Europe still have the sense of creating a national literature, or the need to do so, with the weight of Shakespeare, Whitman and Frost on their shoulders? Limitations, and differences in focus and purpose. But that doesn’t entirely matter when one is discussing craft.

3. Comment on this passage by former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall in his 1983 essay Poetry and Ambition: “Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years; don’t let them go, don’t publish them until you have kept them around for ten years: by that time, they ought to stop moving on you; by that time, you ought to have them right. […] When Pope wrote An Essay on Criticism seventeen hundred years after Horace, he cut the waiting time in half, suggesting that poets keep their poems for five years before publication. […] By this time, I would be grateful – and published poetry would be better – if people kept their poems home for eighteen months.”

I agree with him. Indeed, I tend to side with Pope; five years would be better. Poems are like plants; if they’re published too soon, they’re too young and green. They should be buried and watered for long enough for them to mature.

4. Comment on this passage from Why Poetry Criticism Sucks, an article by Kristin Prevallet in the April 2000 issue of Jacket magazine: “It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed […]. For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal.”

I think I commented on that above, when I talked about face-to-face and online workshops. I think, too, that Prevallet’s earlier observation — that “criticism rarely gets written among people who know each other personally; as a rule of thumb, critics do not socialize with those they critique” — is important. It’s one reason why I keep my personal identity masked on the web: I treasure the lack of the personal that that engenders. But I think that we must fight to advance the formal and the intellectual and the contextual anyway. The personal will take care of itself.

5. Do you have an internet presence? If so, describe it and comment on the state of the poetry blogsphere. If not, why not?

I do, but it’s limited, partly because of what I said above about publication. I like the internet for the development of process. The great thing about the immediate response-time of the internet, which isn’t as immediate (as anyone who has taught can tell you) as that of a class, which often tries to compress too much thought into too short a time (what is the good of a fourteen-week semester anyway? What can one truly master in that time? Learn, yes, but mastery?), is that it provides an ideal place for learning about poetry, if people are willing to engage. Rob Mackenzie, among others, has done some interesting things on his poetry blog, looking at the process of writing specific poems. Some time ago he provided us with a glimpse into the process of developing a particular poem. I tried to copy him, but I work too slowly and revise so often that it became a tedious and unfinished process. But that isn’t to say that it isn’t valuable.

The state of the poetry blogsphere? No clue. I’m a dilettante when it comes to that — and rather incestuous. I tend to read the blogs of poets whose work I know and/or admire, or those who are members of the poetry forums I favour. There’s a whole lot of crap out there, and I like to avoid that when I can.

6. To what degree have you been published and to what degree has that helped or hindered your development as a poet?

Dear lord, how do I answer that? I’ve had poems and other things published for almost thirty years, mainly in academic journals, though in the past five years I’ve broken into national and regional ones as well. I tend to favour print journals, though I like it when they’re available on the web as well. I have no idea how that has helped or hindered any development of mine. In the beginning, it was validation. Now I’m not so sure; publishing is as much about power and control as many other things in this world, and while it can mark a level of quality or finishedness, it doesn’t mean as much as one might think.

7. Comment on today’s huge numbers of on-line poetry publications.

I’d rather not. I agree with Hall when he writes “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems”. Unfortunately, I suspect that often creating poetry publications is more about making a name for the publishers than about seeking greatness. So I’d rather keep my comments to myself — especially as I’m involved in the process of creating an online publication as we speak.

8. Self-publishing has become inexpensive and relatively painless. What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

Not many. While I recognize the politics inherent in mainstream publishing, self-publishing is far too easy to mean much, I’m afraid. It’s a good way of disseminating one’s material, and doing so in a far more attractive form than when it was being done by Gesstetner and Xerox.

9. What do you see as the biggest opportunity facing a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

The internet, and global communication. It excites me to know that a blog can be read by people all over the world, practically in real time. There’s a power in that.

10. What do you see as the biggest challenge to a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

The internet, and global communication. The instantaneous means of communication means that a whole lot of dreck gets floated. The challenge is no longer solely up to the writer to jump through the right hoops and impress the right people to get read. Anybody can “publish”, and so now the reader has to master pretty rigourous critical tools so as to benefit from what’s good out there, and separate that from the (literal) crap that exists.

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Scavella is the pen name for somebody who writes poetry, drama and prose, not necessarily in that order. Her web presence is made up primarily of poetry (which she posts mostly as Scavella) and prose nonfiction (which she posts mostly under her own name), and a little bit of fiction thrown in during November, when she lets loose and joins the madness of NaNoWriMo. Her poetry has been helped tremendously by online workshops like the Poetry-Free-for-All, where she’s been a moderator since 2001. Her writing blog is here.

to bear, remove, or change

from one place, state, form, or appearance to another. That’s the elemental definition of “translate”, according to Merriam Webster. Losing my way with poetry translations these days. The English translation of so much stuff just sounds stupid now. Flipping last night through a bilingual volume of Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati and just gagging at the inadequacy of the English. Flipping just now through  Poetry International Web – largely English translations of poets from all over the globe – and the same aack reaction. Perhaps I’m reading and studying myself into a sick, narrow definition of enjoyable poetry. I’m pretty sure that all the translated stuff that makes me gag now felt fine, if not actually great, a year ago. Does fine-tuning your perceptions mean narrowing your capacity for enjoyment?

Poetry as fun just got a whole lot smaller.

This song looks like we’re in China

Says my six-year-old, listening to the radio. Sometimes I really really want to know how his mind works. Other times, I’m glad I don’t.

We’ve just watched Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Donny Osmond as Joseph! Joan Collins as Potiphar’s wife! Barrels of fun, quirky and entertaining. 

Intrigued as always by Potiphar’s wife, one of those shadowy biblical figures that shimmer into and out of view in a few lines, but still retain a high urban myth value.  Like Pilate’s wife in Matthew and Vashti in Esther. No name given to Mrs. Potiphar in the Bible, although I read that in the Qur’an she is known as Zuleika.  

Ten Questions

for Rob Mackenzie. Rob (who among other things is the current featured poet in Umbrella and one of PFFA‘s fearsome God Moderators) is Part 1 of what I hope will be a continuing series in which I fearlessly exploit the poetry-related experience of others more steeped than I in such experience. The ten questions are ones I have been cudgeling my brain over or otherwise worrying at over the past few months. Many thanks to Rob for agreeing to be my first victim, particularly in light of the new insights his responses have given me.  (The rest of you: get ready to be pestered to be among the next victims.)

1. In this 2003 interview, Canadian poet George Bowering quotes Shelley: “The poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” Do you think the poet has a specific role to play in human affairs in this century? If so, what is it?

No, I don’t think poets have a specific role to play. I think that poets write poems, the poems they want to write, and that’s about it. Of course, poems have their effect on the world, some more than others, but that’s a different question.

2. Talk about the importance of poetry workshops to you as a poet – now and in your earlier development. Do you differentiate between in-person and on-line workshops?

I’ve only attended an in-person workshop once, so I can’t comment. The first online workshop I found was PFFA in 2001, when I lived in Italy. I had already published a few poems by that time, but the other posters at PFFA helped me to think deeper about poetry and to develop my technique. The requirement to critique also made me more aware of poetry-as-craft.

The danger is that an exquisitely crafted poem may draw plaudits in a workshop and fall cold outside. Equally a flawed poem might get destroyed in a workshop, but make a real emotional and intellectual impact on readers outside. Craft of course, plays its part in creating that impact, but most readers won’t generally be as interested in the craft as workshop participants will. It’s something to bear in mind, I think.

Also, poems outside the workshop environment break the ‘workshop rules’ with great frequency. It’s important to keep a broad perspective by reading widely, and realise that rules-of-thumb useful for beginners have no general application. For example, the ‘rule’ that forbids sentence fragments may be useful for those learning to express themselves in clear sentences, but fragments are an important tool in poetry.

Eratosphere is a good workshop for formal poetry, but it can be a bit rigid in applying metrical rules, and I don’t share the distrust of modernism that many of the New Formalists there seem to have. But you can certainly learn much of value about metre and form.

3. Comment on this passage by former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall in his 1983 essay Poetry and Ambition: “Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years; don’t let them go, don’t publish them until you have kept them around for ten years: by that time, they ought to stop moving on you; by that time, you ought to have them right. [...] When Pope wrote “An Essay on Criticism” seventeen hundred years after Horace, he cut the waiting time in half, suggesting that poets keep their poems for five years before publication. [.] By this time, I would be grateful-and published poetry would be better-if people kept their poems home for eighteen months.”

He’s got a point. Not in all cases. Some poems emerge more or less complete. But yes, poems I work on over a period of time usually become better as a result. I was reading earlier today on Ros Barber’s Shallowlands blog that she’s just put a poem through its 93rd draft and, I must admit, when I read her finished poems, I can tell how much thought has been put into them.

4. Comment on this passage from Why Poetry Criticism Sucks, an article by Kristin Prevallet in the April 2000 issue of Jacket magazine: “It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed [...]. For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal.”

I’ve read some terrific criticism that does advance these parameters – for instance, Robert Hass’s book, Twentieth Century Pleasures, although that book is full of criticism of poets he loves, so there’s not a lot of maiming going on.

But yes, there seems to be a lot of back-scratching and back-stabbing going on when poets review each other. The problem is the poetic ego, which is usually huge.

Newspapers these days usually have little space for reviewing poetry books and I can’t say the criticism often enthuses me. But it’s not easy to write reviews. I’ve done it several times for Sphinx magazine, and have felt the fear of tearing books (and, by extension, their authors) to pieces and, at the same time, not wanting to over-praise books that just happen to conform to personal taste. There has to be a balance struck between rigorous honesty and fairness, and a good critic should provide justification for criticisms. I think strong and imaginative literary criticism that isn’t afraid to say exactly what it means is vital for poetry as a progressive art form.

5. Do you have an internet presence? If so, describe it and comment on the state of the poetry blogsphere. If not, why not?

Yes, I have a blog. I prattle on about poetry and related matters, with occasional forays into music, football, film, and anything else I’m interested in.

I read certain blogs fairly regularly, but outside those, I find the poetry blogosphere boring for the most part – a lot of strong opinions, but few bloggers have much of interest to say to anyone but themselves and their small coterie.

6. To what degree have you been published and to what degree has that helped or hindered your development as a poet?

I’ve been published in quite a number of UK publications and on a few webzines. This certainly helped when I sent a manuscript to Helena Nelson at HappenStance press, who published my chapbook. All good publishers want to see a track record – some evidence of promotional work on the poet’s part, and some evidence of validation by others. If I hadn’t been published in good little magazines, it’s unlikely that HappenStance would have been interested.

The chapbook publication also helped a lot, as did a commendation in the UK National Poetry Competition. These didn’t make any difference to my acceptance/rejection ratio from magazines, nor to my bank balance, but I feel they must have been at least partly responsible for invitations to read at the March 2007 StAnza Poetry Festival, and at the Edinburgh Shore Poets in May 2007 – one of the organisers there said openly when I made an enquiry, “If Helena Nelson thinks you are worth publishing, that’s a big plus as far as I’m concerned.”

Seeking publication in magazines is hard work and sometimes hardly seems worth it. Sometimes I am astonished by what editors reject, and sometimes by what they accept. I don’t blame people for giving up on what can seem like a clubby little scene where people publish their friends and other people who have published them. Not all magazines are like that of course.

7. Comment on today’s huge numbers of on-line poetry publications.

Most of them are complete rubbish. Also, they often start off OK, publish poems, and then disappear without warning – so the poems have been published, and can’t be published ever again in a magazine (most magazines will take only previously unpublished poems), but there’s no public evidence that they’ve ever existed. I’m very wary about submitting to e-zines.

However, there are some outstanding e-zines e.g. nthposition, Stride, Box Car Review, Jacket, Umbrella, and Avatar Review. There are real possibilities for presenting poetry online, using the written word, audio, animation, and video, and I’m sure these will be exploited more as Internet connections continue to grow faster.

8. Self-publishing has become inexpensive and relatively painless. What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

It means that people can get their work out who otherwise might struggle to do so. I’m not just talking about hopeless poets either. Most publishing houses take on very few poets each year. Many chapbook presses publish either only poets they already know, or poets who win their competitions, which often entail a hefty entry fee.

So self-publishing is a useful option for poets to get their work read and seen, although – it has to be said – selling poetry chapbooks is a hard task for anyone. Self-publishing also gives you complete control over the end product.

The disadvantage of self-publishing is also that you’ve done it all yourself. There’s no sense that someone else has valued your work enough to take the risk of publishing it, and you also don’t have the benefit of a shrewd editor and designer (I know from personal experience how useful that advice can be in shaping a collection and on individual poems).

These factors might adversely affect the way the work is viewed by others. This is all wrong, of course. I’ve read several self-published chapbooks that have been far superior to certain full collections from major publishing houses. I’d consider the option of self-publishing in the future.

9. What do you see as the biggest opportunity facing a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

The Internet. Can poets make that count in their favour, or will they just get swallowed up in the mass of information? Certainly, I think the Net gives poets a chance to connect with people who otherwise wouldn’t think of picking up a poetry book.

10. What do you see as the biggest challenge to a poet today, as compared to 50 years ago?

The biggest challenge is to gain a readership of people who don’t write poetry, and so enthuse those people to go on and read more. How that can be done is another matter. I don’t believe poets should ‘dumb down’ (I don’t believe poets should do anything unless they want to), but often needless obscurity is only a cover for poets who have little to say and have difficulty saying it. One challenge is to write engagingly about complex matters. A lot of poems sound complicated and are hard to read, but are ultimately superficial and say little of interest. That’s not the case with the best ‘difficult’ poets of course – Lee Harwood, Geoffrey Hill, John Ashbery etc.

It’s surprising how poetry comes to mean something to non-poetry-readers when they hear it at, say, weddings or funerals. I’m sure there are other events (musical festivals, cabaret, jazz, bookshop readings etc) where poetry can make a similar impact.

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Rob A. Mackenzie was born in Glasgow in 1964. He has published poems in many UK literary magazines. His poetry chapbook, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, was published by HappenStance Press in 2005. His blog is Surroundings.

Henry Reed

I don’t know why I have The Collected Poems of Henry Reed on my shelves. It’s inscribed with “much love” from my brother (the littler one) in 1994.

Possibly because of its five Lessons of War, of which you are certainly familiar with Naming of Parts and possibly also with Judging of Distances and Movement of Bodies and Unarmed Combat and Returning of Issue.

Not completely sure why Naming of Parts is so much more famous than the other four parts, but for my part, I blame the japonica. Look at it. How could one not.

Apart from a fascination with Verona, a great deal about houses and fields, woods, gardens and walls and encounters with overwrought exhausting literary figures such as Tristan & Iseult, Antigone and Philoctetes, we have The Auction Sale from Henry Reed. His reviewer for this collection calls it his “most ambitious exploration of the landscape of desire.”  For my part, I call it one of those things that stick to your heart.