nice things this week

Two reviews of Dark And Like A Web – yay! Beth Adams, in her note from the editor for Dark And Like A Web, spoke of ‘the pull of the divine, and the pull of the creative impulse, two forces not so separate as they may seem.’ And as I read other people’s take on these poems, I see more and more what she means. These are related impulses, very closely related. Are they in fact separate?

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, blogging at Kristin Berkey-Abott

Part 1 – “Does the Delivery System Impact My Reading Experience?” Kristin examines the multi-format publishing model used for Dark and Like A Web here.

Part 2 – Kristin looks at the poems themselves. “I like the ambiguity of the lines [of the last poem in the collection]. Is the speaker talking to a lover? To God? Is the speaker God? The poem works on all these levels, and makes me want to go back to reread the whole collection some more, even though I’ve read it several times. Will I discover other submerged religious possibilities?” Full review here.

Donna Vorreyer, blogging at Put Words Together, Make Meaning

“My favorite poems in the book are three that contain prayer beads as an integral image. Prayer beads are concrete, physical manifestations of a very private communication with the divine, and they counterbalance the other focus of these poems, the beloved. In each of these poems, the relationship with the beloved seems ephemeral, but the associations with the beads connected to each one are profound and lasting, almost equating the beloved with the divine.” (Full review here.)


Two other nice things happened this week. One was this comment from Danielle Pafunda on Whale Sound. Danielle was revisting The Girls In The Apartment Upstairs, a poem of hers I read on Whale Sound last year. She wrote on Facebook this week:

Those Whale Sound archives are outta sight, aren’t they? Nic–your readings are so, how do I say it? Like intense analysis has happened and been translated smoothly into performance? Maybe the word for that is GOOD. I’m going to include them in the resources for my Mod & Contemp poetry seminar this fall–maybe one of the students will be inspired to try a similar final project!

This reminded me that another Whale Sound poet, Greg Sellers, (What The Wind Says) added Whale Sound to his “LibGuide for Poetry Writing” at the University of Alabama School of Library & Information Studies.

Define heaven, anyone?

A project of yours is flagged to students by teachers as worthy of attention. Woot, and woot again – I’m in heaven!

‘Town for the Trees’ by Justin Evans

The poems in Justin Evans‘ collection Town for the Trees (Foothills Publishing 2011) are poems of connection and transition. They raise key questions and, by the time we are through reading the poems, the lines between these two phenomena feel blurred. Are they really separate experiences? Isn’t connection transition and transition, connection?

The poems examine the connections between the poet and the natural environment in which he operates, the connections between a community and the natural environment surrounding it and the human connections between individual members of that community.

On a clear night I could read
the stars like Braille, each point
of light piercing the tips of my fingers,
splitting them like cord wood.
(What I Knew As A Child)

The town gathered like a chorus
to sing the flood waters back, keep the world
from escaping.
(Singing Back the River)

Evans’ language is plain and direct, yet suffused with emotion and the voice of memory. These poems are accessible in the best sense of the word – friendly to the grasp on the surface, but with an underlying complexity of thought and feeling. These poems ask where we belong.

I look for a space where I can fit
the perfect constellation of your eyes
into the vast cupboard of night.
(A Season Apart)

They also examine transitions – those places in space and time where lines become blurred. The moments of ambiguity between night and day; between ground and sky; animal and vegetable, between humanity and the raw earth itself. There is often a struggle associated with the moment of transition, with the old reluctant to leave the stage, as if attempting to arrest time itself; and the new pushing to take it over, as if actively reaching for the future.

Low to the East, the crescent moon
is a fracture of sky, outpaced
by the morning star’s rise

It struggles to stay ahead of the sun
as morning light grows, eating away
at its pale circumference.

The movement of time is of particular interest in these poems. The speed at which time moves. The fluidity of the moment when the present becomes the past, or the future becomes the present.

The past is a thief
escaping on the wings of blackbirds.
(Nevada Wildlife)

The collection holds a clock pulse, a heartbeat, a sense of that unchanging cycle of life which is nonetheless always changing. Oscillating between birth and growth, innocence and age, decay and death – and sometimes violent death. Running steadily through the collection, the river becomes a metaphor for continuity and spiritual nourishment:

In the morning when I rise with daylight
the trees will no longer be animal
But the water, this small river, will be the same.
(Lower Sheep Creek)

The Utah town of Springville is very specifically depicted in this collection, its topography carefully named, and its inhabitants and customs closely described. Yet – as we hope for in all art – the particular points to the general and, in all its specificity, Springville, UT becomes to us Anytown, The World – a particular place on this earth where people we recognize are born, live, despair, love and die.

Check it out!

Anis Shivani

The more I read from Anis Shivani, the more I like him. Not necessarily because I agree with what he says (although I do, quite often) but because a) he’s passionate and thoughtful, consistent and courageous and b) he has put in the years and hard work to build the publication and other credentials that give him credibility as a critic.

Much enjoyed this (long!) interview with Shivani at HTML giant and I could excerpt a dozen things, but this is what I am thinking most about at the moment:

The responsibility of the critic is to use his preferred set of criteria to judge and evaluate whether or not a work of art is good. If it’s not good, he should provide historical context to explain why. One can learn as much, if not more, from so-called negative criticism than from positive criticism. The critic’s responsibility is very moral in this sense. He should be fair to the work or author or national literature in question, not asking more of it than it can reasonably deliver, but he shouldn’t go easy either. The responsibility of the critic is to challenge the reader to not read passively, uncritically, unthinkingly, and to open up for him a whole set of issues that he might not have thought of otherwise. The critic, in my view, is a democrat, in wanting to see different styles of writing flourish, and seeing the good in as many genres as he can possibly keep up with; he shouldn’t be a narrow partisan for a narrow style of writing. It’s the responsibility of the critic to be trained well in his field, just as we expect fiction writers or poets to have mastered their field, so that instead of expressive or spontaneous or on-the-spur emotional reactions, when he critiques he’s as much in conversation with past and present critics as he’s in conversation with the given author’s matrix of influences and connections.

I am sure Shivani has articulated his ‘preferred set of criteria’ somewhere, and I wish I knew where. Reading comments on his posts and interviews around the web, I see lots of general outrage and objection (and ad hominem attacks) in response to his blunt judgments on work he considers flawed, but I have not yet found a commenter who engages him on the actual criteria he espouses as a critic. (Would appreciate any links if you have.)

This comment is challenging too:

It’s absolutely the central role of a critic to define the good and the bad. The idea that one should just leave the bad alone—because time will take care of it, or one should either praise or remain silent—is ludicrous! Understanding the bad helps us understand the good—and in a star-driven culture industry driven by hype and propaganda, this function is all the more important.

and of course, I couldn’t resist this one, given the recent discussion here about the ‘demotion’ of print:

I’ve extensively published my developing ideas in criticism—they didn’t just spring up overnight at the Huffington Post—for a decade. Do people in the online world still read the Georgia Review and Michigan Quarterly Review and Antioch Review and Cambridge Quarterly and London Magazine? I’ve published similar criticism as you now see online in the very best literary journals for a long time, but unfortunately reaching only a minimal audience; I’m grateful to have a much wider audience now with the online opportunity, for the same ideas I’ve been publishing in relative obscurity. The quality print journals can be quietly ignored; not these new venues.

thinking about establishing a nanopress? a special limited offer for you

If you are a poet in this situation and would like to establish your own nanopress to publish your manuscript, here’s an offer for you to consider. Find yourself an editor (with at least some gravitas, ok!? – see comments here) who will agree to edit your manuscript and publish it under both your names, and I will offer – free – publication legwork services. The honing and finalization of the manuscript will be up to you and your editor-partner, and I would also ask that you find and obtain permission to use the cover art. Give me these elements and (if I like the proposed partnership), I will do all the publication legwork free for you – design and publish the manuscript as website, PDF download, e-book, print version and (if you are doing audio) CD — see the typical multi-format production steps here. This will be a non-profit operation. The print and CD versions will be sold via Lulu at cost-price (you will buy your own review copies) and all the other formats will be available free. You can see what the final publication(s) will look like here and here. Marketing and promotion will be up to you, although I will do what I can to help with that. Email me at nic_sebastian at if you have a good proposal.

two nice things

that I’ve Facebooked and Tweeted but not blogged. Why do all three? Well, they say that Facebook and Twitter posts will be on the internet forever, but they are not archived and not searchable, so…

I have a poem, the week before the locust swarm, in Issue 8 of Anti-. My poem the party appeared in Issue 3 of Anti- way back when and, from a composition point of view, I now see what these two pieces have in common. When I’m not going for straight narration and instead get a slant-eyed walking-on-spider-leg-stilts feeling about a topic and write from that perspective. Thanks to Steve for that moment of insight!

The whole of Issue 8 is wonderful reading, but I am particularly taken with Landscape with deerstalker by Adam Tessier and most especially by
She Considers Trading Her Secrets from Catherine Pierce:

Oh, these girls. They are dumb

as bicycles. Their eyes like tree knots. Their smiles
like paper. If they knew that my world is not their world,

is gloaming-colored and damp, echoes with howls and bells,


The other really really nice thing is the first review of Dark And Like A Web, the nanopress publication project I worked on with Beth Adams. Justin Evans’ take on my work joins dots I hadn’t realized existed but now he points them out – of course! He’s right! Check out his review. Warmest thanks on several levels for your time, focus and kind words, Justin!

‘The guarantees hardcore print enthusiasts once associated with paper are no longer valid.’

Finally, and this is the point that I don’t see enough people making, printing a very good looking paper journal has now become so easy and affordable that many people out there are doing it in vast, unregulated numbers. The guarantees hardcore print enthusiasts once associated with paper are no longer valid. A paper issue doesn’t necessarily mean you have the backing of a university, an established editorial board, or even a small press. It also doesn’t mean that you have a guaranteed readership—in fact, your work will probably be read by many more readers if you publish it online. A print issue can mean all these things, but it can also simply mean that someone has a good computer and has been visiting

Excerpt from an excellent post from Celia Alvarez, which pulls together and persuasively articulates in its first two paragraphs many publishing things we all vaguely know, but that I, for one, haven’t seen restated with such comprehensive clarity anywhere. I agree wholeheartedly with her point about print, and have argued elsewhere that technology has so reordered today’s publishing landscape that print publication is no longer the holy grail it once was, but has taken its place in line simply as one publishing option among many viable ones.

What really matters in all publication forms is the gravitas brought to the publication equation by the people involved. (Yes, I know – just another way to bring the conversation back around to nanopress publishing again!)

One final thought: The ‘demotion’ of print to the regular ranks of publication brings with it another seminal change – a change in gate-keepers. There will always be gate-keepers, but they are not now who they were and will change even more dramatically as communities absorb and reflect the seismic changes in the publishing landscape.

Who will be the new gatekeepers?

new nanopress project – ‘Dark And Like A Web’

So wonderful to announce the second nanopress project – Dark And Like A Web: Brief Notes On and To the Divine. 15 poems – a chapbook-length publication. Available in multiple formats, some free – website, downloadable text & audio, e-reader version, print version & CD edition. I have a lot more to write about this project, but for this post will just excerpt below the project’s ‘Note from the Editor’ (the amazing Beth Adams!) and my own note below it. The inspiring cover art for this project is by Steven DaLuz. Together, we and this all make up the Broiled Fish & Honeycomb Nanopress – I so love that name! (Background on nanopress publishing here.)

A Note from Beth Adams

I was surprised when Nic Sebastian asked me to consider editing this collection of poems because we were fairly recent online acquaintances who didn’t have a long familiarity with one another’s work. Most of our prior exchanges hadn’t even been about poems, specifically, but about various models of poetry publishing.

Nic’s request, though, mentioned that she’d been reading the blog posts I had written during Lent and Holy Week of 2011, and that she felt I might be the right person to edit her new collection, “Dark and Like a Web: Brief Notes On and To the Divine.” I told her I’d be glad to take a look at the manuscript. She sent it, and after the first reading I understood why she had sensed we might be a good fit. I admired the poems and liked the chapbook as she had conceived it, and felt an immediate affinity both with the voice behind the poems and the via negativa approach to spirituality they expressed. I wrote back and said yes, telling Nic I wished I could publish the chapbook myself at Phoenicia! Now it remained to see how we could work together.

Nic’s poems were, I felt, very close to being finished. I went through the manuscript and jotted down notes in the margins, noting weak words and phrases, endings I felt could be improved, a few structural changes. We arranged a time for a phone conference, and I suggested that we go through one poem together and see how it felt before tackling the whole manuscript. Nic was not only receptive to my approach but grateful for this level of engagement and completely serious about working further. We ended up going through the entire manuscript in detail during that session.

In a few days she sent back a revised manuscript; she had responded to almost all the suggestions, and, on reflection, held firm in a few places — which was fine. After reading her revisions to one poem we had discussed at length, I decided I had been wrong and that the original version was stronger, so we reinstated it. One poem was dropped after attempts at revision, and a new one added — a poem that ended up being one of the strongest in the collection. We went through one more round of small revisions, and were done. It was a remarkably efficient process, marked by seriousness and mutual respect.

I was impressed throughout by how well Nic knew her work and herself. When I asked, “why this particular word,” or “what exactly were you trying to express here” or “I’m not sure about this repetition, what do you think?” she had an answer; she knew what she was doing and reaching for. I also tried to give clear reasons for my own reservations and suggestions. Because of this, it became quite easy to make decisions about improvements. Some were obvious. Others, much more subjective. But because neither one of us was digging in, we never got to an impasse; we listened, knowing that the shared goal was to make the chapbook as good as it could be. I strongly believe that the editor’s role should, in the end, appear as transparent as possible, and that a successful project is one which not only reflects the author’s original vision and voice, but concentrates it.

But that’s only one side of the story.

When we create, I think we all long for the close reading, the deeply attentive listener or viewer. Making our work public is an act of courage, risking not only dismissal or rejection, but also intimacy. Editing, by its very nature, requires an intimate engagement with the text, closer perhaps than anyone’s but the author. I see that intimacy as both a responsibility and a great privilege.

I’m changed each time I enter deeply into the words and world of other writers who have asked me to edit their work. Certain phrases and ideas enter me, and they stay. In one of my favorite poems in this collection, Nic asks, “how have you sharpened/into this thin bright hook/pulling me after you still/as though you were some great moon and I/some helpless tide.” This stunning image speaks equally to me about the pull of the divine, and the pull of the creative impulse, two forces not so separate as they may seem.

Beth Adams
Montreal, June 4, 2011


A Note from Nic Sebastian

These poems were written mostly during NaPoWriMo this year. I started the month out rather flippantly, deciding I would write ‘prayers and charms’ in April. But the poems overtook me and within a week I knew they were neither prayers nor charms, but distilled questions that had been forming over the past year. A hectic year. In addition to several professional and personal watershed events, those months witnessed the hard work and excitement of founding Whale Sound and Voice Alpha and the culmination of my long collaboration with Jill Alexander Essbaum, who so generously edited my first collection under the nanopress model. Busy, productive, whirling months. Months that had no silence or stillness in them. As I wrote these poems, I knew I was sick for silence and stillness. I knew I had to slow down and go inward. Responding, the poems wrote themselves, almost; ordered themselves, almost. Not providing answers, but asking questions, and sketching out the beginnings of a map for the way ahead.

When they were done – and I knew just when they were done – I felt I must ask Beth Adams before anyone else to consider editing these poems, for a number of connected reasons. I was familiar with Beth’s fine editing work as co-editor of qarrtsiluni and as publisher at Phoenicia Publishing. But I know the work of many fine editors and that wasn’t enough in itself. I had been posting the poems to a public blog I had created for NaPo, but after about a week I switched the blog to ‘private’, because I just wasn’t sure where the poems were going and I felt way too involved. Beth had seen a few of the early drafts and emailed me asking how to access the blog. I explained to her what happened and why I had closed the blog. She knew exactly what I meant and said: “Yes, that happens sometimes, doesn’t it, and the journey turns out to be more important than what we thought we were creating.” This was all happening in the Easter season and all the lovely roiling tension of that season was breaking out all over the blogosphere. Beth then wrote two Easter blog posts – here and here – that seemed to incorporate everything I was feeling just then. Her worldview struck me as doctrinally expert and focused, while embracing much much more than doctrine – widening to the social, the political, the cultural, to definitions of beauty and deep appreciation of other doctrine. Her perspective saw the importance of identifying the patterns and common goals that unite religious impulses and allow them both to transcend and return to themselves, the richer for it. I loved the generosity of her vision and was frankly elated when she said ‘yes.’

Our editing process was as serious and productive and as mutual as Beth described. I can’t say enough about the value to a poet of being competently edited. It’s an intensive learning experience, as much about actively listening – to yourself, to the editor – as it is about you being serious about clearly articulating and defending your own poetics and your own vision. The Dark And Like A Web manuscript was immeasurably improved and made more itself by Beth’s editing. I’ll forever be grateful to Beth for her patience, sensitivity and her superlative editor’s sense – for really making me think seriously and creatively about what I am doing as a poet, and why.

I have written extensively about the nanopress model elsewhere. I continue to believe it is a logical and viable next step for poetry publication in our age. I wanted, with this project, to show that it can work as well for a chapbook-length manuscript as it can for a full-length manuscript.

As for the press name – why Broiled Fish & Honeycomb Nanopress? Everything I have written about here – the poems, Beth, me, the editing process and Easter – constitute this nanopress, and we had to find a name that encompassed the whole adventure. Given our common Anglican experience, I had the idea of going through the Collects, Epistles and Gospels in the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer to find a name. There are myriad wonderful potential names in that text, but it didn’t take us long to agree on Broiled Fish & Honeycomb Nanopress, from Luke 24:42 – one of the Easter readings.

Nic Sebastian
June 2011

Bonta video poem – “the wanderers’ blessing”

Look what Dave Bonta has made, from one of the poems in Forever Will End On Thursday. I love this!

As I wrote to Dave: I would never have thought of pairing the footage and the poem, but the footage speaks to the themes in the poem — solidarity yet separateness; deep wariness and alertness to the environment; the need for camouflage and the longing for connection — all things that characterize the ‘order of strangers and interlopers.’ The music resonates as well – made me think of yearning and unfinishedness. It’s an unexpected connection you made, but I think it works.

(The poem originally appeared at Escape Into Life.)

poetry – an inherently non-profit activity?

Back in May I wrote a post called want poetry readers? publish in multiple formats, some free. I noted that my small experience of publishing in this way has shown that 90% of the copies of books/chapbooks obtained by potential readers/listeners are the free formats, while the formats for sale only represent 5% to 10% of total copies obtained. I also noted that publications such as Poetry magazine have now adopted the model of providing their complete content free online while still selling print editions.

The fact is that selling poems is just not good business. Packaging poems ‘for sale only’ doesn’t make money and cuts down on potential readership. Do we want to sell poems, or get them read? The two objectives are, in my view, mutually exclusive to a high degree. Sell, ok – but don’t only sell.

Isn’t ‘free’ a dirty word?

I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but wanted to get a post up on this blog up, to include some additional more recent thoughts. Some ask: If you offer something free, doesn’t that mean you are devaluing it? Shouldn’t you charge at least some money to indicate the value you place on your offering?

We tend to be suspicious of free – ‘free’ must have a catch or somehow indicate a lack of quality.

I’ve argued elsewhere that poetry is priceless and therefore inherently fits best into a non-profit – not a commercial – paradigm. Civilizations through the ages have recognized a] that poetry nourishes human spirit and enterprise in a way nothing else does (and certainly nothing that is for sale) and b] that it requires subsidizing. Rulers, cities & villages used to employ/fund bards and poets for this reason. In the US (they do a bit better in Europe) we seem to have largely forgotten this.** As a society, we tend to undervalue the poet’s skills & contributions, and no longer subsidize poets in any broadly meaningful way. But does that mean that the poet should forget too and undervalue too, and try to force poetry into the channels of commerce, where it has never sat comfortably?

One thing that is certain is that – rightly – poets are not put off by “free” poetry, in the way that most of us are instinctively suspicious of anything free. We are used to seeing fine poetry free all over the web. The number of reputable, discerning poetry journals offering free content is huge and growing (as I mentioned above, even Poetry magazine now offers its complete contents free online). Poets look for evidence of quality control (who is the editor?), but they know that the absence of dollar signs is no indicator of poetry quality.

(As I have also said elsewhere, this is not about knocking small hard-working poetry presses attempting to work within the commercial paradigm, or poets currently operating under the commercial paradigm. This is simply about presenting another paradigm for consideration.)

So how are poetry publishers who provide free content supposed to pay their expenses?

Well, a lot of that expense is simply time (a chunk of which is spent acquiring technical expertise of all kinds). If we accept that poetry is an inherently non-profit activity, we necessarily accept that it also requires huge amounts of volunteer (ie unpaid) time and effort.

What about the poetry publishing tools that really have to be bought and paid for with cash?

How about raising funds through mechanisms other than simply selling poems? A donate button on your website? Grant applications? Or use Kickstarter – an amazing fund-raising platform just made for poetry publishers. A search for ‘poetry’ brings up a fascinating list and variety of Kickstarter poetry-related projects currently seeking funding.

Here is an example of a poetry project (seeking funds to support a free digital magazine) that didn’t meet its goal of raising $1,000 in the project’s allotted fundraising time. Here’s an example of another poetry-related publishing project that exceeded its goal of raising $15,000.

Lastly, here’s a link to an article entitled The author as entrepreneur, and the dangers this poses, which in turn discusses the British company Unbound, which “is basically a subscription model for the creation of art – something that was popular in previous centuries. It is somewhat like the U.S.-based site Kickstarter, which supports investment drives for all kinds of art forms, including movies; Unbound is purely for written works.” (Hat tip: Michael Wells.)

The writer makes some excellent points, which are tangentially relevant to what I’ve said here. I don’t agree with all his conclusions (although I do share his reservations about the nature and likely impact of ‘Unbound’) but what he says is worth thinking about.

(** Wait. Is this true? Is the ratio of national wealth devoted to subsidizing poetry to number of poets wanting some of that wealth significantly different now from what it was in the Middle Ages? If in fact, the ratio has not greatly changed, all the more reason to get more creative about how we publish and distribute poetry…)


Related post: Nanopress publishing – avoiding the publisher’s cycle of need

Other Very Like A Whale posts on poetry publishing

‘Watermark’ by Clayton Michaels

Untitled #19

by Clayton Michaels

We never truly fill
the holes –
We just
learn to live around them,
while the empty
resonates like jade.
Clear and cold.

Strike it right
it almost rings forever.

The poems in Clayton Michaels’ Watermark are so many black-and-white etchings – sparely-drawn and starkly-observed. A multi-faceted examination of existential angst, they comment widely — on the isolation and instability inherent in the human condition; on the unreliability of ‘communication’; on the roles we give to dream and illusion. Underpinned by references and cross-references from music and film, from the Bible and the natural world, the mood of the collection plays in a minor key, providing an effective backdrop for Michaels’ many strong and unexpected uses of language, which make the kind of bold connections that jolt a reader into thought, such as this:

Now hemlock’s coming back
in a big way –

hemlock and purple nightshade,

tainting the groundwater, swelling
our tongues

and changing our accents.

(from ‘anodyne’)

or this:

When I was in the loam, an unkindness of ravens
plucked white tulip bulbs

from my throat; forgiveness doesn’t
grow here.

(from ‘eleemosynary’)

You can also hear a Whale Sound group reading of one of the poems from the chapbook here.

Check it out!

‘Poetry Book Contests Should be Abolished’ & other matters

O ye oppressed contest-submitters of the MFA world, throw away your shackles and start your own collective with like-minded friends, publish poetry you want to immortalize you, not poetry with the maximum chance of pleasing screeners and judges! Start your own press! If nothing else, write on scrap paper and share it with your wife and dog, but don’t dilute your work to win contests!

From a HuffPo article by Anis Shivani entitled Poetry Book Contests Should be Abolished: Why Contests Are the Stupidest Way to Publish First Books. If you agree with Shivani and are looking to publish a first collection, try the nanopress model!

In other news, three nice things happened for me this past week:

1. Michael Wells wrote a very nice blog post about Forever Will End On Thursday. Thank-you, Michael!

2. YB issue 4 came out, including one of my Bad-Ass Mom poems (I have to write more of those) and my review of Ren Powell’s Mercy Island. A wonderful issue from editors Rose Hunter and Sherry O’Keefe – thanks for your work and the opportunity, guys!

3. I had a guest post at Marly Youman’s Palace at 2am blog – all about nanopress publishing, with some good discussion in the comments. Thanks, Marly – love your House of Words series!