revisiting ten questions for poets – on poetry, publication, technology

This series represents a wealth of poetry and po-biz wisdom from a bunch of awesome contemporary poets. I used to have these linked as separate standing pages, but didn’t refresh that format when I changed blog themes recently. Have just added these standing pages back to the left-hand column, and got lost in re-reading while I did so. Thank you once again to the generous poets who participated for doing so! That wonderful group includes Ron Silliman and the late Reginald Shepherd.

poets on poetry
poets on publication
poetry editors on publishing poetry
poets on technology

a poem is like a perfume because…

In this post, Sandy Longhorn writes about writing a poem for an anthology based on perfumes. Reading her post reminded me of the fascinating perfume blog, Now Smell This, and the following extract from the blog’s Perfume FAQ, which I’ve blogged about before:

What are top notes, middle notes and base notes?

Top notes provide the first scent impression of a fragrance once it has been applied to the skin. They are usually lighter, more volatile aromas that evaporate readily. Their scent normally lingers for between five minutes and half an hour.

Middle notes, sometimes referred to as “heart notes”, make up the body of the blend. They may be evident from the start, but will usually take ten minutes to half an hour to fully develop on the skin. These are the notes that classify the fragrance family – green, floral, aldehydic, chypre, oriental, fougère or tobacco/leather.

Base notes are those with the greatest molecular weight. They last the longest, and are important as fixatives – they help slow down the evaporation rates of the lighter notes, giving the fragrance holding power. Common base notes include oakmoss, patchouli, woods, musk and vanilla.

And so, you imagine, the perfumer constructs the perfume, thinking top notes, fleeting notes – enticement, bewitchment; middle notes, middle notes – heart and body; base notes, long notes – grounding and remembrance… And you think that although the poet may not envision the construction of a poem in the same way, still, when a poem really works, we perceive that it has base notes, middle notes, and top notes, too.

‘A poem is a state of perfection at which a poet has arrived by whatever means’

Love this, and not just because I’m an Yvor Winters fan:

A poem is a state of perfection at which a poet has arrived by whatever means. It is a stasis in a world of flux and indecision, a permanent gateway to waking oblivion, which is the only infinity and only rest. It has no responsibilities except to itself and its own perfection – neither to the man who may come to it with imperfect understanding nor to the mood from which it may originally have sprung.

from the Volta Blog, quoting a foreword by Yvor Winters.

slower in a good way?

“Writing on a manual [typewriter] makes you slower in a good way, I think. You don’t revise as much, you just think more, because you know you’re going to have to retype the entire fucking thing. Which is a big stop on just slapping anything down and playing with it.”

Typewriter is free software that doesn’t have backspace, delete, or cut-and-paste functions. A la manual typewriter.

Or stone tablet.

More here.

“the answer to the war between the reader and the poet

…is not less poetry, but more poetry. I think that for every poem that we have to say the meaning of, we must read and simply read ten poems without discussing their meaning. I think that we should be allowed to say, “I don’t know what this means,” and just move on to another poem.”

Pet theory of the moment: There are only two things in all of poetry and in all poems and in all poets – story-telling and/or mood-making. Some poets are master story tellers. Some are master mood-makers. Some poems tell stories to make moods. Some make moods to tell stories.

Pet counter (kinda)-theory of the moment: maybe all poets and poems are telling stories whatever they do and the over-arching definitional problem is that we tend to think of stories as linear things with a beginning, a middle and an end. Which starts when we are tiny, sitting cross-legged on the carpet in preschool listening to once upon a time/happy ever after fairy tales.

Someone should, unless someone (apart from small children because in fact that’s what they already do in their teeming flashing little amazon jungle heads before linear fairy-tales-in-books mess them up) already has, start writing non-linear, impressionistic, mood-ist preschool fairy tales.

poetry discussion lists

Poetics List: Our aim is to support, inform, and extend those directions in poetry that are committed to innovations, renovations, and investigations of form and/or/as content, to the questioning of received forms and styles, and to the creation of the otherwise unimagined, untried, unexpected, improbable, and impossible.

Wom-po: An international listserv devoted to the discussion of Women’s Poetry. Membership is open to all individuals who are interested in discussing poetry written by women. The discussion covers women poets of all periods, aesthetics, countries, and ethnicities.

NewPoetry List: Has two purposes: information and discussion related to contemporary poetry. We welcome publication announcements, reviews, essays, open letters, quotes, news items, calls for submissions, and, of course, poems and your commentary.


These are the three I know of and it’s quite surprising how long it took me to gain awareness of their existence, and then to actually sign up for them. I haven’t determined the exact List Serv Ratio of Noise to Substance for any yet, but so far so good, in all three cases.

Are there any other poetry lists out there that no-one’s told me about?

trust your processes

Can’t remember where I recently read that piece of advice, but it’s so true and is being very helpful as I work my through the poem-story I started for NaPo. It’s been like those stairs on air that you see in science fiction movies — you have to step into thin air to make a step appear, and the next one appears only as your foot is suspended above it. Mountains of faith involved, but it’s true. The thing to do is focus on putting together the story episode you know about today, and trust that tomorrow’s and the next day’s will appear as they are needed.

Today – woohoo! – I finally got a glimpse of how this thing will end.

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow.

– Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Update – Here’s Bernadette Geyer saying what sounds to me like a similar thing, in a mirror-reflection sort of way:

The only comparison I can think of is how marble sculptors say they simply chip away everything that “isn’t” the statue… that each hunk of marble tells them what it is supposed to be. I guess when I started pruning this bush, it began to reveal its potential.

total submission

I just sent out a pile of submissions and feel like I’ve been spring-cleaning. Looking askance at the ones that were nominally in the submission pile, but somehow always got left behind. Some of them have been out on numerous occasions and just keep coming back, I might add.

I’ve pretty much stopped workshopping as a way of gauging a piece’s “readiness,” but workshops are a good place to reality-check those pieces you thought were ready, but somehow just keep coming back.

Some ways I’ve found useful to get a fresh look at an old poem I can’t “feel” any more:

  • Switch all the genders. Making a “she” do what you had initially written out as actions of a “he” and vice versa is often illuminating.
  • Switch “I” to “he/she” or vice versa.
  • Switch tenses. If your original piece is written in the past, put it in the future. Or get really daring and play with mood: use the subjunctive.
  • Cut out the first stanza and either replace it or amend the poem to do without it completely.

Any other ‘get a fresh look’ ideas out there?

a fog-shrouded minefield and nests of weed

“The borderline between prose and poetry is one of those fog-shrouded literary minefields where the wary explorer gets blown to bits before ever seeing anything clearly. It is full of barbed wire and the stumps of dead opinions.”

Heh. That’s Ursula LeGuin, in a 1983 essay entitled “Reciprocity of Prose and Poetry” collected in her Dancing at the Edge of the World.

Another funny bit:

“Sometimes a Westerner like myself even gets the impression that the territory of poetry lies east of the Mississippi … but generally it seems more like a big fish tank and its inhabitants come rushing out of their nests of weed like sticklebacks in mating season, shouting, Out! Out! Go write novels, go write stories, go write plays and libretti and screenplays and television scripts and radio dramas and descriptions of the universe and histories and speculations on the nature of mankind and the cosmos and all that prose, but keep out of our territory where nothing is allowed to happen except poetry which is none of the above! In here we are poets: and we write for one another.”

She looks at different attempts to define the difference between poetry and prose over the years (Gertrude Stein, Goethe, Shelley and others) but – if I understand the essay correctly – finds them all in some way unsatisfactory, and leads into the back-handedly unifying conclusion that both poetry and prose in origin are a form of translation:

“Increasingly I have felt that the act of writing is itself translating, or more like translating than it is like anything else. What is the other text, the original? I have no answer. [...] In translating you have a text of words to work from; in composing or creating you don’t; you have a text that is not words, and you find the words.”

Interesting concept. Makes me think of what I was trying to pin down with this Psalm 22-based lament written during NaPo 08:

dried up like a potsherd
(NaPo lament)

I am poured out
like water all my bones
are out of joint

harry says what’s with
the psalm 22-ing poems are just
zipped files they are all

already written you
poets don’t so much
write them as struggle
to unzip them

there are many free tools
for unzipping files on
the web says harry

I bring him close
to the dust of death

my tongue cleaveth
to my jaws

authentic nonlogical relations which arouse wonder

This is what I’m linking to today, but only because the author quotes Auden on the need to “watch what is always the great danger with any ‘surrealistic’ style, namely of confusing authentic nonlogical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue.”

Nonlogical relations. I know there are lots of them out there in contemporary poetry, but I had not ever considered them as such or that they might be divided into these two categories.

Authentic versus accidental. And arousing wonder versus arousing mere surprise followed by fatigue.


poetics tag

We don’t use it that much on this blog, and not sure at this point if that should be an alas/alack we don’t, or a hooray we don’t. We read Reginald Shepherd’s post-avant post with interest, although much of both it and the subsequent comments was over our head. Chris Tonelli over at Ploughshares blog recaps the discussion, makes it more Whale-brain-friendly, and asks a couple of intriguing questions.

Watch that comments box too.

flaws and perfection

Scavella – who writes the best sevenlings – has been busy.

And is making me think about what I’m doing.

I got more or less serious about studying and writing poetry just about two and a half years ago. My first publication – submitted on a monumental dare to myself – came in November 2006 (thanks, Shit Creek Review!) Subsequent submissions were made cautiously, in great trepidation and greater angst.  Fourteen months later, I have a total of 22 pieces either published or accepted for publication.  (Full list here.) I’ve tried to submit only to places I will always be happy to claim as a publication credit, and I think I’ve succeeded.

Rejections were never any surprise. Acceptances always were. Which remains true today.  But the paradigm has shifted over the last year or so, and so therefore has the quality of the surprise.  At the beginning, the rejection of a piece signaled to me a flaw in the piece, and it was dashing for that reason.   Now — after having a number of pieces rejected several times before going on to find good homes — I find I am dashed by rejection more as evidence of failure to connect, than as evidence of a flawed piece. And, conversely, delighted by acceptance as evidence of successful connection, rather than of a perfect piece.

And, now, confused about just what a “flawed” piece is. Or a “perfect” one.

I don’t think either is what I used to think it is.