I allude, you allude, we allude

the mother of Pelops
to her husband

I stand close to you

my body ripe
and calling, scented
as apricot and lime
with musk

your throat muscles
stand up in ridges

I am the fresh water
you cannot reach
the cold scarlet fruit
you crave

I stand apart from you

may you live
forever

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An old piece dusted off.  I was workshopping regularly (and very deferentially) at the time I first wrote it, and remember getting a blistering workshop response. As I recall, my critic blasted me for presenting a piece relying on ‘obscure’ mythological allusions and declared in so many words that she didn’t give two hoots whose husband or wife did what to whom, or when, she wanted all the poetic evidence I was purportedly presenting to be, in fact, presented.

I think she was having a bad day, but wish I had thought at the time to link to my evidence. I mean, really.

‘No Tell Motel’ editor on blog-posted poems

Coming from the other side of the discussion from Segue’s Eric Melbye (see previous post), here are some thoughts, reproduced with permission, from Reb Livingston, editor of No Tell Motel, which doesn’t deem blog-posted or workshopped poems previously published and therefore considers them for publication. Reb has previously discussed this issue in this post on her own blog.

Reb writes:

No Tell Motel does not accept previously published poems. Our definition of previously published does not include poems posted on the author’s personal blog, or posted on a newsgroup or what not. We don’t want poems already selected by another publication, another editor/person — but how the author chooses to share her own work, within her own sphere, by her own hand – well, that’s her business. We encourage her to generate a readership. That’s how we get new readers — and our chance to introduce these new readers to the other poets published on our pages.

If there’s an editor involved, someone else publishing the work — that’s when we consider it “published” — and no, we don’t explicitly state this in our guidelines, but we should. I’ll put that on my list of things to do this summer.

As you know, I already discussed this topic in general on my blog a few weeks ago. I don’t wish to go tit for tat with Eric — I’m pretty crushed with deadlines and travel at the moment, but will say this:

Publications have the right to make their own rules for what they accept and don’t accept. They should be clear and upfront about what they will consider and what they won’t.

With that in mind, every author should take these rules into account when submitting work. If an author believes there to be a conflict of interest, she should not disregard and break a publication’s rules — she shouldn’t submit to that publication, period. Personally, there’s a number of magazines I won’t send to because I disagree with how they operate. And if somebody takes issue with how NTM operates, they shouldn’t submit to us either.

Yes, it’s definitely true, NTM is beholden to no one, we have no board, no trustees, no university affiliation — THANK GOD! Where people ever got the idea that kind of set-up is good for poetry, I’ll never figure out.

Then again, there is harm if I publish crappy work. I become the editor of the crappy magazine that publishes crappy poems and then the only work sent my way is crappy poems by crappy poets. Clearly that’s not something I want.

I get the sense from Eric’s reply that he’s saying publications with different definitions or guidelines aren’t interested in goodness or are desperate for goodness any way they can get it because nobody good will send them any good work.

Hmm, well, despite differing editing/publishing philosophies — NTM and Segue both publish a number of the same poets (Denise Duhamel, Robyn Art, James Grinwis, Francis Raven, Kate Schapira, Matthew W. Schmeer, Nate Pritts, Ann Neuser Lederer) and looking over their contributor notes, NTM has ahem, declined an even longer list of poets appearing on their pages. Which is not to say those are not talented poets as well, or the poems published in Segue were not good, or even totally fabulous — (and I don’t mean that in a bitchy way, I’m sure Segue can go through the NTM archives and find poets or possibly even poems they turned down). NTM turns down 95%+ of the work received for a variety of reasons, meaning we turn down a fair share of good work, meaning we’re quite selective — despite our daring to accept a poem that appeared on a poet’s personal blog. And our reading period is closed for 4-6 months a year because we get *too much* work.

Treating poems as commodities is ridiculous and kind of detrimental — and yes, there are exceptions. Blackbird‘s publication of a found Sylvia Plath poem was definitely a commodity that involved an estate and lawyers and next of kin and so on. How often does that happen? Is that even a good thing?

NTM‘s readership likely surpasses the readership of most small and medium circulation print poetry journals, possibly many of the larger circulation ones as well — as does any good online poetry magazine. In fact, publishing poets with a strong internet presence *increases* our readership. I believe the journals with antiquated rules about not accepting work that’s appeared on personal blogs and websites are defeating themselves, the poets and the poems. Those magazines have every right to do so, and as long as poets know what the deal is when they’re submitting and are OK with it — and if everyone’s consenting and adult, hey, free country.

But I do think there are both some poets and publishers who have lost their way, cling to the old modes of doing things for very little reason other than that’s the way it’s been done before. They do this at their own peril. Which of course, is their right.

Best, Reb

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A gazillion thanks, Reb!

If you’re a poetry magazine editor and would like to guest-blog here on this same topic, please email me at nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.

‘Segue’ editor on blog-posted poems

Eric Melbye, who edits Segue magazine (which doesn’t accept poems that have appeared anywhere on the internet, including personal blogs and online workshops) very kindly responded to my harrassing him on the “blog-posted poems” question with this thoughtful response, reproduced here with his permission. Eric raises some very interesting issues and (hooray!) promises to clarify Segue’s submissions guidelines in this regard. If you’re a poetry magazine editor and would like to guest-blog here on this same topic, please email me at nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.

Eric writes: 

The seemingly simple question of whether or not Segue accepts submissions from blogs and personal web sites raises other issues I think are worth exploring. I can’t explore them all here, unfortunately. However, I hope I can provide a few thoughts on the issue from the perspective of an editor of a fairly large, academic, online journal that might spur some productive discussion of it. Here goes:

Why doesn’t Segue accept work previously published on blogs and personal web sites?

Journals with a small circulation and readership (usually created by individuals, often writing outside of the world of academia) accept previously published work regardless of where it originally appeared much more frequently than large-scale, academic/commercial journals do. I can only guess at why this is so, because I don’t have firsthand knowledge of the small-scale editing experience. But I’m guessing smaller journals accept previously published work because they don’t typically receive enough submissions to fill an issue, or because they simply don’t care if work has appeared elsewhere. I’m guessing editors of such journals are in love with being editors and with the seeming authority that comes with that title, or they’re interested in sharing literature with the world regardless of whether it’s already been shared or not. Again, I don’t want to presume to know; Segue was born in a different culture (see below). Regardless of the reason, I’m thinking that editors of small, free (or low–overhead), nonacademic journals have the luxury of not having to answer to a more powerful authority, be it a board of trustees, the respect of peers in the academic/professional world, or the almighty dollar. They can arbitrarily decide to publish previously-published work or not–who cares? Either way, there’s no harm to the editor.

That’s not the case with large-scale, academic and commercial journals. Journals with large circulations/readerships (usually created by small groups of people, often existing within the world of academia, or with close ties to that world) operate by different standards. I can’t presume to speak for all of them, of course, so I’m going to offer some sweeping generalizations, here. Publishers of large-scale journals either have to uphold an existing literary standard that is recognized by respected peers in their field, or they need to challenge the literary status quo with a compelling, innovative, smart, and ultimately respectable publication. In addition, such journals also have a financial bottom line to consider and/or the reputation of their university to maintain. Considering all this, it behooves these journals to offer readers literature that readers can’t find anywhere else. Especially in the Internet Age, if readers can find the work somewhere else (especially if it’s free), they may not bother with the large-scale journal. And without a readership, there’s no profit, no funding, no respect, and eventually, no journal. Conversely, the small-scale journal whose editor is its highest power can operate quite happily with a tiny readership.

I don’t want to paint the large-scale journal as a profit-driven or reputation-driven entity that doesn’t care about the power of literature to express human truths or challenge humanity to grow. Quite the opposite is true, I believe. I’m only saying that these journals have issues to consider that many small-scale journals may not, and that those issues often dictate the large-scale journal’s publication policies.

So where does that leave Segue? Segue is something a fringe-dweller, with a foot in both the small-scale, nonacademic world of publishing and the large-scale, academic world. Like most small-scale literary journals, I created it myself, and run the entire operation myself (with occasional help from a student) with no operating budget whatsoever. As a writer, I love how the job of editing allows me, ­among other things, ­to read and learn about the craft of writing from both new and established writers, and I love being part of the larger, ever-evolving literary conversation. So I’m interested in participating in that conversation by sharing literature with the world. But I’m also a creative writing instructor at (a regional branch of) a large university, and I’m interested in what a literary journal can do for students of writing at Miami University and abroad. Segue’s dual mission is to serve as literary publication and an educational venue; consequently, I have to publish with a certain readership in mind, and work to keep that readership growing. My mission to serve the literary and academic communities will fail if I don’t. And republishing creative material from any venue simply won’t work with that mission. (The only exception is that I occasionally allow our featured authors to submit previously published work, though I strongly advise them against it–only one has in the last five years.)

OK, fine, so you have your reasons for not accepting previously published work. Why don’t you (and other journals) post specific information about what qualifies as “previously published” in your submission guidelines?

To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t mind publishing work that appeared on a blog, or was previously published on a personal web site, especially if it was published years in the past. The problem is that that policy would create a slippery slope I simply don’t have time to navigate. I don’t have time to consider, on a case by case basis, whether a submission should count as a previous publication–I receive far, far too many submissions for that. I also don’t have time to maintain a list of venues that I would count as previously published–that would get complicated in a hurry. If I publish work that previously appeared on a blog, I probably would not want that work to have been published recently. But what’s “recent,” especially on the Internet? And with new and innovative venues and technologies constantly emerging, I would have to constantly rethink and update that list. I just can’t do it. So I simply don’t accept any work that’s been previously published anywhere. It’s an issue of practicality.

However, thinking through this issue has led me to see that Segue’s submission guidelines could easily be made clearer by simply stating that “previously published” includes any and all venues, including blogs, personal web sites, etc. I’m going to do that, and I believe all journals would benefit from clearer guidelines in that regard. But maybe they’re hedging their bets a little, and don’t want to exclude The Next Great Work from appearing in their journal just because it appeared two years earlier in an online workshop. I don’t know.

Why didn’t you think of making this change to your submission guidelines before? Why don’t most journals make their submission guidelines more explicit in this regard?

I can only guess at this, because I don’t have hard evidence for it, but even in the simpler, pre-Internet age of publication, journals rarely if ever printed specific criteria about what “previously published” meant. (One fairly common definition was that a work was considered published if the journal had a circulation of at least 500, and that included newsletters and even self-published material handed out on street corners.) I’m guessing that has to do with the fact that Back In The Day, the number of large-scale literary journals was so small, and the circle of editors and writers involved in them so select, that such a definition of “previously published” simply wasn’t necessary. Everyone understood. Also, given that the gap between large- and small-scale publications was enormous in those days, a large-scale journal editor might not have had cause for concern if a writer’s work had previously appeared in a small-scale journal–the large-scale journal’s readership wouldn’t know the difference, and if the work is spectacular, it could only help the large-scale journal.

These are only hunches; it’s very late, I’m very tired, and shouldn’t be attempting coherency and insight right now. My point is that, whatever the reason was for not providing definitions and criteria for “previously published” so many years ago, that culture has continued right into the Internet Age (and as an academic myself, I’m guilty of blindly adhering to that culture). I think there’s still an assumption, especially among large-scale academic journals, that writers simply understand what “previously published” means. This illustrates the sometimes wide, often frustrating gap between the academic and commercial publishing worlds and the private publishing world that the Internet has made so widespread. They’re very different worlds in many respects, with different practices, philosophies, standards, and expectations. But since we’re all on the Internet now, writers often don’t see them as separate worlds, and get frustrated when they move from the private to the academic/commercial world. They send editors emails asking if the editors accept work published on blogs, and the editors think, “Of course not. Didn’t you read the submission guidelines? Why would you even ask?” (Joke.) Later, these writers withdraw their submissions because they were previously published on a blog, and the editors think, “Why didn’t they include that information in their cover letter? I just don’t get these writers.” (Another one.) Likewise, editors from both worlds often don’t quite understand each other’s “cultures,” either, which sometimes leads to senseless animosity and ridiculous battles of ego. But I digress.

I hope this isn’t too incoherent, and I hope it both addresses your question and raises some issues for further discussion on your blog. Attempting an investigative answer has been very worthwhile for me. Thanks for asking. If, after my brain wakes up again, I have something more useful to add, I’ll send it along.

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A gazillion thanks, Eric!

If you’re a poetry magazine editor and would like to guest-blog here on this same topic, please email me at nic_sebastian at hotmail dot com.

workshopping blank verse

Ahem. I’ll have a round of applause, please. For what? For workshopping a metrical piece! Who would ever – ever – have thought that I would ever post anything in Metrical? 

Well, I have. I workshopped lines 175-190 (This House) from my blank verse challenge – at the Gazebo here, and at PFFA here.

Both sites have separate areas for metrical poetry which, I am ashamed to admit, I have not hitherto frequented much at all. Neither do too many other people, it seems. There is somewhat more traffic in the Gazebo’s metrical forum, but both are pretty low-traffic areas.

Shame, eh? Go post some metrical poetry, people!

Real Life and the Internet

Another interesting post on Reginald Shepherd’s blog, entitled A Few Issues in the Creative Writing Classroom. The post bears all the usual Shepherd hallmarks of clarity and thoughtfulness and everything he says about new wannabe writers is totally true. However, the most interesting thing to me is how I know that what he writes is bang on the mark, since I’ve never been in or near a creative writing classroom in my life.

The answer is from online workshops, of course. 

Now would that be the internet imitating real life, or being real life?

Favorite bit:

Because students look at their own poems and see not the words they have written but the thoughts, emotions, and experiences the word point to, they tend to write poems as captions to pictures that aren’t there, providing the meaning of something that isn’t present. The meaning is presented without giving the reader the object or situation that would actually be doing the meaning. If they do include images and concrete particulars, they will often not trust those to convey the meaning or “message” without such commentary or explanation.

PFFA on PFFA

PFFA has a talk with itself about itself here and here. Many nuances, of course, but the basic division does not seem to me to be about the overall tell it like it is, not for the faint-hearted ethos of PFFA, but over fairly specific questions of feedback phrasing and delivery. I think. I must say I’m firmly on the if you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen side of things, but it’s good to see PFFA debating such things in so lively a fashion.

AGCHA

Which, when and where I was younger, was pack-speak for “another ghastly continuum in human affairs”. And applied, of course, wherever you couldn’t apply an absolute black-or-white down-the-line response.

Because AGCHA is GRAY. (Or GREY, depending).

A proposition is made: One should always tell the truth. Killing is always wrong. Never use abstractions in poetry.

Do you agree or disagree?

And the answer has to be AGCHA.

Neither. Sometimes. Gray. (Or grey.)

So with Julie Carter’s fascinating series of resolutions about poetry boards. So far:

  1. Reciprocal critique is worthless.
  2. Poets and others should be able to critique the critiques.
  3. The most important feature of a poetry board is the community.
  4. A poetry board without conflict is just a teaparty
  5. Nothing ruins a board faster than bad moderators
  6. Most people who stick with a single board will eventually stagnate.

After much thought, I’m concluding that all of these propositions have the same answer: Sometimes.

That’s because poetry boards, like so much else we do, are just AGCHA.

Online workshops (3)

We got linked to by someone who couldn’t pick us out of a crowd at the Thin Men of Haddam  (which is the coolest name for an online poetry workshop I’ve heard all year), which led us to this interesting discussion at the same workshop on online workshops, which in turn referred us back to a post by James Midgley at The Smug Gnome from October last year.

Hm. There appears to be something of a reservoir of feeling out there surrounding the topic of certain online workshops.

And negative criticism.  

Have some blackbirds.

Online Workshops (2)

I joined PFFA in May 2005, just shy of two years ago. I had been writing really bad poetry until then, but had almost never shared it. In fact, at that time, to me a shared poem became a contaminated poem in which I immediately lost interest. PFFA was very much a baptism by fire, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that my work was cliché- and abstraction-ridden and had a hundred other faults. (And yes, it still has a hundred faults, but at least they are different ones now…)

A key life lesson I took from PFFA is how to accept negative criticism – PFFA jumps hard on anyone who pushes back against negative criticism, and although sometimes the process looks needlessly violent to newcomers, stepping back and looking at the sheer volume of newcomers to poetry who pass through PFFA’s General Forum, you can see why a zero tolerance policy is necessary. I’ve been around there a while, but I’m still oddly intrigued every time I see that lashing-out “wounded animal” reaction from a newcomer who has just posted a mess of clichés and abstractions to being told that it is just that — a mess of clichés and abstractions. (Have seen the same reaction elsewhere from much more proficient poets too, but that’s another story). Newcomers are divided into those that swallow their medicine and dig in to learn, and those that try to fight back. The latter types are promptly re-squashed and given a chance to become productive citizens. Some do settle down at that point, while some just flounce back out into the ether (and into the more sensitive arms of poetry.com, one imagines).

The three best things about PFFA are 1) the people. Some great folk there, period. 2) The fact that receiving critique at a certain level is contingent upon your ability to give critique at that same level (and at a ratio of one poem to three critiques). The mandatory critiquing has been one of the best learning tools for me, as has the security given by the PFFA no carping at negative critique policy. Over the months I found my critiquing skills improving, not just in substance, but in delivery, to where I feel comfortable giving blunt but still courteous negative feedback, as well as comfortable (actually downright grateful by this time, heh) receiving it. I realize it has required quite a bit of training to get to that neutral distanced point which focuses only on the poem. And 3) the Blurbs of Wisdom which has years and years of accumulated wisdom on just about every topic poetic, all neatly arranged by subject.

In September last year, I joined The Waters, which is a much smaller community (43 members last time I looked). Again, great people here, especially Jude Goodwin and Toni Clark, the administrators. This is a good place to get an initial “feel” for a piece before throwing it into deeper (shark-infested) waters, heh.

In December, I joined The Gazebo, which seems to be a natural step for PFFA-ers as they become more practiced. The advantage of the Gazebo is that it is not a forum for beginners (and says so), so overall, the noise-to-substance ratio is more in favor of substance, and the overall quality of both the pieces posted for comment and the comment given is higher than at PFFA (although nothing I’ve yet seen at the Gazebo comes even close to beating some of the in-depth critiques given in PFFA’s upper-level and even mid-level forums, which also carry some seriously good poetry content). One serious downside of the Gazebo for me is that critiquers rarely describe how they read a particular piece. At PFFA, it is more the norm than not for a critiquer to start with an overview of what they think is a poem’s main narrative/theme/intent, and I think this is vital to making the critiquer’s analysis of the poem useful to the writer. At the Gazebo, for example, you have someone recommending some course of action without indicating whether or not they have understood your intent, which tends to mitigate the usefulness of some of the advice. Giving this initial overview is also a great learning tool for others – sometimes you haven’t the foggiest idea what someone else’s piece may be about, and by the end of a row of cryptic comments you aren’t any the wiser (and wonder whether in fact anyone is). In her comments on workshops (see sidebar), Poet No. 10 Katy Evans-Bush says in part:

The best criticism I’ve had online – and in “real life” – has been from people […] who understand the power of simple description. A description of how someone sees your poem working is often the most useful criticism you can receive.

Absolutely.

Our ten poets across the board seem to make several key points with which I agree:

– workshops tend to gravitate to common-denominator conformity, in which certain kinds of poems are generally regarded as more successful than others. This can diminish the value of a workshop for participants who have reached a certain level of technical proficiency and want to try new approaches.

– Quality of poems and critiques in (and therefore the usefulness of) workshops can vary wildly (!)

– Workshops are a great tool for beginners, but at some point, you have to pull away from workshops to develop and learn to trust your inner critic.

I feel I’m at the point where I should do this, and keep saying I will, I will, but then I always begin to suspect that the new thing I’ve written is either totally flat and obvious or else so obscure that no-one will understand it and am somehow inexorably drawn to post at one place or another.

We’ll get there eventually.

Ten Questions: Online Workshops

Julie’s meditations on online workshops remind me I have huge repositories of wisdom from ten poets (including Julie herself) on this blog, which require thought and sifting through. For ease of cross-referencing, I’m going to start a subject index to the Wisdom of the Ten Poets (see top of left side-bar). The first is Ten Poets on Online Workshops, a page on which I’ve excerpted what the ten poets said on that topic.