Nothing to report. Check back next year.
It’s winter, nights are in the low teens, and the ground out here is covered with snow. I’m still hiking in the local woods most weekends. My class at Rosemont college is off to a good start–brilliant and insightful students. My monthly local workshop is still going strong after more than 10 years. We’re on zoom at the moment, but we all hope to be back in person soon, as soon as it’s safe.
The writing has been going well, and publishing hasn’t been too bad either. My book manuscript has been a finalist about 5 times so far. I’ve had new poems published by Greensboro Review, UCity Review, Cider Press Review, and some others. Later this year I’ve got poems coming out in Sand Hills Review, Kenyon Review, Louisiana Literature, and Verse Daily, with hopefully more to announce soon.
My 2020 book, Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven, received a very positive write-up in Broad City Review, which you can read here. If you’re interested in checking out the book, you can find it here.
I’m still on the fence about going to AWP this year. It’s within easy driving distance, so I’ll probably end up going.
follow/contact me on twitter @uniambic
A few things
It’s been months since my last post. Anyway, one would think that in our pandemic life that I should have more time to write things here, but I guess either I’m too easily distracted, or (more likely) the act of sharing news on my blog just seemed too unnecessary in the current climate. We also contracted covid earlier this fall, which set me and my family back quite a bit, so I’m trying to catch up.
So here are a few recent highlights. I hope you forgive me the self-indulgence.
New poetry video
My daughter and her boyfriend, both graduates of NYU’s Tish drama program, have started making their own videos (a pandemic is a lousy time to be an actor), and their most recent project was a video of my poem The Happiness of Dogs. I hope you like it.
Here’s the text of the poem:
The Happiness of Dogs
is not like the happiness of people,
clung with doubt and ledger,
accounts due and paid.
At the door or gate they’re all tremor
and wag, eye tooth and eye
for joy of green grass, frayed
energy, leash and lap, for
pat or play, games played out
into the pond, the stalk and chase,
instinctual as a grin, to catch or run—
because they know something
we don’t. They know it in their
bones, in the roots of their
teeth, the howl building in the back
of their throats all day, waiting
to signal the night to other dogs,
that the happiness of dogs
is life itself—every wet shake
after rain and every lazy moment
rolling on warm grass. What moments
not measured in time or money
are made of. The happiness of dogs
is why we keep them around us,
the animal we wish we could be.
New review of Muddy Dragon
Liz Chang wrote a review of my latest book, Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven, in Philadelphia Stories Magazine. Please read the review here.
New poetry prompt
My latest poetry prompt article is available on Philadelphia Stories Magazine. You can read it here. To see more of these be sure to subscribe to the magazine’s newsletter (it’s free).
Another poetry video
The same team who made the dog video, also made one from my poem Last, though they call the video Exodus. It’s a bit darker than the dog poem. I think their filmwork is damn impressive.
Another poetry prompt article
This one uses a popular internet meme style as a way to begin a poem. I hope you like it. Read it here.
Interview about my latest book
Curtis Smith interviewed me about Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven. The interview appeared on JMWW and you can read it here.
My poem Making Tomato Sauce with My Daughter was published by New Verse News way back in May. You can read it here.
New Book News
While this may be the weirdest and worst poetry month, it opened with a bit of good news for me. My manuscript “Muddy Dragon on the Road to Heaven” won the Codhill Press Poetry Prize. I’m not sure yet when the book will be published, in part because I just learned the news days ago, and the world has more important priorities at the moment. Still, I’m very happy and grateful. This will be my 5th book of poems, and I truly believe it’s also my best. The title comes from a poem first published by Superstition Review.
Here’s the official notice.
Poetry Magic for Humans
I’ve been fascinated by magic and magicians since I was a kid. When my parents went to Orlando on a business trip for my father they brought me back a Mickey Mouse Magic Set, and I spent a few weeks putting on shows for the family. As a teenager I got into Dungeons and Dragons and studied hypnotism from school library books (I never got it to work). I’ve since (mostly) given up trying to perform magic, but I find poetry satisfies similar needs and works in similar ways.
By the way, I also wrote a book of poems called The Magician’s Handbook. Funny how our childhood obsessions express themselves in adulthood.
Anyway, I’ve recently been watching the Netflix series Magic For Humans. Most of the show revolves around the magician Justin Willman stopping people in the street to perform tricks for them. They’re usually in-close tricks—coins, cards, etc. rather than disappearing elephants (yet)—the audience, both in person and over television, is captivated and bewildered. And that’s where the connection to poetry comes in for me.
Willman’s magic, in part, relies on his ability to draw the audience into his world. He makes them feel welcome, safe. In short, though they may be skeptical, they trust him. His demeanor, his forthrightness, his easy smile, break through people’s built-in skeptic barrier. The audience opens up to the experience, whatever will happen. Yes, by default everyone knows it’s a trick, a series of gestures, mechanics and slight of hand to convince the viewer of the veracity of what they’re experiencing. It’s that trust that solidifies the experience, that makes it work for the viewer, even when they’re being manipulated.
For me, that’s a lot of what I look for in poetry, or what makes the poetry I like work for me. In the same way that a magician needs to establish a trusting relationship with the audience in order for them to enjoy the show (and gasp with delight at the end), a poet should also form a trusting relationship with the reader. In a poem you’re asking people to follow you into some unknown place, and for many people, poetry is an intimidating place. How do you get them to go along with your gestures and slight of hand? Through trust, which leads to a relationship, and ends in communion—a sharing of the experience. In magic, that experience is usually (hopefully) delight and astonishment. In poetry it may also be those things, but it may also be shared sorrow, regret, nostalgia, and sometimes joy (there’s sadly not enough of the latter).
Poetry does magic in another way too, the transformation kind of magic. We’re astounded when we see Willman turn something into something else, and that’s exactly what good poems do all the time. Poems take a thing—an object, image, experience—and turn it into language. That alone is a feat of magic that isn’t lost on linguistic historians. But even more, the language of poetry takes those words and transforms them into insight. Poetry for me is a way of seeing the world, not just as a series of things and experiences, but as a series of insights—the essence of metaphor, which is what makes poetry valuable for me, and what I think makes poets interesting people. They just see differently.
Which is all to say that I think poetry is a kind of magic.
Also, watch Magic for Humans. It’s one of my favorite shows.
On Tree Forts and Poetry, Structure and Support
Earlier this summer when I was planning my MFA class on the relationship between form and content in poetry, somehow in the process of deciding what and how to approach this course I got to thinking about tree forts. Growing up near woods and with plenty of free time on my hands, I built a lot of tree forts when I was a kid. Sadly I don’t think that’s much of a thing anymore, but that’s a subject for another essay.
Anyway. Obviously my friends and I had no formal building or architectural training, yet we managed to build some large and complex forts high in the trees. It helped a bit that a friend’s father worked at a lumber yard, so we had access to lots of scrap wood. One of our forts included three stories, was more-or-less waterproofed, heated, and looked like something Frank Loyd Wright would design if he was a 13 year old making tree forts.
Somehow we had this gift, probably luck, for finding the right trees for the job. In our style of tree fort, you needed three or four trees. They were the main structural supports. They had to be close enough together that our frame boards could reach, reasonably straight and not too rotten. For our largest and most well-built tree fort we used four trees growing out of a hill so one side was closer to the ground than the other, which made it easier to build a ramp to get to it. I think about those support trees when thinking about poems. Their position determined a lot—the shape and size of the rooms especially—and I’ve asked myself what the equivalent would be in a poem. It varies of course, but having some secure starting place to hang your first board, or your first line, and build on that, can be the difference between a fort that leaks and gets overrun by raccoons and one that you can spend the night in without fearing collapse.
“You use what you have, you learn to work the structure to create what you need.” writes Julia Alvarez about writing sonnets in her essay Housekeeping Cages. This was our approach, my friends and I. We had plenty of woods with tall trees. We had access to limited building materials (from our parents or stolen from construction sites) and we had time on our hands. Our materials gave us a start, even gave us the ideas to work with, but they didn’t limit us. We took risks (like building a hibachi and old tin pipe into a fireplace 40 feet off the ground), and got creative (we sealed cracks with melted candle wax, which of course melted away in the summer.)
We also had a reasonable arsenal of tools for the job. Hammers and saws mostly, buckets of nails, because we were crude builders making up the rules as we went along. “One has to know the tools, so he doesn’t work against himself. Tools make the job easier.” writes Yusef Komunyakaa about a period in the ’80s when he discovered the voice and form for some of his poems. Our forts would probably have gone higher, lasted longer and looked less like trash heaps with better tools.
I try to impress upon newer writers the importance of acquiring as many tools as possible, of studying structures and approaches that have worked in the past, so they can use them, adapt them, expand on them for their own poems. And I continue to try to acquire new tools myself. I’ll never build a tree fort again, but I remember the feeling of searching around our heap of crap wood looking for the perfect beam, the right plank of plywood, and the satisfaction of seeing how well it fit.
Here’s one of my tree fort poems, published by Foliate Oak.
By the way, we always called them forts, not houses. Maybe that’s a regional thing, or just a neighborhood thing, or maybe we thought we were defending something with these structures. That’s probably for a later poem.
All Poems are Triangles
Form in poetry is more than just meter, stanza, and line break. It’s also a way of thinking. It’s the direction, pace and energy of the poem, and one of the main ways a writer can direct the reader’s experience. And, at least in my way of understanding, it’s also not something that’s simply visible on the page or scannable across a line. Shape and structure is metaphysical as much as it’s physical.
And this all is a way into my idea that all poems are triangles. Poems are kinds of vessels of energy. You cram a bunch of things in one end (images, concepts, sounds, ideas) and something else emerges from the other. Like a triangle, poems have a wide end and a narrow end. From a content point of view, a poem can start with a small point (a particular image, moment, or idea) and then expand, the way an ant hill expands as it gets to the base. Or the poem can start out large, with a wide idea that that covers everything, then narrows to make a particularly sharp point at the end. Think of that as a large funnel you dump the poem into, and it comes out a small opening at the bottom.
The most typical, at least in my experience (and in my own writing) is the poem/triangle that starts small and gets wider as it develops. Remember, I’m talking about the idea structure, not the line length or any other kind of structure. Often you’ll see a poem use some small moment or image as a trigger, which leads to another, and another, and as the images build, so does the idea and consequence of the poem. Take this William Stafford poem as an example:
At the Bomb Testing Site
By William E. Stafford
At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense,
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.
It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.
There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.
It starts with the lizard just sitting on a road panting, but almost immediately the poem starts to expand (“waited for history”) until at the end the poem seems to encompass the whole future in it.
This Jane Hirshfield poem does a very similar thing. It begin with on a small point, the young tree, and ends wide with “immensity taps at your life.”
By Jane Hirshfield
It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.
Even in this
you will have to choose.
That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books—
Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.
This poem by Natasha Trethewey, does the opposite. It starts with a large idea, almost the way an essay may start with a thesis statement, and then the poem progresses with details to support or explain the first idea, finally landing on a point, like a gymnast beginning with a large opening move then landing solidly on small, steady feet.
Theories of Time and Space
by Natasha Trethewey
You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.
Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:
head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off
another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion—dead end
at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches
in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand
dumped on the mangrove swamp—buried
terrain of the past. Bring only
what you must carry—tome of memory,
its random blank pages. On the dock
where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:
the photograph—who you were—
will be waiting when you return.
Note that the wide parts of a poem tend to be statements or metaphors, while the narrow parts tend to be images. Metaphors, especially similes, are expansion devices. Look at what a simile does—it takes one thing, compares it to something else, and creates a third space.
First, of course this silly idea about triangles doesn’t always work. Some poems are straight columns. Some are so gerrymandered that you can’t even name their shape. So how do I use this concept anyway?
Thinking of the shape of a poem’s idea helps me visualize how its energy and pace work, how it tightens and speeds up, or comes to a pause. In composition this can help me overcome roadblocks. If a poem seems to be stalled at some point, not moving the way I want, I’ll overlay the triangle to it and test which direction the poem is pointing, what kind of base or point is has, and where the break in its energy is. This can sometimes help me solve problems I otherwise couldn’t see. Sometimes when I’m stuck on a poem but can’t seem to see the shape, I’ll try to carve a triangle out of it—the way a sculptor sees a shape inside a block of stone.
It also helps me when reading poems, especially when I want to analyze how a poem works. I’ll look at the opening and closing to figure out which is the wide end and which is the narrow end. Is the narrow end a landing or the tip of a funnel. Does the wide base allow the idea to keep growing beyond the poem?
Not Taking for Granted: Notes on Why Poetry
Yesterday at the Philadelphia Stories LitLife poetry festival, held at Rosemont College, where I teach occasional workshops, I heard the keynote poet M. Nzadi Keita make two statements that helped me verbalize a few things that have always been on my mind, and probably on the minds of most poets—why write poetry?
First, she said (paraphrasing Lucille Clifton, Keita explained) that poets exist to not take the world for granted. I would stretch that a little to say that poets write so as to not take their life for granted. In my non-poetry life I’m also a writer. I’ve been an editor and writer for magazines and website for more than 20 years, mostly covering technology and electronics. Once at a tech conference a person who’d heard about my poetry asked why I did that since it makes so little money. I replied with something about how I didn’t want my writing legacy to be product reviews and articles on how to program a security system. That I wanted to investigate things of more importance. Of course that shut down the conversation and we went on to look at whatever new gadget the person was trying to talk me into writing about.
Everything is bigger than it is, everything is more important than you think it is, or can be, and poetry is the best way to investigate that. To take something for granted is to fail to fully appreciate a thing in its wholeness, to fail to look beyond its surface texture, its first layer of function. Poetry does the opposite of that. Poetry looks at the life beyond the life of a thing or a story or a moment. It finds the metaphor in the most mundane of things—think of Pablo Neruda’s odes or Gary Snyder’s meditations on nature, or basically any poet writing about anything.
Poets don’t assume a thing is just a thing—they look beyond the obvious truths for the truths that require more digging. And that comes to the second thing Keita said that I wrote down in my notebook: “the impulse to research changes everything.” I underlined that three times, because that is such a powerful truth about poetry, writing poetry, and the urge to create. Creating isn’t so much about making something new as it is finding new ways to experience the old (or the things that already exist). Keita went on to talk about the world as multiple words, and the need to acknowledge and sort through the many layers of it. This, she said, is a de-centering experience, and poets thrive on that de-centering.
Yes, the searching does change everything. Not just in poetry, but in everything in life, but especially poetry. Or perhaps, poets have found the research method which best suits them. Other artists have their own ways of course. Words, images, metaphors, especially metaphors, are ways poets research the world, find the layers, de-center, not take life for granted. Each time we search for a new way to say love, or a new way to describe a familiar scene, or a simile to expand an experience, we’re looking at another layer and appreciating its newness, its complexity.
And, to circle back—that’s a large part of why I write poetry, and why it matters to me. Poets aren’t satisfied with simple answers. They’re not satisfied with the surface or the first impression. They do the work of peeling back the layers, looking at the world from different angles, not taking for granted.
The Poem is the Question
I’ve got a lot of weird theories about poems, and mostly they’re just ways to help me think about poetry or help me work through poetry problems (such as my theory that all poems are triangles). One of these theories is that a question is an essential element in every poem. That doesn’t mean that every poem needs a sentence that ends in a question mark, or that the question or answer is even clear–it’s just there, doing it’s thing in the same way we don’t really notice our circulatory system unless something’s gone wrong.
As many teaches have repeated in many classrooms, there are no wrong questions, just wrong answers. (Maybe it was there are no wrong sandwiches, just wrong condiments.) When we’re talking about poetry, or about the making of it in particular, again there are no wrong questions, but there may also be no wrong answers. The question, however, is crucial the poem’s very existence. It’s the heart of each poem.
Here’s how it works. After I’ve gotten the bones of a poem down, maybe established the situation or narrative, the shape and the rhythm, but I’m failing to find a way to bring it all together, I go back to the idea of the question. I’ll scrounge around in the poem to try to find what it’s asking. If I figure out the question or the motivation in the poem, then I’m better equipped to solve its problems. My attempt to answer the question can sometimes help me through the poem’s speed bumps or can help me navigate safely through the poem’s turn. Sometimes it helps to actually put a question in the poem–either as a crutch that you’ll eventually remove–or as a permanent part of the poem. A question is a pretty interesting part of speech in that it’s one of the few that almost always demands a response from the reader. If you ask the reader a question, they feel compelled to answer–or look for the answer.
If you’re the type of writer who likes prompts, question can be great for jump-starting a poem. You can questions anywhere, about anything, and use them as starting points. I’ve recently been reading Ace Boggess wonderful book I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So, which is an entire collection of question poems. Some are questions he’s been asked by other people. Some he heard in songs, overheard in public or found in other ways.
Thinking in terms of questions can also help with organizing a manuscript of poems. When putting together a collection I’ve asked myself what question the poems, as a whole, are attempting to answer. They could be big questions: what’s the meaning of my existence? how do I live this way? why are dogs better than cats? Or they could be more specific or personal questions: how do I deal with this loss? how do I reconcile my past mistakes? why is my dog better than your dog? The poems in the collection may then be organized so that they raise the issue, present the evidence and then seek to answer. Of course, since we’re talking about poetry, the way they answer the question may not exactly seem like an answer, and may raise more questions… but that allows you to write more poems. (I have more thoughts on organizing a book here.)
Anyway, that’s what’s on my mind this afternoon. Feel free to post any questions below.
Here are some great question poems I like:
Some Questions You Might Ask by Mary Oliver
Poetry Publishing and Money: A primer for beginners
It’s manuscript submission time, which for me, means figuring how much I can afford to spend this year on contest and reading fees. So this seems like a good opportunity to talk about poetry books and money, especially for people new to this game.
Friends and family who aren’t authors, and friends who are authors, but trek in the novel world, act surprised when I joke about how little poets make from their books. There are of course poets who make a decent amount of money on books, but they’re rare. A recent article in The Guardian claimed that poetry sales are booming these days, but booming in comparison to what? It’s a small boom when you compare it to popular novels, celebrity biographies, or the latest political tell-all. And most of the top sellers in poetry are either by dead people (Leonard Cohen, Seamus Heaney, Homer) or Instagram poets, not the typical small-press publishing poet in the US.
I’d guess there are maybe a dozen poets in the US who can live off their poetry book sales, maybe 11 now that we lost Mary Oliver. There are maybe 50 more who make a decent amount of money traveling around doing readings at universities (the only places that pay poet a reasonable amount for readings) and doing guest workshops at conferences, but that lifestyle tends to be short-lived and cycles around a poet’s most recent award-winning book. The rest get by with other jobs. Lots of us teach, but many more do other things, and squeeze in readings (usually unpaid) and conferences (sometimes paid, sometimes not) where they try to sell a few books when they can.
Aside from the famous few, most poets make their book money from selling them in person. Few bookstores (despite the resurgence of independent bookstores) offer little more than a couple of dozen poetry titles, and they’re mostly from large presses (large independents like Graywolf and Copper Canyon) and the year’s biggest award winners (plus some Instagram poets and Homer). Amazon of course sells everything, but that company makes it very hard for a publisher to make much of a profit, so by the time the author gets a cut, you’re looking at a year’s sales being enough to buy a case of beer, craft beer if you’re lucky.
Contests, Reading Fees and Costs
What about agents? In poetry, they’re like Bigfoot. You may believe they exist, but very few poets have ever seen one. Only a few poets in the top-tiers of the business (I hate that I wrote business, but I can’t think of another word) have agents, and those tend to only show up once the writer has already achieved success via a big award or other sort of fame. If you’re like most of us, or are just starting out trying to publish, just put the idea of agents out of your mind.
So, back to contests and reading fees, and why. Poetry’s not very profitable. Neither is fly fishing, but people do both out of a love for the thing. Since they know they’re not going to make much or anything selling a book (usually), publishers will try to bring in some of the money up front in the form contest or reading fees which then go toward paying the contest prize, and paying the editors and production costs. Without those fees, as painful as they are for both sides, many good publishers couldn’t stay in business and many books wouldn’t exist. Because poetry publishers rarely give advances anymore, the contest model can be better for poets than a straight-forward royalty arrangement, because what good are royalties if you’re mostly selling the books yourself. Of course that will vary depending on the publisher, the poet, the book and what you want or expect out of the process.
Let’s say the typical contest prize is $1,000 (some pay out more, few pay out less). I looked at my last three books and saw that I averaged 12 submissions for each one, at about $28 for each submission. That’s $336 spent getting each book published (update–I’ve way exceeded that for my 6th, still-unpublished manuscript). Some of those fees give you the winning book or a subscription to a journal, so they’re not all just lost money. But still, I figure I have to budget at least that much for my next book (see update note above). Let’s say I win one that pays me $1,000 (my last one paid more—Yay! but play along anyway) plus 20 author copies. Of course I’m going to want more than 20, so I pay the author accommodation price, which tends to be fifty or sixty percent of the cover. Let’s say the book costs $16, so my price will be $8 a copy. Pretend I buy 100 copies because I plan to do a lot of readings. That’s $800, plus the $336 I would have spent in contest fees, and I’m already $136 in the hole by the time I’ve signed the contract.
But I’ve got my book (Yay again!) and 120 copies to sell. Of course I have to give some to family and a few friends. Let’s say I give out 25. Then there are review copies. Maybe the publisher sends out some, maybe not. I’ll add another 5. Now I’ve only got 90 copies of the book left and haven’t sold a thing. How about readings—hopefully I’ve set up a lot.
Selling books sometimes feels like selling Girl Scout Cookies door-to-door, and the only flavor you have to offer is Trios. Selling books at readings can be hard. In 2018 I did 18 readings (I had two new books to promote). On a good night I’d sell 10. At a typical reading where 12 people show up I may only sell three or four copies. And usually you feel obligated to give the host a free copy (one venue told me that was a requirement). So let’s say you drove 45 minutes to read at a coffee shop, had to buy your own coffee ($4) and pay for parking ($12), sold three copies (at $16 each minus the $8 you paid) and then gave one away ( another lost $8) and drove home to watch Game of Thrones (HBO costs $14 a month). That kind of thing tends to sour a person on readings.
What about bookstores? Bookstores are great places to read, especially if the place has a long-established reading series, but they present another financial challenge to the writer. Bookstores are in the business of selling books, and they offer you a venue and an audience, so they expect a cut. If you bring your own books, the store will usually expect about a 40% cut. So maybe you sell a few copies, and the store takes 40%, which leaves you with $9.60. But you paid $8 for those books, so now you’ve only made $1.60 per book. How many do you need to sell to make that bookstore reading worth the trip? Of course one good paying gig at a college could make up for several disappointing coffee shops. (Note: I don’t begrudge bookstores their need to make money–they have staff to pay and lights to keep on, but it’s still hard on the small press poet.)
So, when non-writing friend ask me how poets make money on books, I have to factor in things that aren’t directly attached to book sales. Did I get invited to teach at a conference that year? Did I teach a night class workshop? Did I serve as a judge for a poetry contest? Since none of those things would have happened without the existence of my books, I count them as book-related profit. That’s how poetry accounting works—it’s different than regular accounting.
This all sounds like a lot of grousing and complaining. Is it all worth it? That depends on how important money is to the whole scope of being a poet. To me, it’s worth it. Writing, hopefully writing well, and having a book in hand to prove it, is a poet’s marker in the ground that they did something worth saving, worth sharing and worth lasting. Every person or organization who’s helped support a poet, especially the small book publishers, the independent bookstores, the coffee shop readings and the small journals and websites are part of a network creating a legacy for something important to survive. I get value from having a book to show my family, to share with my friends, and knowing that in a few other homes, my book is also being shared—that’s an enormous reward even if it doesn’t pay for much coffee. The readings and events I do to support my work allow me to meet and talk to people I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. It’s led to great conversations and some great friendships.