I interviewed poet Ada Limón for Cleaver Magazine. We talked about her new book, The Carrying, some issues on poetry craft and other things. You can read the whole interview at this link.
Last year my friend Hayden Saunier, a poet and actor, came up with an idea to change up what a traditional poetry reading is like. She invited a handful of people to a meeting at her house, and there No River Twice was born.
No River Twice is a poetry improvisational group. Our group poetry readings don’t have planned reading lists, reader orders or themes–they’re completely spontaneous and responsive to audience input. At a NRT reading, the poets take cues and suggestions from the audience and each other, so each performance is unique, the poems interconnect, weave and flow in a unique way that connects the readers to the listeners. We’re not inventing new poems on the spot, but we’re inventing new synergies, which makes each performance collaborative and new.
We held our first public performance in January at Fergie’s in Philadelphia, and have had a few since. Our next one will kick off the new Caesura poetry conference in Phoenixville, PA, August 17.
It’s hard to explain exactly what NRT is, so you should just come to one of our events–it’ll change the way you think about poetry readings.
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A friend who’s starting to put together a poetry collection asked me recently if I had any tips for how to organize a book. I suggested the standard practice of thinking about the book as having a story or arc, and organizing it around that. And while I still think that’s pretty decent advice, it’s also pretty vague. I also told her I personally like to end on a note of hope and look for the poem that will leave the reader with that feeling, and that’s when I realized what I actually was doing with my own organization strategy—I was creating a map toward hope.
So with that in mind, here are a few things I do or think about when organizing a collection of poems. I’m not much of an authority at this. I’ve only published four books, and I’m not a press editor, but here are principles that help guide me.
Focus on the destination
Think of the book as a trip. On a trip, unless you’re just aimlessly wandering, you usually pick the destination before you start driving. You punch the addresses into your phone, view the route, and then hit the road. Every so often you get a reminder to turn left at the next intersection or exit the highway via the off ramp. None of the individual steps along the route could happen if you hadn’t picked the destination first. When organizing a book, I’ll look for the final poem first (or at least early in the process). That poem is the destination. It’s where I want the reader to arrive at the end of the journey. As I stated earlier, I usually want to end on something hopeful, to leave the reader knowing that whatever happened earlier in the book, that all is not lost. If you want the reader to end on X feeling, you need to know what steps, turns or transformations will need to occur to bring them there.
Most poetry books today (including mine) are broken into smaller sections. Sometimes these sections are thematically linked to tell a particular story (the first parts of both The Trouble with Rivers and Reckless Constellations focus on specific people and narratives). Think of those sections as necessary detours on your trip—but they still need to function as steps toward your goal. If you’re driving across Pennsylvania, you may make detours to visit the Anthracite Museum or Gettysburg, but how will those stops contribute to the overall experience of the trip? How will they help bring you to the end of the book? Do they support a transformation that happens in the book? Do they expand or contribute to themes you’re working toward?
Plan for rest stops
You can’t get through a long trip without stopping to pee now and then. You’ll need breaks, deviations, places to stretch your back, get some coffee. This can be true with poetry collections as well. Too much of one thing gets tiring, even if those things are very good. A friend called one of my poems a “park bench poem,” a sort of poem that allows the reader to take a breath, release the tension. Rests are part of the trip and necessary to reach the goal. Without a break now and then a book, especially one with emotionally intense poems, can be a bit overwhelming. Use rest stops sparingly, and make them useful to the whole, but use them.
Turn by turn directions
No journey (well, few at least) are straight lines. Every turn is a moment for consideration. Every turn is a choice. Your individual poems are also choices, and those choices have consequence in how the book unfolds. The order of your poems, like turns on a trip, can either get you closer to your destination or lead you away from it. You can also end up going around in circles without advancing further toward the goal. I write a lot of fishing poems, but I’ve never grouped them all together just because they’re all about fishing. That would be like getting stuck in one of those terrible New Jersey loop intersections. Instead, I’ll think of what each of the fishing poems is doing, what experience it’s leading the reader in and how it helps us get to the destination.
Sometimes, as in life and Lifetime movies, a book’s destination is the same place you started. But in order to realize that, the book has go through the motions of leaving home, process the experiences of being away, and eventually find its way back. The journey itself must still be important, otherwise you wouldn’t have written the poems. It may be a round trip, but it’s still a trip.
Of course there are other ways to organize a poetry book, or, as Hayden Carruth did in Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, don’t organize them at all. These are just ideas that help me. You can do your own thing.
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My most recent workshop group with the Rosemont Writer’s Studio asked for suggestions on where to submit, where to meet more writers and where they can find events, so I put together this list for them. I’m posting it here so anyone can find it. If I missed something, please let me know.
Local poetry resources (for the greater Philadelphia area)
Philadelphia Stories—a great local literary magazine and book publisher (ok, maybe I’m biased). It also hosts several literary events throughout the year, including LitLife (happening this year April 7 at Rosemont College). Website.
Apiary Magazine: a Philadelphia-based literary pub, both online and in print, host several events.
Moonstone: a Philadelphia-based arts organization that hosts readings (mostly at Fergie’s Pub), contests and other poetry things. Website.
Mad Poets Society: Chester and Montgomery county-based poetry group with loads of events including readings and workshops, even an annual bonfire—all free. The events listings on their site don’t seem to be up to date, so call or email them to confirm things are still happening.
Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio: Workshop based in Delaware county hosted by Allison Hicks. Info here.
Montgomery County Poet Laureate Program: It’s more than just an annual contest. MCPL hosts events throughout the year. Website.
Big Blue Marble: Small independent bookstore in Mt Airy Philadelphia, hosts book clubs, readings and other events. Website.
Philadelphia Writer’s Conference: Annual conference with workshops and lectures. There’s more of an emphasis on prose (non-fiction and genre fiction) but they always have a few poetry sessions as well. It’s good for networking and meeting people. Website.
Cleaver Magazine: Philadelphia based literary website that published local, national and international writers. Look especially at the craft essay section called Writer-to-Writer for essays about writing and the writing life. (disclosure–I’m the poetry craft essay editor). Website.
Entropy: publishes “Where to Submit” posts every few months, and breaks it down by book presses, contests and journals (online and off)
ReviewReview is a web site about journals and online literary sites and posts calls to submit.
NewPages is a site with contests listing, journal listings and reviews
Doutrope helps you track your submissions and find places to send work, but you have to pay an annual fee, and I find the quality of most of their listing to be poor or random and not worth the price. It’s also a lazy way to discover journals. Don’t be lazy by letting an algorithm pick your publications—do the work.
Facebook has several pages dedicated to calls for submission.
Here’s a post I wrote about how I find publications to submit to.
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About a month ago, maybe more, I was hiking some woods I didn’t know very well. I’d been there only once before and hadn’t gone far along the trail, so this day was for exploring further. These certainly were some gorgeous woods–huge boulders tinted with moss and lichen, mixed oak and hickory trees that left a thick cereal of leaves, twigs and nuts on the ground, and a light covering of snow that shifts normal perspectives.
So Emmett, my dog, and I tramped down into the hollow toward a creek, back up along a rocky ridge, cut into a wider path that led to a logger’s opening, then back into the protected part of the woods where the trail zigzagged and upped and downed, until after a few hours, my feet were getting pretty sore, the sun was no longer warming my back, and even Emmett looked ready to curl up in the back seat of the car. But we were probably 40 minutes from the pulloff where it was parked.
By now the much of the fascination with these new woods had faded, and was instead replaced with thoughts of my aching insoles and frequent glances at the trail map to decipher the shortest route out of there. Emmett had stopped peeing on every rock, so I knew he was thinking the same thing.
That feeling of having gone too far is also familiar to me in my writing, and usually it’s a moment that comes up during the initial draft of a poem, or shortly after when I’m building on an initial jumble of words. That first impulse to write a poem can often be sort of directionless. But that’s also what makes it exciting. One of the biggest thrills I get from writing is the discovery that happens on the way through a first draft, and that’s very similar to the feeling I get when I first set off on a hike along a trail or a kayak trip down a creek. The difference is that with a hike, once your realize you’ve gone too far, you generally know where you need to return to (and hopefully you know how to get there.). With poem, it’s harder to know just when things took a wrong turn.
This came to me this morning, when I was reading Raymond Carver’s poem, conveniently tilted This Morning. In the poem he’s going for a walk and eventually reaches a point where he starts to take in the world and reflect… ie, gets poetic about it. It’s a good moment, and he carries it off for a few lines until the perfect moment of insight ends with the line “I know I did.” I would love if the poem just ended there with that sudden self awareness.
Unfortunately, as good a poet as Carver was, he was also known to not be great at self editing (thank you Gordon Lish). The poems goes on for four more lines, which really just drags out and diminishes the wonderful moment that happened with “I know I did.”
So how do you know? Ah, well, that’s the hard part. Sometimes it’s just recognizing that you’ve made your point, hit your mark and now you’re just saying it again with different words or new images.
Writing beyond the ending is something I see pretty frequently in poems, usually by younger poets who can’t resist the impulse to just keep walking on down that trail. It’s also something I’m prone to myself, a lot. After I’ve put my first efforts on the page I go back and carefully feel out whether the poem went too far. Usually this requires some time or distance. I need to put it down for a few days, or read someone else in between, so I’m not hung up on my own endorphin rush from writing. Walking is different. You know when you’ve gone too far, but sometimes by the time you know there are already blisters on your feet and you just have to suffer through them until you get home.
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I used to be hooked on four to six line stanzas. I loved the pressure that small packages forced on me, the fact that I needed to squeeze a moment or impression into a six line box, then move onto the next one was both an organizing factor, and a way to allow my mind to make multiple leaps within a poem.
Here’s how I typically composed: A first line or image would kick off the writing session. I’d randomly (usually based on how the first line went) select a basic stress count (somewhere between 5 and 7 beats per line was typical), though I rarely went for any strict meter. By the time I’d get to the third line I’d start to look for ways to tie up that stanza and allow me to move to the next.
This process of working on one stanza at a time, rather than trying to approach the whole poem at once, made the writing process less intimidating. It’s like cleaning a room by dividing it into sections—first I’ll tackle the desk, then the bookshelf, the closet, then the floor… By focusing on one step, or stanza at a time, I could keep the progress going without actually worrying about where it would end up.
Usually the same decision system I applied to the stanza length would surface in the overall poem length. Mostly due to my short attention span, and dislike of longer poems I’d start thinking of an exit by the time I finished my third stanza. This is probably why most of my poems from that period are made of four or five stanzas.
Here’s an example of one of those poems, as is the one pictured to the right.
The benefit, at least in my mind, of all those stanza breaks, is that they allow frequent jumps, such as scene changes, logic changes, even language shifts, without throwing the whole poem off the sofa. I could be talking about a bridge or a beach and then in the next stanza shift to room or a person, which all seemed to be allowed in that form. Those movements let me do things with poems that other approaches to building wouldn’t, and for several years it became second nature, as if my mind naturally worked that way.
One thing that format didn’t do for me was allow for a certain forward momentum, and along with that, a drama brought on by that momentum. When a poem is full of stops or pauses, it doesn’t pick up a lot of speed. That’s an effect I began for, and one I could only seem to find in longer unbroken poems. That seems to be where I’m at a lot these days (as people in my monthly writing group have noticed). I’ve been forgoing the stanza breaks and scene shifts for shorter lines, longer poems (though not too long) and more of a dramatic arc.
Poems that lack stanza breaks need justification to keep going without giving the reader a breather. At the same time, unbroken poems can exhibit a kind of steady momentum that often meets a key turn moment, and then rolls into the end. I picture it like holding a hose and spraying into the air—the water arcs upward, gaining power, hits its peak, then cascades down to the ground, gravity taking over.
Here’s an example that I think pulls off what I wanted.
I’ve liked working in this form, but it can cause other challenges. How do you keep or increase momentum? How do you shift ideas but still maintain the narrow lens focus? Or, alternatively, do you use the form to allow a wide-ranging wandering? Attention to how I use caesuras, transitional phrases, repetitions and other rhetorical tools play a role. I talk about some useful tools here and here, but there are endless others. Like any writer, I’m trying to figure it out on a case by case basis.
One of the reasons I like to try on different forms is to prevent getting stuck in a rut. I’ve seen poets who haven’t evolved their style over decades. Richard Hugo is the most obvious example, and except for 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, he wrote the same style of poetry his whole lifetime. I don’t want to get bored with my own poems, and I also want to explore new ways of doing things.
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It’s a question that comes up every month for me a few days before my writing group meets. Which new poem do I share? Which one needs the most work? Which one will my friends like best? Which one will I get most defensive about.
Not all of those are valid questions when selecting a poem, but they’re questions that come up in my mind, and probably other people experience the same ones. I’ve written a handful of new poems since our last meeting, some I like a lot, some I think are just skeletons, and some I think are in need of a few key fixes to make them publication-ready (I know, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the goal, but I’ll leave that issue alone for now).
The selection issue was a little different when I was a grad student many years ago. I was in a weekly workshop for two years, and the frequency of the workshop meant that I had less work to pick from every week. I’ve never been a write-every-day person—I start one or two new pieces a week, and then tinker with them, and others, occasionally throughout the week, and frequently abandon them after a while. When I only wrote one new poem, that was the one I brought in.
In the workshops I teach I usually assign prompts so the participants have less choice in what to bring in at the next meeting (though I almost always allow people to bring in an alternate if my prompt just wasn’t working for them that week).
So, all this brings me back to my initial issue—how to pick the poem. This is mostly a matter of deciding what you want from the workshop and what kind of feedback you think you need. People who just want positive feedback or need confirmation that they’re doing something good, tend to only bring in finished or mostly finished poems. The problem with that approach is that the readers in the workshop are automatically going to assume your poem isn’t finished, and they’re likely going to start talking about changes. If you’ve decided in your heart that the poem is finished, then your heart is going to get broken. I’ve seen this happen in workshops. The result is usually a very defensive poet, and nothing gets learned.
I’ve also seen people bring in poems they previously workshoped with other groups or other teachers, and that can also be a strange situation, especially if the feedback from one group or teacher seems to contradict the other. Workshop groups, and workshop teachers, don’t all see things the same way, just as all journals and publishers don’t see things the same way. If the writer does this to pit one group of readers against another, or hopes that one group is going to be more receptive then the other, then the writer isn’t really learning. If the writer just wants a second opinion, then takes all the suggestions home to think about, that writer is learning.
And that’s the most important part of being a workshop participant. You don’t have to agree with every or even any suggestions, but you should listen to them, think about their context, and think about how the suggestions fit into your own goals with the poem.
I usually come to workshops with a few specific questions about the poem I’ve brought it. Maybe I’m uncertain about the form, or worry that the central metaphor misses the mark, and in the discussion I listen to see if anyone addresses those questions. If not, I may come out and ask, but usually if no one said, “hey, your stanza breaks are confusing,” then I assume they must be OK.
I also listen for unexpected comments. Often in writing I’m concerned about one aspect of the poem, and not really noticing how another part is driving off the road. Those surprising observations can also be helpful because they direct your attention to places you hadn’t been considering.
And finally, know that not every comment needs to be acted upon. The poem, ultimately, is your poem, and you have authority to agree or disagree with other people’s opinions (just not out loud). Not all the readers in a workshop will have the same likes and dislikes as you, so not all the suggestions are workable suggestions. But give each one a respectable chance. I’ve learned more from suggestions I’ve disagreed with, than from those I did.
My writing group meets next week, and I still don’t know what poem to share with them. If I get some new work done before then, maybe I’ll figure it out.
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