On Tree Forts and Poetry, Structure and Support

https://pixabay.com/photos/tree-house-deteriorated-old-844712/

Not one of my tree forts. Source: Pixabay.

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.

 

 

Want my books? You can buy Reckless Constellations here, here or here.

You can buy The Magician’s Handbook here.

@uniambic

Is a Poem a Sandwich if you Cut It Into Triangles?

https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2017/05/19/great-sandwich-debate-rectangles-or-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.”

Tree

By Jane Hirshfield

It is foolish

to let a young redwood

grow next to a house.

Even in this

one lifetime,

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?


Want my books? You can buy Reckless Constellations here, here or here.

You can buy The Magician’s Handbook here.

@uniambic

Words for the Woods, or Whatever

words for wood books photo

Yesterday on Twitter I posed the idea that I’d like to do an anthology of poems to take camping. Why? Because when I go camping, I always take books of poems—usually poems that go along with the whole getting groovy with nature feeling of camping. I once told Jane Hirshfield that I’d taken her book Given Sugar, Given Salt on a camping trip, and she seemed to think that was an appropriate book for the woods.

Much of my own writing begins in the woods (either in reality or in my head). I don’t go camping nearly as much as I’d like to, but when I do I always turn to poems, peacefully reading under the trees, under the stars, with campfire smoke or fireflies drifting around me, or hiding in the tent because it’s raining. In my day job as an editor for a technology review site I spend hours sitting in front of two computers, each with about 50 tabs open. To escape from that mania I need to get out of town and out of my head.

But still, why? There are several good anthologies of nature poetry and ecopoetry. What would this camping anthology do differently. I see it as a book to help you get out of town—whether you’re already sitting next to a campfire or sitting in your living room. On my last camping trip I took Jim Harrison’s posthumous collection Dead Man’s Float, Song by Brigit Pegreen Kelly, and Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. For this hypothetical anthology I envision poems that help a person get into the spirit of being out in nature, poems that examine or celebrate it, poems that help us ask questions of ourselves, of the world. Poems to experience the experience.

What about format? I envision an easily packable book, something that can fit in a cargo pants pocket (don’t go cargo pant shamming me now). I love the ecopoetry anthology Ghost Fishing (maybe I have reason to be biased on that one) and the newer collection Here. An old favorite, that has seen many camping trips is Poems for a Small Planet (out of print). But these are all 300+ pages long and heavy, especially if you’re a backpacking camper and not a lazy car camper like me. The book American Journal, edited by Tracy K. Smith is a great example of a pocketable poetry anthology. So is the Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton edited anthology The Poetry of Zen. Those are each about 5 x 7 and under 200 pages.

Because this thing isn’t real, and may never be real, I have an imaginary plan (because why not?). First, I’d want contemporary poets—yes, let’s celebrate the living whenever possible. They need it most. I’d probably want to divide it into some thematic sections, one looking back (nostalgia for the old woods of your childhood maybe), one section on being in-the-moment, and one section looking forward—maybe with caution, warning and hopefully with hope).

The social media response to this idea was encouraging, with some people saying they’d love a book like that, and others suggesting poets they’d want to see in it. Again, this is just an idea, but since I’ve posted it here, it’s an official idea I’d really like to pursue. Also, now you can’t steal it. If you’re with a press and reading this and interested, reach out to me. If you’re a poet or reader interested in this, post a comment, a suggestion, a lesson you learned when you bit off more than you can chew… whatever.


Want my books? You can buy Reckless Constellations here, here or here.

You can buy The Magician’s Handbook here.

@uniambic

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.

litlife_people

Three people who don’t take life for granted: poet M. Nzadi Keita, poet and publisher Larry Robin, poet and editor Courtney Bambrick at the Philadelphia Stories LitLife festival.

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.

 

Want my books? You can buy Reckless Constellations here, here or here.

You can buy The Magician’s Handbook here.

@uniambic

New Nature Poetry Workshop

small_creekI spent another Sunday hiking trails with my dog, Emmett. In my pocket was a little Field Notes notepad, the kind I usually have with me because they’re small (fit in a pocket) and are reasonably sturdy and good for writing down short observations or sometimes, if I’m lucky, whole poems.

Anyway, if you’re in the greater Philadelphia area, I want you to know about a new poetry workshop I’m leading at Rosemont College. It’s called Poetry of Wilderness and Wildness, and it starts April 18 and runs for six Thursdays at 6pm.

As I’m sure you guessed, the theme is nature poetry. We’ll look at lots of favorite nature-based poems, talk about how things in the wild can be great tools for metaphor and discovery and we’ll work on your own nature poems. This is a non-credit workshop, which means it’s open to anyone. It’s good for post-MFA grads who miss having a regular writing community and also for beginners who want to explore something new.

Information and registration can be found here.

Here’s a recent poem which started as some random lines on one of those little notebooks.

 

 

Want my books? You can buy Reckless Constellations here, here or here.

You can buy The Magician’s Handbook here.

@uniambic

The Poem is the Question

thinker_skeleton

Could you please repeat 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:

Three by Ace Boggess

Some Questions You Might Ask by Mary Oliver 

How You Know by Joe Mills

Want my books? You can buy Reckless Constellations here, here or here.

You can buy The Magician’s Handbook here.

Contact me through Twitter @uniambic if you want to buy signed copies directly from me. I have a few copies of Necessary Myths and The Trouble with Rivers too.

Poetry Publishing and Money: A primer for beginners

mybooks

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 screed about the Trump administration. 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

So, back to contest 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.

bookboxLet’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. 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. 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 It

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.

doylestownreading-e1548618397978.jpgWhat 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.)

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 more than 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.

 

 

Want my books? You can buy Reckless Constellations here or here.

You can buy The Magician’s Handbook here.

Contact me through Twitter @uniambic if you want to buy signed copies directly from me. I have a few copies of Necessary Myths and The Trouble with Rivers too.