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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Some students recently 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 (held each year in April 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.
Rosemont Writer’s Studio: An ongoing series of workshops on poetry, short stories, memoir and more. These are 6-week, non-credit classes open to anyone, held a Rosemont College. I frequently teach the poetry workshops. Website.
A Novel Idea: Bookstore in East Passyunk that frequently hosts readings, workshops and discussions. Website.
Blue Stoop (A Home for Philly Writers): An organization that hosts readings, discussions and workshops at various places in Philadelphia. Website.
Caesura Poetry Festival: Held in the fall at Camphill Soltane. It features two days of poetry workshops and discussions, plus other activities. Sponsored by the Montgomery County Poet Laureate program. 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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About a week ago the website Change Seven published an interview with me, conducted by writer Curtis Smith. The interview mostly focused on my book of poems, The Magician’s Handbook, that was released by PS Book in October. One question, however, asked about my writing process, and one part of my answer concerns a topic that’s important to me, so I’m going to elaborate here.
I stated in the interview that I often make up or exaggerate situations or events in my poems. I don’t think that’s a revolutionary concept, but sometimes it still leads to raised questions and sometimes raised eyebrows.
Truth, in poetry, is a complicated issue. I cringe when I hear poets talk about how they’re writing the truth or getting at the truth or whatever truthiness idea they go on about. Maybe that’s because I equate truth with facts, and in world where anything a person doesn’t agree with is branded as fake news, truth can be difficult.
Rather than aiming for truth in my poems, I aim for real or authentic (again, a vague and unhelpful word, sorry). Do the situations in the poem feel real, does it move or affect the way real feels move or affect. There’s a sort of truth, I suppose, in all my poems, and many of them do include autobiographical references, but rarely are they completely loyal to the events or people referenced. Because a poem is written in the first person doesn’t mean that it’s naturally about my experience or that the experience happened the way it’s depicted in the poem. It’s always bothered me that a short story is assumed to be fiction (in part because that’s how we’ve come to compartmentalize the genres) while poems are not. The fact that “creative non-fiction” is its own genre kind of baffles me.
Rather than sticking to the facts, my loyalty in writing is to the language—the way it sounds, the response it makes in my gut, the pictures it draws in the head and the places it steers me.
I raise this point because I think it’s important that poets feel free to create, not report. I’ve had students resist following the language out of fear of not properly reporting the facts.
I’ve had people ask me, usually after readings, about specific things in poems, and sometimes they’re disappointed if I tell them part of it was made up. I’ve burned down buildings, broken up with girlfriends, lived in towns, and killed off family members, all that didn’t exist. Every time I publish a book I’ve had to explain to my parents (who are still alive, despite what one of my poems says) not to take it too seriously.
Of course I’m guilty of the fallacy of autobiography too. In being moved by every Philip Levine poem about a factory, I have to remind myself that he didn’t, in fact, work for 40 years in every auto plant in Detroit, however it might seem that way.
Anyway, this is at the top of my mind now because my next book (which is due out this month) includes a section drawn on a group of people who are incredibly close to my heart, yet, out of necessity, are semi-fictional. It’s a series of poems set in the 1980s and describes my sort-of reckless teenage years. Names are changed, events are changed, though there’s a realness to it all that’s important. The three or four recurring characters in those poems are mash ups of about ten different people, as are the stories they act in. It’s easier for me to write that way, and allows me to be loyal to the language, which is what’s really more important for the poetry.
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I’ve been back from Sharjah three days, and still haven’t updated my blog. There’s no good excuse. I caught myself up on missed episodes of The Walking Dead (I knew he was a fake) and Doctor Who (I didn’t understand any of that last episode), so now my evening schedule is clear for this. (Links to day One and day Two posts)
So, where did I leave off…
The evening of day two of my visit to Sharjah (UAE) I sent emails to several Emirati poets who were attending the book fair, and asked if they’d grant me interviews. I came to the country with an idea to write about poetry from this region, but “this region” is a big vague chunk. Narrowing the goal down to Emirati (go here to learn what being an Emirati means) poets made the most sense since their poetry culture seemed so rich here (one of the most popular TV shows in the country is a poetry contest show called Millions Poet). Within two hours after sending the emails, three of the poets had replied, and the fourth replied by morning.
The next day, after breakfast in the hotel (they serve beef bacon, which looks like pastrami, instead of pork bacon, and tastes nothing like bacon) I asked my driver (each of the guest writers was assigned a driver) to take me back to the book fair so I could track down those poets. I felt like a bit of a stalker, walking around the convention center to blindly interrogate writers, but this is one of the main reasons I was here.
First I met with Ali Al Shaali. Al Shaali studied engineering and is also a publisher himself, mostly of books for young adults. We spoke about poetry’s place in the Arabic world in general, and in the Emirates specifically. While explaining that poetry is very deeply rooted in the culture “we decorate our homes with it,” he said, he also noted that novels, TV and other media have replaced poetry for a lot of people. “This has been the case for poetry since the dawn of history, and I’m not worried about it.” However, he pointed out that poetry has a particularly strong supporter in the country—the ruler of Dubai and vice president of the UAE is a poet and has published books (I bought one while at the fair).
Next I was lucky enough to meet with Shihab Ghanem, who happens to also be an engineer with degrees from the UK. Ghanem is a well-known poet in the UAE, and knows most of the other significant poets. In addition to his own poems, he’s translated several English language poets (Frost and Auden are two he mentioned to me) into Arabic. He’s also a key person in an annual poetry festival held in Dubai called The Poetic Heart.
My third poet/engineer of the day was Talal Salim. That pattern is actually pretty common. In the UAE, and in the rest of the Arab world, the path to being a writer doesn’t involve creative writing classes and MFAs. That’s mostly an American phenomenon. People come to poetry writing more organically here. Sometimes through university study of Arabic literature, but mostly by just its infusion in life. All of the writers I spoke to that week became hooked on poetry as school children, and continued to immerse themselves in it alongside their other careers and studies. Why don’t we have more poet-engineers in the US?
* * *
The next day I had two women Emirati poets on my list. Back to the book fair I went. The first was Sheikha Al-Mutairi (photo on the right). Unlike the previous day’s interviewees, Al-Mutairi specialized in Arabic literature in college.
Next was a meeting with Salha Ghabish, who in addition to being a poet, has been a magazine editor, has published plays, a novel and done radio and TV. Ghabish’s English was a little rusty, so Noura Al Noman, an Arabic sci-fi novelist, helped with translation.
These interviews, in case you’re wondering, are all for an article that will be published later in a US poetry magazine. I’m not including details from the interviews here, because I want to save them for the article.
The next day, Thursday, was my last full day in Sharjah, and a free day. I spent the afternoon visiting museums, walking around the city and being a tourist. In the evening, Hamza Qenawy, a journalist for the arts and culture magazine Dubai Al Thakafiya, met me in the hotel lobby for an interview about my own poetry. Unfortunately for me, the magazine is published only in Arabic, so I won’t be able to read the piece when it comes out.
In addition to the local writers already mentioned, the book fair introduced me to other guest writers from around the world. Altogether, it was a pretty amazing week.
I’m very grateful to the Sharjah Book Fair for inviting and hosting me for this event, and for the time and attention the writers I met there granted me.
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This week I’m particularly thrilled to be a guest author of the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. Book fairs are a big attraction in the UAE, and the annual event in Sharjah is the biggest of them. Throughout the week I’ll post updates on my experiences here.
Day one started with my arrival at the Dubai airport early in the morning after 13 or so hours of flying (with very little sleep, though I did watch about 8 hours of season 2 of Vikings). When I finally arrived at the hotel (and found a welcome package with dates and flowers waiting for me) I went right to bed.
My first and only Book Fair event of the day was an evening panel discussion on the relationship of form and content in poetry. I shared the panel with Gaza-born poet Na’ima Hasan and Yousef Abolouz, winner of the Arab Literary Award from the Jordan Writers’ Union. The session was moderated by poet Hamza Qannawi.
I’m afraid to admit, that even with a translator speaking the English words into my wireless earphones, I had difficulty following the other presentations. A big problem is that literary translation can’t be done on the fly, so at one point the translator simply stopped trying. In my own presentation, I discussed the approach to form in two different ways. The first was about form in the classical sense of the word (meter, lineation, stanza structure) and how making those structural choice early in the poem is an important aid to the poet during composition because it takes some of the decision-making element out of the process and can influence, or even force, language choice.
The other kind of form I referred to is more of what I call the purpose-built poem—from as function. Poems that are purpose built to perform a specific function (odes, elegies, letter poems, praise poems…) also aid the writer by restricting choices. Those kinds of forms have built-in goals (though they can be vague goals), audiences, and voices, which all contribute to the content/meaning layer of the poems.
Based on the questions from the audience, and the conversations I had with listeners afterword, I think the talk went over fairly well. I hope jetlag didn’t make me incoherent.
After the panel I went out to dinner with my old college friends Farid and Omer and the writer Saba Imtiaz at the best Thai restaurant in the UAE.
There will be more to report on tomorrow as I plan to spend more time at the book fair and hope to do some interviews with poets I meet.
I used to love farmers’ fairs and carnivals when I was a kid. My cousins lived on a farm in Pennsylvania (sometimes a working farm, sometimes not), and I loved hanging out in the barns, roaming the fields looking quartz chunks, catching fish in the pond, but especially going to the Blue Valley Farm Show. There I’d look for the record-breaking bull, the tractor pull (which my cousin won one year, I think) and gorge myself on fried things.
Sometimes you see weird stuff at fairs, and one such encounter (somewhat fictionalized, I admit) I put into the poem Two-headed Calf at the Farm Show (which is in the book Necessary Myths —buy here). Anyway, I just happened to notice, via the Facebook page of The Evolution Store, a listing for an actual two-headed calf for sale. The auction house Bonhams is offering both the full mount and an articulated skeleton. Would someone please buy this for my birthday present? I know just the place I’d put it.
Two-headed Calf at the Farm Show
We came for sights and smells,
distractions of giant beets
and blue-ribbon goats,
but at the taxidermy tent we find
a body mounted, badly stitched and
held into a suckling pose
by wires hidden in the neck,
a calf that may or may not
have been more than we expected,
and who expects these things?
Not the calf as it entered the world
watching itself watching itself
slide out onto the sharp padding
of straw, strong hands pulling
at its legs. One heart, one spine
branching like a river
with two mouths to the sea
and for a brief moment
they both gasp, breath
struggling down a pair
of clotted throats, a god’s
joke that let the gentle eyes
open long enough to see
each other’s own lovely brown eyes
slowly close, the one heart too shocked
to bring legs up for balance
and finally those hands let go.
So now under a sun hot tent
we reach out to touch it,
holding hands but looking away,
thinking of the big coffee eyes
the moment one person knows before the other
that the fight for air is over
when one heart’s not enough
for both of us.
Here’s another taxidermy poem by me at Painted Bride Quarterly.
And here’s another tw0-headed calf poem, this one by Laura Gilpin (thanks to Laura Orem for the tip).
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