Poetry (Magic) for Humans

poetry for humans image

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.

So what makes a poem trustworthy? Well, I hope you forgive me, but now’s the part for a little shameless self promotion. This spring I’m running a short (six week) workshop at Rosemont College called Writing Trustworthy Poems, in which I’ll talk about things that work toward trust and things that work against it. If you’re in the Philadelphia or Main Line areas, check it out. It’s open to anyone. Rosemont is a pretty campus that looks a little like Hogwarts.

Also, watch Magic for Humans. It’s one of my favorite shows.

 

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

Form Decisions: How Poems Take Shape

keyboard

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.hibernationbygrantclauser

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.

 

Follow me on Twitter @uniambic 

The Magician’s Handbook is available at Amazon.
Reckless Constellations is available here.

Which Poems to Workshop

nakedworkshop_nobutt

Sharing a poem in a workshop can feel like standing naked in front of strangers.

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.

 

Follow me on Twitter @uniambic

The Magician’s Handbook is available at Amazon.
Reckless Constellations is available here.

Poetry Submission Strategy: Whatever works for you

litzinesI have a poetry group that meets once a month at a pizza shop. We’ve been going there for years, so the servers know us well enough to get our drinks without asking what we want.

While most of what we do at these gatherings is workshop our poems, we usually spend the first thirty minutes updating each other on our writing news, sharing our rejections and acceptances and general po-biz chat.

One thing that comes up from time to time is the issue of choosing publications to submit to. There are just so many, and many of them our really good, that sometimes you feel you spend more time just staring at the computer deciding between Well-Dressed Newt Review and Writer’s Tears Journal—and then you don’t send anywhere.

So, here are a couple culling strategies that I and my friends practice.

First and foremost, read a lot of journals, both online and in print. Read them, know them, understand their tastes or trends. If you’re targeting print journals, then subscribe or buy single copies as much as you can. In my writing group we all regularly bring in journals to share, so that spreads the cost around a bit. The easiest and smartest thing is to look for journals that publish works you like. If you don’t like what they publish, but just like the pub’s reputation, then you’re wasting both your time and the editor’s time.

Above all, you need to think about the editors’ and journal’s needs, not yours. While most editors care deeply about literature and are generous with the time they give to writers and their publication, their primary interest is in their journal, not your work. Give them work that fits their journal–don’t expect a publication to change its editorial passions just because you believe your revisioning of Gilgamesh as a cyborg trash compactor is the next big thing. If you write pastoral sonnets, don’t send them to a pub that wants metamodern supernatural erasure poems.

If I find some poems I like in a journal, and I think my work is of equal quality or similar style, I look in the contributor section to see where else that person has published. This has worked pretty well for me, and since I’ve been doing this I’ve noticed my work is turning up more frequently in the same places as works by people I like. It’s a kind of poetry stalking, but in a non-creepy way.

Similar to the above method, if I like a piece in a journal, and see that author is also the editor of another journal, I’ll make a note to check out their pub. Often that writer’s own journal publishes more works I like, so I’ll send them a pack—and maybe mention that I read the editor’s poem in X journal.

I do the same thing with books—when I read a book I really like, I’ll turn to the acknowledgments page to see where the poems first appeared, and usually I’ll pick out a few I think I’d have a chance in.

I keep a list of my top tier journals (the ones that are probably a reach, but worth trying anyway) and will send to those once a year or so. Last year I scored one of those, and this year another (after lots of rejections). My top tier journals may not be yours. For instance, I’ve never sent to The New Yorker, The Paris Review or Tin House, even though I’d be thrilled to appear there, I’m also realistic.

Paying for submissions is a tricky subject, and one I’ve talked about in previous posts, but in the past couple of years I’ve done it more frequently. I don’t like it, but it’s the state of the world now. Of the last 12 places I’ve sent to, three required a $3 submission fee. If a journal offers a buy-an-issue or subscribe alternative to the fee, I’ll take that, even though it cost more, because at least then I know I’m getting something, and it feels less like I’m paying for rejection.

Finally, don’t be afraid to go back to places that already published you. A publication likes developing relationships with its authors—just don’t move the relationship too fast. If it’s an annual or twice yearly pub, I wait two or three years. If it’s monthly, once a year is fine.

Volume also counts—the more you send, the more you’ll publish. I try to keep at least 20 packs of poems circulating at one time, more if I can, and I’ll send a pack out within a day or so of it coming back (unless I’ve decided to work on the poems some more). I also will send the same pack to three places at the same time (and I’m very prompt about notifying the other pubs if I need to withdraw something).

Finally, when you do get something published, help the publisher out by promoting it–share the link on Facebook and Twitter. Send a thank you email or tweet. Post pictures of it. Be proud. If you get rejected–and of course you’ll get rejected–don’t be a jerk about it. That NEVER makes things better.

If you have a strategy that works for you, share it in the comments. If you’re a journal editor, and any of these ideas seem insane, also share that. And if you’re Kevin Young and want to invite me to submit to The New Yorker, hit me up at @uniambic

 

The Magician’s Handbook is available at Amazon.
Reckless Constellations is available here.

Reckless Constellations Nearing Publication

Cov_Mock_Clauser_ba2016_v2Hey, just thought I’d let people know that my fourth book, Reckless Constellations, winner of the 2016 Cider Press Review Book Prize, is almost published. I just looked at the final proofs and the cover, added a dedication and some small tweaks. I’m very excited to see this come into the world. You can pre-order it now from the publisher. If you’re local to me (greater Philadelphia area), you can get one in person at one of the readings I’ll be doing in 2018. It will also be available on all the typical online book places.

I very much appreciate all the work the editors at Cider Press Review put into this, and the editors of the journals in which many of these poems previously appeared.  And thank you to Sarah Freligh and Roy Bentley for generously writing back cover endorsements for the book. That means a lot to me. Also I want to thank Anne Harding Woodworth who was the final judge for the contest. If you want to pre-order it, click here.

Here’s one of the poems from the book, originally published in West Texas Literary Review:

burningdown_clauser

 

follow me @uniambic