The Chapman Posteth

by Colin Pope

It would be fashionable to write a post for a literary journal’s blog on how Instapoetry and its equally minimalist ’net confederates—Tumblr verse, Twitter poems, etc.—represent the bane and ruin of American poetry. Perhaps more than fashionable: necessary, even. Not for the journal, but for me, personally, just so my poetry friends, mentors, editors, and prospective employers know that I am, without question, not condoning it.

So this is that blog post, kind of. Yes, Instapoetry is . . . problematic. I have made efforts to peruse and ingest some of it and have yet to find an exemplar that moves beyond the level of a young reader. This is not necessarily a bad thing; certainly, the wider poetry establishment sometimes neglects the teen and younger, precocious audiences. And while it may not aspire to the level of depth of, say, a Terrance Hayes sonnet, Instapoetry appears to exist as a precursor to the diction, craft, and erudition of more traditional “adult” poetry.

What’s more, its readership seems vast and ever-expanding. Today, I logged onto Instagram to check out some recent work, and a Valentine’s poem by Rupi Kaur (whose first book, Milk and Honey, has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 million copies since its publication in 2014) has been liked 178,102 times and has 1,434 comments. Like most Instapoets, Kaur’s route to fame began online, where she frequently posts three- to eight-line musings on love, inspiration, and daily life. It’s only after a period of posting such online content—a year or two, usually—that Instapoets accrue the “viral” audience necessary to attract the attention of publishing houses.

And one can’t blame publishers for leaping on a bandwagon with a few hundred-thousand inbuilt readers (I’m leaving aside the distinction between readers and fans here). It’s in this realm of marketing and sales, however, that things get really interesting for me. I don’t mean with Instapoetics, which deserve a comparative-lit essay of their own on coopting the semantics of advertising and Hallmark and contemporary country-western lyrics. Rather, it’s what these sales mean and portend for American poetry.

There really isn’t an equivalent mechanism for gaining readership in American history, inclusive of even Jewel or like Bush-era politico-humor verse or slam poetry. Because readers have instant, free access. So, okay, the question becomes: Why does such access matter? What does its medium say about this “work?” And, most importantly, what does its steadily increasing readership say about us?

I’d suggest that this audience and this level of access highlight the faults not in “more traditional” forms of American poetry, but in how these forms cluster around a specific model of publishing. To illustrate: consider the history of the chapbook. In grubby, rural 1600s England, a guy with a mule cart filled with 8- to 24-page, cheaply printed books wandered the countryside, selling everything from cookbooks to fairy tales to, yes, poetry. The “chapman” peddled entertainment and information to and for the masses. People could afford these things and pass them around or reuse them as toilet paper (seriously) in an era that predated inexpensive newspaper printing. Simply put, the chapbook was the right medium for the right people at the right time.

If you’ve been around the poetry publishing world at all, you know that the chapbook is experiencing a mid-grade renaissance. Whereas it was once a novelty, published once in a while by small presses for either well-known poets who wanted to “try something different” or to help announce local/new poets to local/new audiences, there are now semi-prestigious chapbook presses springing up by the score, producing shockingly high-quality mini-collections. But in the rejuvenation of this form one senses an odd combination of poetry professionalization (i.e. the chapbook viewed as apprenticeship for full-length book) and a hipster-like cleaving to the nostalgia it represents, put out for hipster-like audiences who might conceivably pay $10–15 for fifteen pages of poems (no judgment here; I own a number of great chapbooks and have recently been notified I’m a hipster). No major publishers produce chapbooks, to my knowledge, simply because they aren’t worth the price of production or marketing.


Photo Credit: Chap-books of the eighteenth century by John Ashton

But, duh, poetry isn’t supposed to be marketable, right? Agreed, for reasons I don’t have space to expand upon here. So what would be the equivalent of a chapbook? What medium at this time for us people would be a) inexpensive, b) available to the masses, and c) of indeterminate quality?

This isn’t as much of a stretch as you may be thinking. Why, for instance, don’t our most renowned poets post new work on social media? Why does there still exist an antipathy toward e-publishing in the purlieus of M.F.A. programs, even at the level of the lit journal?

The point is that we readily equate medium with quality, knowing that the medium can separate larger audiences from our best poetry. The elitism we fear in capital-P Poetry does, indeed, pervade our views on publishing, and perhaps Instapoetry’s popularity is merely the necessary recalibration of the medium of our art. And, if so, Instapoetry should be welcomed not as a threat to poetry at large, but as a pronouncement of Poetry’s possibly antiquated views on publishing (and who it’s for).

Still, we must acknowledge that the publishing machine monetizes such e-stuff by producing it in traditional book form. It’s only that the audience is initially gathered via a free service, rather than through the typical process of submission-acceptance-publication via subscription-oriented lit journal. Instapoetry bypasses traditional routes by infiltrating open-access internet mediums, and so I think its success points a finger at the potential pitfalls of said traditional routes (not least of which that subscriptions cost money, and the subscription process feels painstaking in comparison to tapping the Twitter or Instagram app on your phone and just reading whatever work pops up).

If, at this point, you’re wondering how we should or could better measure the quality of contemporary poetry, you’re not alone. This, friends, is the big question. If neither sales nor traditional, edited publication, then what? I don’t have the answer, but the question is worth our consideration.

Colin Pope‘s debut poetry collection, Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral, is forthcoming in May from Tolsun Books. His poetry, essays, and criticism have appeared in such journals as Slate, Rattle, Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Review, Best New Poets, and others. He holds his M.F.A. from Texas State University and is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University.


Everything I know about rejection in writing I learned from being a Philadelphia Eagles fan.

by Elizabeth Austin

Everything I know about rejection in writing I learned from being a Philadelphia Eagles fan.

Hear me out: I know this is probably not the space for football talk, and I’m even more aware that there’s no place for the Philadelphia Eagles anywhere outside of Philadelphia. We’re a niche group, tied to our fellows through fierce dedication and a widespread public misunderstanding of our passion.

Above all else, we fail a lot.

I’ve been watching the Eagles fail for nearly a decade, and quickly got used to maintaining the customary level of enthusiasm season after season despite, well, everything. When I began submitting my work to publications, my mentors primed me for the worst possible outcome. They maintained how tough the writing world is and how difficult it is to see success. All of this would prove to be true, but very little of it would impact me in any negative way.

My first rejection was the equivalent of cannonballing into the Schuylkill River in January. The editor of the magazine I had submitted to wrote me a searing response. “Don’t quit your day job,” he advised. It stung, but it wasn’t devastating. I had been there before—not with writing, but with the eager hopefulness I bring into every new Eagles season. I recovered the same way I had each year before: I collected my little bubble of persistence and sent out six more submissions.

Prior to 2018, the last time the Eagles had won a Super Bowl was in 1960, before it was called the Super Bowl. We’ve played in three total and have lost two. We’ve had so many upsets, it became a trend to start off as die-hard screaming fans early in the season and turn into raging infernos by the end of November.

Winning in Super Bowl LII was everything Eagles fans could have ever hoped for. It’s been called one of the greatest football games ever, with legendary plays and a triumph over the status quo. I never thought we’d do it.

 We didn’t make it this year. Our heartbreaking loss to the Saints sealed us off for the season, but no one picks themselves up after a fall better than someone who’s used to hitting the ground. It’s the same strange relief I feel after a rejection pops up in my inbox; it’s an answer, in one form or another, and a chance to start over. It means I have a piece I can then send out to other publications. It is renewed possibility.

There is an art to rejection. How many times have I written a poem, labored over it, polished it, sent it out into the world so sure of its place, only to get it back marked in red ink or tossed away altogether? I can tell you it’s almost as many times as I’ve watched my Birds file off the field, heads shaking, all of us at home saying, we’ll get them next time (or some profane variant of the sort).

declined 2declined 3declined 5

 My friend from up north says Boston sports fans have gotten so used to winning that they’ve come to expect it. Any other team would give their ACLs for a season like the Pats had this year, but in Boston it’s just the same-old.

Victory is sweet; I know that firsthand now. There will never be a Super Bowl win like our win in 2018, just like there will never be an acceptance letter quite as cherished as my very first one. But I don’t want to become disillusioned. I don’t think it is the Philly way to become accustomed to success, and while this often makes us the butt of every joke, I prefer it so. I do not want to ever come to expect success. I hope it always surprises me.

Work and endurance are the two vertebrae in the spine of achievement; showing up, day after day, or season after season, and not getting bogged down in the mess of the losses are acquired skills. A few good friends can go a long way, too: people who are fighting the fight right alongside you (or an entire city that has always bled green no matter how many rings were brought home). There’s something to be said for the bonds of community through hardship.

I don’t know if we’ll ever win another Super Bowl. Maybe next season. Maybe in five years. Maybe I’ll be long gone before the Lombardi Trophy returns to Broad Street. It’s going to take the right game, the right weather, the right team, the right play, the right pass.

Yesterday I got my fifth rejection from The New Yorker. I’m going to wait the customary six months, and in September I’ll send out another batch. Maybe the next submission hits that sweet spot: the right time, the right reader, the right editor, the right poem.

Here is what I am certain of: none of this would be possible without the foundational act of simply showing up. I have to love the work enough to fail and keep going. There is an essential belief that is necessary in order to continue, the bright faith that one day my aim will hit its mark.

Elizabeth Austin is a poet, photographer, and visual artist. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in the Schuylkill Valley Journal, See Spot Run, Foliate Oak, Driftwood Press, Anti-Heroin Chic, 3Elements Review, and Sybil. She currently lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania, with her two children. Find her on Instagram at @elizabethbeingqueen.



The Segregation of Multiple Voices

by Britton Gildersleeve

Britton Colorful Bookshelf

I HATE books sorted by color. Yuck! How do you find what you want?

This may seem an odd start for a post about poetry anthologies. But bear with me—here goes: For the past couple of semesters, I’ve been looking for an anthology for poetry classes. There are a million, right? So when I first couldn’t find one I like, I figured, It’s me. I’ve been out of the loop for a few years, and I just don’t know where to look. (Note to self: that could still be at least part of it.)

So I asked friends, the many many friends and colleagues I know who read/write/teach poetry. And they obliged with various suggestions. These were better, but still not what I’m looking for (the search continues).

It doesn’t seem right to me, that in this day of online publishing and of an emphasis in the “academy” (re: that semi-hermetically sealed, but oh-so-necessary university milieu) on diversity, there aren’t many readers like I want my students to have.

I have the following parameters, which don’t seem that difficult:

  1. The anthology must be diverse. Now, this is a tricky word. And here’s where the “segregation” begins. If you’re looking for new voices, there are wonderful anthologies, beginning early on. But they rarely (if ever) include “canonical” voices—those old high school spectres like Eliot, Pound, Carlos Williams. Even Levertov, with her gorgeous anti-war poetry, Marianne Moore, with her haunting evocation of loss, and Robert Hayden, with his multi-layered body of socially critical work, are seen as too mainstream to include in collections of “diverse” poetry. Please note: of course race and gender are not the only indications of new voices, but there are entire anthologies devoted to these demographics, and often they lack so-called canonical voices. And there are plenty of anthologies aimed to familiarize readers with “classic”—canonical—poets: from Beowulf to Berryman, from Chaucer to Shakespeare. All important. As are Emerson, Dickinson, Keats, et al.—the very roots of English language poetry. So, diversity in a strong anthology not only needs to include the voices who have been silenced through, at best, elision; it also needs to include the voices that have shaped the genre over the decades, even centuries. An anthology without sonnets from Shakespeare and Seamus Heaney makes it difficult for a reader (or teacher) to contrast the two and see the evolution from one to the other, and from there to Danez Smith’s heartbreaking neo-sonnetSo here we are well into the first of what I want: diversity—of poets’ race/class/gender/orientation/culture as well as poem’s genre/historical period/form/content/canonicity.Is that so much to ask?
  2. It should be reasonably priced! What’s up with $75.00 for an anthology? Okay, I know poets need to be paid. As one myself, I would love to make money from my work. But I teach adult continuing education, primarily to fixed-income seniors. And $75 is a lot of money—a prescription, often—for many of them. Traditional and non-traditional students alike would appreciate cheaper textbooks, as well. So, please: could we select some in-public-domain inclusions to help bring the cost down?
  3. The reader should give a short bio on each poet, as well as their work and/or historical context. Doesn’t have to be long, but if someone’s a Poet Laureate, we want to know that. Also, if you use Ben Jonson—not well known today—let readers know why he’s important. Annotation would be great, but probably cost-prohibitive.
  4. Finally, it should be fun. Which means a good mix of accessibility and rigor. At least half the poems should be interesting to novice poetry readers, free from obfuscation and impossible allusion (Pound’s Cantos come to mind). It’s no good to include stuff no one will read or understand, even with encouragement. That’s not to say students shouldn’t be stretched. No way! But that perhaps the more difficult poems could be about things they’re interested in. Say, social justice, or death (yes, even if freshmen are reading it—they know old people!), the common threads that have been the warp and woof of poetry since the earliest of days.

What I see happening instead is that many excellent poets are no longer included in either mainstream or new anthologies. A poet I love, Pulitzer Prize winner Mona Van  Duyn, shows up only in a relatively old anthology I won—my beloved No More Masks!. Teaching a class of former teachers and university professors, I realized not one had heard of her. They all agreed that her poem “Late Loving” was the best poem we’ve read so far (two weeks in). But Van Duyn is, effectively, silenced as a writer today.

This kind of segregation means that many readers continue to think that diverse poetry is somehow not canonical. There’s an implicit assumption on the part of far too many readers that what doesn’t get in isn’t as good, somehow. That’s part of the problem with segregated content. I use the word intentionally: it’s an (ostensibly) “separate but equal” treatment that has never been acceptable, often not even to those included in both camps. My heroine Elizabeth Bishop refused to be included in No More Masks! because of the segregation implicit in the edition, both first and second[1].

Back to the color-sorted books. If we have everything sorted according to some plan that doesn’t work for the majority, but looks good, then the system is a failure, as is the current one, at least for many of us.

Ultimately, it’s not simply readers who suffer from this over-categorization of poetry, this binary boxing of new vs. old, white vs. brown, male vs. everything else. The entire study of poetry, from the ground up, is deeply flawed by such inclusion/exclusion. Yes, we need our roots. We need Chaucer, Shakespeare. We need Whitman and Dickinson and Roethke and Levertov. We also need Naomi Shihab Nye and Natalie Diaz and Alberto Ríos and Ocean Vuong. We need the almost forgottens, like Mona Van Duyn and Countee Cullen, as well as the brand-new voices of poems ghettoized to “new diverse voices.” We need voices from our long, complex, fractious history of rhyme, meter, and image to fill the pages of anthologies with all kinds of music.

And we need it for a reasonable price. In a book. ASAP. Please.


Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.

Reading Aloud: The Awkwardness and the Ecstasy

by Eric Morris-Pusey

Like receiving constructive criticism or allowing (or forcing) oneself to be emotionally honest, reading aloud can be deeply uncomfortable—but it’s also, at least for me, a vital part of the writing process.

Performing poems or stories publicly, whenever you get the chance to do so, is obviously an important way of getting them into the world. But beyond that, the act of reading aloud privately a piece you wrote or something you love is a different way of connecting with it, as opposed to reading it on the page or hearing it in another’s voice.

Reading aloud is an essential part of my revision process for my own poems (and prose, when I write it). It’s also becoming more and more important to my work on Nimrod’s editorial board. While that means I get odd glances when reading submissions at the local coffee shop, it makes me a better editor.

The act of shaping a poem’s words with my own mouth allows me a deeper understanding of it than does reading with my eyes alone, or even listening to the poet. It’s something I can’t quite explain, something about feeling the rhythm of the words, the ways the vowels resonate with one another and the consonants bounce against each other.

In revision, I look for places where the reading is hard, where I stumble or get out of breath. When reading others’ poems, whether already published or under consideration here, I look for the ways the words work together, the poem’s music and machinery. While I can find this sort of thing with pages or screen or headphones, I find it best by speaking the words aloud.

A nearly empty rock quarry, like a nearly empty laundry room, is a perfect place to read aloud.

I’m focused on poetry here for the most part, because that’s what I most often write and what I read for Nimrod, but there’s something to be said for reading prose aloud too. In addition to the rhythms, the assonance and consonance, all the infinite patterns and slight deviations from those patterns that can arise when we snap or weld or clumsily tape words together, reading prose aloud can give you a more precise idea of the length of your sentences—this one, for example, is starting to run a bit long—and a better ear (mouth?) for dialogue. It can make your writing sound more human (or less so, if that’s what you’re after).

I’m slated to read a story soon for another journal’s audio archives. I’m desperately excited, but also terrified—because I’m terrified of everything, maybe, or because my voice, when recorded and played back, usually sounds like that of a stoned adolescent. This ever-more frequent reading aloud, though, is shaping that voice into something more confident and steady.

Moreover, the little oddities of a voice, yours or mine, are part of what lend to the experience of reading aloud its pleasure and profundity. The differences in our voices reflect the difference in experience each reader has with a poem or story, the fact that no two people ever read exactly the same piece. As Ruth Ozeki, author of the brilliant novel A Tale for the Time Being, says in her Poets & Writers article “A Crucial Collaboration: Reader-Writer-Character-Book,”

“There are as many books as there are readers. . . . There is only the exchange, the meaning that you and I, in any given moment, make together, as your eyes scan these words and your mind makes sense of them.”

Ruth Ozeki Author Photo
Photo of Ruth Ozeki by Laura Trippi

Reading this piece aloud now, trying to find the stumbling blocks and figure out how to succinctly wrap up everything I want to say, I can imagine you now, reading this in a different place and time with a different voice—maybe more beautiful or measured, maybe even somehow a bit more awkward—and I think that’s the point.

No piece of writing exists in a total vacuum, but most do float in a sort of void, a gulf between the reader and writer that allows but never guarantees any form of intimacy. Reading aloud is one way, I’ve found, of reaching that intimacy. And, besides, I need the practice.

Eric Morris-Pusey has written a few poems, some of which appear in The Missouri ReviewDriftwood Press, and 3Elements Review, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. You can find him on the interwebs or on his stoop in Columbia, Missouri, staring wistfully at the moon.