Balancing Work, Writing, and Solo Parenting

by Elizabeth Austin

During the last week of March, I was visiting Portland, Oregon, attending the 2019 Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair. It was my first AWP, and I went into it imagining all the panels I was going to attend, the writers I would see, and wondering whether I would get a chance to meet my hero humans (hi, Danez Smith).

That week was also one in only a handful of times I have spent away from my children, with friends, in a new city rife with potential for exploration . . . and I am an adventurer. I am also a solo parent, my kids’ father having left years ago with no further contact. I am the sole individual in charge of the lives of myself and my two children. It can be really tiring.

So tiring that, almost as soon as I deplaned in PDX, I realized my attendance at the conference was going to be spotty at best; as it turned out, I probably could have gotten away with just a day pass. I spent the week half in guilt for not soaking up every part of the conference, and half in rapture at being able to wake up at 10 a.m. and order a delivery of edible cookie dough for breakfast and read until the lunch plan texts began.

Every few hours I would mentally berate myself; here was one of the most exciting literary events of the year, a chance to network, to glean advice and information, to listen to some of my favorite writers speak and read. I had flown all this way, paid for flights and lodging and childcare, and I was going to blow the whole thing—I needed a break that badly.

A close friend from graduate school was also attending the conference, and she persuaded me to go to a panel discussion on the balancing act that is parenting while working while writing. It seemed exactly the kind of thing I was there for: insight into how better to manage my beast of a life and all its messy components.

Although the panelists were well-spoken and compassionate, and while there was much to take away from the panel, ultimately I left with more questions than answers. I respect the challenges of these writers and the insight they shared, but none of their experiences mirrored my own. They were all academics, employed full-time, homeowners with health insurance and partners who were also mostly academics.

I wanted to ask, not to be antagonistic, but out of genuine curiosity: Have any of you been in the position I am in? Raising children alone while working, at one point attending a graduate program with a 4- and 5-year-old, trying to fit writing in between all the other essential things, living with your mother? My cup of anxieties runneth over.

Often discussions of time and making time and who has the most time and resources turn into pseudo-competitions of who has the harder life, which is not the discussion I am looking to prompt. There will always be someone struggling more and less than you are struggling, there will always be someone more and less privileged than you. Representation is what fosters healthy discussion, and representation is what I was hoping for and found lacking. It is a specific kind of exhaustion not to see yourself reflected in what you hoped would be a mirror. In the panelists’ defense, you don’t know what you don’t know, and we are all learning. To get to the meat of it, where does writing fall in all of this crowded life-living?

As it turns out, almost nowhere.

Writing often falls so far to the wayside of my life that sometimes I forget it’s a thing I do. I don’t need to write, but I need to write. I have a great job, and it, combined with some side gigs, is enough to live on. Writing is not my career (yet), it isn’t a moneymaker wheel that I need to keep turning, and so it often gets bucketed into the extras: things I can do if I have the time, piled into the same cobwebbed mental closet as yoga and running and getting my hair cut. In the grand scheme of my life, writing has become another chore to keep up with.

The not-writing is a slow-burn anxiety; I don’t notice it until the whole house is on fire and I’m bursting with ALL THE THINGS and I need to get them onto a page immediately, dinner and laundry and lunch with coworkers be damned. I am trying to prevent this pileup of creative energy, and in the absence of outside advice, I have formulated some of my own.

Life, for me, is like a beany, many-vegetabled soup. It’s delicious, it’s complicated, the ingredients don’t all come together at the same time, and not everything is going to make it into every bite. Some spoonfuls are all mushy, unsalted potatoes, while others teem with texture and warmth.

It’s the old adage: you make time for the things that are important. Except I can’t manufacture time. Laundry takes the time it takes, and there’s only so fast I can fold. There are no shortcuts to completed homework. In fact, the faster I try to spur my children along, the more frustrated they become, the less learning gets done. I cannot fit ten minutes of yoga into five. The oft-offered advice of make time for your writing isn’t useful if it isn’t realistic.

Still, I try. At night, after work, and my commute to and from work, and homework, and dinner, and showers, and brushing teeth, and arguments over LEGOs and desserts and shoes by the door, after the TV has been turned off and the electronics are on the chargers and I’ve taken a minute to stare at the wall, I try to write.

My poems have come at the expense of my children’s bedtime stories, their homework, the dishes, the laundry, and lunches spent connecting with my coworkers. They have come at the expense of hours of desperately-needed sleep and times when I wanted to see my friends. My computer is filled with half-completed poems, not because I lost the thread or because I hit a block, but because the rice boiled over or there was a fight over who the Harry Potter castle LEGOs belong to or whose foot is on whose leg. My hard drive is a boneyard of poems interrupted.

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Here is a messy truth: my children and I have been pulling shirts and jeans out of a knee-high pile of clothing in my bedroom for two weeks, but damn if I didn’t get a poem written, polished, and sent out. To me, it was worth it.

Recently, I texted my best friend: “I’m writing a post on balancing work, writing, and solo parenting and it’s overdue and I’m polishing it up on my lunch break and I feel like that sums up the entire process. Plot twist: there is no balance, it’s all chaos.”

Each day is a bag of things and each day I pull from it what I can.

What I wouldn’t give for an extra set of hands.

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.

Favorite

by Britton Gildersleeve

Favorite Picture Britton

It depends on what you mean by favorite

A recent social media question asked, What is your favorite poem? Really? You
want me to narrow down my love of poetry to Just. One. Poem . . . ? Ack!

I thought longer on this than I should probably admit to, given it was, after all, only a FB question. But it set me thinking, as almost anything about poetry will. What poems would I insist folks read, if I ran the poetic universe? Would I require Shakespeare? (Nope.) How about Eliot? (Nope to him, too.) Yeats? Dickinson? 👎🏼 Not, you understand, because I don’t like Shakespeare, Eliot, or Yeats and Dickinson; I do. But they’ve never hooked a piece of my life and kept it captive in a few stanzas. They don’t make my favorites list(s).

So who has? (And it would be WONDERFUL if folks responded with their own favorites!) What makes a poem or poet a favorite? I’m not certain we shouldn’t begin there, defining what it means to be a “favorite” poem or poet. Is your favorite the one you teach? The one you turn to over and over again, drawing comfort from its indefinable music? What about the one you didn’t like at first but grew to love later? Or the one that you struggled to understand until it suddenly blossomed for you? Or the one, like a blind date, that snuck up on you and suddenly was your best beloved?

I have to start with Ezra Pound, on whom I spent inordinate amounts of time in grad school. I’ve always loved “In a Station of the Metro”—its haiku-like compression, the Imagist magic of petals on a wet, black bough. It’s never left me, and I return to it often. So when I had the opportunity to explore Pound’s work in more depth, I took it. It’s been true love ever since, his (several!) personal foibles aside.

All of Pound’s Chinese translations (which Chinese scholars I know also love, just FYI) sing for me. “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” for instance, is one of the few poems I’d call perfect: The paired butterflies are already yellow with August/Over the grass in the West garden;/They hurt me./I grow older. Who paints desolate separation more eloquently?

Or Seamus Heaney’s Glanmore sonnets . . . How can you not bow in humility before a line like He lived there in the unsayable lights . . . ? Or eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise/Their wind-compounded keen . . . ?

And what about the poems I’ve used in so many classes—Auden’s masterful “Musée Des Beaux Arts,” for instance? With its lyric gestalt of the 2-dimensional paintings by Brueghel—an Auden mashup—and Auden’s own genius?

Then there’s Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” that wrenching elegy to grief: the art of losing’s not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. And B. H. Fairchild’s “Body & Soul.” And younger, less mainstream poets—Robin Coste Lewis, dg nanouk okpik, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Poets you’ve never heard of, who offer me their chapbooks. Friends who write. All the words that help me sort out my chaotic interior landscape. It would be easier for me to say what poems/poets are just Meh!

What fascinated me most about my response to the initial question—a single favorite?—is my inability even to say what single poems are that important to me. Poetry (at least for me) is like music: I like periods of music, genres. I love most of what Bach wrote, like I like almost all of the late, lamented W. S. Merwin’s work. Same with William Stafford, or Naomi Shihab Nye. I’m still stymied by the narrowing the word favorite necessitates, but at least I can begin to list something!

Ultimately, I took the question to the floor. Or, in my case, my inimitably brilliant poetry book club. After trying to understand why I was in an uproar, they had the answer: Why do you have to have just one favorite poem? Brought home to me resoundingly by a brand-new (to me) poem shared that day that immediately made my favorites list: Rumi’s “Where Everything Is Music.” N.B. & true confession: Rumi is one of my favorite poets, so perhaps this poem isn’t as new an addition—even though I hadn’t read it previously—as it seems. But then again . . .

So: what do you all think? What poems or poets continue to engage you? What new ones resonate for you? And why? That conversation is one we all can have fun with! In the meantime? A quick plug for this amazing literary community—Nimrod—where I’ve discovered so many of my favorite poems and poets! And where those poems continue to move from my new list to my favorites list.

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.

The Cruelest National Poetry Month: On Ben Lerner and THE HATRED OF POETRY

by Eric Morris-Pusey

A couple of years ago, I briefly was a member of one of those hip speakeasy-inspired clubs that requires a password to get in. As the lowest membership tier cost only five dollars a year, and domestic tallboys there were fifty cents cheaper than in bars on the outside, I justified this expense as paying for itself.

One of the blanks on the brief membership form asked my occupation. At the time I was nominally employed pumping out listicles about chainsaw sharpeners and California divorce law for third-rate affiliate marketing sites, so I put down “writer.”

Even now that I’m gainfully employed not-writing, I’d still be tempted to call myself a “writer” when filling out a membership card for a hip speakeasy club. Drink for the job you want, not the job you have.

I would be hesitant, though, to call myself a “poet.” Why? Maybe it’s because I’m working on a novel, or because of my ongoing struggle to actually write any poetry. Maybe it’s because I’ve never made any money from poetry, though there are plenty of people I would consider poets, even successful ones, for whom this is also true.

In an interview with The Paris Review about his book The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner talks about telling his dentist that he’s a poet and summarizes the way “poet” as an occupation is coded:

You [the poet] never grew up and took a job and you plan on being accommodated because you’re still in the space of the abstract potential of language or whatever.

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Ben Lerner

The drivers of capital see most people as machines designed for work, art as a form of leisure those machines cannot afford. On one hand, I can certainly see why someone who does non-poetic work for a living might resent someone working as a poet. Writing poetry can be painful, but is it as bad as shoveling rat corpses out of a flooded pawnshop basement? I’ve done a bit of both, and poetry is usually far more comfortable.

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Natasha Tretheway

But I recently attended a reading of Natasha Trethewey’s (from her recent collection of new and selected works, Monument) that epitomized the idea of poetry as labor. When reading, it’s easy to forget or overlook the hours of struggle with the self and language that went into the words on the page. Trethewey embodied that struggle with both the power of her performance and her unashamed displays of emotion.

“The hatred of poetry,” as Lerner terms it, often goes beyond a general discomfort with art-as-occupation. He notes people grouse about abstract art and atonal music. We’ve all heard opinions on rappers, painters, and novelists. But it’s rare that these arts, even those that are harder to access, are shunted to the side as quickly as poetry.

The hatred of poetry, then, may have something to do with education. That’s a sentiment I’ve often heard and expressed myself: the education system in our country has failed poets and potential readers of poetry with its forced word-by-word exegesis of the same Frost poem in grades four through twelve, the standardization of and lack of imagination in poetic interpretation, and the unrelenting focus on a few dead white guys who write mostly in formal verse.

There’s truth to this, of course. I fell in love with poetry in high school, as I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who assigned a wider array of texts—and I still didn’t think I should write the stuff. But Lerner’s look at education offers a bit more than the standard argument.

He says that we are taught of a “connection between poetry and personhood,” in other words, that poetry is often revered—from a distance, as most revered things are—as a signifier of humanity. While I hadn’t thought about my poetic education in this way before, not just in my public high school but well beyond, the truth of it shocks me.

Poetry is treated by many poets and critics as a marker and maker of humanity, rather than one art form of many. As Lerner says, to say you’re a poet can be read as telling another “you’re more human than they are.” I can understand that being taken as a bit of an affront.

This valorization of poetry as some ideal art form ties into the center of Lerner’s argument: the idea of the poem as expressing a universal truth. He doesn’t think that’s a bad thing for a poem to aim for—but it’s a terrible thing to expect from a poem or poet, or from any work of art.

He characterizes poetry as “a set of impossible demands.” The word impossible is important, as Lerner sees all poetry as aiming to achieve something that can’t be achieved:

The main demand associated with lyric poetry is that an individual poet can or must produce both a song that’s irreducibly individual—it’s the expression of their specific humanity, because it’s this intense, internal experience—and that is also shareable by everyone, because it can be intelligible to all social persons, so it can unite a community in its difference.

He believes every poem, even the very best, fails in this. While he is willing as a poet to try to create that experience and as a reader to try to have it with another’s work, he sees a danger in believing that any poem has truly succeeded in it.

He points to Whitman as an example, not of a bad poet, but of a poet whose very attempts at universality made his work more exclusionary: Whitman called himself “the poet of both the master and the slave” in his notebooks. Lerner calls Whitman’s work “a response to pressure to not take sides” and later says that “universalism is always corrupt.”

Faux-universality and a common nostalgia for a nonexistent time before poets “only [wrote] out of their own experience,” as critic Mark Edmundson said in the article Lerner intended to refute with The Hatred of Poetry, might be (in both Lerner’s view and mine) what ruins poetry for so many: when we are taught that the voice of the poet is the voice of all humanity, and shown only poems by dead white men, that sends a clear, reactionary message.

It’s similar to some of the most vehement criticisms of slam poetry, not This isn’t to my taste or This is a different type of poetry, but This isn’t poetry. The same as the people who were up in arms about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel, not because of his relative privilege or his Victoria’s Secret commercial or the considerably lower quality of his later work, but because he’s a popular musician.

Is this nostalgia as dangerous as the similar nostalgia we see in politics, for an idealized 1950s America when all the (white) men were real men with good manufacturing jobs? Probably not. But it is reflected in the way we read, write, and talk about poetry—and plenty of critics and educators who think themselves above looking to such a rose-colored past in the political sense do it without thought or hesitation in the poetic one.

The idea of poetry as a failed attempt to truly share consciousness with another, or to say everything at once, is a beautiful and powerful one not despite, but because of that failure. The interviewer speaking with Lerner in the Paris Review piece, Michael Clune, at one point says,

the encounter with the poem itself will transform your experience—we may not be the same before we enter into a relationship with a poem, but there’s this prospect of communion on the other side.

Lerner responds not with the absolutism of a poem creating a universal experience, because he’s already established that’s not only a shaky idea, but a harmful one. But there is, he says, a chance for some communication, for “testing what’s potentially social in literary practice,” and he assures the interviewer, me, and now you, that “people are doing that work.”

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.

Photo Credits:
Featured Image (cartoon): David Parkins / The Economist
Ben Lerner: MacArthur Foundation
Natasha Trethewey: Joel Benjamin / Poets.org  

Review: RUTTING SEASON by Mandeliene Smith

by Helen Patterson

Rutting Season is a brutal, attention-grabbing title well-suited to these brutal, attention-grabbing stories by Pushcart-nominated Mandeliene Smith. Her debut collection of short stories is harrowing as it follows characters through upheaval and change.

Strong openings are crucial, especially in short stories. In Rutting Season, every story opens with an arresting image. The first piece, “Mercy,” starts: “The children’s puppy was run over at the end of May” (1). Here is a specific image that demands emotional involvement. How did the puppy get run over? Who are the children? How will they react and recover? This type of hook is typical of this collection. A reader cannot help but be gripped from the first sentence.

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Throughout the collection, nerves are fraught and emotions are high. Smith is an eloquent writer of heartache and pain. In “You the Animal,” a worn-out social worker, Jared, avoids too closely examining his own biases: “Why he was shaking as he walked out into the brightness of the street, why his heart felt like an unpinned grenade, were questions he didn’t ask himself” (164). Rage also bubbles beneath the surface of the stories, spilling over as characters take out their frustrations on the world. In two linked stories, “The Someday Cat” and “You the Animal,” a young, unloved girl attacks an ugly kitten—only to then be thrown around herself by Jared.

Death is present in all these pieces, but Smith is never gratuitous. Instead, death becomes quotidian. The final piece, “Animals,” starts: “We killed the porcupines because they were sneaking into the barn at night and chewing on the floor beams. My father walked right up to them and shot them through their little eyes” (213). It continues with a catalog of death, of the pragmatism crucial to running a farm, the paradox of protecting animals in order to eat them. Everyone must face their complicity.

Endings are equally crucial in storytelling. Often it’s difficult to know when to end a story—writers might cut a piece off too soon or spin the story out too long; both mistakes can ruin an otherwise satisfying story. Smith’s endings are elegant, perfectly timed, and just as emotionally involved as her openings. Having come through crises, having passed through rage and grief and death, the characters, at the end, have learned some ugly truth about life and themselves.

Some characters come through their harrowing experiences with acceptance, ready to heal. In “Siege,” Pam reaches this state after unrelenting misfortune, finally relinquishing a life that’s no longer open to her. As soon as she does, something “rushe[s] loose in her” (21), and she finds herself able to move on. The unnamed wife in “Friday Night” comes through grief to serenity: “Her lungs were heavy and sodden but her mind was quiet, clear for the first time in a long while” (120). Others, such as Amber in “Siege,” find themselves narrowed and sharpened, ready to fight back against a world that has repeatedly cut them down.

The variation in endings keeps the stories refreshing and unpredictable. This is a masterful tactic for a debut work. Every one of Smith’s pieces stands out, and every one is worth reading twice.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

On the Road: Literary Pilgrimages and Bookstore Discoveries

by John Coward

When I was an undergraduate in Tennessee in the early 1970s, I developed a habit that continues to this day.

No, not smoking or binge drinking or drugs or other destructive adolescent behaviors. No, my habit turned out to be literary and even uplifting, something the sociologists might call “pro-social.”

My habit—which I shared with college girlfriend Linda—was the literary and bookstore pilgrimage. This habit meant that every spring break or summer vacation became an opportunity for road trips in search of the places where writers came of age, where they lived and worked and found inspiration. On other occasions, it was a chance to discover new poets and writers among the shelves of an independent bookstore in a wondrous—and new to us—American city.

Looking back, this was a thoroughly romantic notion, the dreamy idealism of a small town Southern boy seeking to link my humdrum existence with the giants of American literature. After all, what can you really learn from an afternoon visit to a writer’s home or a walk through the author’s old neighborhood? Or, somewhat morbidly, visiting the writer’s grave?

But I was as persistent as I was idealistic, even proposing to Linda in front of the Asheville home of Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward, Angel and other novels and one of my youthful literary heroes. (She said yes. We’re still married 46 years later. And I still like Wolfe, even after being mistaken for a street preacher carrying a Bible—it was actually a Wolfe biography—while walking the back alleys of Asheville.)

I’m not sure how this happened. I never had a master plan or a formal purpose for these visits. I never even considered why I wanted to do it, but I did have a vague idea that this was a way to ground myself in a literary place, to catch a glimpse the creative spirit that I found on the page.

That impulse to see literary places led us to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi. We have also walked the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans, where Faulkner as well as Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams once walked. We’ve even been to Clyde, Ohio, the town that inspired Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and to Ripshin, a mountain cabin in Southwest Virginia, where Sherwood Anderson once worked. In Dublin, we toured some of the places Joyce described so memorably in Ulysses and in Dubliners. This literary impulse even led us to mountains of New Mexico, where we sought the chapel containing the ashes of the English novelist D. H. Lawrence.

We have also made trips to literary bookstores and used bookshops around the country. The attraction to these places was not a specific writer, of course, but the expectation of discovery, the joy of stumbling across a wonderful new voice or the odd second-hand book that would spark our interests and imaginations.

So Linda and I have looked for books at the Tattered Cover in Denver, at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, Garcia Street Books in Santa Fe, and at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. Last summer, we finally made to City Lights in San Francisco, the legendary bookstore founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and long associated with beat poets and writers such as Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and others.

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These bookstore trips even helped my professional life as a journalism historian who writes about Native American images in the U.S. press and popular culture. On several occasions, I’ve had the happy experience of finding an old book in a used bookstore that deepened my knowledge of Native life and how it has been depicted in the media. Serendipity can be a wonderful thing.

Over the years Linda and I have looked for poetry, novels, history and art books in stores such as Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, Recycled Books in Denton, Texas, Dickson Street Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Half Price Books in Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth. In Tulsa, I’ve found some literary gems at Gardner’s Used Books on Mingo.

Thanks to the Tulsa Literary Coalition and people like Jeff Martin and the late, much-beloved Cindy Hulsey, Tulsa now has its own literary bookstore, Magic City Books. That means Linda and I don’t have to go far to find the literary atmosphere that we have been seeking all these years.

Yet the lure of the literary road trip remains. Summer is coming and there are new places to explore, more chances to see for ourselves what an admired writer might have seen and to find new books that will help us better understand our world and ourselves. Although she spend most of her days in Amherst and was not much of a traveler, Emily Dickinson said it well: “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.”

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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).

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 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.

[1]https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/book/no-more-masks-anthology-twentieth-century-american-women-poets

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.

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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.

Chaos in the Classroom 

by Francine Ringold

Theodore Roethke, that marvelous lyric poet and passionate teacher who died in 1963, liked to begin his first lectures to freshman creative writing students by saying, much to their amazement, “Today, I’m going to lecture on confusion. I’m all for it!” Well, so am I—for confusion and uncertainty and turbulence and Dionysiac energy, and a healthy bit of chaos now and then.

Obviously I am not a systematic thinker or a very orderly teacher.

On the other hand, I do have a firm belief that art is form, that good writing must be shaped and pruned if it is to have power and clarity and move from individual experience to the readers’ hearts and minds. Is my seeming lack of system purposeful? Indeed! It leaves doors open. It allows even strange ideas and characters to enter. Or, to put it another way, Apollonian order only results when Dionysiac energy is engaged.

I don’t deny that I walk into class with a plan, that I worry about what I’m going to say or not say, and that it would be much easier for me to lecture, to lecture alone, to have all the movement going from me to them and not ever to let them enter, not ever to let them motivate me, change my ideas, or even the shape of those ideas. But I have found that that just doesn’t work. Somehow, once an idea is down on paper and I am reading from it (no matter how eloquently), it becomes fixed; I hate to part with it. The paper from which I am reading becomes more absorbing than the faces before me.

And how quickly the audience recognizes that as we lecture we are fulfilling our need to be secure, not asking to know their needs, what “turns them on.” If we permit ourselves only a modest amount of lecturing, we are affirming that there is a dormant body of energy ready to be moved if only someone provides the awakening spark.

But here too there is a potential trap. So often when we say “motivate” we mean push, shove, get our listeners to do what we want them to do, what our plans on paper have foreseen. That attitude, of course, assumes not that our students’ creative capacity lies dormant but rather that it is dead or non-existent, that there is no spirit to give trouble, that each person before us will be molded to our pattern, to our beat.

What we want, then, is to help each student move in his or her direction, to allow each person before us to become a finely-tuned instrument, flexible enough, varied enough, and ultimately disciplined enough to express his or her unique voice in a manner that finds its mark.

And so, to that end, we break from our carefully designed lecture with a sincere question to the group, a conversation, a writing exercise, a physical exercise related to the writing. We reach with our arms as we reach for our words. We “dig” as well as “delve.” We acknowledge that words have muscles: prestidigitationoily, lull. . . aby. We may ask our students, no matter how old they are, to wither, bloom, curl, uncurl, flop. In essence, we feel the words, and in so doing begin to know the importance of choosing the right ones. We ask that everyone close his or her eyes and repeat words like crash, plunk, slither, warble. We remember together the importance of sound in writing, and then of rhythm, of stopping and starting. Nothing is too silly if it works, and a flexible, varied approach seems to work much better than a lecture about the importance of muscularity, sound, and rhythm, as well as sense, to make one’s writing roar.

All of the above may seem obvious.Yet if you attend any section of an MLA (Modern Language Association) conference or even the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs)conference/bookfair, you will find a great proportion of presenters boring one another, seemingly in an effort to impress, by lecturing instead of demonstrating by example the chaos, confusion, energy, and uncertainty of the classroom we choose to inhabit and make productive.

I do not claim to have a mainline to creativity. What works in one class falls flat in another. Each group seems to have its own character, just as each student his or hers. This composite of personalities, of those with you and agin you, the trusting and the hostile, the writers and the analyzers, shifts proportions and demonstrates that perhaps the only thing of which we can be certain is uncertainty. Rather than finding that fact depressing, we might welcome it, finding uncertainty, chaos, and confusion both a stimulation and a welcome challenge.

Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book is From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.

Image: Alpha Stock Images, http://alphastockimages.com/