Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Time, Money, and Writing

I feel more or less recovered from all my writing projects I was juggling in August, and I'm thinking now I need to send some poems out and get started on a new project. I should have some time to read this weekend, as long as I take advantage of it and don't spend too much time playing video games or reading "fun" novels.

I really like the last blog entry from the fabulous poet Jeannine Hall Hailey on MFA programs. I look back on the time I spent doing my MFA and PhD, and while I don't exactly regret it, I don't know if it was the best use I could have made of my time. I certainly don't think that getting an MFA will "make you a writer." If you don't write now, you aren't going to write with an MFA. The best I can say for it is that it gives you time and it gives you a community, but a degree program is certainly not the only way you can get either one of those things. Absolutely, it is fun, and you can learn a lot about the foundation of your craft. Also, great writers develop in communities, and it's a great place to grow.

But I also wouldn't trade anything for the life I have now. I have a secure lifestyle, a supportive husband and family, and I can spend my free time doing what I want. Writing what I want. It feels like a great luxury. Although I am sometimes a little envious of my friends in academia, with the smart and creative environment they work in and their weeks off in the summer and winter, I love having my time be my own, and for me, that's perfect.

For the last few days, I've had my finger hovering on the button to make my AWP reservations. It'll be a $1000 splurge, but I've been eager to go to readings and talk with other writers. I'm justifying the hotel bill by promising myself I'll write at least one new poem per night. Honestly, despite knowing there will be parties and people hanging out and lots of fun, I remember how tired I was last time of the endless stream of people. I'll be glad to have somewhere to retreat to (not to mention, glad to have somewhere I can drop off my my stacks and stacks of books).

I think I will finally push the button and lay out my deposit for AWP. I'm looking forward to it in a way that I wasn't last year or the year before. Next I have to lay out my plan of what I'll be doing over the next five and a half months, so I'll be able to show up on February 29 and at least look like I have my act together. Stay tuned for the plan.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August Wrap Up

Today is the last day of August, and as of yesterday I've finished my 2011 August Poetry Postcard Fest project. So, I have 31 new poem crumbs, perhaps a few of them are workable into something else. Many, though, I think they're not exactly moving in the direction I want my writing to go. I feel like my go-to tack is lazy and boring. I wouldn't want to read a book of poems like that, so why am I writing them? I need a new strategy. Maybe I should try writing knock-offs of poems I admire, not for anyone else to see, but to see what I can learn from them. I miss being in a workshop. I miss that excitement and energy everyone brings every week.

As for Camp NaNoWriMo, I shifted attention to something else about the 10,000 word mark, which means unfortunately I won't meet that particular deadline. I started with a jumbled mess without direction and moved into some hint of order, though I'm not all that interested in the characters or plot I've put together. I'm thinking about November. I may want to scrap everything I've written and start over with this storyline, or maybe I'll start something new. I have definitely enjoyed writing other stories more than this one, and I have to think that ultimately I'll get the most out of a story that I enjoy writing.

I had a conversation with someone in our circle of friends on Saturday. After talking with a friend who had written and sold a couple of books, she was convinced that writing and publishing (maybe even self-publishing) a book was an easy way to fame and riches. It was late and we were in a loud place, so I wasn't really up for disputing her ideas. Most people with that attitude don't even have the patience to finish a novel, much less go to the additional work of revising it, plus sending it to agents or promoting a self-published book. If someone wants to try to write a book, I say go for it. You'll learn far more in the attempt than you ever will talking to people about it. It's pretty unlikely you'll become the next Dan Brown (her hero), but it's possible.

As the month wraps up, I'm not quite sure what I should be doing. I've been stuck reading a lot of books I'm not too crazy about. I'm not very happy with the direction my poetry writing is going, and I'm not at all motivated to submit. I feel like I've been pushing hard for a while without much to show for it. I kind of want to take a little breather, not worry about projects, maybe try to knock off some of the books I'm trying to read. I find it difficult to give up on a book I'm reading that I don't enjoy much. I end up putting it aside, telling myself I'll get back to it later, but it just sits on my shelf. The thing is, I have a huge number of unread books on my shelf right now, many of which I'd really like to be reading. I need to learn to accept just not liking a book as much as I hoped I would.

What are your goals for September? Are you finishing something up, beginning something new, or taking a breath in between?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Time to Be Productive

It feels like I've been ignoring my blog lately, but I confess I haven't missed it much. I've spent the last couple months reading as much as I can and getting out and experiencing things. I've been journaling, but all on paper journals. It has been helpful in working things out in my head, and I know the difference between what's interesting for me to write and what's interesting for other people to read. I've decided that August is going to be a big writing month, well, really the 45 days between now and the end of August.

First off, there's Camp NaNoWriMo. I wanted to do it in July, but I had nothing planned, and I just wasn't prepared to jump off at the end of that spring board. I have an idea simmering in my head that really excites me, though, so I want to spend the next couple weeks writing outlines and planning my characters, so I will be ready to go on August 1.

The other thing I forgot about was the 2011 August Poetry Postcard Fest. I really enjoyed the year-long one a few years back, and I feel like it was really productive for producing some drafts. I'm a tiny bit worried that maybe it will be too tough to write 31 poems in 31 days. I tend to lose steam and need a break. But in this exercise, it's perfectly permissible to write a few early and start sending them out. Then when postcards start coming, hopefully it will be energizing and some new ideas will spark.

Anyone else have any big writing projects planned? How are you preparing for them?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I Have Too Many Books

(Does this count as Confession Tuesday?)

One of the effects of reading a lot of blogs is buying a lot of books. The cool part is that I've read a lot of good books lately, but the not so cool part is that my "To Be Read" shelf is really getting out of control. This is especially bad because books that I really want to read I'm just not getting to, because there's just so darn many of them. I really need to be disciplined and say not one more book is coming into the house until I've read, say, 10 books from my TBR shelf. But I know that if I make that rule, probably I'll just start leaving books in the car or stacking them on my desk at work. Wait--I do have books to be read stacked on my desk at work. Too late! They've been there about a year, because they are related to the class I finished up last May.

If I could at all justify buying a truckload of stuff that would be interesting to read, I would be really tempted by the 2011 Hugo Voters Packet, which SF writer John Scalzi points his readers to in his blog. For $50, you get e-copies of 5 novels, plus a bunch of short stories, novelas, fanzines, graphic novels, and more. It's a great deal for a great selection of some of the best SF of the year. The only thing that keeps me from going for it is knowing I have a ton of science fiction and fantasy that's sitting on my shelf right now that I want to read. Unfortunately, it's easier to buy a book than find time to read it, and the mere act of buying it doesn't mean I've read it and gained anything from it.

On the poetry front, I've bought a lot of new books that have just come out in either 2010 or 2011. Some I've delightedly zoomed through. I seem to have encountered a slow spot with Marilyn Hacker's Names. I love her work, but something about it forces me to slow down and take it in smaller pieces. Still, I hope to finish it today or tomorrow and then move on to one of the other six or ten books I'm working through. One thing I love about not being in school is being able to read whatever I want.

What are you reading these days? Is your TBR shelf as out of control as mine?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Confession Thursday: Organizing Poetry

Even though Tuesday is popular on blogs for confessions, I have a Thursday Confession: I am terrible at organizing my poetry and submission process. I realized last night that I am currently sending around a poem that I had published in 2004. That's just bad record-keeping. Once again, my little index box system has failed me.

Also, I have a lot of poems scattered on different PCs and back-up sites, no full copy of anything anywhere. This makes it really tough to figure out what I have and where things are. Things are complicated by a PC crash I had back in January 2007 and lost all electronic copies of everything I had written prior to that. At the time, I had hard copies of my thesis and dissertation, but I lost pretty much everything I only had e-copies of. So you would really think I would know better, but I've never put together a good system of how to put full copies of originals and backups in places I can work with them.

This has also made it tough to try to organize a book. Although I put together my dissertation as a book, I'm not totally happy with it at this point, and I'm looking to re-imagine a project. Maybe I even want to reimagine what poems I am submitting to magazines. I look at some that have been seen at a whole lot of magazines over the years, and I think maybe they aren't that good, they aren't going to find a home, they don't belong in a book. It's a tough thing to say, but maybe the best thing is to be honest about what I'm working with and be smarter and where I'm spending my energies. I'm trying to look at it like a farmer burning a field before replanting. I'm not planning on starting from scratch, but I do want to start with things worth spending time on.

Having said this, I think my first step is to put together 2 hard copies of what I've written so far, one for home and one for work. Maybe I will even throw drafts in there. Basically, it will be anything worth saving.

My second step will be to figure out how I am going to keep e-copies of things. It's not difficult to email myself a few files or upload them onto Google Docs, but an email isn't exactly editable, and I can't access Google Docs (or any other file storage site) from work. My biggest problem is that I have no way to work on something at the office (the place where I'm most likely to write, given a few spare moments), save it, then work on it at home. Not without saving it as separate files, anyway, and then I'm juggling multiple versions. I end up saving most of my working copies of things at work, which is definitely not smart. Then I have pages of handwritten stuff at home, where it seldom gets finished. If only I could use a flash drive (not allowed at work) or bring my netbook in (also not allowed).

I'm going to have to think about what I should do about that. To those of you who work on multiple computers: how do you keep your files and versions straight? And what's your favorite way of making regular backups?

Also, while I'm confessing, I will say it was me who turned the anti-phishing poster by the bathroom sideways. I got tired of it slouching over on itself because it was too big for the holder. How long is it gonna be before someone notices and changes it, huh?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Throw Another One on the Pile

Honestly, this was supposed to be a quiet week because my boss is out of the office, but it turns out that the pressure of my deadlines is still there. I'm actually kind of looking forward to my class next week (despite thinking that a "business management for government" topic isn't all that relevant to me) since it'll get me out of the office.

National Poetry Month didn't lead me to write as much as I wanted, unfortunately, but I did read a lot, including Becoming the Villainess by Jeannine Hall Gailey. A great book, each poem with a voice interesting in its own right, and a good learning opportunity for me on how a book is put together. It has such cohesion as a group of poems, even though there doesn't seem to be a direct relationship between any as individuals. It's still difficult for me to think about which of my poems would go together into a book, or if I'm putting something together from scratch, what direction to go. It is useful for me to think about writing a book that I would enjoy reading. I feel like all the poems I've written are a haystack of disorganization, though, so it's tough to find any direction at all in them.

I did finish my book for the 2011 TBR Pile Challenge, The Best American Poetry 2003, edited by Yusef Komunyakaa. Yes, that book was sitting on my to-be-read shelf since 2003, and I'm glad it's off. I can't say it was the best poetry collection I'd ever read, mostly because I don't think I care for Komunyakaa's taste. There were a few poems I enjoyed, though some of them I had read before (the problem with reading a collection of poems that were new in 2003). I have the BAP collections for 2009 and 2010, and I do have the goal for myself of reading them in less than 6 years.

For the Poetry x 12 challenge, the requirement for April was to read a favorite poetry collection from childhood. I had intended to reread some Blake, but it didn't get done, and right now I think I'd rather go on to new books that I'm more excited about. The challenge for May is to read a poetry collection from another country. I do have a book on my shelf that fits that requirement, so I think that will be easier to accomplish than last month's goal.

I have been thinking a lot about how much I would like to go on a writer's residency. There seem to be a lot on the coasts and not many in the Midwest, though, which makes it tougher financially to plan on paying the residency fee on top of airfare. I'm thinking of using AWP as a residency of sorts, though. It'll help me justify paying for the hotel, and AWP is such a crazy, intense experience, I think I would appreciate hiding out in my room for an hour or two, without making me feel guilty that I'm missing stuff.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

National Poetry Month: Writing or Reading?

National Poetry Month feels like it is getting plenty of press, lots of places, which makes for interesting reading. Personally, I have been trying to read more, especially poetry, especially since I am behind in the books I was supposed to read in March, though I haven't managed to do as much writing as I wanted to. Will try to make up for that today. It makes me wonder, though: is National Poetry Month better spent writing poetry or reading it? Should you spend it doing things you don't do as much as you should or things that you really enjoy and want to do more of?

Last night I read a big chunk of Neruda's Residence on Earth, which is a re-read for me, but a useful one. Also attempting to make it through Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I've owned and attempted to get through for so many years it's embarrassing. I must confess I'm not enjoying the reading of it very much, though there are definitely moments that are vivid and striking. My mission for tonight is to finish both.

I'm not a reader of Oprah's O Magazine, but I have read comments here and there about the poetry issue that just came out. No matter whether I agree or not with the writers she chooses to focus on, I know I am not the audience. I imagine the audience of O Magazine is generally women who might not have read a poem since high school or a general lit class in college. I get that accessibility is important, as well as writing in a voice that the audience can relate to. I only just read Oprah's list "20 Books of Poetry Everyone Should Own," and I am surprised to think that it's actually pretty good. It does have familiar names that everyone read in high school, like Dickinson and cummings. But Rumi and Neruda are classic and beautiful and I never had them in any class, and it's great that real, respected contemporary poets like Heaney and Kinnell are on the list. And absolutely, more people should read O'Hara and Szymborska, because they're both spectacular. There are a few I'm not familiar with--I've never read anything by Deborah Digges and very little by Mary Oliver. Even for me, I think the list is a good mix of the familiar and the unexplored, and even if only a few of Oprah's readers buy one of the books on the list and read it, it means good things for poetry.

In non-poetry related topics, I only just found out that the book Water for Elephants, which is just about to come out as a movie, was originally drafted during National Novel Writing Month. I think that's fabulous, that people can actually see that NaNoWriMo, which is held up by some people as an occasion that thousands of people spew out huge chunks of terrible prose, can actually be used as a great opportunity for drafting a successful novel. Of course, lots of work goes into it even after November, but NaNoWriMo is what you make of it.

And lastly, I found out yesterday that finally, after far too long a wait, another Banana Yoshimoto novel is coming out next month: The Lake. My love for her style is beyond description or even reason. Just knowing that there will be another novel out makes me want to clutch it to my breast and squiggle around with it on the floor, then take 2 days off work to read and reread it until I have assimilated it all. My problems are these: 1) The book does not come out until May 3, and I just might perish with waiting for it, and 2) I would loooove to have it in my hands on May 3, but I don't think I can bring myself to pay expedited shipping or the full cover price of $23.95 to order it in a brick and mortar bookstore. I suspect I will pay the $9.99 for the Kindle edition and then maybe, if I think I will die without having it in hardcover, pick that up used later. While most of the books I read are not on Kindle, the Kindle is great for instant gratification.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

March Trickles Away

My shoulder has been giving me trouble this week. I know it is a symptom of stress, and I have to take care of it (and myself) before it gets worse and I fall apart. So even though I have a lot of things I'd like to do, I have to remember to prioritize and do the things that mean the most. March seems like it has zoomed by, though I'm happy to see the sun more, have more days above freezing, and to see daffodils popping up in our yard (even though the dog likes to dig them up and eat the bulbs).

I got 4 packets of poems out today, which brings me current to having everything out. I'm not sure if the individual poems were the best matches to the magazines I sent them to, but I don't usually have luck when I'm trying to match well, so I'm hoping for some serendipity. A certain big-name magazine frustrated me, though. Their web page said nothing about being closed for submissions, but their online submit form would only take submissions for their book contest. I'm not sure if they were just too lazy to update their submissions page saying that they were only reading one thing at a time, or if it was an oversight and they didn't know they only gave people one option. Either way, there is no way to contact them to clarify, so I sent my poems elsewhere.

I have not finished either of the books I planned to read for March. I am a little disappointed about it, though I know it was because I have been focused on getting some library books read before they're due back tomorrow. I hope I can tackle them this weekend. Even though they will not be read in March, I don't want to have a bunch of them pile up to be read. Truthfully, I'd like to take a week off work and read some of the books of poetry I've bought and haven't gotten to yet.

Also thinking about trying out Kelli Russell Agodon's 30 prompts for National Poetry Month 2011. Poetry prompts are difficult for me, because even though I might sit down and not feel inspired, I feel like what comes out of prompts is dry and useless. These look pretty good, though, and I want to give them a try! I have to remind myself that April starts tomorrow, though!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Searching for Success Amid Work

Got a poem accepted for publication in Main Street Rag. I'm happy not just for the publishing credit but because I like the magazine. The poem they took is one I like, but it is noticeably different from what I was writing at the time, as well as from what I have written since. I sometimes think that I should drift in that direction, even though that is not my first impulse when I write.

I still have on my plate the project of putting together a book, and unfortunately I am still not sure what direction I will go in. I have had very little downtime at work lately, mostly because I have been sent to a project management class with a big project as homework. Plus another big procurement has come up with very quick deadline, so I've put a lot of energy into that. This weekend should be a chance to work on some things. Next week should be quiet, but probably it will mostly be a chance to catch up, not work on new things.

I also received a rejection slip with a nice note from Alaska Quarterly. I should send them another packet within the next few days. I have been thinking about the discussion going around that women are more likely than men not to send another submission to a magazine that has declined but asked to see more, or more likely to wait a long time before they do. Personally, I usually try to get another packet out to them quickly, though I admit that if I have gotten the request for more two or more times, I begin to wonder if it is genuine and I might not send more. Is that bad?

Monday, March 7, 2011

February, Belatedly

I know we're well into March by now, but I feel like I have to post at least something on my February book selections.

For the 2011 TBR Pile Challenge, I finally read Songs and Stories of the Kojiki by Yoko Danno, which deserves far better than the length of time I put off reading it. The book is a retelling of Japanese myths and legends. I found that enough of the names were familiar (the sun goddess Amaterasu, Susanowo, etc.) it made it easier to hook into the stories. The author gives us literal translations of the names, too, which provide some insight into the cultural symbols in the stories. While myths are generally not known for having well-developed characters, many of the images and events (particularly the frequent tragic or self-sacrificing deaths) have stuck with me for the past few days, making me think about things I might do with them.

The poetry collection I read for Poetry x 12 was Radi Os by Ronald Johnson. Absolutely, an interesting project, and after reading it I am made more aware of the how silence can function in a manuscript. I would call it completely lyric, as it has no characters or storyline of its own, save for 2 things: first, the storyline and characters of Milton's Paradise Lost, from which its words are excised, and second, the movement of the words' music, which is admittedly lovely. As an idea of a project, it is fascinating, and I think much can be learned from reading it. However, it doesn't give me back enough for me to say it can stand on its own.

My March Poetry x 12 selection is Pablo Neruda's Residence on Earth, for a collection of poetry written by a poet who has been featured in a movie. Il Postino is a lovely movie, one of those that I immediately get sucked into when I watch any of it. That book is a reread for me, and I have been thinking a lot lately about what we gain from a second or even a third read and beyond. While there is a lot to be said for reading widely and taking in many books, we should not ignore the idea of reading deeply as well, reading a variety of books from one author, as well as rereading some books to get more out of them on a second read.

I've tagged Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffengger as my 2011 TBR Pile Challenge choice. Honestly, I'm in the mood to read trashy SF or fantasy, and I picked that one as being the closest option. I'm reading a couple books for fun in between, though I need to make myself get through these before March 31, or I'll continue to run a month behind.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I Have an Editing Problem

I have been in many, many workshops over the years, and while I am quite comfortable editing my own poems and deciding where I need more and where I need less, the whole concept of editing a book is very difficult for me. Mind you, I have put together two books of poetry in the past, one for my thesis for my MFA and the other for my dissertation for my PhD. Also, I edited down the former to a chapbook I am fairly confident is good and whole. But when I look at the pile of poems I've written in the past 14 or so years, I don't see how they come together into a project that is whole.

One of the weaknesses of book from a thesis or a dissertation is that it tends to be a collection of everything one wrote while enrolled in the program. In putting together a book now, I don't have the luxury of making a book that is like raking up a pile of leaves. The poems sitting next to each other in the book need to have some kind of relationship to one another, need to come from a similar worldview or at least have a similar style and voice. And if I am looking at my work honestly, I don't know if I even like the style that many of the poems from my diss were written in. I certainly am not writing in that style now.

Yesterday I went through the poems I had and tried to categorize them. For the most part, my poems fell into one of three categories: communication, family history, and dream imagery. The communication poems were mostly the ones from my diss, and it's hard for me to decide what to do with them. I do see poems like them in magazines, though I don't often like them.

I have about 50 poems and fragments from the last couple years that land in the family history pile, so that is clearly what I am writing the most of these days. While I am attracted to the voice and humor in these, I think individually they are some of the weakest, or perhaps need the most work. In this category are the postcard poems, so many are very short, and I don't know if they fill out the world enough.

The poems with dream images are the ones I like the most, I think. They are closest to the poems I like that I see in magazines, though I'm not sure how marketable they are. They are also closest to the poems in the chapbook I put together, though I am not sure if publishing poems in a chapbook means they cannot go in a full book. I don't know if perhaps I should not worry about that at all, and pile all of these dream sequences in a single book. Or maybe I should continue to set aside the chapbook, and gather up the dream poems from scratch.

My lack of organization of everything I've written in the past worries me. I've lost poems that I've written and liked, just because I haven't organized or backed things up the way I should. I am torn between setting aside everything I've done in the past and not wanting to lose pieces I like that seem fairly strong. Whichever way I go, I am certain I need a focal poem, and I don't know that I've found it yet. I think my strategy going forward should be to write about ten new poems and see how they fit in with everything else. Maybe they won't fit in with everything and they will be the start of something new.

As a tack-on, I do need to write a post soon about my February writing challenge books. I read and enjoyed Radi Os by Ronald Johnson, though it deserves more than a single sentence here. I'm still working through Songs and Stories of the Kojiki by Yoko Danno. I blame February's only having 28 days for my not having finished it yet.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Poetry Submissions: Knocking on the Right Door

I feel like shaking off all of the distractions that have been clinging to me--movies, video games, foo at work, all of it. Having a 4 day weekend was particularly nice, because I got a couple of days to run errands and a couple of days to relax, but now I have to get down to the serious part of being productive. Work yesterday (that is, the work that pays my bills) was particularly harried, but now that my big projects are waiting input from other people, I can think of other things.

I got a rejection note from a batch of poems over the weekend, so I have 4 batches to send out today. I know many people like electronic submission methods, but I have to say that I think it was easier when everyone took paper. It seems like each magazine that wants you to submit electronically has its own requirements and quirks, whether that is file type, file name, mode (email or uploading), or whatever. That doesn't keep me from submitting electronically (unless the mag also charges a fee to submit, in which case I'll always go paper), but it was a lot easier just sticking 5 poems and a cover letter in an envelope.

I've been thinking a lot about how best to pick out magazines to send poems to. I've been up and down a lot of the lists online, including the one at Poets & Writers, poring over Poet's Market. Of course, there's always talking to editors at AWP and picking up issues, freebies or otherwise. But I hate the "buy a lottery ticket" method of submissions, where you just send out as to as many different magazines as possible, hoping to get lucky. Lately I've been thinking I need to look at the acknowledgments page of books of poems that I've really enjoyed and send to those magazines. While I don't have the name recognition of those poets, at least I have a better chance of them having similar tastes.

I don't think I am as successful as I could be in my submission strategies, but I hope I'm not trying the same bad strategy over and over again, expecting different results. Short of being famous, what other strategies should I be trying?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tony Hoagland in the Late AWP Dynasty

Had a lovely Valentine's Day last night with my lovely husband (our 4 month anniversary is tomorrow!), though I confess after dinner we were so sleepy and stuffed (8pm dinner reservations feel a little late to me, especially on a weekday) that we piled into bed to read. I read Tony Hoagland's Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty,
which I had just recalled that I had on my shelf.

Before I get into my thoughts on the actual book, my backstory: for a long time, I disliked Hoagland's work. I'm not even sure how I came by that impression, except that I have long been a fan of Dean Young, and Hoagland and Young seem to be besties or something, mentioning each other quite often in poems or books, and I really wanted to like him. But I think a few years back I probably read a couple poems that I ran across in a magazine or something and decided I didn't care of him. [* EDIT * Upon further reflection, I think that I read Sweet Ruin for a class during my MFA. ] Last year, about the time that the above book came out, I decided I was going to give him another try so I picked up the book. It sat there in the poetry section of my to-be-read shelf until yesterday, when I was thinking about all the controversy on Hoagland's poem "The Change." Sara Jaffe has a fantastic write-up of Claudia Rankine's response to the Hoagland poem at AWP and that is where I got most of my understanding of it.

In general, I don't like addressing a writer's intention in creating a work. A poem (or novel or whatever) should stand on its own, because it's almost never that the writer will be standing over your shoulder while you're reading something, telling you what something means. Meaning is in the text, to paraphrase Stanley Fish. So I'm not so interested in whether he intended to offend anyone or if the poet and the speaker are one and the same in the poem. Hoagland's supposed response that it was "facile" to assume that the poet and the speaker in the poem are the same seems to me to be a cop out. Sort of like using a hand puppet to insult someone's mom and then saying, "Just kidding."

My thoughts on "The Change" are complicated. I think writing on race should not simply be the domain of black poets. Not all poems on race should be warm and fuzzy. Sometimes you do have to portray something ugly like hate and racism, and it's great if people start talking about it and then we all learn something about ourselves. Absolutely, it is interesting and a valid topic for a white person to examine his or her feelings about "the other," and those feelings don't always have to be flattering.

But I can see the racist, objectifying language in the poem, and I don't know if the framework in the poem goes far enough to frame how we should read it. Let's say that Hoagland really didn't mean to sound racist and we're all just misreading the poem. That is still a failing of a poet--writers can't follow people around and claim, "You're reading it wrong!" The poet has to take some point of view and it has to be one that is possible for the reader to unlock, given enough work and application of clues. The poem may have supported a point of view that Hoagland did not intend. The alternative is to say, as some readers claim, the point of view the poem proports is accuriate to what Hoagland intended, and therefore he is racist and sexist.

The idea of writing something just to stir up contraversy makes me kind of tired. For me, the problem comes down to the poem being flawed and Hoagland tossing out excuses. Personally, I'm not looking for an apology or an explanation or anything other than for him to own up to what the poem. His response seems to me to be too squirrely, like he is trying to have it all ways. While it's never a poet's job to have to explain or make excuses for his or her poem, his responses show a lack of empathy, as others have said, which does not facilitate the discussion of this already difficult topic.

So, reading up on all of this controversy yesterday made me want to get a little more context and read the book that was sitting on my shelf. "The Change" came out in Hoagland's 2003 book What Narcissism Means To Me (and perhaps was written even earlier), and the book I read came out in 2010, so there is a gap in time there that allows for change. Hoagland continues to talk about race, and I think that in general he tries harder not to offend; that is, he chooses to skirt or brush over landmines like the one he carelessly traipsed across with "The Change." He is closer to addressing the ideas that are not quite realized in "The Change" in "Foghorn," a poem dedicated to Terrance Hayes. Hayes' book Lighthead is one of the best books I've read lately, and many of the poems in it come from an African American point of view. I like the convergence and intertextuality here.

My rambling about Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty ends up being a poor review, in part because I am still thinking about it. I think the smart, ironic tone in many of Hoagland's poems is interesting and entertaining, and his poems are tight and well-crafted. I don't know if there is any point in trying to label him as sexist, but the tone in many of the poems gives off a "skeevy old man" vibe, which makes me uncomfortable. I don't need a description of your girlfriend's body (Is "Visitation" fictional? Nonfictional? Does it matter?) including holes that I don't care to be familiar with. The way he casually drops parts of women's bodies into his poems makes me wonder if I were a man, I would think that it makes the poems a little more scenic.

I still feel this overall skeevy tone makes Hoagland a poet whose work I will not seek out in the future. I feel that I have learned and thought more having read his last book, and I have a better understanding of his work now, rather than my previous opinion that was a vague "I don't like it." I think he is a skilled writer, and while his intent might be to make readers uncomfortable, I can still choose to take what I know and read something else.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Decline of the Bookstore

I've been reading a lot lately about the possibility (developing probability?) of Borders going out of business. It makes me feel sad and a little bit guilty, since I used to buy books pretty frequently from Borders, but now it's just so much easier, not to mention cheaper, to buy from Amazon or get them used from Paperback Swap. While most of the time looking at books online is enough, sometimes I do want to look through the books in my hands, actually flip through them. When I was a teenager, I spent countless hours in the fantasy and science fiction section of my local Waldenbooks, and in more recent years I stocked my shelves with lots of manga with Borders' buy-three-get-one-free promotions.

I have occasionally been disappointed by books I have bought online. I wanted to pick up a set of The Chronicles of Narnia and picked out one on Amazon, which turned out to be a huge disappointment: chintzy, thin covers, and they didn't even fit well in their box. Also, when I wanted to own a copy of Double or Nothing by Raymond Federman, which is an utterly spectacular work of experimental fiction, I remember being shocked and horrified at the new edition. The original edition, which I had first read from UIC's library, is hugely dependent on having been laid out on a typewriter. The typewriter font's letters are monospaced, unlike most fonts today, which are variable-width. Suffice to say that it made a huge difference not only in the visual appeal of the text but also the meaning and the literal way in which you read it. I think that was the only book I have ever returned to Amazon, and then I eagerly snapped up a used copy that was the original edition.

I have to say, though, a big reason I go to Amazon rather than pick up at a Borders store is because it is more reliable. I'm almost never picking up a best-seller, so it's hit-or-miss whether something will be in-stock. I was anxious to pick up God's War by Kameron Hurley in a store rather than wait for Amazon to ship it. But even weeks after the book came out, it still was not in stock at any Chicago area Borders. I ended up buying it for Kindle (thank you, Amazon!) because it was both cheaper and gave me that instant gratification I wanted.

Even with Borders' coupons and the Borders Bucks (of which I have $10 right now), it can be tough for me to order from over The prices are consistently a couple dollars higher, and you also have to pay sales tax, so that there is almost no deal that makes it better or even equal to buy from

I know some people deliberately make the choice to buy from small, independent bookstores. Should we now choose to support Borders, rather than buy online, so that we have a local store we can go to? The last several Harry Potter books that came out I bought the first day out by reserving at my local Borders. For future books like that, will we have to have them shipped and wait anxiously by the mailbox for them to come?

Yet even if I say I absolutely want to buy some books from Borders, the next book on my to-buy list is Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. But looking at Borders' website, it doesn't give me the option to see if the book is in stock at any of my local stores. Considering that it's a new book of poetry, by someone who is not extraordinarily famous (seriously, what does Borders usually stock in their poetry section besides Walt Whitman and Billy Collins?) , it probably isn't available at any Borders store, anywhere. Sure, I could call up Borders and request it and have it shipped to a Borders store, but that is in no way more convenient than having it shipped to my house. Even ordering it at would be $5.42 (+9.75% sales tax) higher than ordering it from

How does the demise of the bookstore affect your book buying? Are you worried for Borders, or will you not miss it?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What I'm Reading

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I tackled this book as part of my 2011 TBR Pile Challenge. It has been sitting on my to-be-read shelf for several years, ever since a friend of mine recommended it to me. I have been wanting to read it for a while, but priorities did not align in such a way that had me reading it until now.

And actually, it has been my loss that I haven't read it sooner. It is an excellent read, smartly written with a fascinating plot. The characters are deep and real, even when they are not particularly likable or even fully comprehensible. It has lots of deep ideas about human psychology, science, and ecology, with a basic message that we're screwing it all up and we only have ourselves to blame. There are no easy answers here, but it raises an alarm that we as human beings need not only to take better care of our planet, its resources and creatures, but also ourselves. A fantastic read. Don't put off cracking open this book as long as I did.

Braving the Elements by James Merrill

I chose this as my January book choice for my Poetry x 12, which was to read a poetry collection published in the year of your birth (1972). It was actually quite a challenge to find one published in that year, because so many are out of print or have been compiled into a collected or selected edition of the author's work. Additionally, I was trying to find one I could get from a Chicago area library, because I didn't want to pay extra for some collector edition. After several attempts to find something a library somewhere in the area would lend me, I finally settled on this one.

This is not a book that I normally would have selected to read, which made it interesting to me to read for this challenge. I've probably read something by James Merrill before, but I don't think I've read an entire book. His lyric poetry is quite lovely, and his more narrative poems are interesting as well. It has been a while since I have read a collection that uses rhyme as much as he does. In some of his poems, I found myself wishing that he had used meter or at least counted his syllables, because his lines seemed ragged and uneven to me. Some of the rhymes seemed forced occasionally, but towards the second half of the collection, the poems seemed stronger and many of the rhymes that came up were occasional or near-rhymes, which were pleasant surprises.

At first, I found his language florid and overly dramatic, but the more I read of him, the easier it was to adapt to the sound. Still, many of the lines I liked the most were the ones where he was most conversational, that had an ease to them. "Days of 1935" struck me as interesting as well, in that he wrote it about events 37 years prior to him, and I was reading it 38 years after it was published. I hear the magic in his language, the way the poems sound like the time they were published. It helps me see a picture of the progression of poetry, filling in gaps with books that influenced those that came after and were influenced by those which came before.

Picked out my February books, Radi Os by Ronald Johnson for my Poetry x 12 selection, a collection of poetry recommended by someone on a blog, and Songs and Stories of the Kojiki by Yoko Danno for the 2011 TBR Pile Challenge. I feel particularly guilty about the latter, because it was given to me by the publisher at AWP 2009, because I talked up my years of study of Japanese language and culture. He made me promise that I would read it and email him back what I thought of it. Sorry, Daniel Sendecki! At least I'm getting around to reading it now!

Friday, January 28, 2011

My Love-Hate Relationship with AWP

AWP 2011 is next week, and I'm not going. I've been reading a lot of snippets here and there about what people are looking forward to and what they're dreading, and they remind me about what I love and hate about AWP.

The first time I went to AWP was in 1995 in Pittsburgh. It was a tiny little conference then, intimate. As I recall, the book fair was in a room smaller than my high school's gymnasium. I went with a bunch of people from my MFA program, and we roamed the place in various smaller group combinations. The whole weekend felt like we had crammed weeks' of experience into just a couple of days. It was amazing, exciting, thrilling, but the main reason for that was the classmates I was with.

The next time I attended was Chicago 2004, held at the Palmer House Hilton. The event had grown enormously, but I was still able to run into people I knew just by chance. The book fair spanned several rooms and had grown much larger. I remember I had just gotten a poem accepted for publication the week before, so it was great to be able to be able to talk about what I was working on. I had just graduated the year before and I was no longer in academia, so it made it easier to feel a part of things.

The last time I attended was Chicago 2009. It was Hilton Chicago, which is much larger than the Palmer House Hilton, one much larger than before. The entire conference seemed to be a maze of packed hallways, completely overwhelming if one just stopped to watch the crowds rushing by. It struck me how young the crowds were, and I realized that probably a huge number were in MFA or PhD programs as I had been my first AWP. I met up with friends, but only because I knew what booths or panels they were going to be at. Even though I spent most of my time there at the book fair, I didn't manage to visit all of the booths. There were just too many.

I had thought I might try to attend Denver 2010, but when it came down to it, I didn't have enough reason to go, and the crowds the year before had been just so overwhelming. I think might go to Chicago 2012, and I have a year to make it worth my time. I love talking to people about their projects, seeing all of the magazines and publishers putting out great stuff. I love the sense of community that is generated there. I'm so isolated from a creative group in my daily life, and it's great not just to see individual projects but to hear about how things have changed, what's new and exciting. When I was a PhD student in the early 2000's, I remember being told that publishing online was throwing your work away, that that kind of publishing credit was without value and no one would respect it. At AWP 2009, I kept hearing that wasn't the case.

AWP has always been a chance for me to recharge my networking batteries and learn as much as I can about the poetry market. In some ways, I wish I were going to do that next week, but I can't feel too disappointed, either. Right now, I'm selfishly obsessed with reading as much as I can and working on my own writing. AWP is great for meeting people and learning stuff, but not so good for soaking up creativity. I need quiet and introspection for that.

Are you headed to AWP? What are you hoping to accomplish there?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Confession Tuesday

Oh my dear readers (if I even have any), I confess that I did not realize that people could not post comments on my blog, which is pretty darn stupid because I've had that exact problem with other people's blogs. It's a bug, I guess, and while I have no idea how to fix it with blogs that I am reading, I can at least (I hope) fix it with my own. So now hopefully people can leave comments, and if you can't, well, I don't know how you're going to tell me. I guess this is a problem, huh!

I confess also that despite my promise to myself that I was going to send out at least 3 poem packets on my Friday off (every other Friday, which most recently was last Friday), I did not have the things printed out I needed to. This was because there were huge printer server problems here at work beginning last Thursday, and most everyone spent the day without a working printer. Some people still do not have a working printer, in fact, but ours was back up on Monday, at least. So I waited until yesterday to print out my poems and cover letters and got the envelopes stamped and sealed up to go out this morning.

I've been taking a hard look at the work I'm sending out, trying to take advantage of downtime I might have at work, rather than throwing away hours and hours reading useless websites. I've been sending out Some of the poems for a number of years, and I'm wondering if they're worth continuing. Some I think I need to go back to revision on, especially if they're part of a series or if there's a few lines I still actually like. I think too that some of the old poems I have and maybe never sent out at all need to be sent out. And yeah, maybe I wrote it 15 years ago, but I have enough distance that I think if I saw it in a magazine having been written by someone else, I would like it a lot.

This is part of thinking about my own poetic style and what I'm going to put into a 70 page manuscript. I see different styles I wrote over the years and I'm thinking about how that relates to what I've written recently. It is a challenge to look at old poems with new eyes, but I think also that I might have tools now that can solve problems I didn't see before. There are new options, and I'm still learning.

What do you think? At what point do you stop submitting a poem that has been kicking around for years? Do you stick it in a drawer and forget about it or do you attempt a revision?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Who's Getting Published?

Tuesday is usually confession day, but I'm thinking I will pass on that, because I'm thinking of some other things.

I've been plowing through books of poetry lately, some good and some bad, but I've enjoyed soaking in the interesting voices. Finished John Ashbery's Planisphere yesterday, and while it wasn't quite as delightful as I wish it was, I'm still turning it over in my mind. Hoping to finish The Eternal City by Kathleen Graber tonight, which I'm liking a bit more.

Reading books of poems makes me think about the qualities that got them published in the first place, especially since I sent several batches of poems out and submitted to several chapbook contests last week. I honestly think my chapbook, both the pieces and the sum of the parts, is good and I'm hopeful about it finding a home somewhere this year. But then I look at Planisphere and feel like Ashbery is resting on his laurels because, well, he's Ashbery, of course, and he's put out books that are freakin' genius and if you read poetry, like him or not, you know who he is. No magazine editor or publisher in their right mind would turn him down because having his name there will guarantee sales.

And I think about Billy Collins, too, and I don't know how he got to be so famous, except by being accessible to people who don't read poetry much, maybe haven't read a poem since high school or a lit class in college. Reading Nine Horses made me think not so much that it was bad, but it was like reading with training wheels. Each poem does one thing, but it does it completely and thoroughly, and when you finish reading it, you're quite certain what the point of it was. I wonder if it would be possible to study Billy Collins's work and teach yourself to write like him, and thereby become famous and frequently-published. I don't think people read him because they think he is unique. His name and brand are recognizable, so his work sells. Who is going to be the next Billy Collins, and are they going to sound just like him?

Monday, January 10, 2011

A New Challenge, Because Clearly I Don't Have Enough to Read

One reading challenge I heard about around the middle of last year was Poetry x 12. I really wanted to give it a try, but for whatever reason I wasn't motivated to start it in the middle of the year. So maybe I'll be the only person in the world doing this challenge, but it sounds interesting, and it should get me out of my comfort zone in my reading selections. Here's the breakdown:

January — Read a poetry collection published the year you were born
February — Read a poetry collection recommended on a blog
March — Read a poetry collection written by a poet who has been featured in a movie
April — Read your favorite poetry collection from childhood
May — Read a poetry collection from another country
June — Read that classic poetry collection you never read
July — Read a poetry collection you find on Good Reads
August — Read a chapbook
September — Read a poetry collection you would not typically read
October — Read a selection from a local book club
November — Read an award-winner
December — Read someone else’s favorite poetry collection

It took me about an hour to find a poetry collection published in the year I was born. So many of the lists I found online were inaccurate in that they weren't actually published in that year, or they were out of print and the only apparent copy was on for $500. (Seriously.) but finally I settled on James Tate's Absences , which I requested from my library. The library system in the Chicago suburbs is actually easier and faster than ordering from Amazon, though the selection is not quite as complete.

Since I'm the only person doing this challenge this year, I say I don't have to post my book titles in advance. (Right, sounds like an excuse to be noncommittal and possibly lazy.) I do have a few titles in mind, but I'll Looking forward to reading the James Tate book, and I'll post a review of it towards the end of the month. Until then, I'm still working on the 5 books of poems I have out from the library right now. I'm finding Billy Collins' Nine Horses rather dull. Lighthead by Terrance Hayes is incredible, the most interesting poet I've stumbled across in a very long while. Fantastic voice, really interesting jazzy-smooth rhythm to his lines, yet he uses form, too. I've got to learn more about this pecha kucha form he uses. I feel like I could study this book for a year and still be learning from it.

How does your reading list look this year? Any surprises with overrated or underrated authors?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

My Bookshelf is Crushing Me, or I Can't Resist a Challenge

My "to be read" book pile is out of control. Truthfully, I don't even have a pile. I have an entire "to be read" shelf, which is not only full but it has books stacked horizontally on top of the vertical ones. It is also a problem that despite the large number of books on that shelf, I can't stop myself from getting new books. Some of these are from the quite handy Paperback Swap and some are from the library (right now I've got 5 books out that are due in a week, and I've finished none of them), so at least I'm not spending money on all of my new ones, but that's still too many books coming in and not enough being read.

So I'm going to tackle the 2011 TBR Pile Challenge, in which I pledge to finally read (sorry, split infinitive) 12 books from my "to be read" pile, within 12 months. Truthfully, I culled out 20 books from my shelf that absolutely have to be read and get off of my shelf in 2011, but those extras will be my little secret. (Yeah, the titles are just too embarrassing to publicly fess up to.) Here is my list:

The Twelve to Be Read:
1) Songs and Stories of the Kojiki by Yoko Danno
2) Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
3) Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco
4) Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffengger
5) Seven Poets, Four Days, One Book by Dean Young, Christopher Merrill, Marvin Bell, Tomaz Salamun, Simone Inguanez, Istvan Laszlo Geher, Ksenia Golubovich
6) Lucky in the Corner by Carol Anshaw
7) In the American Grain by William Carlos Williams
8) After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima
9) The Shadow of the Sun by A.S. Byatt
10) A Perfect Vacuum by Stanislaw Lem
11) Vineland by Thomas Pynchon
12) The Best American Poetry 2003, edited by Yusef Komunyakaa

The Two Alternates:
1) The Anxiety of Everyday Objects by Aurelie Sheehan
2) The Fifth Book of Peace by Maxine Hong Kingston

My understanding of the challenge is that I don't go to the 2 Alternates unless/until I give up on a book in my original 12, so I think I won't get to those unless I end up using them or my original 12 are finished, whichever comes first. I will post reviews here as I finish the books, and I will also keep track of my progress on Goodreads.

As I look over the list, I'm looking forward to tackling it. It's mostly fiction, though not all. I'm sure Pynchon and Eco will be the most challenging (they're also the longest), but I also have some poetry and essays to break things up. I am going to get to one of these before January is over, though I've got about 8 books on my "currently reading" shelf, as well as the 5 library books (4 books of poetry and a novela)!

Anyone else up for this challenge? What does your "to be read" pile look like?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Confession Tuesday

I confess I have been very bad about blogging here. I've actually begun all sorts of posts but for some reason never finished them or perhaps just changed my mind about wanting to post them at all. For 2011, I will concentrate more on getting something down, rather than trying to get everything down that I'm thinking.

I confess I started a paper journal on January 1, something I haven't done in quite a few years. It's nice to talk with people and let them know how you're doing and what you think, but sometimes you just need to put some thoughts down where no one will see them, if only to work through them yourself. I used to write thousands of words a day. I'm hoping that by writing in different places, for different purposes, I will generally write more.

I confess last night I cooked a couple of lobster tails that my father-in-law had bought us for New Years but we hadn't had time to have until now. The meal took 2 hours to prepare, and it really wasn't all that good. It was tough and not all that flavorful, even though I cooked it in plenty of (probably too much!) butter. Maybe I'm not so good at preparing sea food in general, or it might be that I'm not such a big fan of lobster in particular. I did find an excellent scalloped potatoes recipe, though, and I'll likely make it again, even if it does take a long time to make.

I confess I haven't written a word of poetry yet in 2011. I will definitely correct that today.