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!