fighting against stasis

I feel like I’m in the middle of a drought, but when I really get down to it, I’m not. I’ve been writing, but each act of putting words on paper feels like trudging through muck. Yesterday, I felt a little uplifted when I saw that my poem “Love Fevers” (draft notes here) is up at Waccamaw and shares space with some fantastic writers. This year, I’ve only had two poetry acceptances and plenty more rejections, so it was very nice to see my work up again.

It might be too that I’m in a period of waiting, and waiting sometimes feels like mourning. I’m waiting to hear back from two jobs (both I should hear back from by May 1st), a book contest which is the last one my book is currently at, and several journals that have had my work for a very long time (the most being 342 days!).

On April 14th, I decided to start doing another poem-a-day thing to try to push myself into action. The first day, I randomly chose to write a prose poem that started with the tagline, “In this poem, I’m…”, so the past ten poems have had that same form and opening. What I’ve liked about this exercise is it’s given me some space to imagine: I’ve been a Latin teacher, a gifted carpenter, a perilously thin woman, an obese man.

The thing I love about doing a poem-a-day thing is I can’t rely on the old go-tos: dark farm, myths, whatever; I have to come up with new stuff because  it’s easy for the old wells to run dry if I draw from them every time. It also gives me new work to play with when, for whatever reason, I start to hate that I wrote older than a month ago (which is about where I’m at now).

My real life interjects itself into these poems more and more too when before I always kept a carefully crafted wall between it and my poems. For example, I’ve been keeping track of the April 16th disappearance of a Memphis teacher. Today her body has been discovered and her estranged husband arrested. As a teacher, especially one in Memphis, I hate to read these kind of stories, and in my “In this poem, I’m…” poem from today, I’m a woman who wakes up at the bottom of a pond after being left for dead by her husband.

Things I need to think about in no certain order:

  • My book. (After I hear back from the last contest it’s currently at (the sixth it’s been sent to), I can immediately send it off to some contests with a due date of April 30th/May 1st, send it through another round of edits, or let it hibernate until the summer months when I might feel a little more inclined to look at it again. Book contests are hard. I take the contest results a little harder than normal submissions because it’s not just a packet of 3-5 poems, but 50! Maybe I just need to keep sending it out and the pain will lessen??) 
  • These new poems. (Work toward a second book? a chapbook? Cut my full-length down into a chapbook and start sending it out?)
  • These essays. (Two of my CNF essays have been published so far this year, and I’ve got another out right now, but what to do with them? A friend of mine suggested I think about expanding one into a book, but yikes! Maybe I’ll just keep writing and see what happens.)

I’m slogging and whining. I think I probably just need a hug…

All of you stay well.

Manuscript Redux

With several large first poetry book contests on the horizon (namely, Yale, Walt Whitman, and APR), I’ve spent the last several days working on my manuscript, Predator’s Tongue.

First, I printed out the whole manuscript and read each poem aloud, cutting and trimming as I went along.

Then, I accessed order. I’d been thinking about flipping the current first and second sections, and after getting some feedback from some friends, I decided to go ahead and do that. Moving the current first section to the second one wasn’t going to be easy. I had ordered the current first section as leading up to the current second section. Now that I was switching those two sections, I have to completely re-order both sections so the transition makes sense.

I worked through the current first section (which will now be the second section). This section has a lot of dark farm/mythical poems in it, so I wanted to add some realistic ones to play with how the reader reads a realistic poem juxtaposed with one of the other styles. Most of the poems were also written in the third person, so I added in some realistic first person poems, and also changed one of the dark farm poems to first person. This section is also particularly violent, so I moved a couple more violent poems from the last section into this one. Since this section would now be followed by a “love” section, I also wanted the poems to slowly transition into being softer as they went along, so I moved some more tender poems to the end, and I think the order of this came out perfectly.

I’ve got the current second section (now first) and third section to order now. By flipping the first and second sections, I’m really changing the arc of the whole manuscript. Before, it went from violent poems to mostly child/parent poems to adult love poems. Now, the child/parent poems start first, with the violent poems next, and the love poems last. Because the child/parent poems section now starts first, I have to make sure that the strongest poems in that section lead it and then order the rest of the poems to build enough suspense to throw the reader into the second section.

When it comes to the third section, I have to reorder all of it as well. It needs to be an easy transition from the second section to this one, and I have to re-think the ending. The ending always needs the strongest poems since it’s also the ending of the whole manuscript. I also originally chose the very first poem and the very last poem of my manuscript because they were similar thematically and worked as good dialogue pieces. Now that my very first poem has changed, I have to think about about a new last poem.

I’ve also been wondering if the title (Predator’s Tongue) will still work since the “predator” aspect is going to be a little more subtle in this revision. The mouth/talking/tongue/speech/silence aspect will still be very present, so I’m wondering if Swallow Tongue might work better. A swallow’s tongue gets torn off in one of the poems (yes, I did say they were violent…) and the other meanings of “swallow”: to eat, to put up with (swallowed the insults and kept on working), to suppress (swallow one’s feelings), to devour (a building swallowed up by fire), to take back (swallow one’s words), to mumble (the actor swallowed his lines). The title also makes me think of when Hannibal Lecter convinced his cell neighbor to swallow his own tongue (which he dies from), which…could be good or bad. Thoughts about all that??

/sigh. So much work ahead of me, but I have 10 days to continue working through it. Thank goodness!



Manuscript Update

I’ve talked about on here how I hurriedly edited my manuscript at the end of July, sent it off to its very first book contest, and then have been waiting to hear back before figuring out what the heck to do with it.

Well, I heard back. Form rejection. Not a finalist of any kind.

While I was sad (of course), I am taking the news with a grain of salt: I only submitted it to one contest, so I can’t really view that one contest as a clear judge of the character of my book. I also knew when I sent it off that there was some work to be done on it. I think I need to reorder it more (will the re-ordering EVER end?). I think I need to cut several poems and add some more in. I think I need to increase the length, overall. I think I need a clearer focus, and I really need to think more about editing the poems in each section to really stick with one another.

That said, I’m not thinking about tackling that project just yet. I’m anticipating going back over it after I’ve saved some money, and maybe sending it out to several places next year, but with my husband and I buying a house and all, now isn’t the time to be sending it out to all four corners of the earth.

I’m also finding that my writing and editing process has really slowed down. I used to write a poem, edit it maybe a week or two later, and then send it off with a packet of older, more polished poems. I was constantly writing, editing, and submitting work. Now, I just don’t have the industry. I am still submitting, but I’m sitting with my newer work longer. I’m also choosing to take care of other responsibilities over drafting right now. In a way, it’s the most loving thing I can do for myself  since I’m still adjusting to being back at work full time and all of the paperwork and stress that comes with purchasing a home and then moving into it. 

I am excited at this point to be reading and editing the manuscripts of two poets. For me, it’s helpful to sit back and see how someone else in my spot (a “no book” poet) is walking the (what I’m discovering) very hard road of putting together and editing a poetry manuscript.

I’m also reading Roots of the Olive Tree by fellow University of Memphis MFA program alum, Courtney Miller Santo. I’m only on the fourth or fifth chapter, and I’m so engaged by its lyricism. She does a fantastic job of creating a magical and evocative stamp of earth. I’m blessed on this absolutely gorgeous day to have little to do but go to the grocery store and read. 🙂

Hope you all have fine weather and a good book today!

Predator’s Tongue Re-order, Take Five

Today, in between working on my application for Bread Loaf and editing “Daphne as a Housewife”, I again tried to re-order my manuscript, Predator’s Tongue. This manuscript woefully has both mythic/farm type poems, as well as really realistic poems. My thesis adviser suggested that I alternate, maybe 3 or 4 mythic/farm poems and then 1 or 2 realistic poems, or divide the manuscript into sections.

For some reason, I’m not  a fan of sections. He suggested just having a page separating two poems with a quote on it or something, not even roman numerals, so they’re not clear sections, but pauses. I don’t even know if I like that.

The problem with this manuscript at the moment is that, when I really look at it, I have a lot more realistic poems than mythic/farm poems, or too many of the poems could be transitional–they’re not quite one or the other. Most of my poems could also be considered real downers: people die, get injured, feel disconnected, alienated, etc. Then, I have these two happy poems. Something definitely needs to be done with those (either to make them darker or to cut them).

Right now, I’ve cut two poems. One just wasn’t working in terms of style. One was set in Cleveland, Ohio, and there’s not many “city” poems, so it sticks out too much. I want to add the four mythic poems I’ve been writing, but I also don’t want to do that, since I’d like to include those in a whole other manuscript. I also don’t know how adding those will help, other than in maybe balancing the mythic/realistic poem ratio. I’m also discovering that my poems fall into relationship categories: lust, love/marriage, family, mother/daughter, father/daughter. While organizing by relationships might be another possibility, some categories just don’t have enough in them. There’s maybe three lust poems, a good chunk of love/marriage poems, and maybe 5 or 6 in the mother/father and daughter categories.

I have cleared up some places in the manuscript. The first 28 pages seem really solid to me right now. I moved some poems to a place much earlier in the manuscript, and they’re resonating off/informing each other in a way I really like. I also have the ending. Well, really the last two poems. This may entirely change, but I’m glad to have some sense of a framework, an idea of “this is where I started, and this is where I’m going.”

I pushed through to the end and have another draft of the order. Some places I think are really strong, while others need some fine-tuning, more shifting, etc. For the moment, I don’t have the new poems I’ve written included. I’m going to try to  re-order what I currently have and only add those poems as a last ditch effort. If anything, I’m so glad I sat down and went through these again. The order is definitely a problem, but less of one now. I do have more fine-tuning to do, but it’ll work out. I have a little hope now.

The Numbers

I’ve seen several poets the last couple of days play the numbers game. Here’s mine:

33 “complete” poems (as in, have already been revised multiple times) and probably about 5 drafts that haven’t seen a revision yet ~ This is a pretty astounding number for me, especially since I wrote 17 alone between September and December. My writing ritual has paid off, and while not every poem is a masterpiece, several of them I’m really proud of (and already gotten a couple published!).

3 short stories ~ Since writing fiction is a new genre to me, I’m super-excited to say that I’ve already started to be able to generate some. While they still seem very far from complete, I did start submitting some already and have already received two encouraging rejections (woo hoo!).

40+ rejections ~ Unlike some other poets, I didn’t keep up with the actual numbers. I’d write down what I sent out; once an entire batch of submissions came back or I’d already gone through and withdrawn a work from several places, I’d throw away the sheet of paper. For next year, I’ll think about writing this down more precisely. It might be fun (or horribly horribly painful) to see how the “numbers game” really worked.

6 acceptances ~ Since my first publication EVER was in Spring 2010, I’m incredibly grateful to have been accepted this much thus far. Submitting is a numbers game in and of itself. We all need to submit and submit regularly. I’m also really excited about potentially using one of this editor from Gulf Coast‘s suggestions: putting up a map and anytime my work is accepted for publication, putting a pin in the city where the journal is from. Trying to think of submitting as a game by trying to get published in a journal from a certain state or city, etc.

1 manuscript ~ While I can’t say I wrote the whole thing this year or anything, I revised and organized a major manuscript of poems. To me, a pretty astounding accomplishment.

1 issue of The Pinch ~ The Spring 2012 issue was finalized early December and sent off to the printer immediately after. Working for a literary journal is invaluable experience, and I’m so proud of the issue I got to help put together. I had an amazing staff, and we were lucky to publish great interviews, poetry, fiction, and CNF from authors like Will Boast, Marge Piercy, Lee Sharkey, Scott Nadelson, and several great pieces from newbies. I talk about my closing thoughts about this experience here.

15+ hours per week ~ my average time drafting, revising, submitting, reading, and blogging.  Slightly lower in the summer (structure works wonders on me).


Things I need to do in 2012:

1. Submit more hard copy submissions. ~ I am lazy, I have to admit. I will gladly submit to journals that take online submissions all day long , but when it comes to printing something out and mailing it, I usually only send out to a handful of journals once a year. This has also held me back when it comes to submitting to some of my dream journals since several of them only accept hard copy submissions.

2. Keep a more accurate log of submissions and rejections. ~ I get lazy, so sometimes I rely too much on the e-mails I get from journals. I had no mishaps thankfully with forgetting to withdraw a piece from a certain journal and them wanting a poem that had already been accepted elsewhere, but still, preciseness is important.

3. Continue to be enriched by the process. Writing is hard. Not only that, submitting and getting published are hard too! The best thing for me to do is stay focused on my next step in the journey, instead of the destination.


Hope you all do your own little numbers game, and have some hope going into this new year!



The Holiday Rejection Pile

Last week, I turned in the final rough draft of my thesis and have been diligently logging rejections ever since. Since it’s the end of the year, I seem to getting one or two every couple of days. I know at The Pinch, we try to go through all of our submissions before the holiday break since we are a graduate student-run journal, so I’m not surprised to get so many at once around this time of year.

I’ve gotten a few encouraging ones, but several plain ones too. I even received a personalized rejection in response to work I had sent in response to an encouraging one. In the personalized rejection, the editor didn’t ask me to send more, so I can take that as a two steps back kinda thing.

Getting a bunch of rejections at once has smarted quite a bit. Thankfully, I have a rejection buddy. Both of us stay accountable to each other about the whole submission process. When I’m revising, I let him know. When I think about submitting to certain journals or start submitting, I let him know. When I get a rejection, I text him that I got it. If it smarts, I say so, and he encourages me to keep at it. He does the same with me. Since we’re both poets, we also get a real sense of how long some journals take to respond and what journals might be better suited to his work than mine, etc. I also absolutely love his work, and I want to see him do well. I’m in his corner and it’s good to feel that someone is in mine, because getting rejections is hard and sometimes painful, especially after you’ve been encouraged to send more and the editors didn’t care for the batch you sent. :/

Over the break, I’ve been writing fiction, something I’m really enjoying. I wrote over 16 full poems (not drafts) this semester, and I’ve been feeling a little burned out when it comes to poetry. As of now, I’ve only written four short stories in my entire life. Three of them because of workshop deadlines, and now one I’ve been hammering on since break started for a sort of reprieve from poetry.

I did send one story out for publication in November, and have just started to receive the rejections for that one. So far, I’ve received two encouraging  and three plain ones. The encouraging rejections were from One Story and [Pank], which really pleased me. Both of those journals happen to publish only stellar fiction and it really boosted my confidence about my fiction to see that they saw something in it to encourage me to submit more. Unfortunately, I didn’t have another fiction story to send, so I’ve been diligently working on one ever since. I will say, also, that since I’ve gotten encouraging rejections from such great journals, I’ve been more interested in submitting fiction.

I’ve also taken my rejections for fiction differently. Since I’ve worked for a journal for several years, I know that sometimes a great poem might not blow us away, but it may definitely blow some other journal away. It’s all about timing, how it stands out, etc. If I get a rejection from one journal, I may send out that same work to another one without revising it because I may think it fits this other journal’s aesthetic better. With these rejections for fiction, it makes me really think I have something here, something with some good potential, but that I need to revise it before sending it out again. Poetry seems like a crap shoot. You never know where a poem might end up. Fiction, on the other hand, seems a bit clearer. My fiction didn’t fit into the aesthetic of the journals who sent plain rejections, but these other two might take it after some revision.

Writing in a different genre is, I think, a really good way of polishing and practicing new things. My thesis adviser recently made the comment that I tend to hold the characters I write about in my poetry at a distance. I write about them very intimately, but, in many cases, very coldly. I don’t write in a way that helps my audience connect or feel for my characters. On the other hand, I find myself really pulling in close to my fiction characters, exploring their motivations, getting to know them and their quirks. This is something I should think about applying to my poetry, trying to write with the same level of humility, letting both the good and the bad shine through.

Writing fiction is really forcing me to learn to write in scene. I reflect, focus, or obsess a lot in my own poetry. There is very rarely plot-driven action. Interesting fiction is told with a clear dramatic action cut with carefully chosen flashbacks, so I’m having to learn a lot and I’m enjoying it.

Do you practice writing in other genres? How does it inform your main genre?

Organizing a Poetry Thesis, Part 2 of 1,000

My thesis adviser gave me back my rough draft yesterday and suggested I start figuring out how to organize it, arrange it by theme, motif, etc. As he pointed out, my poems are violent. More than half of them deal with a literal death and a third of the remaining deal with some sort of violence (emotional, physical, sexual, etc.). I don’t know what that’s about, but I’ve heard once that we all write about sex and death. I guess I’ve got death covered.

There are many ways to organize a draft of poems or of any work. I’m grateful that just last month I laid out all the pieces for the Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch, so I have had some practice in intuiting location, harmonies, pieces that ring or build on/off each other. The important thing about this rough draft, is getting the poems to build off each other in such a way that it drives at something bigger. Lofty goal? Oh yes.

Jeffery Levine has an interesting article on how to organize a manuscript posted here.

Some things I’m taking away from that article:

1. Just because someone published/didn’t publish one of your poems doesn’t mean it’s better/worse than other poems. Just because something got published doesn’t mean it definitively has more worth than anything else. Sometimes our masterpieces take a little while to find a place. Include poems you really like and think are good in your manuscript. Definitely include those in the front. Don’t let your idea of which poem is “good” be influenced by which one’s have been published. Leave out the weak ones entirely.

2. Revise, revise, revise.

3. “Make sure the poems that begin your collection establish the voice and credibility of the manuscript. They should introduce the questions, issues, characters, images, and sources of conflict/tension, etc., that concern you and that will be explored in the book.”–Many of my poems deal with predators/attackers, etc. and prey/victims. My thesis adviser suggested I call it “Predator’s Tongue,” since many of my poems also include speech, tongues, mouths, etc. As I was sitting around last night trying to play with the order, I put one of my poems where a hawk tears out a swallow’s tongue at the beginning of the manuscript, followed by a sex poem where a woman runs off at the end “as if chasing prey.” Those both inform the dichotomy of the real and the sexual with physical violence and for me, make the beginning really evocative.

4. “Once you have created an order that you love, think about dividing the book into separate sections.”–This seems TOTALLY daunting. I have to find an initial order and then divide it AGAIN? He makes a good point though. Choosing to divide a work into sections forces us to not only make the poems interact at a more personal level, but also see how they might be revised to inform the greater trajectory of the work. Oh God. SO MUCH WORK AHEAD OF ME. When I interviewed Beth Ann Fennelly for The Pinch in Fall 2011, she talked about how every time she placed as a finalist for a contest or overall lost, she re-organized the work, constantly playing with a new order until she finally won the Kenyon Review Prize in 2001.

Those of you lucky enough to have already tackled the hefty prospect of organizing a thesis, what tools or tricks have you used? How many times did you submit/have you submitted?  What keeps you going?