Asking the tough questions

Yesterday, I finished the rough draft of this version of Swallow Tongue Redux 2015. I followed my dear editor’s advice even though it felt uncomfortable in the process. Put this poem here?? What is she thinking? Cut that line! THAT LINE!!! Cut this poem. THIS WHOLE POEM!!!!!!! AHHHHH! 

But I carried it through. I needed to see the whole manuscript in a new light. Once I finished, I added in a few poems that were newer, but I finally was able to ask the tough questions:

Poem, lovely little poem,

1. Can you stand alone, a true independent entity?

2. Do you connect to and resonate with the whole?

3. Are you too much like other poems without sharing something new or interesting?

4. Are you here to contribute to the narrative arc or just as filler?

My dear editor was right. The manuscript was too long, too many poems sort of repeated each other, and some poems just couldn’t stand alone. Cut cut cut. Some poems needed more revising or needed to be combined with other poems. Revise revise revise.

Now I’ve got exactly 48 pages, the bare minimum when submitting a full-length to contests and presses. Some presses do require a longer length. The Unicorn Press First Book Contest requires a minimum of 56 pages, so it looks like I won’t be submitting to them, but for the rest, I’m set.

The deadlines for all of these contests is March 31st, so I have plenty of time to sit on this newest version before coming back to it. I can set it aside and then come back to it and really see how it all feels. Now it feels solid. It feels springy and fresh. I’m excited to see where this goes!

The importance of form

Where there is no love, put love—and you will find love. Where there is no memory, put memory— and you will find memory. Where there is no pull, put iron filings, put metals, put bindings, put jaw traps wide open, and there you will find pull. —John of the Cross
–From Sarah Vap’s “Thirteen Untitled Poems”

What better way to begin celebrating Valentine’s Day than with something you love? We started out this morning doing things we love. My husband played video games that involve killing aliens and cursing his 12 year old teammates who keep messing up while I edited my poetry manuscript in between reading poems.

Form is important in poetry. It seems nearly everything in poetry. It can suffocate the content or give it way too much room. Denise Levertov says, “…content and form are in a state of dynamic interaction; the understanding of whether an experience is a linear sequence or a constellation raying out from and into a central focus or axis, for instance, is discoverable only in the work, not before it” (essay here).

My dear editor, Heather Dobbins, did a fantastic job reminding me of the importance of form in poetry. “Form doesn’t work here. Change it.” she wrote in her orange ink. I played with the form of several poems, cut a stanza from a four stanza poem, went from couplets to tercets in another one.

She also reminded me of the monostich, a poem which consists of one line:

“Coward” by A.R. Ammons

Bravery runs in my family.

“Untitled” by Valery Bryusov

Oh, cover your pale legs.

Or one she suggested from my own:

“Hurricane Andrew”

He died on the table, the doctor said.

How powerful a one line poem can be!

Then there’s the visual form.

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 4.55.27 PM

Back in 2013, I wrote a poem a day for the month of January (I can’t believe it’s been that long!). One of the poems I wrote (draft notes for it here) was titled “If I Were a Compass.” The poem has felt very stagnant for a long time. Yes, it made its way into my manuscript, Swallow Tongue, but it felt like a heavy unwieldily thing. I could sense it was going to go places, but hadn’t figured out the direction yet.

Then my dear editor wrote “put in 4’s like cardinal rose?”


Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 5.03.24 PM

And I did it, and it finally looks and sounds right. My very first visual form poem (unless I had to do it as an assignment in elementary school…).

Yay for form!

Upcoming Book Contests

This post is purely selfish, but maybe you’ll also want a list of upcoming contests you want to submit your book to.

*Word Works

The Washington Prize (open to all new, emerging, and established writers)

Deadline: 3/15

*Black Lawrence Press

The Hudson Prize (open to all new, emerging, and established writers)

Deadline: 3/31/15

*Cleveland State University Poetry Center

2015 First Book Poetry Competition

Deadline: 3/31/15

*Elixr Press

Antivenom Poetry Award (For a first or second book)

Deadline: 3/31/15

*Four Way Books

The Four Way Books Levis Prize in Poetry

Deadline: 3/31/15

*Tupelo Press

Berkshire Prize for a First or Second Book of Poetry

Deadline: 4/30/15

*Unicorn Press

The Unicorn Press First Book Contest

Deadline: 5/31 (though currently accepting submissions)

“There’s room enough for all of us.”

**Warning: Lots of lovey corny kumbaya things ahead**

Last night, I met up with my friend Kaitlyn Patterson. She and I went through our MFA program together and since she returned from Korea have seen each other once every other month to catch up. She’s had some extremely exciting and promising news on the young adult book she has written/is revising, and we discussed how silly it is when other writers try to be competitive with one another.

Competitive in the sense of insulting/degrading/condescending about some other writer’s success/failure/effort.  Writing is an extremely hard gig. We get rejected a lot (I love Sylvia Plath’s quote of, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”). Our harshest critic (usually ourselves) berates what we are writing and tells us it’ll never get published; it’ll never go anywhere. We have to keep writing anyway. We don’t need to also attack one another. I hate hearing people say, “Oh, she got published there?” As if a publication could ever be bad. Yes, we can always have standards, but like Plath said, at least she’s trying.

I often find that when people are the most scathing about another writer, there’s usually really jealousy behind it all. For myself, I know what my next step to take is when I find myself senses-suppressing jealous, like I’m seeing through green-colored glasses and the envy is so in me that I’m sweating it out and it’s this sickly sour apple smell. The first thought that comes up for me is usually, “Why are they doing that? And they got success for that?” Immediately I want to cut them down because really I’m jealous. wish I’d done that. wish I could have gotten that success for it.

Talking to Kaitlyn, I was reminded that the rewards of the writing life are not dependent on a Santa Claus God. If Bobby gets a book deal, that doesn’t take a book deal away from me. If Peggy Sue gets published in prestigious journal, she didn’t knock my poem out of the running. There’s room enough for all of us. Writing rewards are  not finite. Bobby may have gotten that book deal, but there’s another one for me. Peggy Sue may have gotten that publication, but that’s not to say I won’t get published in that same journal later. These writers aren’t taking anything from me. They’re just pursuing the same things I want. Why not walk along with them? This is why it’s so important for me to have a writing community, to feel supported and uplifted and loved through every hard bump on the road.

Throwing the Baby Out with the Bath Water

Obviously when you’re sharing bath water with your family, you want to make sure not to throw your baby out with all the nasty muck once everyone’s done bathing.

Writing is a bit different. Sometimes, I need to let go of what I’ve become attached to in order to get to the really good stuff. I’ve got to chuck the apple meat to get to the core.

I’ve been trying to get my full-length manuscript, Swallow Tongue, published for a couple of years now. It’s been accepted for publication once, but after hearing from several people who have read it that they love it and think it’s strong recently, it’s more than about time to shove it, clean and edited, on some nice paper and smack an ISBN on the back.

A dear friend of mine, Heather Dobbins, edited my manuscript for me a couple of months ago, and I’m just now getting around to really enacting her edits. A lot of people have helped me along the way on this little manuscript, and it’s all been out of love. I’ve edited several people’s manuscripts, and I’ve only done it out of love for them and a earnest belief in their work. I’m grateful to have friends like Heather who have shown me so much love, even when I’ve felt very discouraged about my own work.

Heather’s a tough editor, and a tough editor is what I needed. I’d been keeping some poems in the manuscript without touching them because I couldn’t envision how to re-enter them or I was too proud of their publication credit and felt like they were perfect just as they were published in whatever journal and shouldn’t be changed. The former is imaginable: sometimes I’ve outgrown a specific style or the old obsession isn’t as easy to come back to. The latter is unpardonable: a poem can always be edited, even if it has some fancy publication credit.

Heather also cut 10 poems. TEN! In a full-length collection of a mere 52 poems, that’s nearly a 20% cut. That’s HUGE! I’m following her reckoning through. The ten she cut weren’t as strong as the other poems to be able to stand alone or were just too similar: other poems had the same ideas, but did them better. I can mine these old poems for great lines, word choices, images, etc. to include in these or other poems, so all is not lost, but cutting ten poems, phew.

She also completely re-ordered the whole manuscript. I’ve only walked through the first 20 poems so far, but her order makes so much sense, but would never have seen them this way. I kept ordering the whole manuscript in a way that felt chronological: these poems are about children, these about lovers, these about more mature lovers, these about parents. Her way focuses entirely on images (and many of them are animals, not surprisingly, since I seem to like to write about a lot of animals), which makes total sense, but I couldn’t see it that way. Again, throwing the baby (what I think is best) out with the bath water.

What’s also interesting is that several poems in her iteration of Swallow Tongue weren’t in the latest version I finished editing in November, and she likes them and wants them to stay and has great places for them. How could I say no to that? I also have several poems in my latest version that aren’t in the one she edited, so I can possibly use those and not feel the pinch of ten fewer poems as much.

Right now, I’ve created a new document titled “Swallow_Tongue_2015Redux” and am diligently following her line-edit and ordering suggestions. I’m seeing really how the new poems feel. Several of them now seem so much clearer and brighter, like she just scraped off a layer of grime to reveal a perfectly maintained ’52 Ferrari. Others I think I will have to get used to, or I’ll need to go back in again at some later point.

I also looked up several book contests and have three or four I plan to submit to by March 31st. I also found a great list over at Nancy Chen Long’s blog that covers First Book Contests. Some of the links are now defunct or the contests only take submissions on even-numbered years, but I still found the list helpful in figuring out what places I could send my little manuscript to this year.

I’m grateful for a writing community and writing friends in my life today. I’m also hopeful. Let’s get you published, Swallow Tongue! 

What are you doing for your writing today?



Last night, the reading went off fantastically. Bobby C. Rogers, Elizabeth Witte, and I all read to a packed, all seats-taken house.

I’m a super anxious public speaker. I’m a teacher, which means public speaking should come naturally for me, but I spent half the day reciting what I thought I would say over and over again, shuffling through my pile of poems and seeing how they sounded aloud. While I drove there alone, I spoke aloud too, and then I spent my time before I actually got up there trying to calm my breathing and clear my mind.

Once it was my turn, the nervousness dissipated, and once it was done, I felt that giddy loose feeling of, “I HAVE NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT NOW!” I could move around, chat, and not feel like my anxiety was curled in a ball under my lungs.

After the reading, I re-connected with an old friend from high school who also attended the same MFA program as me. He said he remembered me saying once, “What are you doing for your writing today?” and that he had really taken that heart, making sure he submitted, wrote, blogged, or read a little everyday. It’s something I did for a long while, and it worked for me. I submitted and got a lot of rejections, but also a lot of acceptances. I generated a lot of decent, editable poems. I read and kept in touch with poetry and the writing community.

I still keep in touch with writing everyday, but it’s different. I’m reading a lot of novels, blogging regularly (for another private project), journaling daily as well, and listening to audiobooks on my commutes to and from work. I’m connected to writing, but not poetry. I haven’t written a poem in several months. I haven’t submitted a poem separate from my full-length manuscript in a while. I even discontinued my membership to Duotrope because I wasn’t submitting enough to warrant the $50 a year price tag (which is really such a small sum).

Being at the reading around so many lovely poetry-hungry people made me miss having poetry in my life. Hearing my friend say those words also reminded me that I can put in baby steps: I can read a poem today. I can submit a packet of five poems today. I can reconnect, re-build that relationship a little bit at a time.

I’m so grateful for the writing community I have, and it was good to be reminded of what things I can do for myself to stay connected to poetry, not just writing in general.

If you came out last night, I’m grateful for you. Thank you to everyone (especially Heather Dobbins and Ashley Roach) who hosts and supports poetry in Memphis!