Saturday, September 1, 2018

Smokin’ August Poetry Postcard Fest Wrap-Up

The postcards I've received so far.
Way to go, group 4! If more arrive,
I'll update the photo.
Yesterday, August 31st, I dropped a postcard with a poem on it into my favorite mailbox* here in Ashland, and I was done—that was my last card for this year’s August Poetry Postcard Fest. This was my sixth year participating in the Fest, a month-long writing marathon founded by Paul Nelson and Lana Hechtman Ayers, in which people around the world write original poems onto postcards and send them off to other Fest participants. This year I managed to hit a personal best, writing 33 poems in the month of August.

As I’ve said in this blog before, the Postcard Fest is an unusually intimate writing marathon because only one person, the recipient, might ever see that poem. And with about 300 Fest participants this year, the recipient might be in Schenectady or Seattle or County Wexford, Ireland. So along with that intimacy, paradoxically, there’s a pleasant anonymity to the Fest—since the recipient usually doesn’t know me, in my mind, that means that absolutely anything goes. That person doesn’t care if I’m writing about ants or tacos or Trump, so I tend to give my postcard poems a very loose rein. 

This year I wrote almost all of the poems on the same theme, something I’ve never managed to do before. I can’t say I really planned that, but as we got toward the end of July, my region of southern Oregon was suffering from a hellacious, early fire season—several forest fires raged nearby, and we were choking with smoke that settled into our valley and didn’t budge for weeks. Like a lot of people in the area, I became obsessed with the Air Quality Index; several times a day I was checking two apps on my phone, plus a website, to see how bad the air was. Several days we got up into the maroon “hazardous” readings (over 300, the chart's highest range), days of a strange, omnipresent white fog that felt almost moist in the lungs. People got sick, people fled town for the coast, people actually moved away, it was so bad.

Left. What my town normally looks like.
Right: How it looked through most of August.
And like my house, car, office, lungs, and very cells, my poems were permeated by smoke as I began writing them for the Postcard Fest. It seemed pointless to write about anything else, it was so pervasive, so all-encompassing. We are a mountain town, and we literally could not see the mountains around us; it looked like we were living in some kind of flat war zone. After a couple of sputtering starts at smoke/fire poems, I got into a groove one night and wrote one that ended up too long for a postcard. But I just went with it, spent a couple of days polishing it up, and ended up sending it to Rattle’s Poets Respond, since it was about a news story that had gone viral, a photo of five firefighters sleeping in a yard in Redding, California, two hours south of here, during the Carr Fire. Rattle published it on their site the following Tuesday, and to my astonishment, it was shared more than 1,000 times from their web page.

Still, the fires burned on and the smoke blanketed us with its netherworld. So I just stuck with it, writing poems about smoke and fire, each with that day’s air quality index noted on it. There were poems about angry meteorologists, weary berry pickers, finding ash inside the car, the language of evacuation orders, and fashion-forward smoke masks. It was like a bottomless well; writing them was almost effortless. Out of the 33 poems I wrote in August, only 4 weren’t about smoke or fire. And then, late in the month, we suddenly got a clear day, and then one that wasn’t too bad. A few days later, we got two incredibly beautiful, clear days in a row. Now we’ve had about a week of good air. And either I was sick of writing about smoke or the muse had finally blown away, because the fire poems didn't come as easily without that smoke right in front of my face, right in my nose**. One of the last poems of the month was about a horse. Just a horse, not a horse breathing smoke or running from fire.

So now I have to figure out if all these poems add up to anything, a chapbook or section in a full-length collection. I’m not sure how they hold together on their own; I feel like they need a few longer poems (like “To the Firefighters Sleeping in the Yard”) to anchor them, or hang them from, or some other awkward metaphor***.

As for the mechanics of the writing, I wrote poems mostly in batches this year, two or three every few days, rather than one per day. I’ve found that with these short postcard poems, I don’t get my engine running hot enough with just one poem. If I can sit down long enough to write two or three, the second and third are usually better poems than the first one. Also, this was the first year that I wrote every single poem on a keyboard, none by hand. Right at the start I made the decision to write on my Bluetooth keyboard that talks to my iPad. It was partly a practical decision to make sure the poems would all be in one place and backed up (via my Notes app); I got a little sloppy last year and have never gathered all of that year’s poems and typed them up, although I think I know which notebooks they’re in. It was also an aesthetic choice; I tend to write more heedlessly and intuitively on a keyboard because I can write faster on it than by hand, and I was curious how that would affect the poems. I think the experiment worked; that voice seems to be flowing better than the handwritten voice. (Who knew such things could have their own voice?)

Linocut, Mt. Ashland Cabin. Note that in the
smoky photos above, that's Grizzly Peak,
our other iconic mountain.
And this year I again printed up my own postcards to be sure that each had plenty of writing room, which is an issue for me because apparently I blather on. This year I decided to use one of my own linocuts, a landscape called Mt. Ashland Cabin that has a swirling shape on the left that was based on a wisteria trunk, but came out looking like—sorta—fire. I got those cards printed long before I knew I was going to be writing about fire and smoke; it just worked out that way. Now it looks more ominous than I’d planned.

As always, the August PoPoFest was great fun, and remarkably productive artistically. And I got some wonderful work from the other participants—some even hand-make their cards with amazing visual art. I highly recommend it.

* Ask any writer over 50 about their “lucky mailbox,” and they’ll probably have one even though we rarely send out submissions by mail anymore.

** On pretty bad days, it smelled like somebody had built a campfire in my living room. On the really bad days, it was like someone had built a campfire in my nose. There’s no other way to describe it.

*** I am poemed out. Fresh out of metaphors.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Being Erma Bombeck

Recently I was thrilled to have a couple of memoir essays published, “Steal This Bull” in the beautifully eclectic print journal Gulf Coast, and the other called “Cigarettes: It’s What’s for Dinner” published in Longridge Review, an online journal specializing in creative nonfiction about childhood experiences.

Those two essays, about shoplifting and my mom’s strange cooking experiments, respectively, had been kicking around in my “not quite finished” essay file for a few years. Every now and then I’d pull them out and make more revisions, but something about them didn’t feel right. About a year ago, I figured out the problem: The voice wasn’t me. Well, it was me, but it was me desperately trying to be someone else. And I knew who that someone was: Erma Bombeck.

Erma Bombeck was a huge deal in our house when I was a kid. My mom loved Bombeck and read her newspaper columns out loud before dinner, followed by Art Buchwald, another of our idols. We had all of Bombeck’s books—paperbacks with titles like The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank and I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression—lined up in a little shelf-shrine in our spare room, which was crammed full of books*.

I grew up with that hallowed Bombeck voice in my head, her wry one-liners the gold standard of humor writing (“I’ve exercised with women so thin that buzzards followed them to their cars”). So when I started to write essays and memoir pieces years ago, naturally I tried to make them funny. The trouble was, as soon as I thought “humor,” the card-catalog librarian in my brain immediately went and fetched the Erma Bombeck voice. But my version of it came out in a weird, over-the-top voicey-voice**, a sort of quack that was trying way too hard to sound funny. 
For a long time I didn’t see anything wrong with that voice, but I did notice that my nonfiction got rejected a lot. (Probably one reason why I turned to poetry.) Then somewhere in the past few years, I was reading one of my old essays and could hear how awful that ersatz-Bombeck voice was, a new clang that I hadn’t noticed before. I suppose my ear had become tuned differently. I’d been steeping myself in Gay Talese, Eula Biss, John Berendt, and other masters of nonfiction, and I could see that they didn’t resort to any sort of voicey-voice to be engaging and even funny. I’d also been working as an editor at a book publisher that specialized in trivia and humor books, where we constantly had to warn freelance writers against using the “comedy voice”—an overstrained style that tried to make everything sound funny, when the key was writing about things that were funny (though a deft could writer make a funny story funnier).

This is not to say that I am now a master of comedy. In fact, I think I’ve stumbled onto the fact that I don’t have to be a master of comedy; after writing a lot more nonfiction these past few years, I see that my natural territory lies closer to seriocomedy. And I reserve the right to veer off into other territories. And as much as I still love and admire Erma Bombeck, I see that I’m not her; I don’t have whatever that magical thing was in her voice. All I have is my own voice, my own stories. I’m kind of chagrined that it took me 40 years to realize that. But it’s been fun going back through some old essays and de-voicing them, finding what’s beneath the quack. I’ve still got a pile of them to go through. Who knows what’s under there? 

Here are links to some other recent creative nonfiction pieces:

“Always Eat the Ugly Things First” in the Medford Mail Tribune

“It’s Good Just to Show Up: One Writer’s First (Terrifying) Public Reading” in The Review Review (soon to be reprinted in Far Villages, an anthology of essays for poets from Black Lawrence Press)


*As if to further prove that we were a strange family—the very point of the “Cigarettes” essay—we had so many books that my mother turned our spare room into a lending library for our neighbors. Each book had a slip of paper in it, and the neighbor would check out the book by handing us the slip, which we'd keep in a folder until they brought the book back. It was a minor hit for a few months, and then interest fell off and we went back to just having a crapload of books.

**Technical term.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Liner Notes: Two Poems in Willawaw Journal

Are there any sweeter words to a poet than “Please send me some poems,” spoken to you by a literary journal editor after a reading? Yep, pretty much nothing beats it, other than “Here’s your Pulitzer.” That’s how I happened to get two poems in the new online magazine Willawaw Journal, helmed by editors Rachel Barton (who spoke those words to me at the Springfield Poetry Series this past October) and Jade Rosina McCutcheon. I respect that in an editor, that thing where they go see the poet and inspect the goods, as it were, before committing to a purchase.

Here’s a link to the two poems, “My Ex, the Surgeon” and “Balloon Payment.”

“My Ex, the Surgeon” is about a real person. The entry point for the poem was the sound his knuckles made, that little crack, which I remember distinctly all these years later. We were both vegetarians at the time, and we cooked together a lot—usually meals of steamed artichokes, brown rice, and sautéed bean sprouts with mushrooms. I hate mushrooms, hate, hate, hate them*, but for some reason I liked the way he cooked them. Might have been all the butter. We cooked those foods so often that we called that a “standard dinner,” a joke we’ve had for years. (We’re still friends**.) Secret poetic-license fact: He isn’t actually a surgeon; he’s a mathematician.

“Balloon Payment” was originally written for the August Poetry Postcard Fest, which I’ve written a lot about on this blog. The poem is a direct reaction to the mortgage crisis, which some say peaked a few years ago but is really still reverberating. It’s also about the kind of hierarchy that's too common in the political landscape right now, the desire to always look down on someone else no matter how hard life has smacked you down. I usually try to write compassionately, but I was not feeling charitable that day; I was seeing close-up that bigotry and fearmongering reign in small houses as well as large ones. The one element in the poem that's not from that xenophobic landscape is the neighbor rigging his sailboat; that’s actually my very sweet neighbor Ron, who often unfurls the sail on his beautiful little wooden boat in his driveway when he’s cleaning and fixing it. The mast is a bit higher than his roofline, so it’s pretty spectacular. I see the boat out the kitchen window and think, “There's Ron, sailing again!”

* Is that a genetic thing, like cilantro? All mushrooms taste like dirt to me.

** I’m friends with a lot of my exes. Some people find that odd.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

This Old Blog (and All the Pans)

A few weeks ago, poets Donna Vorreyer and Kelli Russell Agodon had a Twitter conversation about a strange phenomenon they’ve noticed in the poetry world. A few years back, they noted, there were lots of poets writing blogs about poetry, their creative process, and their writing lives. But with the rise of social media the past few years, many poets let their blogs go fallow, turning instead to the smaller-byte writing environs of Facebook and Twitter. As Donna and Kelli said, that was kind of a shame; in the days before social media, they both had formed strong relationships with fellow poet bloggers, and they missed those blogs, that sense of shared community and slightly-longer-form news, thoughts, and quirkiness. So they decided to fire up a Poet Bloggers Revival Tour—a new network of poetry bloggers, all committed to posting each week in 2018 and reigniting some community and conversations.

Reading about this on Donna’s website, I realized that that same thing had happened to me: I still maintain this blog, which you (bless you) are reading right now, but I’ve got to admit, I don’t post here as much as I used to. Partly it’s because of time constraints; my day job gets hellishly hectic (I know, whose doesn’t?), and as I get older I find that the nighttime isn’t necessarily the right time for writing anymore, with my brain battered from workday emergencies. Some nights it’s all I can do to pick up the remote and turn on The Great British Baking Show*. 

Another reason why I haven’t blogged as much the past couple of years is because I’m getting more nonfiction published in literary journals—and, wonder of wonders, nonfiction pays (which poetry largely doesn’t). So I started to listen to those people who had long complained that bloggers were wasting their writing on their own blogs, when they could be earning money with it elsewhere. I had to give that some thought; I am, after all, 55 years old and looking over the horizon at retirement, a time which I hope to spend eating burritos and not cat food. My conclusion is that, though I disagree that all blogging is a pointless waste of writing material, I do see that there are some nonfiction/essay/memoir pieces that I should shop around to journals (and other blogs that have large followings) rather than posting them on my own blog. And I’ve done that, and they’re actually getting published, and that makes me write more of those, and that’s all good. 

But I do still love this blog, because it’s still the only place where I can write anything I damn well please and publish it with no gatekeeper. So I am committing to writing a bit more on this blog in the coming year. And I’ll at least occasionally try writing on the shorter side**, like some expert bloggers say you’re supposed to do. And I can’t imagine that every post will be about poetry, because this is my blog, so you know Star Trek and lists of entertaining street names and wistful musings about horses will inevitably sneak into it. 

Last year I really upped my writing-submission game***. I sent out so many submissions****, in so many genres, that I came up with a writing mantra for myself: “All the pans, in all the fires, all the time.” So here’s another pan.

* That show, I swear, is the cure for everything. Talented people making beautiful and delicious baked goods, talking in cute accents, winning abashedly and losing gracefully? It’s the perfect antidote to bad workdays, crazy relatives, and our current American nightmare.

** No guarantees about that. 

*** Hey, that’s an idea for a blog post.

**** How many? I honestly don't know, because I have the world's most Luddite submission-tracking system. Another idea for a blog post!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Little Love Letter to the Poet’s Market

The other day I got my contributor’s copy of the 2018 Poet’s Market. I’ve had articles in the past six editions on topics like chapbook design and the “anatomy of a book*.”  In this new one I have an article, “Coming Unstuck: 10 Techniques to Break Out of a Poetry Rut.” It’s basically 10 prompts to trick yourself into writing poetry by springboarding off news stories, stolen dialogue, and torrential floods of words to shake yourself loose from old conventions, topics, and voices that might have you bored or stymied. I’ve written a lot of how-to pieces for writers over the years, and I can honestly say that this was the most fun I’ve ever had writing an article.

There’s this book
Writing for the Poet’s Market always feels a little surreal because that book was such a fixture in my house when I was a young writer. Back in the 1990s, when I began to get serious about sending my writing to literary journals, the internet wasn’t quite a thing yet. So to research journals, I’d visit local bookstores and scour their magazine racks. Even then, the “literary” section was usually small**—maybe a couple dozen journals and zines, some letterpressed, some tiny and odd-shaped, along with the big ones everybody knew about, like The Paris Review and Ploughshares. I bought as many as I could afford, took them home, and studied them. If I thought one might be a good fit for my work, I’d mail them a request for their guidelines, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope, and wait.
            Around that time I was also taking a series of creative writing night classes. One night the teacher mentioned that there were many, many other literary journals out there that I’d never find at a local bookstore. But, she said, there was one place that listed hundreds of them: a thick book called the Poet’s Market.
            If you’re a writer my age, you probably remember this drill: I bought a copy of the Poet’s Market and pored over that thing, night after night, dog-earing its newsprint pages and penciling stars next to journals that looked right for my work. (I still have a muscle memory of turning those pages and drawing those stars, and I can picture the bedroom where I sat up and did it, my cat asleep in the sock drawer.) Then I started sending away for sample copies—because, again, in those pre-internet days there was no way to get a good feel for a journal other than buying a copy and looking at it. That cost some money, but I had a job and I figured it helped support the journals.
            Over the next couple of years, I amassed a bookcase full of sample copies. I studied each one carefully and came up with a rating system using colored labels*** that I stuck on the spines:

• Blue = blue chip, top drawer, probably too good for the likes of me.
• Red = mid-tier, decent quality, niche-y or regional, well worth trying.
• Black = dreadful, amateurish, offensive, needlessly baffling, and/or hastily bound by brads****.

Of course I tried for some of those blue chips, but I pretty much lived in the red zone. My first few publication credits (for the record: Rattle, Faultline, and, strangely, Asimov’s Science Fiction) were a direct result of all that Poet’s Market research.

Where’s the “find” on this thing?
So…fast-forward 20+ years. Now that we have the internet, an actual physical book listing all those literary journals—something that can’t be updated daily and has no “search” field—is obsolete, right? Well, not in my house. Although I always check a journal’s website for their most current guidelines, I still keep a copy of the Poet’s Market on my desk and grab it whenever a little niggling question comes to mind, like whether a journal is quarterly, or whether it’s the one associated with that university, or whether they regularly nominate for Pushcarts or whatever. I like having all that info in a book that I can quickly leaf through without having to turn on an electronic device. I also like seeing the stats that some journals put in their Poet’s Market listings, like response times, reading periods, and acceptance rates. There’s so much about the poetry biz that can’t be quantified (and indeed, most of the “stats” are only ballparks at best), but my numbers-loving brain likes to compute stuff like that. Of course, there are online sources for such things (Duotrope, notably, and the Poet's Market also offers an online database you can access with a code inside the front cover). But in my quiet office, I like to commune with a big book now and then. And the browsing can’t be beat; when I’m looking up the Brown Spot Quarterly, I may stumble across the Brass Knuckle Review or Bruin’s Lunch, which I might never have found otherwise.
            I admit that I don’t send away for as many sample copies as I used to, and that’s a sad result of the internet age. Although I still pick up literary journals wherever I find them—bookstores, writers’ conference, book fairs—I imagine those journals don’t make much revenue anymore from sample-copy sales. And of course the whole landscape is changing, the old paper/subscriber paradigm morphing into online journals and—well, I don’t know what will come next. I used to be in the magazine business, and we had a hard time figuring out how to stay afloat with advertising dollars shifting to digital. And now there are a lot of great online journals, with editors seemingly working with the goodness of their hearts and little else. Change, change. The Poet’s Market now includes listings for many of those web-only journals as well as print ones.

Full circle
So it was only natural when, a few years ago, I responded to a call for articles for the Poet’s Market. (In addition to all the journal/publisher listings, the Market always has a section of useful articles on everything from formatting your manuscript to sniffing out scam contests.) By then I’d been doing a lot of writing for writers, as well as blogging, and I had notes and ideas for articles on all sorts of topics. I pitched a few to the Poet’s Market editor, Robert Lee Brewer, and he accepted one called “10 Chapbook Design Tips Every Poet Should Know*****.” I had a blast writing it, and I’ve got to say, it was a special thrill to see my article in that book that I’d turned to for help for so many years. This year marks the sixth edition I’ve had an article in the Poet’s Market. It’s still a thrill, every time.

* I got the idea for the “anatomy of a book” article when a friend’s publisher asked her to check the galley proofs of her upcoming book. She called me in a panic because she had to turn the proofs around in 24 hours, but she’d just received the package and was surprised to find that it was a big pile of loose papers. She couldn’t tell what was a left page or a right, some pages were blank, and she had no idea whether the legalese text on the copyright page was correct. Having worked in book publishing for many years, I’d probably checked 100 sets of proofs of like that, so I drove over and went through the pages with her. It had never occurred to me how confusing a loose galley like that might look to an author who’d never seen one before.

** The exceptions were Kepler’s in Menlo Park and A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, both of which stocked an amazing array of literary journals. God bless them both.

*** I made these from cut-up address labels, hand-colored with magic markers, which gave them that faintly poopy smell of old felt pens. Later I found some metallic colored stars that teachers stick on students’ papers. I used those for a while, but I missed the down-home, smelly, hand-colored ones. I also stuck a Post-It note inside the cover of each journal with general impressions (“Brilliant,” “Too show-offy,” “Great poems on pgs 57 & 128,” “Would gaze at its navel if it had one”) and, if I liked it, titles of poems of mine that seemed like a good fit.

**** To be fair, “held together by brads” isn’t necessarily bad. I’ve seen some kick-ass journals and zines bound this way, as well as an excellent chapbook by Eugene poetry legend Erik Muller called Cinema of the Steady Gaze.

***** That idea, I’m sorry to say, was spawned by seeing a lot of bad choices in chapbooks, like maddeningly small type, cramped back covers, and scary author photos.