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.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Little Annoyances That I Love

I am my father’s kid. My dad could fix anything from a toaster to a Plymouth. And since I grew up watching him take things apart, I started tinkering early—a TV remote here, a transistor radio there. It taught me a strange sort of empathy: Machines weren’t evil or cantankerous, I learned; they responded to a kind touch, like anyone. I still love little fix-its, even ones that are really none of my business, like...

Anything loose
Switch plates, doorknobs, porch lights—I get a thrill when I see something that’s a little cattywampus or hanging by a thread of its only screw. I can’t say I carry a screwdriver around (I have to save something for my eccentric old age), and I try not to straighten things on other people’s houses right in front of those people. But I’m just saying, if you leave me alone in a room with a crooked picture or wobbly towel rack, you will find it mysteriously fixed. In the restroom at work, there’s a coat hanger that’s been loose for five years. I tighten it every time I go in there, and every day it loosens up again. I’m a happy Sisyphus.

Laundromat dryers that won’t take your quarters
Laundromat users know all about this: You put your load in the dryer, then start plunking your quarters into the slot. But some of them won’t take; they come out the little return chute. You keep trying, but there’s this one quarter the dryer doesn’t like. Or maybe two, or six. When this happens, I can practically hear the dryer saying, a la WarGames, “Would you like to play a game?” Yes, dryer, I would! Let’s call this game “What kind of body English do I have to put on this quarter to get you to take it?” I will stand there, dryer, putting in that quarter over and over at different velocities and angles. I know, sometimes you want it pushed with a little backspin; sometimes you want it dropped gentle as a feather. We all have our preferences, illogical as they seem. I am listening.

Cranky toilets
I once lived in fear of toilets. When I was a teenager and my family had just moved into a new house, we had a maniacal one that graphically overflowed many times. Finally my dad got fed up with it and ripped the thing out of the floor. He turned it over, and out fell a dinky little hairbrush that some careless person must have flushed down it years earlier. Empathy again—that machine had been choking on that spiny brush for all that time! I know now that toilets are one of the simplest machines on the planet; they can’t electrocute you, burn you, or rearrange your fingers (at least not too badly). They only have, like, four moving parts—the handle/chain doohickey, the float thing, the fill valve (which the float thing is attached to), and the flapper. And the most common problems—a toilet that won’t stop running or drips endlessly, or a tank that won’t fill—are often caused by either the chain/flapper connection (which is the bone-headed easiest part) or some combination of tinkering with the float and the fill valve. Universes can be righted by just jiggling something or unkinking the chain. Most clogs are also easy to fix, if you have the right kind of plunger, some determination, and a lot of of hand soap afterward. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve waited for a public restroom to clear so I could lift the tank lid and fix some simple thing.*

Paper jams in copy machines
I love these. I live for these. I became a fan of paper jams when I worked for a very small company (five people) that had a lovely office manager who was the designated copier tamer—until she quit one day and left us to fend for ourselves. That was when I discovered that the copier not only had diagrams all over the insides of its doors, but it even would walk you through a paper jam on its little LCD screen. Pop this panel, it would say. No? Then pull this one over here. Lift the green lever. Twist the little gear. (Don’t burn your hand on the silvery plate.) In time, I learned that pretty much all the levers and handles on all copiers are made to be lifted and pulled, and it’s hard to break anything. So now, when any copier seizes up, I love figuring out where the slightly baked, accordioned fistful of paper is hiding. In the past ten years, I’ve only been stymied by one or two paper jams; the rest I was able to figure out and fix, no matter how long it took. (And do not try to stop me—I’m as dogged with these things as with a crossword puzzle. I will stay until I’ve figured it out.)**

Finding fishing trash
Okay, this isn’t exactly machine-related, but it’s another little world-tidying thing that I’m obsessed with. It happens a lot when I’m out on my kayak on a weekend morning, paddling around a lake and marveling at birds and the endless permutations of light on water. In the midst of my reverie, I see a scrap of ugliness: a tangle of dirty fishing line caught in a bush, or wound through the branches of a half-submerged tree. Sometimes there’s a bright doohickey attached to it—a red-and-white bobber, or a sparkly lure. It’s disgusting litter, dangerous for birds and fish and dogs, and I get grumbly about people cutting their lines and leaving that trash around. But I also feel a small rush, a kidlike “finders keepers” thrill, because, as I paddle over, pulling my pocket knife out of my life vest, I know this junk is now mine, all mine! Sometimes it takes a while to untangle it, and I’ve learned to be wary of fishhooks—those sparkly lures fool me just as well as the fish, and I’ve stabbed myself with them plenty of times. I’m not a fisherperson; spending a morning killing or maiming fish isn’t my idea of fun. But I get a huge amount of satisfaction chucking all that junk in the boat, taking it home, cutting the line into little bits and tossing it out, and adding the colorful lures and bobbers to my ever-growing collection*** of fishing debris that I’ve removed from the ecosystem. I do it for the osprey and trout and dogs and every other innocent thing for whom a crawdad-shaped lure poses a danger. In my collection at home, it’s just a tame curiosity, like a defunct guillotine or a sword from the Middle Ages. Now it’s just history.

* Maybe this is a gender issue; maybe men just pull public toilets apart no matter who’s in the room. But that’s kind of weird in a women’s bathroom, so I do it discreetly. 

** Pet peeve: People who give up on a paper jam and just walk away. I mean, who do they think is going to fix this? The servants? Figure it out. Tape a damned sign on it. Call somebody. This also brings out my passive-aggressive side, which is not pretty: When somebody leaves the copy machine wounded, I get in there and start pulling on handles and loudly opening and closing panels so the culprit is sure to hear it. [You, machine, you are fine; I’m only mad at the prince or princess who left you broken.]

*** Whenever I set a bobber or lure aside for the collection, I always think of that line from Friends where Chandler’s crazy roommate gleefully says of a tomato he’s just dehydrated and miniaturized, “This one definitely goes in the display!”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve been working my way through the books in my house, the ones sleeping on shelves and teetering in stacks everywhere, in the usual random order. Rather than gearing up to write actual book reviews*, I’m more in the mood for talking about the books I’ve read lately, a very unscholarly, subjective business, rather like you and I are having drinks and dishing on the books we’ve read. So here now is some dishing.

A Game of Thrones
George R. R. Martin (1996)

I picked up this book during one of my Goodwill book sweeps, where I grab a bunch of wildly popular books for $2 each and pile them in a stack under my bedside table for snack-reading because sometimes, folks, snack-reading is called for. And one night I was in the mood; I wanted an entertaining page-turner that would immerse me in some other world. So I started this saga of the Starks and the Lannisters and the—oh, I forget, some other white-people-sounding names. It was a page turner, and it did immerse me in another world (a sort of medieval Britain, with magic), so it fit the bill fine. The story lines moved quickly and kept me interested. And as I finished it (well, you don’t really finish; it just propels you into the next book in the series), I pondered the best way to lay my hands on the sequel—Kindle, right now? Used bookstore tomorrow? I had an impulse to keep plowing through the books because I wanted to know what happened to these people—the blood-of-the-dragon lady, the brilliant but overlooked little man, the girl who’s good with a sword.
            But…here was the thing. I was tired of living in that world where pretty much no animal, except for some cool wolves, made it out alive. Animals die horribly in this book, all the time—cut down in battle, executed for maiming hapless humans, sacrificed in gruesome rituals that don’t seem to help anybody. It was like being immersed in a world where non-human life had no value (again, except for the wolves, who had the advantage of being royal pets). 
            And then there was the relentless violence against women. Martin and the HBO show’s producers have taken a lot of heat for that, and I find their excuses feeble—well, it was a different time, they say, and we wanted to portray the reality of it. I’m sorry—a fantasy book has some historical truth you have to portray? Since you’re making it up—it’s a fantasy—how about portraying a world where women aren’t constantly devalued, scorned as being too weak to rule, and referred to in terms of their body parts and weight? How about a book where masses of women aren’t institutionally raped during battles and conquests? Or where rape isn’t constantly tossed off with casual euphemisms like “he entered her” or “four of them took her”?
            I really had to ponder this after I finished the book. Truly, the story lines were so well crafted that I was tempted to pick up the next book and start reading. But I just…couldn’t. It’s like a video game that lets kids shoot people and blow up buildings. I despair of all the kids reading these books and internalizing messages like this. I have to stop and ask: As a culture, why do we do that to ourselves?

All the King’s Men
Robert Penn Warren (1946)

You know, that Robert Penn Warren, he could write. Holy smack. Exquisite, read-out-loud lines. Sentences that ran for entire paragraphs. Three Pulitzers, one for fiction (for this very book) and two for poetry. A writer’s writer. I mean, look at this, a little treatise on the obligations adult kids have when visiting their parents:

When you got born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to bust a hame trying to get it back, and you are it. They know they can’t get it all back but they will get as big a chunk out of you as they can.

            Thoughtful, beautiful, surprising writing. But I’m embarrassed to say I only got about 50 pages into this and had to put it down. I could not take the bleakness of this world. The meanness. I was in a bad place emotionally for it, I guess. Corrupt governor Willie Stark and his hangers-on were just too brutal, too Jim Crow South, too right-now America. Even the narrator, who seems like a decent guy, is so jaded and jaundiced that I felt like I was sitting in a hot, fly-infested bar, listening to him drone on and on and trying to figure out how to diplomatically dump him. In one scene some people are even mean to a really old, arthritic dog. And the n word is used endlessly. Yes, it was the times and all—I get it. But I tried reading this right after A Game of Thrones and just couldn’t do the mean-white-men world again. Maybe I’ll try this American classic another time. I mean, the guy could write.

Marilynne Robinson (2004)

After Thrones and King’s Men, I needed a major change of pace. And I can say—though I just started it and am only partway through—that Gilead is the perfect antidote to those bleak worlds. It starts slow, then kicks in with a great story about a man in the late 1800s going on a fool’s errand with his 12-year-old son, looking for a grave out in the wilds of drought-stricken Kansas. That story is so crazy and wonderful—what sane grown man would do that, with a kid in tow?—that it pulled me right into the book. And the structure of it, a series of stories from the past, interspersed with glimpses of the present, that a kind but pragmatic father is writing for his small son to read years into the future, makes me want to write the story of my own life this way, tale by tale and impression by impression. Absolutely brilliant storytelling.
Just look at that book block. Swoon.
            My copy is a first edition, hardback with elegant cream binding and headbands. And its layout—the block, as it’s called in the book biz—is so beautiful and readable, the font size versus leading so perfect, that I had to take a picture of it. It just lives and breathes in the hand. Bravo, designer Jonathan D. Lippincott and Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Sometimes I read books on Kindle, but books like this make me happy they still exist in physical form.

Out of Range
C. J. Box (2005)

My friend Steve shares my love of Westerns and smart mystery novels; he got me addicted to the Longmire series**. Recently he loaned me this mystery, book 5 in a series about a game warden in present-day Twelve Sleep, Wyoming. Honestly, when I started this book I didn’t know what game wardens do (they enforce hunting laws), and it’s weird for animal-lover me to be reading a book about hunting. But it’s not about hunting, it’s about hunters—who, in a place like this where there is a lot of hunting, can be practically anybody. And in this story there’s endless intrigue among hunting guides, land developers, law enforcement, and politicians, all taking place in the magnificent and changing landscape of modern Wyoming. C. J. Box has a deft touch for characterization; in this book there’s an ongoing feud between a husband and wife that’s as real and painful as life itself, and even the smaller characters are developed with compassion and complexity. And it’s all anchored by a deeply moral hero who’s dead serious about his job but not always sure of himself. This is one of the best books I've read in a long time, and I’ll definitely pick up the others in the series.

And I realize, reading over this, that it’s all white authors. My next job: Remedy that.

* Have you ever written a scholarly book review? They’re hard.

** I like both the Longmire book series and the TV show. And they’re quite different. The books are tidily plotted and beautifully descriptive, but they tend to use the same tropes too often, like Longmire getting injured and being a big he-man galoot who will go to superhuman lengths to catch the bad guys. And in the books it seems like every middle-aged woman who crosses his path falls for him. On the TV show he’s more muted, moody, and real, and the female characters are more three-dimensional than in the books. This whole blog post has turned into a treatise on gender in literature, hasn’t it? I seem to have a bone to pick.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Peace, in Batches

Peace. Poetry. Postcards. Three great things, but do they taste great together? I honestly wasn’t sure, but I decided to find out.

Rut & funk
It began a couple of months ago, when I was in a writing funk—not just uninspired but anti-inspired, if that’s a thing. The election, inauguration, and attendant tangle of terribleness had me questioning whether writing was even worthwhile. An all-pervading depression had settled over my literary life, a suffocating blanket that whispered, “Who cares if you do this?

Then I saw an announcement that a group of Seattle poets were organizing a “Peace Poetry Postcard” event, a month-long writing marathon akin to the August Poetry Postcard Fest. Like the August fest, the Peace Postcard project invited participants to write a poem on a postcard every day for a month (February) and send it to another participant. But all of the poems had to have the theme of “peace.”

I admit I blanched. “Peace” is one of those poetry themes, like “memories” and “moon” and, oh, I don’t know, let’s just throw in a really bad one—“feelings”—that have been done to death. I couldn’t imagine getting too far down that road without skidding into Trite Gulch. But I felt like a kick-in-the-butt poetry marathon might be a good thing to spring me out of my rut, and I liked the challenge of trying to write peace poems that didn’t make me want to hurl. And though I knew the impetus of the project was to write poems about peace, as in not-war, I was intrigued by other interpretations of the word. What did “peace” mean in my day-to-day life? In the life of my town? In our larger culture?

Teeth, pulling
So I signed up, gathered some postcards, and got ready for February 1st to arrive. It did, and…nothing happened. No poem came to mind. Days went by—nada. Not interested. In my defense, February is one of the busiest times at my day job, but I could feel that stubborn depression still sucking the enthusiasm out of me—“Peace poems? Oh, please.” By February 10th—still no poems, or even the impulse to write one—I had to admit that I was on the verge of blowing off this perfectly nice project, this show of solidarity that those kind people in Seattle had worked hard to set up. I was going to be a lazy-faire inactivist. Yep, that was me.

Then one night around the 15th, the guilt got to me. I’d received a trickle of postcards—sweet missives, musings, rants—from other people in the project. And while I didn’t imagine anyone would miss getting a postcard from me—we didn’t even know each other!—still, I figured I could jot down some lines on a few postcards to ping back a signal to these good-hearted people. Some haiku-ettes or something—how hard could that be? So I grabbed a notebook and started writing little poems. I thought I might try five or so; I ended up writing about ten that night.

A wilder gear
An interesting thing happened while I was writing that batch of poems—the first few were forced and clunky, but around poem #4 they kicked into a higher gear and got more interesting. As I found last year during the August Postcard Poetry Fest, after my engine was warmed up, the topics and tones got wilder and more risky. In other words, better. So for the rest of the month (well, two weeks, with such a late start), rather than sit down every day and try to crank out a poem, I’d wait a few days, then write a batch of 5 or 6. And every time, it was the same: The first few were serviceable; the later ones took the leaps.

By February 28th, I’d written and mailed the full complement of 28 poems. Goooooal! And out of those, maybe 8 or 10 were worth polishing up and doing something with. For me, 8 or 10 possibly okay poems is a good haul for a month’s worth of work. And I have a pile of sweet postcard poems that I got from other people. I don’t know if we fostered more peace in the world—I’m guessing most of us aren’t the type to take up arms to begin with—but there’s something to be said for anyone trying, pen in hand, to stave off the oily waters lapping up against us. Or the heavy, depressing blankets whispering their nonsense. Yes, it’s not enough—there are still phone calls, petitions, marches, donations, and mid-term elections to deal with. But with so many fronts to fight on, making art of it is still worthwhile. It makes us, maybe, a thing worth preserving.