The Inexplicable Math of Good Poetry

Article first appeared in Poet’s Quarterly, Summer 2012.

I am at no loss for information about you and your family; but I am at a loss where to begin.

— Demosthenes

Recently, an editor of a well-known journal posted a message online from a reader who was praising the latest edition. The reader said she could feel the stake the poets had in their words and content. That  got me to thinking about how one can tell when a poet has had a stake in his words and content. We frequently hear these kinds of statements being made in reference to poetry. For instance, we say we can feel the tension in the poem, or the poem surprises us, or it is accessible, or it is coded, or it resonates. These terms are often first used by a writer in a critical essay or, by a book reviewer; then, overtime they worm their way into our shared lexicon.

Our propensity to talk about poetry thusly speaks to the difficulty we have identifying, and then, articulating in plain-speak, how poems do what they do. Most poets know, for instance, what is meant when a poem is said to be accessible. That we tend to broaden our vocabulary used in our poetic discourse speaks in part to our desire as poets and readers—or at least it should—to understand more clearly what makes a good poem good. Knowing it and knowing how to accurately talk about it using shared vocabulary—often begged, borrowed, or stolen from other usages—develops a kind of basis of understanding, murky as it continues to be.

It is fascinating and enlightening to listen to poets talk about poetry. In fact, one of the best things about the annually released, The Best American Poetry books, edited by a guest editor (including such notables as John Ashbery-1988, Jorie Graham-1990, Adrienne Rich-1996, and Paul Muldoon-2005), and Series Editor, David Lehman, is the introductions by the guest editors. In these short passages, each talks about why he selected the poems for that year’s book. The intros are like keys that unlock the double cast-iron, triple dead-bolt locked doors of understanding, since the guest editor explains in more or less, specific—and usually eloquent—terms, what made the selected poems stand out from among the hundreds considered.

Best American Poetry 2008For example, in the 2008 edition, guest editor, Charles Wright tells us, by referencing lines from W. B. Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”, that poetry comes from the heart, (the “foul rag-and-bone-shop of the heart,”) and also, that, as  Keats asserts,  poetry is a matter of ‘soul-making,’ along with a little math.

It truly is not a matter of arrangement, of performance, of presentation, of rhetorical dazzle or surprise, though all of those matters may be a part of it. It is not the distractions, but the focus…It’s the only time that two plus one makes two—language is half, technique is half, and emotion is half…It’s not a question of paper, of typewriters, of white space or of dark space—it’s a question of what’s in your life, and where you want that life to lead you. You’ve only got one, and you can fill it with whatever you want…But if it is poetry that you want, then don’t look for language games, intellectual rip-offs, or rhetorical sing-alongs. You’ve got to know in your heart of hearts, that Keats is right, that it is about soul-making, that it does matter, and that it can make you or break you as a person.

Wright is suggesting that the poetry that resonated with him that year was the poetry in which he could sense the poet’s ‘make you or break you’ stake in the game; poetry that was not just from the heart, not just soul-making—but also, poetry that was, in this odd equation using poet-math:  half language, half technique, half emotion.

He must have felt that the poems he selected for inclusion, came as close as possible to making the math work out. Here is a passage from one of the poems in that edition, “Pentecost” for John Foster West, by R. T. Smith, from Notre Dame Review:

Squint-eyed and cunning, its tongue split

like a wishbone, the canebrake sulls up,

cursive spine and the diamond in spiral

like genetic code,

and Joby frets the Stratocaster, its plastic

the color of a salted ham. A tambourine’s

discs shiver, and Brother Pascal wields the Book’s

hot gospel like a blunt instrument. This is

spirit. This is bliss. The words from Heaven

would almost strangle you. The Holy Ghost

is a rough customer alright, . . .

And, here is another from Susan Mitchell’s “Ritual”, from The American Poetry Review:

as one who casts the word bread upon the word waters, testing

as one who not believing something will rise up from

those waters, but not disbelieving either

casts out her voice

as one curious or hungry or filled with longing breaks

off just the crust of a word, throwing

the way she threw as a girl when everyone

told her that was not the way

to throw. . .

In both of these poems, you can indeed feel a ‘make you or break you stake in the words and content.’ It manifests itself as a kind of intensity. In “Pentecost” the rhythm is as pulsing as, well, a Pentecostal church service. The language is lush and startling (or do we call that, surprising), e.g. wielding the Book’s hot gospel like a blunt instrument. In “Ritual” the language seems to twist and turn from what one might expect, e.g. rather than casting the bread upon the waters (from Ecclesiastics 11:1), Mitchell writes of the casting of the word bread upon the word water. Also, there is no capitalization or sentence punctuation in the poem. As you read, you often feel you are coming to the end of a sentence, but instead, the poem takes you off into another idea that plays off the last idea. It’s an intriguing structure—a long run-on—that supports an overarching sense of the personal questioning and rumination that runs throughout the poem.

Finally in Wright’s introduction he says:

Everyone talks about the “great Health” of American poetry nowadays. And it’s hard to fault that. There are very few bad poems being published, very few. On the other hand, there are very few really good ones, either, ones that might make you want to stick your fingers in a Cuisinart, saying Take me now, Lord, take me now.

Indeed, we have all had the experience, upon reading a moving and brilliant poem, like these two for example—there are so many in this series each year—of wanting to stick our fingers into a Cuisinart and say, Take me now, Lord, take me now.  Wright’s equation—half heart, half technique, and half emotion, is his explanation of what makes good poetry good. He is using a far-fetched metaphor to speak to what often feels like, the far-fetched qualities of a great poem.

Perhaps it is appropriate to express astounding and beautiful poetry as  some kind of inexplicable math. And, maybe it is also important to just accept some measure of “inexplicability” in the matter—language inadequacy, if you will—even as we continue to try to pin it down with any possible terms we can beg, borrow, or steal, such as sticking one’s fingers into a Cuisinart and saying Take me now, Lord, take me now.

© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis

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Five Lessons from Ohio Poets

Sometimes, “sitting alone in a room and wrenching it out of yourself” as Jon Winokur wrote in the introduction to his book, Advice to Writers, is not enough. So, I jumped at the opportunity to go to the freedid I say free?—poetry workshop held at Ashland University, in Ashland Ohio, over the weekend of December 1-2. The thought of being surrounded by others who love poetry as much as I do was too wonderful to pass up.  Forty of us from different life work, locales, and backgrounds came together in our shared love of poetry.

Poet, Lynn Powell shares insights from Ohio poets.

Poet, Lynn Powell in auditorium of the Schar Building at Ashland University, shares insights from Ohio poets.

On Saturday evening, featured poet, Lynn Powell read from her book, The Zones of Paradise. Following the reading, Powell answered questions about her work and her writing life. She talked about the risks she takes in her poetry.

On Sunday afternoon, she provided a craft seminar. Since the event was held in Ohio and Powell’s participation was sponsored by the Ohio Arts Council, she selected two Ohio affiliated poets, Mary Oliver and Elton Glaser to feature. She shared with the group five lessons learned from the work of these two accomplished poets. Following are some notes I put  together from her talk.

1. Write the poems that only you can write.

Using Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” from her book, House of Light, Powell demonstrated how Oliver uses her unique voice as she writes about a little owl in an orchard, “His beak could open a bottle,/and his eyes—when he lifts their soft lids—/go on reading something/just beyond your shoulder—/Blake, maybe,/or the Book of Revelation.” Later in the piece, using a surprisingly dark metaphor Oliver says, “Never mind that he is only a memo/from the office of fear—.”

I believe Powell was suggesting that we write poems only we alone can articulate, poetry that is coming from our own peculiar way of seeing the world, from our own background, from our own concerns. She suggested that poetry is not about mimicking someone else’s voice, but rather about speaking from a place of authenticity as Oliver does in her work.

2.  Sweat the small stuff.

Powell went on to posit that paying mind to the small details in the poem can help to make it compelling. By way of illustration she referred to the work of poet, Elton Glaser. In Glaser’s poem, “Crab Festival in Henderson, Louisiana,” from his book, Here and Hereafter, Powell pointed to Glaser’s lush description of a crab festival.

From the picnic pavilion, over the low-fi speakers,

The keen and fracas of a Cajun fiddle

Pulled us in, my sister sizzling in a two-step,

Fast feel on the concrete floor, before the old folks

Eased out, belly to belly in a bayou waltz,…

It is this kind of detail—the small stuff—that brings this poem to life. The speakers are low-fi, the fiddle is Cajun, the sister, sizzling, the floor is concrete and the old folks are belly to belly in not just any waltz, but, in a bayou waltz.

3.  Ignore the party line.

Powell suggested to us to take with a grain of salt all the things we have been told to avoid or to “not” do as poets. That might mean taking on subjects that are considered over-worked or too large. It might refer to an overworked metaphor. I think Powell was suggesting that if the poem is strong enough, or if it presents the material in a fresh way, have at it. She pointed to Glaser’s poem, “Down to Earth” (Here and Hereafter) as an example: “And why moon about the moon? It’s not/So gorgeous as I thought: a pocked face/Like a dented hubcap, and bald, with no chin.”  Clearly this is a new take on the well-worn image of the moon. In the context of this poem, it is not only fitting, it is the counterbalance to the image of the speaker’s earthliness. Glaser goes on to write, “I need the sluggish tug of mud around/My roots and, overhead, the sleeves of moss/From old oak.”

4. To write about the large, start small.

Powell used Glaser’s poem, “Blue Passport” (Here and Hereafter) as an example of a love poem that opens with the simple image of January winds striping the tinsel from dead trees. As Glaser works his way down the poem in couplets, he writes, “If I’m down to one day, make it/A Tuesday in April, and some little hill town//In Tuscany, rough wine in the glasses/And a luster of tall air along the stones,//And you there with me…”

5.  Let everything of yourself into the poem.

Powell suggested that we not censor our voices out of the poem. This is something I have been thinking about lately. I have been trying to write from a more authentic place. It’s easy to fall into the thinking that the poem must be steeped in mystery and laden with craft. It’s easy to feel we need to be clever in our poems. It is easy to let those concerns take over. But, I think Powell was suggesting that we need to let ourselves into our poems, that this is how others find connection with them. In the examples shared with us, poems from Mary Oliver and Elton Glaser, there is a clear voice of authenticity. Mary Oliver writes about the nature in a way that reflects her authentic intrigue. Glaser speaks of love and loss from deep within himself using lush description and images.

In the Company of Poets

In addition to the craft seminar presented by Powell, the workshops on Saturday and Sunday were lively and helpful. Workshop facilitators, Stephen Haven, Sarah Wells, and Deborah Fleming from Ashland University, along with, Lynn Powell worked with groups of poets on individuals poems.

This wonderful weekend was not just about just about the helpful workshops, craft seminar, and inspiring readings. It was also about the special camaraderie of poets from near and far. It was about reconnecting with old friend and making new ones. I even  learned about the sweet music of Paul Reece. The time

Poets gathered to share meals.

Poets gathered to share meals.

together felt important. I am so grateful to Ashland University and to those who worked so hard to make this such a great event. This was the first poetry workshop weekend Ashland University has sponsored. I hope it is not the last.

© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis

 

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All Poetry is Local…

Well, not really. That’s something that is true of politics according to former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. Actually poetry is international, universal, or possibly even galactic. I just used it as a title for this post because I thought it was a catchy way to announce a poetry reading organized by poet, Elizabeth Schmidt, in my local area, Dayton, Ohio, on Saturday, January 26, 2013 at the Wright Memorial Public Library. It is located at 1776 Far Hills Avenue. If you live nearby, I hope you will come listen and bring your poems to read. Some of the Wright Library Poets will be doing a short reading. They include Kathy Austin, Matt Birdsall, Eric Blanchard, Erica DeWeese, David Garrison, Jeannine Geise, Fred Kirchner, Elizabeth Schmidt, Steve Thompson, Leo Walter, and me. An open mic will follow. We hope to see you there!

Wright library poets

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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,500 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 9 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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A Poem for Winter Solstice

Sunset

We lost the tungsten stream

      through fracturing birch limbs

as we scouted  

                   by road. And

         (now is the time and place to admit it)

we were wrong. Wrong

in the way a cat miscounts

            or a fish is fooled

                 by glint.      We were wrong to think

we understood the rivulet

        into which we set our little craft or to think

 we understood the obsession of these waters

                     to flow from peak to sea

quickly.       Wrong

to not see                      the clinched fist

       of its first punch        our chests flung bare

before ore so frothy we couldn't stop

           to ask how we’d landed here or how

we’d missed this rocky mêlée.

                           On my knees clutching

the bow-sides I screamed hard left

right straight ahead left left until . . .

                   we settled

into a pool      quiet

     in the way a crocus stares down snow

or in the way a day opens up

               to hold                the winter sun

a few more arcs or in the way

                        we come to understand the power

of a possibility

       we had never considered.

First published in Hobble Creek Review.

© 2012 Grace Curtis

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N2Poetry Honored with Award from 99Fiction

 

christmastreelightsGreat News!

N2Poetry was selected

as the 2012 Winner

of 99Fiction’s Blog Competition!

Be sure to check out 99Fiction for the best in short,

fiction and poetry.

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Weeding as a Source of Poetic Inspiration

I am pleased to have my poem, Weeding, currently featured in Repeat Poetry. It originally ran in Waccamaw Literary Journal. I like what Repeat Poetry does, which is to breathe new life to previously published work. It’s a site well worth following. The poems featured there are superb and I feel honored to have my poem among them.

On Inspiration

Lately, I have been thinking about what inspires me. If I am in a poetry frame of mind, i.e. reading, writing about or contemplating poetry, which is nearly always, almost anything can–a word, a song, art, a cricket, laundry, a person. Often, those little jolts of zing that make you feel like you’ve been sprinkled by fairy dust come to nothing but sometimes they work themselves into something surprising. Occasionally non-poet friends will say, I bet there’s a poem in that, referring to a fender bender or some other stand-out moment in life. Well, sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t. What I have learned is that it is more often those quiet moments in life, those seemingly insignificant touch-points that inspire, frequently not revealing themselves as the embryo of a poem until weeks, months, or years later.

A Poet’s Craft, A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry by Annie Finch  is a book I have been keeping close at hand. It is a textbook every poetry teacher should consider using. It is a wonderful reference for novice and seasoned poets alike. I picked it up at the AWP in Chicago this year and carried it home on the plane. It’s one and five-eighths inches thick and weighs almost two and a half pounds. I was concerned it might put me over my 50 lb. luggage limit. As it turns out, it would have been worth having to leave a pair of jeans or all my underwear in Chicago just to get this book home. It is the best thing I brought back with me from the conference.

The first chapter of Finch’s book is about inspiration. She talks of the muse, citing Sir Philip Sidney’s poem, “Loving in Truth” (1591), “…Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,/Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,/Fool, said my muse to me, look in thy heart and write.”

Finch says:

It might seem as if a poet would need the greatest artistic faith and skill during the actual process of opening to the mysterious and sometimes scary water. But what happens inside those pools depends on the focus, the strength of heart, and the self-awareness that we develop during every day of our lives as human beings; beyond that, inspiration is largely a matter of surrender.

For me, surrender is the hardest part, the giving of myself over to the creative impulse, the understanding that I am constantly being handed inspiration at every turn of every day, that it is all there for my picking and choosing.

One of my favorite blogs is Brian Brodeur’s “How a Poem Happens” in which Brodeur features a published poem and interviews the poet on how the poem came about. One of his standard questions is:  Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears? Each poet talks about sources of inspiration for the poem. Reading over just a few of these, highlights how diverse are our sources of inspiration, and how important it is to surrender to creative invention, even if it is found in the pulling of weeds.

What inspires you?

© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis

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Fed by Birds in Winter

 

 

 

 

 

Caught on a stoop rail is a bundle-gift
of seeds and leaves

hand-woven into a grass basket by birds, a thank you,
I think, for years of lugging

seed to the feeders—millet, black-oil, sunflower, nyjer,
a little milo. They

are only guessing but the gesture is noted. Whole
corn, I’m told, is favored by wild

turkeys, ducks, and uncles, cracked corn by doves, quail,
and sparrows, peanuts

by a beer-gutted guy at the ball park. Macadamia
nuts are favored

by the Johnstons next door; the feedings, an operation
of waltz steps, lace and loops,

peaking upward, swooping numerically into a toe-shoed flederslap,
a straw bear at Wittlesea, a time spliced,

or rather, a surpliced choirboy as a pew carving, delicate
stallwork in tree

restaurants of peculiar design, one, like a bucketed apron skirt,
another like a pagoda. Then, a neighborhood dog

bawls at the day moon with outré animation scattering up
the wind

with his loud and yapping, sending our dinners pirouetting into
the sky’s frozen tears.

Fed By Birds first appeared in Scythe Literary Journal, Winter, 2010

Listen to Fed by Birds in Winter 

Photo by Shannan Raider

© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis

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On Being a First Reader for The Antioch Review: An Interview with Poet, Benjamin S. Grossberg

As assistant poetry editor for The Antioch Review, is it the job of Poet Benjamin S. Grossberg, along with another first reader, Melissa Berton, to read the poetry submitted to the journal. They advise poetry editor, Judith Hall, on poems for potential inclusion in upcoming issues. Following is an interview with Ben that is the result of a conversation I started with him a while back. In it, he graciously opens the mysterious black box of how poems get selected and published at a top-tier literary journal, The Antioch Review. I am deeply grateful to Ben for taking time to talk about this process that is important to many of us.

In addition to reading for The Antioch Review, Ben is an associate professor of English at the University of Hartford, where he teaches creative writing. His own books of poetry include Sweet Core Orchard (University of Tampa, 2009), winner of the 2008 Tampa Review Prize and a Lambda Literary Award, and Underwater Lengths in a Single Breath (Ashland Poetry Press, 2007). A chapbook, The Auctioneer Bangs his Gavel, was published by Kent State in 2006. His poems have recently appeared in New England Review, North American Review, and the 2011 edition of the Best American Poetry anthology.

GC:  Ben, you’ve been an assistant editor for several years for The Antioch Review. That means you’ve read hundreds of submissions that have come to the journal for consideration, and have had a hand in helping to select the poems that are published. I want to get into that process because I think it might help those of us who submit our work to journals. But first, can you tell us a little about your work and about your own experience with submitting poems to journals?

BG: I have written two full-length collections of poetry, Underwater Lengths in a Single Breath (Ashland Poetry Press, 2007) and Sweet Core Orchard (University of Tampa Press, 2009). My third collection, Space Traveler, will be published by the University of Tampa press in 2012. It’s a book-length series of dramatic monologues in the voice of a space traveler character. I have published poems consistently for about fifteen years now, though that said, I have never published a huge amount, and I still get rejected a lot more (read: a lot more) than I get acceptances—especially by the big name journals. But that’s okay. It means I still get the benefit of a “gate-keeping process,” which keeps me honest. It would be scary, I think, to have the sort of name that inclined people to publish even one’s second-rate work. Not that I’d necessarily turn it down.

GC: Can you describe the process used at The Antioch Review for evaluating poetry submissions? What kind of volume do you get? What gets sent to poetry editor, Judith Hall?

BG: There are two preliminary readers for The Antioch Review, Melissa Berton and I. The journal accepts submissions fall through spring, and Melissa and I switch off over that period. I review one month, she reviews the month following, and then it is my turn again. The number of submissions varies, but we get between 100 and 200 envelops a month, and each of these envelops contains four or five poems—with the occasional three and six. Our task, then, is to send “finalists” to Judith Hall, what we feel is the strongest ten or so percent. We do not split envelopes: it is the top ten percent of envelopes, not individual poems. I always err on sending a little more, rather than less. If there’s a reasonable chance a poem might find a home in The Antioch Review, Judith Hall should see the envelope.

GC:  With that kind of volume, you must have to be very organized about your approach. What is your process exactly? For example, how many poems do you read at a time, and how often?

BG: I read ten envelops a night, which takes me an hour. I usually will read over the course of an entire month, so it is never becomes onerous. Most poems are obviously not
right for the journal, and I can move through those quickly. A few poems seem to be excellent candidates for us, and those too can be dealt with quickly. But there are always a few packets that feel like they could go either way—and those I really linger over, consider carefully, reread and reread. They always take a lot of time, and sometimes I’ll take a few days to make a final call.

GC:  What specifically are you looking for when you read? What makes a poem stand out to you?

BG: I think this is an important question, but I fear there’s no way to provide an answer specific enough. I suppose I look for a surety in the use of language: a tautness and a sense of vision. Before I even begin to think about a poem’s subject or its figures, I want to feel a control and an aesthetic on the level of the phrase. After that, I look for high stakes: poems that feel ambitious, important. But it’s hard to be specific about what I look for because the best poems teach us how to read them. The best submissions tell me what I should be reading for; they create the lens through which they should be viewed. I can definitely say this, though: every now and again a great poem comes through, and it’s as if the lighting in the room brightens. Great writing is its own publicist.

GC:  I am intrigued by the idea that the best poems teach us how to read them. Can you say a little more about that? How do the best poems do that? How do poems create the lens through which they should be viewed?

BG: Well, I mean that good poems set their own parameters, their own rules. They create expectations of meaning, imagery, and rhythm, which they then gratify or deny—two different kinds of artistic pleasure. They show by example how a line can work, wake us up to new possibilities, which invite us to read keenly, in order to enjoy and understand those possibilities. In “The Secret Game of Poetry,” Billy Collins says that with a formal poem, the author is playing a “very public game” since everyone knows the rules by which the poem can be judged. For example, you can say whether a line of iambic pentameter is well or poorly executed. But I suspect that’s true of all poems, formal or free verse; they become “public games” as they teach us the graces of their shapes and meanings, teach us on what terms they are to be understood, appreciated, and evaluated.

GC:  We hear a lot about cover letters and bios. Do you look at those?

BG:  I do look at cover letters and bios—for a few reasons. The first reason is that we get submissions from some very well-known writers: not an avalanche of such submissions—certainly not enough to crowd out unpublished writers. But we do get some, and I want Judith Hall to see those submissions. The truth is that I do not always feel comfortable rejecting, say, a national book award winner. Judith has a hard job, a good deal of responsibility—to maintain the commitment to quality that characterizes the journal. Is it a cop out to say that some decisions are above my pay grade? Another reason I look at cover letters and bios is that we extend a professional courtesy to editors of other journals. This professional courtesy does not involve automatically publishing their poems, but it does mean their work will be seen by Judith Hall. These two special cases generally amount to say three of the “finalist” envelops each month. That’s all. And I always send at least that many envelops by people who have published little. The work is what matters most.

GC:  Do you ever suggest changes that would make a poem that you think might have a lot of potential, great? Or perhaps most of it is excellent but there are changes that would make it better?

BG:  I do not suggest changes to improve poems. Sometimes ideas occur to me, but I try to remember that I am not the writer, and that I have no right to impose my vision. Granted in this particular application—this one and this one only—my vision has a little authority behind it because I am acting as the representative of The Antioch Review. I sort of borrow (briefly) the journal’s authority. But even The Review has no right, finally, to correct someone’s artistic vision. We may choose to honor a poem by publishing it, or we may decide that a specific poem is not a good fit for our needs. But neither of these choices involves imposing our will with the bait of publication (or possible future publication). So, no: no suggestions. I understand why some poets like them; I sometimes like them myself. But I do not feel right offering them.

GC:  If you recognize the name of a poet do you look at it differently than you would for, say someone whose name you do not recognize or who is just starting to submit their work?

BG:  I try to minimize any kind of preferential treatment. I will say that I often do not send Judith Hall the work of writers who have published multiple books; and I often do send her the work of writers who have not published a single book. So if it does affect me (and I hope it does not), the effect is certainly not enough to overcome the quality of the work itself.

GC:  Having been an assistant poetry editor for such a prestigious journal, do you have any advice for newer poets who are just starting to send their work out to journals?

BG:  Believe in your poems. Prepare to send poems out to many places; prepare to have buckets of “rejections.” Find a grim pride and pleasure in those buckets. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to have a poem in the Pushcart anthology. That poem was ejected by seventeen journals before it found a publisher. The logic of my advice might well be: persevere and you are much more likely to succeed. And I think that’s true. But I encourage writers to believe in their work because publication can’t and finally doesn’t validate poems. The more reason you can find in yourself to love of your own work, the better suited you will be to weather the vicissitudes of this business, and the happier you will be.

© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis

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The Villanelle–A Poem Video

In preparation for the upcoming Midwest Writer’s Workshop, at which I will be privileged to get to work with poet, Kathleen Rooney, I was assigned an article to read on the villanelle form that we will be discussing. I’ve attempted villanelles before with less than satisfying results. The villanelle has sometimes felt like an elaborate word game to me with its strict rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter rhythm typical of many of the late 19th and early 20th Century specimens. I struggle as a young (though not in years) poet, to keep the poem from sounding contrived. In fact, many well-known poets have written beautiful and memorable poems in the form. Here are some examples of some of the best known villanelles:  Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas, The Waking by Theodore Roethke, Mad Girl’s Love Song by Sylvia Plath, One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, and If I Could Tell You by W.H. Auden. There are more samples from contemporary American poets on the Poetry Foundation’s Website.

In answer to a question regarding what the villanelle does that other forms do not, in the  book, The Making of a Poem, Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, say,

Perhaps the single feature of the villanelle that twentieth-century poets most made their own is the absence of narrative possibility. Figural development is possible in a villanelle. But the form refuses to tell a story. It circles around and around, refusing to go forward in any kind of linear development, and so suggesting at the deepest level, powerful recurrences of mood and emotion and memory.

Unlike most other rhymed poems, where the sound of single syllables is repeated once or twice, the villanelle repeats one sound thirteen times and another six times.  And two entire lines are each repeated four times. It is this last feature that sets the form aside from other poems. The villanelle cannot really establish a conversational tone. It leans toward song, toward lyric poetry. And while the subject of most lyric poems is loss, the formal properties of the villanelle address the idea of loss directly.

After reading this, I began to change the way I thought about villanelles. The argument that the form encourages “figural development” and “refuses to tell a story,” and that it leans toward lyric poetry, is compelling. What this is saying is that the strict structure of the villanelle, specifically the repeating lines, not only defines its physical form, it also informs and guides its content while many other forms do not.

Strand and Boland go on to say,

Its repeated lines, the circularity of its stanza, become, as the reader listens, a repudiation of forward motion, of temporality and therefore, finally, of dissolution. Each stanza of a villanelle, with it refrains, becomes a series of retrievals.

I didn’t start out trying to conjure up a mood, emotion, or memory when I wrote my draft; but, as suggested by Strand and Boland, the form lends itself to that, and as such led me in my poem, to recall a trip  in 2011 when, my husband and I traveled with friends through the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. It is the constant retrieval of my defining images– the fiddlehead fern and the eagle–in the mossy dreamland of the Hoh National Rain Forest that repudiates time in this ethereal place.

You can see the words by clicking here. Below is a video I made of the poem and pictures from the trip.

© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis

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