The handsome photography and inventive mingling of typefaces add to the sense that this magazine is wide open to new perspectives and the free play of the imagination. Ruminate's poetry and prose often address serious subjects, but with a note of hope that is never merely sentimental. Emerging writers welcome.
One of the great soldier-poets of World War I, Brooke was a romantic figure and socialist activist whose social circle included E.M. Forster, Henry James, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. Unlike contemporaries who emphasized the horrors of modern warfare, Brooke wrote of patriotic idealism and comradeship in the face of death. He served in the Navy during WWI and died in 1915, at the age of 28, while stationed in Greece.
A quirky and memorable poet; one of Jendi Reiter's favorites. See selected poems on Web Del Sol.
Pushcart-nominated poet Saeed Jones, author of the chapbook When the Only Light is Fire (Sibling Rivalry Press), blogs about writing and contemporary culture.
By Jessamyn Hope. This many-layered debut novel, set on a kibbutz (Israeli commune) in 1994, brings together an unlikely community of troubled souls whose fates intersect in surprising ways. At the heart of the story is a priceless brooch crafted by a medieval Jewish goldsmith, preserved by his descendants through centuries of anti-Semitic massacres and international migration. Adam, a drug addict from Manhattan, seeks to atone for the damage he has done to his family, by bringing the brooch to the mysterious woman his late grandfather loved when he was a Holocaust refugee on the kibbutz. His arrival stirs up painful memories for the kibbutz founder, who sacrificed her personal happiness to a utopian project that is now in danger of being disbanded. Meanwhile, his fellow volunteers are on their own desperate quests for redemption and freedom, which sometimes help and sometimes hinder Adam's mission. The novel raises profound questions about the trade-offs between individual fulfillment and collective survival.
Founded in 1982, Safer Society Press is a nonprofit press dedicated to providing resources for the prevention and treatment of sexual abuse. Their titles include fiction for youth and adults, and memoirs by abuse survivors, as well as scholarly books and clinical pamphlets.
In this guest post on publishing industry expert Jane Friedman's blog, poet and writing coach Sage Cohen helps writers navigate the floods of contradictory advice. The first step is to know and accept your unique work style, then stop telling yourself unfriendly things about how you "should" have a different process.
The stories in this collection from Black Lawrence Press explore the nuances of feeling and the power dynamics of intimate moments between family members, lovers, and strangers, in a way that is deeply insightful without over-explaining. Morrison's vision of human nature contains shades of Shirley Jackson and Flannery O'Connor, though written in a more restrained style. These stories always leave the reader with the sense that there is more to the characters than the chosen anecdote can reveal.
By Caroline Cabrera. Winner of the Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press, this poetry collection creatively explores the traumas and strengths of emerging womanhood by "answering" questions from a science textbook in ambiguous and offbeat ways. Later poems about religion shed light on the initially cryptic title, positioning the book as a kind of talkback to the catechism format. The mystery of "X" is an experience to savor, not an equation to solve.
SPL is the major British library for modern and contemporary poetry and is funded by the Arts Council England. Visit the Competitions page for listings of British poetry contests, updated monthly.
Located at the Southbank Centre, the Saison Poetry Library is the most comprehensive and accessible collection of poetry from 1912 in Britain. It is the major library for modern and contemporary poetry and is funded by the Arts Council England. Visit the Competitions page for listings of British poetry contests, updated monthly.
One of Ireland's leading poetry publishers, Salmon is a standard-bearer in publishing work by women and promoting writers who are outside the literary mainstream.
Sampsonia Way is an online magazine sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh celebrating literary free expression and supporting persecuted poets and novelists worldwide. Each issue contains author interviews, critical essays, and excerpts from literature from many countries. Featured authors have included Toi Derricotte, Lynn Emmanuel, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Nancy Krygowski.
By Helen Bar-Lev
Delilah wondered if all Hebrews were such gentle lovers
as she clipped his curls and left them lying on the ground
like so many question marks, slipped out of the room,
nodded to the waiting soldiers
musing if she would miss Samson,
surely the best tryst she'd ever known,
but she pocketed the pouch of payment
and vowed to forget him
What they didn't tell her
was that they would bind him, blind him,
a bit too cruel she winced, braiding her hair,
admiring her image in the waters of the Jordan,
applying more kohl to intensify her eyes,
consoling herself with another swig of the finest mandrake wine
Samson mused too as he begged for food
and listened to gossip as passersby spat on him;
so weak was he that two men had to help him home
but ever so slowly his hair was growing;
he wound a turban around his head
so that no one would notice and continued to beg
while at home he lifted weights and envisioned revenge
Meanwhile a feast was planned to celebrate his defeat;
all the populace entered the temple,
tingling with pagan anticipation
of the humiliation spectacle
A shackled Samson stumbled into the temple
and fumbled for the pillars he remembered
from the time when his eyes could see both light and night
and the beauty of Delilah whose betrayal had brought him
here to these pillars and whose jasmine perfume wafted
through the room, firing him with the passion to push and push,
harder, harder, a labour of anger
as the temple collapsed, burying them all
And then he could see again
Black Lawrence Press publishes this weekly e-newsletter for writers. Each issue includes profiles of a currently-open contest and a recommended literary journal, an interview with a writer or editor on a career-related topic, a readers' Q&A, and recent successes for subscribers. Subscriptions are $50/year. Selections from back issues can be read for free on their archive page.
Contestants compose poems from fragments of spam emails. Don't miss Enlarge Your Boss and I Answered All My Spam.
Site devoted to preserving and expanding the market for literary short fiction has links to dozens of literary journals publishing this genre, and to websites featuring modern masters of the form.
There's a pretty little girl
up in Michigan
living under snowy skies...
I haven't seen her, but I know
snowy blanket pulled over her head
tucked into her icy ladle
pour out your soul
each night (to stay whole)
drink in the finger of light
from the southern skies
when their eyes are heavy closed
waxen your skies with crayola color blues
rainbows for your eyes
white-light blessed blinders 'round your sight
look straight ahead
than blinding snow
you haven't seen it
but you'll know
If your daddy falls too hard
dreams on ice behind the bar
granddaddy puts your soul on tap
pour and pour more
he'll sell it to the devil, sweet baby E
he'll drain your love, like he drained me
pay no mind to what he's undone
three women's souls they breathe as one
close your eyes and dream
you'll see me, I'm the one
in the finger of light from the southern sun
brush the grit from your heart
each night before bed
fill your head with shades of red
bloodline flows between
blessed with His Grace
even stronger unseen
sweet, sweet baby E
There's a pretty little girl living under dreary skies
I haven't seen her but I know
the weatherman predicted snow
Copyright 2004 by Laurie J. Ward
Critique by Jendi Reiter
We welcome back Laurie J. Ward to the critique corner this month with "Saving Grace". We critiqued her poem "Blackened" in our November 2003 issue.
Ward here lends her compassionate voice to a child in danger of becoming a lost soul, in a ballad whose bluesy rhythm spirals upward like cigarette smoke in a late-night bar. The skillful syncopation of "poor/baby pour/baby" conveys a whole world in four words. We've been here before, this archetypal jazz club where a lonely little girl seeks consolation and escape in a drink. The line plays off the two meanings of "baby," a child and a sexy woman, and suggests how easily the distance between them is erased. This may not be what Ward intended, but the repeated phrase "baby E" also made me think of the drug Ecstasy, an ironic counterpart to the spiritual transcendence that the narrator holds out to the child.
Water imagery both benign and sinister—flowing, pouring, or falling as snow—gives this poem thematic continuity. Lines such as "If your daddy falls too hard/dreams on ice behind the bar/granddaddy puts your soul on tap" and "he'll drain your love like he drained me" warn of a life force dripping away, because the girl's family is exploitative or indifferent. But Ward juxtaposes other flowing imagery that refreshes, like light pouring from heaven: "drink in the finger of light/from the southern skies," and later in the poem, "fill your head with shades of red/and blue/and green/bloodline flows between/blessed with His Grace/even stronger unseen".
Between these opposing moods falls the snow, more ambiguous in its effects. The "heavy snow" at the beginning and end of the poem seems to represent the inertia that weighs on the child, as she tries to see beyond the hopeless and loveless life of her family. She risks being smothered by the weight of those dysfunctional traditions.
Yet the snow, like a childhood home, is also cozy and familiar: "snowy blanket pulled over her head/tucked into her icy ladle". The unusual image of a girl tucked into a ladle segues into the phrase "ladle/over her/pour", as if to say that the warmth of family security is inseparable from the icy shock of poured liquor that taints the scene. The odd structure of the sentence replicates the impossibility of integrating these aspects of her loved ones into a comprehensible whole.
The snow also resembles the "cloud of unknowing" that the mystic must penetrate to see God. The narrator asks the child to have faith in what lies beyond the curtain of white, just as the narrator herself tries to have faith that the child can sense her prayers and kinship: "I haven't seen her but I know". The poem effectively employs paradoxes of seeing/not-seeing to suggest that by closing her eyes to the sterile life around her, the girl can see the love and hope that are truly real: "white-light blessed blinders 'round your sight". She is the one who sees the light from the sky "when their eyes are heavy closed".
Where could a poem like "Saving Grace" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Ruskin Art Club Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: September 30
Sponsored by well-regarded publisher Red Hen Press; formerly known as the Red Hen Press Poetry Award
Alligator Juniper's National Writing Contest
Postmark Deadline: October 1
Excellent journal from Prescott College in Arizona; free-verse lyrics predominate
James Hearst Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: October 31
Sponsored by North American Review, the oldest literary journal in America; "Saving Grace" fits their style and subject matter
Soul-Making Literary Competition
Postmark Deadline: November 30
Poetry and prose contest for "personal writings that illumine the search for the sacred and the spirit"
This poem and critique appeared in the August 2004 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
This multi-author blog shares opportunities and advice for writing genre and commercial fiction. Online workshops are also available.
Like a modern St. Francis, this poet is a sister to all the beasts and plants that grace her southwestern landscape, and unfailingly finds the perfectly textured and surprising words to bring them to life for the reader. Uschuk is a prophet of the wilderness that we are fast destroying; few poems pass without a reminder of the human warfare and greed that lurk at Eden's edge. She invites us to feel the "velvet shoulders" of the bat rays in the aquarium's touch pool, then to question our right to have "these benign inmates confined to concrete/ entertaining us with their lives." Totemic illustrations by James G. Davis enhance this volume from Wings Press, Texas' oldest small press.
This memoir of mental illness stands out for its lyricism, humility, tenderness, and deeply sane sense of humor about how the author and his family have romanticized their affliction. Lovelace is a poet and the son of a notable evangelical theologian. Both of his parents are bipolar, as are the author and his brother. With refreshing honesty, he traces mania's connection to spiritual and artistic creativity, yet concludes that the private ecstasies of madness lead to incoherence, not a deeper truth.
SFPA publishes the literary journal Star*Line. Their website has many useful links to journals specializing in SF poetry, anthologies, and individual author websites, as well as a free contest with small cash prizes.
Scott Woods Makes Lists is a librarian's blog about African-Americans in popular culture, literature, and current events. This list and its 2016 precursor recommend children's picture books with black protagonists "that aren't about boycotts, buses or basketball". Woods says he wanted to showcase stories outside the familiar civil rights narrative, "featuring Black children doing what all children do: play, make up stories, learn life lessons, and dream."
Created in 2017 by poet Sue Benjamin, Screech Poetry Magazine UK Forum is a free online community for poets of all experience levels. Topic threads include love, politics, humor, erotica, and verse for children. Free themed contests offer prizes of Amazon UK book tokens (gift certificates), usually 15-25 pounds.
Screen Door Review's subtitle is "Literary Voices of the Queer South". Launching in Spring 2018, this quarterly online journal accepts submissions year-round of unpublished poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and comics. Editors say, "The purpose of the magazine is to provide a platform of expression to those whose identities—at least in part—derive from the complicated relationship between queer person and place. Specifically, queer person and the South. The topics of your work do not have to be queer or southern in theme, but we do ask that you as a contributor belong to the queer community and also identify as southern."
This free monthly ezine for writers suggests contests and markets, publicizes the successes of its readers. The motivational articles are particularly valuable.
Tucker Max is the co-founder of Scribe Writing (formerly Book in a Box), a writing coach and ghostwriting service for business professionals. In this article from their website, he explains the metrics behind newspapers' and online retailers' bestseller lists, and the reasons why getting on the list is not a cost-effective goal for most authors.
Scribendi provides a wide variety of proofreading and copyediting services for literary manuscripts, personal and business documents, and academic writing. Pricing is per word. They can also help write a query letter, synopsis, and outline for authors of fiction and nonfiction books who are shopping their manuscripts to agents. Specialty services include religious editing and proofreading for hymns, sermons, inspirational blog posts, and academic theological works.
Astride whale roads with barques poorly equipped,
scrawny sages descry immense high blue
circling views, decanting nature into
canticles of land, or sea, or air that
congeal at polar meridian to
northern marine lung of hibernal hue.
Bulleting sky in starry satellite,
Cetus congregates to fangles shapely
arrayed in a sea of constellations.
"Listen to the Logos as blue merges into white then black and magnitude dims."
The sages pray and contemplate Jonah.
Jonah, insignificant spume, blindly
susurrates hymns in asterisms of
autumnal tone. Held in aquamarine
cinctures, unrequited songs burst in pared
watery syllables. Belched onto strange
shores, harps unstrung, speaking in partial tongues,
finding empty habitation and no
relief, they turn to baboon-watch a squall:
scrying the altitude for another sign to gather around.
Copyright 2012 by Rich Hoeckh; contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Critique by Laura Cherry
Don't these lines just cry out to be read aloud? Rich Hoeckh's poem "Sea Constellations of the Northern Sky Offer No Consolation" plays a complex music starting with its title and sings sweetly through its last line.
The conceit of the poem—a group of seafaring (then shipwrecked) prophets look to the elements for divine communication—is conveyed through goofily archaic diction ("barques poorly equipped", "decanting nature into / canticles of land or sea", "scrying the altitude") and a veritable thesaurus of synonyms. In this poem, the important thematic elements are the sea ("whale roads", "northern marine lung", "aquamarine cinctures"), songs (hymns, canticles, "pared / watery syllables"), and constellations (asterisms, "starry satellite", "fangles shapely / arrayed"). The songs are a plea for a sign, and the sea and constellations provide the only available answer. The poet chooses a nonce form of nine-line stanzas, each followed by a longer single line that summarizes or concludes the preceding stanza.
What truly draws me into this poem, though, is its music. In calling a poem musical, or referring to its music, I mean everything that goes into its sound: its rhythm, meter, and the sounds of the words themselves, its chewy or hushed consonants, the way it clacks and swishes and pings.
When we think of poetry as music, we may first think of songs and song lyrics, whose primary sound strategy is usually rhyme. However, poems can make use of a whole range of less showy techniques for subtler and more nuanced effects. Just for starters, these can include consonance (the repeated use of the same consonant), assonance (repeated use of vowel sounds), alliteration (the repetition of initial sounds in the words of a poem), and sibilance (perhaps most easily described as repeated hissing sounds).
Check out the sibilance in this fragment, for example:
Scrawny sages descry immense high blue
circling views, decanting nature into
canticles of land, or sea, or air
The "s" and "z" sounds are carried throughout the poem and evoke the sounds of sea and air. These soft sounds are contrasted with harder clicking sounds like those in "canticles", "congeal", "congregates", "constellations", and "contemplate". These two strands of sound provide counterpoint for each other, and keep the poem lively and fun to read aloud. The strands come together at times, particularly in the later lines of the poem, in phrases like "harps unstrung, speaking in partial tongues" and in words like "scrying" and "squall".
Sound-play like this has a rich precedence, of course, and I'm glad to have a reason to mention some of my favorite sound-intensive poems. For superb canonical examples, see Dylan Thomas, "I See the Boys of Summer"; Sylvia Plath, "Dream with Clam-Diggers"; Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty"; or Wallace Stevens, "Sea Surface Full of Clouds". For a more contemporary example, take a look at Sarah Hannah, "The Colors Are Off This Season".
A different matter altogether, worthy of a full discussion of its own, is slam poetry, written not just to be spoken aloud but performed and judged by the audience. See, for instance, "Hip-Hop Ghazal" by Patricia Smith, whose work is rooted in slam poetry. (To learn more about writing in the ghazal form, see our August 2012 critique.)
Having discussed what I see as the main strength of Hoeckh's poem, how would I critique it for revision? I'd first assess it for technique. There are small moments here that throw me out of the world of the poem, disrupting its thrall.
"Baboon-watch" is one of those for me, standing out in both diction (plain) and sound (that lengthy "oo"). The baboon image does not fit easily into the tapestry that has been woven of sage-sky-sea-stars, and while diversity can be refreshing, the uniqueness of this particular image gives it more weight than I suspect it is intended to have.
Also, that archaic diction, while providing a wild ride, can be hard to follow: "blindly / susurrates hymns in asterisms of / autumnal tone" sounds magnificent, but comes close to breaking the poem's tenuous thread of sense. Also, a number of the line breaks in the poem fall after prepositions like "to", "into", and "of", which hobbles the line as a sense unit and squanders multiple opportunities for more interesting enjambment. I'd encourage the poet to take more care in crafting those breaks.
The second area I'd assess is my emotional connection to the poem as a reader. There are many poems I admire simply for their mastery of technique. However, the poems that mean the most to me are the ones that grab me and shake me viscerally. Plath is far better known for her poems of rage and despair and love (as well as technical mastery) in Ariel (see "Lady Lazarus") than for her earlier, more apprentice poems in which she employed that same mastery but kept a respectful distance from her subject matter (see "Parliament Hill Fields").
This poem keeps its characters and action miles further than arm's length. We do not enter into the experience of the sages, nor really care whether they are sailing or capsized, as long as their exploits are described charmingly—as they are. The poem's words and manner draw us in, not its subject matter.
I mention this particularly because I have noticed a trend in the poems submitted to this column for critique: those that are well executed technically are often either light or emotionally distant or careful. They are well constructed, but do not take any sort of emotional risk, presumably for fear of being charged with sentimentality. Beginning poets should indeed take care to avoid melodrama, but it seems important to me to point out that beautiful sounds and precise construction are not necessarily ends in themselves. I'd recommend to any poet that at some point, you take the risk and leap into the fiery emotional core of your poem. To give pleasure in its reading is enough for a single poem to do, and it is a significant thing to do, but it is not all that poetry can do.
Where might a poem like "Sea Constellations of the Northern Sky Offer No Consolation" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Abilene Writers Guild Contest
Postmark Deadline: November 30
Texas writers' group gives prizes up to $100 in a number of genres including rhymed and unrhymed poetry, short stories, articles, children's literature, and novel excerpts
Perform Poetry Magazine Competition
Entries must be received by November 30
British magazine with an interest in spoken-word and performable poetry awards 100 pounds for an unpublished poem on the theme of "seasons"; enter online
Soul-Making Literary Competition
Postmark Deadline: November 30
National League of American Pen Women contest awards $100 prizes for poetry, stories, prose poems, personal essays, humor, and literature for young adults; open to both men and women; previously published works accepted
Cecil Hemley Memorial Award
Postmark Deadline: December 22
Free contest open to members of the Poetry Society of America (we recommend joining) awards $500 for a lyric poem that addresses a philosophical or epistemological concern
Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: December 31
Prizes up to $1,000 and anthology publication for unpublished poems, from an independent small press in Connecticut whose motto is "Delight, entertain and educate"; enter by mail or online
This poem and critique appeared in the November 2012 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Mr. Hill's poetry has appeared in such journals as DIAGRAM, High Desert Journal, and the Zoland Poetry Annual.
Plain-spoken, meditative poems bring to life the culture and terrain of rural Maine, and demonstrate the spiritual rewards of love and attention to one's native landscape.
The Seaside Writers Conference for poets, fiction writers, and screenwriters is held annually in May in Seaside, FL, an environmentally conscious planned community. Applications are due in February. It features a full week of intensive writing workshops, one-day seminars, school outreach programs, and social events, with well-known authors as headliners.
Writer Sandra Sealy's blog showcases writers of Caribbean descent and links to publishing opportunities for them.
Brief articles by professional editor John Robert Marlow offer advice on spotting and fixing common problems with your novel, screenplay or nonfiction book. Topics include character names and the proper use of flashbacks and coincidences.
Self-published author Andy Kessler shares secrets of his success in this Wall Street Journal editorial. Kessler took advantage of the speed of self-publishing to get his book into stores while the topic was still newsworthy.
In this 2017 guest post on publishing expert Jane Friedman's blog, Nicole Dieker offers a dollars-and-cents case study of all the marketing strategies she used for her debut literary novel, The Biographies of Ordinary People: Vol. 1: 1989-2000, and their return on investment. A must-read for indie authors on a budget.
This review posted in November 2012 on the tech site GigaOM evaluates three apps for Mac computers that writers can use to create e-books: Apple's Pages, Adobe Indesign, and Scrivener.
Self-Publishing Review offers book marketing and editing services for indie authors. Their blog features useful articles on book promotion, choosing the best release date for your genre of book, technical advice and recommended apps, and more. Self-published and small press authors can enter their annual awards to win a promotional package. (We do not recommend using paid book review services, which they also offer.)
By Gary Beck
Radio compelled people
to pay attention
to what they heard
and listen carefully.
Movies isolated people
who sat alone in darkness,
to the silver screen.
TV chained people at home
watching the revealed world,
a paltry substitute
The internet erased
world wide exploration
mostly for trivia,
sometimes for science,
too often for evil,
unleashing new dangers
on the unprepared world.
Jamey Dunham's 'Urban Myth' from the first issue was selected for Best American Poetry 2005.
By Charlotte Mandel
Careful not to stumble on thick green sod, I stop and slowly bend to pluck a dandelion still yellow among dozens with globes of blow-away seeds. Holding the rubbery thread of stem between thumb and forefinger, I inhale scents of grass and earth cleansed by last night's rain. Sun-warmed downy petals stroke my cheek. The flower's crown wobbles.
in the cup of my hand
Launched in 2017, Serendipity is a new literary journal specializing in poetry, prose, and art that engages with issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and intersecting identities, produced by the conveners of North Carolina's Black Lesbian Literary Collective. There will be two online issues and one print issue per year. Editors say, "Serendipity seeks work that explores, celebrates, and interrogates all aspects of our identities; and work that delights and beguiles our readerly sensibilities... Our goal is to publish exciting work that amplifies marginalized voices, particularly that of same-gender loving women of color."
Launched in 2018, Serial Box is an app delivering specially-written novels in installments that take about 40 minutes to read. Rather than chopping up existing full-length works, Serial Box features fiction that was designed for the serial format, like episodes of a TV show. Their catalogue of diverse and best-selling authors includes Mary Robinette Kowal, Michael Swanwick, Malinda Lo, Barbara Samuel, Ellen Kushner, and Delia Sherman.
Sparks a volley of abuse, and lights the shortened fuse,
From prisoners soft and hard.
Our prison van moves off, It's human cargo seated
With toughened hides, we sway and slide,
On seats of steel—butt heated.
Some sit silent, some converse, some talk of sentences far worse.
While I am frightened, others scorn, some make fun, some look forlorn.
Each one is tagged: "Society's curse."
We dwell upon our morbid fate, our future home ahead:
Our enemies, and mental state, the prison staff, the bars, the gates—
...A place of living dead.
Then huge steel gates, like giant Jaws, swing open at our sight
Then swiftly they enclose their prey, before the darkness swamps the day,
And some give thought to flight.
Heads down we shuffle from the van, in single line we go.
Names are called, numbers given, no offence is deemed forgiven,
and then the nudist show!
Naked and bent over, our rear ends are displayed,
and inspected for the drugs they bring, and many an unlawful thing,
inserted in that way.
They march us off in single line, to yellow-lighted cells,
Where sweat & odours fill the air, and peep-holed doors have eyes that stare,
And mouths that yell & yell.
A talking door with puckered mouth, whispers for a smoke,
And sneakily I offer one: the guard explodes and spoils my fun,
... The Con thinks it’s a joke.
Then comes the clash of steel on steel, as my cell is unlocked.
I see a bed but little more: a toilet pan, a stony floor.
The walls close in and mock.
The lonely cell exudes, a heightened sense of woe.
Barred windows cast their shadows in, reminding me that crime can't win,
And youth is my real foe.
Dazed, I sit and contemplate, my thoughts escape the bars.
I dream of things that could have been, of sights and sounds that are unseen,
of women and fast cars.
As darkness falls, I hear the steps of guards that walk on by,
The jangle of their keys resound, and echo through the prison ground,
And slap against their thighs.
The clang and squeak of opened cells, announce the morning's noise.
My eyes are jolted wide awake...I give my head a final shake...
Breathe deep to regain poise.
Tier upon tier of human flesh, like ants descend on down,
My feet clang on the catwalk, my ears feed on the small talk,
The violent wear the crown.
In shower blocks the weak look scared, afraid of being groped.
My soap brings forth a crimson flood, that looks suspiciously like blood,
…A blade is in my soap!
Then someone grabs and mauls me, you can't believe the fear.
I scream, I punch, and then I kick, I feel so helpless and so sick.
No one to help me here
In fear I grab an offered knife; though weak and short of breath,
I strike until I make a kill, then dazed they march me to a cell,
And charge me with the death.
It was cold and awful damp when my body hit the floor,
And I felt the hot tears drop, and I wept and couldn't stop,
Though I'd never cried before.
Then blood-guilt came in horror waves, condemning all I'd done,
Hell flashed before my sleepless eyes; I agonised with sobs and sighs,
And cried out to God’s Son.
"I don't deserve your mercy, Lord, do with me what You will."
The anguish almost crushed my heart, I felt like someone torn apart,
How could I maim and kill?
A voice inside said: "Peace, be still. My blood was shed for you.
I died the death that you deserve, and I forgive without reserve,
My peace I leave with you."
Next morning when they saw me; they marveled at the sight:
For there I was, down on my knees, cleansed of sins that tortured me,
My face was bathed with light.
Yes, even though I'm still in jail, the jail is not in me,
My chains have all been snapped, Jesus Christ has borne my rap,
And I have been "Set Free"
Copyright 2003 by Barry Goode
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Barry Goode's "Set Free" is a compelling prison ballad that reminds me of the songs of Johnny Cash. The swift-moving rhythm and rhyme propel the story along. I especially like the interior rhymes within the second line of each stanza, and the fact that each stanza ends on a shorter, punchy line. These choices add variety to the sound of the poem. However, Goode should revise the third stanza to bring it into line with the pattern he has chosen. The first and third lines are too long. For instance, consider changing the last line to "Each tagged: Society's curse" to eliminate extra syllables.
The poet Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) was a master of this type of melodramatic story-poem, a genre that nowadays has taken a back seat to the modernist free-verse lyric. Read Robinson's poems at Bartleby.
The strong point of "Set Free" is its detailed evocation of prison life. Goode takes the reader through the gamut of emotions experienced by these imprisoned men: sullenness, humiliation, escapist fantasy, the violence of caged animals turning against one another, and finally contrition. The stanza beginning "Tier upon tier" is especially powerful, in terms of both imagery and sound.
The poem brings to life the prison's nightmarish daily routine, showing how the prisoners' cruelty to one another and the dehumanizing constraints of captivity are mutually reinforcing. While the poem clearly has a moral, Goode allows the message to arise implicitly from the facts he relates— at least until the conversion scene, which I think is weaker to the extent that it follows a formulaic script.
Goode makes effective use of metaphor to show how the protagonist of "Set Free" moves from passivity to moral agency, and from a hellish state to a heavenly one. The prisoners at first are undifferentiated "human cargo," tagged and numbered, shuffling like zombies. In a rape-like scenario, they are strip-searched for contraband. Then a first-person voice emerges. At the outset, the narrator is trapped within himself, escaping into fantasy as a way to avoid the solitude of his own thoughts.
He is galvanized into action by the blade in his soap, but the action is still unreflective, an animal lashing out in self-defense. The people around him are impersonal forces, not other selves. "I strike until I make a kill," he says, identifying neither his victim/attacker nor the person who hands him the knife. Finally, when he is able to confront and feel remorse for his act of violence, he breaks the cycle and is "set free" from the dehumanizing effects of his surroundings.
Images such as "a place of living dead" and "huge steel gates, like giant jaws" create a picture of damned souls filing through the gates to Hell. This sets up a contrast with the protagonist's vision of Christ later on.
While the conversion scene provides dramatic resolution, making this more than just a depressing snapshot of prison life, it doesn't ring as true as the earlier scenes of the poem. I'm not really concerned about the storyline's lack of originality. Ballads are all about retelling some archetypal human story (a tragic love affair, a criminal's repentance) in a catchy, melodic way. There's just something formulaic about the last two stanzas that comes as a letdown after the gritty realistic detail of the preceding verses. Perhaps the shift from natural to supernatural is too unexpected.
It's hard to quarrel with the stanza beginning "A voice inside," which elegantly translates a familiar Biblical text into the poem's rhyme-scheme. My biggest problem is with the penultimate stanza. "My face was bathed with light" is a cliche from sentimental "inspirational" literature. And who are "they" who "marveled at the sight"? It's hard to believe that the rough guards and prisoners we met in the beginning of the poem would have the sensitivity to notice the narrator's change of heart. It no longer feels like we're in the same setting, but rather in a much tamer and more generic one. I also find "Jesus Christ has borne my rap" in the last stanza a little too glib.
Overall, to be more believable, the protagonist's spiritual change of heart needs to be slower-paced and display more of the psychological complexity that makes the first part of the poem so dramatic. We move too quickly from Christ's reassurance to "my face was bathed with light." We don't know what the narrator was in jail for originally, but by the end of the poem, he's killed a man, albeit in self-defense. He's a mass of conflicting emotions, fear and rage contending with pangs of conscience. Wouldn't the miracle of divine forgiveness be harder for him to comprehend all at once? Perhaps, for one more stanza, he should wrestle with feelings of unworthiness or disbelief that things can change for him.
We don't hear anything about the narrator's spiritual beliefs until suddenly, when he's thrown in solitary for killing the other prisoner, he "crie[s] out to God's Son." The poem leaves us unprepared for this moment. What was his spiritual state before this? If raised a Christian, why did he fall away from it? Why, at this moment, does he turn to Jesus, when he seemed to be without a spiritual compass during the first part of the poem? A few clues to this aspect of his personality would make this poem stronger.
Where could this poem be submitted? Most mainstream literary journals would find it too sentimental. It's more likely to find a home in a Christian-themed magazine (pick up the latest volume of the Poet's Market from Writer's Digest for a list of these). Also try submitting to the Utmost Christian Poetry Contest, deadline February 28.
I imagine that "Set Free" would make an effective performance piece at open mike nights, storytelling contests and poetry slams, if the author has any inclinations in that direction.
This poem and critique appeared in the September 2003 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Literary scholar and fantasy novelist Katherine Langrish blogs about folklore, fantasy, and ballads from an academic perspective. Topics include C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Hans Christian Andersen, and contemporary authors such as Terry Pratchett and Ursula K. LeGuin. Her book Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales (Greystones Press, 2016) collects some of the top essays from this site. In addition to providing insight about beloved classics, the site is a good resource for fantasy authors wishing to think critically about problematic tropes in their genre.
Mr. Levine reads 4,000 fiction and poetry manuscripts each year for Tupelo Press, one of America's most acclaimed independent literary publishers. He shares his advice on what editors like to see.
- Use 11 or 12 point Times Roman or other clean serif (Garamond or Palatino, for example), nothing smaller or larger.
- Beware the frontispiece poem (that poem of yours that you might have elected to place before your numbered pages, or before your table of contents). This practice draws far too much attention to a single poem and, in my experience, the selected poem more often than not (80% of the time?) turns out to be one of the weakest poems in the collection.
- When ordering poems in your manuscript, pay no attention to which poems have been published (and where), and which poems not. At the conclusion of contests, I often (call me perverse) go back and look at the acknowledgment pages. I find that most poets place an inordinate (and mistaken) reliance on their publishing history in ordering poems, assuming that because such-and-such a journal took a poem it must be better than the poems not taken, or that a poem taken by Poetry or The Paris Review must be better than one taken by a lesser known print or online publication. I am almost always amazed—amazed—by which poems have been taken and which not (and by whom). Believe in all your poems, and order them according to your sense of where they belong. Period.
- When organizing the manuscript, think about each poem according to: mood / tone; dominant images, characters/speaker, setting/season; chronology, and whatever other categories you deem important to your own work. However you organize your collection, keep in mind that you are creating a book, and you cannot really know how the poems interact with each other unless you've done this work.
- Make sure the poems that begin your collection establish the voice and credibility of the manuscript. They should introduce the questions, issues, characters, images, sources of conflict/tension, etc., that concern you and that will be explored in the book. Think about the trajectory of the manuscript: you want to set the reader off on a journey, a path toward some (even if undisclosed) destination.
- Find an effective title: from the title of a significant poem in your collection, or from a line in your poem, or (perhaps to create some tension or mystery) it may not appear in your collection at all. That said, create about 20 contrasting titles and live with each for a while. Print out a title page for each possibility and look at them early and often. Obviously, you'll have ample opportunity to re-title your work after it's accepted by a publisher, but so many titles (of even terrific manuscripts) are so ill-thought out or just plain bad that I find I have to get over that initial reaction in order to give a collection its due.
- Other considerations:
a) don't send in a photocopy that's been copied so many, many times that it has inherited smudges or the type has faded;
b) send a cover letter if you like, but never a resume, and if you do send a cover letter, make sure it's addressed to the intended press and not some other press (you'd be surprised!), and don't address your cover letter to the contest judge (you'd be surprised!), and don't say you're in the process of a complete revision and will be sending the revised manuscript in a week or two (you'd be surprised!);
c) don't include dedications and thanks on a contest manuscript (plenty of time for that later);
d) be judicious about epigraphs—mostly they're just so much hardware unless a poem clearly addresses the words or theme of the epigraph.
Contemporary war poetry selected by Eugene Volokh. Professor Volokh teaches law at UCLA. Submissions welcome - formal verse sought.
Sharks close their eyes
the moment before they strike.
They sense the electrical signal
of the heart, they know where to bite,
they can find it blind. The heart
will betray you every time.
It's been a year I've chosen
to be alone. My life is full
of work and talk and the occasional fling
where no one falls for anyone—it's best
to become heartless. No one holds me
back; I don't get that attached.
I say heartless but this is a lie. It beats
red and bloody underneath it all, I am ripe
for slaughter. It keeps getting harder
to hide the signal: the heart wants
to be discovered. Or devoured,
if that's what it takes.
The sharks' own hearts must
crackle with charge as they glide
silently through the leaden water—
do they sense each other's presence
as they sense prey? Do their hearts
call out to each other
in the darkness
beneath the waves? I want someone
to draw my passion like a magnet,
a target, I long for it. So the heart
sends out its signal; I'm a beacon.
Nothing will protect me
from the danger.
I'm just waiting to feel
the teeth sink in.
Copyright 2004 by Ellia Bisker
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "Shark Bait" by Ellia Bisker, spins an arresting bit of scientific trivia into an extended metaphor for how our instinctual need for connection may prove more powerful than our "higher" functions of judgment and willpower.
The poem takes a single idea and consistently develops it with skill, using repetition of certain key concepts (heart, signal, sense, electricity) to maintain the narrative focus. Bisker is economical with language, which helps the poem avoid sentimentality for the most part. Short, sharp rhythms and the use of internal rhymes and alliteration create a relentless momentum as the speaker's illusions are stripped away.
The theme of blind fate is evident from the first line, "Sharks close their eyes". The poem suggests that humans no less than other animals are hard-wired to make connections, be it with lovers, predators or prey. While the conscious mind tries to resist a destructive coupling, something more basic and sub-rational in us prefers any interaction, even a fatal one, over solitude. I'm reminded of numerous crime stories (e.g. Ray Bradbury's classic "The Ravine") about women who are drawn to stalkers and serial killers, perversely fascinated by the possibility of a desire so strong that it obliterates its object.
Bisker gives the theme of love and death a clever twist when she imagines sharks finding their mates by the same signals that they use to find prey. It's all the same hunger: "the heart wants/to be discovered. Or devoured,/if that's what it takes." The juxtaposition of similar-sounding words (devoured/discovered) is an effective technique that emphasizes the message of the lines while also creating a pleasing pattern of sounds.
Throughout the poem, Bisker has a good ear for the rhythms of speech, wisely choosing to end many sentences on a powerful downbeat while varying the placement of these end-stops within the line. Some examples that stand out: "It's been a year I've chosen/to be alone" and "I say heartless but this is a lie. It beats/red and bloody underneath it all, I am ripe/for slaughter."
Enjambment—the continuation of a phrase beyond the end of a line of verse—is another technique that "Shark Bait" employs to good effect. In the second stanza, line breaks allow the poet to suggest multiple meanings that are in tension with one another, reflecting the speaker's inner conflict about her solitude. The second line of this stanza asserts that "My life is full", but following the thought onto the next line, we see what it is really filled with. "[W]ork and talk and the occasional fling/where no one falls for anyone"—full of emptiness, in other words. Further down, she asserts that "No one holds me/back", a positive statement of liberation concealing the lonely cry that "No one holds me".
Something about the last stanza left me a little unsatisfied. Though it logically followed from the rest of the poem, it felt slightly less interesting and original. Perhaps it was because the speaker slipped into the passive role of "victim of love" at the end, when previously the poem had been alive with the electrical charge of her passion. In the previous stanzas, she was exercising agency; even though her mind chose one thing and her heart another, they were both trying to take control of her fate, whereas at the end she is "just waiting". I would have been interested to see the speaker try on the predator's or shark's role, realizing that maybe she can take charge of satisfying her heart's craving instead of merely capitulating to it.
Where could a poem like "Shark Bait" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
William Stafford Prize for Poetry
Postmark Deadline: May 31
Biennial contest (even-numbered years) offers $1,000 and publication in the journal Rosebud
Five Fingers Review Awards
Postmark Deadline: June 1
2004 theme is "Uncanny Love"
Muriel Craft Bailey Memorial Award
Postmark Deadline: July 1
Prizes up to $1,000, publication in The Comstock Review; no simultaneous submissions
This poem and critique appeared in the March 2004 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Links to dozens of online dictionaries, grammar and style guides, and copyright advice sites are among the most useful features of this website maintained by horror/suspense novelist John T. Cullen.
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