By Jeff Walt
"Each Morning I Rise Like a Sleepwalker & Rot a Little More."
Two packs of Pall Malls while leaning
on this window sill all day
& hollerin', Choco, take me down
the Hershey Highway! instead
of looking for work.
Between Cloves & men, my dear Chocolate
Transsexual Goddess of Delight—"Best Blow Job
on Lemon Street"—thrusts her usual hula
at tourist cruising in a Humvee limousine. Prince
somewhere singing Tick, Tick Bang.
Tonight my budding career is standing here—rent's due
on this room and Mr. Manager
tacked a pink slip to the door.
So, I say it aloud: I've missed the bull's-eye in this life.
Never chased a tornado.
Not one tomb unearthed.
No Lotto blown.
I remember being saved.
There was a priest kneeling; he read prayers
from gilded pages.
Now I worship down
at Tony's liquor store
where that cleft-lipped kid
on the donation box stared
the last bit of lint
outta my conscience
for buying a pint of skunk instead.
In Group my brothers handed me
an invisible hammer & nails, told me to build
a house on the inside.
I love Chocolate.
She owns her dark alley.
& she knows how to work it.
Nigerian journalist Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye denounces American poetry scams. An eye-opener.
In this essay at The Review Review, creative nonfiction writer Megan Galbraith discusses the unavoidably subjective and emotional nature of memory, and the delicate balance between preserving family ties and telling your truth.
Editors say, "Our focus is on communities traditionally underserved by literary programming and underrepresented in contemporary literature. We recognize that the exclusion of so many voices from literary programming limits our understanding of the world in which we live and deprives us all." They are seeking workshop proposals to bring the project to more communities in the US, with a special interest in the Inland Empire and San Joaquin Valley areas of California.
By Danez Smith. This debut full-length collection is a furious love song to black men, whom he embraces as lovers and mourns as brothers slain by racist violence. An award-winning slam poet, Smith is superlatively skilled at translating the rhythms of spoken word to the page, with double-entendre line breaks that snap from comedy to tragedy, or back again, in the space of a single breath. These poems are inspired in the religious sense of the word, revealing the sacred in the body's earthiest moments, and sounding a prophetic call against injustice.
Annual directory for fiction writers provides extensive listings of book publishers, literary agents, fiction publications, contests and more.
Published annually, this is a leading directory of journals, magazines, book publishers, chapbook publishers, websites, grants, conferences, workshops and contests. Helps you find publishers who are looking for your kind of work.
This annual directory for prose writers offers comprehensive listings of book publishers, magazines, trade publications and literary agents.
3:48 AM, THE REAL REASON SHARING A BED WITH YOUR BABY IS HIGHLY UNADVISABLE; or, MAMA'S LITTLE HEARTBREAKER by Jenny Sanders
Pink petal, concave curl,
So that I set the illusion
She is more a part of me.
But those days are over.
She is mostly apart of me.
Often in her infant slumber, reputed for its
Sweetness and tranquility,
She bucks and claws,
Writhes with tortured neck and arch
To draw around herself a circle,
Some clear air.
Yes, even in her dreams
Our recent separation
Is, for her it seems,
Not only fact, but desirable fact.
Soft fall of lashes on softer cheeks,
Lips parted in imperceptible breath,
This ambrosial drop of crushing sweetness
Is crusting over,
Portcullis slowly closing,
An inside joke to which I am no longer privy.
Copyright 2011 by Jenny Sanders
Critique by Jendi Reiter
For this month's Critique Corner, it seemed appropriate to begin 2011 with a poem about new birth and the passage of time. Jenny Sanders of Mount Airy, Georgia sent us this poem about her newborn daughter Lizzie. She told us that she uses poetry to "tap the myriad of intense emotions" engendered by motherhood. Where prose seeks to make experience transparent and orderly, poetry "almost always taps into a knowledge that cannot be defined as sense, but that operates on some other plane of knowing."
Sanders' reflections are a good place to begin our discussion of the use of emotional ambivalence to add dramatic interest to a poem. Coming off the holiday season, we can probably all remember moments when we experienced a disconnect between how we were supposed to feel and how we actually felt. When a poem makes room for the shadow side of an event that has been whitewashed by sentimentality, not only does it freshen up an old topic, but it wins over the reader by promising the relief that truth-telling brings.
Few milestones in life are surrounded by as many high-pressure expectations, both sentimental and judgmental, as motherhood. Recalling our own helplessness as infants, we would feel safer believing that the mother's passion for her child is always only innocent, harmless, and unselfish. As Freud and the Brothers Grimm would agree, though, all intimate relationships have other baggage: sensual desire, fear of separation, fear of mortality, and anger at the beloved for making us thus vulnerable. Like the new year, the new child is a fresh start but also an unwelcome reminder that time passes, and eventually we will die and be replaced by the next generation.
Some renowned poets who have mined this taboo territory include Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds. For instance, in Olds' poem "My Son the Man", the narrator suddenly sees herself as a cast-off trunk from which her son is making a Houdini-like escape. Sexton's 1971 collection Transformations reinterprets familiar fairy tales to highlight the psychosexual tensions between parents and children.
Sanders clearly means to join this company, based on the signals she gives us in the title. "Sharing a bed with" and "heartbreaker" come from the language of romance. The concept of duality, of splitting, is also common to both phrases. Now that the child is out of her body, their perfect union is broken. A piece of the mother is missing, the literal image of a broken heart. They must share a bed because now there are two of them.
What makes this loss interesting enough to build a poem around is, again, ambivalence: both the mother's, and the reader's, uncertainty whether it is acceptable to acknowledge and grieve this loss at all. Shouldn't she want her baby to grow up and become a person? Ought we to sympathize with this character? Like the mother's sensual pleasure in her child, which Sanders conveys well through the tactile delight of the alliterative opening lines, the conflict of interest between mother and child is a truth we'd rather not look at head-on.
The baby in this poem, too, defies our wish for a simplistic greeting-card picture of infant sweetness. "She bucks and claws,/Writhes with tortured neck and arch/To draw around herself a circle,//Some clear air." Sanders effectively uses line breaks for a visual reminder of the baby's expanding personal space. From the beginning, she too is a wholly human mix of affection and aggression.
I felt the poem could be strengthened by cutting the next stanza: "Yes, even in her dreams..." Further explanation of the subtext is not necessary, and these more prosaic lines suffer by comparison with the strong images preceding them.
Critics of co-sleeping, to whom Sanders alludes in her title, sometimes fret that the parent might roll over on the baby and suffocate her. Images of devouring and crushing color the closing scene of the poem, where the baby is envisioned as an edible sweet treat. I like the sound-echo of "crushing/crusting", and the realistic detail that babies and their surroundings become encrusted with all sorts of fluids pretty quickly.
"Portcullis" is a great word, but perhaps not the most germane metaphor in this context. Nothing before it has really primed us to picture the baby as a fortress—a hard, inorganic object. When I saw the words "slowly closing", I thought of the fontanelle, the soft spot on a baby's skull that enables it to compress in the birth canal, and closes up during the first two years. I would suggest substituting "fontanelle" for "portcullis", because then you gain the idea of the skull as another boundary, without pulling the reader out into a new set of metaphors. The child's thoughts are becoming less transparent to the mother as she ages, as evinced by the last line about the private joke.
Of course, the mother has her own private joke to share someday, when her daughter begins to perceive the universal conflicts that give this poem its resonance: "Just wait till you have children of your own!"
Where could a poem like "Mama's Little Heartbreaker" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Orlando Prize for Poetry
Entries must be received by January 31
Feminist writers' foundation offers $1,000 and web publication for poetry by US women that celebrates "liberation from the restraints of time and gender"; enter online
W.B. Yeats Society Annual Poetry Competition
Postmark Deadline: February 1
Long-running award offers $500, web publication, and invitation to awards ceremony in NYC in April
Able Muse Write Prize
Entries must be received by February 15
New contest from California-based small press offers $500 apiece for poetry and flash fiction
Memoir (and) Prizes for Prose or Poetry
Postmark Deadline: February 16
Free contest from magazine of personal essays offers twice-yearly prize of $500 and publication for "traditional and experimental prose, poetry, graphic memoir, narrative photography, lies, and more"; all genres compete together
Vivienne Haigh-Wood Prize
Entries must be received by March 1
Online journal Melusine offers $500 for poetry "that explores all angles of the contemporary female experience"; enter online
This poem and critique appeared in the January 2011 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
This self-publishing company promises quick turnaround and responsive customer service. Pricing is easy to calculate on the website.
Published annually in August, reads submissions year-round (submit online or by mail). Read sample work on site before sending.
Featured authors include Truman Capote, Chinua Achebe, Joyce Carol Oates, Doris Lessing, and Norman Mailer.
99 Designs connects self-published and indie authors with freelance designers to create a professional-looking book or magazine cover. Set your price (minimum $299), describe your concept, and choose from proposals by 10 or more designers.
Lush poems, at first heavy with the weight of memory and responsibility as the author nurses her dying parents, then laden with a sweeter burden of nature's ripeness and the enjoyment of her own body. A mature and trustworthy voice. This book was published by Cloudbank Books in their Northwest Poetry Series.
Part novel of ideas, part romantic comedy, this book begins with a young skinhead walking into the office of World Brotherhood Watch, a human-rights group run by a Holocaust survivor, and saying he wants to help them "save guys like me from becoming guys like me." The events that follow reveal each character to be a very human mix of vanity and genuine altruism, with the latter most often emerging in small moments away from the spotlight. The novel raises provocative questions about the tension between service to grand causes and caring for the individuals in one's personal life, though Prose could have accomplished more with this theme by introducing a true villain to raise the stakes in the conflicts between characters.
More than just a style guide, this book discusses how creative writers can use punctuation for artistic effect. Lukeman, a literary agent and author of bestselling writing manuals, explores such questions as how dashes enhance Emily Dickinson's poems, or how Melville used semicolons to convey tension in Moby-Dick. Includes writing exercises.
We lurked in the shades of a wasted heritage;
We scorpions in uniform awaiting orders to act.
Heights lined the horizon like drums
Tolling the knell of another man's war.
"Just give us time," Air-command demanded;
And the razed brush blazed like symphonic scales
Of sunlight strumming waves on the Kinneret.
The skies churned black as if vomited
From the bowels of the earth.
Then the words from the wireless
Wafted through the silence
"Move in after me!"
Columns of armor and swift moving armaments
Lurched into action.
No one could boast that the going was good;
Slopes steep as they were,
And our guns probing the sky
Beyond enemy bunkers, antennae
Impotent as blind insects.
Yet when we'd surmounted ravaged slopes,
With barrels of our arms
Still shining and cold,
The plateau stretched ahead
All bleak, charred and shelled. No cohorts
Were gleaming with purple and gold,
But the Syrian lay strewn
Like a frieze out of hell.
Copyright 2006 by Mike Scheidemann
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "A Day in the War" by Mike Scheidemann, blends firsthand war reporting with literary and historic allusions to depict not only the immediate sensations of this Israeli soldier, but the tradition that he draws upon to explain to himself why he fights. Though he would like to mythologize his actions, the predominance of mechanical and insectile imagery suggests that the contemporary conflict is only a mocking imitation of more-heroic battles of yore.
The vivid opening lines take us right into a scene of darkness and conflict, hinting at a reverse evolution that has turned men into insects and civilization into decadence: "We lurked in the shades of a wasted heritage;/We scorpions in uniform awaiting orders to act." The first thing we learn to situate ourselves is that we are fighting "another man's war". This phrase suggests the soldiers' lack of personal belief in the mission. It could also be read as "another of Man's wars"—which one, it scarcely matters. As the title suggests, this could be any day, any war; the idea of human progress is a joke.
Later details, such as Lake Kinneret and the Syrians, let us know that this is an Israeli-Arab conflict, most likely the Six-Day War of 1967 when Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria. The last four lines rework a famous quote from George Gordon, Lord Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib", which itself is based on the Biblical account of the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:13-19:37).
In the original story, God sends angels to slay the Assyrian warriors. "A Day in the War", like the Bible passage, ends with the soldiers discovering that their enemy has already been killed, but the culprit is more likely a disorganized military bureaucracy that was unaware that the protagonists' campaign was redundant. By giving his poem such an anticlimactic, absurd ending, Scheidemann calls into question the ideology that would cast the Israeli soldiers as modern-day warriors for the Lord.
While this poem says something important and has a number of elegant lines, there are a couple of missing elements that might keep it out of the running in our annual War Poetry Contest. This is the hardest kind of poem to judge, one that has clear poetic merits but somehow doesn't knock me out. I would probably reread it a dozen times before marking it down as a semifinalist, or perhaps a finalist. (The next War Poetry Contest will open for entries on November 15.)
For starters, I felt it didn't take me far enough, in terms of storyline or emotional connection. We began this contest after 9/11 in hopes of finding poems that could help a modern audience make sense of the political, ethical and personal significance of war. Scheidemann's poem expertly depicts the dehumanization and pointlessness that became the dominant focus of war poetry after World War I. But then it just leaves me there, without an emotional resolution or a new understanding of what lesson to draw from such experiences. Having tracked down the literary narratives with which "A Day in the War" is in dialogue, I can appreciate its hidden complexity, but I also feel that a great poem should provoke a powerful response on a first reading, before looking at the footnotes.
I'm no fan of tacked-on last lines that explain the meaning of a poem, and I think the ending of this poem works well in terms of scansion and a powerful final image. Perhaps more development of the speaker's personality and inner conflicts, interspersed with the external action of the strike preparations, would have given me more of a stake in the outcome. When he realized the men he was preparing to kill were already dead, did he feel disappointed, ashamed, powerless, relieved, triumphant? Some mysterious mixture of the above? "A Day in the War" keeps me at arms' length from these questions.
The other element that drags on a poem like this one is that a few lines lacked rhythmic momentum, which stands out more in a poem this short. The opening lines (through "Kinneret"), and the lines from "Yet when we'd surmounted..." to the end, fall into a strongly accented, orderly-sounding march of iambic and anapestic feet, echoing the Byron poem's four-anapest lines. When this pattern was broken by the insertion of more irregular, conversational cadences, I found it jarring. The lines from "The skies turned black" to "Lurched into action" sounded prosy compared to the rapid, complex meter and sharply textured consonants of "And the razed brush blazed like symphonic scales/Of sunlight strumming waves on the Kinneret."
How much music is packed into those two lines! The open, bright sounds of "razed/blazed/waves" help me visualize the sunlight on the water, while the hum of M and N sounds in "sun/strum/Kinneret" and the alliteration of "symphonic scales/sunlight strumming" produce the drowsy lull of an afternoon by the shore.
Anapestic lines can sound quite sing-song to modern ears, especially in a poem that presents itself as free verse. I would suggest Scheidemann either transform "A Day in the War" into an overtly formal poem, or loosen up the predictable rhythm of the final six lines (the ones that most closely track Byron's version) while adding more poetic imagery and psychological depth to the middle stretch of the poem.
Where could a poem like "A Day in the War" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
The Bridport Prize
Entries must be received by June 30
One of Britain's largest awards for poetry and short fiction, offering 5,000 pounds in each category; enter by mail or online
Writers Bureau Poetry & Short Story Contest
Postmark Deadline: June 30 (formerly July 31)
UK-based online writing school offers top prize of 1,000 pounds in each genre, plus several runner-up awards; online entry option new for 2006
Happy Hour Poetry Awards
Postmark Deadline: July 1
New literary publisher Alehouse Press offers top prize of $1,500 for poems up to 50 lines
Erskine J. Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: August 15
Award for unpublished poems from the journal Smartish Pace offers $200, print and online publication; online entries accepted
MARGIE "Editor's Prize" Best Poem Contest
Postmark Deadline: August 31
New contest from well-regarded poetry annual MARGIE offers $1,000 for poems with a "distinctive voice"; this journal often prints accessible poems on social and political themes
This poem and critique appeared in the June 2006 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
This winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize rediscovers the glorious art of invective in the title poem, comprising several pages of (footnoted) insults such as "your brain is the Peanut of Abomination" and "suing you would be like suing a squirrel". This book is a uniquely uninhibited burst of creativity which reminds poets how much firepower we're not using.
This month, we're departing from our usual format to share some insights from one of our subscribers about stylistic choices in free verse. In the May and June critiques, I said that poems with very short lines (one or two words) often didn't work for me. I've found that beginning poets overuse them as a shortcut to making prosaic diction look poetic without sufficient attention to the cadence and meaning of the phrases. Not every word in a poem is important enough to carry a whole line by itself.
Newsletter subscriber Bruce Wilkerson felt my criticism of this technique was over-broad, and sent one of his poems along with an eloquent explanation of how he used line breaks to enhance the meaning and sound of the piece. We appreciate his allowing us to reprint the following correspondence.
From: Bruce Wilkerson
...I've been reading through your critiques and I do find them very intelligent and insightful - I've even become convinced that you are truly human. You can't know how much of a relief that is! I hope you don't mind if I say though that you make one affirmation that I have trouble fully accepting; I'm not so sure though that I agree with you concerning the "super short verse" (the May 05 critique) which certainly has the inconveniences that you mention but which does have some advantages (well I often like using it). As far as trying to sound profound, whatever the length, a "poet" - if you like the word - that wants to sound profound, generally comes across as some two-bit prophet. I hope to God I never sound profound! Please tell me if I do.
...Here's a poem I took out and tried to dust off, it has still got a little grime under the fingernails though. I know it's in a style that is very different from what you seem to like but it's the one in which I used the most one word lines. If you are interested in a few reflections about why I like them, you can go down and read after the poem - but don't say I didn't warn you.
once in the dark
camouflaged under my cover
from dangers imagined
I would ring my haven
with tigers and bears
until the relief of day
let me bolt from my bed
believing all was
be together with my
so I lie here waiting
the clock has rung
recalling those monsters
that would scare me
the lights went out
my head under my pillow
hoping they might pass
to where they roamed
they rule the world by day
and so must I
hide my face
under my brow
knowing I will be
to this cold morning
the alarm has sounded
when I only want
to rest in peace
I like using [short lines] because they interrupt the syntactic chain, and thus the phonemic one, giving the reader the choice to interpret the word as an isolated element, the notion(s), or one whose scope is dependent on the other elements in the chain of speech (sorry about the jargon). In other words, it's a nice way to underline the polysemy of a word or eventually bring to mind homophones of the same word. For example, if you add a pause after the word "once", its meaning is quite different from the word "once" when it is integrated into the melody of the phrase. Another example is the preposition "to" in a sentence, the vowel will be realized as a schwa, whereas isolated, it will become a long U sound like in the words "too", "two".
To: Bruce Wilkerson
Thanks for your poem and thought-provoking "defense" of the short line. You make a good case! I've taken aim at this stylistic choice lately because I see less-experienced poets relying on it too much to break up their prosy phrases into something that looks like poetry. I'm trying to provoke them to listen more closely to verbal rhythms; they may still end up with short lines, but hopefully will have put more thought into why the lines break where they do.
In your poem ("once in the dark...") the short lines generally worked for me, because the rhythm is tense and taut, fitting the subject matter. I initially questioned whether "to" deserved its own line in the first stanza. But after reading your explanation, I went back and realized that the sounds "won" and "to" in the first stanza were punning echoes of the "once" and "twice" in the next stanzas. Clever.
I was going to take a vacation from "critique corner" in July, so I wonder if we could mix things up a bit in the newsletter and reprint this exchange between you and me (plus your teddies poem of course). I liked the high-level theoretical way you defend your stylistic choices. I'd also be interested to hear about writers who have influenced you.
From: Bruce Wilkerson
Thank you, I would be very honored if you reprinted it and feel free to do any editing you wish.
Excuse me if I avoid the question of influences - I can't pinpoint anything neat and precise. I would like (egotistically) to believe that it came purely from artistic necessity, some skimpily clad muse sitting by my shoulder, but more realistically I realize that we all have "a virtual library" in our head, often very badly cross-referenced like mine, from which we borrow most of what we utter or write without realizing it.
On the question of line length, I do have to agree with you that cutting up sentences like sausages doesn't make poetry, even if we could come to an agreement on what poetry really is. I find choosing the right length very difficult though; what you gain on one side you often lose on the other. So, if you don't mind, I'll add a few quick reflections and you can keep what you want. If you ever have any responses to my questions, I'd love to hear them.
I like longer, more lyrical phrases too but what I often find difficult with long lines (and with short lines for different reasons) is the division of the sentences or phrases into intonational groups, something the reader will do naturally anyway. Unfortunately these more chewable pieces don't often correspond to traditional punctuation and a change in the intonational group, or a displacement of the nucleus, can alter the message radically. How much do I want to guide this segmentation and impose one interpretation? Short lines can often be too restraining. On the other hand, if I leave it to the reader, (s)he will choose the most obvious. I don't know how well it works but I sometimes isolate a word between two lines with the hope that this will make the reader click out of automatic pilot. You'll notice that the interpretation of the word "once" has to do with the choice of intonational groups. If I had put it with line above, we would have had one thing, and with the line that followed, yet another. The problem was similar with "…a dream/now/they rule…" in which the scope of the adverbial remains ambiguous. I'm just not sure that this sort of thing would work well with longer lines and I’m not even sure it's understood here. I'll give it some more thought myself but I'd love to have other opinions too.
All the best,
[End of excerpt]
Bruce's poem illustrates an effective use of frequent line breaks to create ambiguity and multiple meanings. For instance, in the first stanza, the one-word line "still" could signify different things depending on whether the reader connects it to the preceding or the following line, or sees it as a separate adjectival phrase. "From dangers imagined/still" foreshadows the later part of the poem where the speaker is still tormented by nighttime fears, whereas "still/I would ring my haven" treats the word as equivalent to "nonetheless" (despite the camouflage, he also needed the teddies to protect him). "Still" by itself describes the child lying motionless. A similar effect takes place in the lines "they rule the world by day/and so must I/hide my face", where the first two lines set up an assertion of adult mastery that is exposed as make-believe in the third line.
During the process of writing, you may be someone who chooses images and techniques in an intuitive, subconscious way, or someone more analytical. I'm not suggesting that every word choice should be the subject of conscious internal debate. But as an exercise, during either the writing or the revision stage of a poem, try to explain to an imaginary other person why you chose a particular method of expressing yourself. Why was the sunset "red as a rose" and not "red as a tomato"? Why was your love poem a sonnet and not a limerick?
Look back over a selection of your poems. Are there words, topics or sound patterns that you return to as a matter of habit? Write a piece that deliberately shuns these familiar tools. Whether or not you like the result, you will have increased your awareness of your own thought processes as a writer, which will help you develop more control over your material.
This dialogue appeared in the July 2005 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter.
By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Liuling is pottering around naked because he lives between heaven and earth. He feels his house suffices in bundling him up. Da-Ren is in the house too, reshelving The Homeric Hymns under Depth Psychology. He likes the way verse translations help him hum about things he would never hum about like subway tokens and bad directions. Old journals end up in the in-tray and the dictionaries? They now line up under Creative Nonfiction. Liuling hasn't taken a bath in a long time because he perspires into no shirts that put his own dirt back on himself. "They must go back a long way," the archivist thinks to himself, reading a Thank You card that was never sent out. There are food coupons and utility bills and warranty cards strewn across the sideboard. The dishwasher is plugged into the kitchen tap where water flows in and siphons out. The computer monitor is covered with stickers like a screensaver that never blinks. "I made that myself," Liuling gesticulates towards the wind chime of cowbells, seashells and paper cranes. In his wine, Liuling sees the entire world for what it is and then tries to drink the memory.
The ghazal is a poetic form from the Arabian Peninsula popularized in the modern West by the late Agha Shahid Ali. This essay shares Ali's insights into this challenging, rewarding structure, whose literal meaning is "flirtation".
Bob Newman has found exquisite forms to frame your words. Bone up on Chant Royal, Domino Rhyme, Rhopalics and Rubaiyat. An idiosyncratic links page presents treasures like Arnaut & Karkur's ultimate on-line prosody resource, a great resource to learn about important verse forms.
These quiet poems are charged with a sacred attention to healing the wounds sustained by our bodies and ecosystem. In the aftermath of war or illness, the human spirit finds wholeness by recovering our common bond with whales, dragonflies, and even worms. This chapbook was published in the New Women's Voices series from Finishing Line Press.
By Jackie Smith
You must know this.
I remember it all.
Paula was your favorite
But you taught us both to whittle
With your pocket knife.
"Don't tell Grandma," you warned.
We sharpened sticks
Bled milkweed sap onto the points
Poison darts for a game we never played.
You walked us to the drug store
Sat us at the counter with Cherry Cokes
While you went next door for a beer.
"No need to tell Grandma."
Our little secret.
Your breath smelled like beer
The night you held me on your lap.
We picked tomatoes with you
The pungent scent burning our nostrils
Hairy vines brushing our thighs
Leaving red welts like scars
Warm fruit, juice running down chin
Crimson, acid tears.
After fourth grade
I never wanted to see you again.
That last time.
You knelt before me crying
Writing this, you gone extinct
Me exhausted from cursing you
Is as unsettling as the kiss you
Placed on my forehead
Yet I say, "Dear Grandpa"
Because that is what good girls say.
And I am always a good girl.
By Patricia Blanco
as I lie like a frayed baby
you balance the abstract of your bones
with one eye at my stone hand
the other sweeping the riddle of dust
dodging dog bites to his toes
our son jumps like a crimson god
gathering the cats' narrow hisses
behind shadows unsettled
a suspended tale in time
pressing each breath
neither forward nor behind
there seems to be no more else
to ease the moment
not one moment left
to meet your eyes again, yet
you take my hand
heavy and unloading
and make a moment
inescapable from flowering
A Quiet Courage is a journal of microfiction and poetry in 100 words or fewer. Submissions are also accepted in Spanish with exact English translations. Contributors have included James Penha, Adrian S. Potter, and Patrick Williams.
By Don Mitchell. Humorous, poignant, and enlightening, these linked short stories are set among the Nagovisi people of Bougainville Island in the Southwestern Pacific. The young American anthropologist in their midst learns as much about himself as about the villagers who have indulgently accepted him as an oddball member of their community. He mourns the collateral damage wrought on this small but culturally rich island by international wars and mining companies.
PRAISE POEM by Stephen Derwent Partington
We praise the man who,
though he held the match between
his finger and his thumb,
beheld the terror of its tiny drop of phosphorus,
its brown and globoid smoothness
like a charred and tiny skull
and so returned it to its box.
So too, we hail the youth who,
though he took his panga on the march,
perceived it odd within his fist
when there was neither scrub
nor firewood to be felled,
so laid it down.
An acclamation for the man who,
though he saw the woman running, clothing torn,
and though he lusted,
saw his mother in her youth,
restrained his colleagues
We pay our homage to the man who,
though his heart was like a stone
and though he took a stone to cast,
could feel its hardness in the softness of his palm
and grasped the brittleness of bone,
so let it drop.
We laud the man who,
though he snatched to scrutinise
the passenger's I.D.,
saw not the name—instead, the face—
and slid it back
as any friend might slide his hand to shake a friend's.
And to the rest of us,
may you never have to be that man,
but if you have to,
Copyright 2011 by Stephen Derwent Partington
This poem is reprinted from his collection How to Euthanise a Cactus (Cinnamon Press, 2010).
QUILTS by Thelma T. Reyna
Mother plugged up the coffee spout
with foil after dinner
to keep the cockroaches out
and laid a pile
of patchwork quilts on the chilly floor
for us to sleep on and urinate.
She hung them on the doors
colorful, stinky banners hanging
room through room
them next night so the most pissed
would be on the bottom of the stack
and we could sleep without the stench
of too much wetness.
coffee sometimes had a baby cockroach
drowned in its bitters. Got through the foil, I guess,
damned little fool,
got through the plug to mess
her brew, as we messed her quilts—
growing kids lying shoulder to shoulder
on the floor,
still peeing, still wrapped in each other's arms
to keep warm.
Copyright 2011 by Thelma T. Reyna
This poem is reprinted from her collection Breath & Bone, which was a semifinalist in the 2010 New Women's Voices Chapbook Competition and was published in April 2011 by Finishing Line Press.
TWILIGHT OF THE SWORD SWALLOWER by Dana Curtis
The metal ground sharp and
sparks: a brand new constellation: "Fire
Opal," "Ruined Lizard," "Eye's
Inner Sanctum." In the sweet
illumination, I work at the saw
cutting fish out of silver
for jewelry or some soon to be invented
weapon. Everything is manipulated,
softened by heat, hair caught
in the polishing wheel, glitter
of new set jewels. Titanium,
treated with flame or electricity, turns colors
no bomb would wear: consumptive nova
bursting myriad blades. It takes skill
to split small things. Let the new sky
bless the new stars.
Evening, what is known
as golden hour, the film crew
rush to get the shot while Seraphim
walk their small mad dogs.
So attracted to the camera's
rigid intent blinking their watery eyes,
spoiled by wingspans: a sexy use
for archaic weapons. Visit me
at my pretty house where I'll serve
grapes and whisper
something no one remembers, hopes
never to hear. Not the inevitable
edge, the intimate comprehension
of swallow and remove, my presence
on a red cushion in the black and white
night. We cut our throats on
the new sky, old angels.
Copyright 2011 by Dana Curtis
This poem is reprinted from her new collection Camera Stellata, which was recently published by WordTech Communications.
COMPOSITE COLOR by Robert Savino
The night sky is black, perforated by bb holes
of light, sometimes under a blanket of doubt.
Perhaps it will change to African American night;
and Indian Summer to Native American autumn.
Why not...ask Crayola!
prussian blue changed to midnight blue
flesh is now peach
indian red, chestnut
and while green-blue, orange-red and lemon-yellow
were retired and enshrined in the Hall of Fame,
pink flamingo, banana mania and fuzzy
wuzzy brown were added to the list.
Segregation has become a tempered memory.
A double scoop of chocolate and vanilla,
once packed like fists of Sugar Ray
and Jake, now melts in handshakes.
Sammy and Frank; Martin and Bobby—
forging connections, a slow crawl
of tap dance steps to gigantean proportions,
a mixing bowl with no sense of separation.
Crayola brands, ice-cream stands,
playful minds, shaded hues of humanity.
Copyright 2010 by Robert Savino
This poem was first published in the Fall 2010 issue of North American Review.
NEWS OF THE NAMELESS by Veronica Golos
I climb marble steps worn to the shapes of waves.
I follow those with the loudest voices.
I am a dry broom
an old man sweeps his floor with; the sunlight speaks in Braille.
All Bethlehem is a child's tale: the crisis-crossed road,
the man in the white robe, the donkey,
the already dangerous dust.
Now the news is full of splinters.
Graffiti scars my palms, my wrists—
I walk through the library of forgetting.
I am my own news and nothing's
Who was he, naked and bound on the ground?
He is gone now.
Disappeared into the crowd of other news,
disappeared into someone's home,
where he sits, hands flat on the table—
pierced by a brilliant sun.
Where is the solider, the helmet, the hands, the threat
that pulled him naked from his cell
as the choker clicked like a timepiece?
Who carries the dead weight, the iron cuffs,
the chair in the center of the room,
the whisper behind the earlobe?
I hear particulates strung along air, vibrating:
What is his name?
What is his name?
Copyright 2011 by Veronica Golos
This poem is reprinted from her collection Vocabulary of Silence, which was released in February 2011 by Red Hen Press.
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
Some poems rise above. This month in Critique Corner we are happy to announce a new feature in this series: occasional essays in which we consider why this is so. Rather than revising a piece offered by a contributor, we will, from time to time, offer an appreciative reassessment of poems reprinted elsewhere in our pages, poems that have either won awards, or received significant publication, or been included in award-winning collections.
To launch these new appreciations—as well as bid farewell to 2011—let's take a look at five poems reprinted in the Winning Writers newsletter during this last year in our Recent Honors for Subscribers feature: "Praise Poem" by Stephen Derwent Partington (February 2011), "Quilts" by Thelma T. Reyna (March 2011 supplement), "Twilight of the Sword Swallower" by Dana Curtis (July 2011), "Composite Color" by Robert Savino (March 2011 supplement), and "News of the Nameless" by Veronica Golos (February 2011).
One characteristic common to all of these poems is their artfully selected and occasionally outstanding diction: the descriptive precision of "its brown and globoid smoothness/ like a charred and tiny skull" from "Praise Poem"; the emotional connotation added by the final word in the phrase, "a baby cockroach /drowned in its bitters" from "Quilts"; the economy of "consumptive nova" from "Twilight of the Sword Swallower"—such a big idea conveyed in just two words; the specificity of the proper nouns in "Composite Colors"; the punning "crisis-crossed road" (as opposed to criss-crossed) in "News of the Nameless".
Diction can always benefit through revision. Ask yourself if your verbs are active and interesting, if there are more specific or less prosaic ways to convey ideas, if your descriptions really help a reader visualize. Take the time to use a thesaurus, especially for adjectives. Words with connotative meanings add layers to a poem.
But beyond diction, each of these poems offers some insight into what works effectively.
Notice, for example, how repetition is used in "Praise Poem". In the April 2011 Critique Corner, I claimed that repetition is poetry's most powerful device, and warned that, because of its strength, it should be used with care. Partington's recurring construction "who,/though" demonstrates a light touch which unifies the piece and imparts a song-like quality without becoming overbearing. In part this is because it is merely a two-word phrase which occurs mid-sentence grammatically and is enjambed, as opposed to a complete sentence repeated verbatim. To save his poem from falling into predictability, Partington slightly varies the full phrase in the second stanza by choosing "youth" instead of "man". He also lets go of it in the final stanza—a way of signifying that it is, in fact, the final stanza.
As elegant as I find this particular use of repetition to be, I actually do not believe it is why this poem rises above. Rather it is its "generosity". In the October 2011 Critique Corner, I defined this quality, in terms of poetry, to mean a sharing of our common humanity. With this praise for a pacifist, Partington offers up a poem that can give voice to all of us.
Which is not to imply that a more personal poem cannot also be generous. Thelma Reyna's poem "Quilts" shows how this is done. As Jendi Reiter wrote about Jack Goodman's "Jubilate Agno" in the February 2011 Critique Corner, the poet "sticks to describing the action in concrete terms instead of editorializing." In other words, especially with its final line, this poet generously refrains from instructing the reader how to feel.
Though, of course, its generosity is not all that makes this poem rise above. Perhaps obviously in this case, what makes this poem outstanding is its sensory detail. I feel as if I can hear their "brew" percolate beneath the sounds of many kids waking up.
Less obviously, this poem is successful because it is tightly written, every part reused. The coffee comes back, its smell a foil to the stink of urine; the mess of quilts on the floor overlap like the limbs of the children. Yet, despite the clutter it depicts, this poem remains uncluttered in its focus. Reyna understands the capacity of her poem and so chooses to leave the hot plate and bare light bulb and the absence of dad for another piece. Furthermore, she has paid attention to form and selected one that propels the reading forward.
The same can be said of Dana Curtis's "Twilight of the Sword Swallower". Notice where the poet has chosen to end her sentences. Because she frequently does so mid-line, she can race the reading along in a way that either full stops or predictable grammatical phrase line-breaking would foreclose. In addition, she can take advantage of interesting and surprising enjambments, for instance "sweet/illumination" from lines four and five or "invented/weapon" from seven and eight. Since we don't expect "sweet" to modify light or "weapon" to follow "jewelry", the line breaks reinforce a sense of discovery in this poem, making it consistently fun to read.
Such challenges to our logic are a large part of what makes a poem a poem. The August 2010 Critique Corner addressed the difference between poetry and prose more fully. There, we noted that the word "verse" means to turn and that such turns are the essence of poetry.
To understand what such versing can lend to a poem, have a look at Robert Savino's "Composite Color". For the first three stanzas, this would seem merely to be a poem exploiting the rich diction family to be found in a box of crayons. What lends the poem its gravitas—as well as its generosity—is the leap in stanza four to the topic of racial segregation. By landing the reader in a new place, this poem rises above.
Veronica Golos's "News of the Nameless" uses a similar strategy, moving in its second stanza from a personal narrative to a meditation on an unknown soldier. But even before she gets there, Golos shifts perspective line by line moving from the subject of the poet in line three, to an old man in line four, to the city in line five, and so forth. Notice that in this poem, most of the lines end in either periods or commas. The few lines that don't are thereby imbued with an implied buffer of quiet, demonstrating how line breaking can be used as effectively to slow a reading as to speed it. Nevertheless, we find in this poem a sense of surprise similar to that in "Twilight of the Sword Swallower", on account of its many fresh images. "I am a dry broom" and "the sunlight speaks in Braille" are both original and evocative, elevating this poem.
As we have seen, each of these poems is excellent in several ways—not just one. In particular, it is evident that their authors gave some thought to the best form for their poems, the most effective way to shape the reading of the piece so that it might be faster, slower, or more song-like. Such choices are generally made in revision. Taking the time to reconsider our poems, perhaps to focus them by removing what is extraneous or to enliven the text with startling diction—this is what allows them to rise above.
These poems and critique appeared in the December 2011 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Idiosyncratic gathering of excellent poetry young and old. Hosted by Seamus Cooney at Western Michigan University. Teachers and students will welcome his instructional materials, including "English Is Tough Stuff", a poem on pronunciation. Cooney also collects memorably bad poetry.
By Robert Olen Butler. Through brilliant use of flashbacks and alternating perspectives, this intimate novel tells the story of Michael and Kelly Hays, a Southern professional couple who are divorcing after two decades of marriage, though it becomes apparent that they are both still painfully in love with each other. As soon as the reader starts to side with one character, a new twist reveals the other character's vulnerability and the dysfunctional family pattern that he or she is struggling to break. The novel winds toward a suspenseful climax as we wait to discover whether they will tell each other the truth before it's too late.
This readable guide to plotting a work of fiction helps you identify the human need that your story promises to fulfill, and the actions that will advance that goal. Johnson, a script doctor, uses examples from action movies like Rocky and The Hunt for Red October to illustrate the different elements of a story. Whereas many writing manuals focus on the micro-elements of the scene (dialogue, setting, characterization), Johnson looks at the macro-elements, the "why" rather than the "how", in a way that will help any novelist wondering which scenes to include in her next draft.
Turning Point Books published A Talent for Sadness in the fall of 2003, Jendi Reiter's first solo collection of poetry. This collection is a hard look at the demands and challenges of love, and has been praised by such noted poets as Jennifer Michael Hecht. "Jendi Reiter's poems are smart about nature and humanity. In one deft move wet leaves are said to hang heavily on their branches: 'the way a lazy hand hangs over the edge of the bed.' Reiter's poetry is full of such observations and are alive with curiosity about experience and ideas. There's a lot of trouble here too, a 'bound bride', a 'woman left on the ground', a diver who goes so far down he can breathe again. Human life is hard here, but the poems always find relief in the return to the natural world and to the world of thought." Featured on Verse Daily, 11/4/03.
By Lucia Galloway
My palms are open, cupped and fleshy,
moist—the petals of peonies that fall away
from the tight bud at their center.
My soul, an iris still sheathed in its bud,
a knot that angles the stem slightly
where it is freed from blade-like leaves.
Flowering is wildness even in the garden.
The mute cacophony of hollyhocks and freesia—
their riot of trumpets and peal of bells
chiming for something else entirely.
Award-winning poet Jennifer Perrine talks about how she prepares her work for publication, and what attracted her to particular contests at different stages of her career. This interview appears on G&A: The Contest Blog, a feature on the Poets & Writers website.
The website A Woman's Write offers writing advice, editing and reviewing services, links to other useful sites for women writers, and an annual Good Read Novel Competition with a $500 prize for unpublished manuscripts. The contest fee includes a critique.
In this short story collection, tornados real and metaphorical rip through the lives of not-so-ordinary people, flinging them into unexpected intimacies and tearing away identities once thought airtight. Luvaas' poetic prose is powerful as the Santa Ana winds yet delicate enough to limn the silences that speak louder than words, as in the title story, where the bond between a widow and her dying handyman is too profound to risk actual words of love.
Their annual Summer Reading Issues have featured cover story interviews with Tony Kushner, Gore Vidal, E. Lynn Harris, and others. Each month, they publish work by established and emerging writers including Emanuel Xavier, Patrick Donnelly, and Julie E. Bloemeke. See website for their Christopher Hewitt Literary Award, a free contest with small prizes for fiction, poetry, drama, and creative nonfiction.
Visit the discussion forums to post poems, chat about literature, and exchange tips for getting published. Now offering free webpages for all its members, sponsored by eTribes, a leading UK blogging service.
Self-publish your work in an audio format. A joint venture between UK-based online writers' forum ABC Tales and the online broadcaster Short Story Radio, ABC Tales Radio is a unique website offering writers and poets the chance to self-publish their work in an audio format. Fees start at 20 pounds for a story under 2,000 words, and increase with length.
By Patrick T. Reardon
Let me honor your courage
to take your life. Oh, David,
why could you not find the
bravery to break out of your
prison before that, the penitentiary
Dad and Mom erected to keep
them safe from your raw life?
They could not live outside the
prison they made for themselves
and for you. And, in the end,
Oh, David, I flew. I protected
myself. Why didn't you take to
the wing and grow your hair long
and really say fuck you to the church
and to Mom and Dad and find the raw
ripe life that always eluded you.
I am walking to Evanston through a
cold autumn afternoon, and my nose
runs as if I am crying on this trail of
tears and it almost seems that I am.
But I'm not, of course. You know,
David, that we learned early that
crying did us no good.
Oh, David, you were victimized and
victimized yourself. You tried to be
your deep self inside the world they
made so you could not find your
depth. It warped you, and, damn it,
David, it warped me and the others.
Oh, David, you sought to be strong but
fell under the their weight. The world
was so full, but you could never get to
it wearing their straitjacket. You thought
each book you read was right, had to be
right. She taught you there was only true
and false, right and wrong, and she was
the one who
Oh, David, I wish you could have heard
the music I heard. I wish you could have
risen up and out and beyond on the wings
of words and beauty and disturbing visions.
You could have. It could have happened.
Damn it, David. Why did I survive?
Our last talk,
the shot was
our most real.
I loved you in
as I love you
now as I have
loved you from
your birth. In
that moment, I
saw your depth,
and we stood
neither of us had
anything we could
do beyond what
we had been able
Your smile was an
Adam Rubinstein's blog is a companion to his work on The Dredge Cycle, an experimental novel-in-verse about his hometown of Wellesley, MA. "Things I discuss: Eastern Mass. history, storytelling, bookmaking, time travel, poetry & novels, writing craft, dreams, publishing, indigenous perspectives, spirituality, research, and whatever I can't get outta my head." The work-in-progress is available to read for free on the website.
Founded in 2011 by Christine Redman-Waldeyer, Adanna accepts unpublished poetry, short stories, essays, and reviews of books and visual arts. Enter by email. Editors say, "Adanna, a name of Nigerian origin, pronounced a-DAN-a, is defined as 'her father's daughter.' This literary journal is titled Adanna because women over the centuries have been defined by men in politics, through marriage, and, most importantly, by the men who fathered them. Today women are still bound by complex roles in society, often needing to wear more than one hat or sacrifice one role so another may flourish. While this journal is dedicated to women, it is not exclusive, and it welcomes our counterparts and their thoughts about women today. Submissions to Adanna must reflect women's issues or topics, celebrate womanhood, and shout out in passion."
This clever site created by Paul Aubrian features lists of adjectives that begin with a particular letter or syllable. Handy for writing acrostic poems, playing Scrabble, or completing those tricky crossword clues.
Named for iconic lesbian-feminist writer Adrienne Rich, this journal features poetry by emerging and established women writers who identify as queer, lesbian, bisexual, or trans*. Submissions may be on any theme. Sibling Rivalry Press is a well-regarded small press with an interest in LGBTQ literature. Check website before sending work, because submission deadlines are irregular.
As judge of the Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest, I've been asked to provide some advice for contestants. I'm half-reluctant to do so as I don't really want to influence anyone's short story. Your story is your story, and you should write it the way you feel called to write it.
However, it's fair that you should know something about the way I think, so here goes:
I love short stories. Writing them and reading them. I believe the short story allows a writer's craft to be honed in a special way, and I enjoy seeing the different ways that different writers approach their stories.
All the rules you have ever learned about writing are important. You should know them, master them, then work around them. People will tell you it is important to show, not tell; they are right—yet sometimes you should tell, not show. People will discuss whether to write in first or third person, from a specific or more omniscient viewpoint—all this is interesting but, in my experience, it is the story that tells the writer what viewpoint to write from, not the writer who tells the story. People (including me) will tell you never to write in the second person—yet I once wrote an entire novella in the second person and it worked (won an award and was published).
In his wonderful novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok says much the same thing about painting: "This is a tradition...Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to add to it or to rebel against it."
I tell my students that character is the most important element in fiction. You should know and love your characters. Plot is what happens when characters interact with one another or situations. This is true not only of psychological and literary stories, but of science fiction, thrillers, westerns, even mysteries (where the temptation to distort characters to fit the plot is particularly strong).
Atmosphere may also be important to a story—the way a place, a situation, and the story itself feel. Texture may be created through a few key phrases, through the words you choose.
Walter Pater said that all art strives toward music, and there is a great deal of truth in that. The rhythm of a story—pacing, timing, speed—is very important. I find it sometimes helps to think of my stories in terms of musical composition.
Avoid cliches—not only in words, but in thoughts. Try not to be too self-absorbed—take your craft seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously.
I do not want to overly influence any writer—it is the individuality of your work that makes it interesting. But here are qualities I am looking for in essays:
- Have something to say.
- Say it in a way that makes readers see differently or understand differently—that provides a new angle or a new insight, without necessarily doing acrobatics to try to be different.
- Say it with style—a style that has texture, that readers can savor.
- Make it memorable—words, phrases, thoughts, images that will stay in readers' minds for days—perhaps years—that will give them something to ponder.
- Develop it beautifully (whether the subject is beautiful or not)—with a quality that carries readers along with you, whether elegantly or on a bumpy (but meaningful) road.
May you break any of these guidelines? Of course. Surprises are always welcome. Write what you feel called to write the best you can. Enjoy writing—I'll enjoy reading it. Good fortune!
What, for you, makes a poem in traditional verse feel fresh and contemporary?
The trend in contemporary traditional verse is to interpret form rules loosely, sometimes to the point where the spirit of the form is there, but the body isn't. So I consider a traditional verse poem that takes some liberties with the original rules to be one way of making the verse contemporary. I should add here that as a judge, I will categorize a poem as free verse if it veers absurdly far from the classic form it represents.
There are also other ways that a traditional form can feel more up-to-date, such as using today's vernacular instead of obsolete language, such as thee, thou, whilst, etc. Or, the poet can introduce a modern slant on an historical event or person. There were several excellent examples of villanelles and sonnets that employed this approach in last year's Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest. Also, a modern happening or person can be placed in an earlier era through traditional verse. I haven't seen this as much, but it can be very effective, and it's a innovative way to make a poem feel fresh.
What poetic qualities do you look for in free verse, to differentiate it from prose?
In free verse, I look for conciseness and use of poetic devices, such as metaphors, similes, alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme. I also look for sound and rhythm in the words, which delight the ears as much as the mind. Free verse, along with all other forms, often has more of an intensity, an excitement, than prose. It's the gelato where prose is the ice cream. In addition, there's a maverick quality to free verse, a willingness to break the rules of convention.
How can poets figure out whether our contest is a good fit for their work?
That's easy. Winning Writers Poetry Contests are a good fit for all poets. They are professionally and ethically run and have historically chosen fine poems as winners who receive high-end monetary prizes. Plus, the winning poems stay indefinitely on the Winning Writers website.
It could be important, however, to be sure that a poem is entered in the appropriate Winning Writers Contest. For example, strictly humorous poems probably would be better entered in Winning Writers' Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest rather than in the Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest.
As a judge and reader, I'm not opposed to humor. There were many excellent rhyming humorous poems entered this last year, and I enjoyed them greatly. However, a solely humorous poem, no matter how good the form or its "funny factor", loses much of its effect after the first one or two readings, while poems that are multi-layered have the potential to become more meaningful with each reading. That to me is one of the more important qualities in a winning poem. Winning poems get multiple readings before ending placements are made.
Of course, it's possible to combine humor with more serious subject matter in the same poem, and that can create a powerful piece. These would be very competitive in the Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Contests.
Do you have any pet peeves as a contest judge? E.g. over-used themes, clichés, awkward line breaks...
I'm not a fan of poems that tell me directly, as a reader, what to think or feel. I want to see language used in a way that allows me to come to my own conclusions. This kind of writing can be summed-up by the commonly-used phrase, Show/Don't tell.
Impact will be far greater if the poet empowers the readers in this way. It's accomplished through the use of examples, action, and dialogue rather than through directives. Description also can be effective if there is minimal use of adjectives. In place of most adjectives, I like to see similes and metaphors that let the reader come up with the words beautiful, ugly, bossy, etc.
What are the greatest rewards of being a contest judge?
I like having a tiny influence on what defines good poetry in our time. I love poetry, so when I judge, I'm living right in the center of one of my greatest passions. Almost as important to me, though, is how much I learn during the process. When I evaluate a poem and come across a word, phrase, place, social custom or poetic form that's unfamiliar to me, I research it. In so doing, I often come away from a judging experience, especially after a big contest, feeling as though I've completed an intensive college class. This is especially the case with international contests such as Winning Writers and Voices Israel's Reuben Rose Poetry Competition.
And then there's the knowledge gleaned from the poems themselves; I've learned in depth about worlds I barely knew existed. I also feel a kind of kinship with each poet whose poem I read. I like that too. I have a tendency to talk out loud to the poets during or after a read, giving feedback, etc., and since I do much of my poetry-related activities at coffee shops, I imagine other customers think I'm slightly unbalanced. I do confess to laughing and crying over a lot of poems, both in and out of coffee shops.
Do you encourage writers to re-submit the same poems in future years (or revised versions thereof), or would you prefer new work each time?
Absolutely I'm open to reading repeat poems. Poetry contests are like perfect storms, in that so many variables have to fall into place for a winning poem to happen. And the quality of the poems as a whole will vary from year to year. A poem that didn't quite make it to the finals list one year may very well do so the following year, even with the same judge. Winning a prize is as much about who and what else has entered as it is about the quality of a poem.
I particularly like to see revised poems.
How do you know when a poem is "done"? What are the signs of over-revision?
Well, I never consider a poem finished. Recently, I made a minor change in a poem after its twelfth publication. I encourage this kind of growing a poem as we grow as poets. Why not? Our poems belong to us as long as copyrights have been returned.
But of course, we must have some way of knowing when to introduce a poem to the world. Here is the list of steps I take before I submit a poem for publication or contest consideration:
- Ask one or two trusted poets to read and honestly comment on the poem and then welcome constructive criticism. I trade new but final draft poems with a couple of poets whom I respect. Often we don't see our own mistakes when we proof because we read what we intended to write rather than what we actually wrote.
- Print the poem in a significantly different font and size from the usual one. It will look as though it's been written by someone else. I started this exercise when my poems came back in published journals, and I could immediately see problems that I hadn't seen when the poems were in my familiar format.
- Read the poem out loud several times. Doing so exposes problems, especially with rhythm. Musicality is as important, although not as formally dictated, in free verse as it is in other forms. Some computers have options where documents can be read out loud by different voices with varied accents. This can be helpful and also fun to hear your poem read by various computer voices.
- Then read the poem for an audience. This is important because it causes the reader to hear the poem through the ears of others. Syntax or awkward line-length problems will announce themselves as stumbling blocks.
I change something in a newly-written poem nearly every time I read it in front of people. This is one of the valuable benefits to participating in poetry readings. Of course it is possible to over-revise. To check for that, I read the poem and sometimes ask someone else to read it as well, to check for the following:
- Has the poem become boring or tedious to read?
- Is it too long or too filled with details that would be better saved for prose?
- Is it repetitive (outside of repetition used as a poetic device) or too explanatory?
My favorite bedtime reading is the great Irish writer Frank O'Connor. I never tire of his short stories or insights. Rather than pretending to have great advice, I defer to him because I have an affinity for what he terms "might-have-beens" or "outlawed figures wandering at the fringes of society." O'Connor said, "There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness." (The Best of Frank O'Connor, Knopf, 2009). He also wrote extensively about childhood though he was an only child. He's said, "Children...see only one side of any question and because of their powerlessness see this with hysterical clarity." So that's a small essential for writing—look at marginalia, the smallest, youngest, the never-was, the never-will-be.
Tim O'Brien talks of the consoling power of stories: "If I'm lying in bed at night I'm a little less lonely in a lonely universe. Stories connect me not just to other people, but to myself." Is that another way of saying you need to write a feel-good story? It is not. When we manage to plumb the heart, we touch the reader's heart. It may sting, comfort, sadden, dishearten even, but the touch is the measuring rod.
Essays are a horse of a different color. Opaque doesn't work well in essays; a through line does. I want to follow the complexity of an argument but need markers along the way, like subheadings and bullets. The main lesson I've learned from writing a column is the necessity of moving from the personal to the universal/global. Being 100% personal reads as smug or self-indulgent and tries the reader's patience. Being transparent has enormous value, but the writer has to lead the reader from the deeply intimate detail, e.g. a family tragedy, through extrapolation to the deeper meaning in the detail.
Sometimes, the elements of an essay are like a family—they don't all get along. Some people suffer from too little or too much closeness to a relative. Nowhere is copy and paste handier than in essay writing. Set your essay with care like you would a family dinner. And, remember, you can't invite everybody to everything, even if they are family. You can't dump all your set pieces into one essay.
Soma Mei Sheng Frazier offers her advice to poetry contestants at Winning Writers:
What, for you, makes a poem in traditional verse feel fresh and contemporary?
Poetry is as ancient and persistent as war, so I'll quote military strategist Sun Tzu:
There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.
There are not more than five primary colours, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.
There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of them yield more flavours than can ever be tasted.
(Sun Tzu, The Art of War)
Being intimately familiar with the vast poetic terrain, a skilled traditional poet can adeptly navigate meter and structure—guiding readers unwaveringly toward the destination—in a singularly modern way. Thoughtful inclusion of today's events, perspectives, vernacular or themes can render even the strictest villanelle contemporary. And a slight, strategic bending of the rules can make a sonnet feel utterly fresh. Shakespeare took occasional liberties. Poet, so can you.
Consider Samsara Turntable, a crown of sonnets by Lois Elaine Heckman of Milan, Italy—winner of the Traditional Verse category of 2013's Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest. The sonnets span the arc of a mother-daughter relationship, traveling nimbly back and forth in time between two appearances of the one stunning, transforming line that opens and closes the work: "Her hand is cold and trembles into mine." With thoughtful manipulations of common language we hear every day, Heckman zooms in close on doctors in bleached white smocks; a grapefruit tree displaying its golden baubles—zooms out again to ponder the symbiosis of parenthood; the horrors and discoveries of dementia. These are not your great-grandfather's sonnets.
What poetic qualities do you look for in free verse, to differentiate it from prose?
Robert Mezey, poet and professor emeritus, once said to me: "Prose is an opening form. Poetry is a closing one." So in free verse, I look for linguistic closure: a finality of language—a satisfying precision, throughout the work and especially in the poem's last line—even if its narrative is left unresolved. Beyond that, I really expect poetry to follow the advice of another great teacher—my second grade teacher, Mrs. Brown. "Show, don't tell," she'd remind us when we wrote our wobbly-lettered stories. "Make it so I can understand and experience whatever you're writing about." Thank you, Mrs. Brown, for imparting the purpose of nearly every poetic device: metaphor, imagery, alliteration.
How can poets figure out whether our contest is a good fit for their work?
Here, I'll let the interviewer answer the question for the interviewee: check out Jendi Reiter's spot-on advice on selecting the right poetry competition. Once you have, you'll see why Winning Writers offers more than one contest category.
Because each category is adjudicated professionally and ethically, and Winning Writers has a long history of choosing winners who go on to produce more high-caliber work (and paying these winners well) each category receives hundreds, in some cases thousands, of entries from the US and beyond. So my advice for ensuring that your work is competitive in the Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest is this: read your poem aloud, listening as though it were being read by a stranger.
Imagine yourself seated in a sunlit café, on a rumbling train or in a doctor's waiting room and overhearing the poem read. Could you stop listening?
If you could, go back to the drawing board. Your work still needs revision. If you couldn't, your poem is ready for this contest.
Do you have any pet peeves as a contest judge? E.g. over-used themes, clichés, awkward line breaks...
I don't have pet peeves, and here's why: I've been called on to help screen/judge work for a number of literary contests, ranging from literary journals' competitions to the Kore Press Short Fiction Award to Youth Speaks poetry slams to the City of Oakland's Youth Poet Laureate competition. And at one time or another, every pet peeve I held as a judge was forcefully dispelled.
Never rely on general words that one might hear in a platitude (like "beautiful", "evil", or "tragic") I thought, till a poem said something extremely specific with general, flowery, oft-used words—turning those words on their heads to make me gasp audibly. Never write about writing, I thought, and particularly not in rhyme, till a rhymed poem about writing raised goosebumps down my spine.
So go on: write another poem about birds, or your last breakup. Create a natural-disaster-based metaphor. Use the image of a red rose in your work—albeit one that's so ubiquitous Rite Aid builds Valentine's Day campaigns around it. When you do it, though, do it well. Give me goosebumps. Give me gasps.
What are the greatest rewards of being a contest judge?
Like everyone these days, I've got a lot on my to do list: help shape and run my department at the college where I chair and teach; edit a multimedia publication; finish a novel; finish a screenplay; collaborate on a stage play; edit my second prose chapbook for release this spring. And beyond all that lie the demands of life and parenthood: drive my daughter here, drive my daughter there, keep her alive and feed her and such.
It's the nature of the world we live in.
What better, then, than mandated reading time; being forced—by my role as judge and responsibility to study each contest entry closely—to read and reread poems? This justified literary luxury is the greatest reward of being a contest judge, as I'm not only giving, but also receiving something unique from each submission I read. Inevitably there's an unfamiliar word, a mesmerizing line, a distinct or devastating image that grabs and rattles me; sparks emotion, research, dialogue or a poem in answer; pulls me back into the reading or pushes me out the door with some dawning realization. And I'll admit something, too: as the editor of a literary journal and the organizer of multiple literary events, sometimes I steal authors from contests. I look them up online and, if their information is public, contact them to solicit new work or a public reading.
Do you encourage writers to re-submit the same poems in future years (or revised versions thereof), or would you prefer new work each time?
Revisions, to me, are new work: I can't count the times I've sent a poem or story off to a contest, then edited the heck out of it and submitted it anew. Sometimes the revision is transformed beyond recognition. Other times, I've changed just a sentence or two yet in doing so altered the tenor of the entire piece. And it's paid off. I've had editors and judges pass on one version and reward another. So yes: I do encourage revised work.
Regarding resubmission of an earlier entry: I don't strongly encourage it, as I want to provide incentives for poets to keep writing; keep revising. But I don't discourage it either, as there are those times when a poem nearly makes the cut, but, due to some variable such as the quality of the other entries, doesn't quite. In those instances, it may have a good chance in another year's contest.
How do you know when a poem is "done"? What are the signs of over-revision?
There are myriad ways in which to strengthen a piece of writing; myriad alternate versions. So perhaps the closest a poem can come to "done" is to relay the intended experience to the target readership; deliver the right message to the correct recipients. I stop tinkering with my own work only once I've received satisfying feedback from four or five bluntly honest people who represent the audience I want to reach with a particular piece.
One of those people is myself. So I'll examine the poem in several fonts (the visual is potent, as any graphic poet knows: sometimes the unfamiliarity of larger, smaller, or sans serif lines will jar me into seeing something new). I'll ask someone to read it to me, then read it aloud myself (first sitting, then standing; first alone, then for others). If I've overworked it, it'll no longer ring true in my own ears. Then I'll set it aside. This is hard, but I do it. I leave it alone for a few days. When I come back to it, I know whether it's done.
Poems are tricky, aren't they? So in making this decision and all others—for my own work, and for that of the poets whose entries I judge—I've always got to look closely, and more than once. As I began with Sun Tzu, I'll end with Sun Tzu:
"To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear." (Sun Tzu, The Art of War)