Writing Contest: Seen from the Inside

I published my first book through a writing contest. After a year of rejections (maybe 50? maybe 100?) I received the magic phone call: “This is Barbara Goldberg,  from The Word Works. I’m calling to tell you that you have won this year’s Washington Prize.” I was speechless. Dear, wonderful Barbara couldn’t help pouting just a little: “I was hoping you would scream,” she admitted.  I coudn’t; I could barely breathe.

You think it will never happen. And then it does. There’s a long gap between my first and second books, and many kinds of satisfaction that came my way during the intervening years, but nothing will ever match the high of that one day. Out of almost 600 entrants, my book was chosen. I was…The chosen one!

Many years later, I approached The Word Works president, Karren Alenier, for advice about starting a small poetry press. She urged me, instead, to join the ranks of The Word Works volunteers by serving as a judge for the Washington Prize, then to look around for how I might get involved in their long-established organization.  A glimpse from the inside? I said yes.

That first year of judging was fascinating, to say the least. The twelve finalist manuscripts were dang dog-eared by the time I showed up in DC for the day-long meeting to choose one winner. That year was unusual: we were almost unanimous in our selection of Richard Carr’s Ace, and I was awarded the honor of making the call to let him know he was about to be published. Oh! And he’d receive a check for $1500, which would perhaps replace what he’d recently spent on postage, ink, paper, etc., in his life as a poet.

Carr, like myself, was speechless. In fact, he had to call me back because he was having trouble marshalling his thoughts. But that’s another story! (We were his fourth book publication acceptance in the course of a single year, after 20 years of waiting.) Richard and I worked together on the manuscript, and the fine and striking book came out in 2008.

I became more and more involved at The Word Works. I joined the board, served as editor, and in 2010 became president (to give Alenier a rest!). During that time, I ran the process for, helped judge, and edited the Washington Prize winner. Here’s some of what I’ve learned:

  •           No contest survives without volunteers. Even the ones supported by university presses are now gasping for breath as budgets are cut and the arts suffer. The readers, editors, and even judges (who are paid peanuts, if anything at all)  serve purely out of their love of poetry and keep the entire process moving forward. When you send in your manuscript, your fate is in the hand of folks much like yourself. For better or for worse, Famous Judge (if that’s how the process concludes) only sees the manuscripts forwarded by at least one round of screening. At The Word Works, we have two rounds of screening: first and second readers successively narrow the pool to about a dozen books.
  •           Personal taste does have a role to play, for better or for worse. Still, I have been impressed at how often one of the readers, whose taste I’m familiar with, forwards a book that is nothing like his or her own style or preferred school of poetics. This is reassuring, isn’t it? I’ve seen an experimental poet forward narrative work; a confessional poet forward very philosophical formalism; a writer of colloquial persona poems promote the most imagist, mysterious book in the pile. Keep in mind that your book is highly unlikely to be read in two successive years by the same reader; it’s well worth submitting more than once.
  •           The beauty of it all: a good contest reads “blind.” No reader knows who anyone is. You can have three books out already or you can be just starting out; male or female; in your teens or your eighties: no one knows for sure. At the final judging session, we sometimes indulge in some wagers about the writer’s gender or age–but only after we know which book we’ll be publishing. And please note: we’ve often disagreed and so each of us has been dead wrong. We’ve learned from that: never assume! Once I am returning manuscripts, I do look at the author information page. Why? Sometimes I’m rejecting someone I know, and I want to include a note. Also I want to get a sense of the breadth of our submissions geographically. Lastly, I do want to see what kind of publishing history our entrants are presenting. I do it because it’s interesting.
  •           Sending out those “No…Sorry…” letters is one of the hardest things I have to do all year. I know from personal experience how hard it is not to take that “no” …personally. So at The Word Works we provide some feedback to all semi-finalists and finalists who request it. As far as I know, however, we are unique in this regard. And I know why! I give most of the month of August every year to this project. But then the thank yous start arriving: “I said to myself that if it didn’t win this time, I would stick this ms in a drawer and forget about it forever. Now I have ideas for revision and the energy to keep going.” I know that book, which was a semi-finalist, will see print eventually. It’s grueling to find a publisher, but it’s going to happen if that writer sticks with it. The book had some snags, but it was original, powerful, full of juice.
  • This year six manuscripts were withdrawn because the writer received an offer of publication elsewhere. This was especially striking because not one of those manuscripts had made it to the semi-finalist round in our contest process! See what I mean about individual taste playing a role? And perseverance? I look forward to seeing those books in print, and I’m grateful for the number of small presses out there who are also getting poetry out into the world. I guess my advice to poets looking for a home for their books is not to rely on contests alone; troll websites like P&W or SPD to find out who’s publishing poetry, check the individual websites, find out who accepts unsolicited work, check out their authors online to see if there’s any sympatico vibe–and SEND.
  • It’s true that I do see more than one book in the submissions that I’d love to publish. What to do? Find more money. Find more volunteers.  Start another contest. Start an open submission period. Find a rich aunt. Befriend the heirs to Microsoft. I have many ideas, but only so many hours in the day. Over and over I come back to this thought: thank god for the many poets who have decided to donate some time in order to help the publishers of poetry keep the wheels moving during this time when there’s no money IN poetry. As I’m sure you know, that’s what those perishing fees are all about.

If you want to learn more about what “works” and what doesn’t, vis a vis rising up out of the slush pile, the best thing you can do is become one of those volunteer readers. The new readers I solicited in 2009 to help out all reported back that it was an enlightening experience. Each one began to view her or his own manuscript(s) in a new way. Three of them have since had books accepted–one by…you guessed it…a prestigious national poetry book contest.

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Bringing to Birth: Poetry of Motherhood

[This review first appeared in the Fall 2009 Sow’s Ear Poetry Review. By arrangement with the editor, these reviews appear one issue later here on my blog. For the most up-to-date reviews, subscribe to The Sow’s Ear!]

Christine Hume, Lullaby (Ugly Duckling Presse 2008)

Eleni Sikelianos, Body Clock (Coffee House Press 2009)

Barbara Ungar, Origins of the Milky Way (Gival Press 2007)

We write poems not just to cram our own experience into a stranger’s head, but to push ourselves through the membrane of ego. Out beyond, the “I” might dissolve (terrifying to contemplate) but also might unite with the enormous, difficult beauty of Otherness.

What forces us to this place in daily life? Loss certainly does. Jolts of transcendence also cause us to reach for the pen. Joy. And our fascinating miseries! But motherhood, which hurls us into all of these conditions, and which will not take “Must rest” or “Oops, I’m not ready!” as an answer, is one of the best catalysts. The subject has been hijacked, candy-coated and polluted by such powerhouses as Victorian culture and the post-war Fifties in America. Luckily, artists and feminists set out to rescue us from the sickly-sweet ideal that had shrink-wrapped the experience and denied the complexity of the role.

Three recent volumes of poetry refuse to pussyfoot around the subject: no false promises of effortless pastel harmony, no platitudes about nurturing. These books enact motherhood’s cosmic rearrangements, the way it dissolves and reforms the mother, the way she creates the Other from her intimate body and then sets it free. Motherhood leads these writers not to hover gloating over the cradle but to existential outer space, to political and quantum questioning and our genderless best nature.

Christine Hume fills the handsome chapbook Lullaby: Speculations on the First Active Sense with a single long poem. The child in the womb hears the voice of its mother before it knows “she” and “I,” before any introduction to the world. Or are we eavesdropping as the universe speaks to the mother, who hears in new ways? The poem mingles these perspectives in a fusion/confusion/transfusion of oceanic oneness.

Themes of voice and rhythm steer the poem, lifting it beyond the biographical:

You are used by that rhythm

Carried into a patch of stars that pitch mnemonic-deific-amnesiac fits

Rhythm localizes the infinite

The poem asserts that rhythm reveals the parts of us that arose before language, memory, dichotomy and dialectic, before the idea of self:

Rhythm repairs a fragment

There is no argument, there is hypnotic pass

By instinct and by pleasure, it hovers

The poem itself builds rhythmically to its climax. A driving energy in the lines, like contractions, forces us out:

Hearing the cry, you mindlessly fill with milk

It keeps you learning to swim

Adjusting your rhythm to that of the waves, the undertow

Pineal gland gladdening

That havoc of rocking again

Faraway a train trembling like fire

A sound that wants to interfere with your wakefulness

Rhythm liberates what rhythm would contradict

Lullaby unselves you as it sugars you up

Listen your mama is gone, your papa is gone

Listen, listen lullaby goes on

This song transcends the traumas of birthing, the necessity of loss. It reminds us that where the life force is strongest, comfort is found. Mother and child are both urged not back toward the union and isolation of their private bond, but out into the world. Though this world needs saving from its own “contaminated branches,” we love its brilliance and music.

Barbara Ungar’s erudite, gutsy, read-’em-to-your-friends Origins of the Milky Way marvels at the entire process of gestation, from the strange and beatific invasion of pregnancy to the division back into independent selves. Deceptively accessible, the poems are crafted and clever without losing heart or depth. Musicality, metaphor, and allusion are so interwoven with the story of each poem that no strain or self-consciousness taints the reader’s pleasure. If I had to recommend one book to give all your friends on this subject, Origins of the Milky Way would be my pick.

We begin pregnancy in wonder, in “This euphoria/as if someone rubbed petals//of opium poppy all over/me, inside and out.” One source of wonder is that in spite of oneness, otherness is never forgotten:  “I’ve become a door./Someone’s knocking.” Ungar’s “other” grows from “A butterfly wing…a liquid hiccup?” to

No more tadpole or darting fish—

when you move now, the slow coils

of a python rearrange their knot . . .

Mothers will recognize the muscular truth of this imagery. Other readers can taste the eerie, visceral delight.

Ungar’s images are both frolicsome and tough-minded. In “Coup,” she pictures:

My uterus, swollen with power,

has taken over Central Command:

on auto-pilot, bones loosen, ligaments

go soft, hormones flood, all systems

on count-down

to blast-off . . .

concluding that the uterus is “the Juggernaut,/the Great Beast, Mother of us all.” Even describing labor she manages to make us laugh: “Dante, had he watched,/would have fainted.” In “Riddle” she is almost teasing:

There’s a penis deep inside me,

getting bigger every day.

I’m growing balls

& big teats all at once.

I’m of two minds, two mouths,

four thumbs.

I’ve got a pair

of hearts.

This double-heartedness carries through to the dual duties of mother and poet. The mother’s unflagging kindness and the poet’s absolute truthfulness pull against each other, forcing the mother-poet to the edge of language. How can a mother announce, “sometimes I step on a landmine/of rage and have to put you/ down”? But how can the poet not write it? This mother-poet is true to both imperatives.

In Body Clock, with its non-narrative style, Eleni Sikelianos provides a quirky contrast. Dense and lush, her layered lines make quixotic leaps. These poems teeter at the brink of obscurity, but they never tumble over. Sikelianos’s instinct for image burns past the cunning to the brilliant. Each line enters us with such confidence that every dendrite salutes. Whereas Ungar dances with before and after, bliss and frustration, male and female, Sikelianos puts other pairs in organic tension: conscious and unconscious, productive and destructive, controlled and uncontrollable.

Body Clock struggles with the fact that the most complete and miraculous creation the speaker will ever generate is beyond her control—impossible to will in any conscious way. There is no “artistry,” no talent proven by procreating. She is on the one hand “an agent having power/ to reduce, destroy, or consume,” “a doggess sciomancer divining love/ and hate by means of shadow and cloud,” but on the other hand as small as the black palmetto bugs who make it

through the dark halls of cryptography,

nanotechnologists of the celled night

in us: 100 trillion tiny containers,

apartments for vacant lots / thoughts & makings

of vacuoles . . .

This is by no means a stance of hopelessness. In the new form of creation, “A creamy froth comes.” Images of fertility and generous expansion abound, which “the earth sprung forth, kernel by kernel.” As motherhood catalyzes humility, it stuns us with perfections, from Palmetto bugs to the rock that “makes a/ thought, spinning/ out (its word/ alters us).” We become “the embroiderer’s thread moving.”

Sikelianos’s core image is the body clock. It conveys her new experience of time: a spring moves us, unwinds us. A simple moment bends space, so that her daughter arrives “from the placenta’s vascular sheets//touching all the quantum fields she walked through to/greet me.” In one section, she tries to convey time’s physical shape. She sketches a minute (which looks a bit like an orange), writes about the attempt to draw it, and tells what time felt like as she drew. The palpable, intense newness of the mother’s world magnifies time:

watch a yellow

curve, curve yellow—can you? and a

pool of shadow. How the lemon

dives into its own (shadow), or is birthed

from an umbilicus

of it like

Venus on a darker wave.

Two pools of shade intersect. You learn

that the lemon has a half-life

of light. This lemon might

hurl itself from space

torpedoing like a sun-field into

the baby-sphere. Yellow [f]lies down in the bed

of the lemon, wakes

the baby who was sleeping there

like a hard bar of sunlight.

Still she cannot tell “What are the parts between the minutes, the seams between, how to count such silent machinery?”

Again and again, Sikelianos pushes metaphor to a startlement, as when we see “the blossom misplaced its minute, I mean its tiny smog-dusted microscope” or we hear “A’s and E’s—vowels so/radiant they’re waterproof,” or

a bead a bead in the long

string of living

things how

the Ferris wheel of Barcelona will show you more world.

Transformed by motherhood, we inhabit a new country. Each atom and color and fence is new, both lighter and more dense with reality.

Love drives these three poets to ask, Can we rectify what has been done to the world? At first the political theme seems secondary, but cherishing what is gives birth to the desire to rescue what is harmed. No saccharine kindness, this drive has the urgency of our age and its precarious perch on the edge of irretrievability. After all, Sikelianos reminds us, the child “puts flesh on the future.” Hume’s speaker won’t lie; the child faces a “hair-raising childhood,” maybe “an abyss in every word.” Ungar says, “If I wanted to spare you, I should never //have brought you here.” Sikelianos’s Robot Angels rise

with eyes of industrial imagination

Sky rolls back to its black

bones & hooks;                 We hang.

There is no easy fix. Ungar admits that “Since his birth, I dissolve/at the merest pinch of death.” But when she catches her infant son chewing up a grisly newspaper story just for the feel of the paper on his gums, she sees him sitting “so beautifully, upright and plumb,/smiling young Buddha/who eats all suffering.” Sikelianos owns her “true human monster,” but promises “you too shall be honeyed/in palindromes of gold.” From these poets we learn to mix ruthless honesty with love. Perhaps that is grounds enough for hope.

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Chapbooks: A World in Your Pocket

A Thirst That’s Partly Mine (Slapering Hol Press, 2008) by Liz Ahl
Japanese for Busy People
(FinishingLine Press, 2008) by Judy Halebsky
Further Adventures of My Nose (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2nd edition 2008) by John Surowiecki

CHAPBOOK: WORLD IN YOUR POCKET
This review originally appeared in The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Summer 2009.

A book, but not. Smaller, easier to produce, and deeply rooted in the history of publishing, the chapbook insinuates itself where full-length books cannot. And somehow the chapbook soldiers on even in this age of digital derring-do. For me, an excellent new chapbook leaves any webzine in the cyberdust. Similarly, that perfect loaf of French bread cannot be share a Wikipedia entry with the hamburger roll. Sure, they’re both carbohydrates, but…

The most obvious advantage of the chapbook is the thematic unity a writer can create in the shorter format. This can be seen in the Camber Press’s annual prize-winners, always honest and startlingly current. The Packing House Cantata (2006) by William Trowbridge packs gritty and/or slick-with-blood tales of Chicago’s abbatoirs that ring with truth both literal and metaphorical. The 2008 winner, The Sniper and the Spotter by Karen Zealand, pulls the reader under the current of longing, love, and a near-hopeless desire for healing that struggles to cleanse the American mom and her lover, an Iraq war vet. Each Camber Press volume, without padding or digression, presents its world forcefully, and however rough the content, the single-mindedness exploration of theme is harmonious and deft.

Other venues, such as Finishing Line Press, also specialize in this more morsel-like booklet. If (according to Poets and Writers magazine) the average chapbook costs around $500 to produce, a publisher can take a chance on a new voice, as Finishing Line did with Judy Halebsky and her Japanese for Daydreamers. While young talent waits to strike it big winning a book contest (and Halebsky was a finalist for both the APR Honikman First Book Prize and the Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books), a chapbook can begin to share work as a dense, possibly tangier collection a longer volume finishes ripening.

Halebsky’s collection dances between cultures, walking an American/Japanese tightrope inspired by the popular textbook, Japanese for Busy People. Basho makes several passing appearances, and although so do 26th Street and Stanley Park, cool whip and lotto tickets, the evocative slant-wise method of traditional Japanese verse transform the usual post-modern American side-winding. There’s humor too, in titles such as “Zen Monks Talking Big” or details such as the homeless man whose “broke, hungry, will work” sign flips to reveal a second message: “quality sperm available/ bargain price/ everything included.”

The greatest charm of this chapbook is the embedded study of words as they slip between languages, gaining, losing or shifting meanings. The pictograms with accompanying transliterations further layer the implicit meditation on language itself. In her poem “Water Voices,” we see how one translation springboards the poem:

a water heart
means how to swim

how to make yourself float
how to be light enough to laugh
to float when it’s already dark
and the doctors have their X’s and O’s
and the birds are already south
and the leaves have fallen to puddles and sidewaks and ditches

how to float with no mooring
the jasmine in Berkeley in December
the gingko leaves yellow in all corners of the street
the way we prop ourselves up to dawn

Halebsky has a light, deft touch, brought out optimally in this condensed collection. Enigmatic but fragrant lines, mysterious half-translations that birth a flight of melancholy/wry imagery, and the speaker’s alternating digestion of an elusive darling father and cherished but ill mother—all intertwine to conjure a tonal unity. As a promise of more to come from this poet, Japanese for Daydreamers fulfills one of the great destinies of the chapbook form: to mark the halfway point in the development of a book.

Cohesion also characterizes Liz Ahl’s A Thirst That’s Partly Mine, winner of the 2008 Slapering Hol chapbook competition. Her work here pays homage to the grand tradition of nature poetry, but without sentimentality or prettifications. Beauty still jolts us alive in her lines, but the human world’s imperfections and meddlings are in constant gentle juxtaposition. From the lyrical “Intertidal” to the amusing “The Bat in the Dorm Room,” from “Famous Trainer Drowned by Killer Whale” to “Signs, Spring,” Ahl asks whether we can learn to coexist with nature in a way that neither presumes to tame nor denies the paradox of our concomitant “oneness” with and separateness from Nature with a capital “N.”

A Thirst That’s Partly Mine asks how we can approach nature rightly. In “The Mushroom Poem,” we see the writer haunted by the mushroom’s otherworldiness. She admits that “Part/ of me loves the mushroom. Part/ of me wants it gone,” and sees one answer to that tension in writing itself:

Each day the mushroom grows,
widens, yellow-specked, stretches—
until, finally, I have
to turn back from the window,
to start writing this poem.

The poem—and, indeed, this very wise collection—turns upon the poet’s knowing that we can barely grasp the very edge of what Nature is.

…I’m writing this poem
which grows like the white mushroom
and I am skeptical and
wary like the crows; I am
black against it, skittish and
citified, never having
written a mushroom poem
before.

But the collection doesn’t assert that we cannot experience a genuine bond with the beyond of Nature. Pondering the “revival meeting” of spring peepers, or sooty juncos, “Their tiny hollow bones/…jazzed into flight by my shadow,” Ahl knows affection and wonder, though she reminds us it’s not a two-way street. When nature responds to us, it’s not out of love or wonder, but misperception, as with the peepers:

so happy to see the gigantic beams
of my brights as they sweep past,
two crazy moons
they want to serenade

She maintains a distinction between human observation (from her house, in her car, on her deck, while reading Oedipus Rex) and the realities of the natural world. Then for fun she turns this on its head, and projects like crazy in “How the World Will End,” perhaps to contrast our human inability to remain in balance/connection with the deeply and irrevocably inter-connected elements of nature:

The earth will start thinking
about how the moons snores all night.
How it used to be endearing, sweet.
How it’s not anymore.

Summer and winter will have a secret affair,
leaving spring and fall angry and confused.

The fox will stop chasing the rabbit,
but the rabbit won’t realize it.

The roots will storm off in a huff,
crying to the tree,
Why do we do all the work around here?

The poem climaxes with “The stars will want to say something,/but won’t.// The universe will refuse to take sides,” giving the last word to that ultimate neutrality of Nature, which humans cannot achieve.

Impossible to describe this book without reference to its seductive physical presence. This sensuously clean volume demonstrates the exquisite care given to book production still by some rare publishers; the cut-away window of the front cover permits a glimpse of the inside print of stylized water droplets, which appear first on translucent and then on opaque paper, perfectly aligned so as to seem a single image, followed by paper of quality so high you want to rub your face on the pages.

Tied with Slapering Hol for the grand prize for book production is Ugly Duckling Presse. On the forefront of avant-garde publishing, their creation of book-as-object is always meticulous and even reverential. Unlike Camber Press, which has a signature style shared by all its chapbooks, UDP prides itself on book design that responds directly to the call of each text. The square, sturdy book-jacketed presentation of Leonard Schwartz’s The Library of Seven Readings (2008), for instance, contrasts the tall, see-through-end-papered Lullaby: Speculations on the First Active Sense (2008), whose earthy yet elegant cover pockets a CD of text with music inside the front cover.

My favorite UDP chapbook, though, had to be John Surowiecki’s rollicking Further Adventures of My Nose, detailing the relationship between speaker, nose, nose’s tumor, nose’s escape from speaker and resulting travels (or, read: speaker’s alienation from nose when tumor is discovered). Formally elegant verses lend a delightfully perplexing dignity to the whimsy here, the voice sometimes mock-serious and the underlying brush with death seriously serious. Swift descriptions are lush and striking, as in “A Nose of Color”:

He has become a nose of color;
unfortunately, that color is purple,
darkening to ruby unparagoned,
color of Crab, of shadows sliding
along fresh morning snow…

In “A World w/o Odors,” we enter the new deprivation:

This is a darkness of another kind, a place
of dead shapes & flat sounds where nothing
rides on the air, where lilacs & the ocean
are only sad movies of themselves.

Humor slides into every crevice here, subtle and otherwise; the nose signs one note, “Miss you to pieces, yr Nosenkavalier,” and even treatment is handled with a signature hybrid of leger-de-main and earnestness in “Mme. Curie & the Radium Girls”:

Her clothes, notebooks, even her hankies
can’t be touched. She & the dial painters,
the Radium Girls from Bristol, CT
Clocktown, USA, whose noses are black,
scabbing & all but decomposed, are still
hopeful that the luminous element, Ra
——————- At. Wt. 226 At. No. 88,

the jewel aglow inside Mont Pitchblende,
can be—dare I say it?— miraculous again.
What has eaten at & disfigured them can be
my nose’s salvation, ammo shot from gamma-guns,
forming ropes of firefly light, ropes of hope.

The themes of alienation and connection across distance spar energetically. The traveling nose writes home, missives that form poems such as “E-mail from My Nose [Egypt]” and “E-mail from My Nose [Stratford-on-Avon].” Remote-seeming characters such as the nurse Irene, the King of Spain, the speaker’s mysterious ex, Y——- surface, disappear, and reappear in the saga of the nose/the speaker’s recovery. Yet as in any mythic quest, the nose travels full circle, having exiled the dangerous “Herr Timple” (Tumor + Pimple) and returned to healthy union with the speaker: “I’m all right. My nose is all right./ Everything’s all right. In fact, everything/ can’t be anything but all right.”

Surowiecki developed the 2005 first edition of the chapbook into a play, My Nose and Me, which won the Pegasus Award in Verse Drama and has been produced at AWP, The University of Connecticut, and at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater this February. Once again the chapbook functions to mark the growth of longer projects as they take shape.

My research into the lives and roles of chapbooks surprised me, revealing a number of recent collaborations. Denise DuHamel and Sandy McIntosh with their hilarious and poignant 237 More Reasons to Have Sex (Otoliths 2009), Elizabeth Alexander and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s Poems in Conversation (Slapering Hol Press 2008), Edward Smallfield and Miriam Pirone’s Locate (Dancing Girl Press 2008), and even Surowiecki’s chapbook, which contains tiny, beautifully tipped-in prints by Terry Rentzepis that are a clear collaboration with his text: humorous yet dark, elegant yet modern. Each of these collaborations is original, focused, roiling with energy and invention. So again: how the chapbook affords experiments that most presses shy away from: too hard to produce, categorize, market, name.

Years ago I hiked the southern coastal trail in England, a couple of hand-made chapbooks in my pocket. I read as I walked, taking pleasure in words so portable, fresh again each time I returned to the page. Hundreds of years before, peddlers carried chapbooks, affordable to the ordinary person, often shared among many. About the length of a hand, weighing next to nothing, sewn together with thread, for many these were the first or even the only books ever owned. You could put one together at home tonight. You could cherish, as I do, worn copies of Elaine Handley’s Letters to My Migraine (30 Acre Wood Publications 2006), Denise DuHamel’s Heaven and Heck (Cortland Press 1988), Jared Carter’s Millennial Harbinger (Slash & Burn Press 1985), Sam Hamod’s The Famous Boating Party (Cedar Creek Press, 1970), or T.S. Eliot’s The Dry Salvages (Faber and Faber, 1924), each perfect as itself, each a perfect droplet of its era, each fulfilling one or more of the chapbook’s missions: to provide a taste of further work to come; to present a tight collection of thematically or stylistically related work; to push beyond the usual limitations in a fresh experiment of voice, style or topic; or quite plainly to get some writing out into the world while waiting for a book contract. But don’t forget the body of the book: to fit in the hand, to satisfy the senses, to create an intimate connection between writer and reader, small and complete, without ego or fanfare.

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Ye Olde Question: Can It Be Taught?

piseco trina mushrooms aug 05 003

Every creative writing teacher faces this question. Probably a student is happily proclaiming (or angrily…) that it can’t be taught, therefore s/he should not be critiqued or graded by some rankly subjective instructor who no doubt has some secret agenda anyway and just wants everyone to write like her (or him).

If we’re lucky, the question is asked in genuine curiosity, with a willingness to learn leaning in from one side of the arena and a healthy skepticism looking on coolly from the other.

So what works? This is a question I’d love to hear responses to. Anyone?

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VOICING THE SILENCE: FOUR PAGE-TURNERS

hill pond and deer april 2005 073

Richard Carr, Ace (The Word Works, 2009)

Allen Hoey, Once Upon a Time at Blanche’s (Tamarack Editions, 2009)

Naton Leslie, Emma Saves Her Life (Turning Point, 2007)

Noel Smith, The Well String (Motes Books, 2008)

What happens when a poet creates the voice of a real person, or an imagined person in a particular place and time? And what if this person is silenced by circumstance—by lack of education, leisure, safety, or the conviction that the story should be heard? The temptations are many—to condescend, caricature, misread, impose, or judge. It takes tremendous grace and humility on the poet’s part for such poems to become a gift and not an appropriation.

Four new books succeed admirably at this task. Richard Carr in Ace, Allen Hoey in Once Upon a Time at Blanche’s, Naton Leslie in Emma Saves Her Life, and Noel Smith in The Well String have steeped themselves fully in the voices of characters who have come to occupy whole books of poetry.

The poets work without self-congratulation and with respect for human wholeness. Each of these four page-turners communicates a people and a time. The focus on voice, religiously undertaken, yields results first salty, then subtly spiced. We taste not just the drama of the characters’ lives but also the exact flavor of the silences they endure.

The poems create the sense that someone has listened selflessly, with honesty and compassion. They catch the lyricism of plain speaking, the sweet turn of forgotten diction, the syncopations of other-time phrasing, the blunt and skipping rhythms of everyday speech. The poets tune us to these qualities, speed the tales, and focus attention. They have not just transcribed, but scored this music.
Naton Leslie works from his own memory, from letters his grandmother wrote weekly, and from a scrapbook that she kept from age nine onward. He creates a dialogue between poems in Emma’s voice and poems about her. His portrait glosses over none of her toughness, her occasional self-congratulation, her impatience with the stupid, snooty, selfish, and slothful. In the especially feisty “Emma Readies for a Party,” Emma reflects on the Pennsylvania Farmers Mutual banquet, which she enjoys “except last year”:
… Some of those bitches
from the big farms brought pies
—they didn’t make them either.
Then one of them had nerve
enough to comment on my crust.
She had just had an operation
on a boil on her face, one eye
covered in a pirate patch.

Flat, she said, No flake to it.
I worked half the morning
on pies and bread and now
these fancy fannies were talking.
I wheeled around, lifted her
patch and smacked her right on
the boil. You should’ve seen
her go down. Will said later
I was a hard woman to take
anywhere. I just laughed.

Leslie’s poems build force as they accumulate from individual story to a full life. His restraint is brilliant; he never sentimentalizes, exaggerates, or embroiders—perhaps because Emma never would. Emma surprises the reader with more lyrical passages too, as in “Emma Goes to a Reunion”:

In my day we’d have met on
the family farm, but the old
Lindsay place is long gone,
like our home-place. That’s
a funny notion: My day.
It’s as though these days belong
to someone else, and I’m just
allowed in like a visitor.

Allen Hoey, too, blends narrative with flashes of lyric. He avoids idealizing his characters as he dazzles the reader with astonishingly long persona poems. In his book we soak in the voices of various regulars at Blanche’s, a bar for folks who have seen tough times and keep coming back for the solace of a beer and a shot and for the storytellers roosting there. Each story spins out, relayed to us by an alienated youngster whom the regulars tolerate and eventually accept. He is half witness, half mascot. The layered stories take us deep into the tone and time of men who have made do, hung in, and somehow pulled through. Here is the conclusion of “She Died,” one of the very few shorter poems in the collection:

…They all load up their plates and peck
like birds at the food while they
wander around the living room, into
the dining room, jibberty-jabbing about
what a shame, a godawful tragedy, she’s
so young and what a good job they done,
she looked so pretty, and I just left
and went into the kitchen and got
a bottle of whiskey from the cupboard
and a glass, ain’t no telling what a man
might do he drinks out the bottle,
and I go sit on the porch, but that’s
too close, I can still hear the voices,
like the gabbling of geese rising
and falling up the hill from the pond
near dark, so I take a chair round
the far side of the garage and sit down
and pour myself a splash of the whisky,
and the stars start to come up as my
eyes get used to the dark, and I take
another sip and look up and think,
by Jesus, someday things’ll be ok.

No matter which of Hoey’s regulars is speaking, the voice has a forward-driving urgency. Given his masterful handling of monologue, even the most bogged-down life conveys vitality. This is a rowdy book, tragic and hilarious, a down-and-dirty redemption of a book.
Noel Smith in The Well String manages the small miracle of bridging a century of voices. Her job took her to the hills of Eastern Kentucky, where her listening was complete and generous. She was able to imagine stories and conjure voices back five generations, from 1880 to today. Here is a poem from the middle of the collection, “At the Black Lung Office”:

Listen, they split the top
of these mountains clear off
like a man with his skull scalped.

Now, coal is stone and stone
the bone of earth I reckon.
Ground down clear from here to yon ridge.

You know, that grit claims your eyes,
your ears, your heart, the dust of bone,
black lungs gummed up.

I study how they robbed something they ought not.
The pure bones from the earth itself. I allow
that’s what’s destroying us.

Now, Betty went to Walmart’s and bought
our grandbaby toy earth movers. I declare
he thinks they’re the best things ever was.

Occasionally, Leslie, Hoey, and Smith burst beyond the bounds of their personae. In each book third-person poems mingle with first-person poems, as if the poets feel some side of the story can’t be covered from “inside,” or they need reflective distance. However, the tones and cadences of the characters inform the third-person narratives as well. An example is Smith’s lovely description of a fiddler in “Old Timey Flight.” He takes a song and:

Makes it shimmer like glass in the sun,
Swoops it down back up and around
Like a swallow on the wing again and again
Bringing to himself the spirit
Of Luther Strong that fine old fiddler
Back back in time this tune
Having taken off like a kite in the blue.

In Ace, Richard Carr never strays from the first person. Four scraping-by characters take turns speaking: father, mother, daughter, and grandson. Together these four unhappy wanderers create a dark, eerily harmonious, crescendoing tale of losing and seeking. The four voices are less literal, more likely to break from the actual way a character might speak, for these poems expose barely conscious longings and late-life, even last-minute realizations. Carr names what the silenced cannot say; and while his task may be made less difficult by virtue of the fact that his characters are fictional, portraying the down-and-out with respect and insight is no small feat.
In “Alley Wary,” Ace (senior) dreams of finding his lost grandson (who was aborted, but he probably doesn’t know this):

I see Little Ace fighting in the war
driving his humvee into a fight
which might never end but spread street to street
country to country and into all minds
and into the dreams of little boys certain they will die
in a fight
better that he hide himself
walk down the alley wary
step wide of the overturned dumpster and the dark door
put an end to curiosity
the rustling in a pile of trash bags and greasy boxes
a danger now
better that he hide from me.

Ace’s gritty urban portraits show openly what the other books imply: the loss of deep-rooted community is a tragedy. No matter what we may have gained when we fled the hills and farms, family and the human spirit have suffered to the bone.
All four of these books manage the delicate moral balance required in “creating” someone else’s voice. Maybe every artist owes it to the world to try this: to push down the self under the current, and listen hard to the undercurrent, the voices of others. To do this well calls for practice both in living and in writing. We need to love the people of whom we write, whose struggles compel us. That love needs to be not of the honeymoon variety, but born of long, honest, steadfast commitment. And then the voices may break their silence and ring true.

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Filed under Book Reviews

Watching the August days scroll past, I think about last spring when, a la Scarlett O’Hara, I vowed to write a mountain of poems, to start a website, to find a publisher for book #2, and to do some custodial work on behalf of poetry.

Keats had a thing for them...

Keats had a thing for them...

As this soggy and work-filled summer careens to its inglorious conclusions, I wonder where the hours went. Interestingly, a lot of them went to po-biz instead of to my own poems, or teaching-related work instead of my own poems, or family responsibilities instead of my own poems. But the poems kept coming, luckily, else I’d have to step down from some worth-while projects. This daffodil picture? Remember spring? Yeah, I had big plans, including to weed my garden daily.

Instead, I went out last week amid the reeking green of our sodden New England August and pulled up all my tomato vines, blighted, poisonous to all future generations. I bagged ’em and Steve hauled ’em to the dump. It reminded me of what it’s like to abandon a draft; begun in electric-eyed inspiration, that high all writers know, but somehow later evolved to a useless knob, maybe ugly, maybe embarrassing, maybe even dangerous. Such a flawed poem could drag down a manuscript, sour a magazine to your name, make your poet friends snicker behind your back. Well, that’s the fear, anyway.

So what have I accomplished this summer? The Washington Prize contest process is finished, the announcement of its winner sent off to Poets & Writers; the second book did find a publisher and is due out next spring; and maybe a hill (not the dreamed-of mountain) of poems managed to dig themselves up, shake themselves off, and turn themselves over to my custody. We’ll see if I can keep them corralled.

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Filed under The Writer's Life

Hello world!

At my desk: therefore, in a good mood.

At my desk: therefore, in a good mood.

Welcome to Nancy White’s blog. Nothing too fancy, just articles on the writer’s life, my poetry publishing progress, books under surveillance for review, and the teaching of creative writing.

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