(Still) Catching Up on (Still More) Reading

Greetings blog-o-verse! I write to you from the Playa Artist Residency program in Summer Lake, Oregon, where I’m on the downslope of a four-week stay. I plan to post a piece about my experiences here, but that one will take some time to get written, I think. While here, I’ve been drafting many new poems, poking at some older ones, and catching up on some reading. I wanted to take some time here to call out stuff I’ve read that I’ve particularly enjoyed, especially (but not entirely) by writers I haven’t encountered before. My primary interest here is to share my enthusiasm for works I’ve encountered, to maybe give a tiny signal boost to work I really enjoyed. There are so many writers out there diligently composing and revising—mostly alone—and it just occurs to me that boosting such work is something I want to do more of. This is nothing new, of course—several writers I admire have been doing this for years—championing work they admire not because they are obligated as teachers or friends, but because they are enthusiastic readers and lovers of the word. So, in that spirit—my recent readerly enthusiasms from a few literary journals.


One of the journals on my pile was Ploughshares (Winter 2013-2014), for me an always-reliable source of good stuff to read. I remain haunted by Randi Beck’s story, “By Morning, New Mercies,” and its troubled (to put it lightly) narrator, Ellis Howard. The darkness of this story drew me in laid me flat. Marie Potoczny’s sad and fantastical “Fat” asked for multiple reads as its first-person narrator had it out with her body in bizarre, resonant ways. What an ending. I’ve long been a fan of Kevin Young’s poems, and “Pity” from this issue of Ploughshares is now among my favorites. Its handful of physical details—the “dozen turkey decoys deflating, / bright empty shells” and the pool “now drained, flooding the street // in mock calamity” were well-chosen. Finally, this issue also featured two poems by Josephine Yu, winner of the Ploughshares “Emerging Writer’s Contest” winner in poetry. I loved her rich excess of senses, and the speculating, roving voice and eye. I look forward to reading more from her.


Even though I think I’ve already gushed about them somewhere else (Facebook?), I want to again call attention to April Bernard’s poems, “Bloody Mary” and “Anger,” from the June 2014 issue of Poetry. They are sublime. I keep reading them aloud (unasked, unbidden) to whoever will stand still enough when I’ve got the issue at hand. Bernard will be reading at Plymouth State University on September 18 at 7PM—I wish I could be there to hear her read.


Not on my original pile, but culled from the “finished with” pile of a fellow writer on retreat, The Missouri Review “Ghosts” issue (36.2, 2013) was a lot of fun. Nathan Oates’ ghost story “Mile Point Road” was terrific and actually very scary. Pamela Painter’s dark and hilarious “The Brochures” made me laugh out loud in several parts. “Last Flight” by Peter Levine was another favorite—I love the deftly managed twist in the story, the tension between what both characters reveal and conceal. And Aaron Baker’s collection of poems about the death of his father were really moving, very fine, especially “Rural Especial Scene,” which, apologies to the next reader (I’ll leave the journals I’m reading on the shelf of my cabin at Playa for the next resident)—I had to cut out and scotch-tape into my writing notebook.


I think I might have tweeted this general sentiment before, but I’ll get slightly more specific here: River Styx’s 39th Anniversary issue (91/92) is spectacular. I’m keeping the issue—I can’t bear to part with it. Now, I’ve always relied on River Styx to deliver good stuff, but they’ve really outdone themselves this time. In particular, I’ve dog-eared and re-read and fawned over:

Ellen Bass’ “Chalcid Wasps Emerging,” shines with its perfect language of description and its delicious sounds and rhythms.

Dick Davis’ translations of “Ten Epigrams by Medieval Persian Women Poets” (poems from Az Rabe’eh ta Parvin, ed. Parvin Shakiba)—what a collection! Sharp humor, sweet romance, sadness.

Stephen Dunn’s poem, “Bad Taste” about a writing class gone very wrong and “Masculine,” a great vignette about “being a man.” The darkness in both of these sort of creeps up on me.

Albert Goldbarth’s “Impossible Flying,” not a particularly long poem for him, still reminds me of what a master he is at the grand, expansive, sometimes operatic long poem. Andrea Marcusa’s “Map of Djerba” is a lovely short story about a young boy navigating loss and a huge change in his life. It doesn’t hurt that Star Wars features somewhat prominently in the story as well. Kevin Mims’ “First Frost” is a funny and (not too) clever grudging homage to The Man Himself.

Alison Pelegrin’s “The Comet Thief,” which explores how hard it can be to “undo ennui,” even if one no longer wants to be “corrupter of amazement.” A bittersweet poem that leaves me thinking about what I pay attention to and why.

When I write poems in meter and rhyme, I aspire for them to have the affect of A.E. Stallings “Epiphany,” which is just gorgeous in its evocation of place and time and a mystical moment. Kind of a high bar, yeah.

I am a sucker for poems like “The Ocularist Talks About His Craft,” by Jeanne Wagner—a persona poem buoyed by rich details of the artificial eye-maker’s craft.

I am also a great fan of poems like Robert Wrigley’s “Zippo,” which enter and explore and riff on the lives and histories of apparently simple, everyday objects.

I have been reading a few novels, and of course individual poetry collections. Maybe I’ll blog about those soon. I hope you’ll check out at least one of these writers further—buy a book for yourself, or for someone you think would appreciate it—or subscribe to a literary journal. At the very least, I encourage you to try to do what I’m trying to do—reach out to authors themselves via social media or email with a brief note letting them know they’ve got a fan. I’ve gotten just a couple of those notes over years of publishing—and they are powerful medicine for the lonely writing hours. Happy reading!

About Writing, Publishing

Poetry Publishing, BlazeVox Drama, “Vanity,” Internet Discourse

Yesterday, the internet (okay, my internet anyhow, maybe not yours) was lit up with a conversation about BlazeVox soliciting donations/subsidies connected with accepted mss. If you’d like to get caught up, start here, then go here and then probably here. I imagine there will be other posts as well. [Update: Yep. Here’s one with some calm & useful language for various kinds of publishing.] [Update II: Here’s some really great thinking about the roles of publishers and writers and a better articulation of some differences between publishing and printing than I fumbled through below.]

Reading the blog posts and comment threads has me thinking about a couple of things:

1. The handy speed with which we may now respond — off the cuff — to things we read that  frustrate/enrage us often does disservice to discourse. (I know I didn’t discover this or anything — I am just seeing a good example.) Lots of reply-lobbing, lots of dramatic accusation, all nearly instantaneous. Much of it — not all — anonymous, and then there’s the incivility that is sometimes — not always — fostered by anonymity, especially when it is combined with instantaneousness. (Word Press alleges that instantaneousness is not a word. It is okay with simultaneity, but that’s not exactly the word I wanted…) I’m reminded of when I was learning how the telegraph — a speedy new technology being used by folks who were used to diplomacy existing at a whole other, much slower pace — may have been a contributing cause of the Great War.

2. “Vanity Press” used to mean, didn’t it, that if you had the MONEY, you’d pay someone to publish your mss. You were paying (I think) for access to the means of production, and for the (appearance of) “legitimacy” the existence of your mss in book form (with pages/spine/etc) would convey. Therefore, they were called “vanity” presses because they seemed to cater to vanity above literary quality. Am I wrong about that?  That’s a history I need to read up on.  Anyhow, it seems to me that vanity presses were about supplying access to the means of production. Maybe you were paying to be “printed” and maybe there’s some difference between “printed” and “published.”

Nowadays, many (all?) of us have access to the means of production. No typesetting required. Print away. As one commenter at HTMLGIANT suggested,

“If I were being asked to contribute $250 to the publication of my own book I’d do that by learning InDesign, signing up with Lulu and Amazon, and buying Project Wonderful ads myself.”

I was going to link here to Bill Knott’s poetry blog, but it’s down! Anyhow, Bill learned the technology and has been passionate about offering most of his work for free and/or P.O.D. via Lulu.

The commenter continues: “At this point I’m not sure what the difference is unless (of course) you’re trying to get a job in academia—but even then, I’m sure the committees would look askance at a publisher that’s earned this kind of reputation.”

Ah, yes, the “job in academia.” THAT’S who cares about the difference between your book being “printed” and your book being “published.” Because, of course, the academic cv has NOTHING to do with something as lowbrow as “vanity.” 🙂 And maybe because what we think of as “published” (not just “printed”) has traditionally involved an editorial & promotional apparatus, and that is where the “legitimacy,” if you buy that, resides or is created. The promotional/connections piece of traditional publishing is important, I think — just because you have had your book printed doesn’t guarantee that anyone will buy/read/review it. Although the access to those means (social networking, book fairs, book “trailers” on YouTube, etc.) has also shifted, hasn’t it? Anyhow,  my last post (hardly a post, really, when I’m just pasting together what other people post, but I’m doing what I can) linked to an essay about legitimacy and publishing and tenure/promotion in academia. Check it out.

3. An idea that has come up in this conversation in various ways, an idea I’m chewing on, too: poetry in the U.S. doesn’t appear to have the readership to support the traditional publishing biz/model. A painful and scary and exciting moment as publishers (BlazeVox among them?) struggle into new models, or attempt to create hybrid models to keep themselves afloat. I followed an interesting conversation at Brevity last summer about the notion of charging authors to submit work; Ploughshares charges non-subscriber authors $3 to submit electronically (still no charge other than postage to submit via the post). I bought a “subscription” from Pilot Books last year — I like that idea. Recently, I was invited to “pre-order” a friend’s chapbook to help ensure the first print run at a certain number of copies.  I was happy to do both of those things.

So, that’s the news from Surly Acres this Labor Day. That, and, oh yeah, THANK YOU LABOR MOVEMENT for making it possible for me to have weekends and health insurance and safe working conditions.