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Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Words that Woo Me

Words that, if they are included in a title of a book/poem/essay, will compel me to read that book/poem/essay:

1) a number, any number (or the word 'number')
2) saint
3) blue
4) salt
5) lightning
6) perpetual
7) falling

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Purple Power

Today I got a really great rejection. I say this without sarcasm; I was rejected in the best way possible, with encouragement that my manuscript is good enough to be published in the future (even though this press was rejecting me), and with specific comments on my writing that lifted my spirits. The best part is that this came from a press I consider out of my league, that I only submitted to because the timing was good for me, which it had never been before with this press.

I had been considering whether to stop submitting this manuscript for the time being, but now I will continue (though in the months between when I submitted to this press and today I have strengthened it considerably by pulling the weaker poems and inserting a new section of linked prose poems which I think are pretty strong). I have hope again when until this morning it had been waning.

When I went to enter this rejection in my submissions spreadsheet, I was about to change all the information to red (I color-code my worksheet: black for outstanding submissions, red for rejections, green for withdrawals, and blue for acceptances). I was thinking what a shame it was to code this entry red when I was actually feeling pretty good about the rejection, when I remembered that a month ago I had also received a very encouraging rejection (I'd had to withdraw some poems from the submission when they were accepted elsewhere, and this journal told me they had been very interested in the entire group, and were disappointed when the withdrawal made it impossible to publish the entirety) and had decided to code it in purple because red didn't really reflect what it meant to me. So I happily coded this near miss purple too.

This is, I think, a good practice: to consider encouraging rejections as positive, and to remember them that way. Now when I see purple on my spreadsheet, I'll feel encouraged (not as encouraged as when I see blue entries in a sea of red, but still...). Appreciate your near misses; not everybody gets them.

Friday, April 26, 2013

(Not) Sleeping On It

Sleep-wise, I've had an abysmal week. I suffer from a kind of insomnia known as early morning wakefulness, which means that I have no trouble getting to sleep, but staying asleep is a real problem. For the past six months or more, I've been waking up in the mornings at 4:00 or 4:30, unable to return to sleep (this is a cycle I've had periodically for more than 20 years).

However, this week my wake-up time has inched its way into the unreasonable zone. First I was waking up at 3:30, and then 3:00, then 2:30, and the night before last I was up at 1:30, just 2 1/2 hours after I'd gone to bed. Up and awake and alert, with no chance of going back to sleep.

Today I listened to a podcast on sleep disorders, hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences' podcast Science & the City. The opening segment was with journalist David Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, who was inspired to delve into this topic because of his own sleepwalking issues. Randall discussed how the invention of the lightbulb has divorced modern sleep patterns from the cycle of the sun, by which our brains and sleep cycle are naturally regulated, as shown by experiments in which subjects are sequestered in an environment lighted to copy the sun's cycle. In those cases, sujects fall asleep just after sundown and wake up around daybreak.

However, there's one more behavior these subjects exhibit that I didn't anticipate. They tend to wake up around midnight or one in the morning, and stay awake for about an hour before returning to bed. (The natural phenomenon of this "first and second sleep" are documented in the Canterbury Tales and in 16th century French physicians' manuals.) During this awake time, subjects reported feeling quite good and indulging in "me" time. Researcher who drew their blood found the subjects' exhibited heightened levels of pro-lactin, a hormone which is linked to a feeling of contentment.

This was news to me...instead of feeling robbed of my sleep and desperate to return to it, I will now try to think of my middle-of-the-night awake time as an indulgence of free time for myself, a biologically-programmed way for me to get the downtime I am definitely not getting during the day (and perhaps that is why my body/mind keeps waking me in the night, for forced downtime?).

Coincidentally, today I also read an article on the Writer's Digest website, entitled "Do You Dream In Paragraphs? Mine Your Dreams For Writing Ideas," about ways to get creative ideas from your dreams. I've written about this in the past on this blog, so I won't cover that territory today, but if you are interested, check out the article at Writer's Digest.  As for me, I haven't fixed any poetry dilemmas in my wakefulness this past week, but I was able to solve a problem I've been having with an analytical task for my linguistics course. That liminal time between awake and asleep (which I've doubled with my first and second sleeps now!) is  a boon to the mind's flexibility--I'll remember that too when I undoubtedly wake in the middle of the night tonight!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

In Praise of Broadmann Area 47 (and Galoshes)

I've been listening to a podcast about the science of sound, as explained for the lay audience, by scientist Daniel Levitin and musician Rosanne Cash, hosted by the Science & the City (the podcast of New York Academy of Sciences). At one point, Levitin is describing the part of the brain that is responsible for organizing sound, called Broadmann Area 47 (the red-highlighed area below), and Cash laughs and says with irony, "What a poetic name," or something akin to that.

File:Brodmann area 47 animation small.gif
from BodyParts3D, copyrighted by The Database Center for Life Science licensed under CC Attribution Share-Alike 2.1 Japan
Which I take exception to. Why is the name "Broadmann Area 47" not considered poetic?   Because it has a technical sound to it, a scientific sound? Because it's so specific? Because it has a number in it? To all these ideas, I take exception. To me, nothing is more poetic than a very specific reference that works as an image. I LOVE the name Broadmann Area 47. I would use it in a poem; in fact, now it will be a mission of mine to do so. (Not that this is necessarily a meaningful mission--I recall once reading a poem before which the poet explained that having been told there could be no poem about galoshes, she had written one; I just googled 'galoshes poem' to try and find it for this post, and couldn't, but I did discover that there are an abundance of poems about galoshes now.)

There are no poetic words, and no non-poetic words. It's the way, the manner, and in the context in which words are used that render them poetic. The ugliest-meaning word can be poetic when used to effect. The ugliest-sounding word also has its place, due in part to the reaction created by the harsh sounds. The words with the most banal meanings can be exquisite when used outside of a banal context. Broadmann Area 47 just by itself sounds lovely to me (put a number on anything and you've got my attention) but it could be made meaningful and poetic to a general audience when used by a good poet.

Which is to say that words need be neither mellifluous nor with unequivocally positive associations to be in a poem, but they need to be evocative.

These days traditionally "poetic" words--light and dark and longing and absence (all of which are topics of mine)--are banal themselves, rendered unpoetic through overuse. Fresh language and new imagery, that's where the poetry is--right there in Broadmann Area 47, which is not only responsible for organizing sound, but also for the processing of syntax in language. So ironically, if you want poetry, Broadmann Area 47 is not only among the right words to use, it's one of the places in your brain that you'll be using them. Bring your galoshes.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What's Neat on the Net VII

Today, from the internet:

1. LibraryJournal has compiled a list of five interesting things libraries are doing with old books. In Austin they're making them into crafts, and in England they're making them into art (and if you wonder about the difference between arts and crafts, have a look--it'll be immediately apparent, though both are great ideas.) In the Netherlands, they've made a library desk from recycled books, and in Virginia they are cutting the books up into prompts for personal history projects. Gainesville, Florida libraries (my old stomping ground) is restoring patron's old and personally-important books for them.

Have a look at this article and it's accompanying pictures with links. Such good ideas.

2. The Ploughshares blog has an article about rejection entitled, "From the Slush Pile, Have You Got What it Takes?" It's another reminder that rejection can be more about the sensibilities of the editor than about the quality of your work (with compelling examples provided), so if you believe in your work, keep sending it out. And if you're not sure, revise revise revise, and then keep sending it out. The article cites gender differences in this attitude as well (men send out more) so read the whole thing if you could use some encouragement.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sonnets on Film

From Galleycat, this short article about how the New York Shakespeare Exchange will make 154 videos of Shakespeare's sonnets in the next year, featuring 154 different actors and 154 different locations. Preview one now.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


The Poetry Foundation is celebrating Poetry Month with the Record-a-Poem Project. Join them by recording a favorite poem and uploading it to the SoundCloud, where others can listen and enjoy your reading. Plus you can listen to others read poems of their choice. (This project will remain open after Poetry Month has finished).

Once you've listened to a few poems in the cloud, if you feel inspired to record one yourself, here are the instructions.

Friday, April 12, 2013

What I've Been Reading (April 2013)

Last week I finished reading Martha Ronk's Vertigo (Coffee House Press, 2007). I've read a number of Ronk's books and liked them (which is why I keep reading more) but this one was my favorite yet. Consider the following lines to two different poems: "Loneliness is structural, at the base of the throat," and "What's the difference between trying to lift an arm and lifting an arm, / between desire and that other thing? . . . " In the poet's own words, this book is about "memory and its confusions." The final of three sections focuses on memory as recorded (and as failed to be recorded) by photographs. The titles are often quotes, many from world-renowned photographers, an ambitious starting point that Ronk lives up to time and time again. Slightly less fragmentary than other Ronk books, there is still an otherwordly sense of brokenness to Vertigo. This is a book that you will keep in your permanent collection.

I also read last week "The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover: Aphorisms" by Mark Leidner (Sator Press, 2011). I am a big fan of aphorisms, and Leidner does them well. For example, "when complex things combine to form something complex, there is no mystery," and "anything worth doing is worth taking your lifetime to do," and "missing someone is like what the wind feels to itself." This is a compact little book, about 5 inches by 5 inches square, with a mysterious cover. For a look at Leidner's work, visit the website An Ounce of Cruelty is Worth a Pound of Truth, where you can see some of the aphorisms paired with visual imagery.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

What's Neat on the Net: Literary Version

I admit it now: Both of these were taken right from The Review Review's Newsletter, so sign up for it and skip the middleperson (me!).

1) Name your own poetry journal with Writer's Relief's literary mag name game. Mine's Big Poetry Bay Review. Not as interesting as some others out there, but I'm glad it's a poetry journal.

What's your literary mag name?

2) HTMLGiant features an article from Blake Butler entitled "22 Things I Learned from Submitting Work" that has some good reminders re: rejection along with other points.

Oblique Strategies Online

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I didn't know about the Oblique Strategies cards (made by musicians Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt) until I heard author Tupelo Hassman mention them on this podcast from Skylight Books, which you should listen to to enjoy a reading from Hassman's award-winning stylistically innovative book Girl Child, and to hear an interview with Hassman herself.

Basically Oblique Strategies is a deck of cards with suggestions for thinking in new directions during a creative crisis or block. You just randomly draw a card from the deck, and have it take you where it may. Example cards include: "Emphasize the flaws" and "Define an area as 'safe' and use it as an anchor" and "Go slowly all the way round the outside" and "Convert a melodic element into a rhythic element" and (a favorite for me!) "Repetition is a form of change."

Decks of cards (older editions) can be pricey and hard to come by. New editions are apparently available. To see if you think you need a deck, try these online card generators (they seem to emphasize different cards, so try them all):

Minimal Design's Oblique Strategies Generator

EnoWeb's Oblique Strategies Random Card

Stoney's Website Oblique Card Generator

Josh Harrison's Oblique Strategies Generator

4/12  Addendum: Someone named Matt Gillooly has a Twitter feed called Oblique Strategies, @oblique.  It seems to post cards to Twitter on an hourly basis.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mathekphrastic by Grumman

Earlier this year I posted about poet Bob Grumman's periodic column in Scientific American. Yesterday he was featured again in a column about the juxtaposition of math, poetry, and art. Interestingly Grumman's work features Monet's The Regatta at Argenteuil, the reproduction of which hung on my wall all during college. Enjoy.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Interview with Hirshfield

New Dimensions Radio and Media is offering a one-hour podcast interview with Jane Hirshfield, free until April 16th. After that you'll have to pay for the download, so don't put off enjoying the interview today.

Thanks to my friend Leah S. who alerted me to this opportunity.

(And those of you who don't write every day, add Jane Hirshfield to your number. She says she writes when she has something to say.)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Rejection Plus

You know the saying "When it rains, it pours"? Well, I never seem to get just a single rejection at a time. A month ago I got two on one day. But they were both personal notes suggesting that I submit to them again. Which I did. And within twelve hours, one of the journals had taken my second submission (haven't heard back from the other journal yet).

Today, two more rejections. One generic, one with an invitation to submit  new work. Will I? I will, yes; it works sometimes, as I was reminded last month. And you should submit a second time when you get the suggestion too. Don't take too lightly those rejections that encourage you to try again--I used to think they were just polite ways to reject me. But they mean it--you should try them again, reminding them that they encouraged you to. And you shouldn't wait too long; a month or two at the most, I'd say, so there's a good chance they'll still recall you and your work.

I'll be sending a new packet out soon....

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Improv & Poetry

Yesterday I listened to Radiolab, my favorite podcast of all time. They did an unusual show (for them) about two improv performers, TJ & Dave. TJ & Dave are unusual among the improv set in that they don't take suggestions from the audience, or from any kind of random generator of ideas. Instead, at the beginning of their show the lights go down, then back up, and at that point, TJ & Dave wipe their minds clean, stare at each other in silence as if the entire world is unknown to them and must be learned starting from that point, piece by piece, and then they wait for one of them to speak. There are no preconceived ideas, and all they ever know is what has just happened on stage between them.

When asked about dealing with that kind of pressure to come up with ideas, one of them said that the way they visualize it is that there are ideas and stories floating around us all the time, generally going unrealized, and when they as performers dim the lights, all stories but one disappear and they just have to be tuned in to find that story. They don't see themselves as generating ideas at all, but as identifying one of a myriad of ideas that are free-floating around them all of the time.

When I heard that, I almost stopped in my tracks, because I had had a similar thought last month. I don't really believe that stories and ideas exist independent of the human brain and sensory system, but I still had had this thought recently. The impetus was the very productive three months of writing I've had from January to March of this year. Instead of struggling with writing, I've written fairly fluidly and continuously, working on a few poems at once, having new ones starting as old ones finished up, basically without the angst and struggle between poems that I normally have (within poem, yes, some struggle and angst, but between them, almost none recently). It seemed to me as though there were ideas floating all around me and if I just paid attention, if I just tuned in, I could pluck them from the air. I felt the quality of my attention was allowing me to see details and images that embroidered themselves nearly seamlessly into the poems in progress or very naturally suggested new poems. And I had the idea that those ideas were always there, had ALWAYS been there, circling me and everyone, and it was the quality of my attention that has in the past (and undoubtedly will in the future) kept (keep) me from seeing them.

I don't actually believe this, that ideas exist independently of a perception apparatus (or do I?). But it was a useful image for me, one that kept me writing happily as it seems to keep TJ & Dave able to perform their improv under such pressure. Self-delusion, maybe, or just a useful way of visualizing the creative process--I don't know. But I was interested to see that it worked for other creative people too.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Why I Am Not a Buddhist

In my free time, I sometimes read books about Buddhism. I'm not a Buddhist but I find reading about meditation and emptiness and being in the moment counterintuitive and therefore interesting and worth thinking about.

Last night I was reading one such book that stated it was going to enumerate four steps of a given practice. It then enumerated three steps. And this is why I'm not a Buddhist--because I absolutely could not let go of this. I kept rereading and rereading the passage, looking for the missing fourth step (the first three were labeled, First, Second, and Third). I could not move past this part of the book because I needed to find the fourth step, and until I did, I could do nothing else. For me, there would be nothing else until the errant fourth step was located.

I even tried to convince myself that this was perhaps an object lesson--that the book was trying to teach me to let go and not be so committed to a fourth step, promised or not. To just be in the moment with the three given steps.

I could not do this.

And I realized this is why I am not, cannot be, a Buddhist.

And why I probably need to be.

But can't.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

House on Fire II

Earlier today I wrote a post about my childhood home burning down. And I wrote about how after some years of watching the video again and again, weeping over the loss, dreaming about my house burning down, talking about it, worrying about it, finally the image has found its way into a poem.

What I didn't mention is that it is one line in a poem about a larger topic. All that straining with emotion, all that angst, all that cogitating over the meaning of the loss of a childhood home, particularly in such a spectacularly violent manner . . . all that is manifest in a single line of a poem about something else anyway. (Actually part of a line, not even a complete line.)

This is not unusual. People wonder why poets take so long to write poems, why such short pieces take so long to write. That's why. Behind every word choice, there is a history, or there should be, if the choice of words and images is to leave an indelible and only partially explainable mark. That is where the power in the poem comes from, from all the history between the poet and the word and the world that is allowed to show only barely.

Which isn't to say I won't someday write a longer poem about my childhood home burning down. But I'm not counting on it; I've spent that currency, and it was a fortune for such a few words.

House on Fire

A few years ago the house I grew up in burned down. Because it was a four-alarm fire with a flashover that was caught on video, it's all over the internet, and the footage is now used in fire fighter training as well. The family who bought it from us was living in it at the time, and they lost a family member in the fire.

My brother, who still lives not too far from where we grew up, was the one to notify the rest of our family that our old home had burned down. My brother kept getting calls from his old friends to say, "Dude, your old house burned down." But I was the one to go online and find this video of it, which my family found ironic, that the person living farthest away was the one to find this:

For weeks I'd watch this several times a day, crying the whole time. I watched our family room up go (that's where the flashover is), saw my brother's bedroom reduced to a bare burnt scaffold. My kids would wander into our office and see me watching the video and say to one another "Mom's watching her house burn down again."

I knew that this image would end up in a poem, and last night it finally did. Which prompted me to get out the video, which I haven't watched for quite awhile, and watch and weep all over again.

Monday, April 1, 2013

What's Neat on the Net VI

Happy Easter and April Fools. Here's what's neat on the net recently:

1. Featherproof Books offers free mini-books. You print them out, you fold them as directed, you staple them, and you have mini-books. With titles like The Karaoke Singer's Guide to Self-Defense (by Tim Kinsella) and The Miniature version of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature (by Patrick Somerville), how can you go wrong?

2. Flavorwire has photos of authors as teenagers, including Hemingway, Beckett, Atwood, Sendak, Karr (Mary), Salinger, Nin, and more. Oddly, fewer of them seem to have gone through that awkward stage (or were photographed in the awkward stage) than I would have imagined. They certainly don't look like social outsiders (well, maybe Gaiman and O'Connor do, and Ginsberg, but Toni Morrison is a knockout) ... Enjoy!

3. Open Culture has compiled a list of 500 free audiobooks for download. Some of them are through iTunes (including Jane Austen and Stephen Crane), and some are from (Robert Louis Stevenson and George Eliot), and others are free MP3 and zipfile downloads at sundry sites (Miranda July, David Foster Wallace, and Jamaica Kincaid). Scroll to the bottom of the page for a list of other sites that offer free audiobooks, including Librivox, an organization putting public domain works online in audio form (you can volunteer to be a reader for them too), and Lit2Go, the University of Southern Florida's audio collection. The Open Culture list has links to famous speeches, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as the expected fiction. Enjoy!

4. I recently discovered The Electric Typewriter, a tumblr blog that has collated links to work of some of the best writers and journals ever. There are 15 essays by Joan Didion, for example; 25 essays about the big topic "Life" by Sheila Heti, Annie Dillard, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, etc.;  topics in linguistics by Joshua Foer, Stephen Pinker and Jack Hitt; and on and on. Pretty much  every topic you can think of is covered: here's David Shields on tattoos for The Village Voice, for example. Yay!