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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Miracle Fish


I swap books on an online swapping site (which I haven't blogged about because I think there are problems with the system, though I still use it). Recently I decided I wanted to actually read through a complete translation of the Tao teh Ching, instead of just knowing the bits that are quoted here and there. So I swapped for a copy via this site. Fortune Teller Miracle Fish

The book came with a bookmark in it, a not-unusual (and a very welcome) gesture made by the giver of the book. This one was a small white veneer plastic bag with a picture of a fish doing the backstroke among the waves of an ocean's surface, with the words "Fortune Teller" at the top, and the words "Miracle Fish" at the bottom.

On the back of the bag it reads:

Fortune Teller Fish

Place fish in palm of the hand and its movements will indicate

Moving Head...................Jealousy
Moving Tail.....................Indifference
Moving Head and Tail.....In Love
Curving Sides...................Fickle
Turns Over.......................Dead One
Curls Up Entirely.............Passionate

Made in Taiwan

What a strange and truncated list of emotions, I thought. Does Jealousy + Indifference = In Love, I wondered.

Then I took the plastic fish out of the bag and held it in my palm (tell me you wouldn't have done the same thing!?!?!).

Its head moved and floated up from my hand. Jealous, me? No. I put the fish back in the envelope, placed it again between the pages of my book (to flatten and neutralize it), and took it out again and placed it on my palm. Again, jealousy. I did the rigamarole a third time, and once again, jealousy.

Either this fish is broken, or I'm jealous, I thought (and then remembered that I don't believe in this kind of malarky). But still, I had been having feelings of jealousy recently. Well, not jealousy exactly, which seems like a focused emotion, but its free-floating cousin, whatever that would be called, the feeling that so many poets are getting recognition these days, while my work (which I think has been good work for the past couple of years) goes unnoticed by the world.

I'd been suffering enough from this idea lately that I'd recently taken out the book Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland, where I'd read:

"Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may neither audience nor reward. Making the work you want to make means setting aside these doubts so that you may see clearly what you have done, and thereby see where to go next. Making the work you want to make means finding nourishment within the work itself. This is not the Age of Faith, Truth and Certainty." (p. 2)

Just what I needed to read: and it reminded me that just in the month of November alone I had written eight brand new poems (and already had three accepted to a journal) and had drafted a ninth--this is an unheard of rate for me, but I knew that it was because I had finally tackled a topic I had been avoiding for years, and the poems were just coming to me because they'd been percolating in my unconscious mind, waiting for me to be brave enough to listen to them. I was writing the work I wanted to write, and I was finding nourishment in it, and that was what I needed to be focused on.

And then the next day I got an acceptance for five poems to a journal I had not expected to accept the work.

Doing the work: it's what matters, the work that you want to do. That's the miracle. Of the fish.

Okay, not of the fish.....of you, of the creative process, of the work.

And this morning I got a rejection from a journal which has twice before told me to "submit again, you are getting close." With the same message today: close, but no.

Do the work. The rest may come or it may not; but you will be nourished by your own work (and, if it so happens, by some fish).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Writing Wild

For a few months I've been writing with the principle that surprise is one of the most important elements of the line (see this previous post for more on the genesis of this idea). While I still think this is a point to keep in mind, I heard something the other day that made me think more deeply.

I was listening to a speech about the importance of wildness as an element of society (particularly with regards to coming-of-age rituals), and the speaker said something about the potency of wildness within boundaries, within constraints, and I thought, "But that's what poetry is--wildness within constraints." At least good poetry is, anyway.

It occurred to me that aiming for surprise in a line is a weaker version, a shadow, of aiming for the power of wildness within boundaries (think of the form of a coiled snake). Out-and-out wildness can devolve into chaos, but wildness within circumscribed boundaries perhaps comes nearer to the human condition than surprise itself does, without completely terrifying us the way that real chaos does.

And it seemed to me something to keep in mind with respect to writing poems, especially those about the chaos of our lives and emotions. Surprise is a good tool, yes, but it is only one shade of what we can do with the wildness within us.

Friday, November 15, 2013


If I don't dust and vacuum the living room, the dust and detritus will still be there tomorrow, plus some, ready to be vacuumed.

If I don't grade these papers, they'll be stacked up on my desk tomorrow, no more and no less.

If I don't write this poem now, but instead write one tomorrow, it will be a different poem, and this one will be lost.

If I don't sit down with a pen and paper and wait patiently, even if I don't write any poems at all today, then tomorrow when I sit down to write I will have to work through the emptiness I will have avoided today.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What Next?

1) Despite having piles of books everywhere, many as-yet-unread, I'm always wondering what to read next, and looking around for more books. If you are like me, you'll be glad for Ron Slate's semi-annual poetry feature, in which 14 poets recommend books of other poets. You can find a poet you admire (say Idra Novey, Anna Journey, or Shane McRae) and see whose work they selected, maybe someone unknown to you (which is always exciting). Or you might be alerted to the fact that an already admired poet (say, Kate Greenstreet or Carl Phillips) has a new book out you hadn't heard about yet. In either case, it's worth a quick look at these recommendations.

2) Thanks to an old friend from my writing group in Florida (eons ago), Mary Bast, I've recently come to know about the work in erasure supported by the Silver Birch Press. So far they've begun an anthology called Silver Birch Press NOIR Erasure Poetry Anthology (sorry, submissions already closed) and are currently collecting poems for a Valentine's Day anthology (submissions still open), with one of Mary's already featured here. Lots of erasure poems can be found on the Silver Birch Press blog, so for those of you interested in the form, it's a good resource.

 3) Recently I've been working on some poems with an emotionally difficult subject matter. However, they are coming quickly, if painfully, which signals to me that it is the time to deal with this subject matter. Interestingly, the other day I was stuck on two of the poems, needed a title for one, and one last phrase for the other. What to do next? I went to bed thinking, I need to look at Edward Hirsch's work. I have no idea why I thought this (I haven't read any Hirsch in a few years) but I felt compelled. So the next morning I pulled down my Hirsch books, opened one which had a bookmark in it and read the bookmarked poem, flipped through and read a few more. And then I had both the title of the one poem and the missing bit of the other. The words I needed weren't in the Hirsch book, but they were triggered by it. Probably reading many different things would have triggered the words for me, but somehow my unconscious mind knew Hirsch would do it. And so, listen to your unconscious mind, that old refrain. (I'm uncomfortable writing about this, because I think of myself as a rational person, not whoo-whoo at all, but see, I'm arguing that accessing the unconscious is a rational thing to do, though it feels kind of whoo-whoo.)

Speaking of which, I've had the urge recently to do something about the composer Aaron Copland. I don't know why, but he's been heavily on my mind, and somehow I feel resistant. I don't know that much about him, so I looked at some biographical material online and I listened to Appalachian Suite (on YouTube--amazing, you can just want to listen to something and there it is). Appalachian Suite was my introduction to Copland, in music class in the seventh grade, and even then I felt drawn to and resistant to Copland. My son's music festival was last week, and they performed Holst's Jupiter. My son was humming it around that house, and that got me to humming it, and I actually insisted to my son that it was Copland, and he insisted it wasn't, and we looked it up and of course it wasn't. But don't you think Jupiter has that Copland sound? Anyway, must overcome my resistance and figure out why Copland is haunting me these days.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Rejection Etiquette Rant

I love submitting online. As a person living abroad, this saves me postage and the trouble of keeping return postage from another country handy (which can be hard to come by when you can't just drop by the post office), and of course I get the same benefits that domestic submitters do: saving ink and paper, saving time.

That said, I have not had such great experiences with submitting manuscripts online. For example, today I happened to visit the website of a publisher to whose competition I had sent my manuscript via their own online submissions manager, and I discovered, though this wasn't the reason I had gone to their website, that they have already announced their contest winner, but hadn't bothered to notify the rejected entrants directly. Apparently we were supposed to check their website frequently, until the result showed up. Two other contests have also not bothered to report directly to me that they had chosen winners, but seemed to assume that I would check their websites repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly since neither one made their announcement within the timeframe they had established in their guidelines. One contest announced their results on Facebook only, not even on their website. I wasn't on Facebook at the time; how was I supposed to know?

To all of these places each entrant has paid a fee, and provided an email address. Is it too much to ask for a form letter to show up in our inboxes, or for the presses to use an online submissions manager that will contact us when the result has been made?

(FYI: None of these places had given instructions in their submissions guidelines or elsewhere on their webpages to check back for results on such-and-such a date. That I can deal with; I mark my calendar and check the website only once, knowing already that if I have to check the website to get the news, it isn't good news for me. That is not the kind of behavior I am talking about.)

These insulting behaviors are not limited to online submissions. Today I received a rejection letter via the dreaded SASE for a manuscript that was sent snail mail just exactly a year ago. The winner had been announced on the press website back in APRIL, and at that time I wondered why they hadn't informed me directly via the SASE that they had required me to send. Today I see that they have used that SASE to report the winner seven months after the fact and to suggest that I try and enter again this year, as their deadline is the end of this month. They saved my SASE for seven months in order to use it for their own marketing purposes.

I get that presses are small, often non-profit organizations. I support them: I buy directly from them, I subscribe to journals and to repeated purchase programs, I make donations. I don't ask for a personal rejection, just for a direct one. Am I really supposed to spend time (that would be better spend practicing my craft) obsessively checking their websites and/or Facebook pages? Spending that kind of time and attention chasing down results isn't productive or good for my focus or morale.

I know that editors are overworked and are often volunteers. But still, basic etiquette, people. Not to mention good business practices...

Personal Lexical Gaps

My children get their English mostly from me; they go to school in Japanese, and when they are out of the house, it's all Japanese. With their Dad too, it's Japanese. So their English mostly comes from me, which is interesting because when I hear them use any phrase, I know I must use it too; sometimes I'm surprised to find out what I sound like. Likewise when there's a gap in their personal lexicon, I know I must never have used whichever word is missing in their presence.

So the other day I was telling my 11-year-old son a story about someone doing something stupid, and I ended the story with, "Duh!"

After a beat, my son said, "Mom, what's  'Duh' mean?" I had a very brief self-congratulatory moment, thinking I must not have spoken condescendingly about anyone to him before, when I realized that I had just broken my previously unknown and now-no-longer-commendable streak.

"It's when you expect someone to know something, and when they don't, you want to let them know that you are surprised that they don't know it," I said as diplomatically as I could. "Actually, it's not very nice," I added, in the hopes that he would decide not to use it in the future.

My hopes were immediately dashed.

"As in "You don't know what 'Duh' means???? Duh!" he said.

We both laughed. "You have a great sense of irony," I told him.

After a brief pause, he said, "Mom, what's 'irony'?"


Yesterday I got the nicest rejection letter ever, nicer even than many acceptance letters I've received. It's an art, the personal rejection.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Blurb This!

"Punctuated by subversive humor, verbal theatrics, and moments of strange luminous beauty, Goodfellow's clear unsentimental poems are meditations and mediations on contemporary existence and the unreliability of language, emotions, and memory's ability to gather it all in."

That's the first sentence of a blurb about my manuscript Mendeleev's Mandala. Sound good so far? Well, how about later on, when it claims,

"Lust, love, contempt, disgust, parental guidance, and poetic revenge, crafted with unbridled imagination and unmistakable skill, Goodfellow's poetry is not for the masses, but it is for everyone."

How about this?:

"It's as if Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac danced together in the cemetery of Spoon River, in the light of a projected image of Joe Brainard flickering on fleeting clouds, while teaching the intricate steps to the ghost of Maximus."

Still like the blurb? Happily you don't have to, as it isn't real. It's from Dan Waber's Blurbinator, a project in which Waber compiled a mass of actual blurbs, found the patterns in them ("a certain structure, a four-part formula, very often exactly four sentences but easily broken down into four beats with variations"), and made a random blurb generator to expose and mock the blurbing system (expose and mock are my words, not his).

His words are: "I believe this appropriation of texts written by others fall squarely under the Fair Use provisions for parody. My intent here is to show that these texts are, themselves, a joke. If the sentences can be randomly mixed with other sentences of the same type and have arbitrary names and titles substituted I hope it's pretty clear they're not saying anything of value about any specific book."

Try it with your name and title, and see if you agree! I do!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Minimum Words

Look what Don DeLillo does in The Body Artist, with so few words and without hitting the reader over the head again and again with his intention (as I would have done):

"The ferry ran on schedule and this was reason enough to make the trip now and then.

The plan was to organize time until she could live again."  (p. 37)

That's the end of the paragraph. In fact it comes right before a break of white space indicating a new scene.

Like the break just above this line, only I haven't started a new scene a new idea. So now let's do that.

I give up.