Over the past week, I’ve been thinking to myself, “I should write a poem. That would be a super nice thing to do for myself.” When the stress of writing study guides and exams for my students worked its way into my chest and started squeezing my lungs, I’d think, “Write a poem, fool! It’ll help you breathe!” Still, like any good sabotager, I’d yell back, “NO! Must finish this study guide! Must unload the dishwasher! Must dust the clematis blooms out front with Sevin dust!”
This morning as I was sitting at my kitchen table with my journal in front of me, the thought came back to me, and I finally let go to that voice and wrote a poem. It’s amazing how wonderful it feels to let go, but how often I struggle against doing just that.
I was in a myth kind of mood, and Apollo jumped easily to my mind, so I looked him up. Scrolling through his background story, I got focused on a picture of his statue, and there arose the poem idea: a god that lords over stone (Hephaestus/Vulcan is really the god of stone/masonry, but who’s counting?).
“To be a god of stone is to remember
hunger and desire lie in what moves,
& nothing moves in a stone body.”
The rest of the poem focuses on what a god of stone would know and understand vs. what he would miss (touch, movement, seeing in color). It’s sort of a weird hodgepodge of details at the moment, but it has enough potential to be reworked into something a bit more fun. I’ll say too that I’ve been able to breathe a little better since I wrote it!
The summer is nearly here, folks. Let us all be kind to ourselves during it!
When I was in the process of applying to MFA programs, I was warned again and again that there may not be a job available for me once I graduate, that the landscape of academia had changed, and that I might even want to consider whether an MBA might make more sense. Aware of these warnings, I still enrolled in an MFA program, but I diligently followed instructions. I was not going to “waste” my time in a program. I was going to follow every suggestion I could to ensure I wouldn’t sink once I graduated.
I was told to “go where the money is.” I went to a program that was going to waive my tuition and pay me a stipend. Instead of taking out a loan to make up for the deficit in my stipend (because less than $1000 a month can be pretty hard to live off of), I worked a part-time job around my graduate and teaching assistant duties.
I was told to get connected through social media. The now famous Rebecca Skloot even dedicated an entire class to how to use Twitter. I started an account, and I tweeted and retweeted and hashtagged things related to writing. I turned my Facebook from a private THESE-ARE-MY-FEELINGS-AND-STUFF page with pictures from all the way back to my fledgling years in undergrad to a more professional/public one where I only post things related to writing or things I am comfortable with the world knowing.
I was told to start submitting, and even was required to show proof that I had as part of a grade for a class. By the January following my first semester, I got my first acceptance in a very small journal. Get in the best journals, I was told. I kept submitting, and I got published in better and better journals. Get published in other genres. Diversify, I was told. So I took a fiction class and worked on a couple of stories. Then I worked on CNF. I got a story published and a couple of essays.
I applied for exclusive fellowships and teaching positions during my final year. I even sent a revised version of my thesis out to book contests. I was told, Get a teaching job. Get a fellowship. Win a book contest. So I applied; I revised; I entered. The exclusive fellowships and teaching positions went to individuals with lists of publication credits, awards, and honors that rivaled Santa’s Naughty list. Other people’s books won.
I was lucky that the part-time job I’d been working at the entire time I was pursuing my graduate degree took me on full-time. I was lucky that my full-time job allowed me to choose my own hours and that, occasionally, I’d have downtime in the middle of the day to be able to write, read, revise, submit, apply, tweet, post. I knew I wouldn’t work at this job forever, but without an idea where I would move next, I kept at what I was doing, thinking, If my book won a prestigious contest, I could get an academic job.
All of the writers I follow and am friends with on Twitter and Facebook mostly work in academia at the collegiate level, and I saw that as my real goal, like Annette Bening in American Beauty whispering as she cleaned the blinds, I will sell this house today. I will sell this house today. I whispered, I will get an academic job. I will get an academic job. I dreamed of tweed and the same bright-faced students I had taught as a teaching assistant filling my semesters, of readings and book tours.
Then a dear friend of mine sent me a text message saying a position was open at a private school I really respected and had previously interviewed with. After reading the thoughts of other writers who had gone this route, I applied again, and after a rigorous process, was offered the job. This job not only allows me to do something I love (teach), but also gives me what I’ve been seeking this entire time: stability and security.
As the reality of this new job has sunk in, I’ve found myself withdrawing from the “world” of writers, though not from my private acts of writing. I’m not keeping tabs on open reading periods for journals, not stalking the progress of my submissions on Submittable, not posting who won what contest. I’ve noticed my detachment by just…noticing it. “Oh, I don’t care that guy got his panel accepted? Oh, I don’t care that woman’s book got published?”
My desire to submit to prestigious book contests has waned too. They cost money, yes, but I also don’t necessarily want what comes with a huge book prize. I’m an introvert at heart, and it takes a lot of coaxing and breathing to get through a lot of extroverted interaction. While I can teach my classes with passion and engagement, a book tour where I’d meet a lot of strangers and spend lonely nights in hotel rooms sounds awful. What I really want is to hold my book in my hands and for it to have a really lovely cover (my poet self does have some vanity when it comes to book covers…), and so I’m supplementing my contest submissions (since I haven’t let those go as of yet) with querying small presses that focus on the art that’s paired for the book.
When I was maybe in the first year in my MFA program, I interviewed Beth Ann Fennelly. I remember asking her something like, “What would you say to graduating MFA poets now?” She responded with something like, “It’s hard!” and I was surprised by the forceful way she said it, and that was maybe the first time I let that little voice of reason creep in and say, “Maybe it will be.”
My advice to graduating MFA students?
*Don’t stop writing. Ever.
*Blaze your own trail. You might be meant to teach at the college level. You might also be meant to be a waiter, a yoga instructor, or a corporate lawyer. Find what fits for you, and don’t stop writing. If you find yourself jealous of someone else, figure out what you can do to get what they have (submit more, apply to teach at a college, submit to a contest, etc.). Use your jealousy to find out what you really want.
*Submit. Write because you want to write, because you need to write. Then when you have something, submit it. Submit frequently. Submit because you want to be part of a literary conversation, because you love journals and love to receive them.
*Subscribe to journals. Do it because you want to be part of a literary conversation and because you love them. Do it because you want words to stay adrift in the wind.
*If you decide to or do write a book/collection, decide what you want in terms of getting it published. Do you want it published? If so, by whom? What comes with your book publication? Are you prepared for that? Do you want the things that come with it (a book tour, an aggressive Twitter campaign)?
*Don’t stop writing. Ever.
The night you don’t come home,
the crows in our elm jilt
their brood. I hear their young
shriek until their tongues must be calloused.
I dream I climb the tree, rub my hands
raw, never reach their nest.
In the morning, they are quiet. I find a chick
crushed—an ashen heap, its mouth
a wound. The cat musses it, liking the way
its neck moves. I would need to see its entrails,
see the way its wings tried to lighten its body,
to understand your leaving. The omen is in its
sinking. Your sisters can point at the divine
pattern of freckles on my thigh,
the tattoo of your ship’s hull behind my ear.
They know I desire the edgeless
darkness, of being the one that leaps
to find the one that left.
-From Issue 78 of CutBank
I feel like I’m in the middle of a drought, but when I really get down to it, I’m not. I’ve been writing, but each act of putting words on paper feels like trudging through muck. Yesterday, I felt a little uplifted when I saw that my poem “Love Fevers” (draft notes here) is up at Waccamaw and shares space with some fantastic writers. This year, I’ve only had two poetry acceptances and plenty more rejections, so it was very nice to see my work up again.
It might be too that I’m in a period of waiting, and waiting sometimes feels like mourning. I’m waiting to hear back from two jobs (both I should hear back from by May 1st), a book contest which is the last one my book is currently at, and several journals that have had my work for a very long time (the most being 342 days!).
On April 14th, I decided to start doing another poem-a-day thing to try to push myself into action. The first day, I randomly chose to write a prose poem that started with the tagline, “In this poem, I’m…”, so the past ten poems have had that same form and opening. What I’ve liked about this exercise is it’s given me some space to imagine: I’ve been a Latin teacher, a gifted carpenter, a perilously thin woman, an obese man.
The thing I love about doing a poem-a-day thing is I can’t rely on the old go-tos: dark farm, myths, whatever; I have to come up with new stuff because it’s easy for the old wells to run dry if I draw from them every time. It also gives me new work to play with when, for whatever reason, I start to hate that I wrote older than a month ago (which is about where I’m at now).
My real life interjects itself into these poems more and more too when before I always kept a carefully crafted wall between it and my poems. For example, I’ve been keeping track of the April 16th disappearance of a Memphis teacher. Today her body has been discovered and her estranged husband arrested. As a teacher, especially one in Memphis, I hate to read these kind of stories, and in my “In this poem, I’m…” poem from today, I’m a woman who wakes up at the bottom of a pond after being left for dead by her husband.
Things I need to think about in no certain order:
- My book. (After I hear back from the last contest it’s currently at (the sixth it’s been sent to), I can immediately send it off to some contests with a due date of April 30th/May 1st, send it through another round of edits, or let it hibernate until the summer months when I might feel a little more inclined to look at it again. Book contests are hard. I take the contest results a little harder than normal submissions because it’s not just a packet of 3-5 poems, but 50! Maybe I just need to keep sending it out and the pain will lessen??)
- These new poems. (Work toward a second book? a chapbook? Cut my full-length down into a chapbook and start sending it out?)
- These essays. (Two of my CNF essays have been published so far this year, and I’ve got another out right now, but what to do with them? A friend of mine suggested I think about expanding one into a book, but yikes! Maybe I’ll just keep writing and see what happens.)
I’m slogging and whining. I think I probably just need a hug…
All of you stay well.
I’ve gotten some good news over the last couple of days, which I’ve been itching to tell.
Fjords Review and [PANK] nominated two of my poems (“Philomela” and ”Persephone Writes to Her Mother”) for possible inclusion in Best New Poets 2013. This is really exciting because I was planning on submitting to BNP’s Open Competition anyway, and those two nominations allow me to submit up to four poems to be considered for free!
The regular price for a submission of two poems is $4, and from previous years, a little less than half of the poems selected are often chosen from their Open Competition. For all poets that don’t have a book yet, this is an awesome opportunity to get your work published alongside other great new poets!
Waccamaw accepted my poem “Love Fevers” (draft notes here) to be included in their Spring 2013 issue! Last year started for me with a flurry of acceptances, but this is only my second poetry acceptance for this year, so I was super glad to get this one.
Hope you all have been doing well! Spring may be the time to get rolling with those submissions.
“After my doctor diagnoses the large mass on one of my ovaries as a Dermoid, he shows me a picture that looks like a macadamia nut cookie rimmed with hair. On the internet, I find pictures of their humanity—a limb like a baby’s arm, curly hair, a row of teeth—grotesque by context: a row of teeth planted in a glob of featureless skin; a ball of hair covering what looks like a finger. I make jokes to my husband and friends that I have It from the Addams Family inside of me, Shrek, an absorbed twin…”
-From Yemassee‘s 20.1 Issue
Yesterday I read this post and found the topic really interesting: “Why not build relationships with particular journals while also sending to newer ones?” For myself, the answer is pretty simple: There are still so many journals that I want to see my work to appear in that I keep sending new work to new journals, instead of sending a submission on to a journal I’ve already been published in.
My second publication ever was in The Los Angeles Review, and I was screaming-call-my-boyfriend-and-my-parents excited when I got that acceptance e-mail from their wonderful poetry editor, Tanya Chernov. At my first AWP, I got to meet her and Kelly Davio, the current Managing Editor, and it was a moment I still cherish because I was a wide-eyed first year MFA student and they were really really nice and they liked my poem! my little poem! That moment shaped for me how I wanted to be as an editor. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many contributors while I worked for The Pinch, and I hope I’ve even once been able to be as kind and gracious as Tanya and Kelly were to me.
A couple of years after they accepted that first poem, I decided to send another packet onto them. The work just seemed like it fit their aesthetic. They accepted another poem, and I got to see them again at AWP the following year. I am also now friends with them on Facebook, and I just like them. They’re good people. L.A.R also has a special no-fee “Previous Contributor Submission” category on their Submission Manager to support this sort of thing.
My relationship with PANK has gone differently. In September 2011, I sent them a short story. Less than a month later, they sent me an encouraging rejection. I had no fiction to send them, so I sent some poems their way in December. I received another encouraging rejection to which I sent another packet. Got another encouraging rejection. I waited a couple of months and sent them a new packet in March 2012, shortly after being too chicken to talk to the editors (especially the particularly fancy Roxane Gay) at their AWP table but having enough of my wits about me to at least buy one of their classy t-shirts. They accepted three of my poems for their June 2012 issue a surprising ten days later.
That short story I sent to them back in September of 2011 was still waiting to be published and I had spent a ton of time editing it, so I decided to try to re-submit it to them as well as some other journals in October 2012. They accepted it for their February 2013 issue less than a month later. That marked my first ever fiction publication too.
I like the idea of keeping up with a particular publication. L.A.R. opened doors for me and kissed some confidence into my fledgling writer status. Once I got that acceptance, I really felt like I could do this crazy submitting-and-rejecting thing. Yes, I could do it. PANK published three of my poems, the most that I’ve had accepted at a time, and my first fiction story, a story I’d worked on for over a year and had submitted 41 different times!
Sandy Longhorn wrote a post about getting second and third “dates” with journals not too long ago. How do you all feel about it? You snagged that journal credit and are off seeing if you can get another one, or do you still send submissions to those journals you’ve already seen your work in? A little bit of both?
The Swamp Wife
She cleans a bullfrog of its eyes, works the legs
until the muscle surrenders. She tells it love
is knowing the other’s breaking point.
The gypsy moths don’t know: they strip
the spruces and pines, kill them naked.
She knows love is about avoiding. She lets
her husband roost in a ditch of booze piss.
The last time they talked, he told her he dreamed
his mouth kept filling with tears.
She doesn’t know if it was a bear that ate
the breath behind her ribs last night, if it was
a coon that looked like just scalp and spine.
She sets up her bed by the light of the star-
lepered sky, marks the gators lullabying the banks.
-Appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Sou’Wester
I hate to even pose the above question. We exist in a day and age where gender doesn’t matter in the literary arts, right? We are blind to the trappings of “patriarchy,” right? But VIDA makes it undeniable with charts and numbers: men, by far, win out when it comes to publications in major literary journals and magazines. Whatever the reasoning, it’s true. Further, some literary magazine editors are even coming forward to give a run-down on How to Run a Publication That Isn’t Sexist.
Now that I’ve started entering poetry first book contests, I’ve been surprised at the number of men that have won them, and it’s made me wonder how the numbers VIDA compiles relate to book contests. Are men chosen to win large contests more often than women? Do women judges have anything to do with the selection of women winners?
Since 2002, four women have won (2002, 2006, 2008, and 2012). While it’s not clearly stated, I believe the editors of the press select a winner instead of a single judge.
Since 2005, three women have won (2006, 2007, and 2008). Two women have judged, and one selected a female winner (2006).
Since 2003, three women have won (2009, 2010, and 2013). They’ve had six female judges (every odd-numbered year), and two of those judges selected two female winners (2009 and 2013).
Since 2002, seven women have won (2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, and 2012). Four women have judged (2004, 2008, 2009, and 2011), and two selected female winners (2008 and 2011).
Cave Canem Poetry Prize (limited to African American poets)
Since 2002, five women have won (2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2011). They’ve had five female judges, and three selected female winners (2004, 2005, and 2011).
Since 2002, six women have won (2003, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2012). They’ve had five female judges, and two selected female winners (2003 and 2009).
Since 2002, nine women have won (This contest is strange in that seven people, five of which were women, won for 2003. A single woman won for 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2012.). They’ve had five female judges, and three selected female winners (2003, 2007, and 2012).
Since 2002, six women have won (2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2011). They’ve had six female judges, and three selected female winners (2005, 2006, and 2011).
Since 2003, three women have won (2006, 2008, and 2010). One woman (Louise Glück) judged until 2010 and selected all three female winners, and a man (Carl Phillips) currently judges.
From this incredibly small sampling (I focused on first full-length book contests that are currently in existence, been in operation for over five years, and had easy-to-find listings of their previous winners), female judges don’t necessarily select female winners (for contests with yearly judges, half or less of the female judges selected a female winner), and that while some contests definitely select less women than men, others select more, which ends up balancing out the ones that don’t. Without contests like the latter, the state of these numbers would be sad indeed.
While prestige will probably always matter, there are many great contests out there that also have solid track records of selecting women poets, and that might come into play as I figure out where to submit my own manuscript later this year.