Just like repairing drywall

Today while I was getting everything ready to be off from work for three days recovering from surgery, I took some time out to look over my manuscript again. I tweaked some lines, did some minor shuffling, and then I re-read the first section a few times.

I realized that with some minor changes, I could make the whole section sound like it’s from the same child speaker. I loved that idea. I made the changes. I read the manuscript from start to finish to see how that change would go along with the rest, and I loved it. It felt perfect.

Now, I’m not so worried about taking some time off from the manuscript before the November 15th deadline. I need to let it dry before I come back, sand it down, and spackle it.

I can rest easy. :)

On returning to old work

I think it’s necessary to point you to this post by the poet Molly Spencer and tell you to read, read, read. I simply love her advice on about re-using (or cannibalizing) old work. It’s true. Sometimes I had some really great ideas while I was a less adept poet, and/or I had an idea and it just didn’t come together the way I would have hoped. Those ideas/scraps/almost poems have lagged in drawers and desktop folders for a long time in the hopes of being re-discovered.

In the past, I’ve looked through old poems and stolen lines or images and fashioned them into a new one, one definitively better and more interesting. My writing style has changed a lot through the years, and sometimes an idea or image is best served in a new style or in a new context.

Staying in touch with my own work means I’m also thinking about the arc of my own progression, being reminded of old obsessions, re-discovering quirks and turns of phrases I could use in later work. It’s like going back into your closet and finding clothes you can re-stitch and make cool again.

I’m having surgery tomorrow. Poetry manuscript deadlines are November 15th. I’m concerned about how long the recovery time is going to be (it’s laparoscopic) and how it’ll affect how much I’m going to be able to put into this manuscript, but it’ll get done. Everything will be okay.

The home stretch?

A friend of mine read through my full-length manuscript, Swallow Tongue, and gave me some good minor and major feedback. I’m so grateful to have writer friends in my life who will go through a manuscript for me and see what’s necessary for me to see.

Her biggest suggestion is that maybe I shouldn’t have the incest poems appear first (Explanation: I have written two poems, one based on a Greek myth where a girl beds her father in the dark without him knowing it’s her and another where it’s strongly implied that something weird is going on between father and daughter. I like them because their weirdness than shades all of the poems in that section as a little weird despite the fact that most of them are humdrum child/parent poems.). Her feedback stems from the fact that they are pretty dark or disturbing poems, and the first section of a poetry manuscript must set up the rest. The rest of the manuscript isn’t that dark or disturbing, so there’s a lot of set up that never goes anywhere.

Seems like good feedback, right? But now, what to do with the incest poems? The first section of my manuscript is a “child” one, the second is a “wife/lover” one, and then I’ve got a “mother” one. I can’t  just pull the incest poems out and stick them in another section because it wouldn’t work thematically. I could delete them both, but then, I feel, I’d be losing two strong poems and not have anything to replace them with.

This could be an example of needing to throw out the baby with the bath water or kill my darlings. The former means I’m getting rid of what’s essential along with what’s inessential, and the latter means I’m letting go of the things I love maybe too much out of personal attachment instead of whether it’s actually good for the manuscript. Am I loving my incest poems too much?

For the time being, I’ve removed one and moved the other to nearly the end of the first section. There’s still more to be done, though. The first section must be THE section, the wham-bam-thank-ya-m’am section, and I think the other two sections are much stronger. It also doesn’t make sense to arrange it, since don’t you go from child to wife to mother? Right??

I have a path, though, and the end is nigh!!

Building a Writer Community

From left to right: Chris Moyer, Eric McQuade, Matt Gallant, Dallas Allen, Ruth Baumann, and myself

On Friday night, I went to a release party for the Fall 2014 issue of The Pincha graduate-student run journal run out of the University of Memphis that I was a Managing Editor of back in 2012. Ruth Baumann, the Managing Editor of the Fall 2014 issue, had asked if I would read poems from the current issue and some of my own work, and it couldn’t have gone better.

I love being around writers, and it reminded me of the commonality we all have. I can walk into any group of writers and feel that same connection. We were all shaped with the same soul-kernel that helps make understanding one another so much easier. This sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, but I spent the whole night just wandering from person to person, many of them strangers, and never felt more comfortable.

When I joined an MFA program, I didn’t think much about the importance of having a writing community. I read very little poetry, talked to no one in my day-to-day life about poetry, but I wrote it and wanted to write it more. I got into the University of Memphis MFA program by luck, it seems. I don’t think I wrote all that well nor did I really have a clear idea of what I wanted. All I knew is I felt this tug to apply to an MFA program, so I applied only to the Memphis program, and I somehow got in.

Throughout the course of the program, I developed very close friendships. We traded work. I called them when someone made a mean critique and I needed consolation that my work (or myself) was okay. We called each other to celebrate acceptances, offer condolences for rejections or close calls, give suggestions, hold one another accountable for submitting work. Writing is a hard life, and it’s also a mysteriously alien life to those who are not a part of it. I couldn’t rejoice with my husband that I’d gotten a personalized rejection from a great journal because his response was, “Why are we celebrating if you got rejected?” I couldn’t come up with any sort of metaphor or analogy that he could understand, and that’s okay. He’s not a writer, but I need my writer friends who do understand.

We took the picture up top at the release party. It’s me and other current and former editors for The Pinch. I knew two of the people pretty well, and the other three I had met or known by name only. By the end of the party, I got to talk to all of them and again felt that same sense of commonality, that “This is a hard road. Want to walk it together?” I even had more talks of “Want to trade work?” or “Let’s meet up!”

The thing is, if I hadn’t shown up to this event with other writers, I would have lost the opportunity to make new friends and continue to build my network that can help me get through what I’m doing now: trying to get my book published. While an MFA helped me get that first writer community, I have to show up, I have to be open and willing to engage, and I have to keep carrying the love of all things literary.

Staying in touch

After my last post, I haven’t written a word of poetry. Not one word! The fear is pretty deep, and maybe so is my avoidance. Like if I avoid writing poems and editing it to its final glory, I can blame that for why it doesn’t win. I’m, in a way, not really responsible. It was fear’s fault!

The best antidote for writer’s block, for me at least, is reading. I have to stay in touch with poetry, and in a world so wholly free from poetry, where I don’t and won’t read it on an active basis unless I pick up a book or look through a literary journal, I need to do the necessary work of staying in touch. I need to read poetry, and read it often. When I read, I get inspired and then often that inspiration turns into a poem. If I’m not reading, I’m cutting off that valuable source of inspiration.

I turn 30 next month. I’d like my book to have a publishing contract, one which I know is the right fit, in my 30th year of life. I’d like 30 years to feel like a start of more poetry instead of something terrible, like every woman moaning in her bathtub after a long night makes it seem like.

Persistence is omnipotent

On Friday, I made the poor decision of looking up contests I could send my book to. I looked up people’s books I liked, checked out the contests they won, checked out that contest’s other books, and then started looking up fees, deadlines, etc.

Once I started looking at the fee aspect, I didn’t want to write or edit anymore. All my desire just seized up. Really, fear stepped in. How am I going to pay all those fees? What happens if I do and it loses all the contests anyway? What happens if all this work now means I just end up re-editing it next year and the next…?

Oh, fear. It’s hard enough being a poet when there are bunches of us and so everything is incredibly competitive, but load on some fear of being selected and work being for naught in there too…

I had the pleasure of meeting Dan Albergotti at the Southern Festival of Books. His second book, Millenial Teeth, won the Crab Orchard Review Open Poetry Competition. He told me, “Persistence is omnipotent.”

firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.

having unlimited power; able to do anything.

Basically, if I keep at it, things will work out. That obviously worked for him, so it’s possible it could work for me.

Right now, the manuscript is at 54 pages, and I really think it should be at 60. It may not be possible to do currently since I can write until the cows come home, but are the poems going to be good enough to put in the manuscript? We will see.

I’m also finding that my current work now all has a similar vein, so I’m wondering if it wouldn’t suit me better to give up on this manuscript and start working toward another one instead or do another chapbook.

Persistence is omnipotent…persistence is omnipotent….

The end of the editing?

Editing my full-length manuscript, Swallow Tongue, has been going wonderfully. I’ve cut at least 12 poems (so down from 60 pages to 48), and then added in 4 (so up to 52).

I’m shaking the dust off. This manuscript has been two+ long years in the making, and some poems I’d been hanging onto because they seemed to work thematically, but really bored me otherwise. If they bore me, I can imagine how they must bore a reader, so I cut them. All of them. All of the dusty old poems that weren’t holding up, gone.

And my writing has been off to the races. Ten months no writing, and now, I’ve written four poems! Four poems I really, really like! They easily fit into one section, and now the first three (as they’re currently divided, which may change) seem really firm. The poems and order make sense.

The last section, which I moved several poems from and cut others, is now the weakest, and something needs to be done about that. I think I may need to keep writing. The last section is about abandonment, so I need to do more along those lines. I’m going to try to mine some of the poems I cut for ideas and search for models to help.

I’m also sending this manuscript off to a friend to help get her thoughts on the structure. Currently, there are two framing poems with four sections sandwiched in between. Four sections seems like a lot, but thematically, each section is very obvious. The sections are also untitled, but could be I’m thinking, maybe, “Child,” “Wife,” “Mother.” The last section doesn’t clearly have a title like the above, so now I’m wondering if I could put the abandoned lover poems into the “wife” section and just have the three sections, so the work would be ending on the mother section…Hmm…SO MANY IDEAS!

The contest deadlines that I want to enter is November 15th, so I’ve got some time!

Drafting: “Continental Drift”

I found another inspiration poem yesterday, and it was on. I don’t know quite how I stumbled upon Lindsay Tigue’s “Convergent Boundaries,” but I fell in love with it immediately. I love the scientific description interposed against the chatty speaker and then wound together perfectly at the end.

I chose to write about the same topic, but differently. Tique compares it to lovers and a break-up. I took it as more of a mother/child thing, and I tried to bring in more of a chatty speaker, which I usually shy away from.

The first line is close to the one that appears in Tigue’s, but the rest takes off on its own:

“When I heard about the fable of Pangaea,
all of us so near, mettle and marrow, I cried—
or at least I wrote here I did. Let’s say I didn’t,
for a moment; let’s say I was glad

for the distance…”

I was entirely foolish again. I put this in another packet of poems and sent it off to several journals, even ones that charge reading/service fees (which I usually avoid because $3 per submission can add up quickly if I do that too often)! Reading the poem again today, I can already see places where it doesn’t feel quite done, another word could go there, this line break doesn’t wholly make sense, but it’s out in the world already. Time to see if it floats or sinks.

Rejection Motivation

Last night, I felt like pumping myself up, so I went through a special email folder I have for every good rejection I’ve gotten so far: the close calls, the personal editor messages, the “please send us mores.”

I don’t know how other people feel about keeping their rejection letters, but I’ve always kept mine. I read a memoir a long time ago about a woman who would decorate her bedroom wall with hers and how she even went to a Halloween party once in a trench coat with a load of rejections stapled to it. Her costume was “a working writer.” Sylvia Plath said, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”

Clicking through all of my almosts, I felt pretty proud of myself. I didn’t start seriously submitting until December of 2009, the end of my first semester in graduate school, and in these five short years, I’ve had some fantastic publications, a chapbook, and a slew of almosts from reputable and some thoroughly dreamy journals.

I also believe wholeheartedly that if someone sends me a close call rejection, I need to submit to them again. It’s a call to action, not a mope-in-my-soup-bowl rebuke.
I often send to them pretty immediately and include something in my cover letter thanking them for their kind rejection and hoping they like something from this current submission.

The press I want to be published tv hosts two contests a year. I first submitted to their First Book contest in July 2012. Swallow Tongue was then called Predator Tongue and was very much my recently completed MFA thesis. Form rejection. I did a major overhaul and resubmitted it in July 2013. Semifinalist. I did more tweaks and resubmitted it in October 2013 for their Open contest, got another Semifinalist.

It’s all a matter of time. If I gave up now, I wouldn’t ever get there.

Drafting: “Losing a Baby”

As I wrote in my last post, I started writing again after a 10 month drought. I returned to poetry slowly.

I found myself reading it again sometimes. A poem here or there. Then a handful from a literary journal. Then every poem in a literary journal. Then a collection.

Around the time I started going through all of the poems in a literary journal, I found myself skimming words that rose to the top, and once I had words, the poems were already half-formed.

The first official one I wrote was one taken from a model.

Pick any poem. Use its line breaks, form, etc. as a model, and start rewriting it. Change every word possible, but try to follow the “template” of the original. It’s okay if the framing is similar because, more than likely, this will just be an inspiration for a poem; it will be a little too clunky to be the final.

“Your belly becomes a coffin. Watch

its swells rise like sheets
over a phantom haunting your sleep.”

I’ve never lost a baby, never even been pregnant, but I spent the whole process of writing this poem crying. It reminded me of a quote from Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

I felt so inspired about the act of writing again that I immediately turned around and submitted this and a couple other new poems to some reach-for-the-stars journals like The Kenyon Review and The New Yorker. It felt like a wild and impulsive decision since these poems feel very fragile and untested, but it felt good to shove them into the light and maybe even try to give them wings. (They have already received some rejection, but I’m still riding the high!)