Sunday, January 31, 2016

Critical cliché: Familiarity and sentimentality

A certain lazy criticism of poetry that I try to quash in my workshops is that of familiarity.

Particularly with more advanced writers, this notion comes up in discussion frequently—what has been done. What feels worn out. What is tired. Mind you, typical undergrad writers, even advanced ones, have not yet read a dozen collections of poetry, but there is a sense that they know exactly what is to be found in the entire corpus of world poetry, and one more poem about a dead dog may cause the whole to collapse.

It should not be discounted, though, that all of us are members of a massively mediated culture, and we don’t have to live in it very long to have heard countless messages. As a result, some ideas do seem a little threadbare. When a workshopper says something is familiar, the original to them may be in a Kleenex commercial or a videogame backstory or a children’s book, just as easily as it might be a poem.

I am all for a constant push to make poetry fresh and new. Anything we pick up to read, we choose because we hope to be surprised. That’s true when we absentmindedly peer at the back of the cereal box with a mouth full of All Bran, and it’s true when we encounter a poem. If we know it, we don’t want to read it.

But I suspect that “It’s been done” is shorthand for “I’m bored”—a reaction that my parents always cautioned me against, boredom being a sign that the mind is not sufficiently fertile. On occasion, boredom speaks more to a deficiency in the auditor than in the speaker.

Poetry should not bore us, but when it does, I question the conviction some have that there are too many poems about X. A poem is a field of infinite possibility. Sometimes I’m fascinated by the way two words look and sound and mean together, and a poem is just a whole bunch words in combination. Where words are, there is potential for discovery.

Is there still something to be discovered within a love poem? An appreciation of nature? A lament for our dead—even our dead pets? Obviously, the answer is yes.

When the “tired” material explores emotional territory, another cliché often drops. Work like this is frequently dismissed as “sentimental.” There is no worse pronouncement on a workshop poem—and no deeper shame than when you’re the guy who recollected emotion in tranquility (just following Wordsworth’s directions, mind you) and wrote something to merit the term. It’s a badge of gross dishonor.

I will maintain to my last breath, though, that emotion is our turf. Sentiments are, too. Hell, we poets practically invented love—and I’m not entirely convinced this isn’t the literal truth. What first turned mating into love had to have been words.

In a workshop, participants must be challenged toward specificity. They need to explain where a poem goes wrong, with the understanding that the entire universe of ideas, and especially of feelings, belongs to us—maybe more than it belongs to anyone else. A whole-cloth dismissal of work because it is “familiar” should embarrass the critic more than the poet, because almost everything is familiar. Language itself is an instrument of familiarity and agreement; it says, “Let’s call that flop-eared, wag-tailed, drooling thing a dog,” and everyone who shares the language goes along with that every time.

The eternal challenge for poets is to use language to speak truth, even ancient truth, in a fresh way. All subjects are on the table.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Critical cliché: Blurb words

Some of the least creative language about writing can be found, counterintuitively, in blurbs—those paragraphs we turn to on the back of a book in hopes that they will let us see into the heart of a collection.

Writers of blurbs have two key concerns. They want to say something to honor a book (generally because it’s written by a friend or former student), and they want it to be recognizably an entry in that odd subgenre of writing. These concerns can work together to skew the writing—to keep the blurb from expressing any clear assessments of the work.

Of course, the weird insular nature of the blurb—friends asking friends to write nice things—also stands in the way of anything very important being said. But even presuming that it’s actually possible to give quick insight into work in these brief, uncontextualized statements, our reliance on tired descriptors serves as a barrier to that sort of illumination.

On occasion, I’ve written these statements myself, and I’ll admit it—the desire to portray my enthusiasm was always matched by an equal or greater need not to look like some junior varsity player who doesn’t know how to write a blurb.

Let’s be honest. As poets go, I’m not well known. (Yet.) My name on the back of a book is not the name that will sell it to the masses. Sometimes I ignore the content of blurbs and just read the names to see if the book by a new writer is at all similar to other writing I admire. If I like the work of the blurbers, chances are I’ll find something to appreciate in the book. My name isn’t one of those names, though; readers aren’t likely to say, “Whoa, look here—Karen Craigo admires this writer. I’d better buy this right away.” To really come through for the writers I support, I’d better say something important and true.

It’s illuminating to take a moment and parse some of those terms that we see so often in blurbs and reviews. These are not high-frequency words in normal discourse, but in the world of the blurb, a word like “luminous” is nearly as common as the word “poem.” Here are a few blurb words, with their literal meaning and what they seem to try to communicate:

  • Luminous: full of light, especially in darkness. A luminous poetry collection stands out from the murky darkness of so many drab collections. Strangely, all of those aphotic, cimmerian, crepuscular, caliginous, obfuscous collections also bear blurbs, and—surprise! Most of those are luminous, too. A better way to talk about the luminous quality of poetry is to explain what, exactly, it shines a light upon.
  • Stunning: capable of invoking a paralyzing level of wonder and bewilderment. Poems are stunning when we read them and then just stand with our mouth agape, drool darkening our shirt, as day to turns to night and then becomes, ahem, luminous again. I’d like to be stunned by a poem. Sadly, I’ve never been more than thrilled or astonished. It would be nice to know what causes such a shocked reaction in the blurb writer. Where, exactly, was the surprise?
  • Evocative: causing strong feelings or reactions. The blurbist (blurber?) claims to have felt some sort of reverberation from the work. I hate to sound like a broken record, but what was evoked? On rare occasions, this is specified in a blurb, but sometimes we’re just told that poems are evocative, full stop. It’s not a tremendously illustrative adjective all by itself.
  • Unflinching: without fear; specifically, without a physical manifestation of fear. So often, poets take an unflinching look at X. We must be a very twitchy bunch, if not flinching is so noteworthy. It’s easy to spot the poets at the annual conference of creative writers; apparently, we’re the ones jerking and feinting and twitching our way down the aisle of the bookfair. Blurbs are usually good about revealing what poems look at so unflinchingly, so a lack of specificity isn’t the problem with this word. The problem is that blurbists are themselves creative writers (or they’re at least presumed to know a bit about the subject), so there is very little excuse for relying on this cliché.
  • Essential: necessary for life. I recently read an “essential” collection that was released in 2012. It’s been a perilous four years without those poems, but I’m happy to report that I made it through. Since every fifth poetry collection is essential, I should probably wrap up this blog post and get to reading—quickly. A blurbist who calls a book or a poet’s voice essential is trying to say that something about the collection felt very important. It’s quite possibly something he or she wants all readers of poetry to experience. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe this, too, is hackneyed language to describe work that likely deserves better.

In pointing out our inadequacy in talking about each other’s work, I hope to up our game, collectively. Poets should do better than this—they should develop a critical vocabulary that refuses to lean on expectation or habit. Truly noteworthy poetry deserves no less, and lesser poetry looks paltry in the glow of such praise.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Critical cliché: What's "at risk" in a poem?

When we’re not crafting our own poems, stories, or essays, we creative writers can be a remarkably uncreative bunch—and this is never more obvious than when we’re talking about writing.

It is ironic indeed that in conversations about our creative output, we very quickly devolve into clichés. We often use imprecise language and insular code, and neither tendency reveals any great insight about the art.

My least favorite concept when discussing writing is the “risk” a poem takes. The idea, of course, is nonsensical; poems are shapes on a page. They have no corporeal reality; they own nothing. There is nothing for a poem to risk.

There may be risk for a poet, of course. Some poems go into very dark territory, and the cost to the writer can dear. But I would maintain that the poet’s interior processes do not belong on the table in a workshop. Whether or not a poem was hard to write is an assessment exterior to the poem, and it’s irrelevant to a discussion of its effectiveness.

I would also argue that risk is not something a reader can discern from the poem. A poem that may appear very confessional and risky from a reader’s perspective may have cost the writer nothing at all; the idea of risk is a projection in this case. Likewise, a poem that seems very benign to a reader may have posed extreme difficulty for the writer. We’d have to be in the writer’s head to know.

I have observed that the writing gets easier, both in its technical aspects and in my ability to approach subjects that cause pain. My “risk” is reduced, even as I continue to try to go deeper and to cover new ground. Sometimes I’m surprised by what still has the capacity to hurt me. But that’s a deeply personal subject, and it exists apart from the poem.

On a related note, discussions of poetry frequently address what’s “at stake.” This idea is certainly appropriate, and even necessary, in discussions of fiction, where characters are engaged in conflict and face potential loss if they fail. Increasing the stakes also increases the narrative tension. However, in poetry, this phrase is a bit floppy. Does a poem feel important? That’s a slightly different question than to ask if anything is “at stake.” Inquiring about the stakes makes sense if one’s poetic exemplar is Robert Service—but I don’t actually know any poets like that.

I remember once in a workshop reading a poem about a person’s kitchen. The poem described what the kitchen looked like—the colors, what was on the table, the hum of the fridge. But in this poem—a failed poem, in my opinion—there was no particular reason to be cataloguing the contents of the kitchen. It was just a kitchen—kind of yellow, a bowl of fruit, the end. We could perhaps say that nothing is “at stake” in the poem, and we wouldn’t be wrong—but the phrase is a little too loosey-goosey to allow us to arrive at any enhanced understanding of the piece. That poem failed because it wasn’t connected to any particular consciousness—there was no sense of who occupied that kitchen. Falling back on coded language about stakes muddies our meaning. The kitchen does not need to be yellower; the fruit doesn’t need to be bigger.

I believe some people use the risk idea to get at a certain boldness of approach. Any aspect of a poem can go awry, from the form to the rhetoric to the syntax to the imagery, and some of those aspects are difficult and unexpected. Maybe the notion that a poem can crash and burn if something goes wrong feels like risk.

I’ve also heard people say that a poem risks something specific, usually sentimentality. Sentiment certainly does turn off some contemporary readers, who have ceded the turf of love, or faith, or hope, or even, I dunno, dogs, for heaven’ sake. They insist that the world doesn’t need your dog poem, so maybe writing one is perceived to be risky. Personally, I don’t see a lot of risk in turning off a reader who doesn’t care for my subject matter or my approach. A healthier mindset may just be that the risk is theirs, and if they aren’t open to reading my sentiments, they miss out on the poem. As the poet, I just have to work with what refuses to be ignored, and sometimes that’s something like love.

What do we mean when we use these shorthand terms, “risk” and “stakes”? That’s the key question, and it’s where the conversation starts. Workshop clichés presume that we’re all on the same page, and I’m not so sure that we are. If we do mean to talk about some reality, some pain, within the writer, well, then, that’s a conversation I don’t plan to participate in. I have no intention of weighing the value of my suffering, or its lack, in my art.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Making time to write, guerrilla-style

You don’t have enough time to write. You’re a student/instructor/unemployed/parent/activist/ philatelist/hand-model/trapezist/Trappist/burglar/gadabout, and let’s face it—there’s just not enough time in the day for the things we’d like to do.

The following are a few strategies—some from the broader world and some from my own experience as a would-be poet who hasn’t always put poetry first—to help you function as an artist despite (or lieu of) your busy schedule.

Be a writer. Make day-trading or trapeze artistry or hand-modeling the thing you do on the side. Writers write. If you’re not a real writer, but rather just a hobbyist, celebrate the fact that you have a really great hobby—but call yourself the thing you most want to be (and it’s OK if that’s not writing). The other things you have to do, even the things you do to make money and feed the kids, can be fit in on the side.

Manage your time. The corporate world has offered us a number of strategies for time management: for taking the twenty-four hours we all have in a day and carving them up in such a way that we can meet our goals. For our corporate friends, those goals are primarily financial. For an artist, the goal is to make art.

Quit trying to multitask. This piece of advice goes along with the first—don’t keep trying to fit writing in on the side. Writers write. And writing well takes focus.

Multitask. No one said writers were logical. You’re not going to quit your job, sell your kids, leave the abbey, quit knocking over liquor stores, etc., so you’re going to have to do writing on the side, despite your best intentions. Writing during spare moments keeps us limber for when we do find ourselves with an opportunity to create.

Change your life. Get 500 pounds and a room of your own. Better yet: win MegaMillions.

Here are a few prompts for guerrilla-style writing projects:

  • Eavesdrop. Listen to the conversations of those around you on the bus, on TV, in the classroom, in the union, or wherever you happen to be. Then, pluck from the air a promising sentence and make it the first line of a poem. Alternately, create a pastiche poem using many scraps of overheard conversation. Challenge yourself not to add a word—just to rearrange.
  • Pick up where you left off. Start a project and then return to it, rather than starting new each time. My chapbook Stone for an Eye came from this kind of project—a daily meditation on a particular stone that I wore around my neck.
  • Exploit a misunderstanding. In my life as a composition instructor, I often encounter funny misunderstandings of words—things given to us on a “silver bladder,” holding someone on a “petal stool.” Make an error into art by exploring new meanings in a poem. (This is a good prompt for a student—you’re supposed to mess up on a near-daily basis.)
  • Imitate. Find a small piece of writing that you wish you had written. Then—write it, your own way. These to me are more of an exercise than a viable piece of writing, but again, part of what we’re talking about is staying in shape for the writing time to come.
  • Start an exquisite corpse that’s just for you. Write a line a day and see where it takes you.
  • Choose a contest and plan to enter it. Note the deadline and don’t miss it. Make yourself follow through.
  • Rant and rave. Write a poison pen letter; pound out a manifesto. Take up a cause. You don’t have to send these pieces of writing to anyone—they’re just a way to keep the pen moving or the keyboard clicking.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Submittable blues

Do you have a Submittable problem?

Do you log into the Submittable manuscript submission system several times a day, just to see if that status of your work has magically shifted from “Received” to “In-Progress”?

Have you ever found yourself howling and shaking your fist at the sky after detecting no apparent movement by editors?

Quit that. You’re misunderstanding the system.

Magazines that accept electronic submissions typically chose from one of the two most popular systems, Submittable or the CLMP Submission Manager. Having worked on the editorial side of both systems, I prefer the CLMP system for discussion and response to submission, but as a writer, Submittable wins, hands-down.

When you send work to a magazine using Submittable, all of your contact info and even your bio are preloaded. You attach a file and press send and that’s it. With Submission Manager, it is necessary to type in that information for every new magazine, and on subsequent visits, you need to enter a password to withdraw or leave a note or submit again. I dislike fussy submission procedures, whether we’re talking picky guidelines or a lot of data entry, so Submittable suits me just fine.

I find, however, that writers—even writers who are experienced submitters—misunderstand what happens with their work once a journal receives it, and the misunderstanding stems from the Status area of the Submittable site.

Submittable offers a number of status updates, but the ones that cause consternation are for manuscripts that are actively being vetted: “Received” and “In-Progress.”

When work is received by a magazine, the status reflects that fact; it reads, “Received.” At this point, journals begin their very individualized processes of considering manuscripts.

The false assumption of some writers is that editors completely ignore their work until the status shifts over to “In-Progress.” Convinced that their work is languishing unread, they grow vexed at the inattention.

In actuality, work can get quite a bit of attention and never show up on Submittable as “In-Progress.” All “In-Progress” means is that a file has been assigned to a reader, or it has been forwarded to a staff member, or it has received a written in-house comment in the Submittable system. That’s certainly a sign that something is happening.

However, apparent lack of action does not necessarily equate with lack of attention. Submittable charges journals for editor access, and there are different levels of membership for different sizes of staff. Most journals get by on a shoestring, in my experience; they find ways to economize and make do with as little overhead as possible.

Maybe that means editors fudge a little and share sign-ins. No need to forward work if everyone reads on the same password, right? Thus, the status would still say “Received” deep into the process.

Or maybe a small magazine has a single person in charge of each genre, or even in charge of the whole shebang. There is no forwarding then, and no need to pass along notes.

Or maybe to save money, journals print out the work that screeners like best. That means, once again, no forward, and no status change.

At the magazine I served for a dozen years, we had only one computer. You get where I’m going with this; when two or three heads are bent over the same screen, there is no need to forward, and no trigger for a status change.

Yet time and time again, I participate in online forums where writers lament the fact that their work just sits there. Everyone grumbles. Occasionally someone with some editorial experience may offer the perspective I just outlined, but the news never gains traction. We visit sites like that because we seek commiseration—not to hear some wiseacre yak.

But I should confess: I do the same damned thing. I’ve been on Submittable four times today, certain I’ve missed an acceptance e-mail—something faulty today with Google or Safari or Mac. Sunspots. Pirates. Martians. I submitted a lot of things in the vortex known as “September,” see, and there’s something about September submissions; editors save them for last. October, November, even December submissions are cleared out, but there sits September. Ignored.

If this sounds like crazy-talk, it’s because it is. Most of this submission game is governed by idiosyncrasy and chance. Journals have their own ways of doing things; submissions get responses in their own due time (or they don’t—but that’s another issue, and a blog post for another day).

My advice? Don’t watch the calendar (or the clock) over those old submissions. Instead, write something new. And by all means, simultaneously submit—there’s more than one show in town.

In short, move forward. Find your audience. And show editors they need to get a move on if they want the privilege of publishing your work.