What are some of the problems with poetry today? Does poetry matter?
What I can say is that human beings are diverse and complex, so poetry must come in many varieties to accommodate us all. I don’t believe in leaving anyone out. It seems there are different camps about spoken versus written, experimental versus formal, and so on. All poetry matters.
I said earlier, poetry saved my life. It did. It does. So poetry certainly matters to me. And I strongly believe there are many for whom poetry makes life not only bearable but wonderful. I believe all our creative expressions (as opposed to our negative expressions like fighting, vandalism, building weapons) make the world a more beautiful and livable and kind place.
Maybe what’s wrong with poetry today is that more people don’t love it. We don’t teach poems in school on a regular basis and the poems we do teach are often from another century and young children just can’t find themselves in it. I think poetry should be as included in the curriculum as mathematics or social studies, not just as a two-week segment once or twice in a child’s education. This is starting to change. All over the country, writers in the schools programs are in force and growing. But there needs to be more poetry in our lives from a very young age.
You’ve published your books with relatively small independent publishers. How important is it to you to work with indie publishers, and what are the pros and cons? In general, what could independent small publishers do to get their books more widely known and appreciated?
I haven’t chosen to work with small publishers. They chose me and I am very grateful. Small presses can’t afford publicity because there is so little profit (and often loss) in poetry. Amazon.com helps somewhat as does the web and social networks. As a small press publisher myself, I use all these avenues and am looking into making books available for e-readers. I have worked with some lovely presses and have felt like a family member there. I imagine it doesn’t feel quite the same at a large press but you do have better odds of your words reaching more readers. I like to be optimistic though. I think no matter who publishes your book, your words will make it into the hands of the readers who need them.
Please tell me something about each of your poetry books. You have been very persistent in getting them published! I’d be delighted if you could also share a few favorite lines from each book, and perhaps one entire poem that you wish more people could read.
Thanks for asking, Michael. May I also talk about the new books I’ve published as a publisher this year? I’m really so proud and honored to present the fine chapbooks of others. I wonder if this is how it feels to be a mother? Though I can take no credit for the wonderful poetry, I did have a tiny bit to do with birthing them. In 2010, Concrete Wolf, my national chapbook press, published Four of a Kind by Mark Neely of Muncie, Indiana. It’s a stunning collection of prose poems where each poem is presented in four different frames, like the squares of a window frame. And from my new Pacific Northwest chapbook press, MoonPath, two amazing collections. The inaugural MoonPath chapbook is by Bellingham, Washington poet and artist Anita K. Boyle. It thoroughly embodies the exquisite quality of voice our press envisions with its wise, funny, thought-provoking poems composed of taut, effervescent language, quiet strength, quirky surprise, and unflagging passion. The second MoonPath chapbook, Cinders of My Better Angels, by Tacoma, Washington poet and teacher Michael Magee, illuminates our ordinary lives, depicting how illness makes us not less ourselves, but more so. Magee’s voice is sure, succinct, and intrepidly sincere.
My first chapbook, Love is a Weed, was accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press in 2006 about 16 months after I started sending it around to contests. It went out 16 times. This collection was gleaned from my larger MFA thesis manuscript, Chicken Farmer, I Still Love You. Both these collections contain lyric and persona poems that reflect on the nature of all kinds of love including self-love. The Chicken Farmer book, that won D-N Publishing’s national manuscript contest and was published in November 2007, takes its name from famous graffiti in Newbury, New Hampshire that carries a message of enduring love. Chicken Farmer went out close to 80 times and was accepted three times but two of the acceptances were rescinded.
I’d like to quote an entire poem from Chicken Farmer. I like to think it embodies my best philosophical/spiritual self:
I stopped to look
at that cracked teacup
moon in the sky,
hadn’t seen before—
from a distant vantage
across this expansive
for a stranger
who just happens
to look our way,
one of us
I was sending the Chicken Farmer manuscript to all kinds of contests and open readings simultaneously with my pre-MFA manuscript, Dance From Inside My Bones. Although I’d written the majority of poems in Dance prior to my 2004 MFA, these poems benefitted from being edited during the program with my new strength of knowledge about craft. Dance won the Snake Nation Press national competition and was actually published in March 2007, before Chicken Farmer. This collection is strongly autobiographical and, as dark as it is, I felt it necessary to leave the ugliest truths out. I believe if I were to send out the collection today I would be much braver. Dance was sent out about 43 times before it was accepted. I guess I’d have to say my favorite line from Dance it this one from “The Path,” a poem about my dad:
Sometimes moonlight piles up
the way snowdrifts did back when
I was a kid—
My two current collections, the chapbook What Big Teeth and the full-length A New Red, each with completely different poems, came out this year and are concerned with the “real-life” story of Red Riding Hood and her associates. The chapbook was solicited by Kissena Park Press, an imprint of Starlight Runner Entertainment, where I work as a contractor. The full-length collection was accepted by Pecan Grove Press during their open reading period after having been submitted less than a dozen times. For me, Red Riding Hood is about a woman’s path to self-love and self-knowledge. Here’s a line the wolf whispers to Red:
your eyes are like autumn
after all the leaves
have come down
And here’s what Red tells the wolf later:
Inside desire’s many rooms
are many closets,
but all of them are empty.
Is a poem ever finished or just abandoned?
I’ve abandoned hundreds and hundreds of poems because no amount of editing would ever make them feel right to me. The poems just didn’t seem to be saying something that mattered in an artful-enough way. I always hope that eventually I will find a way to say what needs to be said in a new poem. Then there are the poems that I have to put away for a long time because the emotion is too raw to really get the craft straightened out right away. And always some poems of mine appear in print that I want to tweak. Sometimes when I give readings I actually do cheat and change them a little. Oftentimes, I find myself hating my published poems when I look at them years later, wishing I could have done better. But I think this is natural. Creative people are always growing, so the you that reads your poem ten years hence is a lot different from the you that wrote it. Just as we are never finished growing until we die, I suppose our poems aren’t done evolving either.
Some poets are all too eager to read their poems aloud at open mics. I’ve noticed over the years that you are often happy to listen, or at most to read a poem by someone else. Your likeable restraint is something more poets could learn from. What motivates your reserve in this regard?
I very much subscribe to the notion that to be a great writer one much be a great reader, or as in the case of poetry, a great reader and a great listener. What you call restraint I would call self-interest. I learn so much from those who share their poems at open mics that I would rather listen more and speak less. Though I do love to share poems by writers whose work I connect with deeply in the hopes of helping others discover a new poet.
Some poets have a national and international reputation, and some poets might be best thought of as regional poets. What role does the regional or local poet play in the larger scene of American poetry? Is it detrimental to think of one as a stepping stone to the other? Should one be content with regional or local recognition? Is it good or bad for emerging poets to want to strive for broader recognition?
Oh, I don’t think I can speak to the subject of the larger scene of American poetry. It seems mysterious to me why some poets rise to national acclaim, others remain well known only in their geographic circles, and still others are famous only to their friends. I have no idea how a poet crosses these invisible boundaries. It certainly has nothing to do with talent. There are many more talented poets in the world than whose names and poems will ever cross our paths. Is it getting a poem in a prestigious journal? Maybe. Is it winning a coveted prize? Perhaps. Is it through academia? Could be. Is it a certain kind of luck or fate or drive? Don’t know. But I do know becoming known is hard work. Always.
And, how I personally feel about the idea of recognition is complicated. I am an extremely shy person and fear recognition. And though I know famous poets aren’t mobbed outside eateries like Hollywood stars, I like the idea of having a private life that’s private. It was terribly hard for me when my first book came out and I realized I had to stand in front of people and read these poems that were based on my life.
I do know that unless we send our poems out into the world, they will never find the people who need them most. So we should send them out on page and on air and let them find their homes.
Do poets always have to “make it new”? Or would you agree with Jane Hirshfield, who said to “make it yours”?
There really isn’t that much new we can do is there? We can invent new forms and new words. We can write about the new animals discovered on the bottom of the ocean or the latest technology. We can use new technology in new ways, I suppose. But for me, what matters most is that a poem makes me feel something, makes me see something differently, makes me push myself to be a better poet and person. Jane got it right. Make it your own. Tell your own truth, tell the truth of life as you see it and tell it as best you can.
You have been an editor for Crab Creek Review since 2007. What is your process with the journal, and how would you describe what pleases or surprises you and your coeditors. How much of a Northwest flavor does the journal have, would you say?
For me, reading the submissions is such a gift. I never take lightly the hope and care that goes into every envelope and I deeply appreciate that those writers are entrusting me with their words. Ronda Broatch and I read every poetry submission that comes in. We then bring poems to the editorial staff meetings with editors-in-chief Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding Convy to decide collectively which poems go into each issue. And each of us gets to pick poems we love even if some of the other editors don’t agree.
Being the first literary journal to publish a poet is one of the most exciting things there is about being an editor. It strikes me as being akin to an astronomer discovering a new galaxy. I am sure every poet who has sent work out recalls their first yes. Mine was from George Loon, and I will always be grateful to George for believing in those two poems that had been submitted a dozen times before they found their home with Lake Effect.
Crab Creek Review has been a well-known journal in Seattle, having been created more than 25 years ago by poet Linda Clifton. But it has been a national journal for two decades and gaining acclaim and appeal more and more with every issue. So although we receive a large number of submissions from regional poets, we receive more than half our submissions from all over the country and overseas as well.
Our main goal is to publish a piece of writing that, as readers, we want to read again and again, a piece of writing that stays with us.
As a poetry book doctor, with the services you offer through Night Rain Poetry, could you talk about what you look for in a book of poetry, and what you try to give it to make it a proper book rather than just a collection of poems? What makes the difference? And what are the varieties of ways that can make a book work?
Making a book a book is a very intuitive process for me. Because I am not the author of the poems, I don’t have any history, chronology, or emotional attachments to the work. I can see each poem for its words on the page and am able to see how one poem speaks to another. I make arrangements that feel like a journey or a series of journeys. And it’s crucial that early poems invite the reader into the experience.
Oftentimes, poets put poems in their manuscripts solely because those poems have been published in journals. Prior publication should never be the sole criteria for a poem to make it into a collection. Another common assembly problem is simply putting poems in a manuscript in the order the writer wrote them. Sometimes this will be fine, but most often not.
There are many ways to make a book manuscript flow. Tone, imagery, emotion are just a few that work well. But the most important thing is that every poem in a manuscript must carry its weight. There can be no filler whatsoever. If a book contest says they want manuscripts of 60 to 90 pages, I advise clients to send 60. Less is always more when those 60 poems are sailing the reader on a great voyage.
Do the same ideas also apply to judging your Concrete Wolf poetry chapbook contest? Or is the game a little different there, where you might want to please yourself with the selections? I know you have a guest judge who makes each final selection, but do you somewhat please yourself in any prejudging?
I read every manuscript that comes into Concrete Wolf, so, as the first reader, I am the first person the work has to please. I narrow the field for the next set of readers but I make certain it is a very wide field of aesthetic appeal that contains all styles of poetry from personal narrative to lyric to experimental to formal. Of the 200 or so manuscripts that come in each year, every manuscript has some terrific work and I completely fall in love with at least 40 manuscripts. I always wish the press had the money to publish all of them.