Saturday, October 25, 2008

Careful Language

Why don't people just learn the difference between "literally" and "figuratively"? Last week, I watched Jerry Jones (the owner of the Dallas Cowboys) say about troublemaker Adam "Pacman" Jones: "After this latest incident, he's literally walking on a tightrope now." Really? What's it stretched over? Can I come see?

It reminds me of the days when I taught freshman composition and some poor girl wrote about how she went that Fall with some friends to a haunted house that "was so scary I was shitting my pants. Literally." Ewwww.

Perhaps I'm too fussy when it comes to speaking clearly. There is no Grammar Police (other than those folks who seem to take pride in correcting people who misuse "who" and "whom" in front of large crowds). But what's the other option? Speaking so un-clearly that you end up saying absolutely nothing? I know this is one of the major complains for presidential candidate Barack Obama. He speaks well and looks confident in front of crowds, but his words are elusive to the point of being completely emptied of meaning.

And don't get me started on the "it's" vs. "its" issue. It's one of my biggest language bugaboos ever. It drives me bonkers. Its the God-honest truth (Cringing at the misuse of "its," even for the effect).

Maybe we should get together and hire a couple of out-of-work ex-English teachers, arm them with Tazars, and send them out to improve America's vocabulary (with force, if needed). Literally. Or maybe just figuratively.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Press Published First Book

Well, it's done. The first official title from my non-profit press, C&R Press, is out. It's Michelle Bitting's GOOD FRIDAY KISS. The press started nearly two years ago, and the journey has been eventful, to say the least. But we've hit our stride now, and have our first poetry anthology coming out within a month(BREATHE: 101 CONTEMPORARY ODES), soon to be followed by Stacey Lynn Brown's CRADLE SONG and Jon Veinberg's THE SPEED LIMIT OF CLOUDS. Did I mention that all of these will be out within the next six months? We got to the point where it was either surrender to the ongoing hiccups in starting up a press or tough it out through the problems and actually start publishing. You can see which we decided. (PS--It's the right choice).

The reason I'm writing about this all here is not to brag that I've helped create a new poetry book for the world (well, maybe a little), but to talk about the process of editing someone else's literary baby. Having honed my editorial skills over the past fifteen years at a half-dozen lit mags and a number of different university positions, I felt quite capable of the task. But like most things worth doing, it was a heck of a lot harder than I ever imagined. Knowing how short-sighted editors in the past often unjustly railed about word choice, imagery, and line breaks in my own work, I didn't want to become That Editor. You know--the one you want to chuck off the Empire State Building, only you don't because their incredible thick head would probably take out a bus at ground level.

What I finally did was go through it a couple of times, line by line, making notes on a Word document. When I was done, I went through and came up with the most pertinent pages of comments I had. Some were tough. Some were hair-splitting. Some were just plain grammar issues. A few were tough to classify--call it "listening to my own ear." But here's the part I love. Bitting was gracious and thankful and happy for the comments which I worried might make her hate me forever. That's what C&R was based on--being an author-friendly house where we're all on the same team. I'm incredibly happy that Tom Lux picked GOOD FRIDAY KISS to be our first De Novo winner because Bitting is our type of writer--someone who cares as much about a quality contribution to the world of literature as we do. And we thank her for it

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Relationship Between Writing Poems and Writing Movies

I've been getting lots of questions about how my past fifteen years as a poet--eleven of those as a teacher of poetry--feeds into my new career as a writer of movies. Oddly enough, I'm not sure I could have had any better training. As a poet, I've always thought visually (in poet-speak, "imagistically"). This type of attention to ocular input is hugely important to a screenplay. Brevity? Same thing. Tight, focused writing that has layers of nuance? You got it. Well-thought-out ideas that have gone through some revision and peer feedback? Again, yes.

Writing a poem allows you the freedom to find your own way. 2 lines or 2,000, you can handle it however you want. Part of the challenge for me in writing screenplays is that I'm working within some fairly strict conventions. 100 pages (plus or minus a few). Three acts. Present your "hook" within ten pages. A host of other "must-dos." Since there's real money at stake in the movie business, a lot of the decision makers don't dare go with anything but a sure thing. This is why many movies are sold with a single sentence like "It's DIE HARD on a plane" (PASSENGER 57), "It's DIE HARD on a train" (UNDER SIEGE 2), or "It's DIE HARD in the rain" (HARD RAIN). With poems, there's really no money for anyone at any stage of the process, so editors are willing to take chances, go with their gut, and help support innovative work.

This isn't to say that I'm a creative genius and that Hollywood better damn well sit up and pay attention, even when I'm breaking the rules. It's just that a different mindset is required for one to be successful in writing screenplays. When writing poems, I think about making it the best poem it can be. That's job #1. With writing a movie? Job #1 is audience, audience, audience. That's not saying that audience doesn't come into play with a poem, but there are plenty of poems being published today where audience seems, at best, an afterthought. Try that with the movie business, the 21-year-old from Vassar writing treatments for $50/day will toss your work into the garbage and laugh about it over Pabst Blue Ribbons with his two dishwasher buddies.

I'd go on about the poetry/movie relationship a bit more, but Steven Spielberg is calling. No, wait--that's my neighbor on the phone to say I left my trash can lid off so the raccoons tore all hell out of everything again, and he wants me to get out there and start picking it up. "You bet," I tell him, thinking the raccoon fiasco isn't good material for a summer blockbuster, but maybe there's a poem in it somewhere. . . .

Thursday, August 28, 2008

First Book Contest Scamming Stacey Lynn Brown

I heard about Stacey Lynn Brown's fiasco with a first book contest when she contacted me directly at my non-profit press, C&R Press, to see if we would be interested in helping out. We have a full schedule of authors already set to go for the next 12 months. Our first DeNovo winner, Michelle Bitting's Good Friday Kiss. Our 2007 Open Series winner, Jon Veinberg's The Speed Limit of Clouds. Our first anthology, Breathe: 101 Contemporary Odes. And we're already taking submissions for the 2008 DeNovo (first book) contest as well as the 2008 Open Series. Plus even though we're not actually asking for unsolicited work, it's coming in by the truckloads and some of it is so good, it's hard to say no too, even though we're not yet operating in the black.

But we were moved by her story, and most importantly, moved by her fine book which already came with terrific blurbs from Naomi Shihab Nye, Major Jackson, and Rodney Jones (which we will use in full, without rearranging, cutting, or altering in any way). In short, we're taking it and we'll squeeze it into our already overburdened schedule in order to have it out around January 2009 such that she doesn't have to cancel her readings and other engagements that were made back when she thought her prize-winning book was coming out. She's incredibly brave for taking on a publisher--any publisher--in the small po-biz world where it feels like the poet has a water pistol and the editors have M-60s. And I feel incredibly lucky that my press was recommended to her and that she felt good enough about C&R Press to trust us with Cradle Song, a powerful work that we are proud to publish, promote, and support.

Thank you Stacey.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

MIA for too long

Geez, you'd think moving wouldn't take it out of you for a month, but it does. The good news is that I've been writing a lot. The bad news is that it isn't working out. The project? A historically-based poetry book with persona poems. I had about fifty-five pages done but decided it simply wasn't coming together as much as I'd like. A few years ago, I'd have made the book work, or at least put enough time into it to make it "work." These days? I don't know if it's publishing sense, maturity, practicality, or something else, but I'm okay now with trashing it. I used to be desperately in love with every word I wrote. Now? I freed up some hard drive space and felt good about it.

Try it yourself. Take a piece of writing that isn't going well and trash it. Crumple it into a ball and throw it at the furthest trash can you can see. Or put the file in a folder marked "Do Not Open Until Xmas." Or delete it.

Don't be afraid to start over. Don't be afraid to try something new. If you're not failing often, you probably aren't taking any risks in your writing.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


I'm in the middle of not one but two moves, so the blog will be down for a bit longer. I'll be back soon!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

"Thin Slicing"

I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's very fine book BLINK: THE POWER OF THINKING WITHOUT THINKING,

and much of what he says about the idea that sometimes a decision made in the blink of an eye--some might call it a knee-jerk reaction--is often better than a more studied, calculated, and time-intensive, reasoned approach. This idea in relation to poetry is worthy of its own posting, which I'll get to later (once I've finished the book and have thought about it some more, or maybe I'll finish the book and just blink before I respond).

What made me want to blog today is this--in his book, he talks about Insight Puzzles. You know what they are. Little verbal conundrums that you have to think creatively to solve. It's the type of assignments and break-out-of-the-mold thinking that I teach in my creativity workshops. It gets you out of functional fixedness. It gets you think differently of words, of relationships.

Here's one, for example:

A father and son are in a terrible car accident. The father dies. The son is rushed to the hospital, then taken into the ER room where a doctor looks upon the boy and says, "I can't operate on him. He's my son!" Who is the doctor?

Many of you might've heard that more famous one. But what about this:

A huge steel pyramid is inverted so it stands on its point. Any movement of any kind will cause it to topple over. Underneath the pyramid is a $1,000 bill. How do you remove the bill without toppling the pyramid?

Answers anyone?

It's exactly this type of sideways thinking (my term) that poets use to intuit, to feel, to surprise their way into linguistic and imagistic brilliance. I'm thinking of Yusef Komunyakaa, Kay Ryan, Li-Young Lee, to name just a few. They find ways to get at something from unexpected angles and impress us with their ingenuity. For that, we, as readers, are glad.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Poem Prompts

Poems are everywhere. Or rather, the impetus for creating a poem is. I just returned from Atlanta where I was giving a writing workshop, and I had a two-hour time-wasting opportunity in the C terminal of Hartsfield International Airport. Instead of zoning out on my iPod or watching CNN belabor the Obama/Clinton debate, I kept my eyes open and watched. Nearly six women in the chairs around me held pink carnations, perhaps the cheapest flower known to man. Were this women in cahoots in some way? Did the same person give them each a flower? If so, why? And if not, what did that mean about the universe's laws of attraction (like attracting like)?

As I jotted down some lines for a poem about this super-studly, super-thrifty Don Juan (the solution that pleased me most regarding the unexpected flower abundance), I noticed that beneath the chair next to me was someone's boarding pass. A normal person would've left it there because (a) Americans only pick up their own trash (and even that, only rarely), (b) Americans are litigious, and picking up someone else's boarding pass might mean time to call in Johnny Cochran, and (c) who the hell cares about a boarding pass if it's not yours anyway?

Naturally, I picked it up. The name on the pass? John Daly. I'm sure it was probably John Daly the dentist from St. Petersburg instead of John Daly the infamous alcoholic, gambling, womanizing golfer who hit a ball so hard in his drives that it didn't regain its shape for two seconds. My interest was piqued. What was John Daly doing here at the airport? And why was he flying to DC like me? And where was he? In the john, puking up some Jim Beam? In the TGIF, scarfing down hot wings? He never showed up, precipitating a poem entitled, "Where the Hell is John Daly?"

And on the plane, I couldn't help but notice the cabin smelled like ass. I mean poorly-wiped butt-crack ass. Locker room stuff. So instead of pinching my nose shut and cursing God beneath my filtered breath for 90 minutes, I jotted down a fun poem about that incredibly bad odor which is a bit like the adult (poetry) version of the kid's book, THE GAS WE PASS. So three poems in three hours, and I passed over a dozen other rich possibilities that might've worked for other poets.

Poems are everywhere. They stalk us. They yearn for us. They want us to find them, to bring them to life. Tell me about your own strangest impulses to write poetry. Or better yet, write a poem about it.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reading Poetry Aloud

It's been happening all semester, but I really never paid attention to it until today. Every time a student reads a poem aloud--their own or someone else's--they launch right into line one without mentioning the title. The title is part of the poem. When you read a poem, one should say the title, pause for a moment, then start reading the poem.

It's hard to say why this omission of titles happens. Because my classes are fast-paced and involve a lot of energy from both myself and the students, there isn't that old shut-up-and-learn mentality some teachers might call a lack of discipline. Perhaps this loose-and-free philosophy carries over into how one reads a poem. Maybe it's that most student poets don't think much about titles and their relationship to poems. It might also be that they've never heard professional readings of poetry before to model their own reading after.

You don't start with, "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary." You say, "The Raven . . . by Edgar Allen Poe." Then you launch into Poe's classic about an unnamed narrator and his lost love, Lenore. (If it's your own poem, you can dispense with naming the author--an audience will assume it's you if you don't say).

Since we're on the subject of reading poems aloud, here are a few general ideas to keep in mind (beyond actually saying the title of the work prior to reading the poem, as we now know) that might help improve your poetry reading performance :

1) Read slowly. Whether it's from nervousness or excitement, the tendency is to read too fast. Poetry is high-powered language. Fire words at the audience like bullets from an M-60, and most will be hard-pressed to follow you no matter the quality of your work. Read slower than you think you should. For most, the proper speed for reading poetry might feel almost painfully slow to you, the reader. That's okay. Your audience will appreciate it.

2) Use your this-is-important voice. Be proud of your work. Stand tall and let air actually fill your diaphragm from bottom to top. Don't speak into the book or piece of paper you're reading from--it muffles your voice. Enunciate clearly and speak directly into the microphone (if there is one). Though if you are using a mic, don't get so close as to cause that irritating PPFFFTT noise with your letter Ps or, God forbid, summon that screech-owl feedback. Above all, believe in your work. Read pieces you are genuinely proud of.

3) Pause between your pieces. If you're reading more than one poem, don't just shimmy-shake-thank-you-Yeats from one to the next without a breath. Most experienced readers will chat the audience up a bit between pieces, the way the singer from Limp Bizkit (or Styx or Good Charlotte) leans out into the audience and hollers, "How you feeling tonight, Dallas?" And the crowd roars with delight. (Of course, it's perfectly acceptable to just talk about what inspired the poem, if that suits your personality more than the Fred Durst work-the-crowd plan.)

4) Test your poems aloud prior to the official public reading. Make sure that if you have a time frame to work within, you can manage it. Nothing is worse than knowing you're over time and you've still got a few stanza (or a few pages) left, which will make you want to read faster.

For another take on how to read poetry aloud, check out what Billy Collins writes on the subject in his Poetry 180 website. Who better to add to our discussion than a former U.S. poet laureate who is one of the most famous practitioners of poetry alive today? This site also includes a short audio clip from Billy (about 1:30) where he explains how to read a poem, then models his method by reading a Sharon Olds poem, "My Son the Man."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Getting the Blog Underway

I've been giving workshops to poets and teachers of writing for years, so I finally decided to start up a blog to discuss and share some of my teaching and poetry-writing ideas. I'll also include some book reviews, interviews, craft discussions, and other poetry-related things as they interest me.

I intend to blog at least twice a week, and I hope to soon include podcasts of up-and-coming as well as well-known poets reading some of their own work. Wish me luck!

I welcome your comments and feedback.