Tuesday, April 26, 2011

E-journal? E-zine? Why do we have to preface everything online with a big E?


I keep seeing people posting online/tweeting/facebooking about great new e-journals. This reminds me that I edit an e-journal, though I've never once called it that. I used to call it an online journal but then I decided it was silly to make that distinction and stopped. Is making sure everyone knows it's an e-journal so very important? And how does this even signify when so many print journals have e-issues? Or e-samples? Or e-mail? Oh wait, you don't have to say e DASH mail anymore. The AP Stylebook finally lost the hyphen. Does that make e-journal an ejournal now?

The distinction between an e-journal and a plain old paper journal is, I believe, one of status. Everything online is terribly gauche and new, despite the decades-long existence of the internet. Print journals (I'm looking at you Poetry and The New Yorker) have a sort of embedded upper-class sheen that e-journals do not. This sheen of awesomeness carries over to everything print in the literary world, so that even a baby paper journal, fresh off its maker's homemade press and with a distribution of oh, say ten, has a sense of literary hauteur attached to it that makes it better than an e-journal.

To this I say ptew! I spit on you, paper journal fanatics! Pjournals (hmm, that's kinda interesting, onomatopoeiacally-speaking) are no more or less well-constructed than e-journals in this era of web-literacy. Attaching ridiculous distinctions to web-only journals is one of the things that continues to divide poets. We've got online poets and academic poets. Old poets and young poets. New formalists and lang-po practitioners. It's like an episode of celebrity death match! Watch the dude who only uses his 1953 typewriter go at it against the smart phone guru! Bah.

All of these conflicts are a result of ego. Poets practice an obscure art which makes little to no money. The only way to keep score is to win contests and get published. Generally speaking, getting published in print leads to tenure. Getting published online leads to more readers. The decision between which venue to pursue is agonizing for all of us. Don't you hate trying to decide where to send your poems? I know I do. The cure? Let's all drop our Ps and Es and focus on quality publications rather than paper or pixels. Submit to both, then tell everyone about that great new journal you love without adding extraneous letters to a poor, defenseless word. After all, poetry is all about paring down the excess verbiage, right?

Monday, April 25, 2011

First poem tossed in the shark pool

(aka first poem posted on an online workshop)

I know exactly why I posted my poem to the No Holds Barred workshop on CompuServe on Friday, April 18, 1997: ego. I'd written a sestina and thought it was the best thing ever. I wanted someone to tell me how amazing it was. Isn't that why all beginners post to online workshops? You bet. The very first line of the very first critique I ever received is this:

"When I read your poem, my first response was to laugh."

I know you're thinking: hey, it's a comedic poem! Um, no. Hate to break it to you, but this poem was/is a melodramatic pile of adolescent angst. Sadly, I wasn't anywhere near adolescence when I posted it, though I admit I was 22 when I wrote it (which is near enough to puberty to merit a bit of mercy, right?). It contains metaphor and personification. It follows the sestina form nicely. It uses concrete imagery and active verbs: "Cars like intermittent wipers. . ." and "I punch the glass. . ." Unfortunately, all these poetic devices are at the mercy of a poem which says nothing except: I exist and it kinda sucks. It's just like all those other badly written poems floating around in the universe, pining for an eraser.

My response to that first sentence of critique? Devastation. Possibly a bit of anger. But what about the rest of the critique? you ask. Here is the second sentence of it: "I expect that you didn't intend it to elicit this response, but the piece comes across to me as almost a parody of over-imaged poetic angst." Oh snap! I think I might have cried, but I can't remember now. The reader continued with some excellent details about why he found the poem impossible: "You start with the sound being a wild animal and by the third stanza, the animal is you and it is in agony for some completely unexplained reason."

I didn't see his point at the time. I was using creative license to make comparisons, all of which failed (hindsight! my old friend!). However, the point is that I had NO IDEA what the hell just happened. I posted my darling and it came back to me eviscerated. I'd never participated online before. I read the rules of the workshop just enough to know where to post without completely falling all over my virtual self in stupidity. Little did I know that here, online, people were going to read the poem and actually tell me the truth. See, I'd gone to college for creative writing. Some of the workshops there were brutal, but it was my fellow students who were red-lining everything, not my professors. Since what they'd written was also barely comprehensible drivel, I was confident in my contempt for their opinions. In this online workshop, however, I had no idea who this person was or what he'd written. How could I believe what he had to say was valid?

By noon I'd formulated a response. It contained a great many exclamations points, question marks, and I'm sure it would've had a ton of smilies if they'd existed back then in animated form (I have the universe to thank for sparing me that humiliation). To my credit, I was polite and answered some of his points with the barest inkling of reason since even then I knew that a reader, any reader, had to be able to at least comprehend my work once I released it into the pool. I revised a bit. I found it hilarious that this person didn't even realize he was critiquing a sestina. My favorite part, the one which makes me writhe in embarrassment for my youthful self, is where I explain thus: "I actually wanted the reader to guess at this to provide an emotional atmosphere."

His response?

"If, in the main character's point of view, anything and everything is an animal, then I would regard the main character as psychotic and I usually find psychotic statements confusing. The poem is, to me, so highy [sic] internalized that it fails to communicate either a mood or a point of understanding to the reader."

Did I find this helpful at the time? NO. Of course not. I was so traumatized by his use of the word "psychotic" in reference to my poem that I ignored everything else he said. Unfortunately, every word of his second sentence about the poem being highly internalized was an extremely useful and valid critique. There is a bit more, but the result is that he basically wiped his hands of me and my poem due to my complete and utter incomprehension of the situation. After that, three moderators posted apologies for him. Another person posted an excellent critique of my poem, all of which I ignored.

Fourteen years later I find myself in charge of an online workshop: Poets.org's discussion forums. I've been at the job off and on since 2005 (several years hiatus in-between). I am the shark. I eat poems for breakfast. Now, you may be wondering: what is the point of this long, self-absorbed post already? And why the hell did she save her very first critique online? That's kind of weird. My answer: I deserve to feel that sense of horrible dismay now and then because it's good for me. It reminds me of what it felt like before I knew how to write a poem. Before I'd mutated into one of the evil sharks who munch on passive verbs. Because now people are tossing their poems into the pool and I would like to remember that while I can provide good, solid critique, there's no need to eviscerate the poem while I do it.

I'll be the first to admit, sometimes I fail at this. Just the other day I posted a somewhat sharp critique of a poem because after years of reading the same cliches over and over again, we who critique poetry grow bored and find ourselves fiddling with language just to keep ourselves awake. Snark is a great, freaking blast to write. So much fun can be had at the mercy of some poor, unsuspecting novice. When this happens and when I recognize it in myself, I pull out that first critique of mine and force myself to read it. I remember the sting. And instead of writing snarky criticism that delights in itself (oh, ego again!) I try to be merely truthful instead. And then I go write a poem. Maybe sometime soon I'll post it and see what happens.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Autumn Sky Poetry 21 now live!


The twenty-first issue of Autumn Sky Poetry is now online.

Read poems by Amy Billone, Mary Campbell, Alexandra Cannon, Carolyn Martin, Wyk McGowan, JB Mulligan, David Oestreich, James Owens, Simon Perchik, and Gail White.

—It's all about the poetry.

Christine Klocek-Lim, Editor

Thursday, April 14, 2011

My NaPoWriMo love affair

NaPoWriMo, forgive me. I love you deeply, madly, but I wish you were yesterday. I dream of sci-fi novels while you twist your literary lines around my fingers, jealous and cold. Your spare imagery no longer makes me shiver with anticipation. Instead, I have been sneaking sentences of prose: outlines, plots, characters trapped on alien planets. I know you suspect. I've been making excuses: oh, just another minute on Twitter. Five more on Facebook. Its just—your reckless alliteration has grown wearisome. Your line-breaks are sharp as thorns.

One spring, when I was young, for a whole month I snuck a teaspoonful of sugar after school while my mom was at work. The first two or three days: oh, such sweetness! My fifth grade fingers tingled with anticipation each time I snuck into the kitchen, certain I would be caught but so desperate for that sugary goodness I couldn't stop. I loved biting at the stuff. Once I even put some in water and drank it like candy, but strangely, by day fourteen, the granules stuck in my throat. I tried sprinkling it on toast. On grapefruit. It just wasn't the same. NaPoWriMo, you are sugar stuck in my mouth, bittersweet. Addictive. Can I handle sixteen more days of you?

I want to break your heart.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Favorite Poetry Books

I've been reading the lovely poetry book reviews posted this National Poetry Month by Dave Bonta and Nic Sebastian. It's a great idea, and one I'd love to do myself, but if I add another thing to my plate I think my head will explode. However, I can at least compile a list of my favorite poetry books of all time, right? Here they are:

The Heath Guide to Poetry. This was the book used by my high school English teacher and the one that first seduced me into learning more about writing poetry rather than just dabbling with my emo teenage journal. This is where I discovered Williams, Roethke, Bishop, Thomas, Cummings, Stafford, Sexton, etc.

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser. This is the book that taught me about poetry's emotional footprint. It's much more an explanation of how poems can move the reader than anything technical, but I think it's one of the most influential books I've read when it comes to my own theory of poetics. I'm always trying to move the reader emotionally in some way thanks to this book.

In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit. This book is a natural extension of Kooser's. I read it right after and it was perfect because of the way it talks about all forms of poetry (free verse, formal, etc.). Sure, I knew a lot about poetry and forms before, but this book is so well-organized that I still refer to it when I have a quick question. The poems used as examples are a special bonus for any reader of this book. Most of them are brilliant.

A Poet's Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie. Where the previous two books are easy and enjoyable reads, this book is a complicated challenge. Nevertheless, I learned more about the nitty gritty theory of poetry from this book than I ever intended. It took me two years, but I read the entire thing and I'm glad I did. Some of it is arcane and impossible to parse, but the encyclopedic detail is incredibly useful.

Refusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert. The poems in this book are deceptively simple: great imagery, brief narratives. When I found myself reading the poems several times, I discovered a world of emotion and philosophical richness. Gorgeous work.

talking in the dark by Billy Merrell. I didn't think you could write a memoir with poetry, but this book proved me wrong. The poems are sometimes gritty, sometimes beautiful (sometimes both), but all of them are surprisingly truthful. I don't know if I could write about my life so honestly.

The Country Between Us by Carolyn Forche. This is the book that convinced me poetry could be gorgeous and horrifying at the same time. I'm still in awe of this work.

Becoming Light by Erica Jong. This book was my first experience reading poetry that made me happy to be female. It's a celebration of womanhood. My particular favorite is "For My Sister, Against Narrowness."

What are your favorites? I could use a good summer wish list.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Guest Poet at Poets.org's discussion forums: Oliver de la Paz

As most of you know by know, I've returned to Poets.org's discussion forums as Site Admin after a long hiatus. I'm very excited to be back and pleased to report that the NaPoWriMo section is hopping with fresh poems and new members.

For your poetic pleasure, we also have Oliver de la Paz as the Guest Poet this month. You can ask him questions! He's a really nice guy! Seriously, head on over and see for yourself. There are some poems of his there (including my favorite "Wolf Boy") and he's written a few words about poetics as well as some advice for beginners.

——> Oliver de la Paz - Guest Poet for April 2011


Monday, April 04, 2011

It's been ten years or so

since I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia (fms). What have I learned?

1. You aren't dying. You just wish you were, drat it.

2. It's possible to go five days without sleep before you start hallucinating. The hallucinations are usually of the hideous variety (melting walls, etc.) not fun ones (everything is candy). If you want fun hallucinations, take a few benadryl. With vodka.

3. You are allergic to everything, including, sometimes, yourself. However, if your throat closes up, don't panic. You don't actually need air for at least a minute and the spasms usually pass before that happens. However, if you have one of these attacks in front of your husband, get up and run from the room or he will call 911. The EMTs are never as cute in real life as they are on tv.

4. No one remembers you have fms. Probably because the whole scar tissue, oozing lesions, crippled look is so 1008.

5. You will never be on time because just when you thought you were ready, you have to run to the bathroom. Because your hair hurts and you need to try a different barrette. Be prepared to explain over and over that you can't get there by 7 am. You will NEVER get there at 7 am. Since the person you are meeting will never remember that fact, be prepared to lie after you remind them the third or fourth time or they will think you are a whining loser. You have to come up with some whoppers: a tree fell on your house, you were struck by lightning, an alien stole your shoes, etc. The crazier the lies, the more amusement potential for you which will give you a reason to get out of bed.

6. Never talk about fms. Strangely, people think your illness is all in your head. Oh wait, it is!!! Central Nervous System disorder! W00t!

7. Everyone else is just as sick/miserable as you are. Or more so. Yeah, that means if you wake up and suddenly realize that Oh, today I can't put on any rings because of water retention, don't mention it. Because your neighbor couldn't even squeeze on a pair of pants and you really didn't need to see that just so you could bitch about your puffy fingers. If your feet hurt, theirs hurt worse, probably because of a dog bite. Or cancer. If your skin feels like it's on fire they will tell you all about how their last sunburn was insane. Insane! Those two weeks in Daytona Beach were torture! Seriously, just Keep Your Mouth Shut. No one needs to know that you fell down when you got out of bed today.

8. Keep going. There is really no point to staying in bed because you will be neither sleeping nor having sex there anytime soon. Because of the nausea. It's always better to drag one's doughy ass out of bed and start the day. If you stay in bed you will feel worse in two hours than you thought possible. It's like having the flu and morning sickness! At the same time! Thankfully, fms does not result in infants (but sex might so it's just as well the fms prevents that).

9. Exercise. Every rational human being grows up with a healthy aversion to exercise (nerdy bookworms FTW!). However, doctor's say that exercise is the single most important part of managing fms. Why? Because if you force yourself to suffer through just one excruciating hour of exercise, the pain is sometimes less than it would be otherwise (see point 8 above about lazing around). Or maybe just concentrating the pain all at once into a single session makes the rest of the day's pain feel less awful? *scratches head* Okay, not sure about this one.

10. You may only blog about fibromyalgia once every ten years. Why? Because if you start writing about it, you will NEVER STOP. Language diarrhea. And do you really need yet another bizarre disorder with an unpronounceable name?

(Yeah, this is what I did for the last hour while I was supposed to be writing today's NaPoWriMo poem. I am such a whining loser.)