Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Poetry For Fighting Fires - Washington Poet Laureate Focuses On Our State

Fires Near Lake Chelan, August 2015

Elizabeth Austen, Washington State Poet Laureate is creating an anthology of poems calling attention to the wildfires currently blazing in our state. Firefighters have come from as faraway as Australia to help with the worst fires in Washington State history. I am honored to have one of my fire poems included.

Childhood Study: Fires Late August

Awake in the middle of the night,
we listen to the grass crackle, to the new world of evacuate.

Like monkeys we screech as the trees go pop—

yellow candelabras, we see and then not.
Now danger damages our capillaries

for the first time, the ladder trucks and sirens

seem like small toys compared with
the neighbor’s fire-fangled trees.

What lit-up between us that summer—

(to continue reading, please click here)

Monday, August 31, 2015

Breaking News (In My World) - Reading at BPL

Boston Public Library Reading Room, 2010
I took this photograph of the Boston Public Library Reading Room when I visited Boston and Cambridge on a book tour in 2010. I visited the courtyard, the map cafe, and this awe inspiring reading room. I photographed the frescoes and saw original copies of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and the letters of Emily Dickinson. It was a somewhat surreal experience of bringing my childhood and adulthood into one focus.

I grew up just a few miles from here and as a child, this library represented everything good and true about the world. It was also a bit intimidating. I thought of it as a museum for the mind --- a place where I attended summer programs and when I was a bit older, wandered exhibits and wondered at the people who seemed at ease inside this building --- this building which was always under construction! This space where supposed Boston Brahmins moved effortlessly alongside Boston's homeless population. Without knowing the words, I knew this was an important democratic space for all. A place I wanted to be part of in some way.

And now I will be reading my poems here on Thursday, November 12th @ 6:00 pm. There will be more details to follow once the announcement is made. For now I will just mention that this will happen in connection with the opening of the exhibit titled "Women in Cartography" curated and organized by Alice Hudson, former Chief of Map Collections at the New York Public Library.

I couldn't be happier.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Cloud Pharmacy reviewed in Poetry Northwest

Cloud Pharmacy reviewed!
Thanks to Katy E. Ellis for such a thoughtful review in Poetry Northwest. A year after the collection has been released~ it's a lovely surprise. Here is a quote from Ellis:

Cloud Pharmacy pulls the reader through a satisfying storm of honest self-reflection. In the end, as fires wane and blue returns, we feel the speaker’s bravery as she faces life after the mid-point. Rich includes the reader in the hard-won declaration: Who says we can’t have it all: the house of sky and soft catcalls

To read the rest of her review, click here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tips: A New Tape Measure For Measuring Success -- In Poetry

What does success taste like?

The word success immediately evokes an image in my mind of many shiny objects: a host of silver coins spiraling along a calm ocean, dazzling, against an endless blue sky.

Okay. Let’s face it, this image is somewhat cheesy and a tad embarrassing, although I also believe it to be true. I’ve created my own concept of success. One with no sign of a genius award or photo shoot with Vogue.

Instead, I imagine a calm seascape with enough silver dollars to purchase all the saltwater taffy, mary janes, and good’n’plenty I can eat. I imagine a light jacket of contentment at the end of a long summer’s day. I imagine the happiness of the next poem. And the next.

In fact, I like to make fun of success.

I consciously work to change the stakes as I go along. For example, instead of thinking that publishing in the New Yorker is the only measure for success, I create my own definition and work to publish poems in each state in the country. I begin with Alaska, Oklahoma, and West Virginia; each state a place I have never traveled to--- or at least not yet.

And I love that my individual poems can travel and find audiences in states I’ve yet to see. 

A few decades on, I have published poems in 47 different states and 7 countries. Now Delaware, Kansas, and North Dakota are the publication trophies I most want. Publishing in these three states is an important definition of success for me.

One writer friend told me she fell into a deep depression after her book came out. All those years of writing, revising, the sweet note of acceptance, then choosing a book cover, blurbs and finally her book launched at her favorite bookseller’s. The sales were brisk! Everyone she knew was there! But she found herself wondering a few weeks later: why is it not on the New York Times Bestseller list? Where is the nomination for her Pulitzer?

The problem is we have only so much control over what happens to our books once they are born. 

When The Alchemist’s Kitchen came out, I organized a three city West Coast – East Coast tour with readings and talks at over 7 different venues in 10 days. Now, five years later, when I look back at that expenditure of time, money and heart, I am happy with the experience. Was I nominated for the National Book Award? No. Was I discovered by a big time poetry scout? No.

I see my poetry tour as a success because I reconnected with old friends, made new ones, tasted good food, created new audiences for my work and most of all—had fun. 

Finding joy is what you must you do for your book and for yourself. I can think of no better measuring tape for life.

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with winning an award. However, my strong sense is that running after these prizes is a recipe for hurt. Perhaps you are a finalist for a big award but you don’t win; how to calibrate the happiness factor versus the disappointment?

One thing is for sure: you must not measure your books success by the number of book sales. Of course you should do readings when the book comes out and send announcements to your community. Working to promote your book is good citizenship but that is different than determining your worth by a ranking number. Reducing yourself to a number is exactly what you don't want to do.

What I want to say is: there are 101 different ways to feel successful. 
You choose your own adventure.

When I receive a note from a stranger to tell me they were moved by a specific poem or they are in need of a poem they heard me read years ago in a different country --- this is the biggest success. My words reached into another person’s life and took-up residence. What could be better? A trophy? A fat check? Maybe. Or maybe not. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

My First Video Poem - Try To Be Done Now With Words - by Carol Sawyer

Try To Be Done Now With Words from Carol Elinor Sawyer on Vimeo.

Don't let the "Sorry" fool you, you can watch "Try To Be Done Now With Words" on the vimeo site and I so hope you do --- we need your input!

Carol Sawyer and I would like to know if you think this video needs music and if it does, what kind of music would you suggest? I imagine music of the natural world -- but what kind?

Thanks for any thoughts or ideas you might have. 

It's a CRIME not to read this...

I love my job as Poetry Editor for The Human

Hot off the press is The Human journal's  Crime Writing Special Issue  including crime poetry. True confession: I have always wanted to work as a private detective. In fact, I think that the skills that one needs to be a good writer (salient details, creativity, imagination, focus) might really come in handy.

Perhaps I need a business card, The Poet's Private Detective, for uncovering metaphors and searching out lost hyphens. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this amazing special issue edited by Rebecca Martin (everything but the poetry).

And to whet your appetite, here is the beginning of the poem "Theft" by Cindy Veach.


How I came down from Quebec to work in the mills—
How I never imagined it would be such hell.
How industry. How factory bell. How many miles
of cloth I conjured from the bloody cotton.
How my eyes couldn’t get enough
of the one window—the Great Out There. How I lied—
about a cloudless sky; there was one solitary cloud
far up in the cerulean vault. How I schemed to leave—
steal my wages instead of sending them back home

for the rest of the poem, click here

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Naomi Shihab Nye on The Art of Revision

I love this short talk by Naomi Shihab Nye on the Art of Revision. Find out what Richard Blanco did right before taking the stage at President Obama's inauguration...

Friday, July 17, 2015

Tips For Publishing Chapbooks and Applying to Residencies - What I've Learned As A Judge

Judging other writers' work is, at best, strange. The act feels something like peering into people's front windows as you walk down quiet streets at nightfall. You see the good, the bad, and the just plain embarrassing. For five years, I served as an editor at a Washington State poetry press. Every year we held a chapbook contest and chose one lucky book as winner. That meant hundreds of other poets were left disappointed. Did we pick the best book? How did we know which was the "chosen" one? Might a different group of editors have chosen a different chapbook? Yes. Absolutely.

So when entering a chapbook contest what are the things to be aware of? What might help you have the best chance of having your book win publication? My 10 top pieces of advice. After reflecting on these simple ideas, I believe they work equally well when applying to writing conferences or grants.

1. Persistence. Persistence. Persistence.

More often than not the book we chose as the chapbook winner was a manuscript that we'd seen before. Not the same exact manuscript but one that had been worked on: a few new poems and a a few weaker poems taken out. The advantage was that we came to know this book and so each year (sometimes three years or more) we could see it getting better. Know that sending to the same contest (if it is one you really want to win) year after year can be an excellent strategy.

2. Follow the Rules.

Most contests provide solid guidelines in terms of number of pages of poems, one poem per page, no plastic sleeves, etc. Following these guidelines puts you ahead of the pack. Editors are looking for a way to whittle down their reading load; a badly formatted manuscript could be tossed away without being read.

3. Create a Theme that Provides Coherence

This idea of a "narrative arc" some topic or experience that holds your book together is preferable to most editors most of the time. Having said that, I'll add that since all the poems came from your pen and your consciousness, this should not be too hard. One poet wrote about his work in the health profession, one poet wrote obliquely about the loss of her mother and a lover, one poet wrote about her past in a religious order. Not ever poem came under this theme but enough of them did that they provided cohesion to the manuscript.

4. Ordering your Manuscript is an Art.

It is also a delicate balance. I worked with one poet who had a half dozen poems about her uncle in her manuscript. They all covered similar territory concerning family and identity. However, the book was not meant to focus on this uncle and so by including so many poems about him (even good poems) the became off balance. In another case, the book had too many different topics ---- all good poems --- but the result was more of a crowded ship than a clear map of experience. There are 101 ways to order a manuscript and each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. My advice is to go to your bookshelves and take down the poetry books you love best. How are these poems scaffolded? What creates the pleasure you feel? Go beyond the poems themselves. Keep a journal of what you find. What are the consistent themes?

5. Know the Press Before You Press Send

Not all chapbook contests are created equal. In several cases, the press has a specific design for the chapbook winner and therefore you will have to abide by that design. In one famous case, the press rescinded its offer of publication after many mishaps with the writer. You can read about the case here as a cautionary tale. In other words, do some research: look at past copies of winning books at your local library or bookstore. You can even email a past winner or two to see if she was happy with the press. Publishing your first book is a euphoric event but not if it is with a press you don't respect.

6. Think about a Book Doctor or Outside Editor

Soliciting outside help for your book in terms of line edits, ordering for a narrative arc, and proofreading is more common than ever before. Prices can range from a few hundred dollars to a couple of thousand. Many poets are happy to work as editors and so you should approach someone whose work you respect. I am one of many poets who offer these services. Check out a range of options here.  I've worked with writers (fiction writers and non-fiction writers, as well as poets) on their chapbooks, their residency applications and individual poems or essays.

7. Keep Track of Your Expenses; Start a Poetry Account

Sending out manuscripts, making copies, paying reading fees ---- it can all add up. One way to take some control of this is to open a poetry bank account. Decide how much money you want to spend on this endeavor. One way to think about this is in terms of how much money you might make from your other writing gigs (freelance articles, teaching workshops, editing) so that you create an ebb and flow for your creative work. Another way is to see how much you spend on espresso drinks per month. Would that be better used on your poetry? However you decide to do this, you will have a physical documentation of where your poetry money goes. It can be liberating to look at your art from an economic perspective; it can also be sobering.

8. Research, Research Research

I mentioned researching the presses you send your manuscript to for consideration but there is so much more to learn. The chapbook is very different from a full manuscript not merely in the number of pages of each but because of the more artistic possibilities in a chapbook. This quote is excerpted from a blog post by Erica Mena who is a little bit in love with the form.

Another thing I love about the chapbook is the ephemeral quality of it, as a physical object. A lot of chapbooks are small, handmade objects that are out of place in bookstores. I can only think of a handful of bookstores that even consider carrying chapbooks, and even then they are sort of hard to spot, as spineless as they often are. Of course, that’s usually enough to intrigue me when I’m browsing, but I imagine they get overlooked more often than not. They’re often made in extremely limited editions, numbering in the hundreds or less. Since most literary title distributors won’t carry chapbook-only presses, they’re awfully hard to find, at least comprehensively. All this lends a kind of mystique to the form, and a certain pleasurable sense of illicitness.  -- Erica Mena

9. Think About Publishing Creatively

Say you've exhausted yourself sending out your manuscript to a few dozen contests over as many years. Perhaps your poems don't fit the current trends. Maybe you write in blank verse or every poem is a sestina. Using form might be a harder sell to a contest that could be looking for more commercial aspects or simply the judges are younger or older and therefore might have a different aesthetic. These poetic differences are extremely hard to define. We want to believe that an excellent manuscript will find its home. However, sometimes that home may look different from what you imagined. Perhaps you have a friend who is a visual artist. Has she ever created an art book? Think Anne Carson's book, Nox, where the book is a box. Or perhaps an art exhibition at a local gallery would serve as a publication. There are 101 ways to self-publish and in doing so have more say over how your poems appear in the world.

10. Don't Get Discouraged!

I have heard dozens and dozens of stories from poets on how long it took to get their first book published. I've heard everything from two years to twenty years. I've never heard of anyone whose book was taken first time out. Know that every time you send your work out you have another opportunity to make it better. Publishing will happen for you; there are 1000 ways to publish your work. Get started with a list of what would be your dream scenario. Now start working towards it.
Good luck!