Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Poet Tip 101: How to Order Your Poetry Manuscript

Mel's: Your Poetry Drive-In

What if you could just stop by a drive-in on your way home from work to pick-up the arrangement for your new poetry manuscript? You'd speak into the silver microphone and request a burger,  fries, and a coffee shake --- then finish the meal off with a newly ordered group of poems ready to be published to wild acclaim.

If only.

No one teaches poets how to carefully place one poem in front of the next until you have the prerequisite 48 pages of poetry that comprise a full-length manuscript. Classes abound on generating poems, revising poems, publishing poems --- but ordering a manuscript? Not so much.


In 1983, when I was working with my undergraduate thesis advisor, Madeline DeFrees, on my first poetry "collection," she took my poems and spread them across her living room floor. I remember the two of us down on our knees looking at the last words of one poem and seeing if they linked to the first lines of another. I still love using this method --- as if the poems were having a conversation together.


But this is just one of the many ways to order your poems. Here are a few things I've learned putting four of my own collections together and working with several poets as a book doctor or an editor/mentor. You may well find that your method is a hybrid of some of the ideas below.


A Favorite: Chronology: I think of Mary Jo Bang's Elegy as a perfect example of how going through the seasons of the year as a way to show how grief changes (and doesn't) over time is the perfect strategy for this intensely moving book. Sometimes, if there is a clear narrative (or you want to build a narrative structure around an event) this framework keeps the reader easily located and a story arc appears. Annette Spaulding Convy's In the Convent, We Become Clouds is another superb example of a book built around a chronology which may mimic "how it happened" or be totally constructed from the poets imagination.

Beginning / Middle / End: I know this sounds like chronology but it isn't. This is creating your own poetry collage broken into three parts. Perhaps the first section is to introduce yourself or the three themes prevalent in your poems. As the reader delves deeper into the book the pieces of the poet's obsessions (hopefully) begin to gather a 3rd or 4th dimension. The ideas behind the poems accrue. I've used this strategy in my book, Cures Include Travel, where the section titles are: Guidebook; Talking Geography, and Crossing Borders.

Sliced Like a Pizza:  theme by theme is a favorite for some poets. One section explores the poet's time in Istanbul, the next section concerns only poems on food, and the final section is devoted to sex with animals. Okay -- this is not a book I've read but you get the idea. Like with like. The problem with this is that sometimes too much of a good thing is, well,  too much. I'd rather eat one exquisite chocolate than an entire box.  The first scenario leaves the eater (or reader) wanting more and the second scenario could lead to stomach illness. However, this could easily work for some poets; there just needs to be some variety within the like subjects. For example, if one section is focused on family, perhaps place a poem about crazy Aunt Jane next to the elegy for Jane's brother.

Sumptuous Braided Challah or a French Twist: Reader, this is my book ordering bliss.  I like to have poems rub up against each other in new ways; I like the juxtaposition of the ordering to elicit surprise and disruption. In Cloud Pharmacy, the initial poem is "Blue Grapes" which introduces the speaker's odd spiritual sense --- a certainly surreal point of view where "God visits, brings me ice cream." The book is comprised of four sections with only one "Dark Room" focusing on one subject -- the photographer Hannah Maynard to act as a counterpoint to the other sections. Hannah Maynard took self portraits in the 1890's and employed trick photography often appearing in the same frame several times. My hope is that the other sections of the book refract off this central sequence.

Sunday Night Special The truth is that most books are a mix of these different approaches. There can be sections "sliced like a pizza" that also follow a chronology. For more insights on this process I recommend the collection of essays, Ordering the Storm which can be found in an e-book format on-line or you can purchase a hard copy.

And eventually your beautiful new book will be loved and admired in the world like Ada Limon's Bright Dead Things has been recently. It's a book I'm very glad Limon brought into the world. I sincerely doubt she thought it would be nominated for the National Book Award and yet here it is --- sticker and all. 

There's more to say on this subject --- much more --- but it will have to wait until 2016.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Honoring Madeline DeFrees: Saturday, January 9th at 2:00 pm, Elliott Bay Book Company

Waiting to cut the cake, Madeline DeFrees, at her 90th birthday party, Elliott Bay Book Company

Madeline DeFrees (1919-2015) was my first true poetry teacher. I was in my final year of university just returning to campus after three years away. Madeline was a visiting poet from Montana. Her one-on-one mentoring not only allowed me to complete my Honors Thesis but she taught me more about writing poetry than any other teacher --- before or since. 

It was a loving, funny, and memorable night at Elliot Bay Book Company a little more than four years ago when many of Madeline's former students, colleagues, and friends came together to celebrate with her. She was so pleased! I know I'd never seen her so happy. Many of us will be back again to honor her presence in our lives.

Here is an excerpt from my remarks that I read to Madeline at her party. It was so good to be with her and I'm sure in some way she will be with us on Friday, January 9th, as well.

In preparation for this talk, I went back through my daily journals from winter-spring 1983, curious to find what, if anything,  I had written about Madeline. And perhaps not so surprisingly – there she was. – Mixed in with huge boyfriend drama and the great penetrating angst of a young person’s life -- there was Madeline.

I thought I would share a few BRIEF entries  with you and with Madeline.

February 13th, 1983 –

My poetry life is rebuilding again. I like Madeline – she’s nothing like that Monster – Mr. M. (Mr. M - the poet from the workshop I’d just finished).

February 27th
A poem just appeared from an exercise Madeline gave me! "Scotch Nip."

March 9th
I’m learning lots of technique from Madeline – but she gives little encouragement. Maybe that’s supposed to make me work all the harder?

April 16th

Madeline is not ego-satisfying, but honest. She says my positive points are my maturity and my determination. Also, that the only thing that makes a good writer is to keep writing.

And that even if poetry is depressing, the poet wrote it in a positive moment.

May 20th  (Two days after I'd defended my thesis.)

Madeline came to the party and enjoyed herself. About 12-14 people. At times singing, playing a hand organ, and dueling guitars.

So here are a  few things that strike me about Madeline as a teacher.

1.  Madeline believed in hard work. No surprise there. She would tell me – in a poem  - when you take out the weakest link in the chain  - there will be something else to replace it. I was amazed by this and at the same time exhausted. No student wants to hear this. What do you mean?  It isn’t done yet?

 2. Madeline’s love of poetry showed itself in a true deference for even the most flawed attempts by her students. She extended to me the respect that a fledgling life in poetry deserves - but is rarely granted. We would meet once every two weeks in her office in Bartlett Hall, late in the afternoon when everyone else had gone home. I remember waiting for our meeting as being very much like anticipating a visit to the dentist  – and when she finally opened the door and invited me in, she would be ready her most exacting tool  - the red pen.  Ready to remove the weak links in the chain.

Please join us to celebrate her life at 2 pm. Friday, January 9th:

From Madeline's Executrix, Anne McDuffie

At 2 pm, in the reading room at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Friday, January 9th. Many of Madeline’s friends, colleagues and former students will be on hand to tell stories and read her poems, including Rick Simonson, Elizabeth Austen, Chris Howell, Susan Rich, Gary Thompson and Candace Black. There will be time for all those who want to share a memory or read a favorite poem, and a short reception. Please join us if you can, and help spread the word. This event is free and open to the public.Thank you! I look forward to remembering Madeline together.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Another New Crush - Surreal Friends: Remedios Varo (1908-1963)

Remedios Varo, like Leonora Carrington, was part of a group of Surrealists living in Mexico City as refugees after World War II. These best friends collaborated on plays, spent afternoons drinking tea (then tequila) and traded alchemical recipes.They also knew Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera and the many other artists living in Mexico City.

What interests me so much though about Varo and Carrington is how their friendship crossed over into the realm of art. Though they both have very distinct styles, they also use saturated color, high comedy, alchemy, memoir and otherworldly perspective in similar ways.

In interviews both women credit the other as a major artistic influence. Art critics seem to think that Varo was more skilled with the technical aspects of painting having learned draftsmanship from her mechanically minded father. Carrington's paintings may be more intuitive but I don't know if these women would have looked at their work this way.

Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Kati Horna

In my own creative world I know that having close poet friends: Kathleen Flenniken, Elizabeth Austen, and Kelli Russell Agodon (as well as many others) has made an enormous difference to me. Writing together, collaborating on different projects, and sharing in each others lives is perhaps what has allowed me to consistently live as a poet in the world. Therefore it is such a deep joy to find the book Surreal Friends about the lives of Carrington, Varo, and Horna.

Tonight, especially, I am grateful for following this creative path with friends.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Call For Submissions: Poems for The Human

The Invisible Man's Revenge
For a special issue of The Human journal we are looking for poems that explore the diversity of masculinity especially as seen in cinema or from a cinematic (strikingly visual) point of view.

The June 2016 issue will be devoted to the performance of masculinities in all of its diverse forms. What denotes the man in woman? How do we see the new masculinities across various continents? Comical or corrupted, human or more feral --- we want to read your work. Poems especially of interest from the LGBTQQ communities but everyone of any gender is welcome!

Unpublished poems that are related to the theme of this special issue – masculinities – should be submitted to the attention of our poetry editor Susan Rich at Please send no more than three poems in one document.

Reading poems on a rolling basis so the sooner you send the better your chances will be. Look forward to reading your work! Please, no more than three unpublished poems.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Poet's Life: What Happens When You're Not A MacArthur Genius (Yet)

This time of year seems ready made for contemplation. For example, is the bowl depleted or perhaps on the edge of a whole new life? And the spoon? And the artist who made them both?

In these days before the solstice, I find it impossible to escape the ever weightier question: what have I done with this one wild life? And for some reason that I cannot put into words, the beautiful vessel and spoon above make me wonder even more about my life: is my cup full?

The answer comes in fragments: traveled... written... loved... eaten delicious things ...laughed.

Tonight I'm thinking about carving out a writing life. As I hit my mid 30's and after the death of both my mother and father in the same year, I realized I needed to change my life in drastic ways. I left my rent controlled apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the wilds of the West. It was the best decision I ever made.

In Seattle, Washington where I live now, I'm part of a vibrant literary community. The opportunities I've had to read at Benaroya Hall (symphony hall) thanks to Seattle Arts and Lectures or to be interviewed on KUOW (our NPR Station) by Elizabeth Austen have been so affirming. I work to "author change" with other Hedgebrook alumni and sometimes teach at Hugo House. With poet and writer friends, I've also been able to give back to the community by starting WordsWest Literary Series in West Seattle (with Harold Taw and Katy Ellis)  and Poets on the Coast: A Writing Retreat for Women (with Kelli Agodon). I teach, edit manuscripts, mentor, consult on grant applications and book marketing, give workshops --- whatever interests me at the moment. Whatever people ask me to do.

One of the things I've done regularly this year is to write with friends. These "writing dates" sustain me when my teaching responsibilities zap me. I think there's no lyrical line left in my body but when I sit down with a close friend to write for a timed exercise of 10 or 12 minutes, magic happens. Last week I actually wrote a piece with my good friend Kelli Russell Agodon that was accepted for an anthology this morning. It is through special friendships and the freedom that exists to try out any idea, any project, that I've succeeded at creating a writer's life.

This week six of my poems were accepted by four different journals and anthologies. This has never happened to me before. Never. So I may die before the New Yorker or Poetry decides my poems are worthy of their pages, I may be passed over for an NEA or a Guggenheim, but I have created a writing life. I am a writer in the world. And perhaps that's the most sustaining thing of all: a literary life. The good news? This is open to all of us --- no matter where we live or what degree we do or do not have, no matter what's in our pockets, no matter our age, religion, or race.

What do you need to be a writer in the world? Stare into the blue bowl for awhile and see if an action plan begins to emerge. After all, it's the time of year for miracles.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fun Ways to Publish Poetry Follow-Up: 50 States of Poetry Party

So this happened. Tweet Speak Poetry republished my article on fun ways to publish your poetry. The idea seems to be catching on. Tweet Speak Poetry added helpful things like a downloadable map of the United States (not this one) so that you can color in states as you go. There's also a very good list of places to publish based on how these journals treat their writers.

Now my last state is Kansas. I've sent poems to two of the three journals in the state. Last night I discovered a third one to try. Now that only one state is left (one!) I'm ready to have this chapter of my life complete. I imagine all the ways I can celebrate: a party for my friends;  a trip to a state where I've never visited for me (Hawaii, perhaps) and a possible anthology with a poem from each state. I wonder if there are other people that have done this? I'd love to hear from anyone who has done this or is in the process of trying it out.

Thanks so much  to North Dakota Quarterly and the Broadkill Review (Delaware) which both took poems of mine this Fall. It's been a very fun 18 years! And I'm not done yet...