Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Poetry and the Internet


A recent visit to duotrope.com (an online database of publication outlets) revealed that there are at least 2000 journals actively publishing poetry today, nearly half of which are online journals. There are even poetry journals on YouTube and Twitter. A search for blogs about poetry turned up more than 3000 such blogs. And a statistical listing of 1000 of those blogs reported that the average one has 80 followers and several have in excess of 2000 followers.

That’s a lot of poetry, a lot of writing about poetry, and a lot of people reading about poetry.

And those numbers don’t tell the whole story either. I edit an online journal of poetry called Wild Goose Poetry Review. We have 250 subscriptions despite the fact that I tell people not to subscribe. I publish a new issue four times a year, but I post each poem individually so that readers can leave comments on single poems rather than on entire issues. As a result, when I put up a new issue, subscribers receive email notifications for each new poem and review. I encourage readers, instead of subscribing, to let me send them a single email when each new issue goes live. That way they only get 4 emails from the journal each year instead of 120+. There are 250 more people on that email list. So it’s safe to say that we have at least 500 regular readers.

But to understand just how many people read Wild Goose Poetry Review, you would need to know that the site averages 65 views and 15 visitors per day or about 25000 views by more than 7000 visitors per year. Of course, many of those are return visitors, but whether it’s 500 or 2500 distinct readers, that’s still a lot of time engaged with poetry.

All of these statistics lead one to wonder what this great quantity of interest in poetry on the internet means.

Firstly and most importantly, I think it shows just how much passion there is for poetry. Having done both, I can attest that it is much cheaper and easier to publish a poetry journal online than in print. The number of poetry journals has nearly doubled in the last few years not because the number of people interested in poetry has doubled (poetry book sales would contradict that idea), but because the number of people who can afford to publish a journal has greatly increased. Nevertheless, publishing a journal online still takes time, and the rapid increase of such journals is an indication of just how committed to poetry those who write, edit, and publish it are.

Secondly, the proliferation of poetry journals means that it is easier than ever for a poet to get published. Twice as many journals means twice as many poems, and with the encouragement that comes with almost any publication, more would-be poets will continue to write, submit, and presumably read poetry for a longer period of time. So, perhaps the number of people who maintain an interest in poetry will increase with the number of poets being published.

Online journals make it easier to get published not just in the sense of it being more likely, but also in the sense that the process of submission has become easier. Most journals, especially most online journals, accept submissions online, so there is no hassle with printing, stuffing envelopes, affixing stamps, and including SASEs for the return of unwanted manuscripts. Obviously, the online submission process is also cheaper. And the ease of electronic delivery to readers, editors, and poets means the process takes less time, so the turnaround time for submission-rejection-resubmission is shorter, and less discouraging, as well.

Thirdly, the increase in the number of people editing journals and submitting to journals means that there is even more diversity among the poetry getting published. At a recent conference I was on a panel with two other editors, and when we were asked what qualities we looked for in a successful submission, our answers were remarkably different, so much so between one of the other editors and myself that we seemed to give contradictory answers. Interestingly, despite that apparent difference in editorial preference, I have been published in his journal, and he has been published in mine. I wonder how many editors one would have to ask before getting the same answer.

Fourthly, internet publication makes it easier for a poem to be read. When a poem is published in an obscure 500-copy print journal from Montana, it will be read by the 500 people who subscribe to that journal. The poet has to hope that many of those 500 subscribers are libraries and that patrons of those libraries will read the journal and the poem. A poem published online is immediately accessible to anyone with internet access. It will be read by the 500 or so subscribers, many of whom will post links to it on their social media outlets, or email it to their friends, who may repeat the process. And, of course, anyone visiting the journal’s site or searching the internet for more work by the particular poet may see the poem for years to come.

Finally, for those learning about poetry or interested in developing their own poetic abilities, there is no longer any excuse for not reading a great deal of contemporary poetry. Students who used to rely on the “I don’t have enough money for a subscription” rationale can now find more poetry than they could ever possibly read for little or nothing online.

Of course, there are some unsettling consequences of the proliferation of poetry online as well. Many people are concerned that with more editors and more opportunities for publication, the quality of what is being published is significantly diluted. This may not be a significant concern long-term as the best poetry will find its way into the best anthologies and eventually into the classrooms and libraries where poetry outlives its author and any time-bound circumstances it grew out of. This, however, might be of little comfort to the poet who finds that with so much poetry available for free online, it is becoming increasingly difficult to actually sell a poem or even a book of poems.

Only one thing seems certain, for anyone interested in experiencing poetry, there has never before been so much of it available for so many at so little cost.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Dialogue of Poets

A Dialogue of Poets
(reprinted from the NC Writers Network Newsletter, 2010)

I am not a fan of the insular, one might even say incestuous, style of poetry that characterizes a great deal of what is published today, poetry that seems to have been written such that it could only be understood by other poets, or more specifically by other academic poets, poetry that seems to exist primarily as a vehicle for the poet to show how clever he or she is to the poet’s poetry friends who understand the language games, the obscure allusions, and the “code words” used in the poem. Neither am I a fan of the facile. I believe, as Frost says, that “there are roughly zones,” that it is possible to be sophisticated without being impenetrable, to create poems that utilize a wide range of poetic devices and that participate in the ongoing dialogue of poets about poetry while also remaining comprehensible to an interested and educated audience.

Nevertheless, part of the joy of reading a great deal of poetry is the discovery that in many poems, even while the individual poem achieves a clear effect on its own merit, the full range of the poem’s meaning becomes clearer and often more profound when considered in the context of other poems the poet might have been responding to. In other words, the experience of the poem may be heightened by an understanding of the intertextuality of one poem with another. Such intertextuality is one of the many forms of collaboration that take place in the writing of poetry.

Over the past year or so I’ve had the great pleasure, initially unintentionally and later a bit more consciously, of creating a series of poems that have formed a sort of dialogue between myself and renowned NC poet Tony Abbott. This dialogue really began years ago when Abbott wrote and I read his book, The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat. The poems in that book were among the first I had read that managed to move me to tears, but I had no idea then how they would influence me later.

Abbott’s book revolves around the loss of his 4-year-old daughter. Not surprisingly, the book’s expression of the awareness of the mortality, even at such unbelievable ages as 4, of those we love stayed with me over the years and influenced my writing as I explored my relationship with my own 4-year-old daughter in my book, Paternity. That same theme is treated in several poems, perhaps none more plainly than “Memorial,” where the speaker of the poem refers to his daughter’s “already decaying path” and “the unimaginable loss that lies ahead.”

The clearest connection between the two books, however, involves the seemingly miraculous perceptions of 4-year-olds. In Abbott’s “The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat,” the reminiscing speaker comments, “She stands very still // her eyes focused upward on some / object I cannot see.” Similarly, in my own “The Word for What Only 4-Year Olds Can See,” I write about how “My daughter made up a word, / effluctress, to explain why I couldn’t see / the rainbow bird outside the window.”

Up to this point, the dialogue between our poems had been unintentional, but this connection was so apparent, that when Abbott set about to write a blurb for the jacket of Paternity, he also wrote a poem titled “Effluctress,” and in that poem when he writes about seeing Mary, “in her blue dress with gold embroidered // hem and sleeves” who smiles at him “as if to say, / ‘It’ll be alright, don’t worry’,” I, remembering the poems from The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat, saw the image of his lost loved one, and in her, the figure of my greatest daily fear.

Shortly thereafter, in preparing to write a review of Abbott’s New & Selected Poems, I read his “The Man Who Speaks to His Daughter On Her 40th Birthday,” and the next morning, as I drove into the sunrise on the Causeway to Wrightsville Beach behind a jogging string of 4 pony-tailed, athletic young women obviously safeguarding their health, the relevant imagery made any question of intent or lack thereof irrelevant, and instead, writing the next segment in our ongoing dialogue became an irresistible compulsion. First, of course, I pulled to the side of the road and simply cried.

Here is the poem I wrote, the latest in our ongoing dialogue, but probably not the last:

Crossing the Causeway to Wrightsville Beach

The cormorants line up above the causeway,
their morning posture of feeding as ancient as trees,
older than even the first iambic lines.
We drive beneath them and rarely take notice,
not even of the stickle-backed sky full of clouds
that has lingered beyond them longer than reckoning.
I pull off the road to write down
the line I pull off the road as if
it mattered even more than destinations,
than the timelessness of cormorants perched
above the road that I get these lines down
because – what? They have something vital to say?
They’re all I have in the face of eternity? They,
like young girls running, help fend off the darkness.
I’ve read my friend’s poems in which
he still mourns the loss of his daughter
some forty years in the past, the grief
as fresh in his mind as what he had
for breakfast mere moments ago.
The sun is bright before me, the road
blurred with runners, each one
carefully preparing for what they’ll face.
I think of my own daughter and how
she’ll grow up one day if she survives
the shattered windshield, aggression of microbes,
cruel hand of fate, and I’ll
no longer have to write on roadsides,
plenty of time and peace at home,
and nothing but absence left to write about.

Why I Write Poetry

Why I Write Poetry
(reprinted from the NC Writers Network Newsletter, 2012)

My wife wants me to write a novel or a memoir or a children’s book or a book on parenting or hiking or gardening. I like all of these things, and I’ve written less than book-length pieces on each of them at one time or another, but there is nothing in me that makes me want to write a book of any of these sorts.

On the other hand, I have written 10 collections of poetry. The difference, from my wife’s perspective, between the books she wants me to write and the ones I write, is that novels and non-fiction stand a chance these days of actually making a bit of money, and poetry does not. A friend of mine, for example, recently received a $50,000 advance for his memoir. I have not made that much on all 10 of my books of poetry combined.

My wife, a beautiful, understanding and thankfully practical person, assumes that hard work is motivated by the reward one receives for doing it: increased home value for remodeling; fresh produce for gardening; the paycheck for the job. I myself am not such a Bohemian that I don’t enjoy getting paid, but writing, for me, is different. I have never seen it as a job or something I do for money. The practical question, then, is why do it at all.

There are, of course, numerous reasons for writing. Some write to effect change. Some to express themselves. Some to better understand things. Joan Didion claims, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.” Francine du Plessix Gray says, “I write for revenge against reality.” All of these are excellent reasons for writing, and all of them play some role in my own interest in writing. All of them, however, can be the motivation behind almost any sort of writing. None of them answer the more specific question of why choose to write poetry.

Given the unlikelihood of writing poetry justifying the time it takes by any practical measurement, some might claim, and some have claimed, that writing poetry is mere self-indulgence. In practical terms, I can’t possibly deny that. There is certainly a self-indulgent element in writing poetry, just as there is in any unprofitable pastime. But I don’t drink (a lot), smoke, or do drugs. I don’t watch sports on television (much). I don’t play golf or tennis or video games or poker. I don’t race remote control cars or work on real ones under the oak tree in the backyard. I don’t go clubbing, belong to a country club, or hang out with friends in a bar. Most of us are self-indulgent in one way or another, and given that, writing poetry doesn’t seem such a bad choice to make.

In fact, it could be argued that writing poetry is self-indulgent in the same way that meditating or praying or yoga or working out might be. Writing poetry demands, after all, perception and reflection. It requires that the writer notice things, both internal and external, and think about them, relate them to other things and to one’s values and beliefs. Writing poetry, in short, improves the self, and a better self is a better father, husband, employee, citizen, person.

Still, one could say that all that is just as true of any sort of disciplined writing practice, so the question remains, why write poetry. In answer, I could repeat a litany of traditional claims for poetry’s exceptionality: it is more spiritual than other writing; more resonant; more immediate; more complex; more transformative; more cathartic, etc. All of these claims are somewhat true, but none of them are why I choose to write poetry.

Ultimately, the answer to that question is simple. The way I experience the world is more like poetry than it is like any other genre of writing. Poetry tends to focus on a moment, distill the experience of that moment into just the right words so that the reader can come close to experiencing the full gestalt of the event themselves, i.e. the emotional, cognitive, perceptual, visceral and allusive reality of the moment, such that the re-creation of the moment in the poem seems paradoxically both singular and universal as it resonates with the reader’s own thoughts, feelings, memories, knowledge and perceptions.

The bottom line is, I write poetry because that’s just the way things feel to me: intense, complex, and full of life and significance.

Monday, July 1, 2013

NC Poetry Is Alive and Well


Poetry is alive and well, and speaks to a multiplicity of voices out of an ever-changing culture. Thus concluded national Poet Laureates Howard Nemerov and Richard Wilbur and NC Poet Laureate Sam Ragan at the Duke University Poet Laureate Festival in 1989. Then, as now, one of the primary forces behind the vibrancy of poetry in NC, was the NC Poetry Society, co-sponsor of that festival and many similar landmark poetry events before and since.

The NC Poetry Society was founded in 1932, having at that time only 6 members, one of whom was Zoe Kincaid Brockman, editor of The Gastonia Gazette. The next year, the following objectives were officially adopted by the society:

to foster the writing of poetry; to bring together in meetings of mutual interest and fellowship the poets of North Carolina; to encourage the study, writing, and publication of poetry; and to develop a public taste for the reading and appreciation of poetry.

For the past 81 years, the members of the society, having grown now to 370 in number, have strived to achieve those objectives by coordinating meetings, workshops, readings, contests, and publication opportunities for poets young and old, new and renowned, across the state.

The Society’s 17 annual contests provide opportunities for poets from a wide range of backgrounds and interests to receive recognition for their work. All contests are judged anonymously by renowned poets and scholars to maintain objectivity. Current contests include the following:
Lena Shull Award – new manuscript of poetry by a NC resident;
Brockman-Kincaid Award – best published book of poetry by a NC resident from previous year;
Poet Laureate Award – single poem by NC resident; judged by NC Poet Laureate;
Thomas H. McDill Award – any subject, any form, 70 lines maximum;
Caldwell W. Nixon, Jr. – poem written for children 2-12 years of age;
Joanna Catherine Scott Award – any poem in a traditional form;
Ruth Morris Moose Award – sestina;
Mary Ruffin Poole American Heritage Award – poem on the theme of American heritage, brotherhood/sisterhood, or nature;
Katherine Kennedy McIntyre Light Verse Award;
Griffin-Farlow Haiku Award;
Poetry of Courage Award;
Poetry of Love Award;
Travis Tuck Jordan Award – students grades 3-5;
Joan Scott Award – poems about the environment from students grades 3-8;
Mary Chilton Award – students grades 6-8;
Sherry Pruitt Award – students grades 9-undergraduate;
Farlow-Griffin Haiku Award – students grades 9-undergraduate.

Most Society members consider the 6 annual events sponsored by the Society to be the highlights of its work. Meetings are held the third Saturdays of January, May, and September at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines. The May meeting features presentation of awards and readings by winning poets from the Society’s annual contests. The September meeting is highlighted by recognition of the Brockman-Kincaid NC Poetry Book Award winner. The January meeting includes readings and workshops.

Weymouth is also the setting for the annual Sam Ragan Poetry Festival in March, where participants wear bow ties in the tradition of Sam Ragan. This event typically includes live music as well as poetry.

The other two annual events take place in the eastern and western parts of the state, both in April, and include readings, workshops, and roundtable discussions. Walking Into April is held annually at Barton College in Wilson, NC, and Poetry Day is held at Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory. Poetry Day is highlighted by recognition of the Lena Shull Award winner.

Other regularly scheduled events sponsored by the NC Poetry Society include monthly readings at McIntyre’s Fine Books at Fearrington Village in Pittsboro, and the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series. Since 2003, the Gilbert-Chappell series has matched a successful North Carolina poet with as many as three student mentees and one adult in each of the three designated geographical regions in the state. The pairs work together for the year, and at its conclusion, give a public reading in each student’s home library.

The Society’s regular publications include the annual awards anthology, Pinesong; its monthly online newsletter of opportunities and announcements, eMuse; and its print newsletter, Pine Whispers, published 3 times a year to keep members informed about issues under discussion, upcoming contests and workshops, and other poetry-related news and opportunities.

Additionally, over the years, the Society has published 4 anthologies of NC poetry: A Time for Poetry (1966); Soundings in Poetry (1981); Here’s to the Land (1992); and Word and Witness: 100 Years of North Carolina Poetry (1999). Publication of Word and Witness was followed by a Touring Theatre of North Carolina production of over 50 of the poems combined with original songs, adapted by TTNC founding director Brenda Schleunes. Titled This Is the Place Where I Live, the production was performed 38 times in 26 cities.

Anyone with an interest in writing, reading, or supporting poetry in NC should visit the Society’s website at www.ncpoetrysociety.org. Membership is only $25 per year and is undoubtedly the best way to both support and participate in our state’s rich poetic heritage.