March 31, 2009


Since I'm on the road, I haven't had a chance to do a proper post about this. But since April 1 is upon us, I would like to draw your attention to the most honorable resurrection of NaPoWriMo at Maureen Thorson's blog here...

...and I would also like to say that I think the Academy of American Poets, which is responsible for many fine programs (including one mentioned in the blog below!), took a big ol' misstep by trying to turn a grassroots project into a fundraising drive here.

Drafts produced on account of poem-a-daying have been, for me, a fantastic mix of play and serious craft. Some of those poems have found homes in major publications. The idea of reducing them to tokens of accomplishment--akin to reaping $2 from every box of Girl Scout cookies sold--grosses me out, even if it IS for a good cause. Hard enough to be facing down a six-minutes-to-midnight deadline without a gaggle of pledges on your back. Not to mention that this kind of formalized venue only further muddies the waters on whether posted drafts are being "published." Has the Academy explained that to participating poets?

The fact that no one there seems to have done any research into who got this movement up and running (Maureen! We love you!), nor spoken to any kind of deeper philosophy of why it is a good idea (or a bad one), nor made any attempt to offer a thumbnail history that gives credit, just makes it all the more inelegant. Designing a logo for NaPoWriMo doesn't make it yours, guys, especially when you're modifying its identity in such a fundamental manner.

March 27, 2009

When They Know Better

In the latest issue of American Poet, the magazine of the Academy of American Poets, there is a fun if brief interview of Louise Gluck by Dana Levin. Gluck is a little bit of a sore spot for some Washington folk, I think, because she halted the momentum of the Office of the Poet Laureate by being so reticent about hosting public programs. She was also a no-show at AWP a couple of years back.

But even when she's being a recluse, Gluck has an honorable rationale. I believe she honestly feels her job, first and foremost and regardless of whatever laurel wreath has just been laid upon her, is to keep writing good poems. And I'm charmed by simultaneously humble and cantankerous exchanges like this one:

DL: Did you ever hope for or imagine the large readership and current acclaim that your work enjoys? When you look back on the trajectory of your public career, what do you think or feel?

LG: I have no perception of large readership and acclaim.

DL: I can testify: it's out there.

LG: When I go to a reading, when I give a reading--first of all, you're standing in front of the room, you see the empty seats. And you only see the empty seats. It's because you were raised by a mother who said, "Why did you get 98? Why didn't you get 100?"

DL: I had that mother too!

LG: Yes, I know you did. So you see the empty seats, and people leave during the course of the reading, and you see them leave, and you think, "The are simply the more blunt representations of the feeling of the whole room. That everybody wants to leave, but only a few daring ones do." So that's how that feels. And acclaim? I've had as many terrible, condescending reviews or those that damn with faint praise: "Well, if you like that sort of thing, here's more of it."

So I have no great feeling of acclaim. When I'm told I have a large readership, I think, "Oh great, I'm going to turn out to be Longfellow": somebody easy to understand, easy to like, the kind of diluted experience available to many. And I don't want to be Longfellow. Sorry, Henry, but I don't. To the degree that I apprehend acclaim, I think, "Ah, it's a flaw in the work."

DL: As if, if they knew better, they wouldn't read you at all?

LG: When they know better, they won't read me at all.


Next week holds many adventures: two readings in New York (details below), a home-hosted poetry reading for two of my favorite first-book poets, and a seminar at the Writer's Center...for which it is probably not too late to sign up. Plus, maybe some talking about things which cannot yet be talked about.


Sunday, March 29 - Reading with New Issues poets (Myronn Hardy, Alexander Long, Elaine Sexton and Matthew Thorburn) at Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City. 6 PM; 29 Cornelia Street, NY, NY.

Tuesday, March 31 - Reading with New Issues poets (Myronn Hardy, Alexander Long, Martha Rhodes, Elaine Sexton) at McNally Jackson Bookstore in New York City. 7 PM; 52 Prince Street, NY, NY.

Saturday, April 4 - Breaking Through: Book Contests

Publishing a poetry collection via the contest system can drain time, money, and sanity. Learn the rules to the game. This seminar will examine details of the contest selection process: guest versus in-house judges, behind-the-scenes editorial considerations, and how to position your manuscript to be a strong contender. We'll identify emerging powerhouses of small press publishing--and discuss "warning signs" for ones that may be struggling. Attendees receive an annotated handout of resources.

1 session, 1 to 3 PM, at the Writer's Center (4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD). Interested? Sign up here!

March 23, 2009

Ode to Ethelbert

People That Make Me Happy in This Burgeoning Springtime...

-The well-dressed man quick-stepping down a Dupont Circle sidewalk with his arms full of roses and lilies in a vase, holding his spine ram-rod straight to be sure his tie stayed dry.

-My parents as they shared warm olives (sprinkled in fennel seed and lemon zest) with me in Charlottesville--where they had come to see me read at the Festival of the Book.

-My sister zooming up, down, and around Route 29 in her new red Mustang for her first Spring Break road trip.

-The guy who sells apple butter at the Farmer's Market, with plenty of saltines out for a free taste.

-E. Ethelbert Miller.

I'll spend another minute with that last one.

Ethelbert has one of the biggest smiles in town. He remembers your name, and has three people he wants to introduce you to. He builds this community with his bare hands. He makes time to have coffee--even though he doesn't drink coffee. He is a moving poet and a persuasive reader. An introduction by Ethelbert leaves the featured writer weak-kneed. He is shamelessly graceful and gracefully shameless. He has mastered the look of a sweater over a collared shirt. He befriends across all stylistic and social divisions. He has a deep and root-rambled undertanding of Washington's cultural history. His words are inscribed in stone outside the Dupont Circle metro. He tells you when you need to get your eyes checked (literally) and your head checked (less literally). He inspires me to not just be a poet, but to be a DC poet. He hand-annotates the Washington Post every morning. He speaks truth to powerful people.

I really just adore the man.

In his latest book, The Fifth Inning, Ethelbert uses baseball as a framing device to explore personal stories. You can hear his NPR interview on the process of writing memoir here.

Those in the DC area may have noticed that this Wednesday (March 25) is a juggernaut night for writers--four major readings. Here's the lineup:

A Space Inside: Greg McBride and Ann Knox. 7 PM; free. Riverby Books, 417 E. Capitol St. SE, Capitol Hill neighborhood, DC.

Lia Purpura and Stephen Corey. 7 PM; free. Kensington Row Bookshop, 3786 Howard Ave., Kensington, MD.

E. Ethelbert Miller reads from his new memoir, The Fifth Inning. 7 PM; free. Busboys and Poets, 4251 S. Campbell Ave., Shirlington Village, Arlington, VA.

Sparkle Series: Jona Colson, followed by open mic. Hosted by Regie Cabico. 8:30 PM; $3 admission. Busboys and Poets, 5th & K Streets NW, DC.

Time to perfect that magic potion that allows me to inhabit multiple geographies at once...

March 18, 2009

Barrelhouse Lovin'

If you're in the DC area and looking for a little spring jumpstart to your writing, I highly recommend the Barrelhouse-sponsored, third annual "Conversations and Connections" conference, which will be held on April 11 in downtown DC. From their newsletter:

"Amy Hempel is the featured speaker, and there'll be all kinds of writer and editor people there. For just $55, you get the full conference, a book, a lit mag subscription, and one ticket to Speed Dating with Editors. More information and registration is available on the site: Click here to check out the schedule, speaker bios, and to register now.

We think there's a lot of stuff here that will appeal to new and established writers. We'll have panels on flash fiction, using experimental prompts to fight writer's block (by our own Matt Kirkpatrick), sentence power, writing sex scenes, taking or leaving workshop advice, money for writers, rethinking poetry publishing methods, online publishing, POV in the novel, agents, contests, creative nonfiction, and, well, that's about it.

Some of the best established and cutting-edge literary magazines will be there, including 32 Poems, Blackbird, Entasis Press, failbetter, FC2, Gargoyle, Gettysburg Review, JMWW, Keyhole, LOCUSPOINT, No Tell Motel and No Tell Books, Publishing Genius, Smartish Pace, Storyquarterly, Twelve Stories, Willows Wept Press, and more more more. Plus, the full Barrelhouse editorial squadron, fresh off our resounding dance-off victory over One Story and looking for challengers.

It's a good deal! Sign up now -- this sucker has sold out the past few years."

Seriously, just the list of all the lit mags that will be represented is amazing. Check it out! I believe in these guys.

March 09, 2009

The Feline Escapes the Burlap Vessel...

Soup to Nuts

Crown executive editor Heather Jackson preempted world rights to Sandra Beasley's Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life; Glen Hartley at Writers' Representatives made the sale. In this sometimes humorous memoir, poet and American Scholar editor Beasley will intertwine her personal experience—she is allergic to well over a dozen common foods—with the cultural history of allergy. Beasley, who at one time had a brief stint as a food critic, is the author of the poetry collection Theories of Falling, published by New Issues. Crown's pub date is late 2010.

--Publisher's Weekly, March 9, 2009

March 07, 2009

Writer's Center Writer's Center Writer's Center

There are a plethora of things coming up at the Writer's Center.

On Saturday, March 14, from noon to 3 PM we will have an Open House that will offer all varieties of swag & opportunity:

-Learn about the new Literary Magazine subscription discount program for members, saving you 40% on top-tier journals like New England Review and Hayden’s Ferry Review;
-Meet workshop instructors during our “speed dating”-style conference to ask questions about their classes;
-Get an additional 20% off your new book purchases during the event (Members save 30%);
-Peruse books by attending instructors in our special display and get book recommendations from the staff;
-Win a free workshop, membership, or Poet Lore subscription in our hourly raffle drawings;
-Save $25 on one workshop, $50 on two workshops, or $75 on three workshops when you register anytime on March 14.

I'll be there. Why? Well, first off...because Charlie Jensen always throws an awesome shindig. But, second, this season be my first time teaching at the Center--two one-day seminars:

Breaking Through: Book Contests
4/4/2009 Saturday 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM

Publishing a poetry collection via the contest system can drain time, money, and sanity. Learn the rules to the game. This seminar will examine details of the contest selection process: guest versus in-house judges, behind-the-scenes editorial considerations, and how to position your manuscript to be a strong contender. We'll identify emerging powerhouses of small press publishing--and discuss "warning signs" for ones that may be struggling. Attendees receive an annotated handout of resources. 1 session.

Fanning the Spark of Poetry (for High School Students)
5/9/2009 Saturday 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM

For talented high-schoolers, poetry can get lost in the shuffle of extracurriculars and college applications. Don't let the spark die. This seminar will include tips on revising and tracking your drafts. We'll encourage the leap from studying textbook "masters" (Whitman, Dickinson) to enjoying contemporary poetry--and then using these poets to inspire your own work. We'll also identify publishers, awards, and local reading venues open to younger writers. Attendees receive an annotated handout of resources. 1 session.

I think these are both going to be great. If you have any questions, please feel free to backchannel with questions. And I hope to see you next Saturday!

P.S. -- Sorry about the BlogRolling wackiness. It'll either be fixed soon, or I'l be moving on to a another vendor.

March 04, 2009


So when Amy King tagged me to write about greatness, my first response was "aw hell." Not because it isn't a worthy topic (it is) or a timely one (it is, thanks to this article).

But I always worry, when I see long-winded posts on my own blog or elsewhere, that such posts mark the death of print criticism. We're driven by the immediate gratification of responding to an idea in three days instead of three months; but with all this energy being spent online, who's going to write the well-crafted response essay that actually runs in the New York Times Book Review and keeps the dialogue alive for the general public?

Anyway, here I am.

First, on David Orr’s essay. Anyone who has spent time in a debating society (guilty) recognizes that Orr is taking an extreme posture in order to clarify the issues for a general audience. Polarization is memorable; equivocation is boring. Doesn’t bother me. Folks, this is space in The New York Times Book Review that might have otherwise gone to 2009’s umpteenth book about Lincoln or Darwin.

The key is just to blow past the straw men. Slamming Czeslaw Milosz by cherrypicking a few weak lines out of “Dedication,” an otherwise killer poem? Lines that have already had to go through the filter of translation? Really? But it’s easy to get sidetracked, by awe and vitriol, from making more substantive points.

Accepting his terms of debate, let me respond with some premises of my own:

Walt Whitman was not a Great poet. He had an ear for musical, moving rhetoric that could have easily taken speech or essay form. He pandered to public opinion.

Pablo Neruda was not a Great poet. He lacked discipline as an editor and reviser. He wrote political poetry that bordered on propaganda, and had a weakness for lovelorn sentiment.

Emily Dickinson was not a Great poet. She absconded on her responsibility to address the issues of her age. Her work does not show any significant stylistic evolutions: those dashes mark the canter of a one-trick pony.

Now, prove me wrong.

I make these assertions not because I truly think Whitman, Neruda, or Dickinson are not Great. (I’ve actually hosted “Flirting with the Masters” poetry readings devoted to two of the three.) But I want to point out that once you peel off such a subjective label, it’s hard to get it to go back on straight. The label has lost some of its sticky.

Usually, people use one of two techniques to assign Greatness. The first is to cite individual poems as proof. This is a treacherous path. For every “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” there is an “O Captain! My Captain!” The quality of available translations, or archiving of the poet’s oeuvre, comes into play.

The second technique is to cite the influence of that poet on subsequent poets. I like this approach, and one of the better sections of Orr’s essay is when he quotes J.D. McClatchy on the reach of Elizabeth Bishop’s influence to poets as diverse as John Ashbery, James Merrill, and Mark Strand. This tactic implicitly honors poets who have been active community builders through correspondence, mentorship, or editing. And it also gives us a way to un-anoint poets who were anthologized as “Greats” by peers, but have since been recognized as uneven or better suited to other genres. (Thomas Hardy, I’m looking at you.)

Does this mean that Greatness requires a certain curatorial instinct toward your work? Absolutely. Sorry if that seems distasteful, but there was a reason William Blake treated each poem as work of visual as well as verbal art. Walt Whitman ghost-wrote one of his own reviews. Emily Dickinson, even as a recluse, cultivated a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higgingson—who drew her attention via his “Advice for Young Writers” piece in The Atlantic.

Want more? Langston Hughes already had a book coming out, but craved the mainstream attention that could come from tucking his poems under Vachel Lindsay’s supper plate. Pablo Neruda wrote a memoir that took great care situating himself in the constellation of great artists: Federico Garcia Lorca, Borges, Picasso. Ted Hughes did not want to die without having putting Birthday Letters out there in response to a generation of Plath fanatics.

Poets have always been egoists. Careerism is not a “new vice” bred by MFA programs, as Orr claims. It’s a tradition as old as the troubadour pleasing the court.

So what’s the problem again? Orr dredges up Donald Hall’s essay on “Poetry and Ambition,” suggesting epic drive is lacking in today’s poets. I just don’t believe that. A.E. Stallings is translating Lucretius. Thomas Sayers Ellis is not only writing provocative poems, he’s articulating a poetics of sound. Kenneth Goldsmith is probably tucked away in his conceptual mad scientist’s lab right now, giggling as he pours a test tube of adverbs into a beaker of train times.

Love or hate the contest system, I think it has caused more poets to think in terms of big, book-length “projects” than ever before. Some of the results are startling, whether they end up winning the National Poetry Series (Tyehimba Jess’s leadbelly) or come into the world via an Espresso Book Machine (Michael Schiavo’s Mad Song). Read Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life or Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler before you tell me today’s poets lack ambition.

So ambition is at hand. Careerism is at play, but it always has been. Why does Orr find it so hard to slap the shiny foil medallion of Greatness on the next generation?

Well, if one goes with the tactic of assigning Greatness based on demonstrable impact—influence on peers an subsequent generations—then we do have a slight problem. And Orr is right to lay that problem at the feet of the almighty MFA, but he’s so entrenched in knee-jerk criticisms that he fails to elucidate why. The problem is that graduate programs obscure genuine stylistic lineages because “influence” becomes conflated with “mentorship.” Direct exposure to Great or Great-ish Poets becomes a tangible commodity. You admire a poet’s work? You pay to go have her sit on your thesis committee.

We end up with these strange artifacts of first books where a Big Name poet might be thanked in the liner notes—or featured in a blurb on the back cover—and we don’t know if there is genuine resonance in style, or if he/she just happens to know the student through an academic setting. And I admit, this is disheartening. It lacks the romance of James Tate backpacking around Italy in search of Ezra Pound. But it’s not a genuine roadblock; it just means we have to be a little more patient. I would venture that if the first book used to be the keystone of a poet’s aesthetic affiliation, for this and future generations it will turn out to be the second or even the third book, after the dust of networking has settled.

As Annie Finch recently pointed out, T.S. Eliot was primary in advancing the idea that Great poets must situate themselves in a tradition. While listening to craft lectures at the Sewanee Conference this past summer, I could hear poets beyond mid-career lay the groundwork for their critical affiliations. Mary Jo Salter talked about her mentorship at the hands of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Amy Clampitt. Mark Strand spoke movingly of the luminous, active truths in Wallace Stevens’s work.

But this doesn’t prove that Mark Strand is a Great poet (though I think he could be), or that Mary Jo Salter is a Great poet. What will really seal the deal is when Eric McHenry gives a craft talk citing Mary Jo Salter, which then allows us to connect him to Elizabeth Bishop, and only then will Salter be caught in the net of Greatness. Or when Michael Dumanis talks about studying with Mark Strand at Johns Hopkins, and learning to appreciate Wallace Stevens from there. Jorie Graham, for all her detractors, could be a Great poet. Somewhere out there is a brilliant, emerging, twenty-something poet who traces her work from Graham to Adrienne Rich. That’s a craft talk I want to hear. But maybe the youngster goes straight to enthusing about Rich, and Graham becomes the competent instructor who provided a stepping-stone to a Great poet. That's how we know.

The trickle-down of influence takes time to show itself. Time is not something you have when you are a poetry critic on deadline for The New York Times. Maybe Orr’s concern is not really that after Ashbery, there will be no Great poets. Maybe his concern is that there will be no Great poets we can talk about just yet.

But isn’t that usually the case? Ashbery sets up an unrealistic expectation because, let’s face it, he’s astonishingly viable for his age. Most of the Greats don’t stick around long enough to get such a complimentary preview of their eulogies. What on earth will Ireland do after Seamus Heaney dies?

Stephen Burt has a great quote comparing Ashbery to T.S. Eliot, who was the “last figure whom half the English-language poets alive thought a great model, and the other half thought incomprehensible.” If that doesn’t capture some of the vexing temptation and maddening incoherence inherent to the process of trying to label a poet “great,” I don’t know what does. But I honestly believe there are poets we will soon recognize in terms of not only their own craft, but their influence. Rita Dove comes to mind. Robert Creeley.

Have patience, Mr. Orr. For the rest of us, well, the job is just to keep writing.