poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writing

Embracing the Idiosyncratic

WIN_20171228_15_08_04_ProWriting is full of superstitions. There are accounts of authors who only use a certain brand of typewriter, who write only at one certain time of day, who sip only one certain brand of coffee or tea with one certain number of creams/sugars/whatevers in it.

Our rituals become nearly religious in their practice. For instance, I prefer to write the first several drafts of a poem with a fountain pen, specifically a Waterman Phileas. I like to fill its charger with ink from a bottle — the color doesn’t really matter so long as it’s not red — and then feel the flow of that ink through a golden nib onto the page of a legal pad (canary or white is of little consequence to me).

But these kinds of minute habits, while important, are more innocuous than the habits we can sometimes abuse in our actual writing. I know I have a few idiosyncrasies in my poetry, and over the years, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with each of them. The excessive alliteration, the internal rhyme for no good reason other than the enjoyment of its sound, the Dickinsonian love of dashes — all these and more have been stylistic markers of my work, for better or worse.

And while my MFA program did its best to make me aware of them to the point of eschewing them, I’ve come to another understanding: All the greats have certain idiosyncrasies that critics scolded them for, but in the long run, we find those little habits endearing. Who could  imagine the work of e.e. cummings with capital letters, for instance? Or who could recall the work of Ogden Nash without its insistent whimsy and child-like wordplay? The list goes on, and the remainder of this post could be comprised of famous poets’ strange diction-predilections, but there’s only so much space, and I value your time.

The point is just this — Maybe I’ll stop using those devices that I’ve loved so much and so long, fearing I may “wear them out.” Or maybe, like a comfortable sweatshirt or an old pair of jeans, I’ll keep using them. Maybe I will own them proudly. Being mindful of delicious syllables doesn’t necessarily mean obviating them. In the diet of language, our guilty pleasures can still be consumed (or employed) occasionally, so long as we know not to eat the whole metaphorical pizza. Like everything, diction is a balancing act. Too much or too little of anything can throw things into disorder or disarray. But sometimes, that kind of creative chaos is just what we need. Our little indulgences and idiosyncrasies can lead us to greater authenticity. And as literary history proves, the authentic writers survive long after they’ve passed. Here’s to a great 2018, complete with all the oddities our creative minds return to again and again.

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poetry, publishing, writers, writing

The Personal Touch Still Matters

“This is a very, very fine poem. I just wanted to call you and let you know that we’ll be including it in our July issue. Thank you for sending it to us.” …And my day was made.

It isn’t every day one receives a phone call from the editor of a literary journal, especially one as busy as The American Journal of Poetry, founded and operated by Robert Nazarene (who called me) and James Wilson. Readers may recognize these two esteemed gentlemen as the former editors of MARGIE, a literary magazine that was legendary in its time for inclusion of high-quality and award-winning material.

Their July issue of AJP will include such renowned poetry giants as Mark Jarman, Alice Friman, and Tony Hoagland — and it will also include yours truly. The fact that my work is being published alongside these poets and others I deeply respect would have been enough to send me over the moon. But the fact that the editor reached out by phone, a nearly unheard-of act of kindness in the poetry realm, was the icing on the proverbial cake. His praise of my work combined with his personal interest spoke volumes about his work ethic and his dedication to an oft-underappreciated task.

So as you’re reading over the ugly remarks about editors on sites like Duotrope, bear in mind that there are still a few out there who do the task in a timely and proficient manner. Some even care enough to make phone calls, and by doing so, rekindle the fire of poetic passion beneath skeptical and world-hardened writers. Even in a time dominated by online submission trackers and digital everything, the personal touch still matters. Thank you to those gatekeepers and decision-makers who continue to do their jobs in a way that enhances the humanity of the literary community. Now more than ever, you’re needed.

 

poetry, publishing, writers, writing

On the Color of Names

Asian-sounding Pen Name Gets White Guy in Trouble

So, I read the story linked to above from the Washington Post. Here’s my two cents, for what it’s worth:

As a plainly named, semi-average white guy, I too have considered using a name that sounds “less Caucasian.” In today’s literary marketplace, it sometimes feels like people with humdrum, plain-Jane names get overshadowed by those without them, no matter what the ethnicity, gender, or background in question may be.

“Oh, to be a Li-Young Lee, a Marina Tsvetaeva, or a Yusef Komunyakaa!” say the Joe Smiths of the writing world. Of course, poets’ names are not their strength (although the aforementioned ones, especially, are impressive and beautiful sounding). It is the authors’ fine work that has earned them their spot in the literary marketplace. Their awards are many, and rightfully so. It is not a matter of name alliteration, length, or origin that has raised them to prominence; it is the quality of their writing, and a strong history of artistic contribution.

Statistics from a number of sources show us that writers from historically underrepresented communities still struggle to get their work in front of readers, and the good folks at Vida: Women in Literary Arts have demonstrated the imbalance between published male writers and their female counterparts. Nonetheless, when one opens a copy of Poets and Writers, AWP Chronicle, and other trade pubs that scribblers like me regularly receive, the most highly publicized writers can seem to be comprised of those with extraordinary and uniquely identifiable names, no matter what their color or creed.

Consider if you will the glossy back cover of the September 2015 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle: There, in a full-color ad for Grand Valley State University’s Poetry Night 2015, are Kwame Dawes and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. I wish I could be at the advertised event, not because I want an excuse to form such lovely names more often, but because these are exceptional writers. Inside the back cover, a full-page ad for the Sanibel Island Writers Conference (another event I wish I could attend this year) proclaims the presence of Edwidge Danticat, another brand-name poet whose work is as striking as her name, if not moreso. A quick flip through the magazine reveals Nikki Giovanni, Ravi Shankar, Minal Hajratwala, Luisa Igloria, and Natasha Trethewey, among other names like poems.

Admittedly, my name has sometimes raised an editor’s eyebrow or two because “John Davis Jr.” could belong to someone of any number of races. Sure, it’s a white guy’s name, but it could belong to someone of African-American descent, Native American descent, or any one of many other races, I’ve found. A quick run of my name through Google reveals a rainbow of people from all walks of life. Some are realtors, some are doctors, and one even ran for president in 2012. I’ve had editors presume I was African-American because my name reminded them of another famous “Davis Jr.” — Sammy Davis Jr. No joke. I didn’t mind the confusion, nor did I take offense. But then, I’m a member of this country’s majority. My people are not disenfranchised, nor have they faced excessive hurdles in society. And maybe that’s why Michael Derrick Hudson’s decision irks me.

It irks me for the same reasons that dialect-discrimination irks me, actually. I’ve had plenty of people assume over the years (based upon my size, appearance, and Floridian accent) that I am ignorant. “Dumb Southerner” is the label some have attached without knowing my full story. They hear my use of the colloquial “y’all” and jump to their conclusions, which are, ultimately, dead wrong. Yes, my family has farmed for three generations (at least). But we’ve also been educators, doctors, lawyers, professors, and Air Force pilots, just to name a few other roles. I don’t appreciate others assuming we’re hillbillies any more than writers of Asian descent appreciate “Yi-Fen Chou.”

So what’ll it be, Mr. Hudson? You think your name sounds too Anglo-Saxon? Oh, gosh. Better fix that right up. You’ll never get published now. It’s not like Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, C.K. Williams, or — let’s go back a ways — Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, or W.B. Yeats have had any luck. I can see your quandary, what with all the illogical repression of white male names and voices, It’s clearly a wonder that your work has managed to see the light of day.

But I get it. I really do. All those delicious-sounding syllables from diverse cultures are out there, just waiting to be exhaled. And they’re tempting. I know they are. That, however, doesn’t make them yours to appropriate. Might I be so bold as to suggest Mr. Hudson read an excellent essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr. entitled “What’s In a Name?” I assign it to my students regularly. When you read it, consider yourself Mr. Wilson, Michael. For in essence, you have called Asian and Asian-American writers everywhere “George.” And that’s not okay.

poetry, publishing, writers, writing

When should you blacklist a publisher?

magazinesI’m not usually one to post one negative thing after another, but recently, circumstances in my literary life have been causing me to offer a few “no-nos” to the general public. In today’s edition: How to know when you should never submit to a magazine/journal/publisher again.

Without naming names, I’ll tell you that I’ve recently scrawled a list of literary venues that I will never offer my work to again, and posted them to my bulletin board as a reminder. As a younger writer, I did this after a single rejection (or even two or three), which was hot-headed and foolish on my part. However, the places that I’ve listed and “sworn off” recently have committed editorial faux pas that I consider frankly unforgivable in the 21st century. And so, without further adieu (punny, yes?), here’s why I said goodbye and good riddance to a few literary outlets lately:

1. No response unless accepted. One journal is on my list because the editors cling to a policy that states, “We will communicate with you only in case of acceptance.” Hogwash. There is absolutely no reason that a magazine of any size should refuse sending a simple “no” to a waiting and hopeful writer. Their exclusive practice is rude, and rudeness doesn’t fly, even today.

2. Hostile, condescending, or insulting rejections. Another place is on my list because the editor could have sent a simple form rejection letter or a polite “This doesn’t fit our current needs,” but decided instead to engage in blatant snobbery and offer a few ad hominem cutting remarks. Where “no thanks” will suffice, subtle or obvious condescension has no place. Farewell, editorial ugliness. You have no home here.

3. Rampant inefficiency or gross incompetence. My third blacklisted venue accepted my work more than two years ago, and published it about a week ago. No, I haven’t mentioned them by name here or on social media. I thought the place had gone belly-up, honestly, as my attempts at communication were never returned, and I had already submitted the pieces they accepted to other venues. This could have created a major legal snafu, among other issues. Also, my author’s bio was grossly outdated in this publication due to lax oversight and poor management. Never again, (name withheld) Review. Yes, I know publishing is tough and time-consuming, but not to the extent that it should cause literary malpractice.

4. Emotional/personal affairs affecting editorial discernment. The final place to which I will no longer submit is operated by a novice publisher who sees every “no thank you” as a personal attack, or as an affront to the integrity of her/his operation. This same publisher overshares his/her personal problems when deadlines are missed or when quality is questionable. When the boss has problems, everybody has problems, much like the old adage “When momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” I’ll steer clear, thanks.

So there you have them: my reasons for “blacklisting” certain publishers. Some of these may seem hasty or even unfair, but in every case, my personal experience has been such that I felt compelled to write them off. I would be interested to know why you, the reader, have stopped submitting to various places, as well. Feel free to posit your experiences in the comments section (please keep it clean and non-libelous). We’ve all been there. Keep writing!

poetry, Uncategorized

The Awards Game

Award_imageIt’s that time of year again: Editors and publishers are nominating works from their magazines and bookshelves for a broad range of laurels. Most notably at this time of year, writers receive word of Pushcart Prize nominations. As a younger writer, I used to get all tingly when those nominations arrived by email — kindly journal editors who liked my work sent it on to that mystical committee that views thousands of submissions every year from literary journals all over. I am still honored to have my work nominated for the Pushcart (as it was again this year), but in speaking with mentors and writer-friends of mine, I’ve come to understand something: Poets “worth their salt” are nominated for the Pushcart almost annually. Venerated veterans of poetry take such nominations for granted, apparently, even though those of us who are still “emerging” think them a big deal. So, I’ve learned to cool my jets a little. Once my work is actually included in the honorable Pushcart anthology, I’ll certainly add that detail to my author’s bio. But for now, I suppose I should join the ranks of my fellow authors who see nominations as a nice thought, a kind gesture, but ultimately, little more than a tip of the hat toward one’s work.

I’ve learned also that the awards one reads about in other writers’ portfolios aren’t always as glamorous as they seem (take note, young writers). Certain awards may open some doors, they may add something to one’s CV, but outside the literary community, they don’t amount to a hill of beans. Robert Frost was a fan of the old saw “Fine words butter no parsnips,” and I suppose in the world of literary awards, a similar thought exists — shiny trophies, parchment certificates, and faux-wood plaques don’t make you a writer any more than a fancy hat does.

Recently a publisher friend of mine let me know that my book has been nominated for a couple of other awards, as well. If I win, it will be a wonderful experience, and I’m trying hard not to get my hopes up too much prior to the announcements. These awards are entered by many of my most respected fellow writers and their publishers, as well. To even enter the field is an honor unto itself. The danger, of course, in winning awards is the temptation toward stasis — many a great writer, after earning the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, has lain down his pen. The award was an end rather than a milepost on the journey. Writers, as awards season enters full swing, the temptation is great to see pinnacles where only plateaus exist. Gilded honors are stations on the path, not summits to be conquered. Let us be grateful and humbled, but let’s not be complacent. There’s writing yet to do. Stick that award on the shelf or on your book cover, and let’s keep going.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

How tactile-kinesthetic readers may save print

oldbooks Having just returned from my next-to-last MFA residency, I’ve had time to give some thought to the future of print books. At University of Tampa’s Book Arts Studio, I was given the opportunity to physically assemble a print book — in this case, a reprint of T.S. Eliot’s essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent. Our class learned the folding, punching, and binding techniques that go into the creation of a holdable text.

There exists a great hue and cry in publishing right now, as small and independent booksellers continue to bemoan the e-giants’ monopoly over popular reading (see prior posts for more on this topic). As humans reach for their devices rather than paper, bookstore owners and publishers alike begin biting their nails.

Here’s something, though, that has gone largely unconsidered: Bibliophiles of every generation enjoy the feeling associated with reading. When a book is especially well-produced — its cover embossed, its spine ridged, its pages delightful to turn — that experience becomes a large part of readers’ motives. They want to engage that part of their brains that makes connections with things touched rather than simply seen. For these tactile-kinesthetic learners (Gardner, 1983), reading is a complete sensory immersion, not merely a placing of text in the mind’s coffers.

I think back to my childhood, when my sister used to climb our old barn door and recline on the barn roof with her worn copy of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. The escape and engagement of those moments became something that has stayed with her forever. Part of the book’s mental and emotional perseverance resides within the format of the book she selected, and of course the “getaway” it provided. Had we owned e-readers at the time (long, long ago), I do not believe that the text would have been as meaningful. It would have become just another series of letter impressions, relegated to the same mental vault as USA Today headlines.

I admit it — I have an e-reader or two. I’ve even published my own 2005 print volume in the Kindle format. But when I want to read for pleasure and not just information, inevitably I turn toward traditional print books. I’ve tried reading poetry in the electronic format; it loses the organic intimacy that a print text elicits. Reading, for those who seek to enjoy it, needs to be a complete set of sensations, not just fonts hitting retinas. And it is precisely these touch-influenced readers who truly want to “suck out all the marrow” of a book. They may be print’s salvation in an age of expedient electronics. The future will tell.

poetry, Uncategorized

The Expected Rejection

I’ve written before about my “rejection practices,” but this little tidbit deals more with a specific type of rejection: the expected one from the MAJOR magazine.

Today in the mail, I got a rejection slip from a powerhouse national magazine whose literary prominence is known far and wide. No personalized notations were on this slip, and of course, I hadn’t really anticipated any. My main motives for annual submissions to huge magazines with slush piles the size of Everest are twofold, really: 1. Doing so keeps me humble, and 2. It gives me some sense that my work has been in front of influential editors, even if they did reject it.

This next statement sounds terribly snobbish, but honestly, the proficient poet becomes accustomed to better-than-average acceptance rates from smaller literary magazines. When one sends work predominantly to fledgling journals and up-and-comer markets, acceptance and kind words become a fairly regular occurrence, with a few apologetic rejections along the way. Editors, for the most part, are appreciative to receive your work, and you as the writer are pleased to be published. It’s a great relationship, and one I never take for granted.

On the flipside of this publishing coin, however, is the danger of egotism. After so many acceptances, the writer’s head can grow quite large if not checked. Something has to level out the mountaintop experiences of mutliple publications in smaller journals to maintain balance. Rejection from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or other major publications helps to keep the poet realistic and attached to modest roots. Granted, any rejection helps to accomplish this, but the coldly impersonal rejection slip from enormous national publications is the best of all ego-crushers. No explanation, no “we really liked this, but…” statements, just a flat-out “NO,” worded as generically and insensitively as possible. Tough luck, Mr. Wordsmith…no dice. (EDITORS: Please don’t interpret this graf as a request for more rejections; I have enough for a while, thanks.)

Certain writer friends of mine have this conspiracy theory that  big-time mags rotate off the poems of about 12 different renowned writers each year, and that any submission from someone without name recognition is immediately dismissed without a second thought. For now, I remain optimistic that editors and publishers are serious when they state in their guidelines that they are “devoted to discovering new voices.” Truthfully, if I were in their positions and I had to choose between rockstar fellowship winners or Joe Blow the small-town unknown, I’d probably make the same decisions they did: Publish the identifiable, decline the struggling. Empathy doesn’t make the rejection sting less, but at least it allows some justification.

My hope, of course, is that one day the tide of rejection from the “big boys” will stop, and I will finally be among the elite who manage to have their work carried in the prestigious pages of historic, culture-defining publications. For now, my small-time successes (see prior posts) sustain me and encourage me to keep going. Equally appreciated are the small magazine editors who reject work with thoughtful feedback, as well as the ones who accept my work with gratitude. Some of the best critiques I have ever received have been from the desks of truly devoted editors at college or “little” magazines. Their input has been invaluable, and hopefully, their refining suggestions will lead to bigger and better things as time progresses. For now, I have work to improve and send out, and for tonight, that’s enough.