poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

The Merits of “Submitting Small”

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Not too long ago, someone told me to quit submitting my work to small journals. “I’ve never even heard of half of these,” he lamented. “Your work deserves to be in bigger places — you know, like The New Yorker or something.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m among the great morass of writers submitting their poetry to The New Yorker every year. It’s almost like a custom of sorts. I send something, and six months later, I get their standard rejection. C’est la vie.

But to completely abandon the small, independent magazines to exclusively focus on getting published in “major” venues would be both foolhardy and counterproductive. Small journals have, for decades, provided my work with a home that has become gratifying in different ways.

One of the greatest rewards of “submitting small” occurs when that tiny publication really takes off. Take, for example, Deep South magazine. Erin Z. Bass, who has become a friend of mine, started this little venture years ago when I was still getting my feet wet in the literary realm. She published some of my fledgling work, and since that time, she’s provided a home for some of my more mature poems as well. It’s been great to see how her magazine has thrived, covering food, culture, literature, and the broad array of  southern life topics. With pride, I tell people I’ve been published there. Had I kept my work for some “bigger” magazine, I never would have been part of this success story.

Smaller journals also nominate for awards. Not that big publications don’t, mind you, but more often than not, I’ve found my work gets nominated for prizes when it’s been published in little places. These journals’ editors appreciate the well-crafted line, the strong image, and the dexterity of wordplay. As a result, they will often nominate work exhibiting these qualities for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and other recognition. I’ve always enjoyed the potential of having my work nominated unexpectedly. It’s a pleasant surprise and one of the perks of doing this work.

Finally, the literary community only works when we all pull together. What if everyone strictly contributed to mega-zines? The little voices that are so necessary to a civilized and well-read society would dry up, and we would all be forced to consume the standard tastes of a select few big shots. Boring! The little journals ensure that the broadest diversity of voices is presented. Let’s face it: Not everyone is going to love poems about rural life, generational customs, and historic landmarks, and yet this is what much of my work addresses. Without the small mags, these creations would remain safely tucked away inside my laptop. But instead, there are editors out there who recognize value in a breadth of experiences: urban, suburban, and yes, rural.

I will continue submitting my work to the up-and-coming journals. They do good things. Certainly, I’ll take my shot with the “name brand” magazines as well — it’s part of being a writer. But don’t expect me to withhold good work from a place just because it’s not as lauded as the monolith publications. If we’re eager to hear from a wide variety of experiences, the small magazine must thrive. And it’s up to writers to help it do exactly that.

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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, Uncategorized

A Chat with Mildred Greear

Mildred Greear
Mildred Greear

Once in a great while, a poet has the chance to meet with someone who has “been there, done that” many times over. Such was the case over my recent spring break. My family and I had gone to north Georgia to visit my dad’s sheep farm and do the tourist routine. While there, my father suggested we visit with local writing legend Mildred Greear. I must admit, I was hesitant about the engagement. Stopping by the home of an 87-year-old woman wasn’t really on my itinerary amid mini-golfing, mountain climbing, and snowball fights, but I figured, what the heck — vacation means no real schedule, and who knew? It might turn out a piece of writing or two.

As it turned out, Mildred’s home wasn’t too far away from where we were staying; just “up the hill,” to be exact. My father and I arrived and were greeted at the door. Mildred offered to put on some coffee for us, but we had just gone by the Sweetwater Coffeehouse and were good to go, we replied. So we sat down at her big dining table and began to talk literature. Mildred was especially interested in my literary endeavors, and asked if I’d ever submitted to the Atlanta Review, in particular. I told her I’d sent them a few pieces many years ago (pre-undergrad, let alone MFA), and she encouraged me to submit again.

“The editor there,” she said, “always sends back the most personal responses. Even if he rejects your work, you can expect to get something from it.”

Then she began to speak of her work in the local schools: “I get the boys and girls to think about Emily Dickinson,” she explained. “We look at poems and ask three questions — What, so what, and then what. Every poem has to answer those three questions, and the boys and girls really like it.”

So far, I’d gotten pieces of valuable advice for both of my fields of expertise: writing and teaching. But she wasn’t done yet. The next lessons were the best of all, as they dealt with literary life in general. Like me, Mildred self-published some years ago, and was disconcerted by the work’s treatment by others in the poetry and book community.

“They’ll say, ‘it’s not a real book,'” she recalled, “but you and I know different. Our books are better than a lot of that stuff (traditional publishers) publish.” She looked over a poem of mine from my first volume, Growing Moon, Growing Soil: Poems of my Native Land, and gave it both praise and refinement. “These words — isolation and anticipation — they throw me off a little,” she stated candidly. “Everything else is so peaceful and beautiful, and these words are jarring, kind of out-of-place.” She made me wish I’d met her before I went to press with that first volume back in 2005. Even at 87, her editorial eye hadn’t faded a bit.

She spent a little time recalling her science professor husband Phillip, bragging on his groundbreaking work regarding walnuts and other topics. Her pride shone behind a great smile as she thought of walnut trees returning all over the nation, largely because of Phillip’s influence and experiments. Modern scientists use much of his research even today in modern laboratories, she bragged. Yellowed articles about Prof. Greear’s work were pinned to her wall nearby, lasting reminders of an academic life well-lived.

My father spoke with her a little about local politics and old friends, and Mildred had opinions on all, of course. Asked about legendary north Georgia poet Byron Herbert Reese, she recalled the day of his death: “He was supposed to come by here for dinner,” she remembered. “I’d made fried chicken and we had several people over. … The time passed, and he hadn’t shown up. I just suddenly had this feeling that he wasn’t going to make it. … Somehow I just knew. I had set the table, and I told (someone in the family), ‘you can take that plate off. He’s not coming tonight.’ A moment later, the phone rang, and we found out that (Byron Herbert Reese) had shot himself.”

The memory of that night still haunts Mildred Greear. A pair of boys, Reese’s pupils, had stopped by minutes before his death, and Byron was playing a sad song on the Victrola in his office, the story goes. He seemed very depressed, and the students attempted to cheer him up before heading out. As they proceeded down the hallway, they allegedly heard Reese’s fatal gunshot. The boys ran back to find their good professor dead. Mildred said she encountered one of the young men years later and asked him if he was one of the students who visited Reese that infamous evening. The gentleman she inquired of, now a full-fledged adult, said he was indeed. They consoled one another all over again, remembering Reese’s spirit and work.

Mildred, my dad and I talked a little longer, mostly small, innocuous chit-chat, and then she completed our visit with a hearty thank-you to both of us for stopping by. She wished me well, and implored me to keep in touch. She also asked for a copy of my book, which I’ll be sending soon. Mildred, like so many other elder writers, offered me a keen sense of what value can be added to a life by simply “sticking around.” Her history, her perspectives, and her sound sense of good writing made our visit not only an unexpected pleasure, but a real privilege as well. Thank you, Mildred.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

A Southern Thanksgiving Poem

“Thanksgiving in the woods” has been a family tradition of ours for generations.

In just two more days, one of my family’s favorite holidays will finally be here. Thanksgiving is probably the second-most American holiday right after the Fourth of July. Recently, a couple of journals have published my piece “Family Gathering”: The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Journal of Florida Literature ran it first, with Deep South Magazine following suit just the other day. For my readers’ enjoyment, I am posting a copy of the piece here, since it has found a home twice now. Happy Thanksgiving everyone, and God bless you and yours on this fabulous, historic holiday! 

 

 

 

 

Family Gathering

Dedicated to all my country cousins

 

In those Thanksgiving woods we were grateful
by nature, we were farm kids – mud-made
battle plans detailed our attack:

Mounting our gallant oak-limb steed,
we hurled barrages of pine-cone grenades
followed by Sabal Palm frond spears,
then went hand-to-hand with sword sticks
in the friendly fire of safe conflict.

Wounded, the unnamed invisible invaders
cowardly crossed the creek, high-tailed
into town, where all of our dangers went
to regroup and plot their revenge against
us, the adults of tomorrow.

poetry, Uncategorized

The “Not Knowing” and its Value

Sometimes, the question IS the answer.

After the recent success of my post about Arthur Flowers’s advice to writers, I felt obliged to write another quicker but equally applicable piece about something else that emerged during my last MFA residency: “The Not Knowing.”

It seemed this phrase was everywhere over the 10 June days I spent at University of Tampa. Fiction writers, especially, swore by it. They recounted tales of how their stories simply “took on lives of their own” after a truly boffo first line or a vague inkling concept drove pen to page. As a poet, I failed to see the relevance. After all, poets like me are in the business of crafting lines one by one, giving explicit attention to the sound, the sense, the structure, and even the symbolism of each individual word. “The Not Knowing” seemed to be something that prose writers did, and even then, with sketchy success at best.

Usually, I have a pretty good idea about where a piece is headed when I sit down to REALLY begin writing. My brainstorming methods are sort of standard: If there’s a central metaphor at work (as there usually is), I start with a two-column note chart. This is a T chart, for those in business. Using this visual organizer, I’m able to see similarities, differences, and relationships between two things, be they objects, ideas, or something else entirely. Then, as the prewriting begins to hum, I usually have a few real zinging lines come into my mind. I write these down. I’ll use them later. Once I have  a pretty good collection of these musical lines, then I’m ready to begin really putting pen to paper in the poetic endeavor. So, as you can see, I’m fairly methodical.

There are always a few surprises that creep into poems: pleasant wordplay or unforeseen ironies. But usually, the act of creating poetry goes pretty much according to plan. I know that sounds terribly boring, but it’s true. I have an idea, I explore the idea, I create a product from the idea. Then there’s the refining and the rewriting. I go through A LOT of drafts on legal pads, and usually 4 or 5 on the computer screen. In all this process, there isn’t much room for “not knowing,” as my prose-writing friends described it.

So when the great “not knowing” happened to me, I was pleasantly surprised, both with its advent and its outcome. I had a pretty decent first line written down on an index card: It was comprised of a single striking image that had a few different elements working within it. This line had occurred to me during one of those between-class lapses when the tardy bell has not yet rung, and students are idling about, yakking and poking at one another.

When I pulled the index card from my pocket later at home, I just started freewriting (something I virtually NEVER do) based solely upon that single first line that really sang to me. I’d like to tell you the piece that came from this inspiration won me a Pushcart and a Pulitzer simultaneously, and that Natasha Trethewey has written me envious hate-mail because of it. That didn’t happen. However, what did happen was this: I was now able to look at a “spontaneous” piece, one that was driven completely by the great “not knowing” I’d heard about, and I could relate. All I had to begin with was one line — one line that had beauty, had potential, and had heart. And that was enough.

I know, I know. You probably want to see the poem now, right? Here’s the letdown, reader: I’ve sent that poem out to several potential publishers with packets of other works I’ve generated, so, sorry about that. It’s going to have to remain “in the dark” for now. However, when it does find a home, please rest assured that you’ll see it here first. And in the meantime, please feel free to explore your own “not knowing”-driven work. I’d love to hear how that works out for people outside the literary realm. Who knows where the uncertain might lead us?