My Eight Stages of Writing a Poem

Guest Blog Post by Rick Bursky

Rick Bursky photo

1 Fishing

This is the beginning, looking for an image, sound, snippet of language anything that could launch my imagination into something that might hold my interest long enough to begin a poem. Just because this starts the poem doesn’t guarantee it will survive as the first line or even be in the finished poem.

2 Collecting

Once I have the way in a begin collecting lines that might relate to the opening even in the most obscure way. At first blush, the new lines might only relate on an emotional level. But this is like brainstorming, there are no bad lines. I write them down, whatever I come up with, collecting a page or two of stray images of statements.

3 Expanding/Building

I look at what I have and assess the possibilities. Now I’m applying some rational logic to what’s on the page. I’m trying to see what lines I want to elaborate on, perhaps look for interesting words –– I might pick up a book of someone else’s poetry, read something and find a word I haven’t ever used in a poem and use that as the point of expansion. This stage is most emotional.

4 Shaping

The cutting begins. I toss out the lines that stick out and haven’t found a way to cement themselves into the emotional heart of the poem. This is also where I begin to pay attention to the lineation of the poem, enjambment and whatnot. The look of the poem begins to show itself. This stage is all about craft.

5 Titling

The DNA of a poem is in the title. This is crucial and where the intent –– though not what started the poem –– of what I’ve put on the page announces itself. The title is the emotional introduction to the poem.

6 Reading

I ask some trusted readers, all accomplished poets, to read the poem and provide comments.

7 Revising

I have comments from my readers. And because some time has passed I don’t have any emotional attachment to the poem. I look at the comments and start revising, I don’t always use the comments but usually use most of them, or at least use them as questions to ask the poem. Revision phase is also craft, and is very clinical. It has little to do with creating art, it’s all about “writing,” sandpapering and clarity.

8 Evaluating

This is one of the toughest, if not the toughest phases. I have to decide if the poem is any good. Do I want to throw it away? Or harvest any of the lines for some other poem? Should I revise, shape or build again? Do I want to send it out? Do I want to put it in my manuscript? It often take weeks, months or longer to answer those questions.

 

 

 

 

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Top 10 Abandoned Social Media Sites

#10 Cat Tails – The photo blog of twitching fur saving the universe from frowns

#9 Ukulele Daily – Video uploads of mad jams and fab ukulele bands

#8 You Know the Drill – The quest for self-dentistry and self-knowledge

#7 Diarrhea Diaries – One man’s helpful public bathroom commute suggestions from Hoboken to Stamford

#6 Missing Slinks – Photo sharing site of historical figures made from Slinkies and imagination

#5 …! – An obsession with ellipses in public signs gathered from around the world

#4 Adventures of the Human Skull – This charismatic skull really gets around in popular vacation spots

#3 Bathtub Bandit – Self pics of our favorite bandit bathing in birthday suit + ski mask while burgling

#2 Dusting with the Stars – Dust bunnies dance to contestants blowing them in arranged choreography

#1 More than Fish – The daily posts of what Jesus ate ending the night of the Last Supper

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. You have fortitude. The above work is an awful list poem. The sites in it were supposed to be bad, but the exercise ended up as bad poetry.

In some ways it may be closest to a failed David Letterman top ten list. I pulled this from my poetry bin while looking for possible gems for a new manuscript.

Martin Ott

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10 Pieces of Writing Advice on a Milestone Birthday

Big thanks to David Ebenbach, who asked me to send him writing advice to post on his FB wall for my birthday today. The result is below.

– Martin Ott

  1. We all are neurotic – even accomplished writers
  2. We all feel envy – even the kindest writers
  3. We all need to be humble – even accomplished writers
  4. We all need confidence – even successful writers
  5. We all aim to connect – even experimental writers
  6. We all fail to connect – even concise writers
  7. We all play with words – even serious writers
  8. We all want to make it sting – even comedic writers
  9. We all need support – even famous writers
  10. We all need to support others on the path – even beginning writers

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Jason Sanford’s Terrific 12 List of Best Sci-Fi Magazines

I was recently searching online for a list of top sci-fi magazines and couldn’t find one I liked. However, noted sci-fi author Jason Sanford just tweeted the list below and I thought I’d post it as a resource. I’ve appeared in one so far (Asimov’s) and I’m setting my sights on the others.

– Martin Ott

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We’re All Neurotic at AWP

My first AWP was in Chicago four years ago and it helped inspire me to launch this blog, among other things. My desire was to connect with a larger writing community, but I found myself in a world that felt overwhelming. There were too many writers, magazines, and presses. There were institutional relationships that someone outside academia, like myself, didn’t have. There were more established writers, more confident writers, writers with posses.

Even though my first two books had come out the year before I found myself, at times, feeling like I didn’t belong. People often complain about the dynamics of AWP that remind them of high school popularity, the constant act of people looking at name tags and looking for more important people to talk to, the dynamics of the in-crowd at every table, panel, and off-site event.

As I ready myself to go to my third AWP in my home town of Los Angeles, I am struggling with my own neuroses. Two of my best friends I’d looked forward to hanging out with are absent. My community is often long distance, and fostered on social media. I’ve spent too many years as a recluse. The one thing I find solace in, however, is that almost all of the other writers here feel similar emotions, regardless of their reputations or publication history.

This AWP I have decided to just have fun and feed my creative need. I have loaded events, panels, and book signings into my phone that I am excited to attend. I have told myself that if I can reboot my creative energy to last the year, to propel myself to write and read more diligently, that the event will be worth it. I have decided to consciously not network, but to try to fill be my most vulnerable creative self. I have taken three days off work, and will start the process tomorrow to prepare for a reading later in the week and go to my first event where I may not know anyone.

All writers are neurotic. It’s part of our DNA. Do yourself a favor – don’t compare yourself to anyone else this week. Don’t worry about being a nobody, a geek, or a fan. Every person at this event has moments of doubt. We are here to support each other and our craft. Hope to see some of you in LA.

– Martin Ott

 

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Writeliving Interview – Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass Photo

Ellen Bass is a writer I admire and continued proof that California yields some of our best poets (yes, I’m West Coast biased). Ellen is able to write about her life in a way that transcends confessional poetry and draws on themes of family and community. Her work is compassionate and passionate, and spiced with humor and insight into what makes us tick. Please enjoy this window into her creative process.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

My first major influence was Florence Howe, my teacher at Goucher College, with whom I later co-edited No More Masks!, the first major anthology of poetry by women, published by Doubleday in 1973. Florence’s generous mentorship opened the doors of poetry to me and changed my life forever.

I was immensely fortunate to study with Anne Sexton when she taught in Boston University’s MA in Creative Writing Program. Without her encouragement I don’t think I would have had the confidence to try to make a life of poetry.

My third mentor, the brilliant poet Dorianne Laux, taught me just about everything I know about the craft. I owe her an immense debt of gratitude that I can never repay, but can only hope to pass on.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I wish I had a creative process that I could describe, but every poem seems to have its own process and what worked for one poem rarely works for the next. I try anything and everything! Sometimes I think about a subject for a long time before I see a way to nudge my thoughts or feelings toward a poem. Sometimes I write many not-so-good poems grappling with the same theme before one succeeds. Sometimes I imitate a poem I admire. Sometimes I just start writing without any idea where it might lead. Sometimes I hear a writing suggestion that piques my interest and I decide to try it. Sometimes a poem seems almost to just offer itself up whole. Usually I’m grappling with an experience, an event, a feeling, a thought that I want to explore. Often I make lists of words that I find in some way interesting or that catch my eye and I try to include them in a poem. I think all poets fall somewhere on a bell curve from logical thinking to wild thinking. I think I fall toward the logical thinking and so I’m always trying to do things that will loosen up that rational impulse and allow more strangeness into my poems.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice and subject matter?

Paradoxically, I think that often the best way to find your own voice and subject matter is to study the poems you most admire. Examine them, take them apart, see what makes them tick, imitate them. That will help to train your ear, your eye, and your sensibility. It will teach you how broad the range of voice and subject and approach can be and then when you write you’ll have widened the scope of what’s possible. Beyond that, each of us has our own unique life experience within which copious matter is packed. Sometimes it’s a question of opening ourselves to the subjects that we didn’t recognize as worthy of poems. And then I’d add, Be brave.

How has teaching impacted your own writing?

I love teaching. Besides the obvious privilege of diving into poetry with people who are also excited about it, teaching also gives me a place to feel competent, something I never feel writing poems. I never sit down to write a poem thinking, I can do this! But although there’s always more to learn about teaching, I feel basically capable in that arena. It’s a wonderful respite from doubt and the many failures that writing poetry consists of.

What are you currently working on?

I never have a “poetry project.” I just pray for the next poem—and do my part by sitting down and trying.

How has writing both non-fiction and poetry books influenced each genre?

Well, writing non-fiction has taken me away from poetry. I simply am not capable of doing both at the same time. After spending six or eight hours writing non-fiction, the last thing my brain wants to do is arrange more words. So I’ve given up non-fiction—at least non-fiction books. Not only was non-fiction not good for my poetry, but I think my poetry was also not helpful for the non-fiction I wrote. Had I been a creative non-fiction writer, it would have been different, but my non-fiction books are what I think of as “functional non-fiction.” They’re not there to please aesthetically, but to give people information that they may need—in some situations desperately need. So it was important not to have writing that called any attention to itself. I had to strip down my overly “literary” style. We wanted the writing to be invisible so it didn’t get in the way of its usefulness.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

Yes! So much gets me excited. I’ve been reading Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Patricia Smith, Kwame Dawes, Mark Doty, Tony Hoagland—I could go on and on! I also just finished the “Edith Trilogy” by the Australian writer Frank Moorehouse which is the story of one woman’s life braided with the story of The League of Nations. Each book is the size of the Bible and I was so sad when they came to an end.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

I’m not sure I’ve encountered anything I would call true adversity. I’ve always just tried to do what I wanted to do—in life as well as in writing. Sometimes that hasn’t been the wisest path, but it seems to be the one I’ve chosen. It’s hard to know what the best choices will be so I believe one’s deepest desires and passions are as good a compass as any. I’m a ridiculously optimistic person and although I also am a worrier, the hope that it would work out tended to trump the worries so I kept plodding forward. I’m also a very practical person so I knew from the beginning I’d have to put food on the table along with writing and I accepted that.

Actually, as I think about it, it’s the other way around. It’s writing that has helped me overcome adversity!

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

Hmmm. So many of my quirks have been included in my poetry. But I don’t think I’ve revealed one of my special talents—I’m quite good at finding lost things—which also requires some of the same qualities that are necessary for poetry—perseverance, strategy, patience, intuition, perfectionism, a willingness to not overlook the obvious—and of course luck.

About the Author:

Ellen Bass’s poetry includes Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), and Mules of Love (BOA, 2002). She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the groundbreaking No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday, 1973. Her non-fiction books include The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (HarperCollins, 1988, 2008), which has been translated into twelve languages, and Free Your Mind: The Book for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youth (HarperCollins, 1996). Her work has frequently been published in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review and many other journals. Among her awards for poetry are two Pushcart Prizes, Lambda Literary Award, Elliston Book Award, Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod/Hardman, Larry Levis Prize from Missouri ReviewNew Letters Prize, and a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA and teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University. www.ellenbass.com

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Best Writing of 2015 – Roundup

Hope you enjoy this roundup of more than 50 links showcasing the best writing of 2015. Happy reading in 2016 and beyond.

Martin Ott

Africa is a Country | Books of 2015

Amazon.com | The Best Books of 2015

The Atlantic | The Best Books We Read in 2015

The Atlantic | The Best Television Shows of 2015

A.V. Club | Best Comics of 2015

Barnes & Nobles | The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2015

BBC Culture | The 10 Best Books of 2015

Books Live | The Best Books of 2015

Book Riot| Best Books of 2015

The Boston Globe | Best Books of 2015

Brain Pickings | The 15 Best Books of 2015

Bustle | The 25 Best YA Books of 2015

Buzzfeed | the 19 Best Nonfiction Books of 2015

Buzzfeed | The 24 Best Fiction Books of 2015

Buzzfeed | The 32 Best Fantasy Books of 2015

Buzzfeed | Saeed Jones Picks 6 Books for LGBT Readers

Cultural Front | The Year in African American Poetry, 2015

The Daily Beast | Showrunners on 2015 Best Shows They Binge Watched

The Economist | Books of the Year 2015

Electric Literature | Best Nonfiction Books of 2015

Electric Literature | Best Novels of 2015

Electric Literature | Best Short Story Collections of 2015

Elle | 14 of the Best Books Written by Women in 2015

Entropy | Best Poetry Books & Collections 2015

Flavorwire | The Best Poetry Books of 2015

Flavorwire | The 50 Best Independent Press Books of 2015

Gizmodo | Science Books We Most Loved in 2015

The Guardian | The Best Books of 2015

The Guardian | Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2015

Huffington Post | 25 Books by Black Authors from 2015 You Need to Read

io9 | The Very Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2015

Kirkus | Best Fiction 2015

Los Angeles Times | David L. Ulin’s Best Books of 2015

The New Yorker | the Books We Loved in 2015

New York Public Library | Best Books for Teens 2015

The New York Times | The Best Poetry Books of 2015

The New York Times | The 10 Best Books of 2015

Newsweek | The Best and Worst Books of 2015

NPR | Best Books of 2015

The Paris Review | Our Contributors Pick Their Favorite Books of 2015

Paste Magazine | The 30 Best Fiction Books of 2015

Paste Magazine | The 30 Best Nonfiction Books of 2015

PBS NewsHour | 6 of the Best Books to Curl up with from 2015

Popsugar | 6 LGBT Titles You May Have Missed This Year

Publishers Weekly | Best Books of 2015

Publishers Weekly | Best Picture Books of 2015

Shelf Awareness | Our 2015 Best Books of the Year

Slate | Katy Waldman’s 10 Favorite Books of 2015

The Telegraph | Best Books of 2015

W Magazine | 10 Best Art Books of 2015

Wall Street Journal | Best Books 2015

Washington Post | The 10 Best Books of 2015

Washington Post | Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2015

 

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Informal Poll – Writers Share Their Journal Wish-List

On November 2, Eduardo C. Corral asked writers on Facebook to “name a journal that’s never taken your work.” The thread quickly turned into a publishing wish list. More than eighty writers responded (from 1 – 5) times and more than 50 magazines were listed (below). Poetry was mentioned the most times (8) and I was inspired to submit to one of these magazines for the first time. What’s your “white whale” journal?

Martin Ott

Journal Times Mentioned
Agni 6
Alaska Quarterly Review 1
Bateau 1
The Believer 2
Beloit Poetry Journal 3
Black Warrior Review 4
Brevity 1
Copper Nickel 1
Crazyhorse 4
Denver Quarterly 1
Diagram 6
Diode 1
Fence 6
Field 2
Five Points 1
Guernica 2
Guf Coast 1
Harvard Review 1
Huizache 1
Image 1
Indiana Review 4
The Journal 1
jubitat 6
The Lancet 1
Los Angeles Review 1
Malahat Review 1
McSweeny’s 1
Meridian 1
Michigan Quarterly Review 1
Mid-American Review 2
Missouri Review 5
New England Review 1
The New Republic 1
The New Yorker 3
Ninth Letter 1
Octopus 1
Paris Review 3
Plume 1
Poetry 8
Ploughshares 5
Prairie Schooner 1
A Public Space 1
Rattle 2
Rhino 1
Sixth Finch 3
Smartish Pace 1
Southern Review 1
Threepenny Review 1
Tin House 4
Typo Magazine 1
Virginia Quarterly Review 1
West Branch 4

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Literary Magazine Submissions – Resource Guide for Poetry and Fiction

Another year. Another round of submitting poetry and fiction. Here’s a list of resources I’ve used at different points to make decisions about where to send work.

One thing I’ll suggest is to read as many magazines as possible and connect with writers you like. My best source for new literary magazines is from writers on social media (FB / Twitter). Also, here’s my list of literary magazines active  on twitter.

Please comment with any lists you find valuable.

Happy submission season!

 Martin Ott

Online Resources General

Online Resources – Top Tier Publications

Print Resources

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Writeliving Interview – C. Dale Young

C. Dale Young Photo

As someone who has juggled a career along with writing in multiple genres, C. Dale Young has been a source of inspiration for me, not just for his writing (which is superb) but also for his commitment to his craft. Hope you enjoy the interview.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Although this is a common question, it is also an incredibly difficult one to answer. I suspect my response, if asked about literary influences, would change daily, if not hourly. I will answer this from a slightly different perspective, answer it without the “influence” part.

After my first year of graduate school, I felt as if I were not cut out to be a writer. I felt discouraged and decided to quit. A teacher of mine, the poet Donald Justice, told me to just keep going. He told me he felt I understood what made a poem a poem. To say this encouragement was huge at the time would be an understatement. And again, in my last semester of graduate school, when I worried that I would never write poems again once I started medical school, it was Don who told me: “You always find time to do the things you want to do.” That statement is one I have carried with me ever since. It gave me permission to become a doctor and to keep on writing. So, I would say Don has been a pivotal presence for me, one without whom I am not sure I would be writing today.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

With poems, I tend to come up with the last line first. I sometimes carry it around for months. Eventually I come up with a first line. The mystery of writing the poem for me is connecting the A to the Z. I draft fairly quickly. I might spend two or three hours getting down a draft. In revision, it could take months or years for me to get the poem to the point where I would send it out to a magazine or journal.

With fiction, I never have any idea how it ends. I come up with a sentence. I toy around with it until I am sure it isn’t a line for a poem. And then, I just rush headlong into it. I bang it out. And then, as with poems, it could take months to years for me to get the story ready for publication.

How has your profession as a physician impacted your own writing?

Medicine takes up 50-60 hours or more of my time each week. It means I have to always work to be a writer. I have to make time to read, time to draft, time to revise. I do so early in the morning before work, on weekends or days off. I always feel the urgency of time or, better yet, the lack of time.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice and subject matter?

Don’t worry. You already have a voice. All you need is to become comfortable with the tools to let that voice be heard. So read, read widely. Don’t be wed to any draft. Remember that revision means re vision, to look again. No one else on this earth has your exact life and experience. So, spend your time worrying about something other than “your voice.” It comes whether you like it or not.

How has your work as a magazine editor and teacher impacted your creative process?

I edited poetry for the New England Review for 19 years. It taught me not to take rejection seriously. It also taught me that publishing is not writing. So what if someone rejects your poem or story. Send it out again. Editors do not owe us anything because we send work unsolicited. Being an editor taught me to have thicker skin, to not be rude as a writer. I might think my poem is the next great ode, but chances are it isn’t. As for my actual creative process, neither editing nor teaching has much impacted it other than limiting my time. Writing is, after all, a solitary act.

As a writer who engages with other writers and readers in a blog and on Facebook, what advice can you give about the role of social media in a writer’s development?

Social media can be great for helping one feel s/he is part of a community. But it can also be a huge distraction. People love controversy within social media. There are the fights and the always present bullying. Will social media help one develop as a writer? I doubt it. Can it help you find like-minded souls? Yes. Can those like-minded souls introduce you to things and books that might change your life? Yes. But do you need social media to develop as a writer? No.

What are you currently working on?

I finished a linked collection of stories last year. I wanted to write one more story about the main character’s mother. But I quickly realized it was something larger than a short story. So, I am writing a novel. It is in a sense a prequel to the linked collection of stories. It deals with the three generations of this family that precede the main character in the linked story collection. At this point, I have written about 60,000 words (roughly 265 pages of manuscript). I feel I am about 70% done. I am just banging it out, typos and all. Once I have the whole draft down, the real work will begin.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

Rick Barot’s Chord, his recently published collection of poems, is truly magnificent. I have already read it twice. I also recently re-read Peter Cameron’s Coral Glynn and marveled at his economy of language and the ways in which he can manipulate image across an entire novel. I have also been re-reading some of Eudora Welty’s stories. My God, she is just so sickeningly good.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Writing means everything to me. I could give up many things in my life, but I cannot imagine not writing. With that said, writing is a privilege. One writes when one can. I don’t believe in overcoming adversity as a writer, but I am biased, terribly biased. I watch people work to overcome cancer every day. That is adversity. Writers, myself included, love to wallow in the misery of this slight or that slight. But that isn’t really writing any way. That is the business of writing. When you are deep in the process of drafting, when time stops and you are outside of time absorbed in getting the words down, in getting the words right, that is writing. And that is an incredible thing. The rest of it is all business. I have overcome many adversities in my life, but none related to writing. Maybe I am the lesser for that.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

Just before starting college, I was in a terrible auto accident. I broke my neck. It is surprising enough I am alive. It is surprising enough I can walk. I was originally told I might not walk again. But I did. I may appear crazed in my constant desire to work, but it betrays something very different than ambition. I think many think I am just overly ambitious. I’m not. I work hard and work so much because I know I am on borrowed time. I became a doctor and practice medicine because I owed it to those people who saved me to do the same for others. I feel grateful every day to be alive, to walk. I live with an immense amount of pain, but I am alive. I will work hard and write until the day they roll me into the grave, because I know this is borrowed time. I escaped the grave once before. I may not escape it the next time.

About the Author:

C. Dale Young is the author of four collections of poetry including The Halo, forthcoming from Four Way Books in early 2016, and a collection of stories The Affliction, due out from Four Way Books in early 2018. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, he practices medicine full-time and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

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