Tag Archives: Poetry

Internet Literary News, June 2014

Pablo Neruda photo

In June, poets were in the news with freshly discovered work from a master, a new US Poet Laureate, the loss of an influential voice, and insights into Anne Sexton’s Pulitzer Prize selection. All this, plus more from Hachette v. Amazon.

Martin Ott


Do you sometimes wonder what the world would be like if one of your favorite writers published new work? Seix Barral, Pablo Neruda’s longtime publisher, announced that 20 Neruda poems have been discovered in his archives and will be published in late 2014 / early 2015.

Pulitzer Prize Poetry Politics

Interested in how Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize? In the Poetry Foundation blog, David Trinidad gives us insights into the world of Pulitzer Prize judging  by digging into the Chronicles of the Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry and revealing how judges’ arguments over books by Plath and Roethke provided the backdrop for Sexton’s selection.

New US Poet Laureate Will Do…?

I’ve always thought it was cool that our country had a post for a poet, but I’ve always wondered what it practically means for the art, craft, and popularity of what is, in actuality, a niche market filled with more writers per reader than any other genre. Best of luck to our new US Poet Laureate Charles Wright, who was quoted as saying upon selection: “I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do…but as soon as I find out, I’ll do it.”

Alan Grossman RIP

The poetry world was saddened by the loss of influential poet and scholar Alan Grossman. Winner of countless awards, Grossman was known for a serious style that bridged Romantic and Modernist traditions.

Amazon Looking to Bury the Hachette?

Yes, it’s all about money. As Amazon and one of the big publishing houses Hachette dig in for a fight over pricing and revenue, Evan Hughes at Slate provides insights into a lost opportunity by publishers to thwart the latest Amazon power grab. Chuck Wendig also provides an even handed and humorous look at these two “stompy  corporation” on his blog that I highly recommend.

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Writeliving Interview: Stephen Dobyns

Photo Stephen Dobyns

I was in graduate school when I picked up a copy of Velocities, a volume of new and selected poems by Stephen Dobyns. I remember being struck by two things that resonated (and still resonate with me): that it is possible to write narrative poetry with imagination and a humane voice, and the way writing without stanzas can help the reader focus on content over form. Our best authors always make us look at how and why we write. I hope you enjoy insights into the writing process of this important poet and novelist.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

I can’t pinpoint one person. When I started reading poetry late in high school, it was Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Eliot’s “Prufrock”. In graduate school, it was Alan Dugan, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. But soon afterward (1967), I found my biggest influence from poems in translation–Neruda, Vallejo, Zbigniew Herbert, Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lorca, Alberti, Transtromer, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Hikmet, Pavese, Ritsos and many others. Later still I went back to sonnets: Shakespeare, Keats, Bill Knott and others. Besides liking the poets, I’d look for poets who would foil my attempts to anticipate what might come next, because at those places within the poem I would find what I wanted to learn. It was also important to me to find poets who were engaged in a conversation with the world and not simply with themselves. Also, the work of most European poets was informed by a sense of history, which I mostly found missing in U.S. poetry. Most recently I’ve found that surprise and sense of history in the Polish poet Tomasz Rozycki. I also read many contemporary U.S. poets, but we share a historical context, which may distort the poem for me, making me often see as strong what might be weak, and see as weak what might be strong.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I wait for metaphors which will help me approach non-discursively what is otherwise approached discursively. These metaphors may start with the self and then try to move out into the world, until at make my presence hardly a shadow. The form of the poem, the noise, the manner of its telling also combines into a non-discursive metaphor that compliments or heightens the substance of the poem’s telling. Any poet always has a series of concerns which he or she consciously or unconsciously wants to express, so the hunt for the right metaphor, the right telling, always seems to be going on just before the level of conscious thought. Most simply, I can often set this process in motion by reading other poems, especially image driven poems–Yannis Ritsos, for instance. I don’t necessarily take from these other poems, but my brain, in reading, becomes softened or opened to non-discursive thought.  So my waiting is an informed waiting, even if on most occasions nothing happens.

How has teaching impacted your writing?

At best, it has made me study subjects I want to learn more about.  If I don’t read a lot of sonnets and a lot about sonnets when preparing for a class on the sonnet, I’ll humiliate myself.  Terror has great pedogogical value. And I’ve been enriched by colleagues and students. But the academic atmosphere can be stultifying. Academics are often tidiers of information; poets–in their search for the right metaphor–can be disrupters of information. This is not a natural fit. There are many academics I’ve greatly admired and have been close to, but for the most part one is sleeping with the enemy. The institutions can be very comfortable and within them poets can become complacent. And deep in their hearts of hearts, etc., the academics have little respect for what you do.

As an author of a popular series of mystery novels, what seat at the table do you think genre fiction deserves in the larger discussion about literature?

A very small seat, maybe a stool. Most genre fiction offers a physical solution to an existential problem: the bad guy is shot. This trivializes the existential problem. Some genre writers, like John Le Carre, can push the boundaries of the genre and tart up the physical solution with brilliant writing and psychological/intellectual depth, but reader still wants the physical solution: the bad guy is terminally dealt with. In Crime and Punishment, Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student, murders a pawnbroker for her money.  A detective, Porfiry, suspects Raskolnikov and gathers information against him. Perhaps Porfiry could kill Raskolnikov in a carriage chase.  Justice would triumph, but the existential problem would be forgotten.  We even might be somewhat satisfied. But Dostoevsky wants a novel about redemption, not punishment, and so the novel follows Raskolnikov to Siberia where he serves eight years of penal servitude. Here, with the help of Sonya, a former prostitute who becomes his wife, he at last discovers moral regeneration and is redeemed. Whether one likes it or not, Dostoevsky’s investigation of an existential problem is complete. It hasn’t been truncated two hundred pages earlier with a bullet to Raskolnikov’s brain; it moves past a purely physical solution. My explanation is simplistic, but because the best genre writing may explore an existential problem with great subtlety and the book may be written with great skill, those virtues at least earn the genre writer a small stool at the end of the table, almost in the hall.

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

Stop thinking about the question and just write. Your voice will evolve our of your subjectivity, which, after all, is unique.

How does being a poet and novelist influenced your work in the other genre?

The poems gain in narrative and the novels gain in image, but they are quite separate in my mind. In addition, the books of poems are quite different from one another, as are the novels, apart from the Saratoga series. I try to avoid self-parody.

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

Just being alive is adversity enough. I write to save my life.

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

I wouldn’t know where to begin.

About the Author:

Stephen Dobyns’ most recent book is a novel, The Burn Palace, published by Blue Rider/Penguin in February 2013. Palgrave released his second book of essays on poetry, Next Word, Better Word, in April, 2011. His most recent book of poems Winter’s Journey published in 2010 by Copper Canyon. His previous work of fiction is a book of short stories Eating Naked (Holt, 2000). His other work includes Best Words, Best Order (Palgrave, 2003), essays on poetry; and Velocities (Penguin, 1994), a volume of new and selected poems. He has also published eleven other books of poetry and twenty other novels.   Two of his novels and two of his short stories have been made into films. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship, three fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and numerous prizes for his poetry and fiction. Between 1995 and 2007, he wrote more than thirty feature stories for the San Diego Reader. Dobyns teaches in the MFA Program of Warren Wilson College, and has taught at Emerson College, Syracuse University, Boston University, University of Iowa and half a dozen other colleges and universities. He was born in New Jersey in 1941. He lives with in Westerly, RI.

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Writeliving Interview – Campbell McGrath

Campbell McGrath Photo

Campbell McGrath has been a major influence on my work, particularly my poetic collaborations with John F. Buckley about America on Brooklyn Arts Press. I’m excited that he took the time to share insights into his writing life with us. Please check out his advice on voice–priceless!

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Always tricky to limit the list of influences, but a pretty obvious answer for me is Walt Whitman, who opened up the scope of American poetry for all who have followed him. In that same American vein, Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie, despite their different genres, have been important models for me, along with poets like James Wright and Richard Hugo. On the other hand, poets like Rilke, Transtromer and Basho have taught me essential things–I can’t imagine my poetry without their influence. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. And these days, the sea is full of icebergs.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Well, in general the writing process is two-part: the mysterious, internal process by which inspiration guides you to the poem in its original state; and then the hard work of developing and revising the poem to its final form. The first of these resists too much helpful advice from me, or anyone else. Usually my first drafts show up in notebooks, or scrawled on a piece of paper somewhere. From there, I work up a first draft on the computer, print it out, and revise it by hand– then go back and forth between the computer screen and the printed page. The poem has distinct identities in those two mediums, I think. Also, I am a big fan of solving problems in my sleep, and I always try to read the latest draft of a new poem before bedtime, and often wake up with just the missing word or image.

How has teaching impacted your writing?

I studied poetry in high school, in college, and in an MFA program–and learned a lot. But I only really LEARNED a lot of those things when I became a teacher. When you know you have to stand before a class full of kinds and field their questions, you suddenly realize where the holes and weak points are in your own learning. So you get busy and really master material that you have only digested casually before. I’ve been teaching for more than 25 years, but I still find teaching to be personally educational as well as enriching.

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

Keep writing. Finding one’s voice is an essential starting point for all writers. You can’t find it by thinking about writing– you can only find it while actually writing. The process, like the old Magic 8-ball fortune teller, reveals all the answers. Also I would say this: find your voice, write enough poems in that voice to really master it, and then abandon it. Find another, larger, more ambitious voice– or to switch metaphors, grow your voice, like a plant, for a single seedling to an entire forest.

Do you consider yourself part of any school of poetry?


How has American history and culture influenced your writing?

I write about America very often–about place, travels, culture, and society–which is the world that created me, and that I still struggle to comprehend. So, it has “influenced” me doubly–by shaping my world and making the person I am, that’s the first level. Then it has re-influenced me in that I take up various aspects of our history, say, to write about, as in my fairly recent book, SHANNON: A POEM OF THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION. It’s a big world, with lots to write about, but I find America endlessly intriguing.

How would you finish this sentence: “A poem is…?”

…a piece of art made entirely of words.

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

Writing poetry is nothing but adversity. It’s really hard, it takes up all your time, it obsesses you–but it pays little or nothing. So you need a day job, and poetry is therefore a second, unpaid career you practice in your time off. I happen to be at the lucky end of this spectrum, with a good teaching job, and the receipt of several awards which paid me actual cash money. But even so–poets get all the respect in the world from me, simply for persevering in the face of economic reality.

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

I am a big sports fan–Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins, Miami Heat, New Zealand All Blacks, Barcelona–that’s five sports but I could ​ name others if I tried.

About the Author:

Campbell McGrath is the author of ten books of poetry, including Spring Comes to Chicago, Florida Poems, Seven Notebooks, and most recently In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco Press, 2012).  He has received many of America’s major literary prizes for his work, including the Kingsley Tufts Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, a USA Knight Fellowship, and a Witter-Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. His poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic and on the op-ed page of the New York Times, as well as in scores of literary reviews and quarterlies. Born in Chicago, he lives with his family in Miami Beach and teaches at Florida International University, where he is the Philip and Patricia Frost Professor of Creative Writing.


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Writeliving Interview – Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout photo

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate National Poetry Month than with an interview with one of our best, brightest, and most influential poets Rae Armantrout. My copy of Versed is pretty dog-eared at this point, and I have a soft spot in my heart and a big place on my bookshelf for quintessential California writers.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Early on I was influenced in different ways by William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson – Dickinson because she was a fearless thinker and a woman. When I was growing up it was still assumed that women would restrict themselves to thinking about love and domesticity. She used poetry to confront and argue with God, death, etc. But I think I got my line from Williams. His work is quite sonically beautiful even when it’s minimalist. And then,  among my contemporaries, Ron Silliman has had a huge influence on my writing because he is willing to read my drafts and give me his honest opinion. And, because he’s been reading me so long, his takes on my poems are really astute so he knows when something isn’t quite done or when it is but I won’t stop fiddling with it.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I make handwritten notes in a journal first. The note could be an observation. I might write down a snippet of overheard conversation, or a bit of something I read, or a response to something I read, or a description of something I see. Often there’s an unresolved feeling in these notes or an idea I can’t quite put my finger on. Then I feel like a detective because I’m going after that “thing” I sense. Maybe I try to  write more in the direction of the feeling/thought (I don’t separate the two) as if I were following it.  Other times I wait for more information to appear. Sometimes the poem happens when there are enough elements (bits) that feel somehow related. Then I start stitching the parts together. By this time I’m working on an iPad or computer. I usually go through a lot of drafts.

How has teaching impacted your writing?

I’m not sure. Indirectly. Once in awhile I actually do a take-off on something I catch myself saying to a class. I think, did I really say that? Do I mean it? And I go from there. And sometimes I’m “inspired” by something I read for class. Right now I’m team teaching a class called Poetry for Physicists with an actual physicist, Brian Keating, who played an important role in the recent discovery of gravity waves! So he got famous just as we started co-teaching! I’ve been trying to think of ways to discuss literary essays and poems with science students. That has been an interesting stretch. Two days ago I actually made a (simple) flow chart for the first time in my life! So we’ll see what comes of that!

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

Well The Waste Land was originally called He Do the Police in Different Voices. I think that’s an excellent title. My advice is to realize there are lots of voices in your head. Let them all come out and play. I do.

Do you consider yourself part of any school of poetry?

We’re like fish that way I guess. We school. Seriously, I was educated by participating in the Language Poetry revolution. Those poets are my real colleagues. But we’re all very different writers. Always were really.

How has living in California shaped your poetic voice and sensibilities?

I’m a California native. I’ve always lived here so it’s a little like asking the proverbial fish what the sea is like. That said, I think my time in northern California gave me a particular poetic education. And the space, light, and flora of southern California enter my poems as images all the time. I came from literary nowhere. Neither of my parents went to college. I started reading on my own and I ended up at Berkeley which was the beginning of a shaping experience. But when I was starting out, I didn’t have a very strong sense of what was looming above me, if you see what I mean. I didn’t know enough to be intimidated or feel overshadowed. Oddly, that may have worked to my advantage. I was dancing by myself so I wasn’t inhibited.

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

Well, my answer above describes the first adversity I faced. I started out behind and I didn’t even know it. Only someone as insanely stubborn as I am would have decided, standing on the sidewalk in front of a suburban convenience store, that she could be a poet. I didn’t even realize that the world was losing interest in poetry!  Sometimes not knowing anything is an advantage. I did know about sexism though. When I tried showing my high school English teacher my poems, he said, “Women can’t write poetry.” That just made me angry. Anger too can be helpful!

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

If I haven’t already said it, I probably don’t want people to know! But here’s an easy answer. I like to dance. I listen to top 40 radio in my car. And I play “The Fame Monster” (Lady Gaga) and “My Head is an Animal” (Monsters and Men) often when I’m driving.  Bob Dylan and The Stones as well.

About the Author:

Just Saying, Rae Armantrout’s most recent book of poems, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2013. Versed (Wesleyan, 2009) received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Next Life (Wesleyan, 2007) was chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by The New York Times. Other recent books include Money Shot (Wesleyan, 2011,) Collected Prose (Singing Horse, 2007), Up to Speed (Wesleyan, 2004), The Pretext (Green Integer, 2001), and Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). Her poems have been included in anthologies such as The Best of the Best American Poetry: 1988-2012 (2013), The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry (2013), The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine, (Chicago, 2012), American Hybrid (Norton, 2009), American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Language Meets the Lyric Tradition, (Wesleyan, 2002), The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford, 2006) and The Best American Poetry of 1988, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2012. Armantrout received an award in poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. She is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, San Diego. Writing in Poetry magazine, Ange Mlinko has said, “I would trade the bulk of contemporary anecdotal free verse for more incisive, chilling poetry like Armantrout’s.”

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The Poetry of Sherman Alexie’s War Dances


One of my New Year’s resolutions is to better utilize the lengthy commute to my job by the Los Angeles airport. Another is to read more in 2014 than in 2013. Another is to be more budget conscious. Multi-tasker that I am, I decided to combine all of these resolutions together in the form of library audio books.

So I went to the Los Feliz Public Library and was embarrassed to discover that my old library card had gone inactive and I needed to fill out a new form. My first selection with my new card was War Dances by Sherman Alexie.I have read a number of Alexie’s stories and poems in magazines over the years, but hadn’t yet read one of his books.

War Dances is a combo platter of short stories, flash fiction, and essayistic vignettes. I was quite moved by Alexie’s ability to weave hardscrabble stories with complex themes and layered mythologies while still managing to shape the stories in a way that made it seem like your literate uncle was sitting down next to you and sharing a story from his life. Alexie’s voice was hypnotic for my commute that week, and I instantly became aware of poetic threads throughout his work::

  • Bookend poems that help frame the collection
  • Odes to mix tapes, sweethearts, and pay phones
  • Imbedded poems within stories

What strikes me most, however, is that there is little difference between the poetry and the prose. The poems have the same accessibility and humor of Alexie’s prose, and the prose contains aspects of what might be considered narrative poetry. For example, I’m not sure I’ve encountered a prose writer who so effectively and continuously utilizes repetition. Nouns are repeated throughout the book in a singsong flurry, mostly in groups of threes. In the story Invisible Dog on a Leash, the protagonist states: “Isn’t it cool to live in Bigfoot country? In the heart of Bigfoot country? In the heart of the heart of Big foot country?”

There are also multiple examples of meditations on things, that remind me of object poems, from the bat in Breaking and Entering, to the owl in Bird Watching at Night, to the cockroach in War Dances. There are also a few times where Alexie provides clinical or dictionary definitions of certain words, then use the word in a metaphor or analogy. In The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless, the protagonist defines “microlender” in the context of a woman he is interested in, then later uses it in a different context to define his relationship with his daughter.

Even though I occasionally become annoyed when it felt like the author’s voice intruded into the stories, I happily listened to War Dances twice. I’m pretty sure that the fiction writer and poet inside of me won’t have to get into a fistfight for me to select another book of Alexie’s for a future week of commutes.

Martin Ott

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Filed under Fiction, Poetry, Review, Short Stories

Poetry Spotlight: Michele Battiste

Photo Michele Battiste

Good  love poems can be as difficult to find as good love. Too often, even accomplished poets, take on the love poem head on with a fevered description of lust and passion, often to the detriment of their other work in a collection.

In her book, Ink for the Odd Cartography, Michele Battiste provides us with love poems filled with the details of life. some danger, and  a dash of duende. Below, is one of the poems from that collection, Commitment , that I returned to several times in order to experience the dangers and delights of what commitment means.

Martin Ott


This church drowns, legs

kicking and churning eddies

at the altar, the sacristy filmed

with silt.  I am not to mourn

here, my shoes ruined

with stickseed and blister

juice, my sorrow like milk-

weed forced from its pod.

The plane plummets, the car

crashes, the millet rusts

across the road.  This side,

windrows are thinning

and wait to be baled

and the babies are impatient

underground, smacking

their fists at roots.  Soil

shrivels in the autumn drought.

The Reverend Myrtle Tuttle

predicted gravel and a foul

moon.  My love, one day

I will marry you, bend

to pick up blossoms

that drop from my crown.

I promise I will lose

the map of the cemetery,

a penciled circle marking

your collapsed mound.

Previously published in Mikrokosmos

About the Author:

Michele Battiste is the author of two books of poem: Ink for an Odd Cartography (2009) and Uprising (2013, forthcoming), both from Black Lawrence Press. She also has four chapbooks, the most recent of which is Lineage from Binge Press. She lives in Colorado where she raises money for corporations undoing corporate evil.

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How to Query a Poetry Press

Guest Post by Janet Holmes

Janet Holmes

Last month, I got an email from someone I don’t know and posted it on Facebook.

It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.

Questions: Are you guys currently receiving submissions for publications?

How much will it cost to assemble a book of poetry?

Do you guys provide copyrights?

Do you also provide art covers? If so, how much will that cost? Can I provide my own?

I edit my own poems would that be okay if I do all my editing myself?

I have this thing were I don’t want people editing my work only myself.

After the book is finished being published and all, will I be having all royalties? or is it 50/50?

I look forward in hearing from you soon.

Someone in the comment stream objected that I was “mocking” this correspondent unfairly, suggesting that he was “a kid” who didn’t know the ropes. In my defense, I didn’t use the fellow’s name, and I answered him in email, suggesting he was looking for a self-publishing company. But this commenter thought I should do more by way of communicating with would-be authors about how one goes about submitting a manuscript, and Martin Ott has invited me to elaborate here. So here are a few pointers.

1.      Know to whom you’re writing.

This correspondent went to the effort of looking up our email address, but could have taken the extra step of seeing who is on staff. Otherwise, use simple business etiquette. Some women, though I’m not one of them, prefer not to be called “you guys.”

2.      Learn something about the press before you write.

Most if not all presses will have a web presence with information about submissions, current and previous publications, and something about the press history and mission. The person you’re writing to will probably just point you to this information if it is readily available elsewhere. Do your homework.

3.      Read a book from the press—or at least look at one in a store.

It should go without saying that poets read books of poetry, but if you’re submitting to a press you’ve never heard of before, how do you know they’ll respond to your work? The best way to find out is to see what they’ve already published. If you like what you read, then by all means, query. At Ahsahta, we include a poem from each book in our catalogue on our website, so people can read a bit before they decide whether to buy—or whether to submit.

4.      Show in your cover letter that you are familiar with the press.

Often, someone will write to us because they’ve admired one or more of the books we’ve published. It’s good to know that they are knowledgeable about our tastes and our list, and that the accompanying manuscript will likely be somewhere in our ballpark.

5.      Know what publishers do.

Because it can be relatively inexpensive to produce a short run of books, self-publishing is popular among people who want to do their own editing, layout, cover art, and other production tasks. A publisher won’t charge you for these things, but a printer (or self-publishing company) will. There are many businesses set up just for this purpose, and not all of them work the same way. Just use “publish your book” as a search term, and you’ll be led to CreateSpace (an Amazon.com company), Lulu, and many other companies who will be happy to walk you through the process and charge you appropriately.

Publishers, however, are in it for the bigger picture. First, they don’t publish every manuscript they get. There’s a rigorous editing process that serves two purposes: it ensures that the publisher can afford to publish all the books that are accepted (since the authors are not paying for the publication), and it also provides a standard of quality by which that publisher will be known.

A publisher will register your copyright, typeset your book, design it, provide a cover with or without your input, market it, distribute it, and in most cases pay you a royalty when the book has sold copies. The degree of your involvement in these processes will differ according to the publisher. There is no need in a query letter to ask about any of the routine things a publisher does—that’s for later, when the book has been accepted.

6.      Know what the publisher wants.

The publisher may have a policy of looking at an entire manuscript or only a 10-page sample; some will only want the query letter itself (or no query: see below).

If an entire manuscript is solicited, you will want to provide one to the length specifications for the press—in most cases, 60 to 80 pages of poetry. The poems should be ordered the way they will appear in the book, with a table of contents, acknowledgments, and an author bio. A publisher does not want you to send hundreds of poems so that they can choose the best ones; they want to read only your best work.

If you are entering a contest, pay attention to the rules. If the rules say not to put your name on every page, don’t do it. If they say don’t include a bio or acknowledgments, don’t include them. The rules are there for good reasons, and not following them can get your manuscript tossed aside.

If the publisher just wants to see a sample of your work, send the best poems you have, perhaps with a paragraph describing the book if it is a larger project.

7.      Respect the publisher’s guidelines.

Many publishers work several years in advance, and may have a backlog of books they’ve promised to publish. For that reason, they may not be reading unsolicited manuscripts at all. Before you go to the trouble of writing a polite and businesslike query letter, check to see whether the publisher is open to receiving them. Ahsahta and many other publishers no longer look at paper copies of manuscripts, but use Submission Manager or Submittable or other software to manage their workloads. If we aren’t currently accepting manuscripts, the Submission Manager will be closed.

Readers might be surprised how often I get letters similar to the one I’ve quoted above. So if the person commenting on my post is correct, and more communication is necessary, I hope this will help.

About the Author

Janet Holmes is Director and Editor of Ahsahta Press at Boise State University, where she is also a Professor in the MFA in Creative Writing program. Her latest book of poetry is The ms of my kin (Shearsman).


Filed under Guest Blog Post, Publishing, Uncategorized

Writeliving Interview – Amy Gerstler

Any Gerstler Photo

Lately, we’ve seen a lot of lists of influential poets. Amy Gerstler would definitely appear high up on mine. She is yet another example of how So. Cal has plenty of writing heavyweights. She was gracious enough to share some of her writing life with us. Enjoy.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Dennis Cooper was a major mentor to me in college and beyond. He transformed my life, pointed me in important literary directions, introduced me to Rimbaud so much else when I was very wide eyed and naïve and unworldy. David Lehman has also been a generous mentor whose approach to writing and teaching has taught me tons. Other authors I would love to believe have affected or will affect my work in the future include: Wislawa Szymborska, James Tate, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Tom Clark, Sei Shonagon, Charles Simic, Marianne Moore, Russell Edson, Frank O’Hara, Franz Kafka, Elizabeth Bishop, Lucia Perillo, MFK Fisher, Phillip Larkin, Rainier Maria Rilke, John Ashbery, Mark Twain, Elaine Equi, Eileen Myles, Benjamin Weissman, Walter Benjamin’s writing about drugs, Robert Walser, Donald Barthelme, Walt Whitman, Alice Notley, Ai. I could go on forever with this sort of list, past influences, current ones, writers whose work I hope will yank my writing in fresh and better directions.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I tend to be a collagist and cull from a variety of different sources. Research and note taking help me generate phrases and ideas and get juices flowing. I love doing research and collecting odd bits of language. Usually I need to be surrounded by books I can flop open and cannabalize in order to write. I just learned the word syncretistic and have a bit of a crush on the word at the moment. I consider myself a syncretistic poet. Old reference and text books, instructional or spiritual texts, science and nature books, art and film texts, old national geographics, books on ancient religions or archaeology, the newspaper….anything wordy and strange and packed with odd information could be useful. It’s hard for me to leave used bookstores empty handed. My house is a chaos of piled, crammed, shelved, stacked booksprawl. (This is typical writer stuff, I think.)

How has teaching impacted your work as a writer?

What a blooming miracle to be able to teach to support one’s writing. What a relief. It’s amazing to have a job that’s related to writing. A job you like. This is a big luxury, especially these days, when it’s a gift to have a job at all. To get paid for hanging out with smart, talented young humans and hearing what they’re reading, interested in, thinking about, worried about, wanting to do is kind of nirvana. Trading ideas with them. It’s like having a bunch of literary scouts out in the world. Ditto for accomplished colleagues who are writers or literary scholars or artists or scientists, etc. obsessed with some version of the things you’re obsessed with: writing, books, information, figuring out how to balance supporting yourself and forging a writer’s life. Students and colleagues teach me a lot. And of course preparing to teach whatever writers, forms, and books you assign, immersing yourself in all that, enriches your brain for writing too. Teaching forces me into the world in ways I’d probably avoid if I wasn’t compelled to do it, being a natural hermit, so that’s probably healthy. Otherwise I would just be living in a cave with a couple of feral dogs, eating berries, grunting and scratching and talking to myself, or something pretty close to that lifestyle. And having the amenities of a college or university available (library, bookstore, lectures and classes you could theoretically attend, visting writers and academics who come through, an intellectual and research community, a center of learning etc.) doesn’t hurt, either. So these things help my work, (and I should take advantage of them more!) The down side is of course teaching sucks up precious time and energy. It’s great but depleting. That’s the trade off. And I’m shy so being in front of a class is always a bit of a leap for me.

Do you consider yourself part of any movement in poetry?

No. Sometimes I regret that, not having that special camaraderie, but I’m a loner, mostly.

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

Nothing they haven’t already thought of and that hasn’t been already said to them repeatedly: write tons, read tons, find peers, go to readings, cultivate your obsessions, try to customize your life so that writing is at the center of everything. Fill yourself with whatever inspires you, and if you don’t know, try lots of things: art, music, all forms of literature, nature, solitude, love, travel, sex, ballroom dancing competitions, making pastry, whatever. Be patient and persist. Keep keeping at it. Have faith. I know this is cornball but believe in your work and its potential as though it were your kid. Remember art can be play. Push your work out into the world when you’re ready so you can see what happens. Don’t take rejection personally, or at least try to work towards that admirable goal of calm detachment.

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

I’ve been lucky as a writer. Real nasty adversity hasn’t reared its head much so far in my literary life. Sure, I’ve had difficulties and disappointments, who hasn’t, but many of them were probably self inflicted when I look back and think about it. When I hear the term “adversity” I think of truly dire stuff: Denton Welch writing while lying in bed horribly injured, or Dennis Potter sipping morphine from a to-go cup during his final illness to keep going long enough finish his last work, or what I’ve been reading recently about the bravery of David Rakoff hanging on to complete a final project while suffering a similar punishing fatal illness. My tiny troubles look microscopic in comparison. When I was much younger I sent out 30 or so inquiry letters over a period of time trying to get a book published and no one would even agree to read it. I was discouraged by that for quite a while. Then by pure happenstance the editor of  a lovely publishing house (the now defunct North Point Press) saw the manuscript and got interested. That kind of thing is why I vehemently advise young writers to persevere.

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

That I am double jointed. That I love Ella Fitzgerald’s voice to the point of swooning. That I am a big fan of graphic novels.

About the Author

Amy Gerstler’s most recent books of poetry include Dearest Creature,  Ghost Girl,  Medicine,  and Crown of Weeds. She teaches at University of California at Irvine.

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Poetry and Professional Life: Balance? What’s That?

Guest Post by Victoria Chang

Photo Victoria Chang

When asked to write a blog post on juggling professional life and a life in poetry, the irony of course, is that I am too busy to add yet another thing (however small) onto my plate. The very same week my self-imposed deadline for this blog post arrived (too fast), my own third book of poems, The Boss, came out from McSweeney’s Poetry Series, I was just starting a new project at work, we had just brought home a new puppy, our two kids (7 and 5) had summer camp 30 minutes each way, and I was on my way to do a slew of readings for my new book in San Francisco!

Plenty of people throughout history and in real-time have schedules like mine, and even worse. People often talk about Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, who both were successful at working in business and simultaneously writing poetry. I read somewhere that Stevens, an insurance lawyer, had his assistant type up his poems that he wrote at work and that he liked to work because it gave him discipline and regularity and he didn’t need to worry about money.

But there aren’t a lot of examples of people who have successfully juggled work (especially in business) and the literary life, especially in the case of women and/or mothers. Plus I think that there’s a stigma, especially in poetry, if you work in anything commerce-related. I think it can be perceived as crass and non-artistic. I can think that poetry and a professional business life are not mutually exclusive, but if the “establishment” doesn’t think so, I’m out of luck…

…or am I? The thing is, if you write poetry that others want to read, establishment or not, if you say something important in a way that is arresting or different, or even something non-important in an arresting way, I still am an optimist and a purist and think that all the juggling of time is worth it in the end.

At the end of the day, I think everyone needs to think about what’s important to them and how they want to live their lives and just do those things, however much time each activity takes and no matter how hard it all seems. And not worry so much about what others think is “normal” or “conventional” or even “acceptable.” If that means writing poems once every two years, versus the prescriptive two hours each morning, then so be it. Your actions will show you what you want to do.

Our 7-year-old daughter finished a two-week writing camp a week ago and told me that a boy teased her for only writing half-a-page. After reading the boy’s 5-page description of his trip to Disney Land, I had to explain to our daughter, who had thought of a fiction story using her imagination, that age-old cliché: “Quality is more important than quantity.” I believe that and try to live that every single day with everything that I do, and that goes for poetry too.

Sometimes I watch our new dachshund puppy let his nose lead the way. I like to think I have something to learn from that little guy. I let my nose lead my way and try and block out all the other white noise.

 About the Author:

Victoria Chang is a poet and works in marketing and communications. She has an MFA and an MBA.  Her third book of poems, The Boss, is just out from McSweeney’s. She lives in Southern California with her family.

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To Be a Poet

Guest Post by Christopher Soto

Christopher Soto Photo

“Dad, I want to be a poet.”

He didn’t understand what I was trying to tell him and, honestly, I didn’t understand either.

We were sitting together at lunch in downtown Long Beach when I told him that I would not be taking the job at his company after my graduation from college. Instead, I would be dropping my double major, graduating early, and moving to San Francisco to write.

“I want to be a poet.”

In San Francisco I shared my room with a queer latino photographer and a cute french boy. We lived in the basement of a three story house, in the hood, with fifteen other people. I spent my nights drinking beer and reading about anarchy. I spent my days recovering from hangovers and writing about the juvenile detention center where I once volunteered.

I finished writing my first novel in that house and, somehow, I got a phone call from Deborah Landau at NYU while living there too. On the phone, I was offered admission to the MFA program (emphasis in poetry) at NYU. My decision was made quickly.

“I want to be a poet.”

After living in San Francisco for a number of months, I decided that I needed more writing material, more life experience. I wanted to backpack the country! And so I left all my belongings, pulled all my savings, and took to the road– spending time around Rhode Island, New York, Illinois, and eventually Tennessee (where I learned how to garden).

I spent a month in the woods of Tennessee, sleeping alone in a tent, using my jacket as a pillow. I woke to new mosquito bites and the sight of hippies shitting in the trees. My meals were plucked with my hands, my showers taken from the stream, and I never felt so free.

“I don’t want to be a poet.”

Sitting at a bone-fire below the naked sky, I realized that I didn’t want to be a poet anymore. I didn’t want anything. We were reading excerpts from our journals as if there were auditoriums of people surrounding us. And we knew that the degrees, teaching jobs, and publications would never make us more of poets. We already were poets, words fluming with the smoke.

Earlier this year I gave up a job and a double major. Then I gave up a new city, my belongings, and my savings– to travel, to write, to learn contentedness. I don’t want anymore. I am not an aspiring or emerging poet. I am a poet.

In the Fall of 2013 I will begin my MFA at NYU and I will continue writing in this fashion- as if nothing exists except for the poet and the poem, as if my poems understand all that I am willing to give in order for them to exist, as if they would never ask me to give everything. And we will be free together.

About the Author 

Christopher Soto is a queer latino poet from Southern California who published his first chapbook, How To Eat Glass, with Still Life Press in 2012. He is currently an MFA candidate at New York University.


Filed under Guest Blog Post, Poetry, Uncategorized, Writing