Line and Poetry

20821239I read a few pages of Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses (2014) this morning — which is very enjoyable, by the way, pick it up if you can — and while reading recalled an experience I had publishing one of my own poems in a small journal. The poem was a little gimmicky. Titled “Liber Abaci,” it was based on the Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers in which each number is based on the sum of the two preceding ones: 0+1=1; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8; 5+8=13; 13+8=21, etc. The sequence was discovered by Leonard de Pisa in 1202, later known as Fibonacci, and is historically and mathematically significant because it’s so often found in nature: tree branches, leaves on a stem, bracts on a pine cone, fern leaves, and on and on.

I wrote my poem so that each line had a number of syllables corresponding to each sum in the sequence. 1, 3, 5, 8, 13, and then 21. The poem was six lines long ending with a twenty-one syllable line almost too long for the page, and it compared objects in nature to a woman waking up in the morning and not wanting to get out of bed. I used words like “stone” and “mountainous.”

Now I’d like to describe publishing in the United States: there’s real publishing, and then there’s poetry publishing. In real publishing, publishers allow authors to see proof copies and make corrections before the book goes to press. If the publisher edits or changes your work, you know about it, and you know how and usually why. In poetry publishing, at least most US poetry publishing, you don’t see your poem until you get it mailed back to you in the published work, you may not have even been told your work was being published, and often they — whoever they are, but they’re everywhere, you know them — do whatever they want to your poem without telling you.

In my case, the published product was eleven lines instead of six, none of the line breaks were followed, and of course that ridiculously long twenty-one syllable line was broken up into at least three lines. The editor of the collection didn’t understand the main conceit of the poem, didn’t understand the placement of the line breaks, and was only reading the poem for imagery and nothing else. In all fairness, it’s a weird and unexpected conceit, but the poem looked weird enough that s/he might have thought to ask first. I would bet, though, counting syllables doesn’t land on the editor’s radar, but even if it did in this case, the pattern may not have been identifiable.

Either way, I initially wanted to title this post “The Unbearable Stupidity of Poetry Publishers,” but somehow (and in the end only partially) restrained myself. To be honest, I’ve collected a number chapbooks and poetry collections over the past couple of years, and aside from the big publishing houses, what I find is very inconsistent. Some of it is very good, but quite often poetry publishers and editors seem to care only about what is being said with no attention to how, or how well, and the results are often juvenile and embarrassing. Poetry publishing follows the basic US business model: selling a lot of stuff cheap will make you rich, so don’t sweat the details or worry about quality. Save time and money and just get it out there, especially if you can get a bunch of people to pay you to publish their work. The product itself doesn’t matter.

So I’d like to start on the ground floor about what a poem is. A poem is a written creative work characterized by attention to…

  1. rhythm
  2. sound
  3. imagery
  4. metaphor/metonymy
  5. originality in its use of all of the above

Notice what I’m not saying: “meaning” and “emotion.” It’s not that meaning and emotion don’t matter, but that meaning and emotion don’t make a poem a poem. Prose works, both fiction and nonfiction, convey meaning and emotion. Paintings and sculptures do. Movies do. Facial expressions do. Hand gestures do. Almost everything does, but not everything is a poem. What makes a poem a poem is attention to rhythm, sound, imagery, and metaphor/metonymy, not meaning (in a big sense — imagery and metaphor are a kind of attention to meaning) and emotion. Poets who know what they are doing certainly convey meaning and emotion, but they do so by paying this kind of attention, by paying attention to the craft of writing a poem.

Rhythm and sound don’t necessarily mean fixed rhyme and meter, as in a sonnet. Free verse pays attention to rhythm and sound too, and employs it deftly to create emotional and other effects. It’s not that free verse doesn’t follow any patterns of sound and rhythm, just not fixed patterns of sound and rhythm. Free verse creates its own patterns and its own effects. But I think this brings us to a fundamental truth about poetry: what makes a poem a poem is its attention to line.

How poems divide up their lines controls their rhythm, sound (whether or not they’re using rhyme), metaphor and metonymy (as words at the ends of lines will be implicitly linked), and the poem’s arrangement of white space, which can also convey meaning. In other words, the poem’s use of line, more than anything else, is what makes a poem a poem. There is one exception: prose poetry, which runs its lines from one margin to the other just like prose, but that’s a lone exception. Otherwise, you know that a poem is a poem just by looking at it because it is broken up into lines, even if you don’t know anything else about poetry, or in other words, if you’re like most poetry publishers.

So mungling up a poem’s line breaks is a cardinal sin, and not paying attention to where you put your line breaks is a sign of ignorance in poetry writing. Amateur poets pay attention, and use line more or less effectively (as do professionals), but a complete lack of attention means you haven’t written a poem but a sentence with line breaks. And no, a sentence with line breaks is not a poem. It might be a greeting card, or a song lyric, and it might get you laid, or published, or both, but it’s not a poem.

So, if you like reading poetry, and want to try writing poetry, and especially if you’re publishing poetry: pay attention to line. Start there. Write the whole thing out as one sentence and then break it up into lines again and ask yourself: what changed? If you noticed a difference, that’s a poem.

 

2015 in Review

What I’ve done in 2015. This is what a teaching scholar looks like. I accomplished what follows during 2015 while teaching a 4-4-3 load with a one semester sabbatical in the Fall, for which I am grateful to my current institution. What could your teaching scholars accomplish with better support? I know quite a few, and they deserve it. Everything listed below was written or published between January and December of 2015.

Creative:

  • Submitted my first volume of poetry for consideration to a publisher: Tripping the Light Ekphrastic. Still waiting to hear back. These things take time. The poems for this volume were written between 1991 and mid Summer 2015.
  • Submitted about ten individual poems for publication to different venues. Some were declined, some are still under consideration. They may all get declined. That is how it goes. I know, because I’ve been publishing since the 90s. You need thick skin to be a writer; we all face a lot of rejection. I had four poems published in late 2014, though, so that’s good.
  • Wrote about another forty pages of poetry, all new in 2015.
  • Served as a literary agent for Martin Reaves and helped guide his first novel, A Fractured Conjuring, through the entire publication process from contract to editing to release. It was a pleasure. It’s a dark, disturbing novel, but it’s a great one. It is now available in both print and e-book format through amazon.com. This publication is personally meaningful to me — Marty was my best friend from seventh grade through all four years of high school. I spent almost as much time at his house during those years as I did at my own. His family was great to me. He told me about his first date with his wife Charla in our middle school locker room the day after it happened. I was in his wedding party, got pictures of his two beautiful daughters when they were little kids, and now know them both as beautiful grown married women with children. Marty has been writing excellent fiction for well over ten years with only a little luck. My hope for this book is that it makes him a little money, gets him at least a little recognition, and helps to land his next book with the higher end publisher that he deserves.

Exhibits. The “Exhibit” category falls between the categories of “Creative” and “Scholarship,” I think:

  • Blake in the Heartland. This great exhibit ran in the Spring of 2015. It focused on the work of visiting scholar Dr. Michael Phillips, who I recruited to visit. He curated William Blake exhibits at the Tate, the Met, the Petite Palais, and most recently the Ashmolean. He delivered two lectures open to the public, gave two printmaking demonstrations (one for local high school students and one for my institution’s students and faculty), and guest lectured for an honors class. The exhibit was curated by Associate Professor of Art Lee Fearnside — who is the gallery Director. She suffered through all of the institutional work to make this happen, doing most of the heavy lifting to make it happen. I co-authored a grant to support these events with her. For this exhibit, Phillips provided his facsimiles of pages from Blake’s illuminated books that were printed using Blake’s materials and printmaking methods. The exhibit also featured contemporary art by regional artists inspired by Blake. You can see images from the exhibit linked above.
  • I then came up with the the idea for an exhibit at my institution’s art gallery dedicated to Ohio rock and roll. Lee liked the idea, so we wrote a grant to support it, recruited three Ohio rock photographers to contribute photographs, and I recruited two scholars to come present papers in a roundtable session either about Ohio rock bands or rock scholarship in Ohio. I’ve also contacted several Columbus-based bands to see if any of them are available for performance, pending budgetary approval. So far, things are going well. But, there’s more — one thing leads to another. I then came up with an idea for an honors class that would study the intersections of rock and roll with literature — and they are many and fertile, believe me — so I queried a Romanticism listserv for ideas. It turns out we’re not running honors classes this Spring, but responses to my query were so enthusiastic that I decided to develop an edited anthology titled Rock and Romanticism, which leads to my next category: scholarship.

Scholarship: Books

  • Rock and RomanticismWonderful project. I sent out a CFP, collected over forty paper proposals, sent out three book proposals (waiting to hear back), and since then have received seventeen papers and edited fourteen. I see this as an ongoing project resulting in two to three volumes, so I’m still accepting proposals. I’ve set up a book blog (linked above) and am continuing to receive and edit essays.
  • Interpretation: Theory: HistoryI started this anthology back in 2012 and have been wrestling with it ever since. I was awarded a contract last summer, didn’t like the terms, went back to my contributors and slimmed down then revised my proposal, and now have a very good publisher looking at it. I’ve edited three essays and wrote a provisional introduction to provide the interested publisher a writing sample.
  • The Pretenders: I co-wrote a proposal for this book with a colleague, and we submitted it to Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series. They received 605 proposals and accepted 16. Ours didn’t make it. I revised, expanded, and resubmitted it as an individual project, and it is now moving through the stages with another publisher. It’s gone through one round of editorial review and is moving into another. We will see. This project was supported by a week of research at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives in Cleveland. The archivists there were great.

Scholarship: New Media. Since my institution may be moving toward a professional writing focus in its English major, I’ve started to expand my profile in New Media publishing.

Scholarship: Articles, Edited Anthologies

  • “Late-Romantic Heroes as Archetypes of Masculinity: Breaking Bad, The Fast and the Furious, and Californication,” by invitation for the edited anthology Class, Politics, and Superheroes: Populism in Comics, Films, and TV, Ed. Marc DiPaolo. Forthcoming 2016: currently under contract with the University of Mississippi Press.
  • “Silly Love Songs and Gender in Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron,” by invitation for the edited anthology Assemble!: The Making and Re-making of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ed. Julian Chambliss and Bill Svitavsky. Forthcoming 2016: currently under contract with McFarland & Company, Inc.

Scholarship: Book Reviews

  • Rev. of Sexy Blake, eds. Helen B. Bruder and Tristanne Connolly for Romantic Circles Reviews and Receptions. Forthcoming 2016.
  • Rev. of The Emigrants, or, A Trip to the Ohio, A Theatrical Farce (1817), by George Cumberland. Elizabeth B. Bentley, ed., and Angus Whitehead, Intro. 2013 for Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly. Forthcoming 2016.
  • Rev. of Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis 1753-1835 by David Sigler for Romantic Circles Reviews and Receptions, published October 2015.
  • Rev. of William Blake and the Production of Time by Andrew M. Cooper for Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies. 38.3 (Sept. 2015): 472-4.
  • Rev. of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor, and the Myth of Creation by Roderick Tweedy for Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, published Summer 2015.

Scholarship: Conferences. I’ve been presenting papers at three to four conferences a year since 2007. Most of them have been national, with some regional and some international. Unfortunately, my institutional support only covers about 25% of my costs at most, so I’ve had to scale back. I had a panel and a paper accepted for the CCCCs conference, but I had to pull out because of costs. I will still list the panel below, though, as the panel itself was accepted and did run. I also had a paper accepted for the Midwest MLA conference, but I had to pull out. I’ve been trying to focus on lower-cost regional conferences near me lately.

  • “Cohorts and Risk Management,” CCCCs National Conference, St. Petersburg, FL 2015. Successfully wrote the panel but did not attend.
  • “Imagining the Mind-Body Relation: The Skull as a Cave in Blake’s Mythological Works.” March 2015 for the national College English Association conference, Indianapolis, IN.

Scholarship: Digital Humanities

  • I attended a coding workshop for the Mary Russell Mitford project (Digital Mitford) in June of 2015 and finished my first round of markup for her poem Watlington Hill. I need to mark up people and places and write site index entries for it now.
  • I created an online gallery for the Blake in the Heartland exhibit.

I haven’t included blogging for my book projects or for my personal blog (here), which includes the online gallery for the Blake in the Heartland exhibit linked above, but I can provide links to my annual reports for my personal blog and my Rock and Romanticism blog.

All that I’ve listed here is my publishing productivity during 2015. It doesn’t include teaching, advising, or committee service: four courses in the Spring and three graduate courses in the Summer, including being a reader for one Master’s thesis. It also doesn’t include about twenty letters of recommendation, editing books for two friends of mine, and editing a few essays for friends too. This stuff is all part of the job that most college teachers do.

I’ve also tried to be a husband and father, but I think I suck at that.

Support your teachers. I’m just one of them, but they’re all working hard for you, their students, and their schools.

I would like every teacher to post a list like this about their summer work so that people know what we do.

Next up: forthcoming in 2016.

Updates on Publishing…

First, if you ever see any of my poems disappear, that’s because I’ve submitted them for consideration to a venue that does not consider work published elsewhere. If they’re accepted I will provide links to their new venue, and if not, I can make them visible again.

Next, my latest review has recently gone live at Romantic Circles Reviews and Receptions. It’s of David Sigler’s very good monograph, Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis 1753-1835. It’s great to see RCRR up and running again after a hiatus of a few years, especially since it’s following a model that I think scholarly publishing needs to take in the future: peer-reviewed, open-access, and freely accessible to the public.

Accepted to the St. Augustine Writer’s Conference…

Very good news — I’ve been accepted to the St. Augustine Writer’s Conference this year. The workshop has great faculty, including Oprah book club selection author Connie May Fowler and David Paul Kirkpatrick, a former President of Paramount Pictures and formerly Production President for Disney and for Touchstone Pictures. I’m very grateful for the opportunity and look forward to working on my poetry at the workshop with Sascha Feinstein and Parneshia Jones.

The Scars Project

The Scars Project is a collaborative mixed-media project by Lee Fearnside (photography) and James Rovira (poetry) that both records and artistically represents the visible effects of long-term trauma upon the human body, particularly skin. A full prospectus is below, with three images following.

Exodus
Abdominal scar following the removal of a tumor.

Breathe
Scar left from thoracic surgery.

Deer
This scar was left by a deer crashing through a windshield.

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