Last week got out of hand with my new schedule at IAIA. I wanted to talk about so many things connected with that, some new poems I've come across, some thoughts about the amazing places life sends you when you open up your ideas for the future. Hopefully in the coming weeks...
In the meantime, we haven't spent much time talking about life tips for poets.
I'm a firm believer that any attempt to improve your writing will fail if you don't attempt to improve one or more of the following:
a) your thinking (because if your thinking sucks, your writing will suck),
b) your thinking as it relates to the spiritual (say, for instance, you feel emotionally or intellectually stuck in some way), or
c) your understanding of the way you think.
And one of the best tools to zero-in on item c is with the book Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath. The results for the Strengths Finder tests actually go back to years of Gallup polling and the idea is once you identify your strengths, you can put more of your energy behind those strengths instead of trying to fix your weaknesses. It's about energy management.
And when the book talks about "strengths," this don't mean something like "I'm a strong writer" or "I have leadership skills." The kind of strengths categorized in this book deal with the way your brain organizes information and the way you understand the world. Learning my strengths was illuminating for me because it showed me why I gravitate to poetry, it showed me that I am strong in "Connection," meaning I like to take disparate things and connect them together...naturally I do this. This means, however, I'm not so strong in seeing differences. My brain looks for similarities. I may be strong in putting together metaphors but I need extra help with characterization. I also scored a strength in "Input" which explains why I feel the need to read 41 books on a topic before I feel like I get it, why it's hard for me to stop researching and start writing.
This kind of self-awareness helps me understand even my weaknesses better.
The drag about Strengths Finders is that you have to buy the book to get the unique code to take the test (which takes about 30 minutes). You cannot borrow a book and re-use a test code: total waste of paper and eBook purchasing on the one hand; brilliant strategy for book sales on the other.
Over the weekend I was checking out the hours of my local bookstore and I noticed on their homepage that Joy Harjo has a memoir out called Crazy Brave. In fact, I had just missed her reading at the bookstore this weekend. Fudge!
I love Joy Harjo. I don't know when I first heard about her but I have her book of poems The Woman Who Fell From the Sky and I went to see her one-woman show in Los Angeles a few years ago at The Autry Museum, Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light. I felt like crying through the whole show I was so moved. Afterwards I asked her to sign my book and my husband talked to her about Muskogee history. I felt like an oddball fan the whole time.
The memoir is published by Norton (which is big and impressive). My husband and I went to the bookstore this morning and I saw the memoir but I talked myself out of buying it...although I kept looking at it longingly and pathetically. My birthday is next week and my husband surprised me by just buying me a copy when he checked out. He said it was an early present to launch birthday week.
I was so tickled! Going to start reading it today.
Last year I read Ron Power's biography of Mark Twain (I picked it up for a dollar at the LA Times Festival of Books). There I learned about William Dean Howells as a literary critic (I had read his novel, Hazard of New Fortunes, in college). Howells came up in the old book on Emily Dickinson I read a few weeks ago. His significance in bringing up so many writers of The Guilded Age intrigued me and so I picked up this book, William Dean Howells, An American Life by Kenneth S. Lynn, from the library at Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
According to Lynn:
"Howells is rivaled only by [Ezra] Pound for his sure identification of the literary geniuses of his generation."
His reviews at The Atlantic singled out many underdog writers including:
For some reason, Howells did not review Edith Wharton although privately he stated she was gifted. He also ignored Theodore Dreiser, many speculated, because Dreiser's work in Sister Carrie was too sexual.
Howells championed "western writers" and realists when the literati of the time was stuck in the grip of old Bostonian/New England writers and their romances. Howells said,
"Art must relate to need or it will perish."
Biographer Lynn also takes a close look at the unique heroines in some of Howells' novels compared similarly with Henry James heroines like Daisy Miller:
"One of the primary qualities of James and Howells' American Girl characters is their steel-like will."
Another interesting piece of trivia about Howells: his grandfather and father were both early abolitionists, long before it was a popular cause before the Civil War. Howells became one of the founding members of the NAACP.
One thing I've learned from many poetry workshops is that the sections of my poems that really hit it off with readers are those lines or phases which dramatically break a previously set rhythmical pattern. Like an orchestral piece of music, you take comfort in the ever-predictable musical phrases. However, it's the line that varies from that predictability that stops the show and turns out to be a crowdpleaser.
I figure it works like the architecture of a good joke. Subverting expectations creates a laugh, creates a little heart squeeze.
In the book, On Poetry & Craft, the compilation of Theodore Roethke's essays and random thoughts, in the essay called "Some Remarks on Rhythm," Roethke explores the ways rhythms work to serve our poems:
While our genius in the language may be essentially iambic, partially in the formal lyric, much of memorable or passionate speech is strongly stressed, irregular, even 'sprung.'
What about the rhythm and the motion of the poem as a whole? Are there ways of sustaining it, you may ask? We must keep in mind that rhythm is the entire movement, the flow, the recurrence of stress and unstress that is related to the rhythms of the blood, the rhythms of nature. It involves certainly stress, time, pitch, the texture of the words, the total meaning of the poem. We've been told that a rhythm is invariably produced by playing against an established pattern....It's what Blake called "the bounding line," the nervousness, the tension, the energy of the whole poem. And that is a clue to everything. Rhythm gives us the very psychic energy of the speaker...
It's nonsense, of course, to think that memorableness in poetry comes solely from rhetorical devices, or the following of certain sound patterns, or contrapuntal rhythmical effects. We all know that poetry is shot throughout with appeals to the unconsciousness, to the fears and desires that go far back into childhood..."
So a week or so ago I spoke about why you might want to self-publish a book of poetry. Now I'm going to talk about the first few things I did to get my own project rolling.
Do Some Book Learnin'
First thing, I educated myself on what this bitch would entail: how to format a book, how to format an eBook, and what POD means. I would recommend these books to get your feet wet:
--Self-Printed, The Sane Person's Guide to Self-Publishing by Catherine Ryan Howard - Also self-published, this book is full of step-by-step, no-nonsense, tough-love advice. I couldn't have done what I'm doing without this book.
-- The Fine Print of Self-Publishing by Mark Levine - This is a market study on most of the self-publishing services out there. You must read this book to know how to be a savvy shopper. I was able to avoid an overpriced, poor-quality offer from a local publisher because I had read this book.
-- Sell More Books! by J. Steve Miller -- This book is good for two reasons: one is that it is full of typos and layout disasters, which exemplifies, in every detail, the pitfalls of self-publishing. But like my grandfather once said, you can learn something even from from a fool. Which brings me to the second reason to like this book, although the production of it may suck, the marketing advise in this book is still very good.
-- Find the latest book on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and the latest book on social marketing. Internet rules change so fast, you need a book published no earlier than 2011.
Create a Publishing and Marketing Plan
Publishing entails a zillion details, so you need to make a to-do list. It all may look overwhelming but remember, as actor Sherman Hemsley taught me in one episode of Amen, you can eat an elephant one bite at a time.
You also need a separate marketing plan. All the how-to guides on self-publishing agree on this fact: you need some real educating in marketing to sell your book.
Assets, Companies, Permissions, Introductions
When I was at Sarah Lawrence in the mid-90s, Mark Doty came to teach for one semester. All the second-year graduate students fought tooth and nail to get in his class. First-years had to sell off their first born to get a shot. At the time, I was probably heard to ask, "Who is Mark Doty?"
That's because before Sarah Lawrence, the only living published poets I knew where Howard Schwartz and Steve Schreiner (my teachers from the University of Missouri), Tom Lux and Alice Fulton (because Steve Schreiner introduced me to them) and Philip Levine (and I don't know how I heard about him).
When Philip Levine finally came to read at Sarah Lawrence, he walked right by me, I felt like I had just experienced a celebrity sighting. What a silly thought: a celebrity poet.
Anyway, after moving to LA and diligently attending each Los Angeles Times Festival of Books every spring, (literally, the Cochella of books....if you want to see a million people in one place buying books, this is the biggest book festival in the universe), I got to know Mark Doty who was there year after year reading in the poetry nook. I grew to be quite a fan of his very funny, comforting and touching reading-style. On the Festival of Books panels, (real head-food, those free panels), his comments were also embracing and brilliant. I loved him! I could then see why the poetry students at Sarah Lawrence drew blood over the chance to get into his class. I wish I had been more savvy and aggressive back then too.
And then I read Dog Years. What can I say about Dog Years. It is indescribable. If you have a dog and love literary memoirs...walk, don't run to this book.
I have his book of poems Atlantis, much of which is about his lover's death from AIDS. I think what I love about Doty's poems are the way his brain gravitates toward particularity. From "Grosse Fuge" talking about his dying lover:
Mostly he looks away, mouth open,
as if studying something slightly above
and to the right of the world.
...or the end of the poem "Breakwater," his ability to be obliquely specific:
now that we have come to rest,
as mysteriously as ever,
as nearly perfect a shape
as ever we'll discern.
or from "Atlantis," his heartbreaking and arresting similes:
and I swear sometimes
when I put my head to his chest
I can hear the virus humming
like a refrigerator.
If I could be the Dead-head-esque groupie of a poet, I would drive from town to town to be the obsessed fan of Mark Doty. But I have no time for this because I am committed to tracking the never-ending farewell tours of Cher.
We recently went camping to Lake Conchas Dam in eastern New Mexico.This is an area I've wanted to visit because it's near the Goodnight Loving Trail (although the dam wasn't there then) and also because it's near an area called David Hill under the town Mosquero New Mexico. The lake was also mentioned in this month's New Mexico Magazine as having the most shoreline-per-camper of all the lakes in New Mexico...which, in this empty state, is really sayin' something.
So I was able to add two new photos to Reading Poetry to Animals and Things that Don't Care: I was snubbed by both lake twigs and my own shadow.
It's rough out there.
A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with someone online about the state of poetry and they made this comment to me (and this is not the first person to make this comment to me) that it was all a bit like shouting out into the void.
I wasn't sure if this person meant the process of blogging, the act of trying to turn the poetry industry around or the very act of writing and sharing poetry itself.
Or just living for that matter.
I was speaking to my husband, a former labor rep, about it. He said there is always a group of people out there who would rather lament the state of things than to work to change the situation. I see this in many poets I know. I think they almost prefer their status as outsiders.
I was innocently reading the book How Not to Write a Novel by Mittelmark and Newman (actually a very good book, albeit very snarky) and came across this stinging sentiment: "Some people can do backflips, walk on their hands, or juggle flaming swords. Some people can even recite poetry in public without losing their dignity."
Ouch. Are we the unpopular, ridiculed kids of literature?
Sadly we are. Unless we stand up for poetry against the bullies out there. Unless we start networking like poet politicians to make friends with other intellectual disciplines.
Or you can choose what you have. And I feel many out there secretly get off on poetry's anemic cult status.
As they say, if you are looking for the right person in your life, become the right person in your life. Which is a paraphrase of Mahatma Gandhi who said "Become the change you want to see in the world."
Or as Deepak Chopra said, "In your own personal transformation is the transformation of the world."
For further reading: think outside the lament