Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Christian Detisch.
Carbon Culture Review, a journal at the intersection of technology, art and literature, is currently seeking unsolicited submissions of previously unpublished fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, translations, photography and visual art associated with modern technology in some way. CCR is also seeking article writers and reviewers. Guidelines available at: www.carbonculturereview.com
Poetry reviews written by poets are the worst. Of course, not ALL of them are the worst. But many of them are.
I’ve read plenty of poetry reviews, whether in-hand when picking up a new book or online when considering a purchase from a new author or the latest release of one whose work I admire. They are laudatory, very often contain sweeping flourishes of language, and may attempt serious contemplation and honest appraisal of the work inside. Some are as insightful and illuminating as a buyer would hope, but to me the body of them feels esoteric, exaggerated and, at their worst, repetitive.
To illustrate, I pulled eight books of poetry off my living room shelves. These are actual rear-cover reviews of published books of poems written by other poets (titles and author names are redacted). The first three fall into the all-too-common category of “poetry about poetry”:
- In (this book), we’re banging along the Baja of our little American lives, spritzing truth from our lapels, elbowing our compadres, the Seven Deadly Sins. Maybe we’re unhappy in a less tragic way, but our ruin requires of us a love and understanding and loyalty just as deep and sweet as any tragic hero’s.
- (She) isn’t afraid to write metaphor to test the voice – that poor arrow – or to try to write beautiful lines…A reader will be reminded of the beautiful motions of the mind
- …what a flawless understanding of gravity…this is a work of profound daring, written by a spirit deeply aware of the ultimate cost of beauty, and the endless human thirst for, and dependence upon, surfaces…
Of course a book of true poetry cannot be complete until a few additional poems are appended to its back in the form of reviews. Here’s a book of poems…since you may have some trouble understanding at first, the publishers have helped by attaching 2-4 meta-poems to explain what’s inside.
Next, when surveying the reviews I found that several writers were unparalleled and quite necessary:
- His achievement, above all, is to make something precious out of the sad jetsam of experience…No one conjures the holy ghosts of the commonplace like (him).
- One of the finest poets of this century, his work will in due course be widely recognized for its excellence.
- (this book) is the achievement of a young poet writing in the full measure of her powers.
- He is one of our premier anatomists of contemporary American life, a wildly refreshing, necessary poet.
- This is our beautiful glimpse of forever. (Her) (book) is a harrowing, necessary work.
Whoah. Better get started. Lots of required reading.
Finally, I came upon a review where the poet writes the poet-y-est thing ever:
- (This book) is an unignorable book…The feeling behind it is painful, but exquisitely so. Pain made into art or what, in another time, people called ”‘beauty”
In case you missed it, that was pain, art AND beauty. A poet’s trifecta.
Much of what you see above is just empty accolades for the writer. It’s certainly a big deal to finish a book and have it published – no dispute there. All active writers understand this challenge. But praise for the writer – dealt in spades by peers – says nothing of the content. And far too often, as we have seen, attempts at the content result in a poeticized review.
It could be the form of the review tempting poets into such impregnable, overwrought summations. A typical review is short in length and aims to address a broad body of content. Though epic strokes aren’t required, the review writer does have to deduce and distill, and in those few words represent in some way an entire work. This task is not unlike that of writing a poem – a genre set apart by focus, by its economical and muscular employment of comparative device in capturing our experiences.
The problem here of course is that a review is supposed to help someone decide to read the book. It’s a sales tactic, but a worthwhile one if executed with the reader in mind. It should supplement the impression of a work the reader gets if he or she decides to peek inside the pages for a few minutes. If the review of a professional poet is more beautiful and intricate than the work inside it purports to sponsor, the curious reader is done a disservice. How the hell could they decide in a few minutes if this book is worth their sixteen bucks?
And I am not arguing for accessibility. Though great writing is often great for the lucid simplicity of plain language (I think of James Wright), folks in the trade of language appreciate its entire spectrum. Art that confronts with mystery, curiosity and confusion mimics the experience of everyday life. Art’s logic is not that of science or philosophy or mathematics. If you’ve ever felt your gently startled body shake and settle in exhale at the end of a poem or story (or movie) that struck you, you’ve experienced this sense-making. If you want to talk accessibility, send Billy Collins a tweet.
The conventions I observed in poetry reviews affirm two things: 1) reactions captured in a particular review are often less sincere for their facile deployment of tic tacks from the toolbox of review writing, and 2) the review as a form is a mechanism not to deliver the insight and persuasion it promises a potential reader, but to document the professional connections among writers. It’s the original LinkedIn for poets. Congrats! T.S. has endorsed you for synecdoche!
Here’s the thing: that network of poets and poetry is small. Its practitioners are few, and by and large, its readers are also the practitioners. To praise poetry with poetry, I believe, is to close the circle even tighter. So that’s why I propose that eighth grade students write all reviews of published poetry. Talk about an outsider’s lens! Students at that level are equipped to elevate a sense of narrative from publishable poetry, and have a burgeoning eye for metaphor as well. They’ll skip over the parlor games and inside jokes (we all do them), and take the writing seriously so long as it can be believed. That is the best test. And the early, deliberate (paid hourly? ☺) exposure will at minimum stretch that circle of poetry a little bit wider, and get kids along with the rest of us making connections we never would have before.
If you are considering attending a writing conference sometime in the future, I hope this finds you well. Maybe you have heard of Bread Loaf. Maybe not. I hadn’t heard of it until one day, two fall semesters ago, when my Creative Writing teacher at Mesa Community College told me, in that way he always expressed his opinion, as if he were open to hearing your objections, not because they were valid, but because he believed there was value in standing up for yourself, that if I wanted to be a serious writer then I should attend a writing conference and if I was going to attend a writing conference, it might as well be Bread Loaf.
The name, which stands out in that vaguely preppy sense, of something old and prestigious and yet quite silly, comes from Bread Loaf Mountain, named because it was shaped like a loaf of bread. It is 89 years old and an off-shoot of the ridiculously small (my high school had just as many students) Middlebury College in Vermont.
I had reservations about attending. First, and sadly foremost, I have never felt comfortable around other writers. I find myself secretly hating them and wishing, when they talk of things like theme and the occasion of telling, that they would shut up or, at the very least, change the topic to something less troubling like religion or politics. Second, though a very close second, attending Bread Loaf, as I was invited to attend, sans fellowship, would clear out my savings and leave me broke. Third, going would mean stepping down from my Middle Management position at the company where I’ve worked for the past 5 years, because, of course, Bread Loaf dates coincided with blacked out days on the store manager’s calendar, meaning no time-off allowed.
I am telling you this up front, so, as you read my mixed thoughts, you will still believe me when I say that, if you love to write, then you should do whatever it is you can do to attend a writing conference like Bread Loaf.
Let’s go over the facts: To attend Bread Loaf it will costs around $3000 and that will include just room and board and your tuition through Middlebury College. That’s for your workshop, whether it be in Fiction, Poetry or Nonfiction, and for your shared room up on the Mountain in one of the Houses. You can, as I did, choose to stay off campus at a nearby Inn (there are two of them, one about 8 miles away and another about 16 miles away) or even look up cabins that are listed at a discount rate for Bread Loafers. If I had inquired a little sooner, I would have been able to stay in a four bedroom house with a full kitchen for only one hundred dollars a night.
To get to Bread Loaf, I drove North out of Burlington for a little over an hour and then passed through Middlebury, almost without realizing it, then drove up to Ripton, a town with one white Lutheran Church (that hosted a play based off of Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth while I was there), an old country store that sold turkey sandwiches wrapped in plastic wrap and worms for fishing, and The Chipmann Inn, where I stayed. After Ripton, you have to just go a little further up the Mountain, past the Homer Noble Farm where Robert Frost stayed before leaving with Homer Nobel’s wife. Then you are there, where the road plateaus and the view opens up.
Every other day you go to Workshop. When you are not at Workshop, you can attend craft classes, which cover things such as The Art of the Paragraph and Using Autobiographical Elements in Your Fiction. Every morning you pick up your copy of The Crumb, the Bread Loaf Newsletter, and it tells you what readings and talks are going on that day and who is coming to the Mountain and who is leaving. I got to listen to the editors of the New England Review talk about what they most looked for when accepting a piece of writing (they have to love it). And the preferences of the publishers of the small press Graywolf (they have to love it, and it has to be something they can see other people loving). And I heard from one wise editor, from an organization whose name I unfortunately can’t remember, speak about how he is finding more and more writers who are worrying about their social media presence, their Twitter followers, the way their book cover will be designed, but not worrying half that much about the quality of their work. The work, he said repeatedly, comes first.
If you do go to a conference and there is off-conference housing, I do recommend taking that option. I think I would have gone crazy spending 10 days up on the Mountain, surrounded by people like me. I escaped every night with my girlfriend to Middlebury, to one of its two bars that was open past 10. Sometimes I would skip out of Bread Loaf in the middle of the day, growing tired of readings and talks by editors, and we would shop around Middlebury and walk through Middlebury College. You have to leave writing eventually, I think, in order to keep finding things to write about.
After my story was Workshopped, and it was a good Workshop, I got, like everyone else, a one-on-one with my Workshop Leaders.
I met my first Workshop Leader, a woman with long black hair and a hard face, in the Bread Loaf Barn, where the dances were held and the Bar was open every night till 10ish. Because it was cold this summer, there was always a fire in the fireplace, and the night before I had almost fallen asleep there in front of it.
She and I talked about my story briefly. I didn’t have many questions. Then we talked about MFA programs and writers I should read. This was her sixth time teaching at Bread Loaf. She looked around the barn and talked about the stories she had heard in the earlier years of its existence. There was more drinking and sleeping around. A lot of older men writers invited up younger women. She said her favorite story was about Richard Yates, who got drunk or high or both and climbed one of the buildings and had a prophetic vision which ended with him shouting out that he was God.
She smiled and said that for a long time, people joked that it should be called “Bed Loaf.”
My next Workshop Leader was less comfortable talking. He had been that way in Workshop, too. He had good things to say and he would often lead the discussion, but it took him time to find the words and then even more time to find what order to place the words in.
We met out on the front porch of the main office and enjoyed the view, sitting on an old bench that creaked beneath us.
When he spoke, his hands were out in front of his chest and his fingers were tense, as if grasping at some machine with knobs and wires.
He had held a craft class on James Joyce’s use of epiphany in Dubliners; a craft class I had very much wanted to attend, but the time didn’t fit with the rest of my schedule. I have always felt like the epiphanies of my stories are never realized, that my characters are dancing around this great realization that would shatter the lives they had been trying so hard to live. But nothing ever resolved. It was the biggest critique of my story, that I didn’t allow my characters to grow and I should allow them to do more.
He spoke to me about taking time off in between undergrad programs and grad programs, about working a little, traveling a little. The next day was the end of Bread Loaf and I’d fly out with my girlfriend around four in the afternoon. He asked if I had any questions about my story and when I said no, he said “Good. You know what you need, you just need to. . . .” and he went quiet and scrunched up his face and held his hands out in front of his chest and contorted them into something like claws.
It took me nearly an hour to rearrange my luggage to include the books I bought/was given and my carry-on bag was replaced with a broken portable typewriter I bought from a small antique shop in Middlebury. It is still waiting for me to save the sixty dollars it is going to cost to fix it.
I don’t want you to take this as bragging, because it isn’t. It’s a description of what can happen if you keep on writing decade after decade for the love of the work, with a little bit of luck, that touch we all need, of course.
And I don’t want you to think this is yet another hoarse exhortation to revise, revise!
My first writing workshop instructor, the poet John Ciardi, back at Rutgers in the early 1960s, exhorted me enough for a life time.
(He said this in the same intonation that we find at the end of Frost’s wonderfully playful poem on old age, “Provide, Provide”. Yes, you’ve got it—Provide, Provide.)
“Writing is revising,” Ciardi reminded us, a wayward band of juniors and seniors, six of us in a workshop he conducted in the basement of the old Rutgers English house, a former residence on College Avenue which the university had taken over decades before.
“Writing is revising.”
I can still hear his voice in this advice, a slightly patrician-ized South End Boston accent that Ciardi must have worked on while one of the few local Italian boys attending Harvard (where he worked as a writer in residence, of sorts, supplying essays of his own devising for lunk-headed legacies who had the patrician voices but not the supreme intelligence about poetry and fiction that should have come along with it. In other words, he worked his way through college writing papers for his betters.)
I can hear that too.
“For my bet-ters.”
By then I had done more than half the work toward becoming something like this new hero of mine, the Southie poet now in residence at Rutgers, living in near-by Metuchen, New Jersey and also writing a weekly column for “The Saturday Review of Literature.” I had lived for nineteen years in North Jersey, where after an empty, and sometimes violent, middle school so-called education, and while keeping up a certain (small) ability at softball and an even smaller one at basketball, I threw myself into the reading of novels and stories that lighted up my present life and glowed forcefully on the horizon as well.
I read sea stories in grade school and science fiction through eighth grade and by sophomore year of high school I was trying to read Faulkner, whose The Sound and the Fury (about which I understood almost nothing but loved the cadences of the lines) our chemistry teacher, a big doughy white-haired man named Pat White, tore from my hands during a study hour and never returned to me.
Something like happened to Ciardi and poetry early on in his working-class life in Boston.
So now all I had to do was write, and these two halves, living and art, might come together and make me a whole person. If you’re reading this you know the feeling. You live through immense sea-storms of language in books so great you barely grasp what’s going on inside them while at the same time plodding along in school, making fun of the feeble teachers who give you Julius Caesar to read or, worse, to listen to on recordings of “great performances.”
My greatest performance until then was to live as though I were a normal kid, even though now and then I would hole up with a science-fiction novel by Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov, or Dubliners (confiscated from me by my home room teacher before I could read it half way through). Oh, and also play ball, and commit an occasional small larceny (stealing cases of Coke from a delivery truck), and brawl—verbally, only, thank the gods—with my father, and attend class and sink into a vortex of forceful apathy that convinced me that there was no such thing as education in New Jersey, only place-keeping until such time as you could join the armed forces or get a job as a clerk and then a manager—or, if you were as lucky as I was, assumed like some prince of the lower-middle-classes that college was your due.
College became the intellectual equivalent for revision.
My slovenly class room habits turned more strict, my near-sightedness about life’s possible pleasures turned into long-range vision, and I began, however haphazardly, to regard my origins and my family as something interesting rather than a burden. Revise, revise! Though I hand no idea that I was doing it, I was doing it. Fiction, poetry, music, painting, architecture, dance—all art came together into a single force and wrenched open my eyes, as in the stunning moment at the end of Rilke’s great poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”.
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Years went by, nearly twenty, before I found a toe-hold on the climb up the rocky mount of revision, but the more I worked at it, the more natural it became. The sense of where you must begin a story rather than where you have first begun it. The sense of where you must expand a novel—open it up to further exploration—rather than where it now stands. The necessity to write more and more scenes to make a character’s psychology become more than mere statement. The numerous attempts to make the raw beautiful rather than pretty, and take the beautiful closer to the sublime.
To say this eventually comes to us naturally may cover over the fact that as natural as it seems it never comes easily. When I edited a collection of Bernard Malamud’s essays along with my dear old friend and fellow novelist and story writer Nicholas Delbanco I discovered Malamud’s painstaking method for making the natural seem a common occurrence. Here’s how he worked on a short story. You can draw inferences from his about how he approached novels.
First he wrote a draft in long hand and then typed it over and made corrections in the typescript. Then he wrote a second draft in long hand and typed it up to make corrections that comprised another draft. And so on, sometimes up to a dozen times, to make a finished story. In the page proofs for a magazine version of the story he made corrections with a pen. When he had enough stories for a collection he made further corrections in the galley proofs, and then again in the page proofs. When he had a finished book on hand, it was never finished. When he read a story in public he made further changes as he went along in the reading of it.
Ciardi and Malamud—not a one-two punch, more like a one-one thousand punch to help me to see how to make art better and better.
As I write these words I have just about completed one of the most fortunate endeavors a novelist can undertake. A new publisher has come along to bring out a new edition—this would be the fourth!—of a novel I wrote thirty years ago and published almost that long ago. Back then I called it The Grandmothers’ Club and this remained its title through its first three iterations, its original hard cover, and then two paperback editions. At the urging of this publisher—Frederic Price of Fig Tree Books–I took the time to revise it after all these many decades, and recast the punctuation, particularly the quotation marks. When I first wrote it I was in the throes of modernism, as if caught up in a fever that had a fever, something that’s cooled down a bit for me by now, to, say, a steady boil with now and flares of flame like sunspots. The book changed enough so that we changed its title. Now called Prayers for the Living it comes out in a new trade paperback edition in March.
Revise, revise! Have I changed my life? I don’t know, I don’t know. Have I changed my art? I invite you to come and see.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by poet Colleen Abel.
Colleen Abel is the author of Housewifery, a chapbook (dancing girl press, 2013). A former Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow, her work has appeared in numerous venues including The Southern Review, Mid-American Review, West Branch, The Journal, Cimarron Review, Verse Daily, Cincinnati Review, Ploughshares’ blog, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD from UW-Milwaukee and is currently the Joan Beebe Teaching Fellow at Warren Wilson College.
I was once in your shoes. I even interned at The Review Review to review Literary Magazines, just hoping to discover more magazines and the writers they publish. And doing that, just once mind you, along with working at Superstition Review for two semesters, I’ve come across a few revelations about how I feel about Literary Magazines.
First, I think there are far too many of them. However, I guess that is better than having a shortage (well, maybe not). But since there are so many of them, there are a lot, I hate to say it, that aren’t that good. And since there are so many of them, and plenty of them don’t always produce the best work, it is good to know what you are looking for to save yourself some time. You can find a literary magazine for nearly any kind of writing and I recommend following Submittable and The Review Review on Twitter to learn just how many different lit mags there are in the world (in addition to being reminded about contests and submission dates for the various journals).
As for my preferences, I like New England Review and Alaska Quarterly Review. McSweeney’s is interesting, though I find it a bit overpriced. (Before I forget, it’s great to go to a used book store and buy back issues of lit mags for a discounted price.)
Bartelby Snopes is a fun read for online literary magazines. Anderbo is a good online lit mag as well and easy to read on your phone. I am partial to magazines I can easily read on my phone as I take the light rail into ASU and I am always looking for a valid reason to keep my head down. And, now that I think of it, while I said McSweeney’s is overpriced, they have a great app which allows you to buy some great content.
Virginia Quarterly Review is a good one, too. Let’s not forget Hayden’s Ferry Review. A lot of quality work is published out of Arizona State University. A good tip that I learned from a talk given by Amy Holman at Bread Loaf is take whatever writer you like to read and, if they have written a short story collection, look in that collection to see where some of those stories have been published previously. You will quickly see a pattern in where your favorite writers are published. If you like political writings and follow political writers, you will end up reading magazines with a political vibe.
Also, read where you want to be published if your aim is to be published one day. This way, at the very least, you’ll understand the talent of your competition. If your aim is to discover new and interesting forms/writers, check out something like Muumu House or just start looking up lit mags on Twitter and see what magazines they follow.
This isn’t to say great writing can’t be found in obscure journals. As a Nonficiton Editor at Superstition Review, I’ve come across a few obscure journals in the writer’s bio section. Sometimes I look them up and read a few of the stories featured in their journal. But usually, I find better odds at the roulette table, and that’s betting on individual numbers.
The trick, I think, is to follow writers you like and find the writers they like and use that to branch out into different magazines. I think this is a more successful (not to mention time saving) approach, rather than just jumping head first into a pool of literary magazines. But I do tend to tray towards the more established lit mags when I can, because I like to read from the journals where I’d like to be published.
One more thing I heartily recommend is reading fiction/poetry from magazines that don’t just specialize in writing fiction/poetry, such as The New Yorker or Esquire. The best stories can be found in the most unusual places if you follow your favorite writers. For example, when I was about 14 I was really into reading Chuck Palahniuk. One day I found out he was publishing a new short story called Guts in Playboy Magazine. I pleaded with my dad to buy it for me so I could read the story. He bought it for me, tearing out the story and throwing away the magazine (or so he’d like me to believe). I still remember reading that story, the edges all ripped, the pages paper-clipped together. Thinking back on it, what happened in that story was probably more adult than anything else in that magazine.
This isn’t me telling you to buy Playboy. This is me saying there are so many magazines out there, so many avenues for writers to publish their work, that you are better off following writers as they publish and just sticking to your list of highly established and respected magazines, as your safe “go-to” journals.