Friday, February 25, 2011

The Importance of Poetry

It's finally here! The long awaited post on the importance of poetry. I know, I know. You've all been sitting in front of your computers hitting refresh, praying that this post finally pops up! Wait no longer, poets! It's here!

So, let's get right to it. Is poetry dead? How many times have you heard someone say they just don't "get" poetry. How many times have you said it yourself? For most of us, poetry is something we're made to study in college. Something we struggle to wrap our minds around. Once the class is over, we gladly leave it behind. Until I discovered Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (LOVE IT!!!), I was among the poetry scoffers. But then I read,

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Wow. Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. The line is beautiful in its simplicity & the truth it contains. Whitman is saying: We are one. But because he says it so beautifully, it stays with you. It has an emotional impact. The best poetry is read with the heart as well as the mind.

Good poetry takes your breath away. It makes you feel something. It connects you with another person--even if it's only for the moment you spend reading her words on the page. We need this connection. We're starved for it today. Even with Facebook, blogs, email, and everything else we're more disconnected than ever.

Poetry has power because of its ability to connect with someone on a deeper level. Poets spend time (a lot of time) pondering issues that impact all of us. Love. Death. All the biggees. Little things too. Have you read Mary Oliver? She finds joy in everything around her.

I don't know about you, but I need that joy. I crave it. It feeds my soul in a way nothing else does. As a society, I think we've neglected our souls for too long. I don't mean this in a churchy way. I mean that we have become so caught up in our fast paced, gotta cram everything in world that we've lost a bit of what it means to be human. Poetry, good poetry, reminds us. It makes us stop for a few seconds and embrace our better selves.

Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) I forget that the world can be beautiful. Living with Crohn's disease and a disabled daughter can make me short-sighted. When my body hurts, or I have another surgery, or Grace is just being Grace (if you know her, you know what I mean!) it's easy to forget that the world is an amazing, beautiful--and yes, terrible--place. Poetry helps me remember.

If you are a writer, you love words. You love language. Sometimes you fall in love with a well-turned phrase and repeat it to yourself throughout the day. This is poetry.

A friend of mine said that poets mirror our society. If so, what does it mean that so few of us read or write poetry? Are we living an unexamined life? Are we so caught up in the turmoil around us that we're starving our souls? Could this account for the bitterness that infuses our public debates?

Possibly. What if we took Whitman's words to heart? What if we really believed that, "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you"? Would we be so quick to speak harshly to each other?

I don't think so.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Trials and Tribulations of a Poet...

Tomorrow we will talk about the importance of poetry. Yes, it is important. Yes, even today. Why? you ask. Tune in tomorrow and find out.

Today, since this blog is supposed to be about sharing my experiences and (admittedly limited) knowledge of writing / publishing, I thought I’d go on a bit about my own submission process.

As you may know, I’m working on book length poetry manuscript about adopting Grace. Because I hope to one day publish said manuscript, I’m in the process of sending out individual poems to various literary journals. Why? you ask again, curious reader. Because, poetry publishers want to see that others have already taken a chance on you and published individual poems before they commit to a full length poetry book. It’s fun all around!!

Anyway, waaaay back in August I sent out a group of poems to a particular journal. As you might know, it takes a while to hear back from literary journals. This one in particular said to wait six months before contacting them if you haven’t heard from them yet. So, I waited. And waited.

Meanwhile, my little submission sat there on Duotrope, the days out getting higher and higher. This is good! I thought. Maybe, I haven’t heard anything because they LOVE my work and it’s winding its way through the approval process. (Don’t laugh too hard, this has actually happened a few times.)

Finally, I passed the six month mark and did what any good writer does. I emailed asking about the status of my work. A few days passed, and this morning the long awaited email appeared like magic in my inbox. With butterflies dancing in my stomach I opened the email.

Was it an acceptance? A rejection? No. To both. Instead, it read something like this. “We’ve looked through all of the poems submitted in August and your poems weren’t there. Maybe you sent them to a different journal.”

Sigh. And just to be dramatic, Sigh again.

This is what happens when you have 4 kids. I don’t think I sent them to another journal, but maybe I did. Then again, maybe my computer ate my submission. Either way, it’s obvious that my poems will not be appearing in that journal.

This is why I only send my work to journals that take simultaneous submissions.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Writing the Anti-hero

Before I went in for surgery, I promised posts on the importance of poetry and on writing a good anti-hero. Because I’ve posted a lot about poetry recently, I’m going to tackle the anti-hero today. But never fear poetry lovers; I’ll get to the poetry post either Thursday or Friday.

My husband—who is not a writer—says, “The bad guys are always more interesting.” I would agree with him, but add that even more interesting are bad guys who are actually good. Anti-heroes. You know, the characters who on the surface appear bad, but despite themselves, they end up being the hero. For me, this type of character is the hardest to write. Probably because they are the most complex. Which is why I LOVE it when I find a great anti-hero.

As I was recovering from surgery I watched a lot of TV. I mean A LOT of TV. As in all day. Not normal for me, but hey, there’s not much else you can do when you’re on Percocet. Lucky for me, USA ran all day marathons of one of my favorite shows—House, M.D. I love this show. The main character is Gregory House, a brilliant misanthropic doctor who heads a team who diagnose patients with mystery illnesses.

The viewer has ever reason to hate House. Misanthropic doesn’t even come close to describing him. He’s beyond rude to his patients (and friends). He breaks into patient’s houses. Believes that everyone lies. Has yet to have a “normal” relationship with anyone. He is arrogant, abrasive and thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Plus, he’s right all the time. Really, don’t you hate people who are always right?? Due to an incorrectly diagnosed infarction in his leg, House is left in chronic pain that leads to a Vicodin dependency. So, you have a selfish, condescending, drug addict with a very limited view of morality. Doesn’t sound like a hero does it?

And yet...there’s something about House that makes the viewer root for him. People aren’t tuning in just to watch House solve medical mysteries. If that was the case, they could turn to TLC and watch real doctors do the same. No. They are watching because the writers have subtly balanced House’s many negative characteristics with small flashes of humanity that lead us to believe that House, who believes that everyone lies, might indeed be lying to himself.

House believes that he doesn’t need anyone, and yet he’s surrounded by characters who are Good and loyal to him. His love (even if he won’t admit to himself that it’s love) for these friends--Wilson & for Dr. Cuddy--show us that House is capable of feeling. In addition, although he is/was a drug addict, the scenes where we see House dealing with the pain from his leg humanize him.

Although House believes “the rules” don’t apply to him (he steals when it benefits him, etc.) it’s this very willingness to buck the rules that often allows him to save his patients. Especially in the U.S., we admire this sort of rugged individualism.

There are so many reasons to hate House, and yet by adding depth and dimension to his character, the writers have given us someone we love. Someone we root for. He has all of the qualities of a great villain, and yet...he’s the good guy. The one we want to win. On the surface House seems like a one dimensional jerk, but he’s not. The writers have balanced negatives that seem overwhelming with specific qualities that we admire. It is because of House’s complexity that we love him. We know, (even if he doesn’t) that there is more to him than meets the eye.

This is what we must strive to do as writers. We must create multi-dimensional characters. Balancing darkness with small glimmers of light creates fascinating people. Readers return to characters like this over and over again, because the truth is we are all a mix of light and dark. Take some time out and watch House. Then go and add some depth to your characters. Your readers will love you for it!!

P.S. -- there are a lot of parallels between House & Sherlock Holmes, but that's already been covered by other writers. Check it out on the web if you'd like.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Please set aside 30 minutes and watch this video of Margaret Atwood discussing the state of publishing. Several fascinating ideas. I especially like the thought of writers coming together and forming their own publishing group like actors did with United Artists. Lot's of food for thought...Let me know what you think.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Borders Bankrupt!

So, I'm sure you've all heard that Borders has filed Chapter 11. To say the past few years have been tumultuous is an understatement. The industry is changing in a big way. There's anxiety among everyone in the industry. Sometimes if feels like we're walking into the Bookapolyse. Any day now I expect four horsemen (dressed like the firemen in Fahrenheit 451) to ride down the street and into bookstores where the buildings will crumble under the weight of their hooves.

So is publishing doomed? Will writers stop writing and readers stop reading? No. I don't think so. Things will change. The industry might have to reinvent itself, but that's true of all industries. We might need to develop new ways to produce and market books, but I believe there will always be those of us for whom there is no greater pleasure than curling up with a good book.

In fact, I think that in a few years that segment of the population will increase. Why do I say this? Look at the YA market. If you've walked into a bookstore any time in the past few years, you've seen it expand from a few shelves to several aisles. This means kids are reading. When kid readers grow up, what do they become? Adult readers. These same kids who are devouring YA books now will keep looking for great stories as they grow up. That means there will still be a market for books.

Think about it. How many of you were readers as a child? I know I was. I was such a book geek that I was actually disappointed when I didn't win the Biggest Bookworm award in high school. (Yes, I know, it's sad.)

We might be a small group when compared to say, movie goers, but I don't think you'll find a more dedicated group than readers and writers. After all, even if the Bookapolyse occurs and the industry implodes, will YOU stop reading? Will YOU stop writing? I don't think so. And that means one thing. Hope.

Yes, things might change. (Amend that-things will change.) But that's okay. We're a creative group. Surely we can figure out a way to embrace this change and even make things better than they have been.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day!

I'm finally back! The surgery is over. I'm percocet free, and I can finally get back into life! I was planning to write something completely different today, but then I got half-way through the post and realized it was Valentine's Day. (This is what 16 years of marriage & four kids does to you!)

So, in honor of the day I want to talk about Love, that is how to write about love specifically in poetry. It's not as easy as it seems. In fact, I know one poet who has a list of words he never uses in his poems and "Love" is one of them. Why? I believe it's because "love" and other words like it are abstract. What do I mean by that? Let me explain.

We think in images. Say the word, "Love" and one person will picture a red heart. Someone else will see the face of their children. Someone else will see their lover's face. Yet another person will see Cupid. It's different for everyone.

If you're writing a love poem, it's not enough to use the word love to elicit the specific feeling you want in your reader. You must go deeper. What specific type of love? Young love? Mature love? Parental love?

There's a difference in writing, "I love him! He makes me happy!" (Exclamation points are a must when writing Bad Poetry.) And writing:

I trace our history in the lines that curve
around your mouth and sweep down from your eyes
like the wisteria that falls from the arbor in our yard
where last night you pressed your lips
against my forehead (we are written there also)...

You get the picture. (This isn't even close to a perfect example. It's a quick start of a poem I just wrote for this post.) What I would probably do if I was to finish this poem, is write about growing a life together with my husband. The entire poem would be a love poem, but I probably would never use the word "love."

I would want to create in the reader a quiet feeling of a long, secure love. Something that twines two people together so that everything about them is tangled like the roots of two trees that grow next to each other.

Do you get the picture? Saying, "I love him!! He makes me happy!!" (even with several exclamation points) doesn't really make your reader feel anything. Yes, it might take more words. It might take a lot of thought, but you can do it, and the results are worth it.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite love poems by Billy Collins. Notice that he uses "Love" as the title, but not once does he use the word "love" in the poem.


The boy at the far end of the train car
kept looking behind him
as if he were afraid or expecting someone

and then she appeared in the glass door
of the forward car and he rose
and opened the door and let her in

and she entered the car carrying
a large black case in the
unmistakable shape of a cello.

She looked like an angel with a high forehead
and somber eyes and her hair
was tied up behind her neck with a black bow.

And because of all that,
he seemed a little awkward
in his happiness to see her,

whereas she was simply there,
perfectly existing as a creature
with a soft face who played the cello.

And the reason I am writing this
on the back of a manila envelope
now that they have left the train together

is to tell you that when she turned
to lift the large, delicate cello
onto the overhead rack,

I saw him looking up at her
and what she was doing
the way the eyes of saints are painted

when they are looking up at God
when he is doing something remarkable,
something that identifies him as God.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

We Interupt the Regularly Scheduled Programming...

Just a quick note to say that regular blog posts will be interrupted for about week. I'm going in for surgery tomorrow & unfortunately, I won't be blogging from the hospital. (Or maybe that's fortunate. After all, do I really want to take morphine & post? Probably not!)

Anyway, when I return I've got several good topics for you all. I'm going to talk about writing a good anti-hero (it's harder than you think). I'm also going to talk about the importance of poetry. Yes, even in today's world--okay, especially in today's world--we need poets.

That's it for today. Tune in next week for New & Exciting blog posts!