Monday, April 10, 2017

Suffering From Genre Confusion

They say the first step is admitting that you have a problem, so ok, I admit it. I am suffering from a serious case of genre confusion.

As a child I was certain my bent was towards poetry. I scribbled a few lines, rhymed nun with run (we lived next door to a convent in Chicago), and I called it good. In high school, angst filled-who wasn't-I carried around a leather covered notebook for all the brilliant one liners I might have. During my first go-round in college, 1980's style, I hunkered down with all my pre-nursing classes, but slid in a poetry elective just for fun. Even at age twenty I knew I would bring home more cash as a nurse than as a poet, but still, it was poetry that tripped my trigger.

"Tripped my trigger", who talks like that anymore?

But life, children, a career in nurse management, mortgages, another career in organic farming, grandchildren, all took hold and I did not return to that writing love of mine until age fifty five. Now, eleven short months after graduation from a creative writing program, and a few publication successes, I am absolutely, without a doubt, convinced that I am a poet.

Or am I?

It all seemed so certain. I was writing poetry, I was reading poetry, I was submitting poetry, I was even reciting it while milking my cow. There are poetry books all over my house, in my car, and hidden in the barn. A few of my poems have made it into print, one won a major competition.  But then recently I received an unexpected email and my certainty, wobbled.

A short story I'd written last spring for class, revised and submitted to after hours journal of Chicago back in the summer of 2016,  had been accepted for publication in their upcoming issue, which arrived a few days ago. I frankly had forgotten about this little story. It's fairly common to submit a piece and not get a response for three or four months, but if more than six months goes by, I assume it didn't meet the needs of that particular publication and then mentally, I write it off.  So when after hours contacted me nine months after submission, I had to look at my submission log to jog my memory. When I initially wrote this story, it felt nonsensical, but my professor John Rubins thought it had potential.  He told me to revise it. Which I did, a few times.  How to Tell Your Second Husband He is Your Sixth Husband, took on a life of its own, as stories can do, evolving from a goofy diddy about multiple marriages to a darker comment on bad choices.

When the issue arrived last week I read the story cautiously. It was worse than I had remembered. It was better than I hoped. I was embarrassed to have my husband read it, couldn't wait to show it to my daughter, not at all sure if I will show it to my sons, all of whom are near thirty. But what does it mean? Am I now a flash fiction writer as well as a poet?  Is this a fluke or should I concentrate more on story, plot and characters, instead of  the intensity of metaphor and slant rhymes?  Shall I dig out that monstrosity of a novel I wrote five years ago and try to revive it? Will my poems feel jealous that I am spending more time with short stories? Is it right to lay my after hours copy among all my poetry books, or am I being insensitive to them? Rubbing their proses in it so to speak.

And most importantly, am I a total narcissist if I empty out my PayPal account to buy twenty more copies of after hours ?

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Crux of Simultaneous Submissions

The writer has to force himself to work.
He has to make his own hours and if he doesn't go to
his desk at all there is nobody to scold him.
- Roald Dahl

I recently saw a post on a Facebook page dedicated to submissions that suggested, "100 rejections in 100 days," as a writing goal.

I liked that. The idea is clearly, if you submit to 100 journals, either online, print, or both, you're bound to receive an acceptance. Maybe two.

But, if you're sending out that often, your risk, (or your blessing depending on your attitude) is having the same piece of work accepted by more than one literary journal. This happened to me with two Ireland based publications a couple of weeks ago. Fortunately, I had kept good records of what I had sent to whom, and all the magazines I had targeted, did accept simultaneous submissions.

In fact, the large majority of publications will, with their only requirement being immediate withdrawal of your work if  another journal has accepted it.  It's an easy enough process, especially if the journal uses Submittable as their collection site for authors work. Just a few clicks and all is forgiven. If the publication does not use Submittable, simply return to their web site for directions. For most, all that is needed is a short note to the editor via email. In fact, when this happened to me,  two editors thanked me for notifying them of my need to withdraw work, and then congratulated me for my success with another magazine! A couple of class acts those two. I will definitely be submitting to them again.

Watch closely for those publications however, that do not take simultaneous submissions. It will be clearly stated in their submission guidelines. If you risk it and send work to them that you've sent somewhere else at the same time, and you do have to withdraw work because of an acceptance, an astute editor will take notice. They'll wonder why you are withdrawing something that was only supposed to be submitted to them alone. It might affect your chances next time. There is an up side though, to these publications: they tend to get back to you sooner, within just a couple of weeks, as compared to several months for so many others.

The other dilemma with simultaneous submissions, is being accepted first by a journal that perhaps is nearer the bottom of the Pushcart List, or not listed at all, and then soon after, receiving an acceptance for the same piece of work, by a magazine higher up on the food chain. It is tempting to withdraw from the magazine that may not be as well read, but that would be bad manners. After all, if a magazine is good enough for you to submit to in the first place, then they are good enough to have rightful first dibs.

I compare it that girlfriend you had in high school who promised to spend the night at your house, listening to the new Cheap Trick record (yes, I said record) but when she got invited by Delicious Dan to the county tractor pull at the last minute, she bailed on you tout suite. So there you sat, alone in your Black-Light-Lit room listening to I want you to want me, over and over while bingeing on Suzie Q snack cakes and Tab.

Magazine editors have feelings too you know.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Professor and Poet, Brigit Pegeen Kelly

Image result for brigit pegeen kelly's death

Last month, as a prompt in my on-line poetry class with Irish poet Kevin Higgins, it was suggested we attempt a piece comparing humans to animals. I chose my three sisters because they are dear to me and selected the Pipistrelle bat for comparison because of a poem I read some time ago written by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. She introduced me to these tiny creatures in her poem Pipistrelles, and I had fun comparing my siblings to the same. I called my piece The Pipistrelle Cartel and although it did not compare in any way to the original, I had fun writing it.

Then, several nights ago, I could not sleep, so I picked up a book, my usual insomnia routine. My selection, taken from a wobbly pile  next to my office chair, was Western Wind, An Introduction to Poetry by David Mason and John Frederick Nims. For whatever reason I flipped through the pages and came across the poem Song, also written by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. 

It is a sorrowful piece, one of unfulfilled longing, that constricts your chest and makes one short of breath, or at least that was my reaction to it. It is a poem that demands to be read out loud. It reminded me again, how much I loved this poets work. I read it again, slowly, jotting down some of the most striking descriptions such as "the goat's silky hair/Was dark as well water, because it had eyes like wild fruit." The sadness of the piece haunted me, a young girl loses a beloved pet, and it took some time to feel sleepy again. So I set a goal for the new year. I selected twelve poets I appreciated and wanted to study more, one for each month, and I wrote their names on little tags. I would start this independent study later in January.

The day after that, my husband was driving us to a family Christmas event and I was pouring through my newest edition of Poets & Writers Magazine when on page seventeen I came across the  In Memoriam listing of writers/poets and there, just past the middle of the list was her name, Brigit Pegeen Kelly.  I turned to my husband and asked the silliest question of my adult life. "In Memoriam means dead, right?" I was having a difficult time understanding that this gentle woman, this beautiful poet, had died. For the next ten minutes I was all over my smart phone looking for proof and it was everywhere. On the Poetry Foundation Web page, where is listed her birth and death date for example. She had died just eight weeks ago at the age of 65.

Still, weeks later, I feel deep sadness when I think of her passing. We were not close friends, I was only one of the hundreds, thousands? of students she encountered, but regardless, I feel quite blue.

I was unaware of her until August 2014 when I enrolled in her Introduction to Poetry class at the University of Illinois in Champaign.  As I did with all my writing professors, I researched them via the schools web site, the creative writing department web site, Google, and in her case, The Poetry Foundation. I was impressed with her credentials, her accomplishments, her publications,  and I was excited about being one of her students. I was even more thrilled on the first day of class when she slipped noiselessly into class wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Her long, grey hair was as straight and unadorned as she. Her presence was quiet but her eyes were excited, as she took all of us in for the first time. A finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry was here, in the same room with all of goofy newbie poets.

I was 55 when I returned to college, an quasi-mature hippie type living on an organic farm, and I felt sorely out of place in this class room full of young, bright, firm bodied, purple and pink haired shining-star millennials.  Brigit equalized us by putting us to work immediately. "Write me a poem, about anything." So we did, and they were all varying degrees of awful. Little thought put into form, craft or sound, yet this unassuming woman in charge found several good and decent things to say about each poem. These comments were genuine and well thought out. A "quirky rhyme" we penned accidentally, or a "meaningful dialogue on loss" we missed all together were given notice, praised, and recognized for potential. Rewrites were encouraged and discussed again, either in the classroom or if we preferred, in private in her office.

She was also interested in our career goals and our reasons for choosing poetry, being most fascinated by those less expected to write poetry: the students of math, chemistry and engineering. It was the exacting nature, the reasoning within these students work, she focused on, encouraging the rest of us right brained artistic types to take note. "If you want to master word economy, read the mathematicians poem."

I took advantage of her office hours several times, and she was a most gracious host in her end-of-the-hall room. The wood floors, leather chairs  and piles of manuscripts, book and papers in near cascading form on her desk screamed Poet At Work Here! I assumed she was tremendously busy with her classes, her writing, her own family, but when I was in her office, she never let on, I was at that time, her main interest. She asked not just about my poetry, but about my background, my children, my farm, and she connected with me by encouraging me to write about ALL of that.

The last time I saw her was at the end of that semester in December 2014. I had returned to her office with my copy of her book, Poems: Song and The Orchard in a quest for her signature, but she would have none of it. "Later," she said, "some other time. Now show me what you've written lately." We spent nearly an hour together that afternoon and I felt bad about taking up so much of her time, but when I would start to leave she would ask me another question like,  "Why did you choose the word 'thread' when talking about the suns rays? Tell me about that."

A few times I even thought I might send her the book, maybe it would be easier for her to sign it if I wasn't in the room. I imagined she would pen something hysterical like, "Good luck with your writing, but don't get your hopes up." Of course she would've never done something like that, that's more my warped style. She had far more class than I ever would.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

My Sixfold Experience: Final Results

Image result for sixfold

Just hours after my last post about my experience with Sixfold Magazine, I received the final results. My short story made it through all three rounds and was ranked number 20 out of 287. It did not however win any prizes (first place was $1000) nor will it be published at all (they only publish the top fifteen stories) but I still feel like a huge winner. There was also a sense of accomplishment gleaned when I saw that the first and second place winners were stories I had also ranked very high. So even though I am not yet writing prize winning stories, I can at least recognize them.

I only paid a $5 entry fee, and in return I was required to read and comment on eighteen manuscripts, which meant more editing experience. As I've been told many times by other writers and past professors, if you want to write, then READ!

In addition to the manuscript reading experience, I received comments from six readers in round one, nine readers in round two and fifty-four readers in round three. Of those sixty-nine total readers only four gave me just a single line or two of feedback. The rest gave me very detailed comments. Some wrote well over 500 words. Most were a great mix of the stories strengths coupled with opportunities for improvement.

After reading through them all, trends could be seen. Six readers commented about typos and punctuation issues. This was not a surprise. I get excited about story line and dialogue and I neglect grammar details. That's the "creative" part of my writing. It's also the lazy part of my writing. At least it's an easy fix. Several others zeroed in on my specific language choices and most appreciated my voice, but a few felt my specific word choices were inconsistent with my main character.  With a thorough read through, I saw what they meant.

That's the funny thing about writing. When you are in the moment, when the story or poem or novel chapter is fresh, you are blinded. Your mind reads what it wants to read, thinks you've written something you haven't, and often gives you more credit then you deserve. Thus the reason we all need writer friends, be they personal or through an on-line group, friends who can hit you between the eyes when you need it.

It's also an excellent idea to write your piece, then set it aside for a few days and read it again. Mistakes, character arc issues, plausibility concerns, mundane spelling errors, will leap right off the page at you. An embarrassing example; I misspelled my main characters name. At the beginning of my story she was Aves, but on the last page she was Avis! 

I was so impressed with this SIXFOLD method of using their writers to be their readers, that I'll be entering some of my poems for their January Contests. If you write fiction or poetry, you should definitely do the same thing. It's a lot of bang for your five bucks.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

My Sixfold Experience

“Editing fiction is like using your fingers to untangle the hair of someone you love.” 
― stephanie roberts

I am nearly finished with my on-line poetry class with Professor Higgins of Galway, just call me Eliza, and I've learned more than expected. I'll summarize all that soon.

In the meantime, on the short story side of my brain, (a small blip just behind my right ear) I submitted a piece to a contest held by SIXFOLD magazine. This submission goes through a process unlike that of any other literary magazine. Although the entry fee is inexpensive at $5, the work required by submitting writers is mildly time consuming. You do just enter and wait. Each entrant must read and comment on 18 other manuscript entries, in three rounds,  over a period of a few weeks. The details of the reading schedule and elimination process cane be found on the  SIXFOLD website.

In answer to your question, no, you do not review or comment on your own manuscript, but you do read a diverse selection of others. I noticed in the first round it was easy to rank the stories from best, to not the best, but the second round was a bit harder. By the third round I had to take some serious notes, as even the manuscript I ranked 6th, when compared to the others, was still a well written and interesting piece. I wanted to be fair, to give each manuscript it's due diligence, so I followed the advice of my UIUC workshop instructors: read each story once through making no assumptions or comments, then on the second read, use your fine tooth editors comb.

But, when doing your final comments, remember the balance between opportunities for improvement and that which is well done. Cite examples, give credit where due, criticize constructively. Think about how you would feel if someone wrote the same comment to you. Battered? Encouraged?

Today I finished the last round of manuscript reviews, and in a few weeks I will receive all the comments made about my own submission. Depending on how far my manuscript made it in the ranking rounds, I will receive somewhere between 30 and 390 commentaries.

If I can't successfully improve my manuscript after that, I might consider going back to writing policies on removing bowel impactions.

Oh, yes I did. Bowel impactions, catheter insertions, urine specimen transportation, mucous collection, don't get me started.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Poetry Overdose For Which There is No Anecdote

'Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.'


I have recently immersed myself in poetry, so much poetry I find myself speaking in internal rhyme while doing my farm chores, and dreaming about punctuation placement. The cow doesn't seem to mind the extraneous chit chat when I am fussing with her udder, but the ducks are most definitely, not impressed.

I am in week five of my online poetry class, the half-way point, and it is amazing. There are over 30 of us in the group and every week we submit an original poem and then comment on poems submitted by others. We revise our poems, resubmit if we want and read more comments on our revised poems. At the end of the week, the esteemed Kevin Higgins (all the way from Galway, Ireland) comments on all our poems and makes suggestions for revisions prompting the entire group to then comment on those revisions.

Much like a write-revise-write merry-go-round of sorts but without the cotton candy.

In a weeks time I estimate I now read, including first and revised drafts of all participants, approximately thirty five poems. I don't comment on all of them, but I do comment on many of them plus their revisions. It's all done through a private group on Facebook which is refreshing since Facebook can be an ugly place to hang out sometimes. Who knew such beautiful prose could be shared on a social media platform best known for its dueling Hilary-Trump cartoons?

In case that's not enough stanza bonanza's I also subscribe to a few poetry journals: The Moth, Poetry Magazine, Poets and Writers, and SKYLIGHT 47. To top off that big poetry pile I get two "Poems of the Day" via email.

What am I? Nuts?

Pretty much. It is a tendency of mine, when I make a decision to try something new, to jump in with all three feet. Just one reason why I can never get the bottom of my feet, completely clean.

If you're wondering how I manage this, yes, I work at home. I do not have an outside job that requires me to leave the house for hours and hours at time only to return exhausted in the evening. I had jobs like that for decades but now I am a full time homesteader who can set her own writing and reading schedule.

My current schedule follows.  Cows, ducks, chickens, dogs, steers, cats, and one horse get cared for in the morning before I hit the poetry, then I read and hang up clothes, read some more and can some sweet potatoes, read more then dry some herbs for this winters tea, read just a bit more and start supper, read a smidgen more and do the evening chores. Late, after my husband goes to bed, I hit my office and write some poetry of my own.

Some nights it's pure crap, reminiscent of sappy TV advertising jingles but with less rhythm. Other nights the exposure to the excellent work of others, proves motivating, inspiring and  prompts my own creativity.

Soon, this online class will be complete and I expect I'll have gained improved writing skills, some minimal respect for Facebook, and maybe a new international friend or two, making the overdose of material and the influx of ideas, not to mention the nominal fee, all well worth my bloodshot eyes.

So now tell me. Do you write poetry? If so, who or what inspires you? If you've ever taken an online poetry class, did it work well for you? Why or why not?

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Workshopping From a Distance, or How to Get Feedback From Switzerland

Kevin Higgins
"Likely the most read living poet in Ireland"
                                                   --The Stinging Fly Magazine

One of the teaching methods I appreciated most the years I attended the Creative Writing Program at The University of Illinois Champaign, was the workshop approach. A group of student writers sat around a big table, facing each other, rather than the instructor, and after given ample time to read each others stories or poems, talked about them. We mentioned what worked for us, what did not work, suggested ways to improve and generally helped each other polish our work and improve our chosen craft.

In the entry level classes, we were at first a bit reserved, announcing often, "That was a great poem" but as we advanced, so did our comments. "I appreciated your consistent use of consonance in the first and second stanza's but the imagery weakened near the end." Or my favorite comment, "What is at risk here in this piece?" This phrase was a direct challenge, probing into the intent of the poem and the effort made, if any, by it's author.

Most of the time our instructors kept mum until the end of the session,  not wanting to influence the others, or they handed their suggestions and impressions to us in writing at the end of the class.  One creative writing professor never gave his opinion either verbally or in writing, but instead asked probing questions. No, not like the alien probes folks talk about at the Piggly Wiggly, but the kind that make you reflect on the effort made, such as, "Did anyone else want to know more about Matilda's motivation to kill her pet buffalo?"

Last May, I was thrilled to graduate from UIUC, but after working all summer on new stories, revising the old, crafting new poems and tweaking the old, I realized I still needed and missed Feedback.

I corrected this situation by signing up for an online poetry class a few weeks ago, facilitated by Kevin Higgins of Galway, Ireland. I  met him briefly last summer while studying at NUIG  (National University Ireland Galway) and attended a poetry reading hosted by him and others of  the Over The Edge Literary Organization. I was impressed then, as I am now, by Galway City's strong support of artists, writers and poets and not just the local folks who meet that criteria, but the worldwide community of such.

So, for the next ten weeks I am back in workshop mode. I will read and comment on the poems written by people from all over the globe, while they will read and comment on my work.  Some of my "classmates" are from as far away as Germany, South Africa, Indonesia, Australia, Switzerland and England. I am genuinely excited about the feedback I will receive, not only because it is a geographically diverse group, but also because the members are broadly different in their poem writing experience levels. Some are just staring out,sharing written work for the first time. others, like myself, have a few published works under their belts, while several are well published both in literary magazines and complete collections of poetry.

I won't share any specific poems of course or chat about individual members of the group, but at the end of the ten weeks I'll post about the experience in general.

Has anyone else participated in an on-line writing workshop? What was your experience? Any specific course recommendations for others?