Novelists flood. Poets distill.
— J.D. McClatchy | Editor, Yale Review
distillation.gif

PUBLICATIONS

My poetry has appeared in small presses such as AMBER, Pegasus, Snake River Reflections, and The Blind Man's Rainbow. My work has also appeared in Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing from Utah State University.

I've studied poetry at The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, Iowa Summer Writing Festival and courses from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.



Ten Days on the Hill in Gambier: Kenyon Review Writers Workshop

 

There’s power in compression.
— Carl Phillips

I had a huge privilege to be admitted as part of a community of eighty poets, fiction and creative non-fiction writers for the 2017 Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Together, we spent ten intense days isolated on a hill an hour north of Columbus, Ohio.

Past Workshop attendee Molia Dumbleton's blog was all I needed to be convinced to apply for this summer's session and item by item, all eight of her observations became obvious as I worked through my time in Gambier.

The high caliber writers surrounding me formed a truly stunning group, their passion for writing and engaging as a community outshining their already impressive accolades, publications, and academic fellowships. The generative aspect of the Workshop was what made the place so special.  Alongside writers that also care deeply about the craft of writing, you are all creating new work from scratch together, experiencing the styles and approaches that have made each of you successful in your own ways. Then your work is critiqued in workshop by a jury of your peers. Your conversations over a coffee or pint of beer aren't just, "What are you reading?" but "What is it about what you're reading that you think makes it such an impactful piece of writing?" 

My take on the Kenyon Writers Workshop's impact on creative writers is this:

// Can't Stop Won't Stop - To echo Molia's blog above: the week is nonstop, overwhelmingly generative. You extract new work through guidance, prompts and critiques throughout the entire week. It's simultaneously exhausting and rewarding by day ten.

// Nowhere to Hide - Due to a combination of Kenyon College being quite removed from anything other than you, your pen, and your laptop, you will be writing on a hill in the Ohio countryside designed to keep you writing. All excuses, procrastination and distractions are removed (not sure to curse or praise John Legere and TMobile for my not having even a pixel of signal in Gambier). If you need some physical relief, there's the shining Kenyon Athletic Center, full scale indoor and outdoor tracks, tennis courts and gym, otherwise, an idle pen becomes a restless one.

// Kenyon Moments -  Whether you're standing in line for a cafe au lait and Better Morning Muffin at Wiggin Street Coffee, stopping along the Middle Path to chat with a fellow writer who's in between thoughts while sprawled in an Adirondack chair, or meeting up for drinks and quesadillas at the VI , you will create a hundred mini, interstitial conferences between yourself and your fellow writers from across all genres, sharing ideas and urging each other onwards.  And each night when you gather in front of the entire workshop for readings, it's all at once inspirational, revelatory, celebratory.

 


What's life like in the "poetry business?"

Here's link to an NPR podcast on precisely that: the pobiz.

...the advantage of an art in which there is no money is that there should be no reason to sell out.
— A.E. Stallings

City of Literature

Portugal scored the winning goal in the 2016 Euro Cup and the room filled with fist pumps and clapping.

The surreal part of that whole moment was that it took place in a Iowa City shopping mall over food court Chinese takeout. The big screen television in the center of the seating area was surrounded by clamshell fast food boxes and orange plastic trays. 

I tried not to get hot sauce on my notebook.

I had just finished my first Iowa Summer Writing Festival, studying poetry over a weekend in July and drifting through the hallowed campus trails where the Iowa Writer's Workshop took shape nearly 80 years ago and was reflecting on the last couple of days.

I knew I was in the only UNESCO City of Literature in the US when even the local hotel and convention center had an elegant library dedicated to Iowa Writers, including an entire shelf of Pulitzer winners with ties to the Workshop. I also learned that Jorie Graham is everywhere, inside Prairie Lights Books, quoted on posters and sidewalks, making appearances on sculptures hidden in wildlife preserves. That would explain some of the high energy intensity I felt when I heard her read at the 92nd Street Y in New York a few years ago, radiating through time, space and library shelving.

So in Iowa City, I studied with Katie Ford and seven inspiring classmates by day. And by night, to stay grounded, I had singles of Iowa-local Cedar Ridge bourbon alongside poet Kim Addonizio's new memoir about the pobiz.

"When we talk about the writing life, " Addonizio says, "we don't just mean getting words onto the page; we also mean those times we desperately want to write, but can't."

All surreal enough to startle me back into writing with full momentum.


Disruption in Poetry

There's a nice interview that Kenyon Review did with poet and critic David Wojahn in the September 2015 issue.:

The continued themes I hear from poets on poetics is being able to understand the difference between poetry whose ends are just to be different from those that are authentically innovative.

"I find too many first- and second-book poets to be afflicted with a kind of kneejerk irony, a similarly Pavlovian desire for disruption for no particular reason, and an obliquity that seems merely self-protective."

I think that some of that "self-protective"-ness comes from a desire to create something new, to create something different from the rest of the pack.  

But differentiation for the sake of differentiation can have the opposite effect.  

Poetry as a whole may be having difficulties retaining even regular readers of poetry, but does that just become a marketing issue? Is the readership existing poets or attracting new readers to poetry or new poets of a particular style bent to some other particular bent?

To grow as a poet, you have to read in a wide array of aesthetics and styles. David Antin says somewhere that poets suffer when they aren’t willing to widen their “discourse radius.” I like that term.
— David Wojahn

Broaden the circle of poets and poetic styles that attract you. I like that.

I remember an interview with artist Neil Jenney where his advice to artists wasn't to exhaustively read Van Gogh's letters to Theo or anything, but to just look at art.

To make good art you have to look at other art, even art that you don't necessarily like, as long as you can lucidly characterize why you don't (or do!) like it. That understanding of your personal tastes of good art vs. bad art leads towards your own growth.  

Poetry is the same way -- the wider your "discourse radius" the more exposure you will have to the broader world of writing that's out there.

But Wojahn also extends his reading and collection of information beyond poetry to the wider scope of information itself. Somewhere in there is a source of more poetry.

"...I use the notebooks mostly as a kind of commonplace book...I tend to read more history, nonfiction, science, biography and various oddball stuff than I read poetry, and the purpose of doing this is sometimes merely to preserve special and eccentric facts that intrigue me."

And to share advice that he himself received. Better is better.

"  'Don’t worry so much about your poems—eventually they’ll get better.' This wasn’t exactly profound advice, but somehow it buoyed me. It reminded me that if you put the proper degree of time and effort into your craft, and keep doing it consistently, the odds are that you will get better. "

So it's broadening your discourse radius, being open to new information and remaining diligent in its pursuit and ultimately, take the long view:

"As Auden says, more poets fail from lack of character than from lack of talent. I like to remind my students that if they do the work they need to do, the odds are that in ten years’ time your poetry will improve; in twenty years, it will improve even more...It’s not all over by the time you reach thirty in the way that it is for Olympic athletes."

 

So stick with it, keep revising the work.  The most disruptive way to shake-up your craft is to let it grow, steadily, letting it shape itself. But it can't do that alone.  

You need to be there doing the hard work in guiding it, letting it mature, removing the precipitate, reblending it again.

And then you just might be able to raise your glass.

 

 

To check out the entire September 2015 interview, visit Kenyon Review here.

 


NOBODY IS

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser said it best,

"The truth is, nobody's waiting for you to press your poetry into their hands."

But reading and writing and publishing poetry sharpens the nimbleness of your creativity, teaches you to temper the tough times and to hold onto your true grit. 

It's this continuous improvement and ongoing crafting that keeps me writing. 

LEARNING HOW TO WRITE

Everything I have learned about poetry came first through poetics, and everything I learned about poetics came from three dear mentors, my literary psychiatrists:

  • Dr. Pamela Childers -  Passionate author, educator and advocate of incorporating writing across the curriculum.

  • Kemmer Anderson - Philosopher Poet with the wet sand of Patmos Island still in his sandals.

  • Bill Boyd - Master of Grammar, admired by all grown adults and feared by all seventh grade English students (sometimes I still jolt awake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, diagramming sentences.)

And it is thanks to their continued support over the years that I have been able to maintain some sense of creative momentum.  It's important to be innovative in the craft, but as a poet I follow literary critic Adam Kirsch's advice as closely as I can and leave the funny business at home, trying hard not to confuse novelty with new-ness.


Judy Funnie discovers Blythe Field, where her poetry idol wrote all of his best work.  (DIsney's Doug(TM) is a trademark of The Walt Disney Company)

Judy Funnie discovers Blythe Field, where her poetry idol wrote all of his best work.  (DIsney's Doug(TM) is a trademark of The Walt Disney Company)