Arranging the Poems in an Issue

I don’t know what other editors do, but I pay special attention to the order of the poems in an issue. For the past handful of issues I try to open with a poem that is spiritual in some way–invoking the holy in nature with reverence. I try to end with an apocalyptic poem, one that signals the potential downfall of the planet–or some special part of it that would make living on it less of a wonder. It’s not that I seek out poems with such content to fill these spaces; it’s just that, every issue, there turns out to be at least one reverent poem and one semi-apocalyptic poem. The poems also tend to break down into themes or topics (poems about animals, about trees, about human relationships, etc.) and so I group these together as well as try to find hinges between the topics. Sometimes these are merely a second poem by the same author; other times it is an image or a phrase that provides the hinge.

For example, in issue #19, the two poems about gardens (“The End of the Garden” by Kathleen Kirk and “The Shade Garden” by Gabriel Welsch) are followed by one titled “Persephone to Hades” (by Jules Green) and then by Ralph Culver’s “Prelude” (which is set in winter) and “False Spring” (by Don Thompson). This latter poem mentions birds, and the next poem by Linda King is “a bird will rest its feet only in flight.” This poem mentions “cloud promises,” which leads to the next poem by Caitlin Rice, titled “The Clouds All Fall to Earth.” And so on.

I was happy to see that Kathleen Kirk noticed this and commented upon it in a recent letter:

What a wonderful set of poems [in issue #19], and I admire your careful arrangement of them, and how they beckon to each other across the pages. I was of course delighted with Megan Roberts “Blackberries” poem, and I hope she enjoys the blackberries in mine. I love how Gabriel Welsch’s “Shade Garden” is opposite my garden poem. The issue is full of close observation of nature and evokes powerful emotions, deep thought, and all kinds of reverence. I love how the issue opens and closes with poems that kneel down. Wow.

I have to say that the coincidence of the first and last poem invoking kneeling was not one that I noticed nor intended. I won’t take credit for doing that intentionally, though it makes for a sweet wholeness. The poems in these two positions fulfill the functions I described above; in each, kneeling has a different purpose. In the opening poem, for example, the kneeling is out of reverence: “to stand/as if this were a throne/or the fragment of an Annunciation,/to bend, to kneel down, to pray” (“Loss,” E.G. Burrows). In the closing poem, the kneeling is forced by the Gods, to help us recognize our arrogance: “The gods have stood up and told you to kneel./And you kneel.” (“Hubris” by Misha Becker).


Poem in Your Pocket Day

I just stumbled upon “Poem in Your Pocket Day.”  It’s a bit early to plan for next year (April 2009 seems like a whole year away!), but mark it on some calendar in your life.  The idea is to get everyone to carry poems around in their pockets and then pull them out to have random poetry readings anywhere you are or go.

This made me think of the way that I memorize poems that are important to me:  I carry them in my pocket and pull them out every chance I get (and there are many such moments — like waiting at a long red light, or in the grocery line, or while you’re on hold with tech support from India….) to practice the process of memorization.

Once it’s memorized, then the next step is to remember to use those moments to practice the memorized poems (rather than curse your bad luck for picking the slowest check-out girl in the food store!).

Editing: Example #1

If I see a poem that I like for the most part, but there’s a part of it that I have a question about or think could be changed for the better, I will engage the writer in dialogue.  The goal is to settle on a version of the poem that I am happy to publish but that doesn’t compromise the writer’s original purpose and intention.  This will be the first post that offers examples of this give and take so that you might see how an editor (this editor, at any rate) thinks and reasons.

My first example comes from Eric Paul Shaffer’s “Of Owls and Sugarcane”–part of the submission that included “Whales at Sunset.”  First, here is the poem as originally submitted:

Of Owls and Sugar Cane

Outraged, the local newspaper reports a tragic death of pueo,
owl native to the islands, slammed from the sky
with fender, windshield, or grille.  Yet a quick study of the photo

reveals a Barn Owl, limp with wing unfurled on a roadside
where tall green stalks of cane rise behind the tidy pile

of feathers among the scattered trash.  Of course, the bird
was a Barn Owl.  They dive from the dark into headlights
to strike mice the sudden day illuminates,

and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity
with the way and humming red roads, strike pale wings

and hollow bones from the stars to the culvert.  They don’t care
what they hit and never stop to see.  We are like them.

We won’t know what’s lost until we can name what we see.
And we’ll never know what will grow if we don’t know

when or how to plant what the moon demands.  Till the wheels
stop, we and our children will see no more in the earth but sugar
and graves and the nameless grasses that cover them.


I wrote the following:

I am interested in publishing “Of Owls and Sugar Cane” but have a question about one of the lines/stanzas.  The fourth stanza is a bit confusing as is:

“and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity

with the way and humming red roads, strike pale wings…”

If you can explain this, or perhaps there is an error you can point out, that would be helpful.

Shaffer replied:

I am . . . very pleased to hear that you are interested in publishing “Of Owls and Sugar Cane.”  As for your question about the fourth of the lines/stanzas being confusing, I understand what you mean.  On my most recent editing sweep, I revisited those lines, and they have been revised.  Compare below.

“and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity
with the way and humming red roads, strike pale wings…”

“and drivers, eyes vacant with fatigue and too much familiarity
with humming red roads, tear pale wings from stars

and cast hollow bones into the ditch.”

In explanation, I am saying that the drivers of the back roads on Maui are tired to the point of sleepiness when they head home.  Additionally, familiarity with daily driving the same two-lane road for decades has dulled their attention so much that they don’t have time to react to the Barn Owls that dive into the light of the car headlights to pounce on mice fleeing the sudden illumination; thus, the “wings” are torn from the sky and the bodies (“hollow bones” as in bird bones) are bounced into the roadside ditch. . .

I know “Of Owls and Sugar Cane” provides a straight-forward and stark view of the realities of other animals sharing the planet with us, and I am very happy that that approach appeals to you at Albatross because I find that this view is not always popular with the editors of other reviews professing interest in the actualities of the planet.  I hope you will welcome other submissions from me–no matter what the outcome of this submission is.

Take care.  Thank you again for your close attention to my poems.  It is a pleasure to discuss all of this with you.

As a result of this change, I accepted the poem, which will appear in Issue #20 (to be published probably late 2008/early 2009).

Further Comments on Harsh Poetry

Eric Paul Shaffer sent a follow-up email in which he explains his sense of “harsh poetry”:

I can see there are some points you address that I would like to amplify in order to clarify the context in which I made them, especially the one about “poetry that is too harsh.” I meant that many editors are afraid of poems that they consider make judgments concerning humanity that might be offensive to humans so they usually shy away from those poems.

I didn’t mean that the poems in Albatross are “too harsh”; in fact, it is a relief to read work that encounters the planet as it actually is rather than the world as humans believe it is, beliefs they maintain in order to benefit and excuse themselves in the continuing attack on everything that is non-human on the planet.

As you can see from reading “Whales at Sunset,” I am not reluctant to indict humanity, not even myself, for its crimes, and that the editors thought my poem was too harsh, but I still think my indictment was accurate.

I am actually happy to characterize the poetry in Albatross as “harsh” from this point of view and also honored to be among those who aren’t afraid to publish poems that make harsh judgments. Many become defensive when faced with such “offensive” poetry (and strike back with their own level of harshness, calling names like “tree-huggers” and “enviro-wackos”), but my hope is that we can move beyond our fragile, personal egos and begin to consider the larger whole (the “interdependent web of all existence” as the Unitarian Universalists put it in their 7th Principle) of which we are a part.

Let me say that I get many many poems that are merely judgmental or didactic, without any art. The primary consideration, in my mind, is that the poem is beautiful in some way: it moves me, its language is accurate and honest and striking, it captures a fresh and refreshing perspective on a topic.

Featured Poem: “Whales at Sunset”

WHALES AT SUNSET by Eric Paul Shaffer

At sunset, we sit on sand and watch whales leap from the sea.
The dying sun sets their breath aflame. The plumes gleam
for a moment before becoming a wind that blows ashore,
casting sand in our eyes. Kaho’olawe marks the horizon.

Behind us, Haleakala rises like a wave surging to shore.
On sand surely the only testament of time, we linger over legends
as light wanes. Centuries ago, the sea seethed
with the play of whales. Now, the ocean blackens with night.

Never has a day felt more final, and darkness comes
faster than light fades. As the sun sinks, shadow swells.
Every wave scales the shore
with the same determined hiss of triumph, loses strength,

and wanders back as the sea recalls the tide. Venus burns,
then dives after day. There is nothing
to distinguish this dusk from any other. Yet there is
an end in this evening for which I am not prepared.

The tourboats are returning, black against dark waves,
points of light pale, but piercing twilight, gathering shadows
as foil for their narrow glow.
Free of us, the whales seek peace in the night below night.

As they winter in these waters, we hunt them, gawking,
pointing and screaming with delight, from groaning boats
belching exhaust and dumping excrement
into the sea whales fill with song. I do nothing but watch.

I’m only human. I no longer wonder at myself and my kind
who kill and call killing a living. As surf sighs
under stars scattered on the island’s edge, I am resigned.
We are everywhere now. May night come swiftly.

May the whales never hate us as much as we love ourselves.
And by the shore of this restless black sea,
these blue stars, and the waning crescent yet to rise,
may we kill ourselves before we kill the last of them.

Yet who am I to abandon humanity, one truth about all of us
none of us can change? I am no more than any one of us,
no more right, no more wise, no more blind,
and my petty resignation is my own, a fate awful and just.

For athwart the stem at the whaleboat’s bow,
I would have held the harpoon myself,
and in the killing thrill of my kind, thrust the barbed iron
point deep into black and barnacled hide,

then crouched beneath peaked oars and gunwales,
full of fear and glee, while the struck whale ran
and flying line sang through the bounding craft
and plunged smoking into the sea.

I, too, would have cast the blood of kin on cold waves,
and seeking the heart, driven the long lance into lungs,
dyeing the sea with the hot, red rush,
darkening even the turquoise waters of paradise,

and after, I would have carved scenes of sailing ships
at sunset on their teeth and seasoned bones,
and written poetry in the warm golden light of oil
rendered from their sacred, slaughtered flesh.

Harsh Poetry and the Purpose of Publishing

I received a submission recently from Eric Paul Shaffer, who included a poem called “Whales at Sunset” and who introduced the poem like this in his cover letter:

Because some editors have said that the ecological implications of ‘Whales at Sunset’ are too harsh, after reading ALBATROSS (#18), I particularly wanted you to see the poem. It was included in my recent book LAHAINA NOON, but has never been published elsewhere. I read your guidelines carefully, but I saw no mention of a policy on previously published work, so I thought I would include it, in hopes you might find it of interest.

Now I was pleased that he thought to send it to me, and pleased also at the thought that we publish poetry that is “too harsh.” Harsh poetry is the kind that needs to be given voice, given the state of the planet these days. When I read the poem, I thought it was perfect, but I did not accept it because it had already been published. I’ll try to explain my rationale.

My understanding of the purpose of publishing individual poems in journals is to build a record of publication to demonstrate that one’s work has been recognized and featured by other editors. Once one had enough credits, one could prepare a chapbook or book manuscript with the hope of finding a publisher for a longer collection of work. The hoped-for end result is to have a book published. If the poem is already published in a book, then there is no reason to then publish it in a journal, in my mind. This is why I didn’t see the need of mentioning this in the writer’s guidelines; it just seemed self-evident to me.

I can understand the desire to increase the audience for a poem, but once the poem has been published, it has its audience–the book.

There are a couple of other more selfish reasons for not accepting it, much as I liked it. First, I only have so much “real-estate” (i.e. pages) and so I guard it jealously. I often wrestle with a poem, reading a submission two or three times over a period of two to three months before accepting or rejecting, because the space is so scarce. Second, I hope that my poets will go on and publish a chapbook or book so that ALBATROSS can be listed among the credits. This gives the journal more exposure and demonstrates the good taste of the editor (after all, s/he accepted a poem by someone who published a chap/book!).

These are also reasons I am so adamantly opposed to receiving simultaneous submissions, because of this mechanics of publishing. If you have published the same poem in two journals and then publish a book, who will you credit? If you publish a poem in one or two journals, why stop there–why not publish it in 5 or 10? And then who gets the credit?

In my next post I will publish the poem in its entirety (I have permission of the author), so you can see how harsh a harsh poem can be…