Featured Poem: “Ohio Autumn”

OHIO POEM by Deborah Fleming

Cacophonous flock
above harvest field
spreading their sky-net

sideways falls and soars
medusoid in the pulsing
light of afternoon

under bundled clouds
neither to feed nor mate
before migration

Editing: Example #3

The following poem is by a creative writing professor from Ashland University and editor of the Ashland Poetry Press.  First, the poem as originally submitted:

OHIO POEM by Deborah Fleming

Cacophonous flock
above the harvested field
spreading their sky-net

sideways falls and soars
medusoid in the pulsing
light of afternoon

under bundled clouds
neither to feed nor to mate
before migration

There was much that I really liked about this right off the bat:  the opening line, for example, starts off with a great moment of alliteration and assonance:  “Cacophonous flock.”  Notice the “k” sounds, “f” sounds, and “ahh” vowel sounds, all rhythmically “sound” (so to speak).  The next line, however, causes me to stumble a bit:  “above the harvested field.”  The -ed on harvested and “the” add syllables that slow down the quick and clipped rhythm established in the opening line.  My suggestion was to cut the “the” (though it alliterates with “above”) and the “-ed” so that it reads “above harvest field.”  Try reading the two lines together, and hopefully you’ll see (or feel, or hear, or sense) what I mean.

The other suggestion I made comes in the last stanza, where I suggest cutting the “to” before mate, allowing for the alliteration with migration to arrive quicker:

under bundled clouds
neither to feed nor mate
before migration

It’s a subtle distinction, but, again, if you read it both ways, I think you’ll hear what I mean.  The extra “to” (not necessary for parallel structure here) just does something to the rhythm of the line that throws off the potential power of the closing phrase.

I want to highlight two other notable parts of the poem:  the use of “medusoid” (I’d have to confirm if it’s a real word, but because this is poetry that doesn’t matter, ultimately), an interesting neologism that really paints the writhing form of the flock as it wheels about; and the alliteration and assonance in “under bundled clouds.”  That’s just fun to say!

So now the poem with my suggested changes:

OHIO POEM by Deborah Fleming

Cacophonous flock
above harvest field
spreading their sky-net

sideways falls and soars
medusoid in the pulsing
light of afternoon

under bundled clouds
neither to feed nor mate
before migration

Deborah agreed to these changes, so this poem will appear in #22.  I will also add this separately as a featured poem.

On Editorial Choice

I recently received an email from a graduate student asking about why I chose a particular poem.  She was okay with me putting our exchange here in the blog so that others could benefit from the comments:

Hi, my name is _________, and I’m an MFA student at _____ State University. I respect your journal and would like to do a presentation on your editorial process for my publishing class. If you have time to answer a few questions, I’d be grateful. If not, thank you for your time and for publishing an amazing literary magazine.

The specific poem I am focusing on is “Insurance” by Kim Triedman, featured on page 6 of edition 20.

1. Why did you choose this poem? It has the albatross/anabiosis theme, but what else do you look for in choosing poetry? In general, are you ever surprised by what you decide to put in your own journal?

I chose this the way I choose any poem:  there’s something about it that won’t let me let it go.  One criterion is that there can’t be anything in the poem that distracts me (an ugly word choice, for example, or an inappropriate metaphor).  Usually it’s an interesting ending that engages me.  There definitely needs to be a sense of voice, like someone is speaking from a position of authority, knows they have something to say and then they say it in a way that grabs your attention.  I accept poems that I want to read again, that–most importantly–move me in some way, engage my emotions, make me say, “Damn!” and catch my breath.

With this particular poem, I happen to know what nasturtiums are like as my wife plants them, and they are beautiful.  Not sure that has much to do with how I experience the poem–probably–in general I like poems that name things (ever read Robert Haas’s poem “Letter”  in Field Guide p. 65?  Stunning).  I liked the build-up of the ending, the list of participles (“teeming–cascading—extrapolating–luxuriating” and the image of “the little open mouths”:  something that’s coming alive while the rest of the world is at the verge of death/autumn.  And the idea of this being “insurance” against the coming winter, against the death of the summer garden, and summer in general…

This one didn’t have the powerful kicker ending some of them have, but I really liked the tone and voice throughout–that sense of authority, like I said (so many submissions come through, even ones from well-published writers, that are flat and drab).  The opening line is great and engaging:  “There is one thing I get right: every spring I plant the nasturtiums.”

I also pay attention to how the poem sounds.  You’ll notice a lot of assonance in this poem, and I find this especially appealing:

“scritch along the walk like small…”

“greenness, even the blossoms, tipped in gold, their little mouths open.”

2.  Did you receive this poem through the slush pile or was it solicited? Were you familiar with Kim Triedman before publishing her?

I don’t solicit poems directly.  It’s all one big slush pile.  I may have published her in a previous issue–that would be the only way I know her.  Here’s an interesting twist:  we are now friends on Facebook.

3. What is your reading process like? Did anyone other than you read “Insurance” or provide editorial input on the final decision?

I am the only one who reads the submissions.  I’m a one-man band.  Reading process:  every couple of months I say, “Shoot, it’s been a couple of months since I’ve done submissions, so I better catch up…” It’s hardest keeping up with email submissions.  I’m not sure I’m answering your question.  Submit follow-up questions if you like.

You should also consult the Albatross blog, where I talk about examples of my process:

https://albatrosspoetryjournal.wordpress.com/category/examples-of-editing/

I then asked her about why she picked that particular poem.  Her reply:

Thanks for responding and directing me to your blog! I just looked at it, and I especially enjoyed the entry regarding how you order poems within an issue. The way order influences structure and perspective has always fascinated me (especially the role order plays in Modernist literature). The impact of organization on a literary magazine is interesting, especially how an effective order allows the poems to stand both independently yet also in dialogue with each other.  All of the revision posts are very relevant to my class, and I’ll certainly include them in my presentation.

I was struck by “Insurance” by Kim Triedman for a fairly odd, personal reason: it reminded me of my mother. The more independent I become, the more fascinating my mom becomes as I see her as a “real” person—sometimes, almost as a stranger. The speaker in “Insurance” is probably so many things to so many people, but when she takes the time to plant the nasturtiums she is reasserting herself as a person with her own needs, fears, and hopes. As you noted, there is also some beautiful language and description in the poem. But the thing that makes me go “damn,” so to speak, is the way the poem doesn’t rely on sentiment but instead uses action and metaphor to deliver such an emotional impact. I chose Albatross in general because it takes an ecological stand and challenges humans to consider how we impact the world around us. Poetry can be such a powerful rhetorical tool, and I respect a journal that welcomes work that isn’t afraid to ask big questions.

Ultimately, editorial choice depends on the sensibility, experience, and taste of the editor, all of which results from the powerful complexity of the human brain.  This is why it’s so hard to explain!

Preview of Albatross #20

I just finished finalizing the PDF file for Albatross #20 and will be sending it along to the printer.  I like to print 100 copies so that there are some in print out there in the world.  I guess I’m still stuck in the age of print literacy.  But I’ve seen too many poetry websites (and too many of my published poems) disappear when the website becomes a dead link.  This way, the poets, a handful of subscribers, and a few university libraries that archive small press poetry all have a hard copy.  This way, I’ll feel like I’ve left something behind in the world, something of value, something real.

In the process of laying out the journals, I type the entire poem in and then proofread it a number of times, so I come to know the poems quite intimately.  I always have a few that are my favorites.  I posted one by Andy Roberts titled “Standoff” in my last post.   It’s not very profound; it’s a simple poem, with a simple enough message, but I chuckle every time I read the ending, and that’s been a good 10-12 times of late.  Every time I read it I have the same response, so I thought I’d write about it here.

The poem describes an encounter that the persona has with a pair of Canadian geese, who loudly defend their nest, which happens to be on the well-worn path s/he (we’ll call him or her “the poet” from here on out) has been walking regularly for 30 years.  After introducing this scene, Roberts concludes:

I will not win this argument
against pink hissing tongues.
I will not win this argument,
not in a million years.

I love this.  It’s so simple but so true.  We are at present losing the argument with nature, and it will only get worse before it gets better.

This poem could easily have appeared in Billy Collins “Poetry 180” anthologies.  In the introduction to the first one, Collins writes,

The idea behind this printed collection. . . was to assemble a generous selection of short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically “get” on first hearing–poems whose injection of pleasure is immediate.

Collins developed these anthologies to try to reconnect poetry to high school students who too often experience poetry as a painful process of reading dense and opaque writing that doesn’t seem to make much sense.  As Collins demonstrates–not only in these anthologies but in his own poetry as well–this does not have to be the case.

Poetry–like many forms of art–is an act of communication, and Andy Roberts’ poem does a good job of doing just that.

Featured Poem: “Standoff”

STANDOFF by Andy Roberts

I’ve been walking this trail thirty years
but today I have to change course
because a pair of Canadian geese
have built a nest on the left.
The male hisses and rushes at me.
I stand my ground but he won’t give up.
This is life and death to them,
and the pair are screaming their outrage,
defending the nest.
It becomes clear
I will not win this argument
against pink hissing tongues.
I will not win this argument,
not in a million years.

Revising Poetry – example #1

In my last post, I promised to discuss some of Roger Desy’s revisions to his poem “in the light of snow.”  In his first revision, he mostly changes just the opening lines, so I will post first the original and then the 1st revision:

ORIGINAL

— pressures of fallen soft fierce snow scatter the surface hiss of fields
over the leaf-thin light fall — strewing a violet life over a nightfall earth

— as permafrost preserves an arctic iridescence under tundra winds

a deeper intemperate radiance squalls near at hand over more fertile darkness

1ST REVISION

— pressures of fallen soft fierce snow scatter a surface wisp of hiss
over the leaf-thin light fall — strewing a violet life over the onset darkness

— as frigid iridiscence preserves distant stillness over a terrain of glaze

facets of an insensitive whitening squall near at hand across a nightfall earth

The rest of the poem is more or less exactly the same as the original, except for a couple of other minor changes:  the change of a couple of words in the tenth line:  “dens” becomes “nests” and “under the lilac womb” becomes “under a lilac womb”; also, the addition of fertile in line 12 (“embedded in a pure serene hyacinth seamless fertile crytalline identity”).  I will begin, then, by commenting on these more significant changes to the opening lines.

In the first line, Roger changes “the surface hiss of fields” to “a surface wisp of hiss”.  The change from the definite to indefinite article (“THE surface hiss” vs. “A surface wisp”) may seem inconsequential but often makes a big difference in terms of what the poet calls attention to:  a specific instance (a “the”) as opposed to a more generalized phenomenon (an “a”).  I see why he changes “hiss of fields” to “wisp of hiss”:  if you speak the words out loud, you hear the assonance, the attention to sound that every poet should be paying as s/he crafts a poem.  I sometimes pay so much attention to sound that I find some sounds inappropriate or distracting in certain phrases.   The ‘”p” sound in “wisp” here has that affect upon me.  I like the “s” sounds in “surfaCe wiSp” and “hiSS,” but the “p” as a labial plosive (something like that–can’t remember the exact terms from my study of linguistics) is problematic for me.  The meaning of the phrase is a bit compromised as well:  what is a “wisp of hiss”?  The original, “surface hiss of fields” doesn’t approach the level of musicality that the revised phrase achieves, but it does preserve sense at the same time that the F sound preserves echoes from earlier in the line:  “fallen soft fierce snow.”  (The E sound in “fields” also anticipates the E sound of “leaf-thin light fall” — and here, again, are the echoes of the F sounds).  In some ways, the revised line brings too many S sounds into play, which draws a bit too much attention to the sound:  “preSSureS of fallen Soft fierCe Snow Scatter a SurfaCe wiSp of hiSS” (S sounds are capitalized throughout).

As you can see, there is much to consider in the crafting of a line, or even a single phrase!  And I know that Roger puts this level of thought and feeling into what he does, given the kinds of revisions he makes from draft to draft.

The next major revision is a kind of flip-flopping of phrases.  In the second line, he moves “a nightfall earth” to the end of the fourth line and replaces this with “the onset darkness” (a change to the original “more fertile darkness” that it replaces).  By moving this, he loses the assonance of the I sounds in “vIolet lIfe over a nIghtfall earth” (I sounds capitalized here).  I like the phrase “a nightfall earth” a lot and am glad he kept it–it’s a fresh phrasing.  I think it works in either location.

The third and fourth lines are also quite different from one another.  The original plays on P, R, and U sounds:  “peRmafRost pReseRves an aRctic iRidescence undeR tundRa winds” (R sounds capitalized).  The revised third line abandons this for heavy assonance on the soft I sound:  “frigid iridescence preserves distant stillness” and ends with assonance on the A sounds of “terrain of glaze.”  The fourth line of the revision also loses something in the rhythm when squall changes from a verb (as it is in the original) to the object of the preposition of:  “facets of an insensitive whitening squall near at hand…”  The original, in my opinion, is much more in line with the rest of the poem (the multiple modifiers piled up like the snow that the poem describes:  “deeper intemperate radiance squalls near at hand…”).

As I finish considering these changes, I have to say that I like the original version much better than the revisions.  The one revision that I do think enhances this version of the poem comes when he adds “fertile” to the 12th line, which provides the same effect I just described:  a kind of piling high of modifiers that mimics at the syntactic, formal level of the poem its content about snow:  “a pure serene hyacinth seamless fertile crystalline identity.”

Ultimately, though, such revisions reflect a poet’s careful attention to the craft of the art form, and final decisions have to be left to the individual as to what most satisfies his or her needs in writing the poem in the first place.

Featured Poem: “in the light of snow”

I introduce this poem in a previous entry titled “On Revising Poetry.”

IN THE LIGHT OF SNOW by Roger Desy

— pressures of fallen soft fierce snow scatter the surface hiss of fields
over the leaf-thin light fall — strewing a violet life over a nightfall earth

— as permafrost preserves an arctic iridescence under tundra winds

a deeper temperate radiance squalls near at hand over more fertile darkness

— dawn upon damson sun blown sudden golden shaken from bowed limbs bent
to breaking under the weight of individual infinitesimal vermilion clarities

— amber midmorning shards of light settle on tufts of drifts
in shadows of the temperatures setting-in — into the evening of the afternoon

— the dead of winter snowbound blankets the unborn within — newborn reside

swaddled in torpor under the lilac womb warm in the nests of their dens at rest

— humility a perfect deerprint cuts into the pomace of the selfless fields
embedded in a pure serene hyacinth seamless crystalline identity

— evening on snow — pregnant with silence — nuzzling the scent of slanted buds

listens to sibilance grazing the keenness of the last azure roseate crimsoning

What I find distracting about this version of the poem are the strings of prepositional phrases at certain points.  After using Lanham’s book Revising Prose as a textbook, I couldn’t fail to notice this.  His “paramedic method” suggests first of all circling all of the prepositions.  When you do this to the poem above, you notice that in the fifth stanza there is a string of prepositional phrases:  “amber midmorning shards of light settle on tufts of drifts / in shadows of the temperatures setting-in — into the evening of the afternoon” (six in a row here), followed by a stanza with another string:  “newborn reside / swaddled in torpor under the lilac womb warm in the nests of their dens at rest” (five in a row here).

Roger commented on his use of prepositional phrases, providing some perspective on the effect he was trying to achieve:

you refer to excessive prepositional phrasing.  you can’t get away with this in prose.  in this poem prepositions are a kind of marker for time.  the poem of course has to do with time and a sustained perception — from one evening to the next.

i say this so you know there’s lot of glue on those phrases.

lines 7 [the shortest line] and 8, following subject/verb, consist of six phrases, taking the eye and other senses through shifts of light that tend to resolve on the red end of the spectrum, where the poem begins and ends.

it’s a lush poem, a style i don’t often enter.  nothing like a dead end, but there’s no room to write this kind of poem every day.  i dread imitating myself.

i went searching for this poem this last week for other purposes.  two lines in it needed to be reviewed again [lines 3 and 4].  i wound up reviewing the poem and tightening it up.  the prepositional phrasing aspect is essentially unchanged.

(It’s interesting that he says you can’t get away with excessive prepositional phrasing in prose, because when you read the examples of academic jargonese that Lanham provides in his book, you suddenly realize that you’ve been inundated with it… And Lanham provides a concrete solution for avoiding such bureaucratization of language.)

I did compare this to the one he published in Albatross #18, and it *is* different from this other one–the use of dashes, the rhythms, the phrasing.  The attempt to capture time and sustained perception not only through the poem’s content but also through its form I found particularly interesting–though I’m not sure the use of prepositions as a marker for time is the way to go about this.  Having form reflect content is a powerful strategy, and I do think that the strings of prepositional phrases tend to elongate the moment being described.  However, I can’t ignore the fatigue that this induces in me as a reader, whether or not this is brought about by knowledge of Lanham’s paramedic method.

In the following passage, Roger speaks of rejection as an opportunity for revision.  I think we can learn from his positive attitude:

funny, but when i get my work rejected, i’ve come to look at it as an invitation to get it right.  i’ve learned more about my work by reviewing/revising it after rejection than i ever expected.  funny, but rejection works for me.  and i ought to have some insight, being the most rejected human being i know!

In future entries, I will post and discuss some of Roger’s proposed revisions.

On Revising Poetry

I will often like most of a poem that I receive as a submission but find that some parts (e.g. a word choice, a punctuation mark, a peculiarity of phrasing) are distracting and divert my attention from the kind of spell that a poem puts over its reader.  If there aren’t too many of these parts, I will accept the poem for publication only if the poet agrees to suggested changes that will, in my opinion, make it read better and easier.  Other times, there’ll be large chunks that need to be re-worked, and I will return the poem, asking the poet to work on the overall approach and resubmit with other poems.

I recently received one poem that reminded me of a book I used to teach when I taught writing at the college level.  The book by Richard Lanham is called Revising Prose (the title to this blog entry is meant to echo this book); it offers a “paramedic” method for revising prose, with concrete steps to perform.  I will post the poem in its entirety, as a “featured poem,” in a separate entry after this introduction.  Of course, I seek the permission of the poet before I do this.  I found the poet’s comments in response to my request relevant and of potential interest, and so I post them here:

you should know, though, when i submit a poem, i never want to be embarrassed by it.  which means i rely on it being finished.  but finished is one of the most relative words in the vocabulary.  i know for sure a poem should seem an inevitable result but never be so.  there is really nothing inevitable about a poem, from the first word to the poet moving on.  a poem is a series of words that makes better sense than otherwise or creates a satisfying sense of completion or fulfillment at least for the moment, though that series of words can change any number of ways.

which also means, when i send you a poem, it’s been worked on and worked out.

which is not to say i’m unaware of blemishes on a perfect face.  i see them in almost every poem i write.

many pass because we’re a forgiving species underneath it all and they can be part of the beauty.  but if i find myself looking at the same soft spot every time, trust me, it’s gone.

i look at revision as part of my job, part of the process — nothing original, but i look at revision as both rewriting and unwriting and writing again.  sometimes you just have to cut it off to be kind.

it’s a tough process, but by the time i’m done and willing to let it go out on its own, i’m not going to be embarrassed.  ihopeihopeihope!

The poet is Roger Desy.  I got a clear sense of his craft after reading this.  Here is a poet who takes his work–his working–seriously!  And his is a craft I appreciate, for I have published one of his poems before–“elm” in Albatross #18 (p. 20).  I offer his work-ethic as described above as a model for those submitting to Albatross. One thing is for sure–Roger has nothing to be embarrassed about.

But, despite all of his own efforts at revision before submission, there may be room for more revision once the poem comes into contact with an editor, one who approaches it differently, perhaps more freshly–certainly more innocently–as a kind of “expert” reader responding to the crafted work.

In my next entry, I will post the poem in its entirety and our further discussion about revision.

The Poetry of Science

I’m reading a book titled Into the Cool:  Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, about the role that (the second law of) thermodynamics plays in the origins, formation and maintenance of life.  One chapter opens with an extensive quote by E.O. Wilson, a quote worth reproducing in whole:

Still, scientific theories are a product of imagination–informed imagination. They reach beyond their grasp to predict the existence of previously unsuspected phenomena. They generate hypotheses, disciplined guesses about unexplored topics whose parameters the theories help to define. The best theories generate the most fruitful hypotheses, which translate cleanly into questions that can be answered by observation and experiment. Theories and their progeny hypotheses compete for the available data, which comprise the limiting resource in the ecology of scientific knowledge. The survivors in this tumultuous environment are the Darwinian victors, welcomed into the canon, settling in our minds, guiding us to further exploration of physical reality, more surprises.  And yes, more poetry.

When I first read this, I thought it was a concise and accurate summary of Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  I like the way that it suggests that the winning theories end up as “memes” in our minds, and from there become available for further imaginative leaps of “informed imagination”–which Wilson summarizes as poetry.

Of course, as a poetry blog, I am focused on the idea of science as a source of poetry.  I have always found it to be so–going back to my undergraduate studies, when intro courses in astronomy and geology were quickly translated into metaphors of a self in transition.  Much of my own recent poetry integrates references to various sciences and grows directly out of considerations of science, such as my Snowman and Fireman poem sequences.

I am tempted to go through all 19 issues of Albatross and find the poems that would serve as examples of my point, but then it occurs to me that I should leave that up to you.  Suffice it to say that science informs poetry best when it grows out of an intimate knowledge with current theories, when these theories naturally lead to metaphors that help us go beyond ourselves and frame our experience in the broadest of terms.

Tom Sexton: Poetry Reading in Lowell, MA

I attended Tom Sexton’s reading in Lowell MA the other day.  He was visiting town for his high school reunion.  I made sure to attend because we published Tom way back in 1987, in our third issue.  Tom agreed to let me republish the poem from that issue here:

ON THE NENANA RIVER

No path led from the cabin
to a clearing
or to an abandoned garden.

Inside a sour smell,
slivers of bone, a shrew’s skull,
bits of fur.

On the sill of the single window
placed to catch the light
a mason jar of water from the glacial river,

above the silt
a bud of light as epitaph:
I made this water pure and then departed.

Sexton has done well for himself since then.  His third book of poetry was published by Salmon Poetry, and the book I bought at the reading, titled A Clock With No Hands (Adastra Press, 2007), features his hometown Lowell.  Many in attendance at the reading recognized characters and places from the Lowell of his childhood.  I was happy that he inscribed the book as follows:  “For Richard:  Who was there for me at the beginning.”  I’m hoping that he sends two unpublished poems that he read at the reading for ALBATROSS #20: they were beautiful!

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