Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Okay, Maybe Limits Are a Good Thing

For me anyway.  I've noticed that sometimes a piece benefits from the need to make it fit an arbitrary external demand, like, for example, to make it exactly 100 words.  And make it a story.  Or maybe it is the other way around?  

Anyway, there's a very interesting site that makes this challenge and I thought it helped me do something fairly decent with a draft that, as Henry J. used to say, was "hanging fire."  See what you think and try their challenge.

What makes it tough is that it isn't "100 words or less"--it is exactly 100 words, no more and no less.  So you could even end up adding words back.  Instead of the usual one way out. 

I thought a plus was the design.  A really nice image that avoided being an illustration but added something interesting.  I have been paired with some fugly stuff.  Though, to be fair, the artists may have thought the same thing.  

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Excellent Rejections & the Problem of Figuring Out What It Is So You Can Send It Out

Like most, I have carefully scanned rejections to determine the degree of rejection--not noticing at the time how absurd (and pathetic) that is.  For example, is it absolute? Say you sent it out and they rejected it a week or so later.  That looks pretty absolute.

Keeping it several months looks better.  However, keeping it several months might have only meant they were busy and didn't read it for two months, at which point they shuddered in disgust and sent it back immediately, making it absolute after all.

Or is there some sign that you might want to try them again?  There might be but it is complicated by the fact that these things are all forms and a blanket encouragement "to see more of your work in the future" is not much encouragement.  Better than nothing maybe but not much better.

Now and then there's a real response with an editor's name on it indicating there was one that came close and they are eager to see more.  I am always pleased by one of those.  This is also absurd because, in my experience, what normally happens then is that I send more and they are promptly given an absolute rejection.  As if to say...what's this crap?  We didn't ask for this!

Excellent Rejections

Anyway, for anyone who might be as absurd as I am, and I hope that's a small number, I wanted to mention some excellent rejections I've had lately, just because anybody taking the trouble to pull as much sting out of them as they can deserves some thanks.

This one -- from Eleven Eleven Journal, California College of the Arts -- is clearly a form rejection but I have to say I have rarely had a gentler one or or one that left less of a sting.

We sincerely appreciate your interest in publishing with Eleven Eleven, we swear we really do. Unfortunately we are unable to print your work at this time. Please do not let this letter or any other rejection letter deter you from writing. We're writers too and our inboxes are filled to the brim with these sorts of letters. We print them out and use the backs for scrap paper. Thanks again for your consideration. We look forward to reading more of your work.

Eleven Eleven Staff

This one -- from the editor of the Apple Valley Review -- is clearly not a form rejection.  Instead, it gives the sense that the pieces were carefully read.  In some ways, though it may seem crazy to say so, it's as good as a publication.  I have had publications where I was never sure if the editors liked the piece or not and if so why.

Dear Robert,

Thank you for your recent submission to the Apple Valley Review. I'm sorry to let you know that your poems--"Crime & Punishment," "I saw a doe slip into brush this morning, 3 am," "Is," and "The Urge (Post-Op III)"--and stories-- "How She Came and Went" and "Break Time, 3rd Shift"--were not accepted for publication.

However, this is a particularly subjective business, and I always appreciate the opportunity to read new work. Please feel free to submit again in the future.  (If it's helpful to know, "Crime & Punishment" and "Break Time" were my favorites of this set.  I like your use of language--e.g., the spoon, "a local landmark."  Also, please don't worry about any cutting/pasting formatting problems.  They're common and don't usually cause me any trouble.)

Thanks again for thinking of us.

Best wishes,

Figuring out what it is

And adding to the problems involved in sending things out is the question of what the thing is you're sending out.  This can be tricky with so many places using Submittable and having boxes that separate one genre from another.  

For example, this thing, called "The Over and Over Again: Two Figures" which just came online at Work Literary magazine.

Is it a short story?  Not exactly but maybe.  Some might disagree because although it shows people at particular instants in their lives, it doesn't involve them with each other within the narrative.  It suggests a link between them based on their experience of having worked a long time and invites speculation about how they respond to that experience.

Is it an essay?  Putting the two narratives together suggests an essay approach, as if they are illustrative.  But nothing spells out what they might be illustrative of.  It's all narrative aside from the two characters being linked by being in the same text.

I finally decided to call it a narrative essay.  Those can tend to be personal essays or memoirs but this one isn't.  But I left it at that for now.  It was clear the editors enjoyed the piece and that wiped out a lot of rejections and left me eager to write more stuff and get more rejections, some of them excellent I hope and many of them not.  Hope I can remember the words to "I will survive" in case I need to sing it to the cat.  She hates it when I forget the words.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Things to read -- 2 -- as opposed to wasting your time

Jane Kenyon says somewhere to make sure you're reading good things and this sounds a bit obvious? 

Yes but there's a lot of involuntary reading we have to do to navigate the day: instructions of all kinds, bills to pay, offers to accept or refuse, assignments to take or evade etc.  

So I'm trying to keep things around that can help clear all that away.  

That reading includes the news which is necessary but contains all kinds of noise and a lot of weird assumptions we can begin to take for granted or at least I know I can if I don't read things that remove all that. I guess by "all that" I mean the way the tone conveys knowledge and understanding.  As if we all knew what was going on and understood it thoroughly.  Which maybe you do but I know I don't. 

Anyway, this appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine a little while back and of course I'll remove it if the forces of law and order come against me but in the meantime:

Written by Himself [by Gregory Pardlo]

I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet
whispering my name. I was born to rainwater and lye;
I was born across the river where I
was borrowed with clothespins, a harrow tooth,
broadsides sewn in my shoes. I returned, though
it please you, through no fault of my own,
pockets filled with coffee grounds and eggshells.
I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden.
I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.
I was born abandoned outdoors in the heat-shaped air,
air drifting like spirits and old windows.
I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry;
I was an index of first lines when I was born.
I was born waist-deep stubborn in the water crying
                            ain’t I a woman and a brother I was born
to this hall of mirrors, this horror story I was
born with a prologue of references, pursued
by mosquitoes and thieves, I was born passing
off the problem of the twentieth century: I was born.
I read minds before I could read fishes and loaves;
I walked a piece of the way alone before I was born.

The accompanying material says Gregory Pardlo won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his second collection, ‘‘Digest,” which was published last year by Four Way Books.


sits alone in the middle of the mown field
waiting for something, perhaps a mouse,
perhaps for darkness. We all
wait for the rain. Clouds came and went;
in the morning, it drizzled, but then the wind rose
and raged until noon, drying
even that scant moisture. The village people
grumble that their cattle have hardly anything to eat.
Time moves sideways, looking at this
empty land, above which
warm south winds sweep and buzzards
shriek. No longer summer. Nor autumn yet.

This comes from Jaan Kaplinsky, a contemporary Estonian poet.  The book is The Wandering Border, from Copper Canyon.  The author did the translations with help from Sam Hamill and Riina Taan.  It would have been fun to sit in on those discussions, I think.  

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Scribble Roundup

Yes, I finally snapped out of my unpoetical slump or slough and got busy working on the scribbles in the pile of notebooks that does so much to make the place look like a paper warehouse or a hoarder startup.  So there are things of mine online and more to come.  These are the places to beware.!89robertgregory/c21cx

And I should have mentioned there have been things in calibanonline right along, all visible in the archives.  I had pieces in #2, #4, #8 and then after a pause some recent things this summer in #20.

I have to confess that I enjoyed the extra arbitrary twist that a word count or line count limit put on me sometimes, as with Right Hand Pointing and One Sentence Poem, and with a piece I have coming out in 100 Word Story.  Maybe it's helpful in making those last cuts you really should make but don't want to.  Or maybe it's just that thing cats like to themselves exactly into a space just big enough for a cat.  And then sit there and look serene and enigmatic.

photo: Karah Stokes 

Places to Visit

Homero Hidalgo

Jack Richard Smith
You probably know Caliban Online for the poetry but I was reminded, looking through the newest issue, how strong the art is.  So I added one from the new issue and a favorite from an older issue.

In Honor of Petrus Comestor....

In honor of Petrus Comestor aka Pierre le Manger who I learned via Wikipedia was called that because he was a devourer of books (considered a good thing in his day) and is supposed to have composed his own epitaph:

"Petrus eram ... dictusque comestor, nunc comedor." 
 ("Peter was I... and called the devourer: now I am eaten.")

Though maybe it's not an honor.  I'm trying to at least record the names of things I've been reading as they flash past my eyes.  Excuse: I read as part of my job.  So the flash is almost stroboscopic.  And things are begun and then left to ripen or simmer while I jump to other things, like a short order cook, so it's even more disorderly than it may appear.

Beached on the couch with pins in my toes to correct a foot problem and unable to do anything but read and be over-medicated, it seemed like this was a good time to look at what's around me.  To my right, in a pile of notebooks, pillows, medicine bottles, two novels: Thirkell, Angela. 1951. The duke's daughter and Happy return.  Not sure what to say about these as they go way beyond guilty pleasure to something deserving the literary death penalty.  No, not the literary one because they're very funny and engaging, something like her literary ancestor Trollope (she sets this in Barsetshire) but they're so reactionary in their attitudes I can't believe I'm reading them right along and not burning them in a pile out in the street while I rant to the skies about the horrible attitudes toward...toward everything.  It's about an imaginary place where the aristocrats deserve their places and fill them admirably, but are also eccentric and amusing, crusty but good-hearted, where the "lower orders" recognize the natural authority of their betters and would be lost without them, where nothing really bad ever happens to anyone except hurt feelings and shows of bad manners or bad taste and the misunderstandings in romance or avocation that all get more or less worked out.  Not something I would brag about reading but if you're stuck needing distraction while you get through a bout of tedious painfulness they seem perfect (since I've read and reread all the so-called Golden Age stuff, which offers something like that dream world).  Later addition:  I've just learned she was a granddaughter of Edward Burne-Jones the Pre-Raphaelite painter.  Now it makes sense.

Then Burnshaw, Stanley. 1981. The Poem itself. New York: Horizon Press.  This recommendation for something to read on the difficulties of translation came out of reading William Gass' book on translating, or rather not ever succeeding in translating, Rilke, and what the difficulties are: Reading Rilke.  This morning Burnshaw was teaching me about the beauties and intricacies of Baudelaire's L'Invitation au Voyage to a dreamworld where there is nothing but "ordre et beauté,/Luxe, calme et volupté."  So places that don't exist may be a developing theme.  And my couch on a quiet early Saturday morning in this river town listening to the birds get started, drinking a first cup of coffee, making notes on the way this old French poet made his music, without anything pressing to do or worry about, is a dreamworld in its way.

At the bottom of that pile: Hodder, Ian. 2012. Entangled: an archaeology of the relationships between humans and things. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.  I haven't gotten far enough into it to say what's going on yet but something interesting is happening.  I have been interested lately in catching up with Bruno Latour's thinking and he's mentioned here.  There seems to be a phenomenological bent.  One thing that caught my attention was the author's remark that, despite a renewed interest in things, with mention of someone doing "thing theory," there is still too much stress on what things mean to humans and not enough attention to things as they are in themselves.  But not sure who is going to be discussing them if not humans.  But what I really found intriguing is the sense of mixture between us and objects, as when he refers to anthropological discussion of "souls mixed with things" (Mauss) and "distributed personhood"(Strathern).  This may sound more like words than things but it does give some idea of how one thing leads to another around here.  Re my addiction to reading, which has something in it like a dog's addition to following scents.  

Speaking of words, I've been watching and listening to Marilynne Robinson, someone whose work I find very inspiring and strengthening, if that doesn't sound too absurd and Victorian.  She was talking to someone--it might have been the interview with Bill Moyers or the reading at Columbia--and in answer to a question she said, "intelligence is a cold word," and then added, "well, they're all cold words."  From someone else, that might have sounded affected.  But from her, since she does so much to make sure hers are not cold, it just sounded like a worker's comment on an especially tricky aspect of the job.  

Starting at the top: Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, trans. Colin Smith. 2014. Phenomenology of Perception. Then Mishra, Pankaj. 2012. From the ruins of empire: the intellectuals who remade Asia. Then more philosophy: Taylor, Charles. 1997. Philosophical arguments. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Then poems: Fisher, Roy, intro. by August Kleinzahler. Selected Poems. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2011.  And Meehan, Paula. 2009. Painting rain. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest University Press. At the base of all that, a meditation: Maitland, Sara. 2009. A book of silence. Berkeley, Calif: Counterpoint.  Yes, they look suspiciously like bibliography presented this way because they are in a way.  I finally decided to get organized and began using EndNote for the things I write at work which require references.  To make sure I learned it, I forced myself to do a bunch of tedious data entry just to get the moves memorized, and to make that useful, I decided I should enter every book that came into the house, even if I did no more than that.  In more ambitious moments I've told myself to make some notes on each of them.  But that would be like telling the dog with his nose to the ground hurrying along to stop and note each scent and explain which gave him a lead and which were just of interest in themselves and which turned out to be stinkers though promising at first.  But that might be something I could only end up doing if I can manage to get into one of those dreamworlds.

Why this curious pile?  The Taylor essay against epsitemology reminded me of something I'd abandoned in disgust in the mid-1980s when I left my tenure track academic job and sold or gave away all my philosophy and post-modern theory.  Even though that had all been a false trail--or maybe the way I took it on was the false trail -- there was a pleasure in tangling with the difficulty and seriousness of it that it turned out I missed.  

I found after a few struggles that I could read that kind of thing again the way I used to and Taylor's discussion (like Rorty's, which I'd looked at a few weeks earlier) reawoke (or tore open or snapped the top off, whatever analogy works here) my old attraction to Heidegger, which persisted as an interest even taking into account his disgusting politics (usually enough to kill that off).  
So when I found Merleau-Ponty at the used bookstore barely marked at all, I had to bring it home.  Mishra may be there because of something by him read in the London Review of Books or it might be I realized I need to know more about his subject while I was reading Empire of Cotton (Beckert, Sven. 2014. Empire of cotton: a global history).  

Mishra's book flips things for me, as a kid who grew up in the 50's, because here's a history that starts with the Japanese defeat of the Russians in the 1905 war (something that might have been touched on very lightly in our history books if at all) but, as he shows, it was a tremendous event that was hailed across the Middle East and Asia.  And Beckert's account of how the cotton economy took what it wanted, did what it wanted and stifled all its competitors, makes it clear why those countries would be cheering that as a victory.  

The Beckert I came to from work, while critiquing an article on sustainability that looked at our relationship to the environment in terms of "capital."  There are lots of reasonable aspects to seeing it that way---i.e. trying to find an equivalent for economic value -- but also some big problems and one of them, it seemed to me, was in something like the connection between slavery and cotton (social and environmental and economic systems interlocking or so it seemed).  So it seemed outrageous to talk quietly and calmly about environmental capital without thinking about what goes on with labor, especially the labor in what's called agricultural and extractive, where it involves raw materials and happens far from witnesses.  But I know very little about it.  This was just an intuition that there was something more to it.  

The Fisher book has been on my list for a while. Just because.  Not sure why.  Maybe just because it's too easy for me to fall under the sway of some admired writer (later work of Charles Wright, say) or to go along in grooves and habits in my own stuff I no longer even notice so that if I hear of something that might be "good for you" I tend to keep an eye on it and get to it eventually.  Is it?  Don't know yet.  Not a question of liking or disliking I'm after but something else.  I'm not as automatically in favor of experiment as I was so I'm a bit wary.  Paula Meehan's book was recommended by the poet April Fallon and seemed likely to be good also because I notice my growing up Catholic seems to makes Irish writing come out of a familiar world.  Not that all Irish writers are Catholic or that I am anymore myself but there's some kind of shared experience there.  I'm glad to have read it.  For one thing, it looks like she came out of a world of experience not many poets know first hand.  It made her tough and unsentimental but not in the corny ways a male poet might show those qualities.  In another life she might have written bluegrass songs like Carter Stanley.  But she's obviously deeply read and understands the way the old Chinese poets could say it without saying it to death and sometimes without you even knowing they'd said it at all which to me is a wonderful thing.  I especially liked this one below which is a section of a longer piece called Six Sycamores that looks around a group of houses on a city street:

Number Fifty-One

And as the ages pass, the solid world longs
for its own dissolution: those red bricks
dream of the clay pit; with every lick
of the north wind rough fender remembers the song
of the river grinding it down; granite quoins desire
their home in the mountains--above Ballyknockan, the wild
bird's lonely tune, the shadow on the lake;
the iron railings guard the memory of fire,
of ore-selves before being smelted and cast and exiled
to these unforgiving streets; the shutters ache
for the woods, the green light, the sap strong
in bole, in branch, the undergrowth quick
with life; linen drapes must crave someone to unpick,
to unspin, to be bluest flax blossom all summer long.

I like the way she gets it all flowing backwards.

There are more items to enter from the chaos (with some kind of odd logic or linkage) around me but maybe that's enough for now.  To be continued.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Discoveries: The Old, Wierd America and Banjology

I haven't been using this space much because I can't quite figure out how to make it interesting for myself (and thus other people, on the theory that if it bores me, it is bound to bore others whereas if it at least interests me, one person will benefit).  Aside from using it to collect my pieces as they show up online and maybe try out things for essays, both of which take work and end up on a "to do" list (sure death for any pleasure in anything), I've been at a loss.

But finally something arrived at the door of my brain and gave a few knocks. It's that I'm one of those people (maybe there are hundreds, thousands of us or maybe only a few?) who can innocently drive others crazy by saying "Hey, look at this!" more or less constantly because such people are always finding things.  Having ADHD (only partly damped by drugs) obviously adds to this drive to discover this which leads to that which leads to this and so on, deep into the cosmos of links without end.

In fact I chose the "author" picture on my first book only in part to avoid some kind of pretentious poet shot but more because it is so accurate.  It shows me as a little kid holding up a twig toward the camera and I'm pretty clearly saying, "Hey!" etc. about the twig.  These things begin early.

No longer teaching and unable to subject helpless youth to these things, and hoping to spare friends and loved ones, and one of the few people in the known universe not on Facebook, it seemed to me I ought to add my discoveries here.  For one thing, maybe that way, I'll remember them and even begin to figure out how (or if) they connect.  Or maybe others will pitch in.

Today's discoveries (above) are two sites that have obviously cost a lot of labor and can thus provide all kinds of interesting insights for visitors about traditional American music: The Old, Weird America and Banjology.  

I ended up on the first one while thinking about where I'd found the verses for my version of "The Cuckoo" and then wondering if there weren't other and maybe better verses I might use.  Yes, there were.  Not only that but the site provided multiple audio tracks so you could compare many different styles, for example, moving between a more plaintive ballad style (I want to say "English") and a more driving blues-inflected style. 

Rufus Kasey's version of the tune really jumped out at me. In order to catch the words I ended up on Banjology, which not only provided the lyric but also a transcription with full musical notation (and tablature) and some analysis of what the banjo was doing.   Not that I can do much with that (at least not yet) but seeing it written out helps with listening more carefully as the notes go flashing past. 

And before I forget - the source for the first site's title:

The old, weird America : the world of Bob Dylan's basement tapesMarcus, Greil. The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. New York: Picador, 2011. Print.