Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Of Gates and Gatekeepers or Kicking Open the Door

As many of you know, I received my poetry MFA in 2008 from a low-residency program "later in life" after a previous graduate degree from seminary, after multiple career changes, after decades of being a business executive, after three grown children, after a previous attempt to get my MFA from a traditional program, after, after, after...

My vision was that after I got my MFA, I'd also get my manuscript published so I could resign "my day job", take a creative writing teaching position, and have all the time I needed to produce books two, three, four, ad infinitum, just like my mentors had done. I knew it wouldn't be easy (I was used to that), but I didn't know that the chances of accomplishing my goal in this lifetime were somewhere north of the probability of winning the lottery with the purchase of one quick-pick.

I submitted to all the major (and most of the minor) book contests--to the tune of hundreds, yea thousands, of dollars. I revised my manuscript more times than I cut my hair. I broke it down into multiple chapbooks and submitted those to all of the chapbook contests. I applied to every fellowship I could find to get funding. All the time, I kept writing new work, exchanging poems regularly with my colleagues, reading as much as I could in order to keep developing as a poet.

And that was just the first year. I doubled my efforts over the next three.

I placed as a semi-finalist a few times. A finalist. I won second prize in a national chapbook contest--a bittersweet victory, as I truly admire the judge and am grateful for her confirmation--but, alas, no publication. I continued to see my poems regularly accepted in journals. A couple of top ones. I took heart in the fact that Spencer Reece submitted The Clerk's Tale for nineteen years without getting it published, before it won The Bread Loaf Bakeless Prize. I calculated that I would be 78 if it took me that long and wondered if I would think it worth it by then.

For several years I had repeatedly "stepped down" from positions of responsibility in order to have more time and energy to write. I continued that downward mobility, feeling good that I was willing to sacrifice income and status for my art--that when I won that $26K Fellowship it would replace the money I'd lost, that when my book was published, I could get that teaching position which would make up for all the soul-deadening work I'd done over the years of pushing people to buy things they didn't need, of firing people because they weren't as good at it as I was, in order to keep my job.

I was born in the midwest and still have the work ethic that goes with it, so I just kept at it, relying on the belief that enough hard work mixed with a modicum of talent would overcome all the odds. But, without being fully aware of it, my beliefs were changing. I was changing. And so I began to look for non-traditional ways to meet my goals. If I couldn't be a full-time writer by winning a major fellowship, maybe there were other avenues of funding. If I couldn't win a major book prize, maybe there were other ways to get my book published that still had the credibility of not going to a vanity press. If I couldn't teach creative writing in an academic setting, maybe I could still motivate others to write in a way that was still rewarding.

I became so hungry for a change that I changed the way I looked at what had to be done for that change to come.

Without going into all of the details, I'll just say that I started working on getting myself ready to receive what I wanted just as hard as I'd been working to get other people to give me what I wanted. I conquered what had been for me an ever-increasing debilitating physical condition with the help of an astute emergency room doctor. I changed my diet completely, which changed my brain, which changed my pessimism to optimism, my fear to a sense of well-being. This sense of well-being has given me the confidence to step out in faith with a radical experiment.

After consulting my partner, my attorney and a few close friends, I have decided to accept a federally funded lifetime writing fellowship that has been available to me for the past few months. It's called Social Security. That's right. I turned sixty-two last November and, even though I've always been advised to "wait until you're sixty-five," after crunching the numbers, I decided that time to do what I want is more important than the relatively small increase in income if I wait. So, in thirty days, I'll be a full-time writer and a part-time retailer, working at my day job eight days a month and writing three to five days a week.

Oh, did I mention that some colleagues of mine have invited me to help them with their publishing company--a small press with an educational piece whereby teachers can download lesson plans for poetry books that will be available in libraries, schools, and other outlets? Did I mention how much my writing has improved since I made this decision (at AWP Chicago), due to the freedom I now feel? Did I mention how prolific I have been already--writing new poems, attending to my blogs on a regular basis, being inspired with new thoughts, new directions, new projects?

All of this because I changed my belief. When I saw other people--editors, journals, presses, institutions--as the gatekeepers, my response was to try to kick open the door. But whenever I realized that I was the only gatekeeper to what I wanted, I found a way. Maybe a magic latch didn't appear, maybe I had to take the gate off its hinges, maybe I had to walk down the road and find another gate, but I found one I could open, and a way to open it.

Your gate is not mine, nor is the path to it. But from one writing pilgrim to another...stop kicking at a gate that won't open. Believe that there is one waiting for you that will open, and start looking for it. Now.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


AWP 2012--Chicago--was more than a whirlwind tour--it was a 10,000 writer-strong category 5 hurricane, hurling ink and pulp, neurons and internet, words and music, ripping through Chicago with more power than any storm has ever before battered this third coast literary birthplace. Ecstatic speech welled up and flowed through the loop like the Chicago River flash-flooding the deep arteries of the city, rising to the upper levels of Michigan, Wabash and State, running off to Plainfield, Oak Park and Skokie, taking to the atmosphere, then raining down on Boston, New Jersey and Manhattan, pouring down on San Francisco and Amelia Island, circling the planet, pulsing inside the millions of pens and keyboards until it multiplied and mutated and joined the music of the spheres.

Here then, in no particular order, are MY TOP TEN INEFFABLE MOMENTS AT AWP (My TTIMs)

TTIM #1: Margaret Atwood's Keynote Speech including her comment that too many would-be writers just want to "tell their sad little stories." Also included in this TTIM is Allison Joseph's acceptance of the AWP/George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature! Not only did Allison provide a template for every Oscar winner's acceptance speech, her triceps were so cut in that sleeveless dress that if there had been any non-poetry lovers in the audience, they would have run down the aisle in sack-cloth and ashes, repenting of their mortal sin, lest the mighty arm of the god of poetry strike them down into illiterate hell!

TTIM #2: Philip Levine's and Carol Ann Duffy's Joint Poets Laureate Reading. Carol Ann Duffy's humorous, witty persona poems in the voices of the wives of fairy tales such as Mrs. Midas and Mrs. Faust were pure ecstasy. We knew that the poems Philip Levine would read would be terrific, but the vitality and power of his voice took us by surprise. Unbelievable. Ninety minutes is far too short a time to listen to these two virtuosic poets at the height of their powers.

TTIM #3: Chicago As Literary Birthplace Panel: Chicu Reddy, Lisa Fishman, Bin Ramky, and Ed Roberson. Lisa Fishman, Director of Poetry Programs at Columbia College Chicago, presented Chicago as lyric birthplace by telling the story of The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather. In it, Thea Kromborg leaves a small town for the big city to discover that voice, not piano, is her artistic location. Fishman presents Thea as analog to Chicago, finding its lyric voice by surprise while seeking its more practical narrative destiny. Fishman's presentation is as beautiful as Thea Kromborg's imagined voice, and as compelling a call for us to answer with our best work.

Among the six beginnings that Bin Ramky presented were pastoral images of the orchards predating O'Hare Airport, the air above the Chicago flood of 1992 and the blank blue sky erased of contrails the afternoon of 09/11/11. Bin went on to tell of his own early encounter, riding on a bus from Gary Indiana in December of 1975 and concluded with a small poem, "Mattering." Mattering as in turning into matter. The city building itself in some pastoral model. Exquisite!

Time was Ed Roberson hated Chicago. Didn't want to be part of that scene. But, like many others, Chicago captured him. By the way of the black arts movement. Haki Madhubuti and others. Captured him with Negro Digest, Broadside, Third World and Lotus Presses. Chicago opened up its arms whenever Ed retired, after surviving illness unto death. A second start in the second city. New teaching posts. New books. New Ed Roberson. In Chicago's icy, sweaty grip.

Srikanth Reddy (Chicu to his friends), a poet who was born and raised in Chicago, marginalizes his own Asian-American background in his writing, or at least only obliquely allows his ethnicity to inform his work. This, according to Chicu, is because he doesn't want to fall into the trap of being another Asian American poet writing about post-imperialism. But all of this is privileged background to Chicu's direct engagement with Chicago poetry that defines itself by not defining itself. There is no Chicago school of poetry in the sense of aesthetics or subject matter or style, the way there is a New York School, a San Francisco School. You can be any kind of writer you want and be a mainstream Chicago writer or poet. I resonate to this analysis--somewhat. I believe there is a Chicago school of poetry. It is defined by the core values of a midwestern work ethic: rigor, discipline, seriousness of intent. Excellence. And these four poets are paradigmatically Chicagoan poets.

TTIM #4: Storytelling in Poetry: Crafting the Narrative Poem Panel: I was fortunate to be on this panel and the only reason I list it as a Top Ten Ineffable Moment is that I had an out of body experience while I was giving my presentation, because I expected around 30 attendees and more than one hundred people packed into Private Dining Room 2, SRO, before spilling out into the hallway. The worst good news of the day: I ran out of handouts. The best: people actually liked my presentation. Thank you to everyone for the kind kind words. I am proposing a panel for Boston--more about that later.

TTIM #5: Naugatuck River Review Offsite Reading at the Famous Billygoat Tavern: Just being in this dingy, iconic space in the bowels of the city under Michigan Avenue was enough to get a little verklempt. Add the double cheeseburger (like lead in the gut, according to my girl friend), a couple of drinks, some poems by John Victor Anderson and Christina Lovin read in a hallway-sized dining room with enough room between our heads to count the number of gray roots of the poet seated next to you, backed up by a heater fan making its random sforzando entrances during readings by the most difficult to hear poets, and you've got the makings of a medicine journey to anywhere you want to go. And we went. In the penultimate lines of John Victor Anderson's first prize poem, "Alligator Kisses": "[Gataboy] draw Momma's teeth, square teeth, piano teeth./He draw moons, he draw stars, he draw himself/up and up and up."

TTIM #6: D.A. Powell Reading for Gray Wolf Press: It is appropriate that I first heard D.A. Powell read in Chicago. 2004. Cocktails. Muse-sick of the gods. Diction of the Devil. OMG! Powell has somehow taken on a warmer tone in this reading. As if he were attempting to put out the hem of your grandmother's shawl that has caught on fire from the ashes of her cigarette not by pouring on gasoline, but by rubbing in a little olive oil, setting ablaze his own fingers in the process. My favorite two poems Powell read are "Mass for Pentecost: Canticle for Birds and Water" and "Missionary Man." I will not duplicate either poem here, but you can link to the beginning lines of "Missionary Man" to get a taste of Powells' sickness at Then if you want more, you can simply buy his new book, "Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys" or his book before that, "Chronic." As far as "Chronic" is concerned, if that moniker is emblematic of D.A. Powell, I never want to recover!

TTIM #7 and TTIM #8: Michael Waters and Dorianne Laux closed the BOA reading on Saturday with two terrific readings that brought the audience to its feet. If you know these poets, then I don't need to say anything more. If you don't know these poets, there is no way to describe to you the experience of hearing their work read by them, so I'll just give you a link to a couple of their poems that they read: and If that's not enough, you'll have to figure out how to catch a plane, a train, a bus to their next reading. I don't have time to help you--I'll be reading their next books.

TTIM #9: Watching my colleagues at Trio House Press, Tayve Neese, Dorinda Wegener, Lisa Sisler and Steven Riel (, totally invest themselves into expanding their personal and professional horizons by reaching out to and connecting with hundreds of poets and writers, listening to their stories, sharing opportunities, giving hope, giving encouragement, giving love.

TTIM #10: Experiencing the joy of parallel play with my partner, Janet, as her energies both aligned with mine on our mutual quest and diverged from mine on our unique journeys, creating an oscillation of sine and cosine curves, weaving a living lyrical narrative in pursuit of the holy literary grail. Aho!