The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 2

Welcome back to The Artist’s Corner for the second portion of my interview with poet Carrie Tangenberg.  Today, we’ll continue with Carrie’s amazing insight into poetry as well as enjoy one of her original poems.

Why is poetry important?

A literary question for the ages. I can only look through my biased poet’s lens, but I think it’s valuable not just because academia tells us it is.

For me:  Poetry gave me a way to express myself early in life that did not demand absolute clarity or lots of text. I could write what I felt or wanted to feel. I could focus on rhythm and the sounds of words. It didn’t have to make sense to anyone but me, and even then, it took me a long time to be so kind to myself. I used to be quite experimental, moving from puns to invented words and concepts, creating sense out of nonsense. Poetry lets me stretch linguistic connections, explore different word combinations and uses of any given word or phrase, and discover new routes to meaning and beauty.

In general:  Poetry offers a shortcut to evoking reader emotion, making us feel deeply, recalling our humanity. Poems explore, celebrate, articulate, and enhance life, death, love, art, nature, and human connection. Poems invite different ways of seeing everyday things, different ways of thinking about life. Poetry is lyrical, musical, rhythmic, with creative phrase order, language use, lines, and “paragraphs.” Poems present puzzles and riddles to solve and enigmas to wonder at. Poetry can add a touch of class, beauty, spirit, weight, or emotion to more logical or pragmatic ceremonies, presentations, and texts.

Poetry can be challenging, not lying down easily before you just because you showed up to read it. It makes you work by being in stanzas and by making readers pay attention to details to gain meaning. It’s a useful form to renew our concentration abilities, recovering them from Tweet and sound bite, back toward longer literary forms. Among literary modes, poetry pre-dates the novel, the news article, and the textbook. It has longevity. Poetry lets readers and writers approach the depths of meaning to find a way to shine a light and share. Poetry offers greater variety of form than fiction or non-fiction does. It is a diamond of many faces. Poetry offers a niche to fit into when your work or interests don’t fit neatly anywhere else. For instance, poetry lets non-visual artists, listeners, and readers penetrate and fill the spaces between too-reasonable words and wordless music. Songs are poems, and they lend insight into and mark the passage of our culture’s generations.

Beyond that, I refer you to The American Interest online article “Why, Poetry?” by David Kirby (2007). Great stuff. Addressing poetry’s value, he asks, among other things, “Why is there a poet laureate but not a novelist laureate or playwright laureate?” It must mean something to us. Poetry is easier than it used to be, more accessible, and more diverse. New forms are invented on the Internet, and poetry culture moves forward.

As with any art or literature, not all poems work for everyone, but poetry is a unique form with so much mileage that there really is something for everyone.

What do you see as the role of humor in poetry?

As with many aspects of poetry, humor in poetry is often subtle, but there’s no rule against including the comical in a poem that doesn’t also apply to the rest of the poem or non-humorous ones as well. As long as a poem can breathe, that is if it’s of sufficient length, there can be room for humor in even the most serious. The tension between opposing emotions is something that makes art great.

Billy Collins is the perfect example of a poet who has woven humor masterfully into much of his work. See “Paradelle. Silly and/or psycho form from Billy Collins.” – from the Writer’s Digest article “List of 50 Poetic Forms for Poets.

Humor’s role in poetry varies and can be manifold. It can be an effective method of emotional contrast for emphasizing a concept or point, or for deepening a dramatic effect. It can help some readers better relate to a poem’s message. It can be pleasurable in its own right. Then, there are the forms of poetry designed for or generous to humorous content: limericks, rhyming couplets, parody, and others.

There are also poetic forms, such as the elegy, that are meant to be serious. In the end, the poet should aim to match form to content and mood. For a simple example, if a humorous shape emerges from a concrete poetic image, the reader expects funny content.

What is the relationship between your speaking voice and your written voice?

We both tend to be long winded. I’ve always been a formal speaker and an even more formal writer, using words often beyond the understanding or comfort levels of readers and listeners, who in my experience tend to be young or struggling students. But because I dabble in so many different genres, forms, and purposes with my writing, I’m still trying to find a cohesive voice for each. In some ways, just as novelists must put themselves in different frames of mind to get into different characters, a poet can use the poetic space to explore different perspectives and different voices from different characters. The narrator/speaker is not always the author in either poetry or fiction, and they should not be equated. Qualities of an author’s history or personality may echo through his or her work, but not all poetry or fiction is fully or even partially autobiographical.

I think, though, that it is a rare person who is able to speak the same way to every other person encountered in life. Because of this, even our speaking voices are not internally consistent, let alone matched up perfectly with our written voices. On one hand, you wouldn’t want to speak to a stranger the same way you speak to your child or partner. On the other, even when we try to “be ourselves,” we unconsciously hide and reveal, emphasize and downplay, different parts of ourselves depending on who we interact with, our comfort levels, intentions, vulnerabilities, experiences, habits, and modes of being—recreational versus professional atmospheres, for example. People not only can change but do, quite often from moment to moment, in how they represent themselves. It may be dishonest at times, but just as truth can be subjective, so can our identities be flexible. People rarely walk around unfiltered. There’s always a hidden and a visible self. Self-control, invaluable to civilization, means suppressing our first impulses, and that’s a kind of lie, too.

Do you belong to a writing group or community of poets with whom you share your work? Has this been beneficial?

I’m in a writing group, but it’s multi-modal and focused on fiction. Luckily, there are a few members who are also poets, which can add a layer of insight that those less familiar with poetry may not be able to offer. It’s always good to have an outside perspective to consider during revision. With the group, I learn things that apply to all my writing, including poetry.

What do you believe is the measure of success for a poet?

That’s an excellent question. The short answer, unfortunately, is the unsatisfying “It depends.” In this day of self-publishing at the drop of a hat, it’s not the ability to self-publish or be “published.” It’s not solely the ability to get the words on the page with confidence. It’s not necessarily being held in high esteem by authorities with clout, or receiving poetry awards. It’s neither self-defined nor externally defined alone. I suppose it could be a blend of self-perceived success, some degree of circulation of one’s poetry amidst the masses, and some acclaim as a result of that.

If you don’t feel successful, that doesn’t mean you aren’t, but success in poetry can rarely if ever be defined by financial reward or income sustainability. It’s a long-standing sad joke among poets that this just doesn’t happen with poetry alone. A writer has to diversify. Focus on non-fiction of various kinds, including researched biography, instruction books, a cultural niche, or journalism than to rely on poetry for lucrative ends. Once the poet accepts this reality and still commits to the work of writing verse as part of the repertoire, the aim is to continue to develop as an artist, to advance your craft beyond what it was yesterday. If you can do that, and know that you have, you are succeeding as a writer.

What advice do you have for aspiring poets? Do you believe writing poetry can be taught or is it strictly an inherent ability?

Certain principles and several specific forms of poetry must be taught, but writing good poetry also requires innate orientation to the music, cadence, rhythm, sounds, imagery, lyricism, phrasing, or forms of poetry. It requires a thorough understanding of the effective use of language to communicate, to suggest, to imply, and it requires knowing what not to write and how not to write. It requires study, whether self-driven or received in a top-down fashion, as in college or an MFA writing program. True poetry rarely just happens, though I suppose it has occurred and remains possible in that rare individual.

I come from a verse writing education where my professor encouraged further study of certain aspects of my work beyond the scope of my courses. However, I believe a poet can emerge without formal higher education. Poetry is one of those modes of writing with so many variations in approach and form that experimentation and innovation may actually be more readily achieved in poetry than in long-form fiction, for one.

Consistency and cohesion within a poem are key. You can break the rules, but do so across the poem without restoring them at any point. For example, if it’s going to be a poem with end rhymes, you must carry that through to the end. If the first lines are not rhymed, suddenly starting to rhyme part way through is jarring to the reader. If you don’t apply techniques consistently across a piece, you’ve probably written at least two different poems or parts of poems, thinking they’re one when they’re not.

Poetry is all about patterns and the communication of the parts with each other. This is more important in a short form of writing, including short stories, than in longer forms, though novels still do better with some discernible shape—the rising action, conflict, climax, etc.—than without it. If a poem is poorly organized or incoherent or disjointed, it’s really, really noticeable. You can more easily get away with a little nonsense or minor error in a fiction manuscript.

How would you recommend someone reading poetry for the first time approach a poem?

Any poem of significant length, complexity, or difficulty should be read in phases for its layers. First, read it for the basic idea, and then read aloud to listen for its music. Poetry is designed to be read aloud. Next, read it over and over again with a different focus each time, including: (1) prosody, or the elements of versification and metrical structure, (2) meter-related rhythm, (3) form, including stanza division and line breaks, (4) rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and other sonic devices, (5) use of literary tools such as personification, metaphor, and simile, (6) point of view and speaker vs. author, (7) relationship of title to poem, etc.

Form should reinforce meaning, support and not work against it, so the more you learn about how a poem is constructed, the closer you come to understanding its message. Sometimes, form can be a large part of message. Poetry is a mode not infrequently used in a self-reflexive way, with poems about poetry, to express poetic principles in structure and words. Finally (or first!) and most important of all, try to pinpoint what you like and dislike about a poem and why. This will inform your reading choices, increasing your enjoyment in the future, and help you learn more about poetry and how to write it.

How important is accessibility of meaning? Should one have to work hard to “solve” the poem?

A poet should not make it her primary or even secondary aim to impede the reading of her poem. I don’t believe in purposely self-defeating behavior. If you’re reasonably intelligent and you’ve read a poem repeatedly, discussed it, studied it, and still can’t figure out the major strokes, it’s not worth any more of your time. It’s probably unnecessarily difficult.

However, because there are layers to any good poem that’s not a couplet or simple Haiku, most poems can be appreciated at multiple levels. Something I enjoy most about poetry and any art form is the richness that allows the audience to discover something new with each return to the work. In academia, poetry reading and study involving sustained, diligent effort markedly increase your chances of fulfilling whatever analytical requirements your instructor has assigned. In pure enjoyment especially, however, poetry is in the eye of the beholder. Like all art, it is subject to matters of personal taste. It’s a subjective enterprise and a personal study. If you’re not required to work hard to solve it, why strain?

What do most poorly-written poems have in common?

A bad poem can be bad—or have bad sections—for many reasons. It states the obvious, confuses concepts, turns personal grievance into whining, stops at surface-level emotions and ideas, employs clichéd imagery, demonstrates careless word choice, uses length as a crutch to seem important, applies techniques inconsistently, ends after the first draft, abandons form for content, or, conversely, abandons sensible content to show off a certain structure—or all of the above.

If you start with free verse, let it remain free. Start with metered verse, and it should probably conform to the meter your first lines set, though some poetic forms deliberately shift meter across the poem. Unless your specific purpose is to explore the different effects deliberate shifting between formalism and free verse has on the structure or ideas, pick one or the other and stick to it.

Examples of excessive structural worship include using rhyme in a forced way, writing a sonnet with hackneyed imagery and stale word choice, writing in meter with awkward rhythm (i.e., bad meter), breaking lines in awkward places just keep lines neat, or only ever breaking lines at sentence endings.

There are still other ways poems can be poor in quality, but I think those are the main ones.

What do most well-written poems have in common?

The bottom line is that quality poetry, and any writing, is earned. Achieving quality in most things demands study, careful craft, practice, revision, and polish—and those efforts show in the final product. Beyond the opposite of all of those traits described in the previous answer, freshness and originality, masterful vocabulary, applied nuance, and skilled balancing of all aspects set great poems apart from the herd.

Who is your favorite poet?

Too many to list, but here are the main ones: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Judith Wright, John Keats, Walt Whitman, W. B. Yeats, William Wordsworth, Amy Clampitt, Philip Larkin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Billy Collins, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, Wislawa Szymborska, Matthew Arnold, Wilfred Owen, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, e. e. cummings, Robert Frost, Louis MacNeice, Marianne Moore, Rita Dove, Theodore Roethke, Adrienne Rich, Derek Walcott, Hugh MacDiarmid, W. H. Auden, Christina Rossetti, Robert Burns, Seamus Heaney, Robert Pinsky, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and many 20th- and 21st-century songwriters.

Other poets I enjoy: William Matthews, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Hirschfield, Carolyn Kizer, Mary Jo Salter, D. H. Lawrence, Henry David Thoreau, Dylan Thomas, Robert Pinsky, James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, Kenneth Koch, Patrick Kavanagh, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Donald Hall, Ted Hughes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Blake, and Elaine Feeney.

What is your favorite poem?

That’s a bit like asking someone to pick a favorite moment in life or art. Some of those I’m most passionate about, which I highly recommend everyone reads, would be:

American trailblazers: “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman; Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” “A Route of Evanescence,” “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers,” “My Life had stood a Loaded Gun”

Best war themed: “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen (WWI) and “First Snow in Alsace” by Richard Wilbur (WWII)

A downright favorite: Amy Clampitt’s “Beethoven, Opus 111” and “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews” (love, love, love Clampitt!)

Quintessential Romanticism: “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth and “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats

A. E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” and Countee Cullen’s “Heritage”

Love breaking the rules: “since feeling is first” by e. e. cummings

Pure contemporary, comic enjoyment: “Forgetfulness” and “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of Three Blind Mice” by Billy Collins

Self-reflexive poem about what poetry should be: “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish

A good feminist spin-off: “Eve to Her Daughters” by Judith Wright

20th-century metrical verse: “The Sunlight on the Garden” by Louis MacNeice and “One Art” (a villanelle) by Elizabeth Bishop. Most poems by Elizabeth Bishop.

Comparing fish: “The Fish” by Marianne Moore and “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop

Oh, the sounds: “Root Cellar” by Theodore Roethke and “Lake Isle of Innisfree” by W. B. Yeats

Avant-garde, nature, ephemeral love & line breaks: Book I of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower by William Carlos Williams and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens

A favorite Scots poem: “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns

Epic post-colonial poem: Omeros by Derek Walcott (having some French will help)

Best (only?) nonsense poem I know: “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll

Philip Larkin: “Church Going,” “For Sidney Bechet,” “An Arundel Tomb” & “Talking in Bed”

Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying,” “Tulips,” “Ariel,” and “Daddy”

Men of Ireland: “When You Are Old” by W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney’s “Punishment”

What kind of work are you most drawn to reading yourself? Do you find yourself reading work similar to your own or completely different?

With writing, I think like attracts like. I seek out what I want to emulate, and I try to emulate what I find most precise, original, musical, and beautiful.

What book are you reading right now?

A book club book: The Good Earth, itself written with lyrical, rhythmic prose by Pearl S. Buck. I’ve recently collected some books of poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Wislawa Szymborska, Judith Wright, and Elaine Feeney. I received A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver as a gift, but I haven’t been as impressed with her work. Also on my bookshelf are almost all of Billy Collins’ poetry, an old complete works of Emily Dickinson, poems by Rumi, and the Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th edition, along with many other books of and about poetry.

Do the Internet and social media contribute to the well-being of poetry?

I believe so, though I couldn’t say how at the moment. Or, rather, I can’t tell whether the net effect is positive or negative. But like any major cultural force, it does have impact on art. So much is more readily accessible than before this digital information age. Quoting is a pastime for many. And yet, the impulse to speak constantly to others, to comb and scroll and scan through endless talk must also diminish the preciousness of words. We increasingly employ the short form in communicating with one another—the sound bite, tweet, Facebook shout-out, Instagram posting—but that doesn’t make it poetic, any more than reading print copies of novels makes us necessarily more poetic.

Where can one find you on the Internet?

Blog: “Philosofishal

Twitter @Carrielt37

Facebook: Carrie Tangenberg

LinkedIn: Carrie Tangenberg, Writer, Tutor

Do you have any non-poetry/writing creative outlets?

My most prevalent non-writing hobby would probably have to be photography. I like to draw occasionally. I’ll paint a picture every once in a while, but not without guidance; I’ve enjoyed a couple of those wine and painting events. I love color in general, so I dabble in home decorating, gardening, coloring books, and the occasional craft project.

Please share an original poem.

“Ode to Cantwell” by Carrie Tangenberg © 6/9/01, revised 4/10/16, 11/3/17

First composed at Cantwell Cliffs, Hocking Hills State Park, south central Ohio

Ferns cry up the greenest

moss-kissed stones I’ve seen.

Fellows dress in fringe,

and cascade merriment.

 

Velvet mats outdo

a frond-sprawl of delight—

in one vale, fresh spinach,

another, shamrock shake (or

is that lichen?), then lime

green Jell-O, young

avocado—ever glad

in rained-soaked shade.

 

If trees are chefs and servants,

then falls of ale ensconce

a vast buffet, inviting

calls to Cantwell Cliffs.

 

No hearth yet in view,

we walk, my love and I,

grasp at crags and creases.

A share of these replaces

clasping hands—too fraught,

despite appeasing warmth.

 

Plump rock faces, deep-

set stoned eyes, cliff chins,

talus noses, unkempt

joyful, bearded jaws

of giant height (or depth),

bouldered, flaunt their black-

and-green tartan patterns,

like heady Guinness pints

wrapped in Beltane bands.

 

We lurk the upper lip

and scarce escape the teeth.

 

One walking stick—scepter-

shaped, a hovering torch—

guides a canty man

askance our emerald path.

Swift, glad and keen,

earthen steps from rod to

root, his wordless cant:

 

“I am the fateful ambler,

chief of my migration,

god of my life and strife.

I come here to be, to pass,

to climb, to stir green trails

to sight and sense, imbibe

and feast in any weather,

hearth or no, till I’m full

and satisfied. I’m noble

but free, for I leave it all

here, fulsome as before.

 

“Though I look not behind,

I know return is rare.”

 

Serrated plumage wags

at slightest breath of man.

Untrod, the mosses cling.

Ebullient, verdant things.

The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 1

I met Carrie Tangenberg several years ago in a writing group for poets and authors.  Right from the start I could tell she was an intelligent, well-read, and well-spoken woman.  The best part was that Carrie never came across as haughty or unapproachable.  On the contrary, her elegance and calm reserve combined with her intellect positioned her to make the most constructive critiques.  I have also witnessed this in the classical literature book club to which we both belong.

When I realized I needed a poet for The Artist’s Corner, Carrie immediately sprang to mind.  I only wish you could hear her answers in her own sophisticated voice.  I know you’ll enjoy reading them as they are deeply informative, openly transparent, and incredibly encouraging for anyone who has ever had a passion for art.

Tell me a little about yourself.

Creative writing has been part of my life since early childhood. In kindergarten, I wrote a story about a stick of personified butter in its trials and travails. I think that was my first story. Then, it was poetry in elementary school, which has persisted to present day.

After college, I applied my writing talent in office settings of the publishing and higher education fields. Later, I switched focus to teaching English and writing, along with other humanities subjects. Now, I blog about non-fiction, poetry, and novel writing, as well as nature, travel, and film and TV storytelling. I also tutor writing and career help online.

Other ways I stay connected to the writing world include participating in a classic literature book club, a local writing group, and our region’s National Novel Writing Month program. I took a course in memoir writing earlier this year, and I won a local poetry contest in spring 2016.

I also garden, bird-watch, practice photography, and hike in the area’s metro parks. In reading, I favor Outlander, literary fiction, adventure, contemporary realistic fiction, and sci-fi, poetry, and non-fiction works of memoir, writing about writing, and satire. My film preferences are eclectic, but many of my favorites happen to be space/alien sci-fi adventure such as Star Wars.

See the “About me” page of my blog for more philosophical and literary hints to my personality.

What prompted you to begin writing poetry?

I’ve always had a strong sense of rhythm and musicality, so after dancing jazz in first grade and lip-syncing to tunes in the living room, I started writing rhyming poems about birds in fifth grade. Most of my life’s poetry is about nature or wildlife, from the first to the most recent attempts. I also love language and playing with the sounds words make.

Who or what is your inspiration for writing poetry?

Number one, as I said, is wildlife or wilderness, often birds, trees and flowers, landscapes, waterways, and even insects, soil, and rocks, or as broad as the cosmos. I’m fascinated by predator-prey dynamics, the beauty and indifference of nature, and I love all sorts of animals. Favorites include wolves, foxes, African wild dogs, otters, all sorts of birds, chameleons, and meerkats. In an alternate life where I’m better at math and science, if I couldn’t be an ornithologist, I’d be a wildlife or canid biologist.

Other inspirations are existential or spiritual contemplation often intersecting with language and meaning—in other words, the nature of life, death, perception, reality, motivation, and how we express and understand those. Occasionally, I’m inspired by current events such as the death of Leonard Nimoy, for which I wrote my first elegy.

How does a poem begin for you, with an idea, a form, or an image?

It varies. Sometimes I’m attempting to capture an image with description. Other times, I like a phrase or concept and want to see what I can make of it. Mainly, spare impressions guide me forward, and the end result can often remain rather impressionistic. I long ago developed the habit of gravitating toward nature imagery for my similes and metaphors.

I suppose I enjoy the challenge of urging fresh ways of looking at nature, since it’s been done so much by so many poets and songwriters for so long. Nature poetry is typically the first kind that non-poetic types think of or attempt to write, usually a piece of verse about autumn leaves, celestial bodies, or weather. I often aim to upend those expectations or write the usual in an unusual way. So, the prominent starting points are ideas and language, but I might set out to fill a form such as a sonnet, blank verse, or even a limerick—for added, puzzle-solving challenge.

What conditions help you with your writing process? Where do you write? When do you write?

Optimal conditions are the ongoing puzzle I have yet to solve. If only I could figure this out, I’d be in so much greater shape artistically, if not also in terms of publishing. I write mostly at home, but I also find inspiration in local parks, other green spaces, and the occasional cafe. Sometimes I’ll start on the computer, but I keep in touch with the fact that handwriting can boost my creative flow. I write in cursive as often as in print letters, and that lends its own enjoyment of beauty to the exercise. I can write at all hours, whenever the mood or idea strikes, but I’m most productive late at night. I’m not sure when I write best, though.

What is your creative process? Do you have any routines?

Typically, I’ll draft a poem long-hand, then either mark it up or type it up for revision. Next, I’ll try to apply my revision ideas. Often it helps at this point to set the poem aside and come back after a few days or even weeks to see if I still like it enough overall to polish it in its current basic structure. If not, I’ll file it unchanged. If so, I’ll put my best foot forward in finalizing the poem.

I once chronicled my verse writing process on my blog in a series of 4 posts. I learned a lot by doing that, but I don’t know if it helped me set any particular approach in stone or make significant changes to my routine. The posts are cross-linked, and the first one is “On Process: Verse Writing, Introduction and Part I: Motivation.

What books (of poetry or the creative process) or poets have influenced your writing?

Emily Dickinson was my initial influence for imagery, rhythm, and the combined sounds of words. She wrote a lot about death and loss, as well as nature, in her reclusive solitude. As a child, I had few close friends, so I could relate to some of that desolation and loneliness. Those feelings linger with me, but they’ve also evolved as I’ve adjusted how I write about nature. I have become accustomed to melancholy and used it to my artistic advantage.

Other works I find myself imitating are the nature poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Amy Clampitt, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, W.B. Yeats, and Judith Wright. I also love poets Philip Larkin and Billy Collins. Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros, which I read in college, is simply stunning. Beauty drips from this post-colonial Caribbean take on Homer’s The Odyssey.

How often do you create a new poem? What style or form do you choose for your poems?

I write half a dozen or so poems a year, sometimes working on them for long periods and coming back after a break to revise further. The rest are brief impressions jotted and then affectionately released from my attention into the archives. Most often I write in free verse using internal or near rhyme.

Are there any forms you haven’t tried but would like to?

Let’s see. I’ve written one poem in blank verse, a few sonnets, a syllabic, an elegy, a sestina, a villanelle, couplets, limericks, a handful of concrete poems, free verse, songs with refrains, and I tend to play with line and stanza breaks. If I thought more about it, I would probably find lots of forms I’d like to try. I have a poster with a reference chart of poetic forms on it at home. Some of them are very difficult, though, and it takes real dedication, regular practice, or teaching poetry to be primed for those challenges. I tend to dabble and seldom tutor poetry writing, though I have enjoyed a few sessions.

How much of yourself do you write into your poetry?

That’s a good existential question if I ever saw one. For me, the way I’ve written myself into poetry has progressed in different stages, but sometimes I return to earlier ones. I used to write a lot of confessional poetry about feelings, anxieties, depression, situational impressions, my experiences during study in France, and some poems about playing soccer or about ideas in stories I’ve read.

Nowadays, I still write occasional complaints in poetic form, but I don’t consider those serious or publishable samples. I have a strong aversion to writing, or reading, political poetry. I prefer the essay form for that purpose. I find a lot of slam poetry and poetry focused on political viewpoints to be too whiny, with off-putting ideas or, most frequently, simply incomplete and unpolished. People tend to take liberties with form, clarity, and content when motivated by outrage or ennui.

I’m always somewhere in my own poems—as the speaker and observer, as a character made of shades of myself and my way of thinking and speaking, and sometimes as the subject. I think every writer is to some degree.

Do you find yourself returning to a particular theme in your poetry?

The most prominent themes include natural elements as expressions of mood, marveling at some specimen of the animal kingdom, struggles for personal freedom and comfort in my own skin, or a combination of these. I’ve also focused a lot on nature poetry in my blog, along with book and arts reviews, emphasizing Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book and the STARZ TV series. I recently added travel writing about our wonderful trip to Scotland inspired by Outlander. My blog title is a throwback to my philosophy roots, a nod to part of a nickname for me, and a portmanteau meant to capture that blend of writing topics: “Philosofishal.

Word choice in poetry seems so important. Do you write with a dictionary or thesaurus next to you or make words choices in the editing process?

I periodically refer to dictionary.com or thesaurus.com and research using the Internet. Word choice is extremely important—one of the most important aspects of poetry in particular and, I believe, any good writing. Precise meaning, the right sounds, the right shapes and lengths for optimal rhythm, and careful phrasing, punctuation, and line breaks all have to work in concert for the best effects.

Punctuation choice is highly under-appreciated as a conveyor of nuanced meaning in writing. In poetry, if it is to be used, which is not required, punctuation must be precisely and consistently applied. That was one of the most memorable lessons my verse writing professor had for me in college: “You really must study punctuation.” As an English teacher and poet, I pay close attention to grammar and mechanics standards. When you know the rules, you can more effectively bend, break or uphold them to fit a poem’s purpose and style.

What is your revision process like?

In a poetry reading event at the Akron-Summit County Public Library last year, former U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, of whom I have been a long-time fan, said his writing process is nearly effortless. This comes with experience, of course, but he also makes a point of intentionally abandoning the task early if it gets too unwieldy, cumbersome, or sticky. I haven’t learned that trick, or earned that freedom, yet.

As I mentioned earlier, if I think I have a good enough start, I’ll draft and revise until it’s finished or until it’s changed too much to salvage. This speaks to the importance of saving versions. It can be unavoidable to struggle, though, and to be disheartened by ruinous results. Revision is the fine art of learning when good enough is good enough, which is very subjective, especially for new or amateur poets or poets without good editors. Perhaps I also feel a sense of urgency to put out a product, abandoning my drafts only after a hefty, strenuous effort, long past the wisest point of letting go.

Writers need to learn to become comfortable with what we call sh**ty first drafts, to expect snags and detours, and to know when it’s time to switch focus to a new or different project. Several factors may need to come together to make a piece work well, so that means a lot can go wrong, too. First, you have to know what the different aspects of a poem are. Then, after carefully assessing each factor and addressing each as needed, you can get a more realistic sense of a poem’s or a painting’s potential.

It’s always going to be something of a process, but we’re better off if we can recognize when we’re courting futility. The key at that moment is not to view this as a failure, which can be quite hard for artists, me included. Instead, finishing may be a simple matter of using a different form for the content, pinpointing that missing language or concept, or waiting a while for it all to coalesce, but that doesn’t necessarily make finishing any quicker or easier.

Is poetry your only type of writing? If not, what other types of writing do you indulge in? What is the relationship between your poetry and other writing?

I write a lot of different things, but not as many as I should or could if I were publishing my verse regularly. I write essays and articles on my blog about creativity, book reviews, TV shows, travel, and nature. I write novels during NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo. I write political manifestos I never publish, just to get things off my chest. I recently began trying my hand at memoir and may do more of that in the future. My main focus right now, though, is the non-fiction on my blog.

Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?

My standards for what makes a good poem have definitely risen with education, my own reading, and writing experience. I’ve also found poetry in the prose of certain novels and learned to appreciate different poetic forms and outlets as I’ve aged, realizing how rare poetry really is.

Do poets experience (mental/writing) block (or fear) the way a writer of novels or short stories does? If you have, how did you handle it?

Writing is writing. Working with words or any creative material, in whatever form, brings with it challenges and rewards, as with any job. Furthermore, good writing and holding oneself to a standard of good writing means that, chances are, there will be anxiety. Pressure is useful up to a point. It’s when my own internal pressure to perform and produce becomes too much that I have the most trouble writing.

For me, it’s a periodically recurring problem. I feel as if I’m always searching for ways forward, but that’s also my nature: I’m a seeker. I’m very interested in the “how” of life and writing, so I experiment a lot, resist routine, and tend to suffer the inevitable consequences: interesting process, fewer outcomes, more worry. It’s mentally and emotionally taxing, but it can be creatively fruitful, too, because I’m already slightly outside the box in my thinking sometimes.

What do you hope to achieve with your poems? Do you ask questions in your poetry? If so, are they open ended questions or do you resolve them?

I have several different aims that can either cooperate or compete with each other in a poem for both my audience and myself. Beauty is one. Insight is another. Cleverness and novelty, yet others. Sometimes I write my journaling in verse, but I may not realize it’s just artistic journaling until later. In those cases especially, one of my aims is to convey a certain message or answer a particular question.

With nature poetry, as I mentioned earlier, a typical aim is to upset expectations, to open minds and hearts to new ways of seeing things. Along with these purposes, I’m mindful of craft and improving it. I might focus on developing a keener feel for line breaks or achieving tighter phrasing or using a different literary device than I might typically rely on.

As for solving or leaving unsolved, it depends. I think I often try my best to answer a question my poem poses, but more often than not, it’s only partially resolved or the question has changed or has been revealed to be missing the point by the end.

~~Part 2 of Carrie Tangenberg’s interview continues tomorrow at The Artist’s Corner

 

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

I recently read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.  If you follow me on Goodreads and you’ve read the book, you might think I’m rather rigid in my assessment of the memoir.  I’ve read other fiction and non-fiction accounts of the Great Depression in America as well as extremely poor people in Ireland, Appalachia, and other such places, and I must say that for a Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes did not strike me as exceptional in any way.

I’m not sure why the book is titled as it is when the story is predominantly about McCourt’s experiences as a child.  His parents’ courtship and marriage prior to his arrival was necessary to set the stage for what the entire family would endure due to his father’s alcoholism and eventual abandonment, but again, the bulk of what one reads focuses on young Frank.

The prose is pleasant (riddled with Irish slang, sayings, and swear words galore), but nothing poetic or beautifully descriptive.  Sometimes dialog is properly placed between quotes and employs commas, periods, or question marks where necessary, and other times it’s buried in long paragraphs of run-on sentences.

One saving grace from all the depressing tales McCourt relays is the hilarity of the situations he’s writing about.  The thing is, the humor is derived from circumstances that are simultaneously horrific.  Yet the reader has to laugh because the truth is almost unbelievable.  Sadly, some of these dreadful circumstances include the way adults in the story treat McCourt, his siblings, and friends.

It’s unacceptable when adults express the depth of frustration, prejudice, and ignorance-born hatred toward each other that McCourt conveys, but children should never have to suffer at this level.  Educators, employers, priests, nuns, relatives, and hospital administration inflict verbal and physical damage on par with child abuse.  It’s a wonder any child living in these conditions turned out normal.

Near the end of the book, Angela McCourt finally takes the self-sacrificing initiative to do something for her children’s welfare.  Prior to that she tolerates her alcoholic husband’s actions to the extreme detriment of her family by keeping her abuser front and center in her life.  Perhaps it was the era in which the story takes place, perhaps it’s that divorce still carried the stigma of shame back then, perhaps it’s that Angela suffered from some type of battered-woman syndrome (hers being in the form of neglect beyond all reason), but because she refused to rid their lives of her worthless husband’s presence, they underwent shame to an equal degree anyhow.

There comes a point in the book when, in my opinion, McCourt rushes through years thirteen to nineteen because to tell it in any more detail would read as more of the same depressing ground already covered over and over and over.  Things turn around for young Frank ever so slightly; he hops a boat to America, end of story.

I’d like to say that Angela’s Ashes is one of those books that just shouldn’t be missed, but I can’t.  I’m not sorry I read it, but if asked whether or not it is a worthy read, I’ll probably shrug my shoulders, suggest the reader try it, and make up his or her own mind.

Word Refiner Extraordinaire

One of the best parts of an author platform is making new connections that turn into friends.  Such was the case with fellow word nerd, Mark Schultz, of Word Refiner.  The Weight of Words, found in my Writing Toolbox, is all about the complexities of words.  I believe this is what caught Mark’s eye and started the conversation between us.  With that being said, it just made sense to feature Mark and Word Refiner on my blog.  Without further ado, I’m pleased to introduce Mark Schultz and his homonym-sniffing sidekick, Grizz.

Hello and welcome!  Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I have been married for over forty years to my wife (she is a keeper).  We have three kids, girl-boy-girl, who are now ‘adulting’ quite well, and three beautiful granddaughters who we love and see frequently.

What has your experience been?

I am a journeyman sheet metal worker and a journeyman HVAC service technician.  I work outdoors a great deal and love it most of the time.  I had nearly twenty years of experience in retail before I launched into construction.  I like helping people.

Did your work experience lead to the creation of Word Refiner?

No, but my love of reading led me in that direction.  I have been a super reader all of my life.  Reading is one of my favorite things to do.  During my college years, I worked as a proofreader for a firm of consulting engineers, proofing specifications and contract documents.  This was in the dark ages before the Internet, before computers, cell phones, and calculators.  The new exciting thing was correction paper for a typewriter.  That is the only experience in the industry.  But I was alerted to the fact that I was really good at finding all types of spelling errors, including homonyms, typographical errors, missing words, misplaced words, and multiple words.  I was better at it than everyone else in the department.

How did you develop your passion for words/spelling?

I read some books, then I read some more books, and more books, and … you get the idea.  I have read many thousands of books in my life.  In college or at work I had three books I was reading at the same time:  one for home, one on the bus, and one at school or work.  I read very widely as a boy and an adult.  I was very bored growing up on a small, non-working farm.  I had only my younger sisters and baby brother to play with.  I devoured encyclopedias and spent many happy hours in a twenty pound dictionary.  Relatives sent me books for birthdays and holidays.  I read my parents magazines and loved Reader’s Digest.  I read very widely and loved every minute of it, no matter how many times I had to go to the dictionary.  I also checked many books out of the school and public library.

So, you’re an avid reader?   What do you enjoy reading?

At the moment, I am in the middle of Paul Cude’s Bentwhistle the Dragon, Volume One, in between book reviews.  I am reading this for fun and have found it quite enjoyable.  My favorite genres are sci-fi and fantasy, but I have come to appreciate good writing in whatever genre.  I have read some great cozy murders, historical fiction, and romantic stories.

When did you decide to create Word Refiner?

Many years ago, a friend was writing a book.  He sent me his tenth draft.  It was typewritten and double-spaced.  He liked my suggestions a lot, and I proofed for him for many years after that.  I started looking for other authors and found it very hard to meet them.  I had the concept in mind for a long time, but could not connect with very many authors.  I advertised on Craig’s List for several years with a little bit of success.  I found it really hard to connect with authors on Facebook and some other social media portals.  When I looked into Twitter, I realized I had struck pay dirt.

How does a client contact you?

I can be contacted on Twitter of course: @wordrefiner.  I can also be reached at my website: Word Refiner, and by email: wordrefiner@yahoo.com.

How does Word Refiner work?  What is the process?

While it is detailed on my website, here are the basics. I offer a free evaluation of a manuscript whether fiction or nonfiction.  My skill is in spelling, so I tell a client that I can provide the best value after all the editing and rewriting is done.  When the client thinks the book is ready to be published, I should be the last set of fresh eyes.  I ask for a section from the middle of the book, two to three thousand words.  I go through it and provide the estimate based on the density of errors in the sample.  My pricing is based on word count and starts at $3.00 per thousand words; as the number of errors increases, so does my price.  If we agree on the project, they send me the entire book in a format compatible with MS Word 2013.

What does a client receive from you?

I use the commenting feature in Word; I do not make any changes in the book.  There is a sample of what that looks like on my website:  Learn More.  If I find a weird formatting error, such as a line cut off in the middle and moved down, I will fix that for continuity reasons.  Otherwise, I believe in a hands-off approach.  I want the author to be able to see exactly what they wrote and consider my suggestions.  If any particular suggestion is not liked, then no harm is done.  While I am not a full editor, I do offer suggestions for readability, plot points, and technical details where warranted.  Many authors have been very grateful for my suggestions.  I know a little about a lot of things.  I am a super reader and the Hyper-speller. I know my strengths and don’t stray too far from that sweet spot.  When I send the book back, I have changed the name of the file.  I keep the original file as received for safety purposes.

Do you specialize in one type of book:  fiction or non-fiction?   Do you work on promotional materials, programs, brochures?

I can do all of the above and more.  My specialty is words.  If it has words I can read, I am there.  I am also cognizant of the differences that can exist in British English and Australian English.  I have clients in many parts of the world.

Can you tell us some of the titles you’ve worked on?

I have worked on quite a few books.  The full list is at Books We Have Refined.  I would like to mention the books of one of my favorite authors, Diane Munier: Darnay Road, Deep In The Heart of Me, Finding My Thunder, and most recently, Bayah and the Ex-con.  The first three were done post-publication.

Any favorite words?

My favorite group of homonyms is rite, write, right, and wright.  It is the longest group of homonyms I know.  I would love to find more of equal or greater length.  I also heard a phrase on a BBC production: “insalubrious morass” was a bit of dialog and stuck in my ear.  I relished the sound of it and feel in my mouth.  It means an unhealthy, swampy area.

Word(s) you see misspelled most often?

From and Form come to mind first.  Their, there, and they’re are also very common.  There are so many homonyms that can be mixed up, and typos are created so easily.  I know because my fingers are pretty sloppy on the keyboard.

Is Word Refiner your dream job?

Yes!  Getting paid to read books is my dream job!

How do you see Word Refiner growing?

I am one person; I have not found anyone that can do what I do for the price I charge.  My rates are very reasonable.

So this is a solo operation?

It is the three of us:  me, myself, and I.  Let’s not forget Grizz.  Call it 1 ½.

Is there any truth to the rumor that Grizz has 51% controlling interest in the business?

I have defeated his proxy attempts a couple of times now.  I am not sure he has given up.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 20

writers-soul-20I’m two years into my author platform with my third-year anniversary coming up this August. I have a nice quantity of followers on my blog which is the most important part of my platform as far as I’m concerned because it reflects me most personally. I greatly appreciate the people who take the time to view, and hopefully read, my blog.

For this reason, I maintain quality posts that I trust my followers find interesting. These posts include samples of my writing, stories about my family life to give people a feel for who I am, and articles and recipes promoting my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. I try to post on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and I revisit these posts based on a follow-up schedule of one week, one month, and two months. Then there is my presence on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Pinterest.

Why do I mention all this? Because once again I find myself questioning the benefit of the author platform. I went in search of articles, statistics, and/or facts that would answer my question, and here is what I found. Keep in mind that I’m interested in finding info as it relates to the fiction writer.

Per Jane Friedman’s July 25, 2016, post, A Definition of Author Platform, in answer to the question Do you need a platform to get published?:

It depends. If you’re a fiction writer, no.  Fiction writers should focus on crafting the best work possible. That’s not to say a platform is unwelcome if you have one, but an agent or publisher will make a decision first based on the quality of your manuscript and its suitability for the current marketplace.

I was quite pleased to know Mrs. Friedman believes the most important part of our careers is to write good fiction. As anyone who writes knows, that doesn’t always come easily. I try to write 1000 words a day, but life has a way of crashing in on my writing that sometimes makes this difficult. Still, I press on without making pathetic excuses, and if I don’t meet my word goal, I hope I come away with at least one brilliantly written sentence for the day.

Here’s the thing, though: writing three quality posts for my blog takes quite a lot of time. True, they vary in word count, and sometimes I can squeeze three posts out of my 1000 words a day goal, sometimes more, sometimes less. I devote Sundays to writing my posts. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling that the blog is taking away valuable time from my other writing.

Coming up with three different blog posts is like having three different battle fronts open on top of the one for my novel, the one for querying, and the one for maintaining the other aspects of my platform. That’s a whole lot of fighting going on which leads to stress and fatigue. It can negatively affect my frame of mind when I approach my novel. In short, there are too many irons in the fire to allow for good writing on one project.

Then I came across statistics for the fiction writer, who is given the grace of shooting for lower stats than the non-fiction writer for whom platform is crucial, on the Writer Unboxed site in the article Building Your Writer Platform — How Much is Enough?, and I almost had a heart attack. These are loosely defined targets that the fiction writer is to aim for:

Blog Page Views Notable: 20,000/month

Twitter Followers Notable: 5,000

Newsletter Subscribers Notable: 5,000

Public Speaking Appearances Notable: Speaking to 1,000 people (total) a year

Sales of Previous Self-Published Books Notable: 2,000+ for fiction

So, now I’m curious to know if my platform is enough. Luckily, a few agents addressed the question of readiness within the same article, and I would direct you to Writer Unboxed to read them as they are quite lengthy. I’m also not sure if the agents are speaking to non-fiction or fiction writers, but in either case, I’m wondering if an author platform is a good and/or just measure of how worthy a fiction writer’s work is for publication.

I don’t want to live in fear of dropping stats on any portion of my platform, and more than that, I don’t want to offend my followers in any way that would result in losing them. And yet, so much of what I read and hear from fellow writers, whether traditionally, self-, or pre-published, is that it all comes down to how much money a writer will make for a publisher. Worse, if sales are poor, the publisher has a tendency to place the blame on the writer. Does that mean I won’t get looked at until I achieve a certain level of stats on my author platform thus guaranteeing big sales for a publisher?

Perhaps the question I should be asking is: what’s being done to make writers’ lives more conducive to writing and less stressful? I found some relief in the latter portion of Mrs. Friedman’s article, and although she was addressing non-fiction writers, I believe the same clarifications apply to fiction writers when she expounds upon What platform is NOT, What activities build author platform?, and Platform building is not one size fits all.

At the heart of this matter in my quest for publication is the desire to make a connection with other writers who may be experiencing the same concerns. I don’t want to feed the misery loves company aspect of this busines. Rather, I would love to hear from people on how they view the issue and how they are positively dealing with it.  But here is another portion of my anxiety regarding my author platform: why don’t followers engage? In a world where people love to give their opinion on anything and everything, writers are asking, begging even, for people to leave feedback and input, reviews and comments.

In closing, I agree yet again with Jane Friedman from her above-mentioned article when she says:

It rips me apart to hear very new writers express confusion and anxiety about their platform, especially when they have not a single book or credit to their name. Well, it’s not a mystery why platform is so confusing when you may not yet know who you are as a writer.  First and foremost, platform grows out of your body of work—or from producing great work. Remember that.  It’s very difficult, next to impossible, to build a platform for work that does not yet exist.

The Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

People who know me are aware of my love of books but may not know that I enjoy picture books every bit as much as novels and works of non-fiction. For those who don’t know me, start here (My Love Affair With Books).

The Rules of SummerA couple of weeks ago, as I shelved picture books in the children’s department of the library where I used to work, I discovered Shaun Tan’s book, The Rules of Summer. The unusual artwork on the cover immediately caught my eye, and I indulged in a few stolen moments to read the book. What a treasure.

The lean text tells the story of two brothers and the unique and arbitrary rules that govern their summer. The pictures, semi-abstract creations in oil and acrylic, relay a deeper story about the nature of the boys’ relationship.

I believe the story speaks volumes about how people treat each other whether they’re children or adults, friends or family. It’s testimony to how far we will go in our relationships and exactly what we’ll tolerate and for how long. This may sound heavy for a picture book, but the beauty of the subtle message is that there is hope even when human nature ensures that this process repeats itself. When it does, we learn and grow, love and forgive.

I’ve already enjoyed reading The Rules of Summer five times and have decided that I must own a copy for my private library. The book as a whole is an incredible work of art, and I’ll never tire of sifting through the many layers of the story, both words and pictures.

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