Monday Miscellany - September 13, 2021
by Baltimore Review Staff Members
Our annual print compilation should be ready to send off to contributors within a day or two. Yes!
It was an honor to be part of the first Pier-Glass Poetry Panel on May 6, 2021, along with poets Kari Gunter-Seymour and Jeremy Page, and hosted by Stan Galloway. I checked YouTube, and now there are 12 Pier-Glass Poetry Panels: on diction, line breaks, history, and storytelling in poetry, and much more. You can view them here.
I plan to catch up with all these videos this fall and—I hope—add some variety to my writing life. Maybe they will spark some writing for you too!
I’ve dusted off some of my notes from the talk to share with you here—but you should definitely listen to what other writers in the series have to say.
So—what makes a poetry submission stand out for the BR? Essentially—that magical mix of surface pleasure with an underlying power and complexity that provokes an emotional and memorable response.
I like a poem that’s a pleasure to read out loud, written in a form that complements its content, and that’s capable of penetrating me and lodging somewhere inside. The total should be greater than the sum of its parts; there should be more to the poem than what’s on the surface. Surface pleasure is important—surface pleasure keeps the reader engaged—so, rich evocative imagery, pleasurable sounds, line lengths and white space that help with a poem’s appearance and, more importantly, contribute to the music and meaning.
But beyond surface pleasure—it’s wonderful when a poem has layers, depth. When a poem is worth reading more than once. And not because I’m struggling to comprehend the poem—but because it’s enjoyable, and each reading brings something new to me—some new understanding, or it touches a different chord inside, or I see how different parts connect and cohere and work together in an amazing way
Of course, we want to see attention to craft—effective, not arbitrary, line and stanza breaks—spelling, grammar, word usage, punctuation, logical flow—we shouldn’t stumble and have to re-read groups of words several times to make sense of them—a pleasing rhythm— concise and precise language, a fresh use of figurative language, not clichéd—so, pleasing to the eye and ear and mind.
There should be something interesting in almost every line, no stretches of dead, flat lines with nothing to pique reader interest. No language deserts.
A poem should be striking on its own. Some poems might be fine snuggled up against others in a set or book but don’t stand up well on their own. And we usually publish only one poem from a submission, occasionally two. But they still need to stand on their own.
We want poems that make readers feel that they’re in good hands, that the poet has an excellent command of the language and subject matter—there’s a sense of authority—and that the poet knows how to assemble the best words in the best order—to steal from Samuel Taylor Coleridge—for the most powerful effect.
We want poems that are fresh and surprising, that avoid tired subjects—or poems that approach familiar subjects in new ways—poems that are able to make us more empathetic humans, poems that don’t leave us with a flat “so what” feeling.
I mentioned those stretches of dull lines—it’s especially important for poems to end on a powerful, not ho hum, note. This poem comes to mind:
Matthew Lippman, “American Typewriter” (typewriter POV)
and when you come with your vision of the desert,
your heartbreak so worn,
your letter to the editor,
I will be quiet and then
I will smash your words into the white page.
But not necessarily so dramatic. For example, Mary Ardery’s poem in a more recent issue, “Kawana Campsite” about working in a wilderness therapy camp. A detoxing woman is mentioned in the poem. It ends:
An owl called out of the dark and the embers pulsed
like living jewels—red, black, red—still breathing.
I love this ending. Yes, there is the literal campfire. There are also the women in the camp, of value, jewels, and still breathing despite their troubles.
I also enjoy poems that—like prose—teach me something new, like something in some field of science or music—something that’s beyond the poet’s personal world but touches it. I love it that poems can teach me new things.
We do like (me—I love them) prose poems and consider them along with lineated poems—not a separate category.
Again, check out the YouTube link above to talks on a number of poetry topics.
A roadblock that all writers hit is the one when you know something is missing from your draft but you just can’t identify what it is. When I started writing longer stories, fiction and creative nonfiction, I ran into that problem a lot. I still do.
One of the greatest tips I’ve received is to print out your work (yes, no matter how long it is) and take a pair of scissors to it. Cut up paragraphs, cut up sentences, cut up individual words. Cut anything that you want to cut.
When you’re seeing your work sit so solidly on paper or on a computer screen, it can be hard to see what it could look like and what it could sound like as a result of your cutting. I think the art of cutting up your work puts it into a much more physical space. You can move it around, you can delete it, but you can still see all of it right in front of you.
Cutting up your work provides a whole new perspective. When I first did it, I thought it would be too crazy and disorganized to work with. But I took it slow and kept my patience in mind. I felt rejuvenated after, relieved almost. It was like solving a puzzle. Moving the parts of my work around gave me more insight on what I was missing.
So when you’re in a bit of a bind, and don’t know what your next steps should be, try pulling out the scissors. Just make sure your original draft is backed up online first.
There’s something to be said about subtlety in your writing.
Nudge us in the right direction. Many readers like to connect the dots on their own—it definitely makes me feel smarter when the ideas in your prose come to me naturally. Show me through the small and imaginative; not everything needs to be explained explicitly and at length. Take some time to drop clues here and there, especially for things like a character’s backstory.
Everyone imagines things differently. We bring our own perspectives to whatever you’re writing about, which makes it much easier to engage and connect with your ideas. We can conceptualize your story in a more personal way when we use our own thoughts to fill in the holes. Subtlety creates atmosphere—it gives your story power.
Tell me everything you want to say in as few words as possible.
Wishing everyone a good week,