In February 2015, I wrote a post called My complicated relationship with poetry. After re-reading it, I figured it was time for an update…
Since my original post, I have been regularly attending open mics. At last count, there are seven different open mics that I go to—five that take place monthly, and two that take place weekly. (I don’t necessarily go to all of them every time, but I try to attend each of the two weekly readings at least twice a month.)
Regularly reading my poems for an audience has provided several benefits. The most important is that I am more comfortable speaking in front of an audience—something that was unthinkable for me a few years ago. Next is that it has helped improve my writing. Sometimes reading a poem out loud reveals awkward bits that aren’t as noticeable when reading to myself; similarly, whether or not I want to read a particular poem sometimes tells me whether or not the poem still needs work.
Then, of course, there is the benefit of hearing what other people are doing. This helps me learn more about ways to approach the things I write about, whether they are things I want to try, or want to avoid.
Another thing I have learned from attending open mics is that I much prefer hearing poetry read to reading poetry in books or journals, especially when the poet is reading his or her own work. Often, the poet’s delivery adds something extra that you just don’t get from ink on the page.
More than that, though, I find that the visual presentation of a lot of poetry makes it difficult for me to enjoy reading. Line breaks that make no sense, stanzas that begin with the last word in a sentence carried over from the previous stanza, indents that make no sense, the substitution of the ampersand for the word and, and so on—by calling attention to themselves, these all take me out of the poem, in much the same way that a typo in a novel takes me out of the story. It’s hard for me to focus on what the poem is saying if the presentation of that poem has me trying to decipher its mechanics.
• • • • •
At the start of 2015, I set myself a goal of writing something every day, and posting the best (or the least horrible) of the day’s poems to my blog. For the most part, I have kept up with this practice, though I sometimes need to take a break for a few days.
With the start of 2016, I began giving myself monthly challenges, the idea being that forcing myself to use different forms and/or placing restrictions on how or what I write would force me to write about different things. So far, I have explored several poetic forms, avoided verbs, used found phrases as starting points, and pursued simpler language.
I have also allowed myself other challenges. In August 2016 alone, I have participated in the half-marathon portion of this year’s annual Poetry Marathon (writing twelve poems in twelve hours), responded to calls for ekphrastic poems based on current exhibits of art, and submitted a poem to King County’s Poems On Buses program. Technically, these aren’t any different from writing to prompts—but they still provide opportunities to try something different.
Last year, I applied for the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, submitted one of my books to the Pulitzer Prize competition (because it’s an open competition, so I could), and submitted another book to the Washington State Book Awards. Well, I didn’t get the scholarship, or the Pulitzer (not that I expected to), but I plan to try again this year. (At the time of this writing, the Washington State Book Awards finalists have yet to be announced.)
• • • • •
Perhaps the biggest challenge I have pursued with respect to my poetry has been the production of my latest collection, This Is Fifty-three. Having produced six collections of poems using the same basic format, I wanted to do something more ambitious. So, I set out to make a book that was not only bigger in size, but also in scope. That meant a page size of 8.5 x 8.5 inches, extensive use of photographs and graphics, and full color. It also meant that I would have to take extra time to ensure I got it right.
At first, I wasn’t sure it could be done, at least as a self-published project. I thought it might need to be treated as a photo book. As I looked into it, I found that photo books are insanely expensive. I don’t remember what page lengths I looked at, but it was looking like the per-copy printing costs would be upwards of $50—clearly prohibitive.
It seemed obvious that a stripped-down, black-and-white version would be required, either as an alternative or as a backup. Not only would printing costs be much less, but it could be produced through the usual self-publishing channels—so I would still have my book, even if I could not create the version I had in mind.
Fortunately, it was at this time that I found a video on YouTube that gave a first look at a full-color book of sci-fi and fantasy art that had been printed using CreateSpace. It looked pretty good, giving me the first real indication that what I had in mind could be done without having to resort to the prohibitively expensive photography book option.
Four months later, after careful selection of photographs and graphics, and numerous revisions to both poems and images, I was ready to order proofs. The files passed muster, but I had just one small change to make to the cover first.
That’s when the problems started. CreateSpace now started flagging parts of the file as not meeting their technical requirements for printing. First, they cited pages that contained images using text as graphic elements for having ‘text that is illegible’. Then they cited text I had flipped upside down to use graphic elements as constituting a ‘flip book’ (i.e., two books in one). Never mind that the stripped-down black-and-white version I was working on at the same time contained many of the same treatments, yet was not flagged even once—and, in fact, had already been published.
Saving the ‘flip book’ text as images got around this last obstacle, and I was able to approve the proof for publication on August 27—three days before start of the next round of Mercury retrograde.
• • • • •
In the last eighteen months, I have made a lot of progress. Although my books are in no danger of troubling the best-seller lists, and I am still mostly unknown, I feel like I’m getting good at this poetry thing. So, I will keep going, and continue to try new things along the way.
(30 August 2016)