I’m a Writer — Why Write Reviews?

Literary journals are often looking for book reviewers, especially for folks willing to review small press and university press publications. Writing book reviews means investing hours of your time in the serious work of analyzing and evaluating another writer’s book, and if you write them for nonprofit journals, you may be donating those hours, and earning a very modest stipend.

If you’re a reader, though, the good news is that by writing reviews, you get free books. These can be hard copy book, or e-books. Either way, they are yours to keep!

 

But if you’re a writer, you may wonder why you should spend spend time you could devote to your own stuff on reviewing other writers’ books. The answer is simple: it will make you a better writer.

Reviewing a book requires reading a book, and we all know that reading will improve our writing. Beyond the simple reading, though, is the re-reading and analysis that forces us to focus on either theme, craft or genre strategies. I always learn something important about craft while writing a book review, and it’s usally something I can put to use in my own writing.

For example, in this review of Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s poetry collection, Ornament, I considered how this poet works with form and repetition:

In addition to rhyme and meter, palilogy shapes some of these poems. As subtle as slant rhymes, repetition of individual words resonates like the often-invisible patterns in nature and in housekeeping. The poem “Trillium,” which is set outside of the home, is particularly rich in meter, palilogy, and internal rhymes.

. . . our eyes, kept closed against branches,
opened slowly to a shimmering white,
flower sleeves that lit themselves and flared

over dark leaves. Like stars, whose light is both
a wailed call and calm response, they leapt
out from shadows as we leaned down to breathe

the barest scent of pepper from their centers
and walked among green leaf and flame-white petal,
careful that our feet did not catch fire.

The review is one of several that appear in the December selections of Tupelo Quarterly,  a journal that publishes original poetry as well as reviews of poetry collections. If your chosen genre is fiction, try Necessary Fiction for reviews. And yes – reading reviews of books in your chosen genre will make you a better writer, too!

Poetry on Adolescence

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

Many people begin writing poetry during adolescence, a turbulent time of life when we’re wrestling with identity, independence, and desire. That’s a full plate for sure, and no wonder so many young people turn to poetry to try to sort out their feelings and make sense of their place in the world.

As an aside, if you are a young poet (either in age or in your writing career), I have a piece of adviceKeep everything you write. Don’t delete or discard anything. Some of it will probably embarrass you if you look back on it from a more mature perspective, but everything you write is potentially valuable. And, your prior work is also a potential goldmine for later writing projects.

Like many angsty teens, when I started writing, it was to understand my mixed-up thoughts about identity, independence, and desire. What’s interesting to me now, though, as an older person, is the different ways we look back at adolescence.

Some poets, like Claude McKay, have looked back on adolescence as a time of innocence. For Rita Dove, in “Adolescence II,” it seems like a time of magical but frightening transformation. For Adrienne Su, adolescence takes on a broader meaning.

For the following poem on adolescence, originally published in my collection Back East, I considered a memory of one pure afternoon.

Quarry

That volcanic August, the asphalt steamed
behind their older cousin’s El Camino,
a car so hot no one questioned why
it sported a pick-up bed, or why it took
them to skinny-dip at the long- abandoned quarry.

On the path through the woods, they foraged for sex without
knowing it, plucking shapely fungi
and curling moss.
 They came to the water before
it was too late. Years before one lost
an arm to the road and another lost his life
to it, the boys jumped feet first from the cliff,
cupping hands in prayer around their genitalia. 
The flower-power girls dove in before
rapes, abortions, cancers, free-fall naked
without a single consequence, their hands
the points of spades cleaving the mirror.

Treading water, they traded stories of boys
who’d broken their necks and girls who’d disappeared.
The well of rainfall, fluent in the tongue
of silk, praised their barest skin and cooled them.

Poetry: The Triggering Town

The cover of Richard Hugo’s book, The Triggering Town
Have you ever felt left out of a conversation?

I felt that way when I began an MFA in Creative Writing program in the 1990’s. I was at a loss as to why my fellow students kept mentioning “Hugo.” It was “Hugo this” and “Hugo that.” I broke down and asked one of the professors, “Why does everyone keep talking about Victor Hugo?”

If you’re a fan of 20th century poetry, you’re probably laughing at me (good-naturedly, of course).

The other students weren’t talking about Victor Hugo, the 19th century French author of Les Miserables. They were talking about Richard Hugo, a poet, teacher and literary theorist from the Pacific Northwest. I’d never heard of him.

I had a solid background in European literature, especially Romantic and Victorian poetry, but I knew very little about poets of the twentieth century, except for poets associated with feminism, like Plath and Sexton and Rich, and a few other New England poets. Richard Hugo had not been on my radar.

Soon, I was reading his book, The Triggering Town, a collection of essays and lectures on poetryHugo’s overarching thesis was that rather than “writing what you know,” poets should open themselves to the unknown via triggering subjects. His approach had a spiritual element to it, as represented in the following passage:

Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feel­ings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.

Sadly, I was never able to enter fully into conversations about R. Hugo. I found him difficult to comprehend, but I did understand about being moved to write by an encounter with the unfamiliar, and writing about the unfamiliar by imagining yourself into that unfamiliar space.

Where I stopped following Hugo’s logic, though, was in his suggestion that the poet’s relation to the triggering subject should weaken. I was committed to the opposite: immersion.

This probably had something to do with my intense admiration of persona poems, or dramatic monologues, in which the poet takes on the identity and voice of another. Examples include “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning and The Kid” by Ai.

Years later, when I lived in Maine, a very old woman told me the story of a black walnut tree that grew in her front yard. I was enchanted by the tree, the story, the woman, and the way she represented an archetypal Maine figure: independent, resilient, crotchety. The woman and her story were the triggers for the following poem, originally published in my poetry collection Back East.

Black Walnut

He offered us a thousand bucks
for all — the trunk and limbs and roots —
of our black walnut. It didn’t arch
above our roof as it does now.

He wouldn’t tell us why, or how
he’d haul it out, a monstrous job
if you consider how the roots
extend their feelers underground,

mirroring the walnut’s crown.
We told him no, and when he bent
to crack a fallen nut, we warned
him of the stain. He didn’t listen.

With a skull-sized rock, he split it open.
His handprint, darker than the door-
yard mud in spring, still gripped the front
porch rail the year he came again.

We watched him through the window then.
He lay his hands along the trunk
as if he thought himself a healer,
and we mistrusted him more.
 We couldn’t

ask why he wanted what we wouldn’t
sell. We don’t meet others halfway,
or go beyond the wall out there
where some glacier gave up and left us rocks.

Poetry in Form: Prose Poems

Fungi circling a tree. Photo by Michele Sharpe
Pure-of-mind formalists might argue that the prose poem is not written in form at all, and some poets and critics have argued that prose poems aren’t poems — they are prose.

Controversy continues to rage on, but the two most authoritative American sources for information on poetry provide similar definitions

The Poetry Foundation defines the prose poem as:

A prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry. See Amy Lowell’s “Bath,” “Metals Metals” by Russell Edson, “Information” by David Ignatow, and Harryette Mullen’s “[Kills bugs dead.]”

The Academy of American Poets defines the prose poem as:

While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.

Labels seem to me to have a limited use. In my 30+ years of activity in the poetry community, I’ve seen the lines between poetry and prose continue to blur. In fact, some journals now expressly solicit work that defies easy labelling. They call it hybrid work.

As a recovering formalist and fuddy-duddy, I’m okay with saying that I doubted the prose poem once myself. But one day a subject and an image seemed just right for the prose poem (I admit it) form.

This baby below was originally published in the now-defunct but engaging magazine concīsThe “bastards” in the title doesn’t refer to nasty people. It refers to the original use of the word: people born out of wedlock, like me and many of my fellow/sister adoptees. For more on the adoptee rights movement, check out Bastard Nation.

Family Trees for Bastards

1. Dead so long, you can see right through them. The branches fell first, then the crown, then the bark sloughed off like snakeskin, and the cores collapsed, leaving suggestions of strong columns spun upward in helix fashion. Below the shifting leaf litter and sand, roots entwine with limestone. What’s left has put on the pocked and scored look of karst, but a tree remains a tree.

2. Dead, but still intact, this one has some juice for chalk-white fungi spiraling around its trunk. Shelves for tree frogs, pale question marks, frilled platters for dolls.

3. Still alive, this one ripped the floor with it. New name: windthrow. Had something loosed its anchorage and prepared it to let go? A hole opens in the canopy, saplings stuck in the pole stage wake. The earth that ripped with the tree, once part of a forest floor, now named a tip-up mound.

4. Pine cone. Alone on the floor, waiting for a fire to free its seeds. So it can start over.

Poetry on Environment

Butterfly on blossom. Photo by Stephen Mulkey.

Like many baby boomers, I recall a time when an unusually warm spring day was something to relish, not cause for anxiety about climate change.

My spouse, scientist Stephen Mulkey, is fond of saying, “Weather and climate are not the same thing,” but it’s natural for folks to experience weather as a harbinger of good or bad fortune, or of the changes to come.

The rainbow, the stormclouds, the hurricane, the cloudless sky, the tornado — all these have an emotional resonance for us. Because climate change is so centered on prediction, we can’t help but tie weather and climate together.

The industrial revolution sparked an interest in preserving the natural environment, an interest that continues today. One poem specifically in response to the industrial revolution is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.” Hopkins was a Jesuit priest who saw miracles in Nature and his God’s hand in all of those miracles.

Today, there are a number of magazines centered on environmental concerns that publish poetry. These include OrionTerrain, and Ecotone, to name a few.

The day the American government vowed to withdraw from the Paris Accord, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change published a new issue (28.2), which includes my poem, Gift Horse. I admit to being influenced by that science dude I’m married to!

Gift Horse

Mid-century, an early spring meant
taking off our shirts between the dunes in April
,
desperate as we were to air our skin out
after months cocooned in wool. 
Even the sand
felt good, scratching our backs. 
We crossed our arms
behind our heads and watched the mare’s-tail clouds
brush the blue from the sky
. Those stretches
of mild weather out of season — 
such gifts,
we never thought to check their teeth.

Poetry in Form: Sapphics

“A woman walking in the sea in a white dress, as the water reflects the Rarotonga sunset” by Luke Marshall on Unsplash

Sapphics, as you might guess, are named for the ancient Greek poet Sappho. The form follows a strict metrical pattern that does not come naturally to me. Former poet laureate Kay Ryan once said at a reading. “I am a slave to rhyme.” Well, I am a slave to the iamb, and the Sapphic meter seems weird.

But it seemed like the perfect form for a particular poem.

Sapphics are written in four-line stanzas. The contemporary Sapphic metrical pattern for poets who write in English sounds like this:

DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da

DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da

DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da

DUM da da DUM da

In contrast, the more common iambic pattern goes like this:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.

Why did I choose to write in an ancient Greek Sapphic form? It started with undergoing interferon treatment for hepatitis C. (Coincidentally the word “hepatitis” comes from the Greek.) The treatment gave me many nasty side effects, but the scariest one was that it wiped out the poetry part of my brain for a year.

Happily, a breakthrough came when I visited The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida. This museum, in the lavish former home of the circus magnate, has a Renaissance-style sculpture garden with a number of colossal statues, including a replica of Michelangelo’s David.

But the colossal that struck me like a thunderbolt was a replica of the Rape of Proserpina (a/k/a Persephone) by the Italian sculptor Bernini. It depicts Pluto (a/k/a Hades), the god of the underworld, abducting the virgin Proserpina.

Looking up at the colossal statue, I was astonished to see that a paper wasp had made a nest in Proserpina’s crotch. A metaphor occurred to me — the first that had popped into my head in a year. But more amazingly, when I got home and started researching wasps, I learned that their Latin name is hymenoptera — after “hymen,” the tissue that is broken when a woman loses her virginity.

What a gift that was. The poem was originally published in the online journal Per Contra.

The Wasp Garden

A Sapphic verse on a copy of The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini at the
Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida

“Rape of Proserpine,” the colossus’s sign reads,
“Stone Variant,” on the theme “young girl some
God of Hell abducted became a queen.” Her
Rape is looming, yet

Here, she’s held aloft, as if ready to fly, with
Pluto’s arms her launch. See where haughty paper
Wasps, the Hymenoptera, built their nesting
Site between her not-

Yet-queen-thighs, a fortress of humming rapture,
Stingers sharpened, ready to shield them both from
Brutal injuries and regrets, to put an
End to myths like these.

Poetry with Narrative

A motorcycle parked in an alleyway. Photo by Michael Wade on Unsplash

Narrative poetry has been around for millenia. It’s a poem that tells a story. The opposite of narrative poetry is lyrical poetry, which tells about a moment, a feeling.

In the 1990’s, lyric-narrative poetry was all the rage, and I spent way too much time trying to figure out how to define that. Labels are often more trouble than they are worth.

But who doesn’t like a story? And a story combined with poetry can be very, very lovely. You get plot, character, setting, and all the rich sounds of poetry.Epic poems, like The Odyssey, are narrative poems, as are shorter poems like “Annabel Lee” or “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. And by the way, a fabulous new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson came out recently. Highly recommended by me, and better people than me.

Contemporary poets like Sharon Olds and Aaron Smith write narrative poems. For some poets, narrative can be a way of working through trauma by becoming the storyteller and taking control of the story.

You know that saying “The winners make history”? Well, not necessarily. As Sharon Olds wrote “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”

The poem below, originally published in The Powow River Anthology and in my chapbook, The Glass Transition, is a narrative poem. Like many narrative poems, it’s written in blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter. The “Angels” mentioned in the poem are the motorcycle club, The Hell’s Angels.

Ladies Night

Hold a pebble in your mouth to reduce the sensation of thirst.
— Survival tip

It started in a washed-up biker bar,
First letting Judy, former puffer-queen
And party-girl for Angels brag on me,
Her college girl. The bikers lined up shots
And beers for me. I thought that I could take
The things I wanted from that world and walk
On whole to what I thought was next.
 The bar
Was full of idle whores who’d doped themselves
Together, piece by piece
so they could give
Up any piece they chose to later on.

Who did I think I was? They jumped me on
The sidewalk, snarled their hands around my hair,
My imitation pearls, as if these were
Just ropes to pull me to the leveled ground.
The pearls spilled off into the gutter, small
White mice escaping sudden light.
 The girls
Got bored and went back in the bar, left me
To limp away, to leave a trail of hair
Along the bricks. What did I give up first,
To get the things I craved? 
This story rolls
Just like a pearl inside my mouth. It clicks
Against my teeth, against all kinds of thirst.