February 16, 2021 § 29 Comments
How does a poet morph into a memoirist? It happens when poetry can no longer restrain words that spill over the sides of a container composed of lines and stanzas, instead filling page after page. It happens when the need to lay down a narrative becomes so compelling that a poet must begin to write the story of her need.
I had always wanted to write but in my early years struggled with narrative. I have a drawer full of old short story fragments and aborted novels, all typed on onionskin paper with a portable typewriter (yes, back in those days!). I’d never dreamed I could write poetry but one day, when I admitted to another story failure, in frustration I gave verse a try. Even now I can picture myself sitting in the university library when the thrill of my first (very badly written) poem ran through me. I believed I had found my calling and gave up wrestling with narrative then and there. In my last forty-odd years of writing and publishing, I believed that would never change.
Many decades later, my father, then in his mid-80s, began to slide into the shadow world of dementia. As I watched my father losing words, losing memories and losing me, I tried to capture the progression of that loss, to capture him on the page. I wrote poem after poem, several of which appeared in my collection Always a Blue House, published the year I turned sixty. By then my father, living in a nursing home, couldn’t come to my book launch party. He couldn’t even understand that I’d written a book, much less read any of the poems.
My father had always been a closed man, emotionally damaged by his Depression-era childhood. Abandoned by his mother, he grew up in orphanages and foster homes. That early trauma left him with an inability to express his emotions, turning him inward, into a silent man. A silent father with a daughter who lived for words.
As his disease progressed, I found myself compelled to write about our strained relationship, a subject poetry couldn’t satisfy. I wanted to come to terms with our conflict and with his dementia that had stolen any opportunity to heal our breach. As suddenly as poetry came to me long ago, the desire to write a memoir appeared. Since my father had such trouble expressing himself with words, I would help tell his story. And that required the full sweep of narrative.
In my transition from poet to nonfiction writer, I battled insecurities not very different from those that plagued me starting out. For so many years I had called myself “poet” and not “writer.” Those two labels connoted to me two completely different types of artists. I had to battle the power of those labels to realize: what is a poet if not a writer of poetry?
Since I earned my living as a language arts teacher, I did what I would advise any of my students: start learning. I took online courses and read book after book on writing nonfiction. I read as many memoirs as I could, soaking up every technique and way of telling I could find. I had to learn to combine my poet’s voice with the “telling” reflective nature of memoir, how to lay myself on the page as the genre requires. Poets can, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “tell it slant,” shading their emotions and selves behind metaphor and imagery. I came to see that I’d found it easier to write about difficult topics in poems by keeping myself in soft focus. Memoir requires bold-faced honesty, the reflective voice revealing the writer’s deepest foibles on the page. Still struggling with this, every time I write I replay the wisdom of a writer friend: we must see more of you on the page.
I wondered if I the poet, used to works taking no more than a page or two, could find the fortitude to amass words page after page, until I created a book. A daunting task—but the thrill of pages piling up kept me going.
I persist and the word count increases. Now I can say writer as well as poet. I focus on the doing and not the labels. Next to my computer I keep William Faulkner’s quote: “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.”
Lisa Rizzo is the author of Always a Blue House (Saddle Road Press, 2016), a finalist in the 2016 National Federation of Press Woman Awards, and In the Poem an Ocean (Big Table Publishing, 2011). Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in journals and anthologies including Calyx, Naugatuck River Review, Longridge Review, The MacGuffin, and Unmasked, Women Over Fifty Write About Sex and Intimacy (Weeping Willow Books). She is at work on her memoir in progress, Half-Orphan: A Daughter and Her Father. Visit her at www.lisarizzowriter.com
February 15, 2018 § 19 Comments
Some time ago, I wrote at The Review Review:
…when a magazine elides their lack of cash compensation or makes it hard to find, they insinuate it should not be the writer’s concern, or a criterion for submission. It becomes another subtle signpost to writers: Your work shouldn’t be for money. At its worst, not actively sharing the information says, you shouldn’t care, writer. You shouldn’t ask. As if it’s money-grubbing or disgraceful or besmirching the purity of the art.
It’s perfectly in keeping with being a writer—even a “literary” writer—to want to be paid.
Today, jet-lagged and still trying to track down payment info, I am moved to poetry. With apologies to Tennyson and Elizabeth Bishop–
I sit and surf the internet
My list of brand-new journals set
There’s just one thing they oft forget
To tell me if they pay.
Their mission statement’s pure and strong
They’ve published memoir, poem and song
Their limit’s twenty pages long
Now tell me, do they pay?
I read through issues old and new
Decide that I admire you
One detail more I need to view–
To find out if you pay.
We’re literary citizens
Buying chapbooks by the tens
Sharing work from all our friends
No matter if we’re paid.
We’re told to have a long-term plan
Submit near-daily if we can
But our hearts turn pale and wan
From never getting paid.
I’m happy to publish for free
Or for an honorary fee
To choose a venue for prestige
And sometimes I want pay.
It’s not a crime to build on love
To work together for the cause
It’s just that I would like to choose
To sell my words for pay.
It’s not enough to think it’s clear no
stated fee means no pay here. Oh
don’t default to author=zero,
Own it! “We don’t pay.”
There’s lots of ways to sweetly say:
We pay in copies!
Just the fame–
We’ll make your name!
We’re all hard-working
We’re not sad or even mad
If your rule is iron-clad
For newer rags we’ll join the bet
But please be clear, “no budget yet”
For big-deal pages we’re excited
Just the print makes us delighted
But let us please decide ourselves
Whether to donate or sell
And tell us journals, far and near
(we promise we’ll still hold you dear)
Just make the information clear
Please tell us if you pay.
Allison K Williams has been Brevity‘s Social Media editor since 2015. She promises to wait another three years before again committing poetry.
November 6, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Katharine Coldiron
When I read Eileen Myles’s most famous book, Chelsea Girls, I found myself regretting my mild little life. It’s a book wrought from the chaos of New York City in the 1970s: sex, crime, booze and drugs, poverty, and poetry. None of that had ever been in my life. My experience with Chelsea Girls was practically anthropological, so distant was the content from anything I’ve lived, and it stirred in me both jealousy and relief.
The book did make me wonder how its author ended up, in a metaphysical sense. In the movies, dissolute youth often ends in a fiery wreck at the bottom of a ravine. In life, how does a bohemian poet cope with middle age? What does settling down look like for them? After multiple books that avoid the “memoir” label, what will they elect to write about that finally fixes it on the front cover?
In Afterglow (a dog memoir), I have an answer, and yet another example of the shadow life, the what-might-have-been, that divides Myles from me. I have never had a dog, and always wanted one, and Afterglow revolves around Rosie, the pitbull whom Myles cared for from 1990 to 2006. In this book, Myles grants to Rosie a remarkable breadth of experience and ability, and they toy with form and narrative freely. An early chapter comprises a puppet talk show on which Rosie is a guest and in which a dream of Myles’s is embedded. Later, Rosie and Myles bat the first-person pronoun back and forth in chapters both confusing and captivating. Rosie calls them Jethro instead of Eileen, philosophizes about Manichaeism, and asks its author what the book is even doing.
“Dog ghostwriting”—great language, funny idea, but honestly aren’t all dog books dog ghostwriting. No dog writes a book, no dog wants a book written no dog reads a book and the only part that might be interesting is the idea that all writers are ghosts. Look at you! The writer spends her life reducing her own existence to that of a ghost.
In just a few sentences, Myles and Rosie 1) expose why dog books are sort of dumb, and 2) hew close to questions that have plagued me for most of my life as a writer: whether authors are as real to most readers as they are to me, whether the experience of reading is normal or actually psychedelic and bizarre, what an author’s name written on the cover of a book signifies.
Not all of their experimentation is successful. Sometimes Rosie’s recorded thoughts are so jumbled that they become tedious to read, and I don’t really understand what foam has to do with art. But Myles’s books always feel this way to me: some aspects hit so hard that they lodge in the mind, crystalline and perfect, and others drag across the eyes as if I’m forced to mop up a soiled floor. Of course, Myles reaches different readers for different reasons. That is the glory of experimental literature: in it, there is no such thing as mass appeal.
I appreciate the sound of Myles, so unlike any other writer:
Meanwhile the gentle tap tap tap of the music of the house still pouring out. One side of the fireplug is blue. Chalk blue. I want to say scrawl. The cat seems to get distracted so I’m luring him in. He looks back at this day. More agitated it holds a white dog barking jumping up and down. The wall behind him is rose faded salmon in sunlight going to white. Blazing. My yard he barks. My sidewalk. We’re close up and all we see is whiteness and fence.
Afterglow is a memoir primarily about Rosie, but not exclusively about her. The reckoning a writer tends to do after age sixty, the backward gaze at a life, is present here, but not in an ordinary way. Myles has maintained the fire, the dirt, and the immediacy that characterized Chelsea Girls as well as so much of their poetry, but they’re using it to examine the mortality of their dog and, in no small way, themself.
Yet this is what writing is. A leaving behind.
The two chapters that discuss Rosie’s death in detail are as affecting as writing gets, but they make up only one mood in a patchwork of them. Like much of Myles’s work, Afterglow is less a unified book than a conversation. With itself, with its author, with its author’s dog, with me, the anthropologist who can’t stop reading about a life she barely understands. Like all great conversations, it ranges everywhere, strikes wrong notes, stutters in finding its way, contains moments of astonishing beauty and insight. Like all great conversationalists, Myles has a profound sense of themself, as well as a willingness to risk saying something totally weird as long as it’s true.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, The Collagist, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.
October 5, 2017 § 14 Comments
By Nicole Piasecki
I’m a prose writer. I’ve been trying to write a story that explores a friendship breakup from 20 years ago, when I was a student at a tiny college in southeast Michigan and quietly questioning my sexuality. It is one of those stories where the narrator can only guess what went wrong.
I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours, days, months, and years trying to capture the emotion of that loss in my young life, and I have been ungracefully flailing.
My workshop group members told me they got lost/bored with the logistics of college life. They said the characterizations felt flat. It needed a more compelling narrative arc. The emotion I intended to communicate through scene and detail left them wanting.
I revised again—moved the ending to the beginning, cut long sections of dialogue, tried to bring the characters to life with gesture and action. I read volumes of CNF essays for ideas on how to improve the story. Despite my desire and relentless effort, a second-round of workshop revealed that I still hadn’t solved the story’s problems. I set it aside, hoping an epiphany would surface while I drove or showered, or even while I slept.
A few weeks later, I signed up for an eight-week poetry workshop at Denver’s literary hub, Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I was desperate for a change of pace from my long-form essays and thought poetry would offer a good mental shake-up.
During the first week, the workshop’s instructor, Andrea Rexilius prompted us to write a poetic response to a favorite poem and to focus on what Ezra Pound called “Melopoeia” or the “musical property” of language—the way sound collaborates with meaning.
I selected Ocean Vuong’s, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” from his 2016 collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press). I wrote the beginning of a one-page poem, borrowing Vuong’s theme of impermanence.
I quickly became enthralled by the microscopic act of tinkering with language and experimenting with form. I liked the tidiness of a one-page composition surrounded by oceans of white space. It was like my eye was at a keyhole and could see an entire emotional landscape in a small, visible frame—such a stark contrast to my 17-page prose maze.
As a poetry beginner, I felt no pressure for my poems to be perfect, publishable, or even complete. It made me remember poet Brenda Shaughnessy’s 2016 interview with Chris Soto in LAMBDA Literary. Shaughnessy, a non-singer, started taking singing lessons. The act of doing something she wasn’t good at made her stop “wallowing in bullshit.” She said, “Really it’s neither difficult nor devastating to hit a wrong note or to write a bad line of poetry. Just write another. Sing another song. Big whoop.”
Writing poetry has been a welcome disruption; I’ve noticed a shift in myself, a loosening up in my creative process. I am having fun and not taking myself too seriously. I feel a freedom with poetry that I couldn’t quite articulate until a student in the workshop asked our instructor why she has pursued poetry over other forms of writing. Rexilius said:
I tend to remember my experiences on a more emotional, internal level (how something felt in terms of tone, or atmosphere, or mood–metaphorically), rather than remembering an experience in terms of its specific external details–literally, such as what a room looked like or whether or not my mother baked cakes. This interiority of memory, free of timeline, free of character (in a way), and of plot, is what I think makes me a poet.
Rexilius’s casual comment has stayed with me ever since. With my own story, I wanted to explore the intimacy of female friendships and the fuzzy boundaries between filial and romantic love. All along, I had been trying to prove to the reader, and maybe even myself, that the relationship embodied characteristics of both.
Through poetry, however, I breathed into the freedom from literality. I entered a writing space where I felt empowered to confidently define my own emotional experience through a collisions of disparate images, both literal and imagined without the same level of self-consciousness. In my poems, it didn’t matter who initiated our first hangout or what kind of cereal my friend ate for breakfast at the dining hall. It didn’t matter how our relationship progressed from A to B. Poetry freed me from the constraints of my memory and a clear narrative arc. I could, instead, distill the emotion of our relationship and its end by using any available means. The poems I wrote felt true, honest, raw—exhilarating.
When I first started this poetry workshop in August, I expected that the deep study of language would translate across genres. I saw poetry as a tool to help me improve as a prose writer and positively disrupt my writing process. The workshop has exceeded all of these expectations.
But I am also beginning to think beyond the workshop’s service to my essays and stories. It seems that some stories on my hard drive have been begging, all along, to be dismantled, set on fire, and rebuilt as poems.
Nicole Piasecki teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado Denver. She identifies mostly as a creative nonfiction writer but is intrigued by the possibilities of poetry. Her creative works have been featured in Hippocampus Magazine, Motherwell, Word Riot, Gertrude Press and other literary and professional journals. Nicole tweets about teaching, writing, and parenting @npiasecki.
June 9, 2017 § Leave a comment
From The Matador Review‘s Public Relations Liaison, Mandy Grathwohl:
Alternative art and literature magazine The Matador Review is now accepting submissions for the Fall 2017 publication. We publish poetry, fiction, flash fiction, and creative non-fiction, inviting all unpublished literature written in the English language (and translations that are accompanied by the original text) as well as many forms of visual art. The call for submissions will end August 31.
Our purpose is to promote “alternative work” from both art and literature, and to encourage the new wave of respect for online publications. In each issue, we offer a selection of work from both emerging and established artists, as well as exclusive interviews and book reviews from creators who are, above all else, provocative. For us, alternative is a way of voice and experience. It is the distinction from what is conventional, and it advocates for a progressive attitude.
Editor-in-Chief JT Lachausse spoke to the Aerogramme Writers’ Studio about Matador’s aesthetic:
For every piece of quality art or literature, there is a home. Some ‘homes’ include work that is regionally or culturally inspired, and some are reserved for particular genders, sexualities, or ethnicities. This sort of exclusivity creates an environment for distinct voices, and due to its distinction, these magazines are considered ‘alternative’ (syn: ‘different’, ‘nonstandard’). What we wanted to do was to open up a home for art and literature that is, in every capacity, unconventional; this could mean a ‘fresh’ voice, or perhaps a peculiar style, or maybe a bizarre subject that would otherwise struggle to find a place willing to parade it. …The Matador Review wants all of your redheaded stepchildren, but we want them on a damn good hair day. And they better not behave.
We look forward to seeing your work!
The Matador Review acquires First North American Serial Rights, and is a non-paying market. More information and contact info on their submissions page.
November 29, 2011 § 2 Comments
Anna Vodicka discusses the art of economy and the genesis of her essay “Girl/Thing” from Brevity 37:
When I wrote “Girl/Thing,” I was attempting to write my first real poem—not the quaint, rhyming lyrics I wrote as a kid that my parents framed on the wall, not the occasional St. Patrick’s day limerick fueled by bar talk and brews. A grown-up poem. A sober poem. Most of all, I wanted to capture on the page a specific moment of metamorphosis between girlhood and adulthood, that breath of a moment where you make the passage from one room to the next and a door clicks behind you. I wanted to put that on paper, to see the door, to sound the click.
“Awfully prosaic, don’t you think?” said my teacher, poet Robert Wrigley, when he read the pages I turned into him, which opened with a short section titled “Girl/Thing.” I was enrolled in his Contemporary Poetry class at the University of Idaho, where I taught and studied creative writing.
Wrigley was right. The poem bore the straightforward storytelling tendencies of prose, embellished with line breaks I happily executed from the keyboard: return, return, return, a revolving door of white space. Not the door I was after.
When I looked back at my attempt, I started to realize my own complicity in what one might think of as a literary iteration of the “diffusion of responsibility” phenomenon. Social psychology holds that the greater the number of people involved in a situation, the weaker the sense of individual responsibility to take action. If I’m alone in a building that sets on fire, I’ll call 911; if the place is crowded, I might figure someone else will do it.
Translate this to the writing craft, and notice how words crowd the space of twelve or twenty or two hundred pages. Our scenes can digress. Sentences can sprawl. They might all bear witness to the central idea and take action in supporting it…or they might get distracted and wander, or sit there lamely, uncertain about their exact role in this particular story, letting others carry the weight. They might even manage to get away with it.
But not in a poem. In a poem or piece of short prose, each paragraph/sentence/word becomes more apparent to us. An image cannot stand half-rendered, a sound ignored, a character left to flounder or die out completely, alone in the muddle. Every one shoulders a sense of duty to the whole.
When I wrote that first attempt at a poem, I had just read Galway Kinnell’s long-form poem The Book of Nightmares, a response to Vietnam that reads like a gorgeous and terrifying walk through the Valley of the Shadow. Reading it, for me, was an ecstatic immersion. His words acted out, took responsibility for their space and fired up the senses, page after page after page.
The poetry class did not make me a poet. I wrote a lot of bad poems. But it did turn my attention to the short form—the art of economy and responsibility. With Kinnell’s poem and Wrigley’s words in mind, I thought, “Yes. Prose, it is.”
I plucked a few lines from their stanzas, let them settle responsibly into the new space of a paragraph, and cautiously let prose in. That’s when I heard the sound. It went, “click.”
August 27, 2010 § Leave a comment
Cellpoems, a poetry journal distributed via text message and archived online, seeks poems of 140 characters or less.
In her poem “Poet’s Work,” Lorine Niedecker said that there was “no lay off from this condensery.” We’re looking for work that demonstrates the fruit of such labor; strange, profound, weird, and memorable language condensed into 140 characters or less.