Review of Lee Upton Swallowing the Sea on Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy


by MaryAnn L. Miller              

Review Excerpted from an Essay

Lee Upton Swallowing the Sea on Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy

            Tupelo Press, North Adams Massachusetts, 2012


Lee Upton begins Swallowing the Sea by citing Tomas Transtromer’s poem “The Name” about the momentary panic of a man who has forgotten his name upon waking from a nap. (3) Upton states “The writer writes against panic…reclaiming…ambition.” (4) Upton makes clear how the fear of not knowing who we are drives us to create identity from our writing. Upton recognizes conventional definitions of ambition such as money, fame, and power, but more important is the goal of making work that is “itself more powerful.” (4)

Upton’s second topic of boredom can also be a cause of panic. The fear of boredom, and of being boring pushes us to work and guides us to avoid those who bore us. This sapping of life is a fearsome thing because it is a physical reaction felt as an unquenched restlessness. Upton says, “A writer must rinse out the trough of expectation and turn boring moments into functional ones.” (55) She remembers her mother enlivening dull conversations by saying “I once saw a man completely covered in warts.” (60) Upton guards against any possible boredom in her writing by punctuating her barrages of citations and good sense with the same kind of sudden humor. Her chapter titles are full of wit and there’s even a riddle buried in the book.

She makes a sly comment “ …our temporary defeat of boredom and our capitulation to boredom are recorded in the fossil records of our books—and on our blogs, too: endlessly.”

Upton speaks of M.F.K. Fisher whose writing is sensuous, direct, and replenishing. She cites Fisher’s ability to “bring her obsessions with food into literature—to make food into a narrative, and to make narrative into something like food.” (75) And she hadn’t even been born French. (76) Ordinariness can be replenishing.

Upton slips into examples of purity from history, culture, and literature. We want to avoid writing “pure poetry” although she admits to trying to purify her poems in the past. There is an unheralded section between Purity and Secrecy titled Bigamy for Beginners that deals with cross-genre writing.

“…writing across the major genres can be a sign that a writing life may require more apertures, more outlets, and that for some writers the most fruitful ambition can best be realized on multiple fronts…” (101) When a poet writes prose she leaves behind compression and engages in a slower unfolding of a vision.

In the last section on Secrecy Upton says, “We probably never entirely grow out of burying and unburying what’s valuable…” (119) “Literature is the province of the secret…” (121) “So much of life is a secret that wants to be expressed and can only be approximated.” (123) We keep trying through panic, boredom, misplaced ambitions, and the struggles Upton acknowledges along with us.

Poetry Round Table Part 2


Wittle: For me, I have this poem I call “The Diana” poem that seriously haunts me. I’ve been trying to work on it for two years and I can’t hit on the right way to access the poem. Have you found yourself in a similar situation? How did you overcome it?

Heins: I’ve had three poems, specifically, that fell into this “limbo” phase you describe. My “Dianas” have been painstakingly difficult to polish off, and to this day, I still avoid reading them at all costs. However, they are three of my best poems. To pull these poems out of limbo, I had to use a different trick with each piece. One was about my father, and after over a dozen revisions, re-writes, and the like, I’d given up. My father and I have had a very strange, distant relationship these past six years, and the words simply weren’t there. But one day, him and I sat down at a family gathering and lost ourselves in good memories we shared together before those six years hit. Hours later, I was at home, and I started writing. I opened the many old drafts of my “dad poem” and reused the imagery that struck me most. Reconnecting with the actual subject of a piece helps stir the pot, but saving all of those killer images from earlier drafts adds necessary spice.

Another one of the three dealt with an experience that was completely imagined. So, naturally, the reason it remained in limbo was because my imagination wouldn’t let loose the way I hoped it would. Oddly enough, the thing that saved the poem was form – specifically, a terzanelle. It took hours to write, but once it came out, I felt the strongest sense of relief and accomplishment.

Really, Kenny Rogers said it best: you got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Save everything, and if something still calls to you, give it space and try shaking it up – it’s worth pursuing.

Miller: Oddly enough, in light of my last answer, I write around it by making a story about it and how I feel about writing it. I try to keep the original inspiration for the poem out of it and let it change itself. Sometimes a list of lines rawly written and then rearranged helps.

Pollack: I have several poem ideas that I just can’t seem to get down in a successful poem.  I’ve heard other poets use a jazz trope to describe this: I don’t have “the chops” to write that poem.  Obviously, I haven’t remedied this inability, but I assume that if I keep writing poems my skills, my “chops” will develop, and I’ll find my way to the language and form necessary to realize those unrequited poems.

Todd: Why not see an unfinished poem as a step toward a poem that will be realized?  Writing is a process. I am always writing what I can’t figure out how to write yet. If I’m not writing ahead of myself, how can a poem be a discovery, or as Denise Levertov proposed in her poem “Overland to the Islands,” “. . . every step an arrival”? But if the poem is too far beyond my ken, then I have the experience you’re having. I can feel something that I can’t access. If that feeling lingers, sometimes I’ll go in search of a painting or a piece of music that may carry me closer to the tone or color that I can’t reach in the poem. Other times, fresh air is needed, as Kenneth Koch reminded us in his foresightful poem. Then I’ll go for a walk in the city or a ramble in the woods to clear the thicket of tangled images and wrong turns through which I’ve lost my way to the poem. But often, the poem is unsolvable and unresolvable, and I put it away. I may revisit it intermittently or forget it for months or years or forever. It’s dormant and I’m dormant to it unless it pushes up when I am more ready to understand it. For the most part, poems that get put away for more than a few months are not survivors but they lead to poems that do take life.


Wittle: What advice have you been given with regards to writing and publishing you would like to pass on to another writer?

Heins: The best bits of writing advice I can give would be to learn the ropes in poetry, read the authors that move you most, and finally, let it rip. If you ever feel comfortable in your voice, or you feel like you’ve mastered some aspect of poetry, take a left and do something new.

For publishing, you should first seek other poets that can help you refine your work. Then, purchase Poet’s Market. Take an afternoon and a highlighter and pick publications in that book that you think would enjoy reading your work. Submit relentlessly and never fear rejection. As you build publication credits, consider creating a manuscript, and then shop that until a publisher picks it up. Always do readings when time allows. Rinse, repeat.

But the fact is, all poets have different processes. The one thing no one told me when I was starting out was that a poet must learn his or her own process and embrace it. If one of your friends writes every single day at 8 a.m., facing southeast, and does yoga afterward don’t think that you have to follow suit.

Also, it is important for the poet to accept the fact that his or her process may change over time. The poet must stay in touch with the self, or else the act of creation will be unnatural.

Miller: Read other people’s work, take a publishing class if you can, e-publishing in particular.

Go to events to get to know the range of the publishing world near you and begin to make connections. It surprises me to discover what a small world it is.

Pollack: I heard George Saunders advise, in effect, to trust the market.  I vehemently disagreed at the time because the literary market seems so fickle.  However, in the process of putting together Spit Back a Boy, I noticed that I went from receiving rejections, to polite rejections, to encouraging rejections, to encouragement until I was named a finalist for a contest and then won the Cave Canem Prize.  At each rejection or encouragement, I went back to the desk and revised the manuscript and made the poems stronger.  The market was telling me that the collection wasn’t ready.  That said, I’m still not sure I entirely trust what seems the bias and capriciousness of the market, but perhaps I just don’t understand it.

Todd: My mentors have given simple advice on writing that I pass along to my students.

Keep at it. Daily, if possible. At the same time each day, if possible. If you show up to write every day, the writing will show up too and you’ll be there to receive it.

Read deeply: slow down, even read aloud the work of writers you admire.

Read shallowly: skim what interests you, graze whatever the subject or form or footnote catches your attention for the sweet nugget you didn’t know you needed until you read it.

Draft or revise a few poems at a time. Allow them to trigger each other. When one bores you or stumps you, turn to another.

Writing a poem is practicing an art. Publishing is practicing a career. Each has its value. It’s best not to confuse them.


I would just like to thank the four poets for allowing me to pick their brains about my questions. I admire all your work and am truly grateful you could take the time to do this for me. All the best-MM

Poet’s Bios:

Ben Heins is the author of the electronic chapbook, Greatest Hits & B-Sides, by Vagabondage Press (, set to be released this spring.”

MaryAnn L. Miller, MFA is the Resident Book Artist at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College. Her work is in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Miller’s debut book of poems, Locus Mentis, has been published by PS Books.

Iain Haley Pollock’s first collection of poetry, Spit Back a Boy (U. of Georgia Press, 2011), won the 2010 Cave Canem Prize.  Previously, his work had appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, and Callaloo.  Pollock lives in Philadelphia and teaches English at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and poetry at the Solstice MFA Program of Pine Manor College.

J. C. Todd’s most recent volume of poems is What Space This Body. Poems have appeared in The Paris Review and other journals. She teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and in the MFA Program at Rosemont College. Awards include a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and two Leeway Awards.

Poetry Round Table Part 1


Imagine a nice, spring day. It’s a coffee shop somewhere in Center City. There’s a garden outside and four local Philadelphia poets come to sit at a table. Five questions are waiting for them on the table. Each poet begins to talk about those questions.
While that didn’t happen, in my mind it did happen just that way. I wanted to have some poets come to the table and ask them all the same questions. I am thrilled I was able to get Ben Heins (Greatest Hits & B-Sides, by Vagabondage Press, MaryAnn L. Miller (Locus Mentis, , Iain Haley Pollack Spit Back a Boy- U. of Georgia Press, 2011), and J.C. Todd(What Space This Body to indulge in my coffee shop fantasy and answer my questions. Here is part 1.

Wittle: When I started seriously learning about poetry, a dear friend of mine took me to Borders and placed a dictionary, thesaurus, and a rhyming dictionary in my hand and said, “Now you can start to be a poet.” What books do you think a poet should have within arm’s reach at all times?
Heins: None of those. To find the books a poet will need before writing, the poet must first connect with other poets’ works that he or she admires most. Even if this admired poet isn’t necessarily called a poet by society – such as singer-songwriters – the artist must be influential. The poet should then read and listen to those authors, study them, maybe even steal their rhythms – then, finally, the poet should write. No books. Maybe some music, if it helps. If the poet has focused on the inspiration, the words will likely flow naturally.
 Miller: Mary Oliver’s book A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry is one book I can’t do without. One look at the table of contents will tell you that much of what you need to know is contained in this little handbook. Also, Babette Deutsch’s Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms. Another is Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction to Anthology goes beyond craft and structure into universal themes and purposes. It is a well and the water all in one.
Other helpful printouts, I found online are a Glossary of Poetic Terms from the Poetry Foundation and a Table of English Tenses from English Grammar Online. It’s so easy to find these resources for handy reference especially for revising.
 Pollock: The books you listed are finishing tools in my process. Having at hand anthologies has been much more useful to me when I’m in a generative phase. I keep returning to I Am the Darker Brother, The Voice That Is Great Within Us, and a condensed version of the Norton anthology.
 Todd: I began with a few dictionaries, at hand but now also on-line. My preference is at hand, except when I’m traveling; then I’m grateful for on-line apps: The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and a second good English-language dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, a rhyming dictionary or two—my two favorites are organized differently from each other: Clement Wood’s The Complete Rhyming Dictionary and Bessie Redfield’s The Capricorn Rhyming Dictionary. A dictionary of synonyms is handy. Later, a luxury was added to my home shelf, one volume at a time: the five volume set of the Dictionary of American Regional English.
In addition to dictionaries, I often reach for an encyclopedia or use encyclopedic internet sites and search engines. In addition to general encyclopedias, I depend on more specialized encyclopedic references, such as The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols and Barbara Walker’s The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. I have a few dictionaries of literary biography, one general and one dedicated to women authors. As for general style manuals, I’m stuck on Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and a Harcourt Brace grammar book from the 1960s.
Over the years, I’ve added poetry-specific references to that shelf, including The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, Babette Deutsch’s Poetry Handbook and Miller Williams’ Patterns of Poetry. Clement Wood’s rhyming dictionary also contains a brief but comprehensive handbook. Graywolf Press has initiated a series of essays on style, edited by Charles Baxter. I’m currently reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Syntax, James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line, and Donald Revel’s Attention! Casting the reference net wider, for the practicalities and nuances of sound, I like Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and for received form, her Rules of the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. For sonnet form, I’ve downloaded Tony Barnstone’s amazing essay on sonnets published in the on-line journal, The Cortland Review. I’ve used, but don’t (alas) own, Annie Finch’s The Poet’s Craft and The Poet’s Ear.
The most important references, however, are not this array of books and essays but rather poems themselves whose structures I study, deconstructing and reconstructing their sonics, imagery, diction and tone, references to received form, lineation and, and, and. An essential aspect of this study is reading them aloud, although I draw the line at a solo reading of Spencer’s Fairy Queen. Poems and their makers have been my best mentors and guides.

Wittle: What writer do you feel has had the most influence in changing the craft of writing poetry? Why?
 Heins: Ooh, excellent question! Highly subjective, I suppose, but since I’m a free verse guy, I would have to say Walt Whitman. He single-handedly did away with the accepted forms of poetry and said, “I’m doing this my way.” In turn, he created these beautiful, flowing, sonic masterpieces that laid the groundwork for people like Allen Ginsberg or the current slam poets to further shake up the accepted poetic traditions.
I’ll read Whitman, even now, and his music echoes in me for days. It’s so inspiring – like a really catchy tune you can’t shake.
 Miller: I think poets like Walt Whitman, t.s.eliot and Alan Ginsberg have had a tremendous influence in changing craft, but having just come back from Ireland and listened to Irish writers and poets read their own work, I have to think James Joyce and W.B. Yeats have impacted the syntax and downright beauty of the language. Those Irish really know how to use the words. Each writer/poet in his time has moved poetry along and some have blurred the boundaries between prose and poetry. One of the important questions of today may be: Is this poetry?

Pollock: That’s a difficult question to answer; as I understand it, the craft of poetry has changed gradually. The introduction of free verse, obviously, was a major change that still carries influence today. For my money, as an American poet, Walt Whitman has most influenced the craft of poetry. I appreciate that he wrote the American idiom into poetry. His innovation led to the fecundity of poetry in the 20th and 21st centuries. Of course, he might not have made this change without the ideas of English Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. When I study the history of poetry, I see how each advance lead to the next.
 Todd: “Unless there is/ a new line, there cannot be a new/ mind,” wrote William Carlos Williams. Thus the writer who is most influencing the craft is the unknown poet who at this moment is nudging her language into new territory by grafting onto it bits of syntax, colloquialisms, words from other languages and neologism in order to say what she sees, imagines and thinks. In other words the most influential change-agent is a poet working at the borderlands, at the interstices of languages, cultures and personal vision. “Every force evolves a form,” said Mother Ann Lee of the Shakers. To my mind, that’s how poetry and language evolve.

Wittle: In your own writing, what form of poetry do you find to be the most challenging? How do you overcome the challenge?
 Heins: Any poetry writing that involves form is most difficult for me. Anything that dictates a certain cadence or limitation, to me, feels constricting. If I had to pick a specific form in poetry that is most challenging, I would say nothing is as difficult as writing a really good anagram.
I love contemporary free verse. There are rhythms, there elements of form present; but not all the time, and certainly not in an orderly manner. This is where I am most comfortable, and where I find the most room to explore my voice and style.
But, of course, I need to shake it up every now and then. I’ve written a haiku, a Shakespearian sonnet – you name it – and every time I challenge myself with a form, I find the poem comes out either terrible or terrific. If I’m frustrated with the form and the material, the poem will be garbage. If I’m really into the material, the form is an obstacle that I must overcome to convey the message, and the poem takes flight.
So, instead of focusing on forms that often frustrate me, I try other methods of restriction that are more fun. Recently, I did an erasure project with four of my poems and the results were spectacular. I wrote two things in 2011 that I like to call “choose-your-own-adventure-poem” pieces. Essentially, the words in the poem intersected and led the reader on a different reading every time.
 Miller: Probably poetry without a narrative, and I’m not sure what to call that. I try not to tell a story EVERY time I write a poem. I try to focus on the content of the theme and let the language reflect that rather than creating a story arc that must come together in the last line.
 Pollock: I find free verse most challenging because of its capacious set of possibilities. The danger of free verse is that is becomes prosaic, and I’ve found that the antidote to this is to embrace some lessons from verse, such as the repetition of a villanelle or the volta of a sonnet. I try to meet the challenge of free verse by writing as much of it as possible.
 Todd: One way to respond is to say, the poem I’m writing now is the most challenging. But you are asking about form, not the poem itself. Forms with a patterned recurrence of lines are the most challenging for me, specifically the villanelle and pantoum. The challenge is to write a line beautiful and true enough to be repeated and for that repetition to open new resonances of meaning and tone.

For Part 2, tune in tomorrow.
Bios of Poets:
Ben Heins is the author of the electronic chapbook, Greatest Hits & B-Sides, by Vagabondage Press (, set to be released this spring.
 MaryAnn L. Miller, MFA is the Resident Book Artist at the Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College. Her work is in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Miller’s debut book of poems, Locus Mentis, has been published by PS Books.
 Iain Haley Pollock’s first collection of poetry, Spit Back a Boy (U. of Georgia Press, 2011), won the 2010 Cave Canem Prize. Previously, his work had appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, and Callaloo. Pollock lives in Philadelphia and teaches English at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and poetry at the Solstice MFA Program of Pine Manor College.
 J. C. Todd’s most recent volume of poems is What Space This Body. Poems have appeared in The Paris Review and other journals. She teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and in the MFA Program at Rosemont College. Awards include a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and two Leeway Awards.