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 -www.vagabondagepress.com), MaryAnn L. Miller (Locus Mentis http://www.amazon.com, http://www.maryannlmiller.com) , Iain Haley Pollack Spit Back a Boy- U. of Georgia Press, 2011), and J.C. Todd(What Space This Body http://windpub.com/books/WhatSpace.htm) 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 (www.vagabondagepress.com), 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.

Interview with Alyce Wilson


From: http://michaelaventrella.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/interview-with-alyce-wilson/

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Alyce Wilson, whose web page proclaims her as “writer, editor, poet.” Alyce, which one of those tags best describes you?

ALYCE WILSON: It depends on the day! I would say, though, that I’ve probably considered myself a poet longer, since that started back in second grade, courtesy of a very enthusiastic teacher, Mrs. Johnnie Stahl, who taught us how to write rhyming verse. But I have to admit that I don’t necessarily write poetry every day, while I do tend to write something in prose every day. So perhaps “writer” is more apropos right now.

VENTRELLA: Tell us a little about how you became involved in the business.

WILSON: I love the Joseph Campbell quote, “When you follow your bliss… doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors; and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else.” That’s what I’ve been doing. Aside for a brief flirtation with the idea of being a teacher, I’ve known from a very young age that I wanted to have a career in writing. The question has always been where and how?

In high school, I had an excellent journalism teacher, Mrs. Maryann Hoff, and began to consider that as a possible career path. But by the time I got around to declaring my major at Penn State University, I had fallen in love with radio (thanks to the college radio station, WPSU) and selected Broadcast/Cable. Perhaps if I had been less of a country mouse (raised in a small Pennsylvania town, as I was), I would have immediately sought out employment opportunities at a public radio station after graduation, but instead I felt directionless. The radio jobs available in small towns didn’t appeal to me, but I couldn’t imagine moving to a city. Fortunately, my decision to return to school, like the proverbial groundhog, waiting out six more weeks of winter, brought me to Penn State’s MFA program in Poetry. If I hadn’t panicked at the idea of city life, I wouldn’t have learned such valuable lessons that improved my poetry writing immensely.

Much as I loved grad school, however, I rebelled against the idea of remaining in academia. By that point, I had taught several undergraduate writing courses in essays and poetry, and I loved the students but hated the bureaucracy. I feared that pursuing such a career would be soul-killing and especially damaging to my writing. Instead, I felt it was important to experience life. So in my “hippie days,” I married a wispy dreamer, traveled up the Mississippi, and then took a job as a pizza delivery driver in my hometown (which served as inspiration for my second unfinished novel). Just about the time that my short-lived first marriage petered out, I found a job with the local newspaper (“The Standard-Journal,” Milton, Pennsylvania) as a reporter/assistant editor. This again, was the best thing for me, because it helped me to perfect my skills as a columnist.

However, the daily deadlines were highly stressful, and after putting on about 60 pounds and enduring a weekly migraine, I decided to get out of the newspaper business. I headed next for a PR job in Philadelphia, because after covering county politics and dealing with irate readers, living in the city no longer seemed so scary. While the PR job didn’t last, my love for Philly did, and for the past 10 years, I’ve been doing transcription work to make money and pursuing freelance and personal projects on the side. Coincidentally, spending time with college friends who had moved to Philly introduced me to my second husband, Mike Ryan, and led to our marriage and our 7-month-old son.

I’ll be the first to admit that my career path so far has been much less lucrative than, say, a career in public radio, but I believe that following my bliss has led me to becoming the person, and the writer, I am today.

VENTRELLA: Your latest work is “The Art of Life”, a collection of essays on various topics. Where did these first appear and how did you decide which essays to include?

WILSON: The pieces in “The Art of Life” came from three different sources: my “Standard-Journal” newspaper columns; columns I wrote for the now-defunct Comcast site InYourTown.com; and blog entries written between the years 2002 and 2010.

To figure out what to include, I reread all of my blog entries and columns and pulled out the ones I liked the most. Then I reread them once again, keeping in mind the following criteria: Did it stand on its own, outside of the collection? Did it fit with the other pieces? Was it likely to appeal to a broader audience than that for which it was originally intended? If I addressed a similar topic in two pieces, I opted for the one that was stronger. Then I arranged the pieces so that they led into each other, being conscious to alternate topics and tone. Finally, I went back through the manuscript and cut any pieces I felt were not as strong until I got to a reasonable page length.

VENTRELLA: You also are editor of a quarterly online literary magazine. How did that get started?

WILSON: At the time, I was about five years out of grad school, and I felt a calling to make a place for poetry in the world. This was an idea suggested to me by my poetry professors: that it was the responsibility of a poet in these days to make a place for poetry. A friend of mine, Amanda Cornwell, had received her bachelor’s degree in art and shared similar goals. We both felt it was important to make a place for the arts, particularly when you look at how the arts have been increasingly devalued in our society.

Previously, Amanda had launched a small print literary magazine, but funding was difficult and the circulation was small. We looked at the Web as a good forum for accomplishing our goals of making the arts accessible and appealing to the general public. With Amanda doing our initial Web design and serving as the Art Editor, we launched “Wild Violet” in October 2001. After the first three volumes (12 issues), she left to pursue other projects.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written a book giving advice to those who wish to appear in literary magazines. What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give (other than “read my book”) based on the mistakes you most often see new writers make?

WILSON: Know your market. As the editor of a literary magazine, far too often I receive submissions from people who apparently either cannot be bothered to check out our free online publication or have no clue how to direct their submission toward a specific market. We receive many submissions that are clearly inappropriate, which should be obvious to anyone who had perused the latest issue. It is essential to read the magazines to which you are considering submitting, and to decide which are most appropriate to send your work. It’s not enough just to look for magazines that publish poetry, for example; you need to find a magazine that publishes the kind of poetry you write.

VENTRELLA: “Literary” seems to have a specific meaning to some people in the publishing world. For instance, a science fiction or fantasy writer wouldn’t send their story to a literary magazine, would they?

WILSON: Actually, we receive all kinds of submissions, and we do publish some science fiction and fantasy. The term “literary” has unfortunately acquired an elitist connotation which, through “Wild Violet,” I’m trying to change. To me, “literary” means work which may be more challenging to the reader: writing which goes beyond basic storytelling, whether in terms of character development or the exploration of concepts. The science fiction we publish meets that criteria.

VENTRELLA: Do you think that talent is something that can be learned? In other words, can someone go to school to become a great writer or poet?

WILSON: Talent, that essential flare of ability, cannot be taught. Yet, more of us possess that essential flare than we may realize. A teacher can help you discover what your talents are. You might find, for example, upon taking a painting course, that it’s simply not something that comes naturally to you, but that photography does. That’s the role of education: helping people to discover and refine the talents they do have.

That said, I think education is a surer way to success for many people. There are few individuals with the right mix of raw talent and focused execution to become an overnight success, so to speak. It can happen, but those success stories are rare. Even those who enter a writing career later in life, after pursuing other careers, have more likely than not been honing their communications skills in other ways.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the future for printed books? For book stores?

WILSON: According to Bloomberg, in the second quarter, for the first time ever, Amazon.com sold more electronic books than hardcovers. I think it’s safe to say that print books are going to take on a new role in our society. Just as with other media that have gone digital, such as music and photography, I think we’re destined for a sea change.

In some capacity, printed books will continue to sell, if for one key reason: there are always slow adopters to new technology. Plus, until somebody figures out a way to sign a digital copy, it will remain the only way to get a signed book. A lot of people like to have an object they can hold which is not subject to, say, a hard-drive crash or computer virus. So there will always be a place for books as more than just a quirky artifact. The number of print copies sold, however, will likely diminish. When you think about it, people are still buying vinyl, too, but nowadays it’s confined to discreet subcultures: namely, DJs and collectors.

Book stores will have to look at how to offer the reader an experience they can’t get from buying a digital copy. I think book stores may become more of a locus to interact: in person with authors for lectures and readings, and perhaps with other readers through reading groups and the like. I would expect at least the chain book stores to add digital kiosks to the store, where readers could sample electronic books and buy them.

If book stores don’t start planning now, they will likely find themselves running into financial trouble, much the same way that record/CD stores have in the last few years with the emergence of the MP3.

VENTRELLA: “The Art of Life” is a self-published work. What are the pros and cons of self-publishing and why did you decide to do so for this book? Would you do it for, say, a novel?

WILSON: Any means of publishing offers pros and cons, which I examined carefully when deciding how to publish “The Art of Life.”

Pros to self-publishing include more control over the finished work. The author determines the final content, layout and book cover. Aligned with that are some obvious cons: you must either do all that work yourself or find someone to do it for you. So it is much more time-consuming, especially to guarantee a high-quality final product.

Another pro of self-publishing is timeliness. You can put the book out as soon as it’s ready, without going through the delays that a publishing house would necessitate. I wanted to get “The Art of Life” out as soon as possible, because I thought it would be a great opportunity to introduce myself to the reading public. Waiting for years for a possible acceptance by a publishing company did not appeal to me. I also felt that this particular collection, because of its range of styles and content matter, would be difficult to fit into the sort of genre or subcategory that publishers prefer.

Still another con, there is still a lot of prejudice towards self-published books, in part because so many sub-standard books have been published this way: poorly edited vanity projects that make the rest of the field look bad. However, as editor of “Wild Violet,” as part of our mission of making a place for the arts, I have reviewed dozens of self-published books. I’m happy to report there is some gold amongst the flax, so I felt like I was in good company.

Yet another con: as a self-published author, you are responsible for any expenses involved in printing and promoting the book. On the pro side, when money comes in, you see it immediately and stand to earn more per copy than through a typical publisher. Along the same lines, you don’t have access to a publisher’s connections when it comes to promotion; however, as I’ve learned from watching other authors, even with a traditional publisher, much of the promotion falls on the shoulders of the author. So if you’re willing to put that time and effort in, you could stand to profit.

Since there’s a long history of self-published poetry chapbooks, I felt comfortable with going that route for my poetry book, “Picturebook of the Martyrs.” Likewise, self-published nonfiction books can still sell, so I felt good about going that route with “The Art of Life,” as well. Unfortunately, when it comes to self-published fiction, there’s a glut in the market, with too many poor-quality books cluttering the field. Therefore, for better or for worse, I think that readers tend to look at self-published fiction a bit askew. The exception here is erotica, especially electronic versions, because that seems to sell strongly no matter the publishing source.

A caveat: these observations are largely anecdotal, so I’d be happy to be corrected by someone with more direct knowledge. However, I myself would be leery of self-publishing a fiction book, unless it were an erotica title.

VENTRELLA: One of the things that I admire about you is that you also run a Monty Python Appreciation Society. How did that come about?

WILSON: Just for clarification, I’m not currently running such a society. However, I am the former president of the Penn State Monty Python Society, and my adventures with MPS are detailed in my online chronicle, “Dedicated Idiocy.” MPS began in the 1970s when “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” first hit the American airwaves. By the ’80s, interest in the group had waned, but just before I joined as a freshman in 1988, MTV had added the show to its late-night schedule, so there were a record number of new members.

I discovered the Monty Python Society through a flyer I saw while attending an Amnesty International meeting. Since the two groups met at the same time, I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit that I sided with comedy over human rights. Still, I think comedy can do a lot of good in the world. One good thing it has done for me is introduce me to some of my oldest, best friends in the world. I’ve often said the real test of friendship is whether you can get together and be silly together. With these folks, I definitely can.

Kiss Now Available! (via PS Books)


Kiss Now Available! We are pleased to announce that Kiss: Poems by Alison Hicks is now available! Here's some early praise for Alison's work: "With her keen eye, with her precise ear for just the right descriptive word, Alison Hicks's poems enlarge daily life.  Whether running into the father of a childhood friend who committed suicide, or meditating on Chekhov, or reciting the mantra of drugs used to treat migraines, Hicks transforms daily experience into something … Read More


A colloquium on poetry and visual art at Bryn Mawr College was held on Wednesday, March 23,


By Mary Ann L. Miller

Jane Hedley, co-editor of In the Frame Women’s Ekphrastic Poetry from Marianne

Moore to Susan Wheeler moderated the panel of three critics who commented extensively on the

work of Jorie Graham, Rachel Hadas, and Susan Wheeler. The critic, Willard Spiegelman, who

frequently writes about Graham commented on how unusual it was to speak to an audience about

a poet who was actually present in that audience. He said that “Graham had always been a

looker,” meaning that she was a writer who had keen visual perception and, thus, it was

understandable that she would write poems about art.

One of the most interesting moments, of many, was when Jorie Graham talked about her

response to one of the paintings, Quentin Metsys’s “The Moneylender and His Wife.” She said a

poem was beginning to form within her as a result of looking at and hearing about the painting.

It was exciting to witness Graham’s initial inspiration and to hear the inception of her process.

Susan Wheeler has written a long poem titled “The Debtor in the Convex Mirror” based

on Metsys’s painting, that can be read at www.bostonreview.net. It is an example of a complex

painting illuminated by an equally complex poem that alternates between the setting in the

painting and New York City where the writer lives.

Another interesting moment was when the critic Nick Halpern presented excerpts of his

chapter from In the Frame about Louise Glueck’s oppositional response to being told what to

look at, namely, paintings. Simply put, her protestations have the effect of focusing attention

even more fully on the visual art she is avoiding.

The colloquium was akin to a three-dimensional living copy of In the Frame, a

performance of its pages and the poets who inspired them.

Read Poetry To Your Children (via MonkeyReader)

Writing Tips

Gary R. Hess

Reading poetry to children might sound a bit tedious. In today’s world, we often convince ourselves that we don’t have time for the simple tasks in life. We make excuses such as “I need to run to the store” or “I need to do the laundry” or even “my favorite television show is on.” Once you know the great positive influence poetry plays in children’s lives, you might magically find some time to read together.

Poetry can play an important part in the development of children. Actually, according to Beginning to read: Thinking and learning abut print, children who are without phonemic awareness find difficulty in learning to read and write. Instead of focusing on the phonemes, the children focus on the meaning of the word.

Luckily, reading poetry to children is a great way to avoid later learning problems. Children’s rhymes such as Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss do the job perfectly. By simply reading the rhymes with children, they work effectively towards helping the children gain phonemic awareness.

Once you think about about this, it makes sense. With rhymes, it’s easy for children to know the phonetic pronunciation. When they see the word “bat” in a poem after the word “cat”, they know exactly what the word is suppose to sound like.

Even though we live in a busy world with entertainment all around us, we still need to find time for the ones we love–especially when dealing with children’s education. By simply reading poetry with your child at an early age, you will help them understand the phonemes of words and get a jump start on reading and writing.