A wordy post about my approach to poetry


I had something of an epiphany last weekend: I largely prefer hearing poetry recited to actually reading it.

I’m surprised I didn’t figure this out sooner. After all, I have been going to poetry readings for about a year now—but I own very few books of poetry, and rarely seek it out online. Most poetry I encounter in print leaves me unmoved, and sometimes annoyed. Only occasionally do I read a poem that I feel a connection with.

My biggest problem with poetry in print is often the formatting. I see too many poems with structures that don’t make sense—that have line breaks in seemingly arbitrary places, contain stanzas that begin with the last word of a sentence from the preceding stanza, and use tabs and indentations that don’t serve an identifiable purpose. All of these things take me out of the poem; instead of focusing on what the poem is saying, I start trying to figure out why it is structured that way.

On the occasions that I have heard such poems recited, those inexplicable line and stanza breaks were no longer apparent. So, I wonder to myself, why were they there in the first place?

The other thing I have trouble with—and, admittedly, this is far more subjective—is that most poems I see in print seem self-consciously ‘poetic’—i.e., reading the way poems of their type are ‘supposed’ to read. With some poems, that may be the best approach, but I find that it creates a distance between me and the poem that blunts whatever impact the poet intended it to have.

That’s why my favorite poets have always been songwriters. While song lyrics can be poetic, the goal is usually to make an emotional connection with the listener. Consequently, song lyrics tend to be more direct, their language more economical. Granted, part of their impact can be attributed to the music, but there are songwriters whose lyrics can stand on their own—among them Leonard Cohen (who was a poet before he became a songwriter), Bob Dylan, David Sylvian, Lou Reed, Suzanne Vega, and Gil Scott-Heron.

That’s not to say there aren’t any poets I like. Among poets past, there’s Ogden Nash and Langston Hughes; online, Talicha J, Haley Hendrick, and Caitlyn Siehl; in real life, Kelli Russell AgodonLola E. Peters, Georgia S. McDade, and Minnie Collins (full disclosure: I know these last three).

That’s also why I try to write as honestly and economically as possible. I don’t want to impress with wordplay or create rarefied, refined, pretentious verse; no, I want to make that emotional connection.

Sharing my poetry

I have a mixed history when it comes to sharing my poems—but I’ll go on and on and on if I get into that, so I’ll skip to the present.

I take a very DIY (do-it-yourself) approach to sharing my work. I post poems online, self-publish print and e-books, and read at open mics and poetry readings. This approach allows me to get my poems out there at little or no cost.

Posting online has produced the best results so far. As of February 12th, my blog has 568 followers. That’s not a huge number, but it is likely double what it was before I began posting my poems on a regular basis. (It probably helps that I have my blog set up to cross-post links to Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, and that I manually post the poems to ello as well. I also post the links to Patreon, but I don’t have any patrons yet, so I doubt that has any impact.) Also, when I check the ‘likes’ my posts receive, I see several names coming up fairly consistently—which means that the term ‘faithful reader’ is no mere platitude.

Going to open mics and poetry readings has several benefits. One is that I can get immediate feedback, whether in the form of comments from the people present, or through observing people’s reactions while I am reading. Another is that the process of deciding which poems I want to read gives me insights as to their quality. I often find that a poem I decide I don’t want to read for an audience is simply not that good. Perhaps most important is that reading a poem out loud helps me to identify those parts that would benefit from editing.

Self-publishing has produced mixed results so far. The best thing it does for me is that it enables me to combine my various skills and talents in a single creative project. Obviously, I write the poems, but I also do the graphic design and layout, which incorporates my photography, and the editing. When you look at the paperback version of one of my books, you are seeing almost everything I am capable of doing. (This is less true of the e-book editions, because many of the layout and typeface choices are not available so that the books will be readable on the greatest number of devices.) And, because I have all those skills, I am able to produce these books at no cost beyond the printed copies I order to distribute myself. Then, of course, there is nothing like being able to hand somebody an actual book that I produced; if nothing else, that is impressive.

On the other hand, it is difficult to sell books. Poetry books are not big sellers anyway, so that is not much of a surprise. This is where it is especially fortunate that I have the ability to handle all the production tasks myself; since I haven’t had hundreds or thousands of dollars of expenditures to worry about covering, I do not have to scramble to sell a bunch of books now. Instead, I can focus my efforts on building an audience, the idea being that book sales will then follow.

Competitions and journals

Two avenues I have largely avoided: competitions and journals. Frankly, it’s because most of them charge ‘reading’ fees for submissions. Given the large number of competitions and journals there are out there, regularly submitting work for consideration can be an expensive proposition—even at $5–$10 a pop.

With competitions, entry fees make sense. Whether or not they have other funding, those cash awards have to come from somewhere, right? To date, I have entered three competitions, spending about $95. The most expensive was my Pulitzer Prize entry, at $50 (plus approximately $25 for the required copies of the book and postage)—but how could I not apply for the Pulitzer Prize once I learned it was open to anyone? The latest competition I entered (just this morning) charged a $10 entry fee—but that included a subscription to the journal awarding the prize.

As for journals, I have come to the conclusion that I do not want to submit to any journal that charges a reading fee. I was on the fence about this, but then I read Joseph Levens’ article, ‘Submission Fees: A Contradiction of a Journal’s Mission?’, on The Review Review website. I think he nails it exactly when he writes:

Many of the world’s better literary markets have a top mission to publish the very best material they can find. Since the institution of reading fees, a good number of writers have taken a position where they will not submit to any magazine with such a fee. Use me as an example. Though I’m no John Cheever, I have been published in over a dozen literary magazines that are fairly reputable and quite competitive. I will not submit to journals with reading fees, with the exception of one or two that I just absolutely love to death.

There are many others writers out there like me, with material better than mine for sure, who have adopted the same policy. And so, here is the contradiction: How can a journal with a mission to publish the very best literature put itself in a situation where it has essentially turned away this lot of writers?

I have submitted to two journals so far. One had a ‘tip jar’ option when submitting; the other did not have a reading fee. I did have three poems published in one of them, the 2015 edition of Spindrift, published annually by the community college I attended to learn graphic design.

Other avenues for sharing my work

Last year, I had a couple of other opportunities to share my work, both thanks to the Internet.

In June 2015, I learned about the Lament for the Dead project, which set about to commemorate everyone killed that summer in encounters with police—whether suspects, bystanders, or police officers. Each poet who participated had 24–48 hours to write a poem lamenting the death of a person that occurred that day; the poem would then be posted on the website. I was assigned to write about Santos Laboy, who was killed in an encounter with Massachusetts State Police. Between his Facebook profile and the initial news reports, I was able to come up with my poem, Iacta alae est (The die is cast).

A few weeks later, I was told about Tom Wright, a photographer who sometimes has people write short pieces based on his photographs, then posts both the photos and the accompanying text on his blog, as part of his Photo Tales series. A few days later, I contacted him about getting something to work with. He sent photographs, I wrote a poem (eventually titled The Number You Have Reached…), sent it back, and it was up on his blog not long after that. I later offered him the use of a poem I had written about one of the other photographs (Stars and ladybugs); it is on his blog as well.

More recently, I was alerted to Poets Against Hate, an event taking place at the Central branch of the Seattle Public Library. As many as 70 poets would gather to read for one or two minutes on the subject, with the event recorded for later podcast, as well as for broadcast locally on the Seattle Channel. I contacted the organizers about participating, and was put on the roster. On February 13, I was one of 50 poets reading; I read my poem I have questions. As mentioned in a previous post, The Raven Chronicles plans to publish a collection of the poems read that day in early 2017.

Enough of that already…

So, yeah, that’s how I feel about poetry, how I have been sharing my poetry with others, how I feel about competitions and journals, and other ways I have shared my work. Will I ever win that Pulitzer? Will I ever sell any books? Will I make that emotional connection? In the words of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, ‘we may not get there, but boy, do we care.’

(17 February 2016)