Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘What Editors Want’ Category


Megan Fernandes in the August 19 issue of The New Yorker takes on the challenge of writing an original, interesting love poem, with “Scylla and Charybdis.” “I like when the choices are both ugly…” she starts. Notice how deftly she threads a few needles, how quickly. If she had said “both hard,” we would be instantly bored, as that follows naturally from the title. If she had started with “I hate when…” We would also expect that emotion from the title, (or at least not be surprised by it) and some interest would have been lost. My view is, that’s how carefully one must write to publish here. It’s why The New Yorker poems are consistently among the best. Nor is any of this how a conventional love poem would start. “Odysseus chose / Scylla and I, too, would have opted for / a terrestrial evil…” As the poem develops, it goes into details of the two lovers being separated, one on a water vacation, one at work in NYC. “Soon you and I will exist in different time zones… you swim in open Spanish waters… I spin in a street of yellow cars.” As with the best poems, the thesis is not pursued too long, new water is poured into the poem (as Henri Cole once said). “you face the queen medusas in the water… you are facing me. I am them in hundreds.” And the strange image, the twist keeps us interested, as the poet meditates on love, on separation, and on how fear for the beloved underlies any such time apart. A very skilled poem.

Ciaran Carson wrote “Claude Monet, ‘The Artist’s Garden at Vetheuil,’ 1880.” “Today I thought I’d just take a lie-down, and drift… yesterday, some vandal upended the terracotta pot of daffodils / In our little front garden.” When a poem tells a story, I’ve noticed, it often does so with many little digressions, diversions, meditations, and insights. So it is here, and they deepen and enrich what we are reading. “I thought of…Poussin… and his habit of bringing back bits of wood, stone, moss…” We may not know the references, or even the painting being referenced (Google it, it’s a famous work) but the plethora of images creates a feeling of richness, of importance, of welcome that draws us in. “Etymologies present themselves, like daffodil from asphodel.” Me, I love to meditate on how words have developed over the years, and I suppose a great many people who love poetry do so as well. This is a poem for the aesthete, perhaps. Those who take their pleasure in references echoing down the years. “Strange how a smear of color, like a perfume, resurrects the memory.” Exactly. And thank goodness that we can share such moments through poetry.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Blue Collar Review – Spring 2019

Nimrod – Spring-Summer 2019

The Missouri Review – Spring 2019

 

Read Full Post »


Sandy pointed out, after reading the Summer 2019 issue of Rattle Magazine, that many poems are basically little short stories. An interesting observation, I thought.

Certainly we can follow along to “How To Date A White Boy,” by Amy Alvarez. “Never be the first. You are no one’s enigma / or experiment.” I’m sensing a certain bite behind the words already. “If you meet his parents, prepare / for disappointment.” It’s not a narrative exactly, but more a commentary on a narrative subtext. A very understated, powerful, work, with a perfect ending.

Marvin Artis gives us a fun, sexy little metaphor poem, “Poetry.” “Right now we’re polyamorous… I have to find my own way with her.” So many dual-meaning statements, each one more amusing than the last. My favorite is probably: “I told her that most of the time… she’s confusing and all over the place. / She told me I was supposed to love her mystery.” Or maybe, “…tell me who you are, she said. But don’t preach to me…” Great fun.

I liked the linkages in Catherine Bresner’s “Canvasser.” “And in the middle of my grief / a puddle — / and in the middle of a puddle / a penny…” Sort of the structure of the Mockingbird song. She goes some very intriguing places, and the images strike up a great resonance.

Matt Farrell’s “Sky Blue” is another story poem. “That summer after high school we did nothing / of use to anyone.” Love where he placed that enjambment. “We skateboarded along the flat streets.” It’s a lazy poem of youth and lost moments, small triumphs and dares that fizzle away. And then a deep shock. Beautifully written.

Stephanie A. Hart gives us a poignant poem, “The Purse,” about a mother emptying out her purse and reflecting on what she finds. “The purple / matchbox car / hit the table / hardest… errant pencil tips / and battered / baby barrettes…” It becomes a search of the mother for herself, in that most intimate of places, her own purse. “Nothing was hers.” Even the discovery at the end fits the theme perfectly.

Finally, let me mention Morgan Kovacs’ “An Abecedarian For The Unmentionable.” “About the time I turned 20 / babies began looking cute… I imagine someday / cuddling my own baby to my chest.” I love how the first word of each line is especially resonant to the theme of the poem, yearning, hope, disappointment, loss. “…I felt comfort in my / period, and I / quit hating my body.” Such a powerful, sad poem. Very much worth reading.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

The New Yorker – May 20 2019

Nimrod International Journal – Winter 2018

The Missouri Review – Winter 2018

 

 

 

Read Full Post »


Dwight Marsh, one of the long-time editors of Plainsongs, is departing. In honor, the magazine published his poem, “You Can’t Just Look,” which tackles the theme of reading the slush pile to find good work. “you gotta read your way / through forests of pulp… that darken the sunlight.” It’s a loving view of his job, and gives worthy insight to those who do not know the point-of-view of an editor. Clear, concise, even fun: “an inner monkey swinging / from phrase to phrase.”

I was touched by the opening line of Beth Paulson’s “The Red Barn: Watercolor on Paper.” “The barn, before it fell to its knees, / stood tall and strong…” I have seen my share of decaying barns, and there is something magical and mournful about them. I could see how they would make great subjects for painting. “…it leaned, / one wall mostly gone, smelled of dust, rusted tools.” There is a continuity about a barn that lives in few other structures. Nicely captured here.

I loved Shuly Xochitl Cawood’s “If.” “If I were an avocado I could stop rot with the simple pit / of my heart.” It’s a deeply thought-through metaphor that unfolds through the poem, creating a resonance far beyond the words themselves. “I could rise from where my mother once took root.” Wow. “I would cost more / than you would want to pay.” The multiple meanings in each line are worth studying, worth savoring. A brilliant poem, actually.

Holly Day is always solid, and once more so here, with “Whispered To A Mason Jar.” “I’m in love with the little midges / that dance in the sunlight.” It is always a nice change of pace to read a poem not about suffering, death, loss (themes, let me hasten to admit, I delve into myself). This is a beautiful reflection on the world, with layers of meaning and joy. No wonder the editors chose it. “I want to become a creature like that / cavorting in sunbeams.” A wonderful poem.

Then again, Phillip Howerton’s “The Pasture Cemetery” is definitely about dead people, but he keeps us entertained with their attitude about the living, shall we say. “These dead chose their place of rest.” The dead in his poem display some attitude, though not to the extent of any zombies. “No great-grandfather rises from soil / with rotted overalls and collapsed face… perhaps these dead are practical folks.” But it is the last lines of the poem (though I try not to give away endings as a rule) that will raise the hair on the back of your head, even without the rattle of one chain.

And lastly, let me mention Joan Colby’s “Loner.” “I cantered down the bridle path / Along the lake shore.” Again, a poem about a moment, skillfully rendered. “The waves rollicking against the breakwater.” And an epiphany deepens the poem, makes it memorable. “I knew then that being alone did not mean loneliness.” Such strong work.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My book of poems, Against The Night, a wry look at a love that builds through a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

Star*Line 42.1 – Winter 2019

The Missouri Review – Winter 2018

The New Yorker – Mar 25 & Apr 1, 19

 

Read Full Post »


While I am convinced profundity in poetry can be obtained, or at least improved, mechanically, depth for depth’s sake seems of little interest to the powers-that-be who edit our flagship journals. For any office processing hundreds of thousands of poems a year, as the New Yorker must, a surprising and arresting beginning is easier to spot, while profundity takes mulling. Best to filter out first based on a level of surprise, then take profundity into account later, perhaps.

Take Terese Svoboda’s “Contrail” in the current issue. When a poet muses on contrails, what is the first image that comes to your mind? For that matter, what’s the first word? I’d guess Svoboda threw those initial images out, when they occurred to her, looking for something more shocking, original, intriguing. So she starts her poem, “Whereof fluff rushes,…” Now, I didn’t see that phrase coming, and doubtless neither did Paul Muldoon, the magazine’s editor. We can imagine his interest: okay, where’s she going with this? Here it is: “…muscles through, / pre-pendulous…” I especially love that pre-pendulous. It gets us thinking of movement, of development. We have all seen contrails slowly become pendulous in the sky, and we wonder how she is going to use that shared experience. She gives us: “about to come apart…like // stitching you soak in the rain.” Again, she is not developing the poem in any linear fashion we can expect, and yet she is making sense in hindsight. We have seen contrails come apart as well. Now, I argue that profundity comes from words and phrases that have multiple interpretations. Puns, to be blunt. And in a reference that comes late in this short poem, Svoboda brings in the Bible, directing us to back up and look for those places of multiple meaning in this work, for an extra metaphorical sense to clouds, for instance. The depth comes later, in other words. Then in the last line, she brings us up short one last time, with another phrase that revisits meanings. It’s a slick, professional-level poem that could serve as an example of what it takes to crack the top markets in American poetry these days.

Robert Pinsky, the poetry editor at Slate, is the recipient of many thousands of poems a year himself, and such an experience is going to inform his poetry as well. But his poem “Genesis According to George Segal” starts out less elliptically: “The Spirit brooded on the water…” A straightforward reference to the beginning of the Bible. In fact, his entire first stanza plays it straight. But fear not, in the middle of stanza two we veer off: “What was the Spirit waiting for? /An image of Its nature, a looking glass?” Quickly, Pinksy gets into the nitty-gritty of glass composition, and a series of elliptical references: “a tangle of bodies / made out of plaster, which plasterers call mud.” See the twist: had Pinsky just said ‘bodies made out of mud,’ we would lose interest, learning nothing new in a tired biblical reference. There’s no intrigue. The poem, for me, has a very delicate sense of balance, when to move the argument along, when to surprise with another factoid. The images generally (but not always) take a a biblical tack: “Men in a bread line…waiting / at the apportioning-place of daily bread.” This serves to tie the poem together, as do multiple references to particles, early and late, as does starting with water and dust and then referencing mud, returning to ‘clouds of dust,’ then ending, or nearly so, with a reference to “moist with life.” One could consider this poem a development of images in parallel, rather than a progression of logical argument. Again, I believe many such poems are finding homes in the top markets, simply because they are more interesting to editors who have seen so many poems that are nothing more than an extended metaphor, or a captured, lyrical moment. Honestly, I myself find it very tricky to write interesting poems with such requirements/structures. But it’s sure fun to try. ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

Read Full Post »