Monthly Archives: October 2009

Rejected, Rejected, Rejected & Thank Goodness

When I was in a junior in college, I thought I had this poetry thing figured out. I was convinced that the first draft of everything I wrote put Paradise Lost to shame. I would wait a good 24 hours after that first draft before sending my work to publications like The New Yorker.  I think you see where this is going.

WORD RIOT, an excellent online publication, had the good sense to reject those poems. I remember pitying the editors; the poor things couldn’t see the brilliance I had given them the privilege of witnessing. Oh, well, on to THE NEW YORKER.

Rejected, rejected, rejected. And thank goodness.

Now, the mere thought of having those poems published anywhere makes me gasp with embarrassment. I read somewhere that a good editor can’t afford to publish bad poems & a poet can’t afford to have bad poems published.

All of this is to say: WORD RIOT has just published 2 of my poems. They aren’t perfect; Paradise Lost would laugh them out of the room, but I love these poems. More importantly, I’m proud of them now & I will be proud of them years from now.

To all of the editors who have rejected me because I wasn’t ready: Thank you. I’m working on it.


“What Should You Know of a Lyrical Life?”

from “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America or Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley” by June Jordan

“It was not natural. And she was the first. Come from a country of many tongues tortured by rupture, by theft, by travel like mismatched clothing packed down into the cargo hold of evil ships sailing, irreversible, into slavery, to be turkey/horse/cow, to be cook/carpenter/plow, to be 5’6″ 140 lbs., in good condition and answering to the name of Tom or Mary: to be bed bait: to be legally spread legs for rape by the master/the master’s son/the master’s overseer/the master’s visiting nephew: to be nothing human nothing family nothing from nowhere nothing that screams nothing that weeps nothing that dreams nothing that keeps anything/anyone deep in your heart: to live forcibly illiterate, forcibly itinerant: to live eyes lowered head bowed: to be worked without rest, to be worked without pay, to be worked without thanks, to be worked day up to nightfall: to be three-fifths of a human being at best: to be this valuable/this hated thing among strangers who purchased your life and then cursed it unceasingly: to be a slave: to be a slave. Come to this country a slave and how should you sing? After the flogging the lynch rope the general terror and weariness what should you know of a lyrical life? How could you, belonging to no one, but property to those despising the smiles of your soul, how could you dare to create yourself: a poet?”

from “Education of the Poet” by Louise Glück

“The fundamental experience of the writer is helplessness. This does not mean to distinguish writing from being alive: it means to correct the fantasy that creative work is an ongoing record of the triumph of volition, that the writer is someone who has the good luck to be able to do what he or she wishes to do: to confidently and regularly imprint his being on a sheet of paper. But writing is not decanting of personality. And most writers spend much of their time in various kinds of torment: want to write, being unable to write; wanting to write differently, being unable to write differently. In a whole lifetime, years are spent waiting to be claimed by an idea. The only real exercise of will is negative: we have toward what we write the power of veto.”

from “372” Emily Dickinson

“After great pain, a formal feeling comes –“

from Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”


The Poetics of Class & How to Write Ourselves Back to Relevancy

1. With the help of essays like “A Question of Class” by Dorothy Allison and “Gender, Class, and Terrorism” by Michael S. Kimmel, my students and I have been thinking about class quite a bit this semester. To borrow a phrase from bell hooks, if anything is true, we are desperately trying to figure out where we stand: the pink slips, the credit card bills, the student loans, the knock-off designer purses. But – I have to ask – what about the poetry?

2. In “Where We Stand: Class Matters” bell hooks argues that, unlike race and gender, we don’t have a vocabulary for class. Most Americans refer to themselves as “middle class” while statistics show that most us aren’t “middle class” by a long shot. The language of class seems to be hyperbolic at best. Sure, we can name what it means to be exorbitantly wealthy or extremely poor, but where are the words to describe the rest of us?

3. If I accept the idea that poetry emphasizes creative and innovative use of language; that poetry allows us to name what, previously, was beyond the grasp of words, how can I not think about class? How can I not think about the potential of poetry to help us feel our way through these uncertain times?

4. As we continue to search for subject matter worth putting into words, perhaps it’s well past time that we, as poets, contributed to the conversation about class in America. It’s not only a matter of writing poems that examine, depict, and voice economic struggle. It’s about mining our libraries for work that already does so. Think of Walt Whitman’s apostrophe to a prostitute. Think of Langston Hughes’s poems about landlords and tenants. Think of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago.

5. Who among us will write poems for Gary, Indiana? Who among us will write poems for Detroit, Michigan? Who among us will write poems for Newark, New Jersey?

6. As we continue to decry the lack of an audience for poetry, the lack of interest in what we do as creative writers, perhaps the poetics of class offers us a responsibility, but also an opportunity to make our work relevant again (whatever THAT means).

7. Praise to all of you already writing these poems. Praise to all of you already reading them.

On Sylvia Plath & My 11th Grade Self

1. My 11th grade English teacher wore kimonos; a hip, young white woman who wore kimonos and assigned poems by some dead woman named Sylvia Plath. I remember reading “Mushrooms”. “We shall by morning / inherit the earth.” I went to the library that day and checked out a copy of The Bell Jar.

2. I don’t remember who I was that year. I couldn’t tell you if I was happy all the time or depressed; what music I was listening to; what R-rated movies I begged my mom to let me see. I remember sitting at my desk and mouthing the lines of “Mirror” as I read them in our textbook. “I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions. / Whatever I see I swallow immediately.”

3. Before Sylvia, I didn’t know that the open mouths of ovens were fatal. I couldn’t understand why she killed herself. I read The Bell Jar for answers and found none. The woman in the book was Sylvia and wasn’t Sylvia at the same time.

4. My favorite part of The Bell Jar was when the young woman goes home and takes a bath. She sinks into the hot water and stays there until she feels better.  I had taken baths like that before. I loved how my heartbeat sounded under water; how the rush of blood filled my ears; how water felt as it pressed against my closed eyelids. I’m not coming up for air until the air changes.

5. Sylvia Plath was my imaginary friend that year. After taking a bath, I would stand in front of the mirror and think about what Sylvia would say. “Whatever I see I swallow immediately.”


Currently Reading…


What the Right Hand Knows by Tom Healy

If Birds Gather Your Hair For Nesting by Anna Journey

A Question of Light and Gravity by Blas Falconer

Horse Dance Underwater by Helena Mesa