Category Archives: poetry

Money and Creativity

I regularly read two publishing industry blogs to keep up with the news and opinions. One is Between The Lines, the blog of the Books & Such Literary Agency. This agency serves the Christian booksellers market, and could be considered closely aligned with the trade (sometimes called traditional) publishing model. Their five agents rotate through the week with a daily post. The other blog I read is The Passive Voice. This is by a lawyer who re-posts and sometimes comments on news from the publishing industry. This blog is closely aligned with the self-publishing model. Both blogs have a community of readers/commenters, and I comment at both blogs from time to time.

Creativity comes in many sizes. Sometimes it even comes inside the box.
Creativity comes in many sizes. Sometimes it even comes inside the box.

Being part of the self-publishing industry, I tend to be more in agreement with TPV than with BtL. I keep reading the latter, however, because I want to keep up with news and trends in the other side of the industry. I’ve tried other blogs, but find BtL as easy to read, and it provides an adequate sampling of what I’m looking for.

So, all that said, I recently read this on the BtL blog:

“The need for money is the bane of art. Oh for the days of good old-fashioned patrons of the arts. Writing for the paycheck is the fastest way to kill a career. Each book needs to be better than the last, if we’re to build over time.”

This irks me. “The need for money is the bane of art.” How? How is commercial viability a bad thing, but whatever is not commercially viable a good thing? Commercial viability (a.k.a. artists making money off their art) indicates people are willing to pay to own or use the art. This, in turn, is a reflection of what society believes is good art. The inability of an artist, by which I mean anyone who does artistic things as a career, which would include writing, to sell his art indicates that society doesn’t believe he’s producing good art. Who is a better judge of what art is good: society, or the artist who produces it?

The writer of that phrase is implying that the need to produce art that society will accept as good and pay for somehow compromises the artist’s creativity. Follow the supposed train of thought by the artist: I need to feed myself and my family. No one’s buying the art that I produce, even though I think it’s good. But they are buying that [genre of book; type of painting; method of sculpture; etc.]. So maybe I should just emulate that artist and produce art I don’t this is good so I can feed my family. I guess I won’t be able to produce the stuff that I think is good but which society apparently doesn’t think is good.

Kids know. Sometimes playing inside the box is better than all those toys outside the box.
Kids know. Sometimes playing inside the box is better than all those toys outside the box.

What’s the solution to this? The original poster said, “Oh for the good old-fashioned patrons of the arts.” Their solution: For the artist to find a source of Other Peoples’ Money, to allow them to produce art they believe is good, even though no one wants it. And this is supposed to free the artist to produce whatever they believe is good. This is supposed to advance the arts, to produce stuff that people think isn’t worth paying for?

I could go many ways with this. Is artistic creativity really stifled by having to produce art that people want to buy? Cannot an artist be creative while staying “inside the box” or “between the lines”, or within the range of commercial viability? I think they can. I’ve said often before that my favorite type of poetry is formal poetry. Give me a sonnet, a ballad, a haiku, or a cinquain any day. Give me those constraints, and I’ll produce something with artistic creativity. Inside-the-box creativity is equally creative as outside-the-box creativity.

It always amazes me that people want to pigeon-hole creativity by saying it can only happen outside the box, and that it can’t happen on the lines. It’s funny that, in wanting the maximum artistic freedom, they say creativity can only happen one way. Once again, I reject that. I believe my creativity is best released by being presented with boundaries, and, since my art is the written word, finding words that do something new and different within the boundaries.

That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it. Any comments?

It rains! It rains!

Today, Friday, we are having band after band of thunderstorms pass over us here in Bentonville. As I’ve mentioned before, I like the rain; it does my heart good. So, on a Friday afternoon, I’m upbeat. I have completed a number of miscellaneous tasks this week, including today, and am ready for the weekend. If the storms continue (as, I believe, they are forecast to do), I shall read and write, file and discard, clean and organize to my heart’s content. If the rain holds off, I have plenty of outside work to occupy my time.

My writing work has been slowly progressing of late. I add a little every now and then to Preserve The Revelation. I do the same to Thomas Carlyle: A Chronological Bibliography of Compositions. Almost every day I review and add to my Bible study titled “Entrusted to My Care”, which we are scheduled to study in our adult Life Group beginning in four weeks or so. Of poetry, I add nothing. The villanelle I wrote last month I hope to get back to in a week or so, tweak it, then submit it to the anthology; the deadline for submittals is Oct 31.

Then, the other major task I have at hand is the cover for the print version of In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People. I’ve been waiting for two talented cover artists/creators to get to it. For a variety of reasons, some legitimate, some not, they haven’t gotten to it in over a month’s time. So, my top priority is to get it done this weekend, uploaded to CreateSpace, a proof copy ordered ASAP, and the book published ASAP. It won’t be as good as if a pro did it, but it will be done, and the book will be available before the Cubs win the World Series—if they do.

My cell phone just gave me a severe weather alert, the first one I’ve received on this. Yet, the thunder has about quit. I may not go by Home Depot on the way home. We’ll see.


Finally, I have a minute, with no other posts pressing on me, to write about what I’m working on in my writing career. I’ve been trying to get to this for several weeks, and another thought for a post keeps popping up and pushing this aside. Not today.

My main work-in-progress is a short story. Titled “Hotel Whiskey Papa”, it’s the fourth in my series about Sharon Williams Fonseca, an unconventional CIA agent. The Agency has another, junior agent who shows great promise, dogging her, for they are concerned that she steps over the line from time to time, doing Agency work in an illegal, or at least unethical, way. In a twist, I’m writing this on manuscript, not on computer in The Dungeon. I sit in my reading chair, with only an end table between me and Lynda, and write on the back of already used papers. I typed what I had last weekend, and some on one other day. On my computer the document stands at about 3,800 words. Since then I’ve written another thousand in manuscript, and am approaching the end of the story. I had in mind that these stories should be 4,000 to 6,000 words, so I’m on track. As soon as it’s finished, proofed, edited, and proofed again, I’ll publish it. I’ll make my own cover for this one.

Then, yesterday I actually wrote a poem, something more than a haiku that is. And I’m not denigrating the haiku form or saying it’s easy, but something longer? I haven’t written one in a couple of years, or maybe even five years. I’ve written some song verses in that time, but no stand-alone poems. This one is for an anthology being put together by the present poet laureate at the on-line writers group  Absolute Write. It will be a themed anthology of contributions by AW members, the theme being a traveling carnival. I told her I would contribute anything I had already written, but that I had no inspiration or energy to write something new. When the theme was announced, I had my poem “Magic”, which sort of fit, so I submitted it. But sometime on Tuesday or Wednesday a phrase and plot came to me that would fit the theme. I quickly forgot the phrase, but it came back yesterday morning. As the morning went on I saw a way to write the poem. During the noon hour I started it, and finished it off and on by mid-afternoon. I quickly posted it to the anthology critique forum before I lost my nerve. I’m not saying it’s good, but it’s done, subject to improvement, of course.

What else? I’m trying to get In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People published in print form. I have the book formatted, and am waiting on the cover. Two different people have given me photos of Wrigley Field to use, and two others have said they would do the cover. Alas, when you’re having people work for free, other things get in the way. Hopefully I can get this done next week some time. I may cobble a cover together myself this weekend.

I’m also improving some e-book covers. Recently I received a notice from Smashwords saying that four of my e-book covers did not meet their minimum standards. These are my older covers, made and posted before they had minimum standards. I guess they are just now getting around to enforcing. that. I completed one of them last weekend, or maybe last week some time, and uploaded it. Yesterday I got the word that it was acceptable, and the book—actually a short story—is back in the premium catalog. Only three to go. I’ll hopefully get one done this weekend.

That’s it as far as writing work. I’ll post something here and elsewhere when HWP is published. And, once things change, I’ll write again. Actually, I just thought of one other thing. I’m working on a Bible study to teach in our adult Life Group. But it deserves a post by itself. Maybe that will be next.

Poetry No Longer Comes To Me

I began writing serious poetry on August 31, 2001. Yes, I remember the date, because I was at home, laid up after a heart attack scare (it wasn’t one), and during those days at home decided to try my hand at it. The poem I wrote, “The Spring House”, is included in the one poetry book I’ve published, Daddy-Daughter Day. One person has told me it’s the best poem she’s ever read. Of course, she’s only seen it after it’s gone through much pondering and editing.

But of late, say for the last two years, poetry barely comes to me, either by inspiration or perspiration. I think if I should decide this evening to sit and write a poem, I would be unable to. I’d stare at a blank sheet of paper, perhaps write a title, and then…nothing.  Knowing a poem should consist of images and metaphors, with lines as the defining unit, I’d search my brain for an image or metaphor that would illustrate the title, but then…nothing would pass out of my brain. I’ve even found it impossible to write simple haiku (though, granted, my rules for haiku are somewhat more restrictive than what many people use).

I could speculate long on why this has happened. Is it life closing in on me, squeezing me? Is it the heavy concentration on prose writing over the last four years? Is it the turmoil in the world? Is it any of twenty other things I could write? Or probably the combination of them?

Or, perhaps, I was destined not to be a poet. Perhaps that was a false start on my writing career. Perhaps prose is my field, not verse. I used to sense inspiration on my noon walks, or while commuting to and from work. I’d observe something in nature, and begin a haiku in my mind, without being able to write it. Perhaps one in four or one in five of these might find its way to a completed haiku, and survive until I was back at the office or at home and could write the words on paper. I have dozens of pieces of paper with these haiku on them, waiting to be gathered and put in a retrievable file.

But, as I say, even these simple stanzas eluded me. But yesterday, on the way home, I was thinking about this. Since inspiration wasn’t there, I decided to try perspiration—work at it. I observed the sky. Cumulus clouds were ahead of me, to the north: towering, white, fluffy. The same clouds were to the west, with the lowering sun giving them a back-lit quality. Traffic was more or less normal. My health, well, yesterday was a bad day. I had an increase in sinus drainage and, I think, a high blood sugar episode. I spent half the afternoon simply sitting at my desk, getting nothing done, but being there in case someone needed me.

I took all these elements, and over five minutes of driving was able to hack out a haiku, using my rules, which include the 5-7-5 syllables as being the longest allowed, not a fixed amount. I did break one haiku convention, in that the third line is actually a metaphor, whereas haiku are supposed to be images, not metaphorical. I doubt my editor will care.

I thought it wasn’t bad, and said it over and over till I was home. There, I became immediately involved in supper prep and forgot to write it down. It wasn’t till about 10 p.m., more than four hours after the writing, the I realized I needed to commit it to paper. Fortunately I remembered it, found a note pad, and “created” it in tangible form. That means it’s copyrighted, even in manuscript.

It’s still not in a retrievable file yet. Perhaps that will happen tonight. And I’m not saying it’s a good poem. But it was a creation wrought of perspiration, finding a little inspiration from intentional observation. I’ll take it, and maybe build on it. I considered posting it here, but think I’ll not inflict it on my couple of readers.

Turning It Over

CS Cover-03 thumbnailOkay, I think I’m going to turn over my cover for Daddy-Daughter Day to someone. Jake has helped me with it so far. We looked at it today to discuss some tweaks. I showed him how some of his letters needed tweaking, to which he agreed. He showed me how some of my color work didn’t quite make the grade, which I could see after he pointed it out. He then said if I would send him the G.I.M.P. file he would see if he could upload it into Photoshop and take care of those few things. He also saw where some of the letters he drew were not on a straight line, which he wanted to fix.

CS Cover with green font 343x263He says he will have it done in about a day. He’s taking a few days of vacation for a stay-cation, with family in, but said he’d have plenty of time to do this. This means I might be able to upload the book to CreateSpace tomorrow, and order a proof copy pretty quick, assuming the cover size is correct. I think I did that correctly.

Turning this over to someone is both a good feeling and a not so good feeling. It feels as if I’m failing at learning how to do something. Yet at the same time it’s a relief not to have to deal with it.

Will I ever learn graphic arts programs enough to where I understand what I’m doing and feel comfortable doing it? I doubt it.

The two photos in this file are the two book covers I’m considering, after the guy’s tweaking. I posted them to Facebook and received comments. The green font one was ahead, but a decent but not comfortable margin. I’m anxious to get this done.

Little Snippets

Clearly my world has changed in the last couple of days, and it’s fall. As I got ready for work this morning, I heard hard pinging on the skylight in the bathroom. At first I thought that strange, because we had no rain in the forecast. Then I realized it was acorns falling from the nearby oak tree. Not many branches extend as far as the skylight, but a couple do. However, this seemed to be too many pings relative to the probable supply of ready-to-fall acorns, and I realized it had to be wind pushing them from other branches onto the skylight.

Sure enough, when I went outside for my commute, a blustery wind greeted me; not strong enough to have been heard in the house, but strong enough to easily move leaves and push acorns. It’s definitely fall.

I got in my pickup and started it, and almost immediately lines for a haiku came to mind. This is my commuting writing endeavor. Either on the way to work or on the way home, though more often the former, a haiku will come to me while I’m driving. Typically the first line and perhaps the third line come right away. As I drive the 15.6 miles to my destination, I work on it in my mind. The second line will eventually come. By the time I get there, I have a completed haiku—subject to further revision, as always.

That’s if I don’t forget it between the time I park and get to a place where I can write it. So often the lines leave me, and another writing idea is lost. Today, however, the lines didn’t leave me. I had worked on them enough, especially massaging the second line, that by the time I got to my desk, then went and weighed and got coffee, came back to my desk, had my devotions, prayed, and woke up my computer, I pulled out one of the prior days from my desk calendar, and on the back of it wrote the haiku. I don’t know that it’s final, but it meets all the criteria I usually put into a haiku.

A haiku isn’t much, but it’s writing. It’s creativity focused. I’ll take it, and be glad for it during the Time Crunch. Just as I’ll take the little bit of research I can do a few days a week, in the letters of Thomas Carlyle, which will work towards a couple of future (maybe) projects.

The Time Crunch will pass and I’ll dedicate more time to writing. Meanwhile, I’ll have to find joy in these small snippets.

Haiku and me

Poetry has escaped me for some time. When I post about it at a place like Absolute Write I’ll say that poetry no longer comes to by either by inspiration or perspiration. However, that’s not completely true. To some extent I’m avoiding poetry so that I can concentrate on my prose works. I think I could write poetry again if I put my mind to it.

The only type of poetry that currently comes to me is haiku. You know what I mean: those pesky, three-line poems of certain syllable count and subject, including nature and a season of the year. We worked on them, I remember, in 8th grade English. I even remember one I wrote, and it being criticized in class, not for how it agreed with the form requirements, but rather that people didn’t like the conclusions the haiku drew. I even remember the main critic: Linda B——. I know nowadays they have students write them at an even earlier age. After all, it should be easy to do. Three lines, 5-7-5 syllables. What could be simpler.

Well, to some extent it is simple, as far as the mechanics go. But to have a haiku transcend being mere prose broken into lines takes some doing. I don’t know that I’m really there yet.

Part of the problem is trying to force a form that worked in Japanese to work in English. What we call syllables is different than how the Japanese language works. Their sounds are called “ohns”, and they are shorter than syllables. So while they may have a 5-7-5 structure, that would would be shorter than our 5-7-5 syllables. So the syllable count for English haiku should be seen as a maximum, not a fixed requirement.

Then there’s the issue of subject matter. Is it just simply about nature and a season, or is there more to it? Lee Gurga thinks there’s more, much more. He was once president (or maybe it was executive director) of one of the main haiku societies in America and editor of a haiku magazine. In a series of posts a number of years ago at, he explained what it is the Japanese try to do with their haiku. Along with the length requirement, the subject matter is critical.

– It must include something about nature.

– It must include something about a season of the year.

– It should be two images, separate, and yet linked together simply by the words. He calls this the “syntactical cut”. Syntax should both link and divide the two images.

These are fairly exacting requirements. And, these are not requirements necessarily followed by most people who write haiku. To most people, the seasonal and/or nature reference is sufficient. A similar poem, the senryu, is the same length as the haiku, but can be about almost anything.

For myself, I took up the challenge of the two images divided by the syntactical cut. Only I decided to take it a step further. I decided make the images be in the first and third lines, and make the middle line able to apply to either image. Each image should be complete and natural when read with the middle line or read by itself. As a result, the middle line will have to include a preposition or conjunction.

My normal place to “write” haiku is on my weekday noon walks, or when commuting to work in the morning. Cloud patterns often inspire me, or other conditions of weather. For some reason my evening and weekend walks in our neighborhood don’t provide me with inspiration, nor does the commute home at the end of the workday.

Driving to work Friday morning in the pre-dawn, I saw a particularly large star in the east. Except then I remembered someone said that the planet Venus was rising ahead of the sun these days. That caused me to think of a haiku that would begin “Venus rising”. This stuck with me as I drove the last six miles to work. By the time I arrived I had the haiku finished. However, on the walk from my truck to the office I forgot that I had to write it down quickly. Thankfully by mid-morning it came back to me. Here it is.

Venus rising
ahead of a cloudy dawn
cold office beckons

The middle line will go with either of the others as a complete image, and the first and last lines stand alone as images of their own. I don’t know that that’s the final version yet, but I think it’s close.

So today, as I’m writing this to post tomorrow, I’m in The Dungeon.  Outside a mid-March snow storm is raging. The temperature is now in the 20s, the wind is howling, and snow is about at 2 inches accumulated and still coming down. This is the latest it has snowed in the 23 years I’ve lived in the Bentonville-Bella Vista area. It has inspired another haiku.

wind, cold, snow
five days before equinox
no spring in sight

Again, I don’t know if that’s any good, nor if it’s the final version. But it fits the rules I use, based on Gurga’s teaching. I’ll keep it, I think, and add it to the mix of my poetic works.

Two poems in one week. I don’t think I’ve done that for two years. They’re only haiku, but…what am I saying? Only haiku? No, haiku aren’t simple, and shouldn’t be labeled as only anything.

Thoughts Behind Rejection

our son, Charles, will next Monday begin his professional career. Doctorate in hand, he begins his position as an associate administrator over admissions for the Pritzker Medical School of the University of Chicago. On a phone call this week we talked, not for the first time, about the job and what it entails. Some of it will involve recruiting trips, to various universities, to encourage potential medical students to apply to their school.

In the course of that conversation, he said that Pritzker accepts maybe 10 percent (I think that’s about right; don’t hold me to that number) of those who apply. For the U of C as a whole, there’s also many more applicants than positions. That caused me to ask what to me seemed to be an obvious question: “If you have more than enough applicants, why are you going out and recruiting?”

He explained that recruiting was for the purpose of getting more and more qualified candidates to apply—so that they can reject them. Actually, he didn’t say that. He said that universities, and professional schools such as the Pritzker, thrive in part on “exclusivity”. The more candidates they reject relative to the number of positions available, the more exclusive the school will appear, and the more better candidates will apply. They will always had a difficult time competing against the good medical schools such as Harvard’s, but exclusivity helps. If they can say, “Only 5 percent of those who apply to Pritzker are accepted,” that will look better than saying, “Only 25 percent of those who apply….”

I suppose that’s true. A med school candidate, planning on applying to Harvard and similar exclusive schools and thinking they can be one of the 1 or 2% who are accepted, might not apply to a Pritzker that accepts 25% of all applicants, but might apply to a Pritzker who accepts only 5%. So off the school goes to recruit. Get the better candidates to apply, accept the best among those, and hope that with each class you’ll have a better and better student body. Then, maybe at a point in the future, some of those applicants who are accepted to both Harvard and Pritzker will go to Pritzker

I wonder if writing is a little bit like that, or at least traditional publishing is. The rejection rate is sky-high for most things that a person would want to publish. An agent that is actively recruiting new clients might see 100 query letters and want to see a partial manuscript for only 5 or 10 of those. Of those 5 or 10, the agent might want to see 1 or 2 full manuscripts. Of those 2, an offer of representation might come to only one. At most one. The agent will most likely need many more than 100 queries to find that one writer he/she would want to represent. Yet, the agents invite queries to be sent, and attend conferences and workshops with the intent of recruiting new writers, hoping to find that one writer who can produce a mega-best-seller.

This isn’t really the same as the medical school analogy. In writing, it’s a buyers market. Too many writers chasing after too few publishing positions. In medical school, it’s a seller’s market where the best candidates and the best schools are concerned. I’m not quite sure how the bottom 95% of the candidates fit in, and I think my analogy breaks down.

Today I submitted three poems for possible publication. I submitted them to a small-ish periodical, one that I’ve read from time to time but don’t subscribe to. It’s a publication for writers and speakers. The have mostly prose, but publish some writing-related poetry. I met the poetry editor of this mag at the Write-T0-Publish Conference, and she suggested I submit some. This might be a better than 1 or 2% chance for garnering a publishing credit. Maybe it’s around 10 to 20%. A week or two ago I submitted a haiku to a group that’s putting an anthology together to help school libraries that were destroyed in the Joplin tornado. I think that one may have as much as a 25% chance of acceptance.

Clearly I’m not exclusively applying to the Pritzkers and Harvards of the writing world. I’ve been doing that for about eight years, and getting no where. I may be close with my baseball novel, but I may also be farther away than I thought. We’ll see.

The Incestuous Poetry Relationship

I had a one-year subscription to Poet & Writer magazine, six issues at a deep discount of $10. I’ve always enjoyed this magazine, since it pulls together a broader variety of writers and writing topics than do many other magazines for writers. Often on my travels I will enter a Barnes & Noble, take one from the rack, buy a vente house blend and sit and read it. Usually I find such good things it it that I’ll buy the issue and read it in the hotel. So eventually I took the subscription. P&W is heavy on features: the writing life, debut novelists; debut poets. It is short on the writing craft, moderate on industry news, and what news it presents is usually done through features. A little short on regular columns, too, compared to other writing mags.

I read these issues slowly, only on Sunday afternoon, in our sun room, falling asleep and reading in several sequences. I’m currently working through the January/February 2011 issue, the last one of my subscription (which I did not renew). The covers says it is “The Inspiration Issue.” Under the heading of “The Literary Life” are many interviews of writers, but a series of short interviews of debut poets especially caught my eye. These are poets who had their first collection published in 2010. What I found instructive was the university attended/degree earned and employment of these poets. Let’s see how the columens will format, as I know the spaces will look right on my screen but probably not once published.

Age         University        Degree        Employment
41           Iowa                 MFA         theatre writer/critic
30           Warren Wilson  MFA         creative writing teacher
39           Columbia          MFA         mother
27           Wisconsin         MA           library worker
34           Iowa                 MFA         PhD candidate
29           New Mexico     MFA        teacher
30           Oregon             MFA        job hunting teacher
32           George Mason  MFA        PhD candidate
39            New York U    MFA       assistant professor
39           Utah                  MFA       associate professor
35           New School (NYC) MFA PhD candidate

All degrees save one are masters of fine arts, and almost all now work at teaching others. Is this the way poetry publishing is going? If so, it’s incestuous. Others have said this before me, that the MFA-based system results in inbreeding of poetic technique, begetting the same poetic technique, as those who are taught by MFA profs become MFA profs.

C.S. Lewis had a word to say about this, as I discussed a couple of months ago:

Great authors are innovators, pioneers, explorers; bad authors bunch in schools and follow models. Or again, great authors are always ‘breaking fetters’ and ‘bursting bonds’. They have personality, they ‘are themselves’.

We certainly have poetry “schools”, in the broadest sense of the word. And we’ve had ’em in the past, too.

Of course, I admit it’s quite possible that this magazine is not all that representative of the full range of modern poetry. It might be only a small part of it. Still, I wonder if this isn’t at least in part explanatory of why poetry is so unpopular these days. P&W is a magazine filled with adds for MFA schools and workshops. Every university and college in the country that has a creative writing program has an ad in each issue of the magazine. The ads almost always feature a rustic cottage surrounded by trees and meadows. A photo of some poet who’s supposed to be famous but who most likely I never heard of is inset, and the ad includes a list of faculty and visiting professors, almost all of whom I never heard of. Low residency requirements are typically trumpeted.

The ads that are not for MFA programs are for writing retreats or workshops. The ads that aren’t for any of those are for contests. The ads are so similar from issue to issue that I pretty much stopped reading them.

So P&W is of some limited use, but I really like it. I’m keeping these issues, and may refer back to them from time to time. But watch out for the problem of the incestuous poetry community I will.