Partial Transcript Of Secret Presidential Debate On Contemporary Literature


[“You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem…”]

“…because you know, that sense that they’re getting a taste of the real, that’s what the audience eats up.  ‘My people’—heh, sorry—my people, your people, doesn’t matter whose people, this is a broader American thing, to need to see beneath the veneer of the public persona into some darker, messier private place that complicates the image.  The idea that the average American success narrative is just the glossy cover over a writhing field of neuroses and tics and dark hidden things.  In literature, unlike in public life, it’s much more complicated, though, right, because that sense, within the space of an essay or poem, of receiving a more unmediated or “real” transmission from the author, something that’s not supposed to be seen, has to be false; if anything, that “authentic moment” that thrills the reader just represents a higher level of mediation and fabrication, right?”

“Do you really think I want to talk about this right now, Barack?”

[“All right, we have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it…”]

“And I guess, kind of related to that, one of the important questions of our current literary moment—think about, say, recent work by Ben Lerner or Sheila Heti or Teju Cole—is whether it’s possible for contemporary fiction to find ways to make use of the charge of the writer’s identity and the incorporation of materials from real life and journalism, to play with textual form and markers of authorial presence to create that frisson of the real that comes naturally to poetry and the essay, or whether, as a genre, it’s become fundamentally handicapped there in relationship to the others and it just has to cede that territory for a while and focus on what it can do better than the rest of literature.”

[“And we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen…”]

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Five Marks of Oft-Rejected Poems

There’s a bug going around the IR office. We’re drinking plenty of fluids, popping lots of pills, but everyone’s on edge. Just yesterday, I shook hands with Fiction Editor Joe Hiland, and I think I caught it: I caught the grouchy bug. So, I think it’s time for a poetry take on Joe’s post about what we often reject:


1. Boring first lines. I get that the first line often needs to set up the scene or narrative or conceit of the poem, and so there’s a desire to use it as a kind of exposition, but if I, while getting paid to do this, don’t want to read past your first line, potential readers probably won’t, either. Don’t just tell me you met Janine when you were twelve, or that the moon was overhead, or that May became June. Hook me, flatten me, fuck me out of my senses with your first line. It should be one of the best lines of the poem.

2. Over-associating. I’m not a minimalist by any means, but I do believe in earning your fireworks. Your winter breath is not a constellation of fireflies axeing their way through the winter like little lumberjacks. There’s not a hot air balloon filled with jackrabbits in your chest every time she looks at you like a prison guard bleeding sugar. I don’t care that it’s Tuesday. A poem ought to be, I think, more than just a collection of assorted images. What is your poem doing? What does it add up to? How is it governed?

3. Abstractions, clichés, stale language. This one should be obvious, but, apparently it isn’t. Fire licks, smoke curls, sunlight dances and dapples. Clouds of grief. I receive so many poems that are generally interesting and well-crafted and then drop a big fat cliché in the middle. Regardless of how honest, genuine, or deeply felt these phrases are, I’ve read them many times already. Be fresh.

4. Refusal to transcend. Whether a poem originates in a painting or myth or fairy tale or memory of the poet’s first boyfriend or phrase in another language, it ought to transcend its originating material. How is the poem, the poet, the speaker, or the reader changed by the end of the poem? Where have we gone? I want to be MOVED, in any and all of the wild and various ways a poem can do that to a person.

5. Weak endings.  I think the phrase “but the ending…” is probably the most-said phrase in the IR office. Across all the genres, we get so many pieces that are killed by their own endings: pieces that sputter out or say too much or don’t say quite enough, pieces that end on a confusing phrase or an abstraction after so much crisp imagery, endings that go in a whole new direction and leave that direction undeveloped, endings that repeat what the whole piece has already said, endings that aren’t emotionally resonant and endings that are manipulative. Anything less than a great ending is probably going to kill the poem, for me. Endings are hard, man. Like drawing hands.

I don’t mean to suggest that these are all-important rules for making a good poem, that there is never a reason to do one or more of these things. But a great number of the poems I reject from the slush pile, or that don’t make it out of our editorial meetings, are turned down largely for one of these five reasons. Hopefully, this gives you a better idea, via negativa, of what kinds of poetry we like.

On Submitters and Subscribers

I suppose this post is something of a riff on Michael’s first rule of good literary citizenship: read literary journals. It’s good advice, and Michael rightly invokes the communal spirit of journals in support of his point. I’m not going to be quite as nice, however. Consider this the grouchy old man version of the argument.

Two questions: 1) Do you submit work (poetry, fiction, or nonfiction) to literary journals? 2) Do you subscribe to any literary journals?

If the answer to Question 1 is “yes” and the answer to Question 2 is “no,” then we have a problem. Read more…

Free Inspiration, Part the First

I don’t like writing prompts. I understand that they help get lots of writers going, that they can be fun, that lots of great poems were prompted by someone else telling the poet to write “a poem in ten lines with these four words and this other random restriction,” but I find all that tiresome. I’m more interested in finding inspiration in the wild (or, you know, on Twitter).

There’s a folder on my desktop filled with links and images meant to be such inspiration, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. I never find the poem hidden within. So in these installments I will offer this inspiration to you. Maybe you can make it work. All I ask is for a shout-out in your Pulitzer acceptance speech.

First, a moose drawing the poet Randall Mann found on a bathroom stall:

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If Lottery Tickets Came with Coffee: On Applying to Contests

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a teensy bit competitive.

I get into flip-flop footraces in parking lots. Fail as a Catchphrase partner, and you fail me. I’ve been known to talk some smack. Ask the Cubs—they probably imagine that winning is a lot more fun.

As a writer, the dream of my work winning a competition or prize sends me into ecstatic fits (and it ain’t pretty).

Why not apply to journal contests every day?

Read more after the jump!

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