The Case for Enthusiasm

April 26, 2012 § 2 Comments

If you read this site, you’ll already be aware of the fact that I’m a pretty sarcastic person. I’ve been known to say that my mother tongue is sarcasm, but that’s not quite true — it’s my father tongue. My mother is generally quite positive.

I am also fairly critical, a skeptic, and I definitely sometimes yield to the temptation to be elitist with regards to art and entertainment — Mumford and Sons? Really? — but I am also a sucker for enthusiasm.

How I feel about the Olympics/Disneyland/a new Toni Morrison novel/insert thing I love here

The two worlds I spend most of my time in are academia and the art world, and I’m constantly surrounded by people hating on everything. It gets tiring. Wow, you don’t like Sylvia Plath, congratulations on your discerning taste, jackass. While academia certainly has a canon that it’s acceptable to worship/you’re expected to worship, academics can also fall prey to the hipster ethos of “the more obscure it is, the better it is” (unless it’s written by a woman: then it’s “chick lit”— or possibly young adult lit — and unworthy of serious discussion). And while artists love geeking out with each other over shared love of a certain writer/painter/musician, they also love hating on anyone whose work becomes successful. Just ask any young poet about the Dickman brothers: it’s a love them or hate them thing, and bitches will throw down.

Did you just say All American Poem was a shitty first book?

John Lithgow knows what's up. (Also, these gif Tumblrs are all over my Facebook feed recently, so you're getting some gifs today.)

But really, I’m so bored with all this hating. A few weeks ago, The Awl published a piece in which they’d asked a number of editors of literary magazines, as well as some contemporary writers, to name books or authors that they’d loved in the past and are now ashamed to think about. Quite a few mentioned Ayn Rand (duh), since many writerly and intellectual types go through an infatuation with her — she particularly appeals to the individualistic mindset of the teenage years. Now, while the woman’s philosophy was batshit insane, I think the fact that thousands of teenagers read her massive novels (Atlas Shrugged is a brick: the thing’s like 1200 pages — imagine a high schooler choosing to read a 1200-page novel) and feel galvanized by them is a sign that she has a certain kind of talent.

The Beats were another oft-repeated example of books people used to love but now are embarrassed to have cared so much about. The Beats are an easy target, and I think it’s kind of lazy to say you hate them. It’s like saying you hate Nickelback: you don’t have to provide any reasons, everyone just nods along. Of course, Nickelback makes me want to drive my face through the wall, and I think their lead singer is impressively unattractive, but still, hating them isn’t very original. It’s the same with the Beats: you can say they’re simplistic and self-indulgent and overly grandiose, and everyone will just go with it. Even though what’s really simplistic and self-indulgent is regarding this passionately inventive and massively influential group of writers as somehow insufficiently literary, but whatever — have fun at your Douche Convention! (I will defend Alan Ginsberg to my grave. “America” is one of my favorite poems of all time.)

Apparently the lead singer of Nickelback is named Chad Kroeger. I'm sorry, Chad, but you are one creepy-looking mofo.

The part of The Awl article that really bothered me, though, was Edmund White’s comments on Virginia Woolf. What he said:

My reaction:

Well fuck you very much. You cannot tell me that reading Mrs. Dalloway isn’t a journey for your very soul, or that Orlando isn’t a tour de goddamn force. (Also, thanks for writing off basically the only female modernist anyone takes seriously — sorry, Djuna Barnes, but almost no one remembers you, even though you’re a genius — or rather, one of the only female novelists period that people are willing to accept as truly great, because she can keep up with people like Faulkner and Joyce, which she fucking does, by the way.)

Now, Mr. White teaches at Princeton, so I’m sure he feels entitled to belittle anything he damn well pleases. And that’s his (annoying) prerogative, but I’m really tired of a culture in which degrading others’ work is the key to establishing yourself as a “serious cultured person.” (Are you wearing a monocle? Why are you not wearing a monocle, serious cultured person? If you’re going to talk about how television is the opiate of the masses, you should at least be wearing a monocle. And a bow-tie.)

Are they playing...Coldplay? Guards, take them away!

Imagine you are standing on a ladder, the top of which reaches a platform with a plate of cookies on it. Hitting the person next to you doesn’t get you any higher in the air, it simply knocks them down to a lower rung. There still isn’t anyone getting the cookies. (And yes, the ladder/cookie bit is an analogy for the progress of the human race. Where do I pick up my Philosopher of the Year award?)

And as much shit as I give various things/people on this site, it’s ultimately more fun to gush about something I love than to rant about something I hate — thus all the pictures of puppies and bunnies and Bradley Cooper.

I die.

I’m trying not to tamp down my natural enthusiasm in my life or apologize for liking the things I like. Yes, I write literary criticism that looks at Faulkner through the lens of poststructuralist and other twentieth century philosophical theories of consciousness, and I ALSO LOVE THE HUNGER GAMES. I LOVE THEM. I LOVE THE CHARACTERS. I LOVE KATNISS AND PEETA AND CINNA AND EVERYONE. I SOBBED THROUGH THOSE FUCKING BOOKS. THEY ARE INCREDIBLE AND THIS IS WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF YOU DISS THEM:

I think The Hunger Games books demonstrate keen attention to character development and a masterful management of plot, and you can make fun of them and of me all you want, but at the end of the day, I’m the one that gets to marry Peeta Mellark in my mind…I mean, what?

I adore Peeta in the books, so I was very skeptical about the casting for the film. Against my expectations, however, Josh Hutcherson was phenomenal as Peeta in the first movie. So now I obviously love him.

I’m campaigning for enthusiasm. Let’s love things and not feel ashamed for it.

My friend C is a continual example to me in this. C has perhaps the most unabashedly open heart of anyone I’ve ever encountered; she’s got love spilling out of her very pores: love for people, for nature, and for art and entertainment, both “high” and “low.” She doesn’t distinguish between these last two; she just loves things. Her heart is practically bursting with affection and joy when she watches Pretty Little Liars, and that enjoyment is not at all ironic. She feels no need to regard such a “trashy” TV show cynically, and watching her watch PLL is an absurdly enjoyment experience in and of itself.

We have a friend who doesn’t watch TV and sometimes when we’re talking excitedly about a show, he looks at us like we’re paramecia to his homo sapien. And we’re like, bitch, talk to Frank O’Hara:

My Heart

I’m not going to cry all the time
nor shall I laugh all the time,
I don’t prefer one “strain” to another.
I’d have the immediacy of a bad movie,
not just a sleeper, but also the big,
overproduced first-run kind. I want to be
at least as alive as the vulgar. And if
some aficionado of my mess says “That’s
not like Frank!”, all to the good! I
don’t wear brown and grey suits all the time,
do I? No. I wear workshirts to the opera,
often. I want my feet to be bare,
I want my face to be shaven, and my heart–
you can’t plan on the heart, but
the better part of it, my poetry, is open.

— Frank O’Hara

I want to be at least as alive as the vulgar. So let’s roll back the cynicism a bit. I aspire to be this excited at least once a day:

How (Not) to Get Your Writing Published

March 5, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’m currently reading submissions for a bi-annual literary journal, sifting the “stellar” from the “has potential” and the “just get it away from me.” Since I’m currently an unknown writer sending my poems out to various publications, whispering, “Like me, like me, like me” when I mail them, I know the vulnerability of putting your work into the hands of someone potentially willing to publish it.

I’ve been writing poetry since early childhood. My premier preschool-era poem still hangs on my grandma’s wall; it is entitled “Happy Birthday Grammo” — my spelling was not all that at age 4.  Despite my two decades of writing since then, however, I’m still an “emerging writer,” in that I’ve never published a book. Or published in a lot of journals. Or developed a following. Okay, “emerging” is a generous term; I’m still very much in the early stages of getting published beyond my grandmother’s living room. And since I’d like people to read more than a single poem written in magic marker, I really hope that people at various journals and publishing houses are going to give my work a chance.

Especially since at any other journal I’d be the submitter, when I’m reading submissions sent to the lit mag I work for, I truly try to give each one the benefit of the doubt, assuming each poem will be good until I’m proven otherwise.

But sometimes I’m proven way otherwise.

My friend J made this stamp as a gift for another friend, who is an editor for a literary journal and who also teaches poetry to undergrads. I don't care if it's a joke -- I'm starting to want one of these.

Over the last two months, we’ve been processing significantly more submissions than normal because we’ve been reading all the entries for our annual editors’ prize. I’ve read over 500 poems that have been submitted for the contest, and that “benefit of the doubt” period I try for is getting shorter and shorter. (Are you familiar with the concept of the nanosecond?)

There are a number of things submitters do that immediately set their poem on the slippery slope to the “no” pile. (Subsections of the “no” pile include the “hell no” pile and the “oh, please, please let me never think of this again” pile.)

To help you, the submitters, (but mostly to help me and other editors deal with this crap less in the future), I’ve compiled the following points to help you avoid ending up in one of the nine circles of rejection hell.

1. Read the gorram directions.

a. If the journal’s submission instructions say, “Please submit no more than [insert integer here] poems/stories at a time,” what should you do? That’s right! Your should submit twice as many as they ask for because anyone anywhere would be happy to read more of your poems!

No. My biggest piece of advice for submitting to journals is to go out of your way not to piss off the people who will be evaluating your work. If I open your submission file to discover that you’ve included eight poems even though we only allow six at a time, I’m immediately annoyed, and I think two things: 1) This person did not read the directions, and 2) This person thinks that he/she/ze is above the directions. Well, guess what? Since I work for the journal, those are my directions, and your ignoring them is like giving me the middle finger while I’m doing you the kindness of trying to consider your work seriously, even if the title is “One in a Million” (Note: actual title for a poem I recently read — try to avoid cliches, especially in the title: it’s your first impression).

You don’t want me thinking you’re lazy, negligent, or arrogant before I even read your poems.

b.  If the instructions say, “Oy! These are going to be blind submissions! Don’t put your name on the manuscript!” then my suggestion is: don’t put your name on the manuscript! If you’ve submitted to a contest or an editor’s prize or anything else that asks you to remove your name from the file holding the poems/stories, but you ignore this and put your name and contact information on the first/last/every/any page of your manuscript, the person reading your submission can and probably will just reject it without reading it, since you didn’t follow the rules.

Conversely, if the mag asks you to put your contact info on every page of the manuscript in order to make it easier for them to contact you later, do that. If you don’t follow the directions, everyone will know how poorly you did on the “listening” portion of the STAR tests as a child.

2. Submit all your pieces of writing in one file, unless the directions indicate differently. Why? Multiple files are a hassle for us.

Many publications now allow you to (or even prefer you to) submit online. Writers usually do so by uploading their work to a dropbox feature on the journal’s website or through a service such as ManuscriptHub, or Submishmash, or Submittable.

We use ManuscriptHub.com, and after writers electronically submit their work, our readers must then download each file in order to review it.

Each submitter has his/her/hir own folder, and you will have assuaged me if I open your folder to find only one file (.pdf or .doc/.docx or something please — if I have to figure out how to open up some bizarre file type I either 1) won’t, or 2) will be incredibly annoyed by the time I actually get to your writing). If, however, I open the folder for submitter #4559 and find four separate files, each of which holds a poem about one page long, I will be muttering obscenities to myself as I open them. (You only want this to happen after I read your poem, as in, “Fuck! This poem just tore my heart out and fed it to a vulture and then put the vulture through a wood chipper!” This is how I react to things I like; I’m weird.)

3. I am judging you based on your font. When I open your (one, please just one) file, the font is the first thing my eyes register. Before I can evaluate your title or even the poem’s visual form, really, I either notice your font or fail to notice your font.

a. If I fail to notice it, that means you used Times New Roman: good job. Times New Roman is totally innocuous — it’s easy to read and is the default font for Word documents.

b. If I notice it and it engenders a happy feeling in my chest, that means you used a font other than the old standby of TNR, and one that is aesthetically pleasing but conservative. Examples of this include Georgia, Palatino (my current favorite), Garamond, Cambria, and plain Times (somehow slightly more beautiful than TNR).

Poets care an inordinate amount about font and spacing; I’ve had multiple protracted discussions with other poets about which fonts we prefer and why, as well as the benefits of 1.15 spacing and the evils of double-spacing a poem. You might think we’re ridiculous, geeky control freaks to spend time alone in our rooms thinking about fonts, and we probably we are — but we’re the obstacle between you and publication, so we’re ridiculous, geeky control freaks with power.

c. If I notice your font and it engenders a tight, burning feeling in my chest that makes me look for the nearest chair or small child to kick, that means you used something absurd — a flowery script that I can barely read or some pseudo-handwriting that looks like a kindergartener scrawled your poem in crayon (unless you are a kindergartener writing a poem destined for your grandmother’s wall, this is unacceptable). I will not take your poems seriously anymore. I will read for evidence to support my new belief that you are a dilettante/moron/cat that stepped on the keyboard while Jane got up to make a cup of coffee.

4. I’m judging you based on your poem’s visual form. Never center-align your poems. Never. Just don’t. It shows that you’re an amateur.

The only acceptable center-aligning that I can think of occurs in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, in which she center-aligns a series of ceremonial poems/stories that interrupt the prose at various points, and these are center-aligned to emphasize that they are spoken, i.e. this is oral tradition: Native American myths spoken throughout the generations. And even in the midst of this brilliant, astonishing, acclaimed novel, I still cringed when I came upon poems placed in the middle of the page.

5. If you haven’t racked up any demerits during numbers 1 through 4, congratulations! I am now actually reading your writing without any negative feelings!

But now I’m judging you based on your title.

Coming up with a title can feel like lot of pressure. I mostly suck at it. The easiest thing is to use a very simple title and thus dodge the bullets of “cliched” and “overdramatic.” If you write a poem about a cornfield, call it “Field;” a poem about a lover, call it “For Thomas” (feel free to substitute the name of your own lover).

That “One in a Million” poem? My expectations immediately fell from this-person-could-be-the-next-Anne-Carson to writing-from-a-Katherine-Heigl-movie-level. Similarly, don’t call your poem “Tortured Hell that Is My Soul” — you don’t want me thinking this is a discarded Dashboard Confessional song from 2003. (Keyboard confessional: I secretly loved DC back in the day, and I’ll still rock out to “Vindicated” if given the chance.)

A title prepares readers for the poem, primes their expectations. A title can lead grammatically into the first line of the poem (I have a poem called “She Asks Me How You Are,” and the first lines are “And I tell her / you’re wonderful”), or a title can provide vital information (W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” which centers on the Nazi invasion of Poland on that date, which marked the beginning of World War II) or convey a tone (“In Vermont No One Can Hear You Scream” and “The Things I Do When I Am Not Doing You,” both by Gregory Sherl, who great and you should check these poems out right now — go on, click the link).

Your options for titles are myriad, but the safest is a one or two word title that is quiet and doesn’t distract from the poem. Of course, if you can come up with a title that does something more than be innocuous, kudos! Just so long as the thing it does isn’t “sound like a 13-year-old’s diary.”

I’m a big fan of the super specific, super long title. James Wright was a master of these. Great titles of his include “In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned” and “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” the latter being one of Wright’s most famous poems (and one of my absolute favorites). He also has a poem called “In Memory of the Horse David, Who Ate One of My Poems,” which consists entirely of the title: there is no poem; the horse ate it!

Of course, you can use a subtle title such that the poem’s ultimate tone or content comes as a surprise. When I first read Matthew Dickman’s “Grief,” I certainly wasn’t expecting the first line to be “When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla.”

There are so many options for titles, and you should feel free to experiment. I had high hopes for a poem I read entitled “If Proust Had a Facebook Account.” Just remember that the title is a reader’s first opportunity to get an impression of your writing; you don’t want that impression to be, “Did he copy this title from his great aunt’s needle-point pillow?”

7. Rhyme. If your poem sing-songs like a nursery rhyme and isn’t a re-imagined nursery rhyme that has the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe on welfare, there’s a problem. Use rhyme carefully (and, when in doubt, sparingly).

8. Be careful with controversial topics. I will cringe if you mention Jesus, or write a poem about 9-11. Writing political poems or other poems with an agenda is very hard. Read an anthology of anti-war poems: most of them will be heavy-handed. A poem (while in progress) needs the facility to change and grow and expand according to its own artistic needs; having a very definite message or moral that you want the poem to convey stifles the possibility for the poem to surprise you, its writer.

This is not to say that a poem dealing with a controversial event or issue cannot be successful — I write political poems sometimes — but if I’m distracted from the actual language and content of the poem thinking, “This is an Iraq War poem,” or “This poem really, really wants me to believe in Jesus,”  your poem will fail in terms of both art and message.

9. Be individual. This is the most difficult task I can give you; the pressure to be entirely unique as an artist (and a human being), to do something no one has ever done, to create a phrase no one has ever used, can feel immense. Don’t feel overwhelmed — simply develop habits that will help you make your voice distinct from the voices of others. Namely, read. A lot. Read all kinds of things — poetry, novels, nonfiction, humor, genre fiction, news — but pay special attention to others writing in your genre, be that genre poetry, the short-story, or what have you.

Pay attention to images and words that you see repeated amongst different writers so that you can avoid over-used images or words or phrasal constructions. People at our journal were joking recently about how many poems we get that compare hands to starfish, and low and behold, one of the submissions I was reading this week actually used that metaphor. I found myself laughing quietly while reading, as well as expecting this poem (the starfish/hand image came in the first few lines) to be rather uninventive and unsuccessful. I hope no one reading my poems is reacting to them that way.

10. All my submission advice up to this point can be summarized in one point: don’t alienate your reader. If you can avoid any red flags that shout “This writer is an amateur!” or “This writer didn’t read the directions/doesn’t really care about this!” or “This writer is either a child that doesn’t speak English or a goldfish!” then you are in business.

Finally: get your stuff out there. Don’t be intimidated by all my bitching and raving; be careful and be attentive, but put your writing into the world. Though the editors and other staff reading journal submissions can seem scarily critical, as if they are just waiting for a reason to hate your work (and I probably just added to that intimidation factor — sorry about that), all we really want is to love your work.

When I see a poem with a font like Renaissance-era calligraphy, I’m annoyed, yes, but mostly I’m sad. My annoyance comes from being disappointed: I was hoping that poem would be spectacular.

The people reading your submissions want you to succeed, so fly, little bird, fly! into the wide literary sky!

Avoid cheesy imagery and terrible rhymes like that last sentence and you’ll do wonderfully.

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