Ina Coolbrith 92nd Annual Poets' Dinner
March 24, 2018
Recently, I read a novel recently called FIRE SERMON, by Jamie Quatro -- about sex and soul, about allegiance to God and the erotic urges of the body. Late in the novel, there's a chapter called "Fire Sermon"—a rant of a sort. But—please—rest easy now, I am not going to talk about God and adultery. BUT those who know me well, know I consider myself a kind of fiery missionary when it comes to what I believe about writing poetry, editing it, and sending it out hoping to be published. So are you ready (remember titles can't be copyrighted) for my version of a fire sermon? It's numbered like the verses of a Bible. . . .1 to 13, and I'll read the numbers aloud, so you'll know as I rant how close you are to the end.
This is a sermon, so I start with Call & Response: How many of you consider yourselves liars? How about a show of hands? How many consider yourselves thieves? Hands again? Not many hands? So where's the fire? As a poet or writer, you must absorb what you see, what you hear, what you read. To lie and to steal are part of our craft. Never forget it. Next time someone asks you those two questions, I expect you to raise your hands. All of you.
There is no such thing as writer's block. It's merely procrastination. Apply the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair at your desk, as my first mentor Marilyn Sachs told me. Or write, as I often do for first drafts, from the Land of Counterpane (thank you Robert Louis Stevenson)—which is of course, your bed. Just start. Or Vamp until ready (as they say in the music world) & hope the subconscious will kick in and surprise you.
My metaphor for what comes from the subconscious as you write is the act of ice fishing. In northern Minnesota where my family has a place, the lake is frozen in the winter. When you go ice fishing, you drill a hole in the ice, drop a line in but you never know exactly what you are going to get. If you feel a tug and reel up a big fat bass (or the metaphorical equivalent of this), you have a prize surprise. But if you reel in and find a big ugly catfish there, use your knife to cut the line. Yes, I've done that literally and figuratively. And that catfish? Think metaphor again. The catfish is the editor voice. The editor voice needs to be banished when you are writing. That voice is for revisions only.
Poets and all writers are often told: Write about what you know. That's good but simply not everything. Too limiting.
First corollary (I love corollaries): Research what you don't know -- Not just Google—primary sources: letters, diaries, personal essays, dissertations, memoirs. Whatever you can get hold of. Use your research but not to show off.
Second corollary: Write to find out what you didn't know you know. Recently I was writing about a mountain climber and used the phrase "high peaks and campfire custard". When I began to revise, I realized, I had no idea if there was any such thing as campfire custard or where that phrase had come from. When I looked it up—wow!—yes, a dessert also called hobo custard, to be stirred and cooked over coals in an empty tin can. So how did I even know that phrase? I have no idea. An example, therefore, of successful ice fishing.
Third corollary: Try using research for persona poems: which offer the weird and powerful ability to, for the length of a poem, become someone else.
Your job as a writer is to find your voice. Then celebrate it. Follow it.
It does not matter if what you say is true as long as you can convince the reader it is. Authenticity doesn't matter as much as making what you're saying seem authentic. I have no idea how to tell you what my voice is or how I use it. It's a subject that puzzles me. All I can do is quote a line from a John Guare play: Pardon me, I'm not myself. But whoever it is I've become, I can't control that person either.
To be a poet or writer, you must toughen up. You must learn most rejection is not personal. In addition to being a poet & writer, I've been editing poetry magazines for 17 years, so I can assure you of this as poet and editor. But every once in a while. . . .it is. If it is, get over it. Submit, submit, submit. Being rejected enough times, as we all are helps to toughen us up. I had one editor who kept turning me down, someone I'd met at AWP, (someone who had been on two panels I'd led at AWP). Here's the poem I wrote about him. Yes, I even submitted it to him and. . . yes. . .he rejected it.
Memo to the Editor Who Keeps Rejecting My Work
my good friend says acceptance from your journal
comes only if a poet accumulates enough shine
look I'm dancing as fast as I can but even if I were
to strip I know you're saying don't I'm not
the 30 year old phenom though she's very thin and
you might not want her naked either but you and I
have a deal once each October waltz not tango
then your note nice work sorry try me next year
Then, after 12 years, last year that editor accepted a poem.
Not every poem written first-person is about the poet. Remember: lie, steal.
First corollary: Not every poem written third person is about you.
Second corollary: Not every poem written 2nd person is You or Not you.
Corollary 2.5: Persona poems! Yes, I've already mentioned persona poems, but I believe in the old newspaper maxim, stolen originally from Aristotle: Tell them what you're going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them you've told them. Often it takes 3 times for something to imprint.
If you can't be ruthless, you might as well not write. My close friends say I'm "twisted". Many poems of mine are dark or strange (Oh yes— have 25 year prior career as a writer of children's books, mostly dark YA novels. No, I never wrote about my own children.) Anne Mitchell, the daughter of my friend Margaretta Mitchell, was 12 when she told me, Mrs. Terris, you are one of the safest people I know. But your books are so dangerous. Yes, dangerous. So if you are ruthless and brave, willing to court danger, write about who and what you know (even if you try to disguise it all), expect many questions to follow:
First corollary: Has your mother read this?
2nd, 3rd, 4th corollary etc: Has your "fill in the blank" read this?
Hmm. . . yes, choose one or more: your spouse, your lover, your child, your boss, your best friend. . . .
Editorial advice: Spend as much time as possible, examining your adjectives.
First corollary: Also use as few adverbs as possible.
Second corollary: Today, I'm going to take 10 words out of this poem.
Sometimes I only take out 5. Sometimes 13. A lot of what I delete are adjectives. Sometimes I delete whole lines or whole stanzas. A poem filled with too many extra modifiers or unnecessary clause or lines usually needs tightening.
Third corollary: Strong verbs are always better than an accumulation of weak or overused adjectives.
Fourth corollary: Proof read all submissions. Follow guidelines etc.
Fifth corollary: After you've played the role of catfish and revised and revised, submitting to themed issues often gives you a better chance of being accepted. An odd approach to a theme can help. I was editing a Weather issue when a poet submitted a poem about a storm of butterflies. Yes: accepted it.
Cover Letters: Keep them simple: Here's an example of the kind of cover letter, I as an editor, do NOT want to receive. Oh, yes, I wrote this one myself as a kind of parody:
"Dear__________ , Thank you for submitting to _____________ Magazine. Why is it you thought I would be interested in your vacations, the names, ages, sexes of your children. Or names, ages, & sexes of your dogs. What about your drugs? Do you sell them in restrooms or at flea markets? In poetry workshops? Did you enclose any in your submission? What about your wife? Can she bake (think metaphor) a cherry pie? Does she have a disposition and a position that pleases you?
If writer is female, substitute:
What about Your husband? Is he (think metaphor) broad-minded? Does he have large hands? Does he know anyone named Stormy? (I don't know you well enough to read the rest—much too off color, especially since there is a line asking if the submitting poet has a pussy & pleading with said poet NOT to tell me its name.)
Catch-All corollary: For cover letters and submissions: Do not annoy the editor!
Read and read and read. Read many poetry books & poetry magazines. But reading fiction, non-fiction, and memoir is also good. This is the antidote for what you're no longer allowed to call writer's block. This is also an antidote to critique groups that start to love you so much they don't tell you the truth. Or groups that try to say: But you can't do that. Try to prove you can do whatever feels right. Don't let anyone tell you you can't use words like heart or soul. If Jane Hirshfield can do it, so can you. Three words I use and want to be able to own: Angle of Repose. Yes, title of a Stegner novel. I'm trying to take these words back for all of us. So, I have written about my father stretched out on his couch, reading the sports section, in an angle of repose.
Your theme for the contest was FIRE: you can't & won't always write about fire, but you can write poems with heat and light. There's a pop phrase: Hot Mess— don't be afraid of tackling a hot mess. And don't be afraid of taking risks. Risk anything and everything. Make your words flame. Make those flames have tall shadows. May they jump and flicker and crackle. May they dazzle. See how close to the fire you can stand. Be brave! Feel at least some of its burn. If it leaves you feeling raw: use that rawness in your work.
Fireball Poets, I see you out there. May you be thieves and liars and continue to live bright, unexpected lives and may you keep on surprising others—but most of all: may you keep on surprising yourselves.
And now some Final, final corollaries:
First corollary: Thank you for having me here.
Second corollary: Thank you for listening to me rant about things you already know but may possibly need to hear again. Remember all sermons want to burn you by repeating familiar tropes! And keep on burning until the words are scorched into your memory.
Third corollary: Now, with your permission, I will read you some of my poems. I've selected poems about your theme of Fire: real fires, gunfire, fire of anger, fire of love—plus a couple of poems about loss or lack of fire. Oh, yes. . . I will read one (third mention) persona poem. . . .
Susan Terris’ recent books are Take Two: Film Studies (Omnidawn Publishing), Memos (Omnidawn Publishing); and Ghost of Yesterday: New & Selected Poems (Marsh Hawk Press). She's published 6 books of poetry, 16 chapbooks, 3 artist's books, and one play. A poem of hers appeared in Pushcart Prize XXXI. A poem from Memos was in Best American Poetry 2015. Ms. Terris is editor emerita of Spillway Magazine and a poetry editor at Pedestal.
Ms. Terris most recent project has been to start a Non-Bucket List. As part of this list, she vows:
never to run in the New York Marathon
never to skateboard on the Venice Beach Boardwalk
and never to bungee jump from the bridge over the Zambeze River