The Poetry of Sunken Ships

Today’s poetry post begins with more good news on the publication front. My poem “Wake” will appear in the Fall 2013 issue of Scapegoat Review and my other poem, “Starling,” will appear in the Winter 2013 issue of The New Plains Review. I’m very pleased that these poems found homes in these fine publications.

I completed MFA at Murray State University in 2009 and this past week Murray made the news. Currently Murray’s low-residency program is ranked seventh in the nation by Poets & Writers Magazine. My time at Murray was an incredibly positive and valuable experience for me as a writer, a student and a professor. I meant talented, dedicated and hard working writers who I’ve had the pleasure of keeping in touch with long after I stopped making my twice annual treks to Kentucky.

Speaking of talented poets, my good friend Natalie Giarrantano recently released her debut collection of poetry, Leaving Clean. The poems in this book are haunting, unsettlingly memorable to the point where the lines linger in your heart long after the poem is finished and you’ve moved on out into the world. I plan to write more about this book in a later post, but you should buy it. It’s beautiful work.

In the past few weeks the Costa Concordia has been back in the news. When the cruise ship originally wrecked off the Italian coast in January, there was talk of blasting it apart with dynamite. However, instead the authorities elected to leave her on her side until recently when they righted her giant white body in a 19 hour process called parbuckling. I began writing a poem about the ship when the story originally broke last winter, but then the draft sat quiet for several months. This week I took it out again and started to revise. It’s basically turned into an elegy, which isn’t particularly surprising. Many of my poems are elegies of sorts. I seem to gravitate towards them. I don’t think I’ve quite figured the structure of the poem yet, but these are the opening lines I’m currently working with: “When she punctured her smooth, white belly on the sharp/reef, I was driving to the pool hearing that Concordialay trapped/in the Tyrrhenian, soon to be drained and blown to pieces.”

I’m going to keep working on it. We’ll see where it goes. 

The Life and Times of an Unknown Poet…

I finished electronic submissions this past weekend and I just completed hard copy submission packets for everyone else who has yet to give into the ease of submission managers. I’ve completed 50 submissions total and I’ve already received three rejections (electronic submissions can make the rejection process a lot quicker), so I have or will soon have about 47 submissions out in the world.

I’ve encountered something during this round of submissions that I’ve never encountered before: anxiety about sending poems to people I know. The universities where I received my MA and my MFA also house two very well respected literary journals and I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’ve been avoiding sending to them. Actually, as long as I’m being honest, I’ve avoided sending to any places where I know the editors are former peers or mentors. I know this makes no logical sense and it’s not like I fear rejection or criticism (I mean I went to school for poetry for crying out loud) but maybe I do fear it from people I know and respect. This may be oversimplifying it a little bit. I just seem to feel a slight twinge when writing certain addresses on submission envelopes…

I’m reading two different books right now. One is Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and the other is Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker. In a way, it isn’t really fair that I’m reading these two books at the same time. I love Elizabeth Bishop and I’ve read just about every conceivable thing by her or about her. This recent edition from the New Yorker is delightful and where most people would find reading pages of letters tedious, I really enjoy it. I’m never going to get meet Miss. Bishop but I can hear her voice in her letters and her conversation. It’s as close to a dialogue as I’m ever going to get, so I’ll take it.

On the other hand The Corrections is challenging and the verdict is still out whether I’m enjoying the challenge or not. I found the beginning of the book intriguing but odd, but as I move further into the novel I’m having trouble deciding if I’m still intrigued or just annoyed. I know I missed the boat on this book in terms of timeliness. Most of my friends jumped on Franzen’s bandwagon along time ago, but I’m going to finish it and then I’ll comment in full.

The days are lengthening and the sun seems to be making its presence known more and more often. I noticed the tips of some green shoots pushing through the leaf beds. Spring break is just around the corner and I look forward to spending some time working on my chapbook manuscript and working through some new poems that are bumping around in my head.

Last night I didn’t sleep well. This usually happens when I have a lot going on and can’t keep my mind still. When I did finally slip off into sleep, I had dreams of poetry and lines and words. Spring brings rejuvenation in many forms.

Thursday (Off the Radar) Musings

I’ve been off the radar since last week when classes ended for the semester. I went down to Murray (see pictures below) for graduation and my robing ceremony and then went into work on Monday to finish grading. As of last Tuesday I’m officially on my break until the summer semester begins June 1st. Tuesday I spend some time reading and writing (I drafted out two poems). Yesterday was a rainy day, so I cleaned and wrote thank you notes. Today, more reading and writing. I’m enjoying my time off. Next week I’m headed back to Erie.


One of the poems I drafted out on Tuesday was prompted by an article by Elif Bautman called “The Bells” that appeared in The New Yorker at the end of April. This is the excerpt that caught my interest:

“Defying orders that the bronze guest be silenced forever, the people of Tobolsk outfitted it with a clapper and installed it in a local belfry. Because the bell had been defended by Tsarevitch Dimitri, and was surely fond of children, a legend arose that, if you washed the clapper and collected the water in a special container, it became an elixir for curing children’s diseases.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, the science fiction writer, was perusing the Web site Scribd last month when she came across digital copies of some books that seemed quite familiar to her. No wonder. She wrote them, including a free-for-the-taking copy of one of her most enduring novels, “The Left Hand of Darkness.”

This would all sound familiar to filmmakers and musicians who fought similar battles — with varying degrees of success — over the last decade. But to authors and their publishers in the age of Kindle, it’s new and frightening territory.


Monday (Ringing in 28 Years) Musings

Today I turn 28. I feel pretty good about it. I don’t really set goals in my head that are determined by age, but I think to have my Masters and Master in Fine Arts and a stable full time teaching position at this age is a good place to be. I also have a lot of great people in my life right now, so it feels good to be 28.

I took a quiz on Facebook to determine “which poet I am.” Yes, I know but these are the things one does when they don’t want to grade papers. Anyway. Turns out that I am channeling Sylvia Plath, so in honor of that and in honor of birthdays, here is your poem for this week:

Morning Song

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I'm no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind's hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat's. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Sylvia Plath

Thursday (Sweetness) Musings

I’ve been thinking a lot about sugar lately. I know these thoughts were prompted by my cooking class. Last Friday we had to go around the room and “name” what kind of snack we’d be. People were cookies, chips, and potatoes. What was I? Baked goods. Specifically? Cupcakes. I blame this partially on my genes. My dad has a think for Hostess cupcakes. Did you know one of those cupcakes equals 2 servings? Yikes.

Anyway. When I was making my power spheres, I used natural fruit juice as a sweetener. I was feeling all health conscious until I realized I’ve been using Splenda in my tea for about two years. Can we say chemicals? So I had to buy a big jar of honey to make my honey wheat bread this weekend, and I decided that I’d go back to it as a natural sweetener. What I find funny about this, is when I was kid my mom used to keep honey in the fridge for her tea. I liked to eat it raw. I mean I was a kid, but it makes me think that sometimes simple is best.


“Poetry is a confrontation of the whole being with reality…It is the basic struggle of the soul, the mind, and the body to comprehend life; to bring order to chaos or to phenomena: and by will and insight to create communicable verbal forms for the pleasure of mankind.”
~Richard Eberhart

On a recent evening, I had supper with a friend, a television executive. Like me, she was born in the era of World War II; like mine, her life was altered by feminism. “Tell me,” I asked, “what you remember about poetry and the women’s movement?” I saw memory cross her face, and then she said something remarkable: “The women’s movement was poetry.”
A version of this essay will appear as the introduction to Poems of the Women’s Movement, edited by Honor Moore, which will be published by The Library of America, April 2, 2009.
The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage. One can easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lackluster ones. It takes tremendous effort to read these small magazines with openness and attention. Few people bother, generally not even the magazines’ contributors. The indifference to poetry in the mass media has created a monster of the opposite kind—journals that love poetry not wisely but too well.
I’m used to reading articles that attack the workshop and blame it for everything that is wrong with the state of contemporary American poetry. I feel the same way every time I read these comments: I’m over it.
I am a product of this school. I took my first creative writing workshop when I was in high school with a visiting writer. We had to write a brief essay to apply for the workshop and my friend Emily and I were pleased to be among the chosen few. We were put into pairs and asked to free write over several topics. After about ten minutes, our writing was collected and the author chose a few pieces to read from the group. She read everyone’s piece aloud except for the piece Emily and I wrote. I suspected at the time, and still do, that this author didn’t like our story because it was darker and not about horses or teenage love. In fact, Emily and I wrote a story about a young girl loosing her parents. However, this didn’t suit the author’s taste, so we were cut.
While I remember being upset at the time, I think this whole experience is a good representation of what the writing world is like. Basically, stop whining and suck it up. Are there tons of MFA programs out there? Yes. Are they churning out a lot of mediocre writing? Yes. Was there a lot of mediocre writing before MFA programs? You bet. Also, since when did any student take a poetry workshop and then say “Hey, I’m a poet!” I don’t know many. Maybe I’m encountering the wrong poets, but if students are coming out with this gross misconception, then the fault is the teaching not the workshop.
Workshop is a place to build community. It is a place to receive feedback. Workshops do not teach you how to write. Workshops do not make you writer. Also, if people like your poetry, what does that mean anyway? I read reviews in reputable journals like Poetry and these people praise a collection. Two weeks later, I’ll read another review in another journal completely panning the entire book. Guess what? It’s subjective. My first writing workshop experience is very similar to how I feel about submitting to journals. I’ll be thrilled if my work is accepted somewhere, but at the end of the day it is the hands of an editor. Their taste is what makes the journal, so if you fall in line with that on some level, good for you. If not, better luck next time.
All workshops do is give writers (on any level) a venue to receive constructive feedback. If you’re going into an MFA or PhD program thinking that upon completion you’re going to be the next biggest thing in poetry (and what is that anyway?), then you’ve got some things to think about. _____________________________________________________________________

Saturday (Winter Returns) Musings

I would encourage everyone to check out the latest issue of New Madrid. I’m not plugging this journal just because it is from Murray’s MFA program and because I worked on journal. I’m very proud of where the journal is going and this issue (our theme was intelligent design) is very well done. There are a lot of wonderful pieces but here are just a few “Breasts” by Pamela Johnson Parker, Slow Fuse of the Possible: A Poet’s Psychoanalysis by Kate Daniels, Mouse by Mark Brazaitis, Small Talk by Lauren Smith, and Call it Beautiful by Scott Doyle. I’m still finishing the issue but please go to the link (listed under my links section) and check it out.
This article appeared in the the Sunday Book Review section of the New York Times:

In October, John Ashbery became the first poet to have an edition of his works released by the Library of America in his own lifetime. That honor says a number of things about the state of contemporary poetry — some good, some not so good — but perhaps the most important and disturbing question it raises is this: What will we do when Ashbery and his generation are gone? Because for the first time since the early 19th century, American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.

What strikes me about it is it’s the same old question. When the old “greats” die, will there be anyone to replace them? I have news for poets, this isn’t just a poetry problem. I also think it is a bit narrow minded to say that just because the older generation is passing on, all poetry is doomed to mediocrity. The younger generation learns from the greats, they idolize the greats, and then they move beyond them. That’s is and always will be the cycle. I don’t think poetry is any different.

Saturday (the final leg) Musings

I’m sitting at a chintzy desk at the Best Western in Murray, KY. While I was pleased with myself for securing a room rate of $50 a night (thanks AAA) it is true that you get what you pay for. Two of the lamps don’t work. The cable is in and out and the shower leans towards freezing. For two nights it was fine, but if I ever come back to Murray, I’m going with Hampton Inn.

I’m finished with my thesis, except for a few revisions I have to make over the course of the next month or so. These revisions are mostly to my preface, which is fine because that was the part that gave me the most trouble. The revisions are more than manageable in a months time, which is how long I have to make them. I’ve passed. I feel good.

The defense itself was enjoyable and I felt very calm going into it. I felt like I got a lot of good feedback and that I have some things to work on as I go back to writing without the constant mentoring of my committee.

Last night, I gave a reading with the only other defender last night. It was fun and the most nerve wracking part of the day. Afterward, we went to the Faculty Club and a few of us continued on to The Apple. The Apple is the only real bar in Murray, which is a dry county, and tends to have a specific point in the evening when the patrons become a little rowdy. It was a good way to end the evening.

As is the case, when most things are over, it is bittersweet. I’m proud that I’ve finished this third degree and that I have a manuscript that I can move forward with. I look forward to writing and reading more on my own schedule and sending some work out for publication. I will miss the community that I found here in Murray and the excellent mentorship that I benefited from. I hope to keep the connections that I’ve made here.

What’s next? It seems appropriate to ponder this question in light of the new year. Keep writing, keep reading, keep sending work out and polishing up this manuscript that I have. I’m attending AWP in February and I think that will be a good place to meet people and make connections. I also plan to explore the Indianapolis writing community more now that I have time. I think this is a question I’ll come back to a lot in the next year.

Thursday (on the road again) Musings

We arrived back in Indy yesterday around 5:30. The drive was uneventful weather wise, which is usually the only big news this time of year. We rang in the New Year last night at a local bar with some friends and today we’re hitting the road again for the final leg of our holiday marathon. Around noon we’re heading to Murray, KY where I’ll defend my thesis tomorrow at 1:00. I’m hoping all goes well.

Updates to follow.

Saturday (I’m done!) Musings

I am done with grading. I went in this morning to finish a couple of things and now I can get ready to head east for the holidays. Our Christmas/New Years is going to be a hectic one, but I’m looking forward to it. We’re heading to Erie the 22nd through the 26th. The 26th we’re heading to Pittsburgh and we’re leaving their the 31st to come back to Indy. The 1st we’re heading down to Murray for my defense, which is on the 2nd. Phew. Luckily, I don’t have to be back at school till Jan 6th.

A Yale University professor whose poetry is published by St. Paul’s Graywolf Press has been chosen to write and read an original poem at the Jan. 20 inauguration of Barack Obama. Elizabeth Alexander has published four collections of poetry, and her book “American Sublime” was a 2005 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2004, Alexander was a poetry mentor with the Loft.


I am lazy, the laziest
girl in the world. I sleep during
the day when I want to, 'til
my face is creased and swollen,
'til my lips are dry and hot. I
eat as I please: cookies and milk
after lunch, butter and sour cream
on my baked potato, foods that
slothful people eat, that turn
yellow and opaque beneath the skin.
Sometimes come dinnertime Sunday
I am still in my nightgown, the one
with the lace trim listing because
I have not mended it. Many days
I do not exercise, only
consider it, then rub my curdy
belly and lie down. Even
my poems are lazy. I use
syllabics instead of iambs,
prefer slant to the gong of full rhyme,
write briefly while others go
for pages. And yesterday,
for example, I did not work at all!
I got in my car and I drove
to factory outlet stores, purchased
stockings and panties and socks
with my father's money.

To think, in childhood I missed only
one day of school per year. I went
to ballet class four days a week
at four-forty-five and on
Saturdays, beginning always
with plie, ending with curtsy.
To think, I knew only industry,
the industry of my race
and of immigrants, the radio
tuned always to the station
that said, Line up your summer
job months in advance. Work hard
and do not shame your family,
who worked hard to give you what you have.
There is no sin but sloth. Burn
to a wick and keep moving.

I avoided sleep for years,
up at night replaying
evening news stories about
nearby jailbreaks, fat people
who ate fried chicken and woke up
dead. In sleep I am looking
for poems in the shape of open
V's of birds flying in formation,
or open arms saying, I forgive you, all.

Elizabeth Alexander