Monday, March 30, 2009

Submitting poems to literary journals.

Sooner or later, everyone writing poems sends them to a literary journal. Without fail, editors or readers at these journals stuff the vast majority of these poems into an SASE and return them to the poet with a cursory and, often abrupt, rejection. Long live poetry.

Today I received a rejection in the mail. At least, I think it was a rejection. The envelope was clearly the SASE I sent with my poems. The same rubber stamp was used to address both the recipient and return address. But there was nothing inside. The editor returned an empty envelope.

Perhaps this would be a good time to ask yourself why you write poems. Perhaps the empty envelope was a code. I wasn’t trained as a code breaker in the army but I’ve read enough spy novels to attempt deciphering the emptiness. And I think I’ve figured it out. It works something like this. If the SASE contains an actual rejection note, the message is clear. He doesn’t want the poems. If the only thing in the envelope is a short length of green yarn the editor is undecided and is asking for an additional eight months to make a decision. If the yarn is blue you’re expected to send five more poems. Opening an envelope only to discover nothing inside is code for “I love your poems and will publish all that you sent.” I’ve gotten empty envelopes from literary journals four other times over the years. With these others it turned out not to be code for “I love your poems and will publish all that you sent.” This time I’m being optimistic.

Consider Van Gogh’s sales record. If he was a poet he would have published only two poems. Do you feel better?

Don’t take this as complaining. As far as being published goes I haven’t been as lucky as some but have been luckier than many. The word luck causally isn’t being used casually.

I sent a manuscript to one of the better-known presses. Five weeks later. “… finances prohibit us from publishing anything else for the rest of the year … send it back next year we’ll read it with an eye on publishing it …” I set my computer to remind me to send it back to them exactly one year to the day. And exactly one year to the day I dropped it in the mail. “Your voice no longer fits our editorial vision.” It took about a month to get that reply.

Before any of my poems were published I was happy simply writing and sharing them with the poet community I surrounded myself with. I thought it would be nice to be published but that wasn’t a deal breaker.

I stuffed five poems in an envelope with an SASE and cover letter and sent them off to a journal somewhere in the middle of the country. One week later I put the exact same poems along with the exact same cover letter in another envelope to the exact same journal. This gives me meaning to the term simultaneous submission. I printed out two copies of the cover letter, one remained on my desk. I made about a dozen other submission the day I sent to the journal that would soon hear from me again. Making it somewhat understandable how I might have forget that I sent to them when a cover letter remained on my desk. Five weeks later I got a reply. A standard, impersonal-good-luck-in-your-future-endeavors. No comments about the duplicate submission. A week later. The SASE from the second submission and an enclosed letter, “thank you for thinking of us … we would like to publish three of your poems.”

Has there ever been a group of people anxious to work for free like today’s poets?

Inside the SASE was a small torn piece of paper, roughly two inches by one, seemed to be the top left from a larger piece. The name and address of the journal was faintly rubberstamped there. Hmmm. I wrote and asked if the rest of the page was mistakenly torn away. Of course, I sent an SASE with my question. The reply was quick. Inside the standard number ten envelope was another small, very small, torn piece of paper with a scribble of an answer. No, what I originally reviewed was not a mistake. It was his way of saying he “didn’t want the poems.” I sent him 500 sheets of high-quality paper, twenty-five pounds, ninety-four brightness, with a note saying that I understood the economics of publishing a literary journal and the paper was a donation.

The list of journals that treat poets with respect and I am grateful to for publishing me is much too long to include. That so many poets run the gauntlet and continue to submit to is testament to our need for attention or our desire to share. Either way, I’m happy you send them out. I subscribe to about a dozen journals on a regular basis and often try others on a rotational basis.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

In Fact by Yannis Ritsos

I sat with my mom (who reads Greek) and a Greek/English dictionary and we did this translation, another poem from Muted Poems.

In Fact

Did you hear the bird
at that height?
It was him.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Speech by Yannis Ritsos

This is another Yannis Ritsos poem from his book Muted Poems. Translated with the help of an aunt who reads Greek.


No excuses, he said, no regrets, next to the washroom
you hear her washing herself, the thin old woman.
She placed her three rings on the still damp glass shelf
and her false teeth on the washbowl lid. Outside the sun
is humming between the trees and above three birds are shouting,
they can’t see the three drowned in the well below
– the same three whose swollen stomachs our two fingers touched.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Small Promise by Yannis Ritsos

I've begun translating some Yannis Ritsos poems from his book Muted Poems. I'm doing this with the help of an aunt and my mom who both read Greek. Ritsos was, is, a truly great poet. Happens to be my favorite.

Small Promise

Trees, mountains, the street sign on the yellow pole,
the green in the fog was the hills below. You looked,
didn’t see. That hidden absence that hid the view
until morning came out, and from the wall the old woman with the basket
took the eggs one by one, studied them
and threw, as hard as she could, against the wall.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


First appeared in The Iowa Review, University of Iowa, Vol. 37, No. 3, Winter 2007/08, pg. 135.


I bought a nine year old pickup truck
for the convenience of Judas,
the one hundred year old tortoise
she gave me when she left.
Two or three times a week,
I took Judas to the ocean.
He rode in a plastic wading pool
filled with water that I secured in the bed.
Awkward and slow on land,
his four hundred pounds curved
through the swollen ocean’s clouds graceful
as a ballerina in an old Dutch painting.
The red that blossoms from hands
when you nail a man to water is a map.
I held the sides of his shell, followed like a cape
through schools of silver fish, through
the thermocline’s floor, through dark-patches
where whatever sinks sinks faster.
Deep in the ocean it rains, Judas showed me.
Deep in the ocean nurses sleep in salt-crusted caves,
Judas showed me. I held breath
in the balloon of my mouth.
This is where I first thought sacrifice.
I was a shoe box filled with the past,
Judas showed me this, too.
Notice how briefly she was in this narrative.
Ascending, air expands in the lungs.
Ascending, a survival principle.
This, of course, is a theory. Other theories
include providence and literature.
Squeeze a beating heart tight as you can
and you’ll fall asleep; yes,
for this there is no explanation.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Sitting in the lobby of the Chicago Hilton,* a poet from Houston told me her Muse was a pair of shoes. “Huh?” “Shoes, I put them on and feel inspired.” I shook my head. “Would you mind if I wrote a poem about that, you and your shoes?” “They’re silver, high-heeled Ferragamos, around $3,000.”

The Muses are from Greek mythology. There are nine: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania. There father was Zeus; mother, Mnemosyne. They were on the payroll to inspire artists, musicians, writers and poets. It’s been about 2,500 years. Artists have credited them to varying degrees. Unfortunately, there have been cutbacks. None of the original nine remain employed.

What’s a poet to do?

I stand by everything I previously said about inspiration. Nutshell, inspiration is for amateurs.

There is a difference between inspiration and The Muse, or A Muse. A Muse is what you are moved to write about. What moves you to write would be called inspiration. I could hear you slapping your hand on your desk, “subject is not a Muse.” Yes, it is. I’m glad we cleared that up.**

The last two years have found me writing many surrealistic love poems. Rereading the bunch, most are a about a specific woman long gone from my life. Strange, I didn’t write about her while we were together. Pain is an effective Muse. Yes, the person returning your love can be a Muse, but he or she often becomes The Muse of sentimental poetry. Yehuda Amichai said when he was in love he wrote war poems, when in war, wrote love poems. War is a Muse.

The woman in the lobby of the Chicago Hilton also told me that she wrote four poems about her shoes. One of the poems was about her wearing only the shoes and writing a poem. Is that art imitating life? Two years previous to this conversation I wrote a poem† about a woman taking a shower while wearing a pair of red shoes. The Muse for this poem is a woman I dated. Malicious women make more effective Muses. I know what you’re thinking, “get over it, Rick.”

I own ninety-two fountain pens. Whenever I begin to scribble with one I want to write a poem. Muse. Whenever I look at a photograph by Michael Kenna I want to write a poem. Muse. Later tonight I plan to sit in my favorite chair, smoke a cigar and scribble line-after-line of what I hope will be a poem. No Muse.

* I was there for the 2009 AWP.
** Since we’re putting our cards on the table, do you really believe Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania ever existed? I do.
Originally appeared in the New Orleans Review, Loyola University, Vol. 33, Number 2, 2008
The Virtu
This wasn’t the first time I watched a woman
wear high heels in the shower.
Closed-toe this time, her toes weren’t painted
and she didn’t want anyone to see.
After she told me this her head tilted back.
Water masked her face in a way
not possible if she was still turned
to me as I stood at the sink shaving
-- or I might have been brushing my teeth,
either way, an inconsequential detail.
Water darkened the red shoes.
Though the damaged world spun beneath,
her balance, of course, was perfect.