Friday, February 24, 2017

A Question of Line Endings

Since no one else seems to read my blogs, I think I'll write this one for myself to help me pull together and understand something I think I've may now got a handle on. I've looked for someone to lay it out for me, and didn't find it clearly spelled out anywhere. One idea is to end at a natural break in the syntax. Another suggestion is that line length determines how the reader goes through the lines, slowly or quickly.

I think the basic rule for line breaks is to end at a point that is syntactically logical, at a comma, the end of a phrase, the end of a sentence. Once in a while, there is no convenient point and then the poem must break the line where the last word in the line seems to hurry the reader on to the next line, a technique called enjambment. That is probably the trickiest of line breaks.

Here's a poem January 5, Ted Kooser, Winter Morning Walks, that shows line breaks at syntactic points. Note how each line seems to end at an obvious stopping point and the next starts at a normal point.

Hung from the old loading chute
is a lasso of rusty wire,
and caught in the grain of its boards
is a wisp of red hair, and the heavy,
dead knocking of hooves.

And the first two stanzas of this poem, Some Herons by Mary Oliver, House of Light, show the same kind of strong, obvious line breaks.

A blue preacher
flew toward the swamp,
in slow motion.

On the leafy banks,
an old Chinese poet,
hunched in the white gown of his wings,

And here's the beginning of another poem by Kooser, January 4, in which the beginning of the poem seems to be a series of lines with no clear break point, thus enjambed.

My wife took an apple to work
this morning, hurriedly picking it
up and out of a plastic bag
on the kitchen counter, and though
she has been gone an hour,
the open bag still holds in a swirl
the graceful turn of her wrist,

I suspect Kooser wanted to see those lines as her graceful action of picking the apple up out of the bag to take to work. After those lines, he continues with normal line breaks. So this example shows why one might use enjambment, to show continuous fluid action.

And now the question of how long should the lines be. A line may have several obvious break points, but which one to use. There seems to be general agreement that short lines accentuate fast, breathless action, while longer lines emphasize the poet thinking or normal, slower action. Here's a poem of mine, Tunnel Vision, in which I wanted to show the action speeding up after a rather normal introduction.

The Jeep we're passing suddenly swerves
into our lane. I hit the brakes hard.
Instantly I'm looking down a narrow tunnel,
only my car and the Jeep in it.

I stay on the brakes,
drift slightly left,
but not too far,
traffic racing by,
close, close, close.
A low growl
as the left rear tire
of the Jeep
rubs my right fender.
He's in our lane,
a foot in front,
pulling away. 
I make it through safely.

The opening stanza, has rather normal line lengths, indicating that I action is happening at a normal rate, as time might be experienced driving down the interstate. The second stanza then shows racing thoughts and actions as I avoid crashing in high speed interstate traffic.

An even longer line can emphasize that the poet is almost in a meditative mood, seeing something that needs to be chewed on and savored carefully. Here is Kooser at his best in this, the title poem, Splitting an Order, from his latest book of poetry. The length of the line doesn't, by itself, make this poem a meditation, but it augments the words and images Kooser uses.

I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half,
maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread,
no pickles or onion, keeping his shaky hands steady
by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table
and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,
and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,
observing his progress through glasses that moments before
he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half
onto the extra plate that he asked the server to bring,
and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife
while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,
her knife, and her fork in their proper places,
then smooths the starched white napkin over her knees
and meets his eyes and holds out both hands to him.

The longer lines slows the pace of the poem, letting each image of the old man cutting the sandwich in half sink in as the line continues to a natural syntactic break. Then a new line with a new image comes along and we are invited to savor it also. And the last line ties it all together with that look of love from the old woman to her mate and the gesture of her open hands and his placing the gift in them.

And I think that wraps this up for me and gives me now a coherent idea of how and why to break lines and why. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

I Finally Birth a New Book of Poetry

Well, I finally got my new book of poetry, A Death at Tollgate Creek: Songs of the Prairie published in both print and eBook formats.  I wrote these poems because I want to help others learn that the prairie holds as many wonderful secrets and adventures as do the mountains. Here in Denver, we tend to face west, to the mountains with its rivers, skiing, hiking, mountain climbing, rafting, kayaking, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the abundance of wildlife, animals, birds, fish and quirky humans. But the prairie has its draw also, if you know where to look.

When I get confused in life about what making important decisions, I try to not make them immediately and take a day or two to think about what's next. And the same holds for my poetry. So I started the publishing project by reminding myself why I write poetry. The first reason is that I love writing it. But to just stuff my poems in the drawer as Emily Dickinson did, leads one to become a frustrated hermit. I want to share my work with others. My goal is not to make lots of money, write a NYT best seller, become famous. I want to share my poetry.

I decided to publish A Death at Tollgate Creek myself after sending out manuscripts of books and chapbooks to contests and journals during their open reading periods over the past four years. Most of the time I didn't even get an acknowledgement that they've thrown the manuscript into the recycle bin. Once in a while I got a form email saying that they enjoyed reading my poems but they are not interested in the book. I downloaded several books to help me decide how to self-publish:

·      How to Choose a Self-Publishing Service, Jim Giammatteo & Orna Ross. (Kindle—Discusses pros and cons of all major self-publishing services.)
·      A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon, Chris McMullen. (Kindle—Limited to how to publish with Amazon, and if you want to use CreateSpace, a good reference.)
·      Successful Self-Publishing, Joanna Penn. (Kindle—Very useful reference when starting. General so not aimed at one platform.)
·      Smashwords Style Guide, Mark Coker. (iBook—Smashwords is a great program for publishing in eBook format for all platforms, so a great resource.)

One constant in all the books and online articles I read as I researched stood out to me. All recommended hiring a professional to design the cover. I took that advice and hired Abby Hoke of AEB Graphics in Denver, and she designed a cover that I think is beautiful. In my limited marketing, one refrain that pops up is "What a beautiful cover.” And we all know that we DO judge a book by its cover.

A Death at Tollgate Creek is now available at Amazon, B&N, and Indie book stores. In addition to being available in print, it's also available for iBook, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and PDF readers. Now comes the hard part. I have to figure out how to market it.

Much of what I've read about marketing my book says I have to establish a platform. That often means being on many or all of the social media platforms. It means building a website, having an author page on Amazon, subscribing to Goodreads, getting others to write reviews. Others say to do that sparingly and to concentrate on only a few. I've decided that's what I'm going to do, just worry about Facebook, this blog, and maybe Twitter.

So I've decided to limit my marketing efforts. I'm not in this to make money, and that's why one markets. I want to spend my time writing. And as this is my first attempt at what is now called Indie Publishing, not self-publishing. I need to use this experience to learn, and I think it better to learn a lot about a few things rather than a little about a lot of things.

I've let writing, poetry, and critique groups I belong to know about the book. I've posted it on Facebook for friends, and I will contact local bookstores along the front range about readings and signings. I have another book of poems almost ready to see the light, but want to continue to write, get that book ready, and not spend my time marketing.

Recently Ted Kooser, US poet Laureate 2004-2006, said that, with few exceptions, no one sells lots of books of poetry. Most sell a few hundred if they are lucky. Right now, I think I'll just enjoy getting this baby birthed and watch it play and grow for a while. I enjoy hearing from a few friends that they enjoyed it. I now have the template I can pour the new book into when I'm ready. I have Abby to design another killer cover, and I think I'll have fun seeing the book in print and on my iPhone and laptop. And I'll market it by sharing it with friends.

When my books make the NYT Best Seller List for 18 weeks in a row and money is rolling in at a prodigious rate, I'll consider hiring a consultant to do my marketing.

My Author Page on Amazon:

Abby Hoke's Website for Cover Design:

Monday, January 16, 2017

Poetry Can Open Space for the Imagination

[I've been asked to write an article on the value of poetry for a writer's group for National Poetry Month in April. Here are some of my thoughts.]


A friend sent me an article by the poet, Matthew Zapruder, "Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis." In it Zapruder points out that prose often has a utilitarian purpose, to explain, to describe, to elucidate, to persuade, and that successful prose stays the course to its conclusion, its purpose, never wandering off on some tangent.

But poetry, Zapruder says, has no such discipline. The poet starts to persuade you to take some course of action and is suddenly distracted by that field of wildflowers over there beyond that wooden fence. So we climb the fence and wander through the "bee-loud glade," and see the beauty of the lupine, mallow, fireweed, primrose. We smell their fragrance and feel the sun on our face and arms. We hear the meadowlark singing on that mullein stalk over there near the cottonwoods, hear the wind whispering through the dry wheatgrass, the cottonwood leaves clicking in the breeze, the bees buzzing from lupine to lupine. We follow the poet over that fence and imagine ourselves in that flower-filled meadow, almost tasting the honey the bees make.

Or we walk with the poet who is complaining about the busyness of her days, her lack of time today to write because of a stack of laundry waiting to be ironed, and she suddenly begins to tell us of the homeless couple she saw on a street in the city with their shopping cart heaped with belongings. They treat each other with such love and tenderness that in spite of the foul smell around them, the beauty and dignity of their souls shine from their eyes through the dirt on their hands and faces. And the love between them and their brown and white mongrel radiates in their faces and in its wagging tail as they share pieces of their meager lunch with it. The poet invites us open our imaginations to a world different from ours and lets us recognize the humanity we have in common with that couple. Perhaps we suddenly find ourselves more open to empathy and compassion. 

Poetry then can open space in our minds, our imaginations, our souls, in which we can see, smell, taste, feel, hear, life's beauty and joy as well as its pain and disappointments. It helps us experience life happening around us. We learn to experience that beauty and joy by just looking up from our smart phones and tablets long enough to see the smile on the baby coming toward us in the arms of a young mother whose face is filled with joy. Or we look away from the screen with wonder at the beauty of the poet's imagery or how this poem has made us see or feel something we've never seen or felt before.

Poetry helps us learn to imagine what others feel, their pain, their losses, the futility of their lives, but also, perhaps, imagine the beauty and dignity of their lives. Poetry helps us become more sensitive to the world around us and to others no matter their color, status, religion, country of origin. We can learn to feel empathy and treat others with love and compassion. The hatred, bigotry, and intolerance toward religion, race, and otherness that seemed to inform the latest national election perhaps needs poetry if we are to heal and close emotional gaps and to learn to value rather than denigrate others' otherness. Poetry can also help us see the beauty of and danger to the fragile web of nature of which we are a part and live in.