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July 22nd, 2011

12:29 pm: 2008 Rhysling Anthology—Analysis the Second
Yes, it's been a long time since I began doing this. Reality intruded there, in all sorts of unpleasant ways, and I barely escaped with my life. While I enjoy analyzing my reactions to poems, I hope that their authors take these criticisms as pure, impersonal, intellectual fiddling-after-Rome-burns; they are not intended to be offensive.

“After Appomattox” by Holly Cooley

A fascinating anecdote, and one that drove me immediately to a fruitless perusal of Google and my historian friends to see if the story of reused photographic plates in gas masks could be true. It makes a difference; if true, this is a wonderful poem with a compelling premise, but not at all speculative; if the images of Civil War soldiers on WWI gas masks is an invention of the poet, even though perfectly plausible, it catapults us squarely into the realm of alternate history.

“The Cyburgs” by Constance Cooper

This perfect sonnet evokes disquieting shades of Second Life, and has a nasty little punchline. One of my favorites from this collection.

“Les Fantomes (29 August 2005)” by James S. Dorr

Disclaimer: I don't much care for poems in dialect. Furthermore, this one doesn't come across as authentic. I also feel that the poem is rather slight, and its Pollyanna-ish suggestion that “jazz/sounds cure” is a sick-making trivialization as a reaction to the hurricane's impact. Nor is the inclusion of the word “spooks” sufficient to qualify it as a horror poem. And, in a spirit of utter pedantry, the title should have been Les Fantômes.

“Virgin Dragon Birth” by Gary Every

While this is an account of an actual event, the title is such a classic melding of fantasy and mythic tropes that I am completely willing, in this case, to forgive its mundane origin. The idea of watching for the “three wise lizards” is hilarious!

“Loup garou” by Serena Fusek

I like this short poem, except for the first sentence (“The world/is shifting sand”), which is not only a cliché, but bears little relation to the rest of the poem, particularly since the basic theme is the consistency of the narrator as an enabler for the werewolf, “no matter who he rends.”

“Chaos Theory” by Jeannine Hall Gailey

A good poem but essentially a science poem, not a speculative poem. The title relates awkwardly to the rest of the poem; the father's stated obsession with order does not penetrate the rest of the poem, which centers on mutation and the consequences of withheld information.

“The Golden Age” by Lyn C.A. Gardner

An interjection on publishing layout here: while the entire anthology is marred by peculiar kerning (the spaces between letters within words), it is especially apparent in this poem. Back to the poem itself: it is reasonably well-rendered blank verse, and I want to like it, but I'm having trouble figuring out the underlying story. While clearly speculative, and obviously involving the manipulation of time or near-lightspeed flight (“holos of our grandchildren,/Already grown while we sit nine years hence”), the essential purpose of the trip and task are opaque.

“How to Hide in a Japanese Print” by Lila Garrott

I'd like this poem better with the first stanza, which introduces a Greek mythic reference to no purpose, omitted. That said, I find it otherwise entrancing, despite its speculative ambiguity. “Fear is a closed book” is my favorite line. The longer lines in the first and last stanzas seem peculiar.

“The Amateur Astronomer in Me” by Timothy Green

This is mundane science rather than science fiction, but I love the last lines:

There's nothing new up there.
All things take up space
but words. Even mystery

is something invented
not too long ago.

"Weightless" by K.S. Hardy

The transition from light-hearted to dark happens in an instant, like a cloud passing over. Some of the line breaks don't help the poem, but basically, it's lovely.

"The Night Silent" by Christopher Hivner

This is a cliché-ridden (except for Glenlivet replacing the expected Southern Comfort or mint julep) Southern gothic. On the other hand, kudzu is pretty scary—as global warming progresses, I may not be safe in Wisconsin for much longer.

"Cellwoman" by Deborah P Kolodji

Tight and funny! It makes me wonder what cell-phones accidentally dropped into toilets turn into (3 in our family so far). I'd like to think they implant themselves into albino alligators in the sewer system to create saurian cyborgs.

July 3rd, 2011

07:50 am: Fracasserie
In reference to the fracas anent the poem "The Green Reich," which appeared in the Science Fiction Poetry Association's Star*Line 34.2, THIS IS RIDICULOUS, YOU GUYS. The description of the judge in the poem is deliberately casting its net as wide as possible (ludicrously impossible, really)--specifically, I would think, to avoid being construed as pointing at anyone in particular. It's a silly poem about the not-so-far-fetched concept of a dog facing criminal charges for peeing and pooping--COME ON!

It's especially ironic that the subtext of the poem itself is overreaction, in a zero-tolerance sense. I consider myself far to the left of liberal, but will be the first to admit that the non-Dark Side has its own failings, and can be just as draconian in its zealotry. (QED.) To refuse to read a poet, or a journal, ever again because of an unsupported, reading-between-the-lines interpretation ... make no mistake, this is both close-minded and sick. Save your rage for important issues, for REAL racists, sexists, homophobes, and those who are actively harming humanity, instead of these repeated episodes of delusional fantasies over poetry trivia and calls for elementary-school clique-forming.

I am getting the strong impression that if it were up to some who have commented at http://time-shark.livejournal.com/493137.html and its sequel, publication of Animal Farm would have been blocked (certain individuals would doubtless have seen themselves as mocked, with far more reason), and George Orwell publicly disciplined and prevented from writing ever again. I'm fond of socialism myself (despite sharing Bierce's opinion of it) but I don't see any reason to give it, or any other position, status, or belief protection from satire. All ideologies have their flaws and failings, and deserve to have them pointed out and mocked. Yours, whoever you are, should not be immune.

Certainly poems with flaws and failings deserve to have them pointed out as well, but I am very disappointed at the way any discussion of a poem within the speculative community seems to instantly transform itself into an ad hominem attack on writers or editors, rather than the content of the poem itself. To my mind, there was a far more egregious example of ethnocultural insensitivity and just plain bad writing in a different poem in the last issue of Star*Line, but it would be idiotic of me to attribute these qualities to a deliberate attempt on the poet's part to offend a particular minority group.

Do we want a Star*Line editor whose cautious, safe choices are invariably so bland as to offend no one? Or are some of you hoping to have poets you have targeted as personal enemies permanently blacklisted by a Committee-to-be-formed for Un-Speculative Poetry Activities?

Yes, I'm saying nasty things. However, they are aimed at the unpleasant and unfair manner of discourse that has repeatedly arisen. Unlike some, I do not intend to pick up my marbles and go home. I intend to agitate until these witch-hunts stop happening.

I'm very interested in discussions about poetics and about the quality, content, and even propriety of effect of published poems on the listserv. I am NOT interested in seeing disproportionate and unjustified attacks on poets or editors, or deliberate misinterpretations of work as personal affronts. It's depressing to me that such an egregious set of circumstances is what stimulated me to post in my LJ again.

April 25th, 2010

06:40 pm: 2008 Rhysling Anthology—Analysis the First
I'm posting critiques of a three-year-old anthology in hopes that the current one will not be dissected publicly before the voting is done. Discussion of poems whilst in the midst of the voting process can be misinterpreted as attempts to influence votes inappropriately, and puts poets in the uncomfortable position of having to defend their own poems or those they nominated. So let's converse about those of former years instead—the sting should have worn off by now. I figure a dozen at a time will be about right.

Perhaps I'm a bit focused on the lack of attention to grammatical details that should have been caught at some point of the proofreading process. Imagine, if you will, that you are listening to a poem being read aloud, by a reader who mispronounces words, uses the wrong words, runs words together, inflects sentences incorrectly, and periodically hawks up boogers. The effect of reading typos, misspellings, absent italics and hyphens, and incorrect punctuation on the page is quite similar, in my opinion. Naturally, this doesn't apply to poems where the style is deliberately experimental.

"Be True” by Mary Alexandra Agner

This lovely poem, one of my favorites in this anthology, is a tribute as well as an address to Isaac Asimov's well-known fictional robotics expert Susan Calvin, who is betrayed by her own creation's desire not to see her harmed. There is a strong sense of rhythm, despite very loose adherence to meter. The central metaphor is fabulously expressed: “you laid down calmly on the tracks/and called out, singing, to the train.” My initial impression was that the POV changes awkwardly in the poem from second- to first-person; however, given Agner's widely apparent high-end writing skills, the first two lines of the following stanza are obviously in Calvin's voice and should have been italicized and preceded by a colon: “Don't save me. Let the wild metal men/kidnap me, blow up my trappings of humanity.” The failure to include italics, hyphens, and other typographic aids to literary precision has been regrettably widespread in the last three Rhysling anthologies and, frequently, the publications in which the poems first appeared. Omission of these conventions is not an editorial style; it is a serious impediment to reading comprehension and a great disservice to the poet who intended them to be used.

"The Marian Lee” by Mary Alexandra Agner

In the style of a traditional ballad, this wistful and tragic poem is somewhat generic, and undeveloped rather than mysterious. I could wish that the attention given to form were more rigorous; it frequently drifts away from scansion, losing meter more than rhyme. I imagine that it would be much more suitable for being set to music. The “murals with their glowing” which give Candleton (a much more suitable title—a nameless ship would have been far more poignant) its name are the most evocative image in the poem.


“Giving Back to the Muse” by Mike Allen

Lucky Mike gets to have italics in this punchy poem! Nice, violent personification of the deity we poets love to hate. “Your loins avalanche blood” is an especially graphic line, with the sexual overtones that add so much to a poem's impact.


“Dark Matter” by Rae Armantrout

I'm especially pleased when nominations occur from outside the genre markets (in this case, from the Colorado Review); it's a sign that at least some members have the broad range of literary interests that prevent stagnation and parochialism. A tentative but by no means certain interpretation of this poem would be disappointment with the difference between an idea and its execution: betrayal by one's own standards (although the Judas-kiss image is a heavy-handed cliché). As Leonardo da Vinci said, “The greatest tragedy in art is when theory outstrips performance.” But I'm most smitten with stanza 2, where the poet returns us shivering to the ancient idea of the night sky as a pierced dome: “Each one/is the inverse/shape of what's/missing.”


“Ice Palace” by Margaret Atwood

A weird and mightily attractive dream-vision of an ice hotel (yes, Virginia, there are ice hotels), combined with suggestions of the invisible servitors from “Beauty and the Beast” and other fairy tales “clean out the wad of hair/you left in the porcelain shower.” Free verse, with some lovely internal rhymes. And then it moves into darker territory: “Red petals on the floor./You hope they're petals,” and Bluebeard's chamber, “the one forbidden door,/the one inscribed//Staff Only,” which adds humor to the terror. She gets italics, too! Disclaimer: I believe I nominated this poem, and I'm still enamored of it.


“Eating Light” by F.J. Bergmann

Mine, disclaiming up front. It won and I'm proud of it and had fun writing the poem. Italics present in its original published form were omitted. The poem can be read here.


“The Crone Meets Her Son (on a battlefield)” by K.J. Bishop

I would have preferred this otherwise fine poem to have been simply titled “On a Battlefield.” The expectations of kinship and discovery set up by the major title are not met—nothing in the poem indicates a maternal or filial relationship, and the assumption that the presumed parentage will be eventually revealed keeps the reader from focusing on what the poem does contain: a surreal and color-filled excursion into the struggle in which art and memory continuously engage. The dialogue in the poem would have been easier to follow had it been set off by the use of italics or quotation marks, and the kerning (letter-spacing) is noticeably off.


“If We Had No Moon” by John Borneman

This elegant poem epitomizes the “what if” aspect of speculative work, and brings us back, tragically, to the mundane world at its close. The subtext, for me, is the escape from the vicissitudes of reality that SF&F has always represented. My favorite line: “watching you place my future back into its felt box.” The second stanza should probably have ended with a period rather than a comma, and I find the capitalization of “Moon” intrusive (as well as inconsistent).

“Mrs. McGregor” by Robert Borski

A funny take on Peter Rabbit, this persona poem in the title character's voice mixes up the distaff side of Potter's shadowy human villain with infidelity, impersonation of the Green Man, and bunny bestiality (although any speculation concerning the origins of Peter himself is absent). I had to Google “Beveren,” but it was worth it. The “your” in stanza 8, line 2, should have been “you're.”


“Beyond the Clouds of Paradise” by Bruce Boston

This poem is lyrical, but opaque. The first stanza appears to be a straightforward description of enjoying cloud-watching, but the second introduces entities that seem to be actual residents of a theological heaven. The third mentions “stratosphere” and has a few of these individuals falling off the edge; the fourth, where the quatrain structure is abandoned, tells us that they break when they hit—and then we're talking about no clouds at all in the fifth stanza, followed by pure, NASA-filtered starlight. I'm not sure where the poem wanted me to go. I got lost, somewhere between heaven and Earth.


“Reservations Suggested” by G.O. Clark

I had to reread the first stanza several times to figure out the syntax. While most of the commas here are not actively incorrect, a more pleasurable reading experience would have been obtained by judicious use of semicolons and parentheses. “Motel 6,” “Cloud City,” and “wish/you were here” should have been hyphenated. Nonetheless, an entertaining poem about ordinary vacation parameters superimposed upon SF tropes.


“Falling” by David Livingstone Clink

Again, punctuation quibbles, but otherwise this is an excellent prose poem, demonstrating admirably what differentiates a prose poem from flash fiction. Superficially a comparative memoir, the subtly jarring digressions into a view of a pure-SF future subsequently link us back to solid ground with the ordinariness of hospitals and graves (even though on the moon) and travelers returning home.

April 22nd, 2010

11:04 pm: Recent Delights
I've got SF poems, including an illustrated Flash poem, at the new issue of Verse Wisconsin. And I also have an article on genre poetry there. Just got done with OdysseyCon, where I got to drive Harry Turtledove to and from the airport and otherwise hang out and chat with him. What a nice guy—and a wonderful writer! Fun panels, writing and otherwise; parties; and our first poetry slam, with eight contestants (I was 2nd by a tenth of a point, and Richard Chwedyk won).

The preceding Saturday, I participated in a Racquetball Poetry Chapbook Tournament in Racine, WI. The idea was that since ordinary poetry contests are said to be biased (in favor of who-knows-what . . . or perhaps who-knows-whom) as well as limited by being based on intangible "esthetic" qualities, an ideal poetry contest would involve a clearly defined, scoreable ranking system. Hence, racquetball: winner of tournament gets their poetry chapbook published. I played against four (well, two, because I lost both my first matches and was eliminated from further consideration) buff, ridiculously fit young people, and when it was all over we had lunch and drank lots of nice beer (Irish hard cider, in my case), and then all of us participants gave a poetry reading and the Racine Public Library bought two of my previous poetry chapbooks, and a visiting librarian from Horicon got all excited about horror poetry, bought a Vampyre Verse anthology (in which I figure prominently) and wants me to come up there and do a horror poetry reading. For the darling little Twilight fans!

I was also half of a performance art project, A Cold Read, that we did on Sunday, April 11, at the Kohler Art Museum in Sheboygan, WI. The idea was that Tom Ferrella, my co-conspirator, would take somewhat odd (double-exposed, etc.) Polaroids of people at the museum, give them to me, and I would, extemporaneously, on the spot, type a short poem derived from the image directly on a manual typewriter onto a card, insert the photo in the card, and voilà! instant exhibit. This worked even better than Tom had thought possible: we did about two dozen cards in 3 or 4 hours, and I amused myself in between clients by writing little random poems and offering them as free samples. Like:

    art museum
    just like the mall but smaller
    only 1 café
    1 gift shop

The best photo was of a woman behind a glass door, with the photographer's reflection superimposed, so that she appeared to have a huge eel-like growth attached to her head and dreadful black bags under her eyes, which made her look extremely ill. The poem to go with it:

    When she agreed to be the host-
    mother for the alien
    exchange student, they assured her
    it would only eat the parts
    of her brain she didn't need.

We're doing the performance there again on June 27th. I'm working on a future image-generating system that does not involve now-hideously-costly polaroids.

This coming weekend, April 23 and 24, I'll be at the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Spring Conference. I think that would be Green Bay.

October 4th, 2009

05:29 pm: Sitting in Judgment
I was asked to judge the 2009 Poetry Super Highway Contest because I won 3rd place in the 2008 contest. It's been a diverting and instructive experience. The contest was difficult to judge fairly, but the system did enable rapid decision-making. Where the difficulty in scoring lay was that, in reading the batches of poems, it was obvious that most of them were not good enough to win, but I had no way of telling how good—or bad—they would get; i.e., of determining the range. In setting arbitrarily imposed aesthetic limits for numerical score increments, there is a risk that if scored too low, too many poems will end up with very high or perfect scores, and if standards are too stringent, no poems will attain a sufficiently high score to signify in the final results—in both cases, making those scores worthless when combined with those of other judges, as far as influencing the contest outcome.

In dressage, which is an equestrian sport where horses perform in succession and are scored numerically with no opportunity for revision (as in this contest), a well-known effect exists in that judges tend to be overly cautious in assigning scores to the first few competitors, resulting in score creep. This effect is even more pronounced in poetry slams, where it is enhanced by contagious enthusiasm and alcohol. Because the contest poems arrived in groups, there was also a glamour cast by the accompanying poems: a tendency to judge a poem among good poems more rigorously than if all the other poems read at the same time were vastly inferior. Ideally, I’d have preferred to simultaneously read all the entered poems, or at least to reread the higher-scoring poems, rank them, and adjust the scores. But I do read quickly, and find that lesser poems are quickly assessed and rejected. I applaud the PSH method as enabling the results to be announced promptly; there are far too many poetry contests whose decision-making processes are indefensibly sluggish.

In the initial judging, using the designated scoring system of assigning scores from 0 to 5, using quarter-point increments, I set a score of 2.75 as the lowest score for a poem good enough that, as an editor, I would have considered it at all publishable—less than a quarter of the poems achieved this level. I chose 4.00 as the threshold for a poem that I would not be unhappy to see win, and only 28 poems—about 6%—ended up in this range. I reserved 5.00 for the very few poems that impressed me in the original reading as poems I would truly enjoy reading again and again, of which there were only three; two made the tie-breaking round for the top five and one, "Hugo," actually placed fifth (there was a tie for fourth place). The lowest score I gave was 0.50—even the most unskilled and inexperienced writers who entered were putting forth a modicum of effort. I was somewhat generous with the scores; if the contest were to have been scored in comparison to the full range from the worst to the best poems I have ever seen, the highest scores would have been more like 4 on a scale of 0 to 5.

I did weigh grammatical and punctuation errors in my assessment of the poems. Spelling and syntax are skills just as valuable as word choice and turn of phrase, and those who demonstrate expertise deserve credit. There were occasional typos that were obviously the result of carelessness rather than lack of skill, and contest organizer Rick Lupert assured me that editing would take place before the winning poems were published. Note that if there are oddities in a poem that could be interpreted as either interesting, original variants or as mistakes, the presence of incontrovertible errors elsewhere in the poem will drive the latter interpretation. Poetry is an exact science.

Speaking of which, the absence of italics in any of the poems as I received them was unfortunate. The level of writing was sufficiently elevated in some of the poems that the omission of italics where they should have occurred was obtrusive and displeasing, as well as suspicious. In plain-text e-mail messages (which do not support italicization), italics are normally indicated by _underlines_, a request which would be easy to insert in future contest rules.

Scoring the better poems—deciding, for instance, how much an ill-chosen word or two, or an unambitious approach to a commonplace subject, should affect the poem’s score—took considerably more time, and is easy to second-guess. Sometimes fascinating double meanings or structural flourishes do not emerge until further, closer readings; however, one legitimate measure of a poem’s worth is its ability to capture the reader’s attention from the beginning. I would have liked a chance to reevaluate my scores for the better poems at the end of the competition. I am glad that the tie for the top five places allowed me to adjust the scores I had originally given to those poems.

Comments on the poems tied for the top five places, in order of my own preference, with my initial scores in the 0-5 range and my final scores in the 0-10 range:

“Breccia” 10.00 (First place in contest)
4.50 was my original score, but this blank-verse sonnet impressed me much more in the later reading. The initially puzzling title is perfect for this poem; not only is it the Italian word for “broken,” but it is also the name of a rock in which fragments of one rock are embedded in a variant matrix, usually as the result of destructive encounter; I relate this to the poem’s structure, where each line is a single sentence ostensibly unconnected to what precedes or follows. I had been critical of a number of other contest poems for inaccessibly opaque content—and this poem is certainly not transparent—but it invites speculation rather than locking out the reader, and creates ominous intimations of a personal tragedy in a manner that elicits fascination even as it mystifies. The language of the poem is very simple (an effective contrast), allowing the reader to free-fall into the elusive content, up until the fabulous last line, “Outside the silent river rumples by.”

“Thanatopia” 9.75 (Third place in contest)
5.00 original score. A rereading did not change my initial impression of the poem, nor did it reveal further depths. There is always a risk in writing tragic poems with “I” as the narrator: they can far too easily be read as “poor-little-me” narratives that engage the reader’s hostility or distaste rather than his sympathy. This poem, with its ambitious title, nicely evades that pitfall in its weird veerings back and forth between the mundane and the surreal, nor is it afraid to bounce from the sublime to the ridiculous. I have a personal weakness for work that is both mysterious and silly, and this poem is my cup of scopolamine tea. Many delightful lines: “Send me wherever/failed stars go,” “I choose to translate the icing,” and the outré ending, “The watcher crawls in, closes her ribs.”

“The Day the Beekeeper Died” 9.25 (Tied for fourth place in contest)
4.00 original score. This is a wonderful narrative poem, but the short lines, ill-chosen breaks, and indents hinder its effect. It would have been much stronger as a prose poem; or at least if breaks on the weakest words had not been so frequent. It was, of course, easier to follow in subsequent readings, which allowed the substance of the poem to emerge more powerfully from its distracting form. This poem does a remarkable job of elliptically evoking intense grief through its focused description of a very unusual reaction to the death of a father. Although—and perhaps because—the father is mentioned only twice in the poem, and in the title only by inference, the poem is vivid and effective in spite of its unfortunate structure.

“Awaiting Dionysus” 9.25 (Tied for fourth place in contest)
I originally gave this one a 5.00. Greek myth has been done to death as a subject for poetry, and so has the longing for spring’s return, but this poem is filled with strikingly original phrases: “morose vineyard,” “the hellish year.” Not only that, but it’s a sestina, and I admire form very much when it’s done well. On the minus side, the envoi is slightly weaker than the rest of the poem (“Dormant the dye that lengthens apart” is particularly opaque); I like a poem to end with a tour de force. Other flaws that became more evident on rereading were some flukes in the punctuation and certain word choices, especially prepositions, that were a little off in a way that caused me to wonder whether English is the poet’s first language. Even so, the poem shows immense promise.

“Slainte” 7.75 (Second place in contest)
4.00 original score. This poem is very correct and workmanlike, which in this competition was enough to put it near the top 5%, but no more. The absence of errors distinguished it most, and certainly the writer deserves praise for his meticulous craftsmanship—but I was disappointed, especially upon comparison with the more original efforts of the other finalists, that this sestina does nothing that could be described as adventurous, and does not take advantage of the form’s possibilities. It uses predictable, pedestrian end-words with none of the playful variations in meaning that are the usual point of a sestina, and there are no real surprises or particularly memorable lines. The poet is certainly competent, but not ambitious.

PSH09 score graphThe statistical analysis of data is always interesting, particularly where the data stem from pure aesthetics. In a flurry of cat-vacuuming, I've made a little bar graph showing the distribution of all the scores I gave in the contest. Note that there is a lot of room at the top end of the graph.

The Poetry Super Highway site is very amateur-friendly; it's possible that academic literary contests are more rigorous, and that the poems which won here might not have been competitive elsewhere. In my previous judging experience and, I am given to understand by others who have judged literary contests, most of the entries are not of sufficient quality to merit winning scores. However, when choosing among the better poems, a judge's tastes may play an unexpectedly aleatory role. All three of us who were winners last year and judged this year have been widely published and have won awards in respected venues; even so, our scores, by inference from the top-ten placings given by Rick on the PSH radio winners announcement, must have significantly diverged in many instances.

There were certain qualities that drove low scores—from me, at least. From a judge's point of view, here is some advice for poetry contest entrants: a) have someone competent edit your poem for basic grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.—errors in writing are just as annoying and disruptive as when someone reads aloud and mispronounces and mumbles, plus they show a lack of both competence and respect for your own work; b) write on an unusual subject and/or in an unusual manner--surprise the reader with your content, style, or word choices; c) prose anecdotes or journal entries are generally not poems, no matter how heartbreaking, even with line breaks; d) lines are best broken on strong, interesting words, as opposed to ending with an article, pronoun, or preposition; e) consider the rationale before indenting; f) think long and hard before capitalizing Important Words—the effect is Antiquated; g) avoid end rhymes unless writing formal poetry—and if writing formal poetry, it had better be damned good. These are not hard-and-fast rules (except for a!), but it would be wise not to break them without carefully considering the intended effect.

September 26th, 2009

07:48 am: Cultural Isolation
I attribute the public decline in appreciation of poetry in the U.S. mainly to one phenomenon: the academization of poetry journals. The rise in MFA—to say nothing of Ph.D.—creative writing programs has created a cottage industry of academic literary journals that generally do not pay their contributors and do not market outside academia—or at all. Lit mags that have to support themselves, i.e., that are not funded by colleges or universities, take a keen interest in marketing their product (or at least in soliciting donations); academic journals have no such impetus. While catering to public tastes is by no means perfectly congruent with distributing quality work, neither is focusing entirely on whatever passes for the avant-garde in the current school year. And by excluding the general public from any possibility of appreciating or accessing the work, the field becomes ever more narrow, parochial, and underfunded.

A case in point is SLAB magazine, produced by Slippery Rock University. I went to the site to check current contest guidelines (last year's deadline was December 8). I was astounded to find that although SLAB is a print journal, and gives no indication of having become web-only (especially since its current issue Table of Contents does not link to the works listed), there is no subscription information whatsoever. Nor is there any method on the site by which one might obtain a sample copy (I happen to have a past issue from entering a previous contest). Nor is there any indication that contributors or entrants will receive an issue, and—best of all—there is no e-mail contact provided to inquire about these details. Apparently it isn't necessary to have anyone actually read the journal anymore, even within academia—and apparently none of the contributors care that no one else will ever see their work, assuming that agitating would have rectified the situation. I look forward to the next step, when one submits only in the hope of being on a list of those found good enough to be published—if there were an actual publication.

And, of course, if nobody reads it, it doesn't matter if it's any good.

August 3rd, 2009

09:48 pm: Review of August '09 Realms of Fantasy
Disclaimer: I normally don’t review magazines; indeed, I normally don’t review at all, but an offer was made to send out gratis the first issue of Realms of Fantasy published under the New Order of Warren Lapine’s ownership to anyone who cared to blog about it, and I succumbed to the Lure of the Freebie. My familiarity with previous issues was sporadic, so there will be little or no comparison with the ancien régime.
Beginning with its cover, the issue has stellar aspects—in sufficient quantity that I have already forked over the dough for a two-year subscription. The cover image itself is absolutely gorgeous, and while it may be the iconic, time-tested marketing ploy of using a supermodel-pretty female face and figure (except for the disquieting, though predictable, absence of nipples), the iridescent effects in the scales and the use of color, especially in the speckled feathers, are spectacularly rich.

The other illustrations in this issue are impressive as well; they are masterfully executed and do the stories justice. Even in the ads that take up close to 30% of the issue (and if that’s what it takes to keep ROF in print, that’s what it takes) most of the images are very attractive, with the exception of a few covers of advertised books. (Trust me, people: the ray-tracing programs that will do human or animal forms—the ones you can afford, anyway—are Not There Yet.)

Michael Hague, whose work I esteem, is the artist discussed in the Gallery, and it’s delightful to see so many fine examples from decades of his illustrations. I hope this section continues as a regular feature.

I also enjoyed the interviews with the young actors who play Luna, Neville, and Draco that were included with the review of the latest Harry Potter movie—fun to have an “inside view” of the character from the POV of the actor playing that part!

An eclectic article on music’s role in global history certainly seems comprehensive, and includes a smattering of information on folk influences, as well as gossip about recent rock and other bands.

The book-and-other-print-media reviews were pleasant and instructive when kept brief. I liked The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, the novel preceding The Dark Volume by Gordon Dahlquist (the novel under review), a good deal more than Paul Witcover apparently did, which makes his unstinting praise for the second volume especially convincing. But the spoiler part is truly annoying for those of us who haven’t gotten the book yet! The initial portion of the review was illuminating, and more than sufficient to persuade me to buy the book, and I would have preferred additional reviews to the lengthy summation that succeeded it. If the remainder of the review had been a perceptive essay discussing technique and deeper layers of meaning, some revelations might have been worthwhile and necessary, but as it is, most of the review is merely a synopsis, which is not only a lazy way of extending one’s word count, but inconsiderate to readers as well.

The other novel reviews by Witcover also include lengthy, unnecessary spoilers, and the cover image of the second book is omitted. A well-written review should not need to synopsize the book under discussion, and I prefer the inclusion of cover images, even as thumbnails. The shorter book reviews by Matt Staggs are infinitely preferable, as is the YA-fantasy-review setup, with short teaser-blurbs and a brief opinion alongside the cover images.

It was disappointing to see only one graphic novel reviewed; the inclusion of two full pages as well as the cover, in the dimensions required for text legibility, must have been thought necessary for some reason. The cover image was unfortunately not designed to be intelligible or attractive in the thumbnail size at which most book covers strive to maintain appeal—I consider this a design flaw that should not be encouraged by lowering the bar for allowed display space.

I won’t discuss the gaming review, as this is a field in which I have no experience or expertise, except to say that, even so, it was kinda fun to read from my perspective as a complete outsider.

Now, for the four stories in this issue (why no flash fiction? why no poetry?):

The best short fiction in this issue, in my opinion, is “Healing Benjamin” by Dennis Danvers. This story has an engaging basic concept—for us cat lovers especially—and a believable and consistent voice. Who among us has not considered their own mortality? The loss of a beloved pet can be more poignant than the idea of one’s own death, but being outlived by a pet may also be a tragedy. Line after line is classic enough to repeat like a mantra—but all of them are spoilers. Except perhaps for “Go forth and lick both beaters, my chosen one,” which is definitely staying in the household lexicon. Gorgeous, unbearably funny, and sad.

“Digging for Paradise” is also excellent; a seamless fusion of techno-sf and fantasy. The selection of names is a small consideration amid the manifold components of a story, but can still completely ruin the effect if done unwisely. All the place and character names that Ian Creasey has used here feel both unobtrusively original and authentic. With subtle humor, the author deals engagingly with a combination of the traditional theme of the narrator’s submission to servitude in order to recover a long-lost love, and the moral issues of unlimited power. I enjoyed the technical details about the headaches involved in drilling through strata deep in the earth. Another byword: “’Magic can do anything,’ he said, ‘That’s why it’s called magic.’” And who could fail to be enchanted by “He made a reverential gesture to his testicles....”? Kudos to (I presume) the author for avoiding common spelling errors in, or misuse of, words like “poring,” “loupe,” and “stratum.” “Niggle” as a noun may be a neologism, but is perfectly comprehensible.

A real fairy tale must seem to be somehow archetypal, but modern writers far too often attempt a story in the fairy-tale style via the use of stale premises and outworn conventions. But “Well and Truly Broken” by Bruce Holland Rogers engaged my interest from the beginning and developed a fairly original premise—then stopped abruptly. Had some junior editor or production assistant forgotten to insert “Continued on page X”? No. Was this piece an nostalgic return to serialization? Apparently not. Whatever it is, it’s not a complete story. Nor is it an enchanting vignette; it’s an exercise in disappointment—which implies, at least, that it is also a successful beginning. I would like to read the rest of the story someday, if Mr. Rogers ever finishes it.

Sadly, the first story, by virtue of placement the presumed headliner, Tanith Lee’s “Our Lady of Scarlet,” did not in any way live up to my expectations, and therefore I deliberately discuss it last. She is certainly the name that I would have recognized, and on whose account I would have purchased the issue. It has been some years since I’ve picked up any of her work—decades, actually; and that may be part of the problem here—but I had read with enjoyment her novels Night’s Master, The Silver Metal Lover, The Black Unicorn, and others, and recall them as skillfully written.

That being said, something’s desperately wrong here—many, many things, in fact. I remember Lee as being a much better writer than is evinced by this story. There is a plethora of grammatical errors, to say nothing of a badly done faux-archaic style that is affected as well as annoyingly redundant. The punctuation, syntactical weirdnesses, and other grammatical and structural blunders are atrociously frequent: I counted three hundred mistakes, mostly punctuation errors—and the story is only six pages long! Where on earth is the proofreading one might expect from a publication of ROF's presumed caliber? To say nothing of the editorial oversight—and I use this word in the sense of “supervision,” as opposed to “failure to take heed.”

The errors are such as to completely overshadow and spoil the story—which is not saying much, as the story itself is a run-of-the-mill pastiche: Student Wizard meets Masque of the Red Death. Even as a first draft inserted by accident (in which case heads should roll), the story is prima facie evidence that Tanith Lee is past her sell-by date. The style is not a matter of deliberate use of the elevated diction complete with occasional inverted syntax that one frequently sees in fantasy, used with the intention of evoking the literary mannerisms of a bygone age; it’s just painfully bad writing. The arcane placement of commas, to say nothing of sundry unnecessary divagations, garbled and incorrect syntax, and horridly phrased passages combine so as to give the impression that English is a recently acquired second language. On top of the punctuation problems, bizarre—by which I mean “awful” rather than “creative”—word choices are intrusive and painful to read. Stilted, awkward—and in many cases, incorrect—verb constructions are used throughout. And what on earth does “feater” mean?—although this appears to be the kind of genuine typo that could happen to anyone. Anyone who didn’t bother to spellcheck, that is. Oddly, only the use of italics (a frequently neglected skill) is consistently correct.

What the hell happened? One does not expect to find this level of editing in what has previously been a top-drawer SF journal. Yes, there are a few typos in the other stories, but they can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and do not intrude as evidence of total meltdown. And the other stories are more complex (except for the Rogers story, for obvious reasons), involving profoundly difficult ethical choices, and are much more compelling. I cannot imagine why a story like “Our Lady of Scarlet” was accepted in the first place, no matter who wrote it; nor, if it had to be accepted, why it was not given the level of editorial assistance that would have raised it to the level of the rest of the writing in the magazine. Besides degrading ROF, the appearance of the story in its current disorderly state is a major disservice to potential Tanith Lee fans. Normally, when I see content this incapable, I put the publication—and the author—on my Do Not Bother To Read Or Submit To list. But this is Realms of Fantasy, newly risen out of its ashes. Don’t let this happen again, guys.

The editorial and publisher’s note were fun (and congratulations on taking up no more than one page in toto). With the astounding exception of the Tanith-Lee-WTF? experience, the issue is mostly a good one, and as both fans and writers we would do well to heed the words of Shawna McCarthy, the editor, regarding why one ought to subscribe to print magazines: “The magazines and publishing houses act, effectively, as gatekeepers. We are your first and last line of defense against the lady down the street who’s always wanted to write if only she had the time.”

April 17th, 2009

09:36 am: Falsehood and Guilt
Occasionally I dabble in false translations. The process involves taking a poem or other text in a language that one does not know, and writing a poem based on what the words look like, freeing up the subconscious like you wouldn't believe. I've just had one of these, "Should," published in elimae, here. The original poem, "Schuld," also posted on elimae, is by the German slam poet Dirk Huelstrunk, soundslikepoetry.de. Fred Bergmann, my husband, did the real translation, "Guilt," which accompanies them.

March 28th, 2009

09:37 am: Unpaid Creative Work for a Multinational Corporation, Anyone?
With great displeasure, I've received a call for submissions to Ito En Ltd's Haiku Project.

Basically, the idea is that you send them "positive" haiku, and they put them on tea-bottle labels. Oh, and you give up rights to the work and permission to use your name. That's right. You can provide packaging content and endorsement for a commercial product, and it won't cost them squat!

It is understandable, if regrettable, that literary journals with little or no funding may not be able to pay contributors (Mobius: A Journal of Social Change, for which I am Poetry Editor, is so far from being in a position to do so that it has recently become online-only). But for a corporation to invite poets to provide its advertising gratis is contemptible. I e-mailed them the message below, and encourage other poets to do likewise--there are a whole bunch of corporate e-mail addresses on Ito En's Contact Us page.

I can't begin to tell you how offensive I think it is that ITO EN, a for-profit company would solicit poems to enhance a product without compensating the authors in any way. Beats having to pay advertising copywriters, doesn't it?

This "honors" poets in the same way that a corporate logo on a t-shirt honors the wearer.

Nor is this a "literary" venture: modern haiku rarely follows the archaic 5-7-5 syllabic pattern, making it unlikely that reputable poets with literary credentials are involved in the selection, making this worthless even as a publication credit.

Sadly, there are enough fledgling poets desperate to be published that you will doubtless obtain a superfluity of cheesy 5-7-5 haiku.

I shall certainly make a point of boycotting your products. Your "Haiku Project" is predatory and devalues poetry.

February 4th, 2009

09:13 am: Call and Response
I was ranting again about places that never respond to submissions—and then I got handed a stack of postal submissions that the general editor of Mobius: A Journal of Social Change (of which I am poetry editor) had allowed to accumulate, without my knowledge, since JUNE (yes, heads have rolled). On the other hand, that's June of '08. And most of them were more recent. And I responded immediately to all of them. On yet another pseudopod, when I first took over as poetry editor, back in the fall of '06, there was a slushpile going all the way back to 1998—I'm not kidding. The previous poetry editor had tried to implement a policy of including extensive kindly comments with each rejection and—understandably, sort of—had imploded. I replied to all of them with the announcement of a new régime (and major groveling). My turnaround for e-mail subs is usually no more than a week or so (with two rejection flavors: "Try us again" and"Read the journal first").

But now for the submitter's side of it. There may be extenuating circumstances (illness, internet problems, etc.)—I once got a very nice letter, many months later, explaining that my submission had fallen behind a file cabinet—that interfere with prompt erosion of the slushpile. In that case, apologies ought to be forthcoming at some point. It should not be that difficult to do a mass e-mail notification of difficulties, or at least to post to a blog, listserv, or forum. I am not convinced that Duotrope is that reliable--at least twice I've seen recent responses and guidelines listed from journals I know have been dead for awhile.

Not only that, but it's infuriating to find that other writers are supposedly getting rapid responses from places that won't answer polite inquiries. I'm thinking of posting a personal shit list somewhere. Many markets have an extremely rapid turnaround, measured in days rather than weeks or months.

Two journals accepted my work--and then never responded again: Arabesques Review (which Duotrope still lists as a current market), and EOAGH. I submitted poems to EOAGH in April '06, along with some nice words about a poem of the editor's (I still love the poem—check out http://jacketmagazine.com/30/fl-tarzan.html). I inquired politely in September of '06, and again on November of '06, to no avail, and gave up on them. Then I noticed in August of '07 that the editor and webmaster were engaged in other, current projects and e-mailed both to ask whether EOAGH had been abandoned. I got an immediate reply from the webmaster, claiming that it was about to be updated, and an immediate acceptance from the editor—which was actually a reply to the Sept. '06 inquiry! Since then, nothing—no new issue, no response to any further inquiries. I finally e-mailed a week ago a not-polite, f-word-including (I don't normally do this, but felt it was a Special Case) withdrawal to the editor and webmaster—and received IMMEDIATELY an apology (but no explanation) from the webmaster. And it was a "no simultaneous submissions" place, of course.

I normally don't submit simultaneously anyway, because my acceptance rate for poetry has been around 35-40% for the last several years and it's too hard to keep track of multiple subs. But I feel that anyplace that publishes poetry (which doesn't require anything like the reading time of fiction) had either better respond within 3 months max, or not have a problem with sim subs. And I resent late responses even from places that do allow sim subs—it still prevents writers from submitting the work to places that don't, until they hear back.

In the SF poetry world, I've been extremely disappointed with Chiaroscuro, Coyote Wild, and Dark Wisdom, from all of which I withdrew poems after waiting over a year for a decision. Dark Wisdom responded sporadically and belatedly to claim that replies were forthcoming (they weren't)—but responded immediately to the poems' withdrawal with a sour-grapes you're-not-withdrawing-we're-rejecting you. I did get a (not at all prompt) response from Chiaroscuro to a Sept. '08 inquiry, saying that new assistants were helping to clear the backlog, but after no further replies to queries since then, I sent the following e-mail, which I think is justified:

"It has now been over a year since I sent you my poems. Your original stated response time has been grossly exceeded; moreover, I feel that it is outrageous to demand that poems not be simultaneously submitted in the absence of a prompt editorial decision. Unless you can give me a definite response within the next two weeks, consider the poems withdrawn."

And I got no reply. Coyote Wild had already gone way beyond its stated response time (and I had already inquired, as their site suggested, to no avail--except for the sub autoresponder, Coyote Wild has NEVER responded to any e-mail, despite verbal assurances that they were received) before Viable Paradise last year. One of my poems was rejected in the VP slushkill, but I was personally assured that the others were still being considered. I've heard nothing back from subsequent, pleasant inquiries, so I've withdrawn those poems as well. Nor will I submit again to those markets, or any other that feels it can treat writers so shabbily.

While I owe my one Pushcart nomination to VOX, I was terribly disappointed by the amateurish layout, poor design, and terrible proofreading of the issue I appeared in, compounded by extraordinary diifficulty in obtaining my contributor's copy. I resubmitted—by invitation— to their War issue, which has never transpired. Originally scheduled to appear in Dec. '07, a reply to an August '08 inquiry gave a publication date of October. And then nothing, until I got a Facebook offer to be a friend of one of the editors, whom I have never met. I e-mailed this person immediately to ask how the journal was coming along, and he breezily informed me that VOX "was dead at the moment" and begrudgingly offered to allow me to withdraw the work—which he had never made a decision on—apparently surprised that I wouldn't want to just leave it in limbo with him indefinitely!

I don't think of withdrawing my work—or naming names— as "turfing my career." I think of it as refusing to let myself and my writing be treated with disrespect. It saddens me how few writers are driven to withdraw work, or to send irate missives when no response is forthcoming, for fear of offending editors who are lazy, incompetent, or hostile—or at least to inquire to inquire, in case editors have simply misplaced the submission or not received it for some reason. For obvious reasons, discouraging or not permitting inquiries is a perfectly repellent editorial practice, but there is nothing wrong with something like "do not inquire unless at least 6 weeks have passed."

SF markets that have replied promptly (or at least within the stated time), whether in the affirmative or negative, include Aberrant Dreams, Abyss & Apex, Albedo One, Alimentum (hey; they paid me $50 for a poem and have a demonstrable weakness for SF!), Analog, Anotherrealm, Asimov's (very fast with fiction, a bit slower with poetry), Atomjack, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Boys' Life, Cemetery Dance, Clarkesworld, Clockwork Phoenix, Doorways, Drabblecast, Dreams & Nightmares, ElectricSpec, Escape Pod, Everyday Weirdness, Expanded Horizons, Fantasy, F&SF, Farrago's Wainscot (delayed, but instant response to first inquiry), Fear & Trembling, Flash Fiction Online, Flash Scribe, Goblin Fruit, Heliotrope, Illumen, Interzone, Jabberwocky, Killer-Works (delayed, but instant response to first inquiry), Lamination Colony, Lone Star Stories (next day!), Mag. of Spec. Poetry, The Martian Wave, Mythic Delirium, New Myths, On the Brighter Side, Paradox (delayed, but instant response to first inquiry), The Pedestal, Raven Electrick, Realms of Fantasy, Scifaikuest, Serpentarius (same day!), Shock Totem, Strange Horizons, Sybil's Garage, Talebones, TOTU, The Town Drunk, Vestal Review, Weird Tales. Obviously, these are the places I'd submit to again. The ones that are still with us, anyway.

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