Good Writing Break: Karen Craigo

Hey, Fickle Readers! I’m back with a smidge of an update. I’ve been wrangling with all kinds of health crap recently (did I mention lupus sucks?), but I wanted to give all you writing and reading types out there a heads-up about one of the best poets, editors, and people around: Karen Craigo. She’s the former poetry editor of Mid-American Review and an amazing author in her own right. Her latest book of poems, No More Milk, is coming out in the summer from Sundress Publications, and she further has one of the best writing blogs around. Right now, she’s even becoming something of a viral sensation with this excellent post on the inner workings of Submittable, every writer’s favorite site to check obsessively. There is seemingly nothing Craigo can’t do, and for that I send her a virtual shot of tequila.

A toast and my best envy to you, Karen! Keep up the excellent work! God knows we all need it.


New Fickleness for a New Year!

Hey, all you Fickle Readers out there! Happy New…er…February! A couple of days early!

I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath to see what new features my blog has to offer for 2015. Or maybe you were waiting to see if I was going to do anything coherent at all, besides posting random crap about Shakespeare, writing, current events, web stuff, and seemingly anything else that passes before my eyes.

Well, wait no longer! I, Miss Fickle Reader, am proud to announce that I have officially changed the name of my blog! Yes, indeed–careful readers will now note that the title is no longer the eponymous “Miss Fickle Reader” but the more descriptive “Miss Fickle Reader’s Commonplace Blog.” This new moniker is not a concession to anyone who things my blog is ordinary, dull, or easy to overlook (although it may be all three of those things). In fact, what I’m referencing here is the idea of the Renaissance commonplace book, a blank book in which literate men and women (mostly men) would jot down a collection of ideas, quotes, and information in one big jumble that they could take with them and share with friends. Sort of like Pinterest on paper. For a while now, I’ve been wondering how I could re-shape this blog into something a wee bit more focused. Finally, I realized the problem was with concept and not content. I love gathering ideas in jumbles. I love finding associations in things I wouldn’t have guessed were related. Hence the new name and new freedom to jot down things on instinct rather than to a plan. (That rarely works for me. I’m an absolute adolescent when it comes to doing stuff I feel like have to do.)

In a related note, I’m going to try to write smaller, more meditative posts on a more regular basis. I’m determined to do this because my good friend and fellow poet and essay writer (also former poetry editor of Mid-American Review) Karen Craigo has a new blog, Better View of the Moon, on which she posts every day, despite anything else that’s going on in her life. Her work is gorgeous, and the project inspiring. I want to try to be as dedicated–not to mention as flat-out great–as Karen. So I’m going to try harder to overcome my short attention span and wordlessness (those moments when I don’t have the energy or the focus to put words together) to get more out on the page.

The third thing–and, yes, this has been a slight distraction in my life recently–is that I’ve started doing book reviews! I now officially have a Goodreads page as well as a new, experimental site I like to call Miss Fickle Reader’s Roster of Unfinished Books.  In accordance with the Precious Seconds Rule (which, in case you need a refresher, is discussed here and here), I intend to write accounts of what happened that made me stop reading a book. These are NOT meant as reasons not to read the book (at least not necessarily). Much of the impulse to keep reading or stop reading has to do with the reader herself. The idea behind the roster is, instead, to see what takes readers out of a story, what sorts of issues trigger reader stoppage, etc. The whole thing may turn out only to be a tool for writers who are revising longer works. Hopefully, it won’t turn into a vehicle for raining author anger on my head.

So that’s the news from here in Fickleland. Now I have to go tend to Little Fickle, who came home sick from school. (He’s not terribly sick–naturally, he has enough energy to watch TV and play video games.) Cheers for now!

The Goddamned Writing Life: Rejections

Ah, rejections! The bane of the writer’s existence. Like submitting your resumé to hundreds upon hundreds of tiny jobs all the while knowing you’re going to get turned down for each one. No question about it: rejections suck.

Some rejections suck less than others, though. The personalized rejection is always nice: the one where you get a human being giving you some chin-up-style feedback on the other end of the note. Back in the old days, this came in the form of handwriting on the tiny slip of paper you had to dig around for in your SASE. Karen Craigo, then poetry editor for Mid-American Review, was an expert at giving personalized rejections. I got a happy little note, complete with smiley face (that’s a handwritten emoji, for all you young’uns out there), every time I submitted. I think by the time her tenure as poetry editor was over, Karen must have had carpal tunnel syndrome from all the niceness she sent out over the years.

Then there’s the thoroughly amusing rejection, a turn-down so witty or unintentionally hilarious you just can’t stay depressed about it. Wanna hear my latest in this category? Well, here it is, anyway:

Dear Writer,

Thank you for entering the [BLAH BLAH BLAH EXTREMELY PRESTIGIOUS] Prize this year. We received more than [HUGE NUMBER] entries, and were delighted with the high-quality of the work we received. Our contest, and consequently our magazine, is only as good as the writing we receive, and we’re grateful that you gave us the opportunity to read your writing. On behalf of [MEGA-IMPORTANT JOURNAL’s] editorial staff and our contest editor [WRITER OF EMINENCE], I’m pleased to announce our winners and finalists in each category: [A LONG LIST OF WRITERS WHO ARE NOT YOU]

Wait a second, you might be thinking to yourself. This is just standard boilerplate for non-winners of writing contests. How is this thoroughly amusing?

Well, in my case, it’s because I didn’t enter this contest. I’ve searched all over my Submittable account and my email, and I can’t find any evidence that I sent anything to this journal recently. I’m know I’ve entered their contests in past years, but I’ve been passing on award submissions nowadays because a) they’re expensive, b) I never win, and c) I hate not winning.

Not to worry! says Mega-Important Journal. You have such a terrible history with contests that we thought we’d emphasize your miniscule-to-virtually-impossible chances of winning by preemptively rejecting you! That way, you won’t be so surprised when we do reject you next time around!

See why I hate writing contests?

Anyway, my overall point here has been said many times but bears repeating: rejection is part of the writing game. Don’t let it get you down. It’s okay to lick your wounds for a day, especially when you get a thanks-but-no-thanks from a journal you really like. Remember to move on afterward, though. Believe me, the more submissions you’re able to send out into the world, the thicker your skin will grow to the doors closed to you. Keep going until you find that one open door. Then keep pushing until you find a few more that might unlock one day.

Good Writing Break: Poems by Jeffrey Skinner and Thomas Sayers Ellis

I just got through reading Dave Cullen’s Columbine.  An excellent book, packed with information about the event I didn’t know, how investigators painstakingly pieced together what happened inside the school, how the media completely misinterpreted the motives behind the tragedy (with the help of a few dumbass officials with access to the press), and how certain details about the police response were (surprise, surprise!) covered up.  Despite how good it is, or maybe because of it, the experience of reading Cullen’s book left sore spots on my psyche.  Surprised as I am that this happened, I had nightmares.  I don’t remember the last time a book has affected me in my sleep.

Keeping in mind my emotions have been raw as hamburger meat lately, I wanted to highlight a couple of beautiful, soul-mending poems I stumbled across in the past week.  The text of the first one I quote in full from this essay on “expansive poetry”; the piece itself is from Jeffrey Skinner’s sequence “Sonnets to My Daughters, 20 Years into the Future” (published in A Guide to Forgetting, 1988).  Tragically, the problems the speaker struggles with are as relevant now as they were 26 years ago:

In the news today, a woman in fatigues
let loose an automatic rifle in a shopping mall.
Three dead, seven wounded. By now you’ll
know, have seen a thousand images of disease,
cruelty, death in rags and formal dress,
failed negotiations, husband, child, wife beatings–
the endless catalog of humans who’ve so lost
the way, they tease evil in, thinking it unboring.
It is boring. Weil, Merton, a few others
were right–good is the only real surprise.
Do you love movies? I do, especially comedies.
One favorite moment: a bum in a Marx Brothers
film asks for a dime to buy a cup of coffee.
Harpo opens his coat, pulls out a cup, steaming.

There’s so much chaos in this sonnet, it’s hard to see the structure.  But structure is there (14 lines, slant end-rhymes, the volta), and it makes the pieces of the shattered form all the more meaningful.  (“Weil, Merton, a few others / were right–good is the only real surprise.”  Turns out, in the end, it is.  Hallelujah.)*

The second poem, “Vernacular Owl,” by Thomas Sayers Ellis, is an epic elegy, if there is such a thing.  (Whatever the case, I’m sure the poet doesn’t care.)

(Full disclosure: I took a workshop with Ellis in 2006.  His poetic genius is like nothing I’ve ever seen.)

“Vernacular Owl” is featured in Poetry magazine’s July/August 2014 issue, which is part of the ultra-prestigious web site.  When I pulled up Ellis’s piece, a Poetry Foundation widget appeared beside the text, encouraging me to browse the archives for (and this is 100% true) “Poems about Pets.”  A portrait of Shakespeare (oh, dear God…) is emblazoned over the category heading.

Ellis’s poem is a tribute to Amiri Bakara.

I recommend pondering the complete and utter inappropriateness of the Poetry Foundation’s browsing “suggestion” later, because Ellis’s work is way too good to miss.  His lines are musical, playful, iconoclastic, and inspired.  They masterfully convey Bakara and say more than that as well.  The framing story is of life aboard Noah’s ark, and the long poem’s refrain, “Somebody had to clean that shit up,” is priceless.  I’m thinking about sewing it into a decorative sampler and giving it to my mother for her next birthday.  Seriously.  (Those of you who know my mom know how serious I am.)

I could go on for several more pages and not do this poem justice.  So just go read it and see what I’m talking about.  You won’t be disappointed.

*Thanks to Karen Craigo, formerly the poetry editor of Mid-American Review, for introducing me to Jeffrey Skinner’s work!