Archive for March, 2010

Billy Collins

In college and graduate school, I had numerous opportunities to meet many remarkable poets, one of whom was Billy Collins. He served two consecutive terms as Laureate from 2001 to 2003, during which time he instituted the Poetry 180 project. Poetry 180 is meant to bring poetry into United States high schools on each of the 180 days students are in school. It provides 180 poems (selected by Collins with high school students in mind) as well as a poetry and literature center and tips for teachers on taking part in the program and reading poems aloud.

Of all the poetry readings I have seen over the years, I remember Mr. Collins’ reading particularly well simply because I do not think I have ever laughed so much at a reading before.  His brilliant sense of humor draws the listener (or reader) into the poem and, like peeling away the layers of an onion, deeper sentiments and epiphanies are revealed as the poem unfolds.

Collins has won many prizes including the Levinson Prize, the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, and the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship to name only a few. For the past thirty years, he has taught at Lehman College, City University of New York, where he is Distinguished Professor of English. Two of my favorite books by Collins are Questions About Angels and Nine Horses.

The poem “Forgetfulness, ” from Questions About Angels, highlights that sense of humor.


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never
even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Copyright 1991 Billy Collins


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Kay Ryan

Over the years, I have come across many people, who did not immediately run in poetry circles, who were unaware, surprised, even confused by the notion that we have an appointed Poet Laureate here in the United States in 2010. Although most folks have heard of the concept of a Poet Laureate, many think of it as some antiquated position created by the British and confined to England.

The position of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (LOC) is described on the LOC web site as “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” The Laureate is charged with many tasks while serving his or her term (which lasts one year from October to May) but is primarily charged with raising national consciousness and appreciation of poetry. Each Laureate has done this in a unique way, as is also mentioned on the LOC web site: “Joseph Brodsky initiated the idea of providing poetry in airports, supermarkets and hotel rooms. Maxine Kumin started a popular series of poetry workshops for women at the Library of Congress. Gwendolyn Brooks met with elementary school students to encourage them to write poetry. Rita Dove brought together writers to explore the African diaspora through the eyes of its artists. She also championed children’s poetry and jazz with poetry events. Robert Hass organized the “Watershed” conference that brought together noted novelists, poets and storytellers to talk about writing, nature and community.”

The current Laureate, Kay Ryan, has won many awards for her work, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Union League Poetry Prize, the Maurice English Poetry Award, and three Pushcart Prizes. Her work has appeared in numerous prestigious literary venues, such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, The Yale Review, Paris Review, The American Scholar, The Threepenny Review, Parnassus, among others.

I particularly love her description of poetry on the LOC web site: “Poems are transmissions from the depths of whoever wrote them to the depths of the reader. To a greater extent than with any other kind of reading, the reader of a poem is making that poem, is inhabiting those words in the most personal sort of way. That doesn’t mean that you read a poem and make it whatever you want it to be, but that it’s operating so deeply in you, that it is the most special kind of reading.”

Repulsive Theory

Little has been made
of the soft, skirting action
of magnets reversed,
while much has been
made of attraction.
But is it not this pillowy
principle of repulsion
that produces the
doily edges of oceans
or the arabesques of thought?
And do these cutout coasts
and incurved rhetorical beaches
not baffle the onslaught
of the sea or objectionable people
and give private life
what small protection it’s got?
Praise then the oiled motions
of avoidance, the pearly
convolutions of all that
slides off or takes a
wide berth; praise every
eddying vacancy of Earth,
all the dimpled depths
of pooling space, the whole
swirl set up by fending-off—
extending far beyond the personal,
I’m convinced—
immense and good
in a cosmological sense:
unpressing us against
each other, lending
the necessary never
to never-ending.

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As part of an online editing and writing group on LinkedIn, I have seen the topic of blogs come up in the discussion forums fairly frequently. Not so surprising, considering everyone seems to have one, or two, or five. Often, the topic (and ever-present question) is whether a blog is essentially “giving away the milk for free.”

I recently commented on one of these discussion threads summing up my feelings on blogging and why I blog (in quite a tiny nutshell) that went something like this: I must admit that I love blogging and that although I actually don’t get to do it as often as I would like, I feel it is a valuable enterprise as far as self-advertisement is concerned. I’m mainly a professional editor and proofreader who does light writing for enjoyment more so than pay, so perhaps my perspective differs a bit from one who is primarily writing for pay. However, I have to say that my blog has brought me paying clients and jobs that I would not have found otherwise. The posts I write consist mainly of grammar rules, my opinion/comments on pieces I see in various newspapers (which I then sometimes expound on with additional web sites or links), and I have a featured poem section that I post occasionally on Sundays. I think of my blogging as an extension/example of my professionalism, my expertise, and my love of language in all its forms. Additionally, I should say that I never put anything on my blog that I would hope to sell later, and I never spend hours upon hours working on my blog, as I don’t want it to interfere with the paying jobs. I blog when time permits, and I like to think that I formulate simple but informative copy quickly and concisely- hopefully that’s what my readers are getting!

Many others voiced a similar use for their blogs in the comments of the discussion thread: self-promotion, an opportunity for others to find you and your work, a way to move toward your goals, a way to create a following that will hopefully be interested and loyal enough to pay for your book or article once its published, and an opportunity to generate trust from future clients if your blog is well-written and your information is accurate.

I like to think that I keep my blog professional and that it reflects well on me as an editor, proofreader, and writer. I think it’s clear that my personal answer to the question of whether blogging is “giving away the milk for free” is no, certainly not. My advice (not that you asked, but that is part of the beauty of the blog!) is to use your blog to invite your readers to see what you can do but only give them a taste. Don’t post whole articles or stories, don’t post anything you are hoping to sell at some point, and don’t spend an inordinate amount of time writing posts.

I’d love to hear what you think. Please post some suggestions, comments, or your answer to the question: Is blogging “giving away the milk for free?”

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I recently stumbled on an article in the Guardian called Ten rules for writing fiction. The article was inspired by Elmore Leonard, an American novelist who writes westerns, crime fiction, and suspense thrillers, and whose work has been acclaimed for its realism and strong dialogue. You can find his complete guide of the same name here.

The Guardian article begins with Leonard’s rules and includes those of many other notable writers, such as Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, P.D. James, and A.L. Kennedy.

I’ve included Margaret Atwood’s contribution in its entirety in the following to give you a little taste of just how great these are:

1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.

5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

I highly recommend reading everyone’s lists; they are useful, accurate, and at times, hilarious. You won’t be disappointed.

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