How a Poem Happens Blog

November 13, 2014 — Leave a comment


Poet Brian Brodeur has an excellent blog, How a Poem Happens: Contemporary Poets Discuss the Making of Poems. Brodeur interviews poets in a Q & A format, asking them about their process and inspiration.

I’m currently reading Burn Lake by Carrie Fountain, and she is one of the interviewed poets. The poem presented on the blog is Fountain’s “Experience.”


When I think of everything I’ve wanted
I feel sick. There was this one night in winter
when Jennifer Scanlon and I were driven out
to the desert to be the only girls there
when the boys got drunk and chose
the weakest among themselves to beat the living
shit out of again and again while the night
continued in its airy way to say nothing. Sure, I wanted
to believe violence was a little bell you could ring
and get what you wanted. It seemed to work for those
boys, who’d brought strict order to the evening
using nothing but a few enthusiastic muscles.
Even when he’d begun bleeding from his nose, the boy
stayed. It was an initiation. That’s what he believed.
Thank God time keeps erasing everything in this steady,
impeccable way. Now it’s like I never lived
that life, never had to, sitting on a tailgate
while Jennifer asked for advice on things she’d already done,
watching the stars ferment above, adoring whatever it was
that allowed those boys to throw themselves fists-first
at the world, yell every profanity ever made
into the open ear of the universe. I believed then
that if only they’d get quiet enough, we’d hear
the universe calling back, telling us what to do next.
Of course, if we’d been quiet, we would’ve heard
nothing. And that silence, too, would’ve ruined us.


Reading through the interview, the comment that is most interesting for me is Fountain’s description of revision:

Brodeur: How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Fountain: I did not consciously employ any principles of technique. One thing I often do while I’m in the middle* of revising is put everything in tercets or quatrains. I bundle the lines like this. That somehow disappears the breaks for me and helps me focus on the body of the poem, the syntax and the tone. Then I rip it open again and break the lines in different ways, modulating the pace. This is not a technique in traditional sense, I suppose, as much as it is a maneuver: a way of levering up the poem to get to its underside.

*Of course, I never know that I’m in the middle and almost always think I’m at the end of revising, very close to being entirely finished. Self-deception: is that a technique?


I like Fountain’s idea of breaking the poem into sets of lines to help focus on the essential elements of the work-in-progress, and repeating this process multiple times.

The entire interview for Carrie Fountain can be found on How a Poem Happens.




Add Slipstream literary journal to your list of places to submit! The journal published one of my poems, “Decay,” in their themed issue 34 (Rust, Dust, Lust), and I was so impressed with the contributor’s materials sent to me. In addition to the journal, I received a postcard with the journal cover art, a copy of the most recent newsletter announcing upcoming contests, and a copy of Nicole Antonio’s Another Mistake, winner of the 2014 Slipstream Poetry Chapbook Competition. The chapbook is beautifully written and printed, and comes with a bookmark featuring an endorsement by Amy Gerstler, “Another Mistake is a powerhouse chapbook….a hyper-awake, penetrating, gritty, humane, fearless literary voice.”

Next Themed Issue

Slipstream has an upcoming themed issue “Elements.”

We are currently reading for Issue #35 and are seeking poetry that explores the theme “elements.” Creative interpretations are welcome. Submit up to five (5) poems in one document file only. We also are seeking artwork for the issue. Please do not submit again until you have received a response on the status of your current submission. DEADLINE for submissions is: May 1, 2015. No previously published work please.

Slipstream describes the type of poetry that is appealing as “poetry with contemporary urban themes and a strong voice.”

Chapbook Contest

The next chapbook contest deadline is approaching! Deadline for entries: Dec. 1 every year. $1,000 prize plus 50 copies of your chapbook.

More information on Slipstream’s website



My second chapbook, Tiktaalik, Adieu, is forthcoming in November 2014 from Finishing Line Press, and the quick publishing timeline for this chapbook (as well as my first chapbook) surprised me. I thought I’d share what the publishers asked of me prior to publication, and some of the options I considered for cover art.

Publishing Timeline

The most important thing I can say about circulating a chapbook manuscript to contests and publishers is to have it absolutely finalized before it is submitted. (Both of my chapbooks were published with no significant changes.) All proofreading, paid manuscript critiques, poem ordering, poem title changes, length of manuscript, notes, section headings, epigraphs, etc. should be completed. I had about four weeks from the point I was given a contract to send the publisher my materials. There isn’t time after you’ve had an acceptance to write new poems, to make substantial changes to your manuscript, or to begin to investigate cover art options. During that four weeks the publishers want 1) author photos, 2) book blurbs, 3) digital version of the manuscript including all front material (acknowledgments, dedication), 4) cover art, 5) any permissions needed to publish your book, 6) potential list of contacts for marketing purposes. Most publishers are extremely busy and will rely on you to do much of the legwork. All this is in addition to your own marketing efforts promoting the book and scheduling readings. If you don’t have social media accounts at this point (Facebook, Twitter, website), the pre-publication period is the time to set all of that up.

Cover Art

Cover art is available from many sources. For the first book, I used an image from the Smithsonian Museum that I had to pay for. (My original choice for the cover was a painting from the a British museum, but it was $1,000 for that image of a Turner painting, so I went with the Smithsonian, which was many times less expensive.) The turnaround time to get the image in digital form from the Smithsonian was cutting it close for a chapbook publication schedule. For the second chapbook, I avoided paying fees and dealing with copyright issues and used a photograph that I took myself of a fossil that I own. There were other sources for fossil images online (science stock photo companies), but many wanted $600 to use their image for a book cover. I’ve had friends choose paintings or artwork from artists they know, and there other online sources for stock images that have little cost. Both presses took the images I provided for the cover art and designed the rest for me. I’ve been really pleased with the finished covers.

theories of rain


I’ve asked former faculty from my writing program for blurbs, but I’ve also asked local poet friends who know my work and have kept up with me over the years. Publishers (or the contest judge) may offer to write a blurb for you, or they may have suggestions of other poets to contact who would appreciate your work. I’ve also known poets who asked for blurbs from writers who have reviewed their poetry books in the past, or literary journal editors who have featured their work, or poets they have met at poetry conferences and workshops. I try to give at least two weeks notice, and ideally four weeks, for the blurbs to be written. As soon as you know your chapbook is accepted, blurbs and cover art should be up near the top of the to-do list.





The MOOC (massive open online course) format must be catching on, because there are more courses coming up than I can register for and complete. I will be auditing at least one or two of these. I’ll summarize the three new courses below:

The Art of Poetry (Boston University MOOC through Edx)

“The Art of Poetry” is offered by Boston University featuring Robert Pinsky and a strong group of BU faculty and students/former students. From the course description:

The course is demanding, and based on a certain kind of intense, exigent reading, requiring prolonged— in fact, repeated— attention to specific poems.

The readings will include historical poems, as well as contemporary work. The focus will be on elements of the art such as poetry’s historical relation to courtship; techniques of sound in free verse; poetry’s relation to music; the nature of greatness—with only incidental attention to schools of poetry, categories and trends.

This course looks like it will focus on the experience of reading a poem, including an emphasis on sound. Boston University has a well-respected creative writing program, so there should be some excellent discussions in the lectures and on the forum boards. Class starts September 30th! More information here at Edx.

How Writers Write Fiction (Iowa MOOC through Writing University)

“How Writers Write Fiction” should be really good since it is taught by the same Iowa group who did the Walt Whitman class I took last spring, and the companion class “How Poets Write Poetry” that I also took. The classes usually focus on technique and inspiration, and are generative rather than workshops for pieces in progress. If you are interested in hybrid forms such as flash fiction, this might be an excellent resource. The outline for the course sessions is:

  • Opening Lines, Opening Doors
  • Putting Setting to Work
  • Learning and Building the World
  • Animating the World
  • Structures and Storytelling
  • Constraints and Styles
  • Revision and Rediscovery

More information here. Course starts September 26 (to Nov 21).

Shakespeare: On the Page and in Performance (Wellesley MOOC through Edx)

“Shakespeare: On the Page and in Performance” covers Shakespeare plays as literature and theories about how to stage the plays. The course is described as “an introduction to Shakespeare that combines literary study with theatrical analysis to understand both Shakespeare’s continuing popularity and his greatness.” Plays read will include Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, King Lear, and The Winter’s Tale. This looks like a very unique and creative class:

Shakespeare wrote for a popular audience and was immensely successful. Shakespeare is also rightly regarded as one of the greatest playwrights the world has known. This course will try to understand both Shakespeare’s popularity and his greatness by starting from a simple premise: that the fullest appreciation of Shakespeare can be achieved only when literary study is combined with analysis of the plays as theatre. Hence, as we delve into the dimensions that make Shakespeare’s plays so extraordinary–from the astonishing power of their language to their uncanny capacity to illuminate so much of human life–we will also explore them in performance from Shakespeare’s own theatre to the modern screen. At the same time, actors will occasionally join our effort and demonstrate ways of bringing the text alive as living theatre.

More information is here. Class begins October 1 and runs twelve weeks with an estimated workload of 4-5 hours per week.


If you found editor Jeffrey Levine’s article from 2011 “On Making the Poetry Manuscript” helpful, then here is his new and improved version. Today is tip #1 Ordering the Manuscript. Check every Wednesday on his blog for a more detailed discussion of his 27 points. I’m in the middle of this process with my first full-length collection, and all insights are appreciated.

Originally posted on Jeffrey Levine:

sharpenerThis and every Wednesday for the next little while I will be expanding on many of the 27 points covered in my earlier post about making the poetry manuscript. If you’ve not read that original post, it’s called “On Making The Poetry Manuscript” (October 12, 2011) and is available here.

But first . . . many poets have asked me recently about the Tupelo Press Writing Conferences: what sets them apart from other manuscript workshops and writing retreats? What can I expect to come away with?

It’s important to me (and might be to you) to distinguish what Tupelo Press Writing Conferences are about, because great writing is at the heart of any successful publishing career, and because (as you’ll see further on) if you’re to make your manuscript a more successful swimmer in a sea of manuscripts, there are things you need to know.

So, here are a…

View original 2,555 more words



It’s time for ModPo 2014, the free online course in poetry taught by Al Filreis of University of Pennsylvania through the website. The course runs September 6th – Novermber 15th, 2014. Sign up is free.

I have taken the course before, and I’m enrolling again to fill in gaps I missed the first time around. My favorite aspect of the course is its structure: video discussions of poems by a group of University of Pennsylvania students led by professor Filreis. My second favorite thing is the 40,000 participants who sign up to learn more about poetry. The no-cost model is also a bonus. Professor Al Filreis offers this course as a community service outreach. If you are in the Philadelphia area, you are welcome to stop by in person for some of the ModPo live web broadcast discussions. New this year, a meetup in Prague with professor Filreis for European participants, and a weekly meetup at a New York Public Library branch for those nearby. (See the course descriptions and the course forums for meetups that are planned as the course continues.)

From the Coursera website:

In this fast-paced course we will read and encounter and discuss a great range of modern and contemporary U.S. poets working in the “experimental mode,” starting with the 19th-century proto-modernists Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and ending with 21st-century conceptual poetics. Aside from providing a perhaps handy or helpful survey and chronology of 20th- and 21st-century poetry, this course offers a way of understanding general cultural transitions from modernism to postmodernism. Some people may wish to enroll as much to gain an understanding of the modernism/postmodernism problem through a study of poetry as to gain access to the work of these many poets. Participants do not need to have any prior knowledge of poetry or poetics. The instructor, Al Filreis, rarely lectures, and frequently calls for “the end of the lecture as we know it”; instead, the video-recorded lessons will consist of collaborative close readings led by Filreis, seminar-style — offering models or samples of readers’ interpretations of these knotty but powerful poems, aided by the poetry-minded denizens of the Kelly Writers House on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.


Filming for ModPo, photo from



I recently discovered a great segment on PBS NewsHour about poetry and medicine titled “Student physicians embrace poetry to hone art of healing.” It features interviews with former poet laureate Natasha Tretheway and physician poet Rafael Campo. The two discuss how poetry can broaden the education and empathy of medical students and physicians. Rafael Campo has written six collections of poetry, the latest of which is Alternative Medicine.

If you have problems accessing the video, the url is

The most interesting bit for me was the idea that patients who are trying to describe their illness are often using the language of poetry, of metaphor and simile, to communicate. A patient might describe pain by saying, “I felt like I was hit by a truck” or “a knife was stabbing me.”

Where to publish poems with a medical theme

If you have poems on the themes of illness, health, or healing, be sure to look at the Bellevue Literary Review here.


Also, Louise Aronson MD has collected a list of journals where physicians and poets can publish literary writing with a health theme here.

Raphael Campo

rafaelalternative medicine

More about Rafael Campo on his website.

Natasha Tretheway


More about Natasha Tretheway at the Academy of American Poets and at the Poetry Foundation.

More information and lesson plans for the classroom

PBS NewsHour page with more information and lesson plans for teachers about poetry in the classroom:

PBS NewsHour Article: Raphael Campo uses his stethoscope to explore rhythms of poetry

PBS NewsHour Article: For these medical students, poetry nurtures the soul

PBS NewsHour Lesson Plan: Discovering your voice through poetry