Thursday, May 26, 2016

Tips for Writing a Powerful Poetry Submission

by Poetry Editor Kaye Linden 

During my study of an MFA in poetry and the editing and perusal of Bacopa Literary Review’s 2016 poetry submissions, I have had the chance to witness repeated opportunities for strengthening a poem. I offer the following observations so poets might take advantage of my insights. Take what you like and leave the rest.

The first hook. Focus on a titillating title. Browse through the poem and find a riveting phrase, word or series of words that will capture the essence of the poem. As poetry editor, I am drawn to unusual, sometimes wordy titles that mimic the voice of the poet and reflect the theme of the poem. The title demonstrates the inventiveness of the poet.  

     For example: “Sleeping Unsafe at Camp Wilderness,” “Skipping over Rocks in the Dreamtime.” Consider the well-known poet Carolyne Wright’s title “Woman Blooming for the Wind Machine” or my crazy title “The Linear and Circular One Sentence of Tattoo Designs Over his Body”(published in Bacopa Literary Review 2015). 

     Don’t underestimate the power of a title. The creativity and writing of a title reflect that of the poem to follow. This goes for all genres. Review and examine titles of famous poets and understand how they chose them.

Stay away from the verb “to be” when possible, especially in a short poem. Poems lose power with excess use of “was, were, will, used to be, to be, would, would have, would have been” etc. Of course, exceptions to this rule exist but if the poet must use a “to be” verb, keep it to once and once only. I am amazed at the repetition of these and other unweighted, meaningless words in otherwise tight writing and they often appear in the first line, and repeated in the second and third. In a short piece, which most poem submissions lean towards, keep it tight, and, in a long piece, keep it tight as well!  Here's an example:
It was summer,
fields were seeded with sunflowers,
now blooming in the heat
of a day that was to be
an end to the beginning
of summer.
Avoid adverbs where possible. Too many adverbs weaken an otherwise powerful poem. Examine a way to rewrite the phrase or sentence without the adverb. Consider alternatives. Use an adverb only when necessary. 

The same can be said for adjectives. Use the thesaurus and write with creativity and limited adjectives. Avoid strings of adjectives. “Women stand naked in storms.” “Strong, sexy, powerful women stand totally naked in wild, windy, witchy storms.” Which offers the stronger sentence? Place this sentence in the context of a meaningful poem that enhances and supports the meaning of the sentence. Use adjectives that offer a fresh image. (See Elizabeth Bishop example below) 

Offer implication to the reader instead of telling the reader what you mean."He didn’t want to tell her how he felt.” “His eyes glazed over, shifted away from her stare.” 
Avoid those boring clich├ęs and hackneyed phrases. “Ruby red lips” (Oh, please…) 

Use weighted words that offer an image, a meaning, impact or power to the poem. Each word counts. Use meaningful words. Take a look at a verse from Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.”
the big bones and the little bones, 
the dramatic reds and blacks 
of his shiny entrails 
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony. 
…his eyes…larger than mine 
but shallower, and yellowed, 
the irises backed and packed 
with tarnished tinfoil 
seen through the lenses 
of old scratched isinglass.
Delight the Editor with a skillfully written fixed form poem that has meaningful substance and theme. Research the classic rules for pantoums, ghazal and sonnets, among others, and insert a theme from a different perspective. Stay away from mundane themes such as a walk in the park or a sailboat at sunset, unless that walk or sail takes on a philosophical bent that approaches from an unusual angle. Examine Shirley Geok-Lin Lim’s “Pantoum for Chinese Women”: 
They say a child with two mouths is no good. 
In the slippery wet, a hollow space,
Smooth, gumming, echoing wide for food. 
No wonder my man is not here at his place.

In the slippery wet, a hollow space,
A slit narrowly sheathed within its hood. 
No wonder my man is not here at his place
He is digging for the dragon jar of soot.
      Get your attention? 

Stay consistent with the point of view and tense. Stay away from “you.”  I have seen this repeated throughout a poem. After two or three repeated “you” pronouns I put down the poem and sigh. Choose an interesting point of view and whichever one you choose, stay with it. The same goes for tense consistency.

Happy submissions and remember, master the rules and then you can break them.


Barnstone, Aliki, and Willis Barnstone. A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Finch, Annie, and Kathrine Varnes. An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversityof Their Art. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2002. Print.

Linden, Kaye. 35 Tips for Writing a Brilliant Flash Story. N.p.: Create Space, 2015. Print.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

An Ache Bent From the Soul Through Brass and Breath

(by Editor-in-Chief Mary Bast)

Blue, the languid, slightly seamy sound of a tear made music, of an ache bent from the soul through brass and breath ... Blue of our darkness, our lust, our losses ....

This quote is from "Tio's Blues" in Evan Guilford-Blake's collection, American Blues, five earthy stories of musical and human blues. Guilford-Blake has won 42 play writing competitions, including the Eamon Keane Award, the Tennessee Williams Competition (twice), the NETC/Aurand Harris Award; and thirty of his plays have been published, one of them Nighthawks, a theatrical version of the story "Nighthawks" in American Blues, and another the full-length drama, American Blues, which won Bottle Tree Productions First Prize in 2009.

Guilford-Blake contributed "A Chattering of Chickadees" to our 2016 print journal, and you'll find many reviews online of his other work. What I'll emphasize here is his experience as both playwright and author of fiction, because fiction writers have much to learn from playwrites, where the power of their work is found primarily in dialogue. All of us have heard the adage, "Show, don't tell," and in theater that has to happen almost entirely through believable dialogue. "If it doesn't reveal character or advance the plot, throw it out." 

American Blues tells five stories, "Sonny's Blues," "Tio's Blues," "Nighthawks," "Animation," and "The Easy Lovin' Blues." Together, they're reminiscent of the AAB blues structure, as in B.B. King's  Everyday I Have the Blues (Everyday, everyday I have the blues, Everyday, everyday I have the blues, When you see me worried, baby, Because it's you I hate to lose). 

The Sonny of "Sonny's Blues" is tired. "He blew till 3:00 on maybe four hours sleep, the adrenalin provided by the rest of the quarter, the between-sets bourbon, the music itself. Then he sat -- had one more drink -- with Harper for almost an hour after that, till he'd come down from the high..."

Then Sonny finds out his stomach pain is cancer that's spread beyond surgical treatment. Still trying to absorb the news, he calls his mother.
"Vernon, that you?" Mama says into the phone. She's the only one ever uses his given name anymore. "How you doin'?"

He doesn't know what he can tell her, or how. I'm gonna die, Mama, in a couple months, and I'm hurtin' bad a lot of the time, he wants to say. But he can't ... He says instead, "I guess I'm doin' okay. Keepin' busy. How you?"
In "Tio's Blues," 28-year-old Tio is older brother to 23-year-old Matt but still a boy in his mental capacity. Tio's been listening to Clifford Brown's "Willow Weep for Me," and Matt finds him lying on the living room floor. He rocks the sobbing Tio.
"Matt?" Tio said finally. "It was choking me... It comes right out of the record player, and, and it was so pretty. I could see it, the notes, they were blue, and it was like his hands, Brownie's, it comes all around me and it holds me very tight, tighter than anything, even you, ev'rything was turning all blue, and, and I couldn't breathe."

[Later] "Matt?" said Tio


... "Why don't anybody love me like the music loves me?"

The dialogue in the other three stories of American Blues is equally revealing of character. In "Nighthawks," picture the Edward Hopper painting of the same name, with a male and female couple, another man sitting separately, and the guy behind the bar. From these few words between the couple, Gil and Donna, we "get" their characters and what's going on in their relationship:
Donna shook him away. "I just -- just get ... tired of this."

"Of what? Y' mean me?"

She sighed. "I mean, of -- this. Sometimes. When you're -- When you ain't around. Y' know?"

"Yeah," said Gil. "I know. I get tired of it too. I been tired of it, of her, for eight years."
In "Animation," Aggie's phone conversation with his ex-wife Merilyn sets the blues theme on the very first page:
"You're home," says Merilyn.

"Uh-huh," Aggie replies.
"I thought you might be out. Job hunting."

He shrugs. "I went to the unemployment office today. I looked on the computer. And through the paper. Nobody's hiring fifty-three year old accounting clerks."
And in "The Easy Lovin' Blues," two intertwining stories pull us through the blues into outright tragedy, echoed in this scene between Amanda, a young woman who lives with her mother Naurean, and horn-player Trumpy who's in a tangled relationship with Ladyblue:
He comes out of the building, his mind on figuring out what he's gonna do, and almost trips over her, sitting on the steps, elbows on her knees and hands wrapped around her head. "Oh, 'Manda--" he begins, then remembers and says "I better g--."

"Oh hi," she says unhappily.

He stops. "Somethin' wrong?"

"Oh, just ..." She shakes her head and looks up at him. "Mama 'n' me had a ... argument, I guess."

"Oh." He should go. Should go.

Among Guilford-Blake's many books are the adult novel Noir(ish) and the middle-grade novel The Bluebird Prince (a retelling of the classic French fairy tale of the same name, also adapted as a play). He's taught playwriting and drama, and is a "Distinguished Resident Playwrights Emeritus" of Chicago Dramatists and a Dramatists Guild member. He and his wife, freelance writer and jewelry designer Roxanna Guilford-Blake, live in the Atlanta area with "little four-legged lady" Winnie and whippet/lab mix Baldrick, "a big ol' dog, as dumb and lovable as they come."