The Rocky Road of Moving Pens
by Janet Buck
I almost die, lose my pen, disappear, come back to life a little bit. Somehow, perhaps by the grace of persistent boredom and a two-minute glance at reality shows, I find that precious stick among tsunami-sized piles of dog hair and shredded Kleenex under the bed, and voilà, the writing world has changed its clothes. It’s been more than five years since I’ve written or published much at all, so I’m hungry for that feeling of putting together a poem without losing a piece of the puzzle to the puppy teeth of our new Yorkie. The Ars Poetica floating on the internet was always a pretty dicey glass, half-empty, half-full, but I was under the comfortable delusion I could hold the cup without it slipping from my hands.
The water is now on the floor, our puppy’s licking up the mess, and I am left in dizzyland. The pastures I’m familiar with have grown new grass and added weeds, thistled ones. Poetry is a slinky woman wearing a thong; editors want short and terse, nothing over 30 lines. A complete sentence in a poem is considered excess grit. The bulk of guidelines threaten me with: “Don’t do that, do this instead, we like this, we don’t like that, we hate the part of reading fifty pounds of subs—and e-mails are a presence that will get you shot, or hanging upside down in the town square, with people throwing rocks at you. We don’t pay you; you pay us. But please submit; we want your work.” I fall for it like a three-scoop ice cream cone in my favorite flavor.
Fairly early on in the game, I was smart enough to realize that getting paid to expose my soul just wasn’t a “happening” enterprise, rather like setting up a lemonade stand at the North Pole and expecting people to fork out a buck for more damned ice. I’m the first to admit I fully applaud the invention of submission fees because journals without fiscal support go down in flames, and I feel sad when I read giant messages on my screen that say, “We’ve drowned and no one came to rescue us.” The fact is that we’re all together standing in the breadline out in the cold.
The real issue is that conversations between a serious author and a dedicated editor belong in the mail folder labeled “Sent from God—Angels Sometimes Cross Your Path.” I still have some from 2009, hang tight to them to feed the skinny ego bird or drive me forward in a vain attempt to change my style. Casual chat, idea flipping in the wind, authentic praise, or sharp critiques like steroid shots (minus slipped in Lidocaine)—it doesn’t matter, I click save, march ahead.
The new instructions/hints/demands/orders from “above” contain some strange anathemas. No meter, we want plain and simple, scraps of ordinary life blown up into posters we want to hang on bedroom walls, but make it smooth and musical. Guidelines say, “Cover up your aching heart but give us all you’ve got (limited to 200 words).” No Hallmark cards. I get that one and celebrate the sentiment, though some writers with a bulging bio longer than the piece they submit are allowed to use the words tears and beauty,” and the rest of us aren’t. Grief is out and gossip’s in, like teenage asses hanging out from blue jeans way below the hips, the cracks of which appear like Rainier cherries with a significant dip, since all the juicy meat is glistening in the summer sun. That one’s ruined cherry consumption for me, for good.
You can’t pen sorrow, joy, or love, unless it’s in Hebrew or Latin, or French. One guidelines page I recently read delivered this: “Absolutely no birds and bees.” I’ll paraphrase the rest of it, since it was of up epic length—unless their wings have fallen off or some drunken sailor passing through town stung you in the middle of the night with the cherry from his cigarette. Another page gave this for strict demands: “Nothing happy and nothing depressing.” I thought about posting to their Facebook page: “I’ve got news for you guys. Not all of us all are loaded on Cymbalta, so we do have days of ups and downs. The flat line on the monitor means you’re dead.” I refrained.
By the way, no one smokes or drinks in poems, unless the piece is written in 3rd person and the subject is clearly fictional. So much for my fond memories of graduate school, where the department head sallied into our creative writing class with a lit Camel in one hand and a jelly jar of straight whiskey in the other. I can’t recall what we were reading at the time, but he couldn’t either, so the atmosphere was fairly relaxed—until we took a break from this three hour night course, he snuck away for a joint, refilled his jelly jar, and blew up at someone who hadn’t bought and read the only book he’d published in 36 years, despite the fact that it was out of print. I checked.
Since he preferred that the subject matter of this course revolve around his “paltry” salary in lieu of the work of Maxine Kumin, Stanley Kunitz, Donald Hall, or William Stafford, I got a little peeved. I, myself, just so happened to be living on popcorn, Ramen noodles and chewing gum. My sympathy was growing short like the last thread in a pack of dental floss, and I fully understood why a poet could stick her head in an oven and turn it on—on high. If it hadn’t been for scholarships, catering jobs on the side, a few awards here and there, and my father’s unmitigated support, I’d have made my way through school sleeping in a nylon bag under some overpass with plenty of pigeons for company.
We were paid less than $300 a month to teach three comp classes while we took four classes at a time and covered tuition and books. I did catering on the side and learned to make petit fours for a wedding of 400 guests and a crazy bride, who threatened to throw herself off a cliff because her wedding dress didn’t reveal the full extent of her cleavage and a tiny bit of her spray-on tan rubbed off on the ivory lace. The frosting on those baby cakes melted in the trunk of a car in Oklahoma’s summer’s heat. This particularly inane mother of the bride was driving 70 miles to the reception tent and blamed me, with voluminous velocity, for the fact that real butter actually melts. So much for alternative careers; I stuck it out in school, so I could lap swim for free at the university pool.
That was school and this is life. Back to the way our writing world has mutated at considerable speed. I had a dream about the good old times when someone wrote and made me smile: “I love the music of your style, your vivid imagery, and poignant themes. We’d like to publish these three poems…” Unfortunately, I had to pee, shook wide awake just when the ancient dream was starting to bloom. I have other sterling memories of my publishing life in the earlier days. A woman setting up author spotlights at our local Barnes & Noble conned me into doing a live reading. Twenty people showed up, I survived, but as it turned out the organizer went hysterical because she counted the book copies sold (a kindergartner could have pulled that one off) and she come up one short. She apologized for a good half hour, while I busy rejoicing like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “Amazing Grace” was playing on the intercom. Someone actually cared enough to steal my book. Usually, I give them away and they get tossed in the back of a van inside a box of over-grown zucchini said receiver only took to be polite and never intended to touch.
Another one, right behind being honored for my disability-related poetry at The United Nations Exhibit Hall in New York City (replete with free plane tickets and lodging), happened just the other day. A woman on the team who cleans our house (one whom I had never met) walked down the hall last week and said, “I love your poetry. I have one of your books. I bought it in a bookstore while my husband and I were staying in Reno.” If one can faint sitting upright in a chair, I’m sure I did. How cool is this! She’d rather spend her salary on poetry, than put it in a slot machine. Needless to say, she could have skipped the housework entirely and still garnered a magnanimous tip. I was in shock for days.
Despite the golden memories, I can still taste flavors of revolutions in the publishing world, much like garlic overkill in a recipe I’ve struggled with for multiple hours. Just last night I read a journal, found the content memorable and enticing, so I decided to submit. The editors said, “Simultaneous submissions are absolutely fine with us; we’re writers too; we understand nine months is too long to wait for a reply.” Whew, I uttered to myself, convinced that if I waited that long, I’d be resting in an urn by the time they decided to type, Thanks, but no thanks, click send, and hit the pillow for the night. Then I cruised a little farther down the page: “If you withdraw a part of your submission in a week or two, we’re going to be extremely aggravated and reject the rest of your work because you obviously don’t think that our journal is the one and only perfect receptacle to house your words.” Meaning this: you can’t dump us; we have the right to slaughter you first.
Then we have the unfortunate presence of the policy involving no simultaneous submissions allowed. While this is nothing new in the publishing world, it doesn’t comply with my firmly implanted impatient streak or plain old common sense: I could be dead in a month and have missed all the fun. Those four infamous words strike an ugly cord with me. It’s not unlike having an artificial limb built, which is a long, tedious process, generally laced with a constant flow of obscenities. Your designated prosthetist owns your mobile state, as well as your crumbling sanity, until he hands you back your leg—so “suck it up and wait it out” is a necessary application to circumstance if you intend to walk, and I do. Given all the lumps and potholes in the road, I haven’t quite decided yet…to give this up or move our living room couch to the middle of the rejection pile. So off I go, swimming in the wishing well.
After many, many hours of combing through Poets & Writers for publishing venues, I’ve concluded that some editors want “hold it all in” and make it mysterious enough to pass a bill through Congress; others crave, “let it all hang out,” rather like those popular jeans without a belt, but once they read it, they change their mind. It’s either/or. I’m now making notes on my favorite places list: “tight” or “loose,” which goes right beside my password to the site. When I punch in those little letters and numbers (sometimes followed by a puzzle of mumbo jumble called captcha) “designed,” according to one editor, “to prove you’re a human being, not an alien from outer space who’s submitting this stuff,” I begin to feel like I’m breaking into a vault in a bank or hacking the New York Stock Exchange—pretty soon a swat team with M-16s will come storming through both doors, front and back. I doubt they’ll knock politely first. Or maybe it’s an ambulance followed by large red firetrucks, their sirens blaring through the silent streets, because my husband dialed 911 to get me to the psycho ward, pump me full of Ativan.
Janet Buck is a seven-time Pushcart Nominee and the author of three full-length collections of poetry; her work has won numerous literary awards and she has published roughly 4,000 poems and non-fiction essays in print and internet journals around the globe during her 18 year writing career. Buck’s most recent poems are scheduled for publication in forthcoming issues of The Milo Review, Mistfit Magazine, The Ann Arbor Review, Antiphon, River Babble, PoetryBay, and other journals worldwide.