Monday, November 24, 2008

Writing Taboo as Diptych: The Southern Poetry Review is Anti-Condom

Maybe. My recent submission, which included a poem about condoms, two about miscarriage, one about suburban voodoo and one about an bitchy person I went to grad school with all came back rejected in record time. The condom poem was on top, and looking at it, I was struck by the sudden idea that it was a little ridiculous that I had a poem about a condom and I had sent it to the Southern Poetry Review.

Now I'll admit I've never read a full issue of SPR, they don't have samples online, and I live in a literary vacuum now as far as lending privileges go. (Oh how I miss you, Piper Center Resource Library!) Skimming through the current contributors, I noticed K.A Hayes, a poet I know (somehow) from working at HFR. She wasn't one of the contributors on my issues as editor, but I think I solicited poems from her.
Since I can't comment on their aesthetic, I'll blame the condom poem.

It started as just a crazy idea; I liked the fact that a major condom company had its name in a two-part mythological boobie trap. Destroyed cities, viruses, and condoms--they share a physical and a linguistic connection! I wrote the poem as a diptych: on one side, the condom. On the other side: the condom's significance. After all, a condom seems silly and physical and just like a bathroom joke in some ways. But on the other hand, condoms stand in for protection, or lack there of, from disease, from pregnancy. They are a physical barrier in a sexual relationship where there is some need for physical distance. Deep.

I loved the poem I wrote and it has gotten mixed results. People liked the idea of two independent poems commenting on each other in the space of a page, but didn't like the two poems together. C.D Wright liked it the way it was, and suggested I write more. But at some level, the jokey-ness of where I tried to go, taking two words as poem titles that are innocuous together but suggestive when paired, (Trouser Snake) was fun, but didn't reveal everything that the first poem did.

After getting this rejection and thinking about it on my drive home (honking and braking to avoid hitting a vulture that was just a little too full to lift off a roadside deer quickly)I realized what it was I liked about the poem. It takes something physical and vulgar that elicits teen movie humor and school yard giggling and presents its very physical nature on one side. But the other side of the poem is about what the thing really is, it's about the push and pull of a sexual relationship, the desire for intimacy and fear that the intimacy will destroy the person who desires it. So that pun allowed me to get at something real in my life.

I'm thinking about what other "vulgar," "taboo," or "ridiculous," things might hide a real connection to who we are as humans on the other side of their surface. Things that people have taken the time to fetishize or make taboo are powerful things. They make us uncomfortable, and they show us how we feel and what we fear.

I'd like to take a moment to thank the Southern Poetry Review. I looked at a copy and met the editor at AWP Atlanta, and it's one of those journals I'd love to get from my family as a gift subscription this Xmas. And I'm sure they support safe sex.

UPDATE: The condom poem, "Trojan Horse," was recently accepted by Puerto del Sol.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Naughty Nuns and Bad Habits: If They're not yours, they're even more fun

I just found the Ploughshare blog. Ploughshares has long been one of my favorite literary magazines; I've been unsuccessfully submitting there, the Indiana Review, and Mid-American since college because I just LOVE them, and the editors were nice to me when they read in my bio that I was trying to get into an MFA program.

I like the blog because it's more than just an addition to the magazine; it discusses poetics and criticism. A recent blog post focuses on bad habits that writers/poets discover in their writing. We've all had that moment, looking over poems when we realize (or have pointed out in workshop) that we do the same thing routinely. For some of us it's a word, (I used "stone," in about twelve poems before someone in my workshop finally had enough)but sometimes it's a movement when we run out of other ideas, a default.

It's not that these are necessarily BAD habits, just that they're bad for us because, well, they're habits, and you can't really be new and fresh if you do the same thing every time.

My idea is that the next time I find myself following in my old ways, I'll use SOME ONE ELSE's bad habit instead. So I try to end all poems with a neat bow by throwing in some unrelated abstraction paired with at least two concrete details and hard consonants. When it comes off just too pat, maybe I'll try a slant rhymed couplet instead! At least it's not what I usually do, and isn't that the interesting and helpful thing about form anyway?

Here's a link to the blog for more ideas, and if you have bad habits of your own, you can post them in the blog comments :)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Man-Moth: typos and mondegreens

I always thought the Cher song went, "gypsies, chimpanzees." Apparently, it's "gypsies, tramps and thieves." Oh well. Apparently there's a word (and a website, see last in list on bottom) for the phenomenon of mishearing song lyrics: mondegreen. Cool, huh?

A famous example of the misunderstanding made into a poem is Elizabeth Bishop's "Man-Moth." The poet was intrigued by a misprint of the word "mammoth" in a news article and subsequently wrote one of her more vulnerable poems featuring the character of the man-moth, a subterranean agoraphobe with the hidden, private spirituality of a hermit.

To read the poem, click here:

I was listening to some public radio jazz when I had a similar experience, thinking the lyrics of "I got my mojo workin" were "I got my mojo wagon." I loved the idea of a wagonful of mojos or a wagon that increases an Austin Powers kind of way.

If you don't have any of your own misprints or mondegreens to fall back on, here are some online resources: