Fugge il Tempo now live on BoomerLit

My poem, "Fugge il Tempo," is now live in the online journal BoomerLit. You can read it here...


Some Poems Worth Your Time: Stephen Crane's "In the Desert"

This Stephen Crane poem has two obvious virtues with respect to its use here. First, it is in the public domain. Second, it is incredibly short. So here is the poem in its entirety:

In the Desert
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter--bitter," he answered;

"But I like it
"Because it is bitter,
"And because it is my heart."
This poem is a parable. That is, it tells a story to reveal some kind of truth or lesson. The story is simple: the speaker tells of his encounter with a creature eating his own heart, and the conversation that follows: a simple question and the creature's short but complex answer.

But if the poem is a parable, what is the truth or moral lesson?  Are we supposed to see ourselves in the creature? Are we supposed to see ourselves in the speaker? And what is it we are asked to see?

The speaker doesn't say whether the being he encounters is even human. The speaker remarks on the creature's nakedness and his bestial nature. The speaker says the creature was "squatting on the ground," which must have struck the speaker as unusual posture, since he remarked on it. 
And the speaker finds the creature in a desert--a place devoid of cultivation (no green pastures here) or civilization (no cities, either).

All of this puts some distance between the creature and the speaker. And yet, they can converse with one another. And what are we to make of the speaker calling him "friend"? Does this mean the speaker recognizes a common kinship with the beast? Or is the speaker drawing a line between them, asserting that he is a more civilized, less brutish being (not combative, but coming in peace)? 
It's probably a bit of each, as they share enough in common to communicate. But the speaker is the storyteller, the one who enters into the desert only temporarily, and who is not normally naked or bestial or squatting, and who has never tasted his own heart. The speaker is the urbane, educated, peaceful version of the species.

But the speaker has questions. Or at least one question: Is it good? The creature--beast that he is--still has the capacity to understand the question can be interpreted in multiple ways, and so he answers multiple questions. It tastes bitter, he says. So, in that sense, no, it isn't good. But he still likes it--both for its bitter taste and for it being his own. So in that sense, is it good?

Maybe not. Maybe it's just the fallen nature of the creature that causes his heart to be bitter in the first place, and for him to like it nevertheless, being unwilling to let go of it and choose something else. It is his. He is it. And the creature wallows in his own bitterness.

So do we conclude that all people are beasts who squat naked in the desert, feasting on their own bitterness? Or do we conclude that only the unwashed hoi polloi do so? 

When the speaker recounts the story, he uses one odd turn of phrase, "And ate of it." To my ear, this sounds biblical, and invokes the Genesis story. And a heart is very much the size (and color) of an apple. So perhaps we are to see that as an echo--or the consequence--of The Fall. 
And perhaps in asking his question, the speaker is claiming to be untainted by it, still blissful in his ignorance, even as he seems to be the more intelligent of the two. Or is he? After all, the creature sees the layers in the question, even as he is squatting in the dirt. So perhaps Crane is showing us that for all our civilization seems to insulate us from uncomfortable truths, they are truths nevertheless. And only this creature (much like Frankenstein's monster) is the truly insightful one here.
Another reason I offer you this enigmatic poem because it's one you can memorize. There aren't many words, and none of them are difficult. So use this to amaze your friends and show them your edgy side.
Oh, and if for no other reason, you should know this poem because it provides the title for a Joyce Carol Oates novel (Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, 1990)

A Life Lesson From the Seoul Train

I had just finished four wonderful years teaching English at West Point, and so the Army decided to send me on what was archly referred to as a “punitive tour”—an assignment meant as a counterbalance to a previous assignment that was, oh, perhaps a good fit for one’s skills, or in a desirable location, or just plain fun. Or perhaps all three. Whatever the Army’s rationale, I was ordered to leave my family stateside while I reported to South Korea and Camp Casey, well north of Uijeongbu (where M*A*S*H was set) and within shouting distance of the Demilitarized Zone and North Korea.

Amid the war games and training exercises, I spent much of my free time in Korea trying to complete the dissertation I hadn’t finished while teaching at West Point. But occasionally, I got out to see the country beyond the gates of Camp Casey. And so I went to Seoul for a weekend in the Spring.

I was alone. And I didn’t read or speak the language. But I had a good map and some useful suggestions as to where I might want to go. So I boarded a train and memorized the name of the stop I needed, and I held on tightly to the stanchion as the train left the station. 

We picked up more passengers at each stop, but it seemed none of them got off. Whatever the actual situation, the train was seeming more and more crowded as we continued along the route. 

The station signs were identified in both the local Hangul script and in the Roman alphabet, so it was clear when it was my stop, and as the doors opened, I let go of the stanchion and tried to move. But I was stuck in the crowd that pressed against me.

“I need to get off,” I announced, hoping to get a little cooperation. But no one obliged. Meanwhile, more people got on the train, and I knew the doors wouldn’t stay open forever.

“I need to get off!” I said, more firmly. By this time, I knew I had precious little time. But no one on the train seemed to care.

Finally, I shouted, “I NEED TO GET OFF!!”

From somewhere in the car, I heard a reply in English, “Well, then, get off!”

With that, I wove through the crowd that, while thick, wasn’t blocking my exit at all. And I was on the station platform before the car doors closed behind me and the train pulled away.

I think I ended up going to a park. But that’s not what I remember about the trip. I remember the advice of a stranger, who was obviously tired of my complaining about needing to do something but not actually taking any steps toward doing it. 

I include the incident here for those who may be lamenting that they need to write more, or finish a novel (or dissertation!), or submit their writing for publication.

I’m aware that it’s not always as simple as “Well, then, get off!” or, in the words of the Nike ad, “Just do it.” But once you confront the stark reality of beginning, and taking that first (or next) step, you may find that you can just—keep going. Or you may discover what the real impediment is and turn to address that. Or you may discover that it really wasn’t all that important in the first place and you’d really rather do something else instead.

An(other) Argument for the Humanities

Bonus points for the literary allusion
in this illustration

This recent lament for the humanities comes from Harvard Magazine. The author, James Engell, was a favorite professor of mine--and my dissertation advisor. His article includes charts and data that drive home the point that interest in majoring in the humanities has been falling for decades. And he makes an argument that society is the worse for it.

I remember the Head of the English Department at West Point, Peter Stromberg, making a similar argument while I was there. And I agree with them both that the world needs more humanities education.

And why not? When I was at West Point, we all took a core curriculum that was heavily weighted toward STEM courses, and for the seven (of 42) classes I could choose, I chose humanities (specifically philosophy, history, and literature). And then, when it came time for graduate school, I again chose a humanities degree (English).

But--and this is a huge caveat--I had a luxury other people don't usually have. My West Point and Harvard educations were paid for by the taxpayers (the Great American Public, as we used to say at West Point). At West Point and Harvard, I got tuition, room, and board--and a stipend (half a lieutenant's pay at West Point and full captain's pay at Harvard). My value proposition was very different than those who have to come up with the cash themselves (or through their parents or grandparents). I had no student loans whatsoever.

And I also had a job. In fact, after West Point, I was required to serve five years in the military in exchange for my education. And it was no unpaid internship. I got paid. And again, after Harvard, the Army required me to teach and then serve for an additional six years. You can imagine the bewilderment of some of my Harvard classmates when I explained to them that, in exchange for a graduate eduction, I was forced to get a job using that education--while they were worried about how they would ever land such a thing.

So there's that.

And then, once I retired from the Army and looked for work, I realized that all those STEM classes allowed me to make a very decent salary while living in my home town. And that salary allowed me to raise my children and to pursue teaching and writing--not full-time, mind you, but enough, or nearly so. 

But let's think about West Point for a moment, since it was the source of those STEM courses. When I attended, the core curriculum there was the same for everyone--and that core curriculum was about 80% of our education. We had precious little choice in the matter. And amid the calculus, differential equations, probability and statistics, chemistry, physics, computer programming, electrical engineering, civil engineering, and systems engineering, we also were required to take composition, literature, philosophy, psychology, foreign language, history, and law. And boxing. Don't forget boxing.

I am grateful for the education I got there (not so much for some of the sideshow around it). And I think it's because of the core. I don't know how many people need to major in the humanities, but I think we as a society would benefit if people who claimed a college education had more humanities. And colleges could require it--even of their data scientists and engineers. 

Click here to read Engell's piece in Harvard Magazine.

Embracing Rejection, Part 4: Where to Submit Your Stuff?


The dirty little not-so-secret concerning the state of contemporary literature (and art) is that teaching lies at the center of it all. Most writers and artists are subsidized by their positions teaching others how to be artists, who in turn look for teaching gigs to…


If this sounds like a Ponzi scheme to you, trust your instinct. The last students to get creative writing degrees when the programs shut their doors behind the last tenured professor to retire will be left holding the bag--filled with student debt. This isn't to say that some artists don't manage to make money from their art. Some even make enough to live on. And some grow rich. But not you. Or me.  We are slugging it out in the slush pile, hoping for a few publication credits to add to our brief biographies.


But every cloud, right? The silver lining here is that there are thousands of small journals out there. There have to be, since schools need them in order to train their students, and they all need one another, since they can't just publish their own writers all the time. This symbiotic relationship between the various writing programs doesn't leave a lot of room there for you and me, but it leaves some. And there are blessed souls out there who are on a mission to democratize art who have set up their own independent journals, apart from the colleges and universities that underwrite most of them. And I have found them to be more receptive to my particular style of poetry.


But with thousands of journals to choose from, where to begin? When I started, I used Poet's Market (the niche version of Writer's Market). The book was updated annually with contact information and a description of what the publication was looking for. Today, I look to the web for this, since it's updated continually.  Poets and Writers maintains a good list (www.pw.org), and there are many others that will give you a good idea of what's out there. But for the last decade, I have relied on Duotrope (www.duotrope.com). It costs $50 a year, but it has a list of 4,000 journals, the information is accurate, and it includes links to their websites.


Still, 4,000 journals is overwhelming. How to narrow it down? You may have a few journals you have come across already. Start there. And (if you are using Duotrope) you can try several ways of filtering your search results until you get a manageable list. They even include some lists of their own to help you: the most competitive, or least competitive, or shortest response time, or ones that pay, or ones that don't require a fee.


Here is a shortcut that may or may not work for you. Look at the list kept by Clifford Garstang. (His current list is here: https://cliffordgarstang.com/2023-literary-magazine-rankings-overview/). He keeps a ranked list of journals, based upon their representation in the Pushcart Prize results each year. It's a kind of moving average that takes into account past years. And the result is generally 200 or so journals. Because these journals have submitted poems for prize recognition--and have achieved some recognition--they are more competitive than others.


If that seems like too large a pool to swim in at the start, consider some of the least competitive journals. Duotrope allows you to search by acceptance rate (journals with an acceptance rate between two numbers). Remember, I said the rule of thumb was 1%. So maybe you search for journals with acceptance rates of 5-10%, or more.


Then, once you have your subset, read through the descriptions on Duotrope. Then visit the sites and read whatever is available there. Order a copy of the journal (subscriptions will often allow you to jump the line or submit "out of season.") And build your list.


Keep track of when the various journals are open for submissions, and put your packets of poems together. Then send them out! And good luck!

Two More Poems Accepted for Publication

The Main Street Rag has accepted two more of my poems for publication: "The Critic Over My Shoulder," and "The Analog Manifesto." They seem to like my work, and I always enjoy the publication (the issue shown in the picture features another of my poems).

For the record, I did get busy submitting my work to journals, as I said I would. I sent out 40 packets of poems averaging five poems each (so 200 here in the first couple weeks of the year).

Another Poem Selected for Publication--So Some Admin to Do!

Today, I got a letter from editor Paul Hoover saying he wants to publish one of my poems in the 2023 issue of New American Writing. I have been fortunate and honored to have had Paul select a couple of my other poems as well ("Homeland Security" and "Great Books of the Western World"), and I feel just as fortunate today.

As I've mentioned in other posts, it's always a special occasion when a poem is selected for publication. The odds are about 1 in 100, all things being equal. But, of course, they never are equal. Journals have different audiences, different criteria. Poets have different writing strengths and different submission strategies. Still, that's the rule of thumb.

New American Writing limits the quantity of poetry submissions by staying old school and insisting on postal submissions with an enclosed Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope (a SASE in the biz). It's a barrier to entry for many, so it cuts down on "carpet bombing" them with poetry. You really have to want to be published there to go to the trouble.