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Kate Angus
New York
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Last year, I wrote an article for The Millions about the current state of poetry called "Americans Love Poetry but Not Poetry Books." I went in wondering if poetry’s relatively low book sales (compared to fiction or cookbooks or books of home decorating tips) meant that poetry was losing its audience, as so many articles (generally every April) claim. What I discovered was that poetry's audience is vaster than ever—it’s simply that most of the audience doesn’t buy poetry. Although the book-buying audience is still smaller than any poet or publisher might like, there are vast legions of poetry-lovers who engage with poetry by watching people read aloud their favorite poem on the Favorite Poem project website, wandering through Poets House's outreach program in various zoos, opening their email to find The Academy of American Poets’ “Poem a Day” offering, or simply riding the subway and encountering one of The Poetry Society of America’s “Poetry in Motion” posters. In this way, poetry's smaller sales compared to its wide audience is comparable to the vast number people who stream music and movies rather than paying for them. It's not that people aren't actively engaging with poetry; they simply are doing so outside of bookstores. Last April, Christopher Ingraham referenced my article, quoting my statement that “it’s possible the audience for poetry might be greater now than ever” for his blog on The Washington Post. My moment of being an Important Poetry Authority was promptly shattered by his next sentence, where he claimed that “[t]he numbers [from Google Analytics] show that that’s emphatically not the case.” Ingraham uses the steep downward slope of Google searches for ‘poetry’ over the past decade to support his claim that the art form is less important to readers today than in the past. His evidence seemed depressingly convincing until Academy of American Poets’ Executive Director Jen Benka, in an article on The Huffington Post, pointed out that his research is also incomplete. According to Benka, “if you use the search term ‘poem’ instead of ‘poetry’ you’ll see a much higher representation of interest." At this point, I’ve given up on the debate about whether poetry “matters.” It matters to me. And it matters to many people I know--friends, students, family members. It seems so obvious that people still read poetry and write it and love it. One of the highest “liked” posts I’ve ever had on Facebook was a picture I took of one of the more recent Poetry in Motion subway posters: Heaven by Patrick Phillips. The vast majority of the people who gave it the disembodied “thumbs up” weren’t poets. Instead, they were readers who felt moved and wanted to share that. This sort of experience (along with photos of people’s vacations and babies and pets) is what I like best about Facebook: how often people post links to work that speaks to them so, when I scroll through my newsfeed, I often discover new poetry. I believe the Internet has broadened poetry’s reach,... Continue reading
Posted Jul 10, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the inherent tension between confession and aesthetics and how easily creative work can lend itself to the illusion of some kind of journalistic truth. Part of what prompts this is having recently Googled myself (what, you don’t occasionally?) which led to a minor panic attack at the idea that a reader might think those poems and essays scattered across the Internet reveal any deep truth about my life. Leaving aside the unlikely idea that some online Sherlock Holmes is reading all my prior publications as he assembles his Casebook of Kate, it’s still strange to feel trapped in a certain time or situation because of something I once wrote. This concern may be less relevant to my fiction-writing friends or journalists who somehow, unlike me, manage to write about things other than themselves (an ancient bobcat buried wearing a necklace of bear claws and marine shells! the life cycle of bees!), but the conflation of confession with poetry is a pretty commonly accepted trope. Sandra Simonds wrote about this two weeks ago on this blog, mentioning the way “unlike fiction, people inevitably assume that the speaker in a poem is the writer…And poets can use this blurry line to their advantage.” I know we assume this. I often do too. But it seems strange to me that we do. Even in the Confessional tradition, the self is performed—there’s wordplay and attention to image and often rhyme or slant rhyme. Among all that artistry, the confessing self becomes a mask. The author presents a face that’s polished up and shining while the real self (weird and vulnerable, snarling or smiling or weeping) still gets to hide. One of the first lectures I give in my poetry workshop is about persona poems. I love persona poems for the freedom they give us: we no longer have to purportedly speak as ourselves. And they’re a perfect quick fix for writer’s block—Sick of yourself? Run out of things to say? Try writing a poem where the speaker is Elizabeth Taylor or Louis the Sun King or a victim of the bubonic plague! (Obviously I imagine this spoken like an adman’s pitch with catchy background music). But I also love persona poems because they give me an excuse to talk about the persona of self that we cloak ourselves in for any poem that we write, even the ones that aren’t obviously spoken by a different character. The Kate I am in my poetry (Poetry Kate) isn’t Hanging-Out-With-Her-Friends Kate who isn’t Baking-A-Pie-For-Her-Family Kate who isn’t Trying-To-Do-A-Better-Pull-Up Kate or Professor Kate or the Kate who is talking to someone cute on the train. Poetry Kate is one aspect of me, of course, and some of what I say about my life is true, but whatever facts are there are really just a launch pad for language. Once the first draft is done, everything gets edited for the sake of line breaks and sound and imagery. I had a wonderful... Continue reading
Posted Jul 9, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Yesterday I wrote about editorial curation and publication. Today I want to talk more about what it’s like to start a press, as well mention our current call for submissions. I started Augury Books five years ago because a friend and I had been kicking the idea around and eventually we hit that strange tipping point where we’d talked about it so much that the idea gained its own momentum and became real almost without our quite noticing. We also had friends who had just started an experimental translation journal, Telephone, and watching them launch their project made starting our own seem less daunting. When the events director at the Rubin Museum, a former poetry student of mine, asked if I’d curate a poetry reading there, it pushed us from talk into action. Our first year felt like walking around blindfolded in the dark. Christine Kanownik, my then co-editor, made a Wordpress site for us, we posted a call for submissions, and then suddenly we were reading manuscripts. We didn't have enough money to go to print, but we selected our favorite from the submissions pile—Patrick Moran’s The Book of Lost Things—and ran a fund-raising campaign to finance publishing it, as well as two chapbooks. Paige Lipari, one of our chapbook authors, also designed our logo: a fox standing next to a top hat. Christine taught herself layout programs and got the books ready. I called local bars and sweet-talked their owners until Botanica on Houston Street promised us their back room and drink specials for our launch party. There was a delay with one of our printers (both their fault and ours) and one title, which should have been ready weeks earlier, had to be shipped to us overnight the day before the launch. I look back now and I see how much we were winging it every day, but still we made three beautiful books. During our reading period the following summer, Christine got a new job with heavier time commitments and resigned from our board. I didn't want Augury to die—I wanted to publish more books and I felt a sense of obligation to our current authors to keep their work in print—so I brought on a new editorial board (Kimberly Steele and then Nick Amara, a former intern, rejoined us as our assistant editor) and we went legit. We began using outside book designers and photographers. We joined CLMP. We hired a lawyer and incorporated, and then gained fiscal sponsorship under Fractured Atlas. We expanded from publishing only poetry into also being a home for short story collections and nonfiction. We’re still based in New York, but we partnered up with SPD for national distribution so we don't have to race to the post office every time we get a book order. It’s been hard at times. In the first two years, before we had experience and when the board changed, I was terrified we might run out of money or screw up the design or... Continue reading
Posted Jul 8, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I’m in the middle of the open reading period for my press, Augury Books, right now, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about the editorial process. Running a press is hard work, but it is also an incredible joy to collaborate with my co-editor Kimberly Steele, our assistant editor Nick Amara, our rotating cast of wonderful interns, and all the writers whose work we’ve published. As a child, I used to look forward to birthday cake and summer vacation; now I get excited about hitting Send on the emails that tell prospective authors we’ve selected their work for publication. I love the editorial back and forth as we try to hone forthcoming manuscripts into the sharpest swords they can be. And it still seems like a miracle every time I open a box shipped from the printers and see the manuscript files we’ve been emailing transformed into real books I can hold in my hands. I don’t even mind the business side of things—accounting, taxes, social media promotion (okay, actually, that part I hate—some wild animal inside me dies a little each time I think about Facebook “like”s and retweets), etc. At the end of the day, I’m incredibly lucky; I get to bring literature that I love into the world, and I do so in collaboration with people I admire. What I hate about editing is rejecting manuscripts. My own work is always out in circulation so I know precisely how painful it is to see a “Dear [author’s name]” email in your inbox. No matter how many times it happens, it still hurts, and sometimes it hurts more the more years you’ve been sending your book out—the attrition can be what breaks you. I understand firsthand how editorial rejection can trigger thoughts like I guess I must be a bad writer and Maybe I should give up. Or maybe that’s just me. I feel like a failure every time my work is turned down, but perhaps everyone else is so perfectly well-adjusted that they leap immediately into thinking, Well, that press isn't the right home for my manuscript anyway. To those of you who can read a rejection email without even momentarily feeling sick to your stomach or sad, I salute you and admire your therapists, your calm faith in the universe, your extra-strong dirty martinis, your personal brain chemistry and wisdom, whatever it is that allows you such sangfroid and savoir faire. For the rest of us, maybe sometimes it’s good to be reminded of what I tell my students when they start sending their work out and myself whenever the grind of rejection gets me down: at a certain point, rejection really has less to do with quality than with curation. There is a lot of bad writing in the world, but that’s not the majority of what I see when I dig through Augury’s slush pile. What I see are primarily manuscripts that fall into categories like Not For Us, Good, and Very Good.... Continue reading
Posted Jul 7, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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I’m writing this blog post from a hotel room in Maine. Through my window, there’s a triangle of white-shingled roof with a seabird perched on it, staring at me as if to say, “Why are you inside? It’s sunny out. Look at the ocean!” And I am looking at the ocean. It’s bright blue and white-capped and my friends are on the beach playing frisbee and reading and napping. Part of me wants to join them, but in truth right now I’m happier inside writing. All my vacations also include—by choice—working. This is why some of my best vacations over the past few years have been artists’ residencies. The first and most obvious thing residencies have going for them is that they’re often free or at least partially-funded; frequently they also give you a stipend. And residencies also take care of the logistics of daily life for you. They house you. They feed you. And for the compulsively social (among whom I count myself), you have a whole new group of people to befriend. The social atmosphere is my downfall. I embark on each residency determined to be a writing machine. I imagine myself suddenly turned medieval monk: staying up all night writing until the inkwell I dip my quill in runs dry and the candle gutters out. I vow to write for at least 10 hours each day, returning home with hundreds of new pages. This vow generally lasts less than a day. While I observe with wonder those who get up before dawn to clock hours in the studio, I’m more prone to sleeping in and then wandering into the common space for coffee and hours of conversation. If there’s an event, I’ll go to it. Then I’ll see who wants to have lunch. It’s usually not until the post-prandial hours when I finally sit down to write. Despite how much I fetishize the immersive work experience of residencies, what I’ve found is that they have taught me much more about the barriers I erect between myself and my writing than they’ve been havens of productivity. Whether I’m in New York or cloistered away in some far-flung region, I easily find reasons to wander away from my desk. On my last residency, the BAU Institute’s fellowship in Otranto, I revised two nonfiction pieces, wrote a poem, and took notes for an new essay project—for two weeks with limited Internet access and few outside commitments, this is a pretty meager output. On the other hand, I made friends with some wonderful people, learned about the sorcery tradition in Puglia (to curse someone, pierce a lemon with needles and hide it in a cistern), marveled at frescos and mosaics, and swam in the Adriatic almost every day. Near the end of the residency I texted my friend Diana, bewailing how little I’d gotten done. Diana’s response? “Does anyone ever get any work done at residencies?” It was comforting since she’d just spent a month at a residency in Mexico and... Continue reading
Posted Jul 6, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
It has been such a pleasure to guest-blog here at BAP and I’m a little sad to be hanging up my spurs when I hit “publish” on this entry. This last post is a bit more scattered than my previous ones--it’s a round up of poetry-related (or kissing cousins to poetry) projects I wanted to share with you. First, I want to mention that our reading period is open at Augury Books. Do you have a poetry manuscript, a short story collection, or a nonfiction book (full-length or a collection of shorter pieces) that is looking for a home? Send it to us please--we’re really excited to read new work. Secondly (I’m going to keep everything connected to organizations that I represent here in this one paragraph), The Mayapple Center for Arts and Humanities, a nonprofit center located in Stamford, Connecticut, is offering two half-scholarships this summer for Vijay Seshadri’s (this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his book 3 Sections) workshop. The class is called Transitions and Transfigurations and runs from August 18th through August 22nd on Mayapple’s campus. If you want to study with an amazing teacher somewhere beautiful this summer, you should send an email inquiry to michelle.slater@mayapplecenter.org with your CV and writing sample by June 30th. Are you familiar with cellpoems? It’s a poetry journal that sends out one weekly text message containing a beautiful short poem. It’s free to subscribe and they publish a great mix of emerging poets, as well as established names like Charles Simic and Sherman Alexie. This poem by Heather Cousins has run through my head since I first read it almost four years ago. You may also like Motionpoems, a nonprofit production company that makes short film adaptions of contemporary poems. I can’t get over how gorgeous their movie-poems are--watching each one is like being able to step into a snippet of someone else’s dream. Girls in Trouble is another project that I love, although related to poetry more tangentially than directly; it’s an art-rock band helmed by poet Alicia Jo Rabins. Girls in Trouble’s music tells the stories of women in the Torah through songs that fuse American folk, indie rock, strings (violin and cello!), and gorgeous verse. Also, this is my new favorite tumblr--it isn’t poetry-specific, but poets (and everyone) should contribute. Cristina Henriquez’s newest novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, tells the story of immigrants whose voices aren’t often heard. She created a tumblr to accompany it that asks people to share their own and their families’ experiences moving to the United States. I’ve loved reading the stories that are posted and I hope some of you will want to add yours. Finally, I want to leave you with a poem: A Book of Music Coming at an end, the lovers Are exhausted like two swimmers. Where Did it end? There is no telling. No love is Like an ocean with the dizzy procession of the waves’ boundaries From which two can emerge exhausted,... Continue reading
Posted Jun 13, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Lately I’ve been thinking about the multiple ways writers use the second person; how, depending on the situation, the “you” functions as an address to a specific other, to the unknown reader or readers, or to the self when the long litany of I I I grows too tiring or when what’s being written about is too fraught. I’ve always loved writing in the second person and was horrified years ago when reading a sociology book about sociopaths (sociology and true crime books: my guilty reading pleasure, no longer a secret now that I’ve outed myself here) and learned that they speak in the second person more often than most other people--particularly when asked to express emotions. One of my best friends was reading the same book at the time and we both briefly worried we might secretly be sociopaths--in Diana’s case because sociopaths also apparently love spicy foods and she loads her pizza slices with chili flakes as thick as snow in a Siberian winter; in my case because I was writing a lot of poems where I swapped in “you” when I really meant “I.” Of course the reasons are different: sociopaths say “you” so they have a coat hook to hang emotions they don’t feel onto, whereas my longstanding joke title for my future memoir has been I Had Too Goddamn Many Feelings--I used “you” in the poems I was writing back then because I needed the illusion of distance from my subject matter. To leave talking about myself aside for a minute, my co-editor at Augury Books, Kimberly Steele, wrote a great piece a few years back about John Ashbery and Richard Siken’s use of the second person in their poems. Sadly I can’t link to the essay, but I can quote her when she says, of Siken, “The details are too singular to implicate the reader, but the absence of a first person calls attention to the ‘you.’ The speaker stands out as the subject just as transparently as if he had employed the first person.” One of my favorite of Siken’s poems, “A Primer for the Small Weird Loves” (Crush), is a perfect example of this--the “you” so clearly an “I” who needs to speak through displacement into the observational eye detailing the scene. And yet I would also add that, despite the specificity of the details, the emotional trajectory the poem follows is common enough that many readers can and will put themselves inside this “you”--not only as we see with Penny Lane’s analysis of the poem on The Rumpus in the link I included, but also because a lengthy Google search for “A Primer...” brought me to a number of tumblr pages where fans had transcribed the poem but misquoted the last line, adding a “never” before “leave you alone.” Not only does this addition entirely change the line’s meaning, but I think it also reveals how fully the transcribers conflate the “you” of the poem with themselves; because they feel themselves... Continue reading
Posted Jun 12, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
When Odysseus sets sail for the Trojan War, he places his infant son under his friend Mentor’s protection. During Odysseus’s long absence, Mentor guides Telemachus into adulthood--sometime through his own sage advice and companionship; at other times, because Athena, the goddess of wisdom, takes his form to offer divine counsel. Now, because of these stories, Mentor’s name is the word we use to describe those wise and trusted advisors who teach and encourage us along the way. As with Telemachus and Mentor, the original mentorship pairing, this relationship is important for almost everyone as we try to navigate our way through the world. In practical terms though, I think in writing it’s particularly important. This is a lonely business--just you and the words in your head--and so full of rejection that having someone more experienced encourage you is often what allows us to keep trying; a mentor’s approval can give you permission to believe in yourself. When the “We enjoyed your work, but...” slips pile up or when you look at your poems and image seems stale and every phrase hackneyed, mentors remind you that your words have value. And, of course, sometimes they also point you towards journals to submit to or job openings or new books to read that you might love. I have been very lucky with mentorship, both with the mentors I’ve had and the students I’ve been closest to once I became a teacher. In high school, I was a Creative Writing major at Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school for the arts in Northern Michigan, where I was taught by Jack Driscoll and Michael Delp, writers whose workshops focused on craft, offering incisive and thoughtful encouragement rather than false kindnesses. Because the faculty treated our work seriously and brought in guests readers like Mary Ruefle and Stephen Dunn, I grew up thinking literature was a thing I could participate in making--that I could write books and edit and publish them--rather than something inaccessible created by mysterious people far away. I was also lucky in a way I didn’t realize until I also became a teacher trying to balance being present for my former students with the demands of my own life: my mentors stayed invested in my well-being long after I graduated--exchanging letters, meeting for coffee (or, when I was older, vodka martinis), and, later, bringing me back to Interlochen for a semester to guest teach. This, more than anything, is what I’m most grateful for: that Jack and Delp gave me the chance to pass on some of the same care and attention they’d once given me to students who I adored. I found a similar attention to mentoring in my graduate program at The New School, where Meghan O’Rourke, Matthew Zapruder and our gracious host here, David Lehman, all not only helped me make breakthroughs in my poetry inside the classroom walls, but also ushered me into the literary community beyond MFA-world as an active participant--encouraging me to submit my work, presenting... Continue reading
Posted Jun 11, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
That's a great prompt! I'm going to steal that one too.
Toggle Commented Jun 10, 2014 on Secrets [by Kate Angus] at The Best American Poetry
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In my workshop, I often use a prompt where I pass out blank index cards and ask my students to--as quickly as possible--write down one of their secrets. The secret can be mundane (I talk in my sleep or I broke a vase and blamed the cat) or intimately shocking (I cheated on my boyfriend with his cousin; I steal money from the cash register at work); it doesn’t matter. It just has to be something that most other people in their lives wouldn’t know. I also suggest they try to disguise their handwriting so that all the secrets look as if they could belong to anyone. After I collect the cards, I shuffle and redistribute them so that every student holds someone else’s secret. It’s always possible--chance being a trickster spirit--that a student’s own secret returns, trailing him or her like a cat stalking the hapless rabbit, texts from a lover who can’t fully believe things are over, the eternal recurrence of the blood stain on Lady Macbeth’s hand. So this doesn’t derail things, I tell them if you draw your own secret, pretend it’s not yours; follow the next step the same way you would if the secret you have belonged to a classmate. The only rule for the second part of the prompt is that no one is allowed to speculate about origins--who in the room the secret they’re writing about first belonged to. Other than that, they can write whatever they want: a persona poem confessing the secret as their own, a narrative poem describing the situation, a pantoum incorporating the secret as one line in its intricately woven pattern, anything. Now I’ll confess one of my secrets: I stole the prompt. One of my students was given this exercise in a different class and then mentioned it in passing in my workshop--I’ve used it every semester since. To Christina Castro (the messenger) and Major Jackson (il primo fabbro), a tip of my hat and a resounding thank you. This assignment is usually a class favorite--perhaps because of its mixture of narcissism and mystery, the way the students’ balance of interest keeps shifting back and forth between who has my secret and how are they writing it and whose secret do I have. I think it also plays into a particularly modern love for simultaneous self-disclosure and concealment--the same impulse that leads to Internet chatrooms where our avatars type out desires and regrets we might never dare admit to our loved ones or therapists; phone apps like Secret that allow you to contribute anonymous confessions to a newsfeed your contact list can idly scroll through as they ride the bus or wait in line to buy groceries; and Postsecret, a website and book series compiled from confessions scrawled on postcards and mailed to the site’s founder who posts a new selection of secrets each Sunday. I’m fascinated by these Internet confessionals where people articulate their deepest most vulnerable truths and yet still remain strangers, both known... Continue reading
Posted Jun 10, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Translation Lately I have been thinking about translation and how it exists under everything. Everything we write, everything we speak is a kind of translation--an attempt to bring forth into words what we think and see and feel; to accurately transcribe our ideas and emotions. This, of course, is impossible: there are no perfect transcriptions--we cannot render the ineffable into, well, the effable without picking up a few flaws along the way. This is also not a new thought. Gustave Flaubert famously called language “a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity” and J. Alfred Prufrock’s frustrated cry of “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” echoes on and on into the dark. The language poets took this idea and expanded it by having language, the mode of expression, determine meaning rather than the other way around. So, if everything is a translation already (from the interior to the exterior; the thought to the expression), how can we even begin to approach attempting a further translation, the traditional kind where we shift a poem from one language to another? If there isn’t a word which is the exact equivalent of the blue edge of morning or that conveys the pleasure of lying awake and breathing in the warm scent of your lover’s sleeping skin, how can we find a word in English that matches--in sound, meaning, appearance and connotation--a word in Russian or French? It seems daunting. But perhaps rather than daunting, this is exhilarating. If we open up the idea of translation to include “interpretation” and not only allow for, but embrace the multiplicity of possible metamorphoses the original work can undergo as the mode of expression changes, the impossible becomes a dazzling game. The field of experimental translation is vibrant and diverse and I’m not nearly well-versed enough in it to present a catalog of all the concepts it contains or the people doing interesting original work there; instead, I want to mention a few of my favorites. Telephone, founded by Sharmila Cohen and Paul Legault in 2010, was originally created as a literary journal, but has expanded to also publish books as an imprint of Nightboat Books (a translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and an upcoming reprint and translation/expansion of B.P. Nichols’ Translating Apollinaire tentatively entitled Translating Translating Apollinaire). For each issue of the journal, the editors choose 5-6 poems from a poet writing in another language and solicit roughly 10-12 translators from a range of experience (professional translators of that language, writers with no previous translation experience at all, and others who fall somewhere in between), telling them they are free to do absolutely anything they want in their translation--that there are no rules; the resulting translations are presented side by side as comparative texts, allowing the reader to see multiple versions of the same poem. Past issues of Telephone have focused on the German poet Uljana... Continue reading
Posted Jun 9, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Jun 6, 2014