Posts Tagged ‘image


Quick Notes on James Wright

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


James WrightJames Wright (1927 – 1980) is an American poet, and often associated with the Deep Image poets of Robert Bly. He studied under John Crowe Ransom as an undergrad from 1948 to 1952 at Kenyon College, and later with Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington “in the spring of 1954” (Elkins 33). His early work in The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959) was formal and influenced by such poets as Edgar Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost. In that formalism, he even re-invented Sapphics or Americanized it into three lines of iambic tetrameter and one line of iambic dimeter. I love that he did that. In those early books. The poetry was filled with despair and nature, as he says about The Green Wall in an interview with Peter Stitt:

I tried to begin with the fall of man and acknowledge that the fall of man was a good thing, the felix culpa, the happy guilt. And then I tried to weave my way in and out through nature poems and people suffering in nature because they were conscious. That was the idea. I don’t think that that book is structurally very coherent, but that was the idea of it. You know, I left out about forty poems from that book.

Wright then started working on translations, which, as some people say, translated him. And, in part, they did, but so did his time with Robert Bly, who told him “poetry is a possibility, that, although all poetry is formal, there are many forms, just as there are many forms of feeling” (Stitt). In 1963, James Wright’s most successful book appeared, The Branch Will Not Break.

This was unlike his earlier poetry as it was not formal and it was filled with joy and delight. As Wright says, “At the center of that book is my rediscovery of the abounding delight of the body that I had forgotten about” (Stitt). It might also be the most successful book of Deep Image poetry (of the Robert Bly camp of Deep Image poetry) that has been written. His concerns with formalism, or the turning toward free verse, however, may be hinted at earlier in the poem from Saint Judas “The Morality of Poetry,” as Ralph J. Mills pointed out (Kalaidjian 103). For in this poem, Wright near the end writes:

     Woman or bird, she plumes the ashening sound,
     Flaunting to nothingness the rules I made.
     Scattering cinders, widening, over the sand
     Her cold epistle falls. To plumb the fall
     Of silver on ripple, evening ripple on wave,
     Quick celebration where she lives for light,
     I let all measures die. My voice is gone,
     My words to you unfinished, where they lie
     Common and bare as stone in diamond veins.
     Where the sea moves the word moves, where the sea
     Subsides, the slow word fades with lunar tides.
     Now still alive, my skeletal words gone bare,
     Lapsing like dead gulls' brittle wings and drowned,
     In a mindless dance, beneath the darkening air,
     I send you shoreward echoes of my voice.   (61)

Nonetheless, Wright arrived at free verse, mid-western speech, Jungian unconscious imagery, and an ability to express joy. Part of this new writing arose from translating Georg Trakl, who, according to Wright, “writes in parallelisms, only he leaves out the intermediary, rationalistic explanations of the relations between one image and another” (Stitt). This leaving out of the explanation is what Bly calls “leaping.” For Bly, “leaping” is the leaping that occurs as the content or the mind reading/writing/experiencing the content leaps from conscious experiencing to unconscious experiencing, and the leaping is quick. There’s also the leaping that occurs with epiphany, which is a common experience in The Branch Will Not Break. The well-known example is at the end of “A Blessing” with the famous last lines: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” This epiphany is physical, psychic, and figurative. But what is interesting about this are at least these two things. First, the surreal like quality that he could step out of his body as well as blossom. There are better examples of surrealism elsewhere (though Wright is adamant he is not surrealist), but that type of surreal thinking does exist. The second thing of note is that Wright is often in the physical world objectively observing it. It’s almost Imagistic in that objectivism and with the use of juxtaposing two images to create an effect. But with Wright the effect becomes deliberately personal, subjective, and emotional. With an Imagist, the juxtaposition is an objective witnessing, and maybe creates a subjective understanding, but it’s so distant. For instance, in Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” where is Pound in that poem? Maybe we feel him between lines two and three. There’s an objective representation of the subjective (if there is a subject), but with Wright, he inserts himself into that space. He inhabits the “leap.” His psyche is in that place that Trakl does not explain. This is one of the strong effects of Wright’s Deep Image poetry.

Another example of this is “The Jewel”:

     There is this cave
     In the air behind my body
     That nobody is going to touch:
     A cloister, a silence
     Closing around a blossom of fire.
     When I stand upright in the wind,
     My bones turn to dark emeralds.   (122)

The poem opens as if in a dream and ends in the surrealistic image of his bones transforming into “dark emeralds.” Again, this is a physical, psychic, and figurative epiphany, but here, more than in “A Blessing,” the epiphany is more suggestive. It’s like a Symbolist image of suggestion. We can probably intuitively understand the transformation, but it’s an unconscious understanding, that later our conscious minds can maybe grapple with. The important part is that we realize an important transformation has happened, and maybe that’s the most important thing with many of these poems and Deep Image poems.

In “In Memory of a Spanish Poet,” Wright kind of outlines for us the process of a Deep Image poem. The poem begins with the following epigraph: “Take leave of the sun, and of the wheat, for me. – Miguel Hernández, written in prison, 1942.” Then the poem:

     I see you strangling
     Under the black ripples of whitewashed walls.
     Your hands turn yellow in the ruins of the sun.
     I dream of your slow voice, flying,
     Planting the dark waters of the spirit
     With lutes and seeds.

     Here, in the American Midwest,
     Those seeds fly out of the field and across the strange heaven of my skull.
     They scatter out of their wings a quiet farewell,
     A greeting to my new country.

     Now twilight gathers,
     A long sundown.
     Silos creep away toward the west.  (130)

The Spanish poets were very influential to the Deep Image poets, and here we have Wright having a vision of Hernández in jail deteriorating but his voice escapes and plants seeds in the Midwest. The images are mostly surreal, and the surreality mixes with the real, such as “ruins of the sun,” “voice, flying,” “dark waters of the spirit,” “strange heaven of my skull,” and these juxtapositions are highly suggestive, like a Symbolist poem. Through it all, we see the transformation of Wright, through whom the surreality is mediated before it also transforms the American landscape, which in the end expresses death, as in seen in the final images of the last stanza. Here, the poet transforms the land.

Sometimes the transformation is more subtle or impressionistic, such as in “Arriving in the Country Again,” where Wright feels a sense of ease in the environment he inhabits. But there is transformation, which often comes “From the other world” (“Milkweed” 143-44).

After The Branch Will Not Break is the book Shall We Gather at the River (1963), and here he returns to the subject of his first two books: death, despair, and loneliness, and to the anti-heroes of “misfits, mental patients, murderers, drunks, prisoners, prostitutes, fugitives, and exiles” (Kalaidjian 102). “In these poems,” as I quote from the notes I wrote in my book, “he is more of a passive observer with less surreal imagery. He’s an observer of transformation, but he does not transform. Thus, lending more to his lonely and depressed state. In The Branch, he often transforms and/or has epiphanies – his transformations are within, but, at times, stimulated from the external. If these are deep image poems in Shall We Gather at the River, which they probably are not as they lack surreal imagery and personal transformation, it is the deep image of the external.”

This book is followed by Two Citizens, which Wright describes by saying, it

begins with a curse on America. There are some savage poems about Ohio, my home, in that book, poems that I could not have written if I hadn’t found Annie [his wife who introduced him to Europe]. She gave me the strength to come to terms with things which I loved and hated at the same time. And in the middle of that book, between the curse and the final expression of grief, there is a whole long sequence of love poems. I’ve never written any book I’ve detested so much. No matter what anybody thinks about it, I know this book is final. God damn me if I ever write another.

He does write one more book of poems titled To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977).


Works Cited

Elkins, Andrew. The Poetry of James Wright. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1991. Print.

Kalaidjian, Walter. “Many of Our Waters: The Poetry of James Wright.” boundary 2 9.2 (Winter 1981): 101-121. JSTOR. Database. 17 Sep 2015. PDF.

Stitt, Peter. “James Wright, The Art of Poetry No. 19.Paris Review 16 (January 1975). Paris Review. N.d. Web. 18 Sep 2015.

Wright, James. Above the River: The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. Print.



On Ingrid Swanberg’s Ariadne & Other Poems

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in the future issue of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose issue 17, due out in fall 2013.//

Ingrid Swanberg – Ariadne & Other PoemsIn today’s poetry that is often self-conscious, ironic, clever, ambivalent about its self while trying to be serious about its self, and/or closed off, it’s a pleasure to find poems, “within their greeting song,” the honest and clear experiences of image and language. In Ingrid Swanberg’s Ariadne & Other Poems (Bottom Dog Press, 2013), there are many images. There are images with substance that satisfy the mind and the belly, images moving between intellect and intuition or existing in between, and complex images that stir emotion and thought.

The poem “the body of Dionysos” is an example of images moving between intellect and intuition.

   nowhere have I
   been so shaded

   than bearing your weight

   hidden from the world

The first line indicates the speaker is lost or homeless or without purpose, but in the next line this gets taken away, as the speaker is some place, and it may be a comfortable place as it has shade. The first two lines also move from a possessive and passive construct of being nowhere to a passive construct with the implication that the speaker is somewhere, but the place is the shade, which has no weight or substance. In line three’s active voice, we receive the “weight” with the implication of substance, but that substance is taken away in the concluding line. The experience is moving from things that don’t exist to things that do exist and in between. Additionally, in the last line the reader also realizes another movement. A movement of meaning.  The word “shaded,” the reader will realize, may also come to mean something like “deceived.” She lives under his (Dionysos’) shadow in both protective and deceptive realms. There’s also the movement between myth and today’s world. I personally like to read these poems with a deliberate ignorance of Greek mythology to ensure the poems speak to me today in my now experience, and they do. But with a knowledge of the myths, more meanings are had, new perspectives of the myths are created, and more movement is created.

In the poem “the river is rising,” the reader can experience this bridging of two worlds and experience the complicated image building I mentioned above, as well. The second stanza provides a good starting place to observe this complication:

   the white orchards
   of your city
   where you dream me

What’s blooming here is “the white orchards.” Or that’s what at first seems to be blooming. When I leave that stanza, however, I feel overwhelmed because it feels like there’s more that’s blooming. In fact, the city blooms and the “me” blooms. It’s all blooming, which is why “bloom” is on its own line yoking the previous three lines into it. This complication continues into stanza three, which begins: “inside my heart”. Here, “inside my heart” acts as a pivot. It concludes the previous stanza – white orchards, city, and the speaker bloom inside the speaker’s heart – and it begins the third stanza:

   inside my heart
   rain pours neon calligraphy
   onto the night street

Inside the speaker’s heart, rain pours. Inside the speaker’s heart there is city imagery with neon lights and a street at night.  In fact, this poem keeps building like this. It’s able to build because there are only two instances of punctuation (both commas) after the opening line that ends with a period: “I have looked everywhere.” If this were a conventional poem, there would be more punctuation, but the poem limits the use to two commas to indicate time shifts or shifts in thoughts, like leaps. For instance:

   I have searched everywhere
   the syllables and unyielding ciphers of riverbanks,
   your name pressed into the bitter clay
   inside my heart

Here, the speaker’s searching turns directly inward because, perhaps, of the conscious leap into language: “the syllables and unyielding ciphers.” Here the image mixes abstract and concrete. And in the next stanza, the speaker finds the person with another woman:

   o leave her
   turning in her black dress
   where you lie adrift in her arms
   and you dream my

Where one might expect hostility or resentment to follow after this discovery, the poem stays in its passionate tone because, as we soon realize, both the speaker and the other person are in the dream world. They were both looking for each other in their dreams, or at least the speaker was searching for the other person. We then realize the period in the opening line was the end-stop to consciousness. The poem turned inward after that, and at the end it blooms outward from the dreaming world into the conscious world:

   we will ride into the city
   of white blossoming trees
   under the night

This poem is also a modern-day re-rendering of Ariadne’s dream involving Theseus and Dionysos.  The reader should keep the Ariadne and Dionysos myths under consideration when they read many of these poems, especially the “Ariadne’s tomb” section, but the poems are written so well that they speak to two worlds: our world, especially those with limited knowledge of the myths; and the mythic world. The poems in this section exist in both those worlds, and I was caught in the middle like waking from a dream I didn’t want to wake from, but I did wake. When I did wake, there were more poems where I did not need the knowledge of myth but where “the door between worlds / swings open.” And that door is swinging between poem and reader and swinging between poet and poet creating the myth of a self. I enjoyed going in and out of all the worlds in Swanberg’s Ariadne & Other Poems, which often felt like contemporized deep image poems.//




Swanberg, Ingrid. Ariadne & Other Poems. Huron, OH: Bottom Dog Press, 2013.//


Interview with Rock & Sling Editor – Thom Caraway

One of my favorite literary journals is Rock & Sling. I remember the women who founded the journal asking me questions about how to start a journal. They asked me circa 2003 when I had only published one or two issues of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics. My advice was very limited. I can’t imagine what I could have told them. Now, it is being run out of Whitworth University by Thom Caraway. Under his editorial management, Rock & Sling have been creating journals that are beautiful to hold and putting together journals with the conscientiousness that goes into making a well-designed book. Inside each issue there are also good stories and poems.

On Wednesday, May 16, 2013, during my Publishing class at The University of Southern Mississippi and taught by Angela Ball, I learned that one of my assignments would be to give a presentation about a literary journal of our choice. Rock & Sling was the first journal that came to my mind. I then went home, and asked Caraway if he wanted to participate. He agreed. I quickly typed up questions for him to answer. While these answers came quick, they had lots of thought behind them. Since I now have about 11 years experience in publishing (instead of just one or two), I knew what types of questions to ask. Because I knew Caraway’s love of journals and books and putting them together, I knew what questions to ask him, and I also knew what questions I would want asked of me. So the questions arrived with ease. In addition, I asked questions that would be of more direct concern to the other students in the class and to those who are considering submitting their work to Rock & Sling. I emailed Caraway the questions the same night. One week later, he sent me his responses, which appear below.


As I recall, Rock & Sling was started by two ladies in Spokane, WA, around 2003. Who were those ladies, how long did they run the journal, and did it have the same focus as the journal currently does?

Susan Cowger, Kris Christenson, and Lori Klein. The journal came to us through Susan, whose daughter had attended Whitworth University. They were “a journal of faith, art, and literature.” Or “literature, art, and faith.” Some combination of those words. It seemed like all of the faithy journals had some combination of those. We simplified to “a journal of witness.” It captured the essence of what we wanted, and I think we’ve stayed true to the original mission, though we probably define “faith” more broadly than Susan did.

What prompted them to turn it over to Whitworth University and when did that happen and were you there when it occurred?

We got it in 2009. It had gone on hiatus in 2008, looking for a stable funding source. It was totally independent, but Susan and the other original group couldn’t subsidize it any more. I came in on the second or third meeting. Our department was generally in favor of it, but they didn’t really know how to make it go. I was the faculty advisor for the school’s undergrad journal, and that fall, I had also pitched a class in editing and book design. So it at least looked like I knew what I was doing. I spent the next couple months convincing various administrators that it was good for the university. That’s an on-going battle.

How did you get involved in becoming the Editor-in-Chief, especially considering that you teach full time and run Sage Hill Press?

It wasn’t going to go if they couldn’t get an editor. None of the other faculty had any experience in running a magazine, and I didn’t either, but I’d done Willow Springs and North Dakota Quarterly during my grad programs, so I kind of convinced them I knew what I was doing. My experience with Sage Hill Press certainly helped. I knew some design, and enough of the marketing and business side to sound reasonably confident. It turned out there was plenty I didn’t know. Teaching the editing and design class really helped, since I could make the business/marketing end of things part of the curriculum and sort of teach myself as I went.

What knowledge did you bring from running a press to running a journal?

It helped to know how a book gets put together (how to pick economical paper and an efficient trim-size, etc.), the printing side of things, and knowing the indie publishing biz. I knew where to go to find things, and had contacts at other presses and journals I could go to for help.

Does the journal help you run the press in any manner? Do you learn things from it that makes your press more effective?

The great thing about a journal is how many authors you can publish at a time. I was used to working with one author at a time, usually for 6-12 months, refining the manuscript, and putting it all together. The journal gave me access to a bigger base of authors. So I’ve solicited some authors we worked with on the journal to submit a book for Sage Hill. It’s also given me a better understanding of marketing and distribution.

On the other hand, the journal takes up much of my non-teaching time, so the press hasn’t maintained the kind of production schedule I’d like.

One of my favorite things about Rock & Sling is the colophon. Not many journals do that. What prompted you to include colophon? And how often do you change the typeface?

TrajanFor me, I can’t really design a book until I know what the type will be. I’ll experiment with type for hours, sometimes days, until I find the right one. It has to fit the book, speak to the personality of the book, become a vessel for the text. But for books, it’s different, because the personality of the text is more unified. It all came from the same author. With the journal, the personality comes from the journal itself, as much as it does from the text. And the text varies wildly, so the type needs to be adaptive and versatile. It needs to speak in a variety of languages. Once I found the right one, and I knew it the minute I’d set any text in it, I wanted to know everything I could about it. The type was Perpetua, the designer Eric Gill. Eric Gill was an interesting dude, and designed a number of persistent types. The colophon itself probably goes back to a design class (which you were in) during my MFA days at Eastern Washington University. Christopher Howell taught that class, and talked at length about type, and the importance of choosing just the right one for books. Or maybe it’s just something I got obsessed about as a designer later. I had the standard palette, I think. Garamond, Palatino, Caslon. I started exploring. I also started to notice colophons, often in Copper Canyon books. It added a depth of meaning to the book. Not only did the writer put a lot of time and life and love into the creation of the manuscript, but the designer was also intentional about how the book was set, which was explained in the colophon. That fascinated me. And like any amateur, I imitated until I understood. For me, Perpetua is the personality of  the journal. It’s beautiful, versatile, and engaging. It creates its own kind of interest, but doesn’t overwhelm the text. The colophon was a way of conveying that, the debt we owed not only to the authors, but to the type designer.

I’m not sure the type will ever change for the body of the journal. I just love Perpetua. Everything I submit is set in it. Poems. All of my syllabi. Letters of recommendation. Many of my students now use it, and our poetry editor has adopted it as well. For our first four issues, the titles were set in Perpetua Titling, which is an all-caps type. I wasn’t wild about it, but it was consistent with the body. Before laying out 8.1 (our fifth issue), I lost the template from those first four issues on a crashed hard-drive. We reconsidered everything (save the body type), from trim size to title types, page-styles, titles, layout, etc. We’re actually going with a new title type, and a new master-page style (in the footer), as well as a different rule style. When you are in the rhythm of journal production, it seems impossible to consider changing things. I don’t know why that is. Probably because there is so much other stuff going on; it’s too overwhelming to consider a redesign of the whole thing. I also want a consistency in our shelf presentation. If people have several years of our journal on their shelves, I want it to look good. So after all of that reconsideration, we kept the same trim size and spine text. But I’ve changed some of the more extraneous elements. But it took months to arrive at the right balance. We’ve gone with a slab sans-serif title type, League Gothic (from the excellent League of Moveable Type), which works well with Perpetua, set in a half-tone black. I’m pretty happy with it. We’ve also messed with the master-page, the size of it, and what’s in it. For me, the design of the book, being the most consistent personality element given the ever-changing nature of the work we accept, has to be precise, so people know they are reading something good, even before they get to the content. 

Why isn’t there a colophon in the current issue?

It’s expensive to print on the inside of the cover. Also, for that issue, we had space. In coming issues, I’d like to move it to the interior, maybe as the last page of the journal.

What typeface is your favorite and what typeface do you think works best for text pages? for covers? and for online?

Perpetua. It’s just beautiful. The Roman and the italic. I use it for almost everything now. I also like Californian for text. Garamond is a classic, and very versatile. Caslon is elegant, but not suited for all purposes.

TrajanFor covers, I love Trajan, but it’s become very popular. I don’t think you can ruin Trajan through overexposure, but I haven’t used it much lately. It’s one thing if it’s the title type for The West Wing, another entirely if I’m seeing it in terrible flyers posted around campus or in elevators. Perpetua Titling is what we used for the first four issues, and it’s a big, wide-based, solid title type, but it feels a little heavy sometimes, heavy-handed. We used it for titles as well, and have moved away from it for both with the new issue. I used Perpetua lower-case this time around, though we kept the ampersand in Poor Richard. That creates some problems. In the same size as what’s around it, it’s too big, so every time I use it, I have to isolate it and manually change the size and kerning to get it spaced just right. I like doing that kind of stuff though, the kind of stuff only I really notice, like shrinking the kerning, or the font-size of blank spaces.

I’ve been playing around with some gothic sans serif type for covers. I like League Gothic, and Gear, and pretty much anything at Lost Type or the League of Moveable Type. The internet is such a great resource for designers now. You can find pretty much anything, between Dafont and the other warehouse sites, and most of it is free. Still, lots of stuff doesn’t always mean lots of good stuff, so I stick with what I know for the most part. Nothing too showy or flashy. I never want to overwhelm the actual text with the typography.

Online, I appreciate tall, slender sans serif type. I like Gill Sans, and though it’s maybe a little basic, Franklin Gothic is nice, too. And boring old Calibri is a very readable screen type, though I am not a fan of it in print.

Another thing I like about the journal is the covers. They are always so beautiful. Where do you find the artwork and who does the cover design?

I handle cover design, which I love doing, despite my limitations as a designer. I’ve never taken a class in design or anything, so I always feel like I’m missing out on some cool stuff I could be doing. But, I can place art on a page, and move text around, and so far that’s been working.

When we first got started, I couldn’t get any of our overworked art faculty to sign on as art editor. I said I’d do it in the interim, but as it turned out, I didn’t really know any artists. One of my colleagues in the English department, Fred Johnson, kept asking me if I knew such and such artist. After a few of these, I started making a list and checking them out. Turns out he was connected to a lot of artists through his time at Ball State, and they were all fantastic. So I just started emailing them. Some have been hesitant to commit to covers for an ostensibly faith-based journal. Some have said no, for that reason. After the Gala Bent and dan Baltzer covers (6.1 and 6.2), I thought I’d make it look like I was at least trying, so I started asking the artists themselves for recommendations. So dan led me to Jeffrey Youngblood for 7.1, and he recommended Emelie Anskog for 7.2. I’ve been pretty happy with the results.

For this particular issue (volume 7, issue 2), there’s a lot of risk in the design. The logo is right up against the edge of the cover. That’s risk because the exactness of trim is not perfect. Many publishers would have pulled the logo in a bit. And the same for the art work. A lot of risk is taken in putting the picture into the bleed and also in cutting off part of the picture, but I like how the art exceeds the cover? Did you feel you were taking risks when designing this cover? How did you feel about those risks? Do you often take those risks when developing covers? (I also ask because in a previous version of this cover, which is on Facebook, the logo was on the left with a safe distance from the spine and the volume/issue/year information was on the right and vertical and a safe distance from the edge of the cover.)

Rock & Sling 7.2 Final Cover

Rock & Sling Volume Seven Issue Two 2012 Final Cover

Rock & Sling 7.2 Draft

Rock & Sling Volume Seven Issue Two 2012 Draft Cover

I was so scared for 6.1, I did stuff fairly straightforward. I wanted it to look great, and not piss anyone off. After that one came out, a designer friend and I got to talking over beers, and he suggested I start messing with placement. He said, “Try turning the title text box vertical. Move it around.” I’d never thought of that, and I loved it, so tried it for 6.2. Our name isn’t even all the way on the front cover for that issue. I placed it so it’s half on the front and half on the spine. My theory is just to get out of the way of the art. I love the art. I want people to see the art.

So then I started moving the logo and other elements around. I really like the logo bleeding off the page a little, like who we are is incidental to the work we are publishing. It freaks our printers out. They always want me to move it in or up a ¼ inch. The only cover where we lost a bit of the content was 6.2. dan’s work has so much going on in it, and I cut an inch or so off one side to get it to fit vertically on the page. If I’m going to bleed it, I make sure that what is cut is still implied by what remains. And the artists have all been pretty happy (as far as I know) with their covers. I could shrink the art down to fit the cover, and frame it with a solid-color bar or something, but that’s just boring to me. The only reason I can see for that is to make sure people get a good look at the name of the journal. That’s much less important to me.

I think some journals might get a little used to themselves. I worked for North Dakota Quarterly, which has looked the same for forty years. Same size, same gothic type, same white cover and spine, same kind of cover image. That’s great, to have traditions like that, but one thing I love about journals is how responsive they can be, so I’ve been hesitant to make the issues look the same, at least on the outside. If I have to move our issue info to the back to feature the art more effectively, then that’s what I’ll do. If anyone is going to pick up the journal, it will be for the art, not for what issue number it is. So that stuff can go on the back if it needs to. Each issue has its own personality, which starts with the art. I like to think that we are conforming to what we get, rather than conforming or choosing material based on who we are.

As for the text page design. The title of the poem/story is all in caps, below that is a line that extends most of the width of the page, below that is the author’s name in gray, then there is some white space between the author’s name and poem or story. Also in the footers, the page number is black and Rock & Sling is gray. What overall effect do you think that creates?

Similar to my design aesthetic with art and the cover (get out of the way), I think the work is more important than the author. We went back and forth before the first issue. Some designs had the author info on top and bigger than the title info. I just didn’t like it. For me, the shape of the page is big title (“ooooh”), author, in a half-tone (“who’s that, oh, there’s the poem . . .”), and then to the work (“aaaah”). The author’s name is off set, and the title and text align with each other, so a straight line connects them. I wouldn’t mind moving the author’s name elsewhere, but I don’t think authors would like that (as an author, I wouldn’t like that).

With 8.1, I moved to a different type for the titles. Perpetua Titling is an all-caps type, and it just felt too big. So there is more distinction now between title and text, and I changed the rule from a heavy line of left-slashes to a lighter double thin line. The authors are in a small-caps Perpetua, and solid (the titles are half-tone now). We switched from an offset printer to a digital printer, and smaller half-tones (<10 pt) looked like crap (you can tell in 7.2). So the half-tone is on a larger slab sans serif type, and should print better. [For a good article about the difference between offset and digital printing, go here:]

As for the footer elements, those are different now, too. I love the design of Versal, and they have massive page numbers in the footer, so I beefed up ours a little (18 pt League Gothic), and switched out “Rock & Sling” for just the Poor Richard ampersand. It looks maybe too contemporary, and probably will only last a few issues before I start to feel self-conscious about it.

CLMPI see you are member of CLMP. What does this do for the journal?

CLMP is a good resource for marketing and administrative information, plus it gets us on their lists and makes us look like a legitimate journal. It doesn’t cost much, and the resources are really useful, as are the list-servs. There’s lots of experience to draw from, which, given my lack of knowledge at the outset, was really important.

On the copyright page, it reads:

The editors of Rock & Sling believe that the act of writing and of reading literature is a way of witnessing to the truth of experience, drilling down to the core of language’s vitality, and accepting an understanding of artistic language as a kind of testimony. The word “Witness” means to testify: to tell the truth. The demands of the word are bracing in its charge to the writer to understand that his and her work matters not just as expressions of experiences and responses but as an active language engaged morally as well as aesthetically. To tell the truth is an act of responsibility as well as an expression of hope. To testify is an act of responsibility as well as an expression of faith.

Why do you have this theme? How is it different than, say, Image.

That definition was written by our poetry editor, Laurie Lamon, when we took over the journal. We use it as a framework for understanding our mission as a “Christian” journal. We publish a lot of work that isn’t overtly faith-based, at least in Christian terms. (I think specifically of your Paleolithic poems). But that work engages ideas of faith, or of something bigger than itself. Whatever you call it, that’s faith, which means it involves God, or god, or divinity.

As far as how we are different than a journal like Image, I’d say that on the surface, we really aren’t  We’re probably the AAA ball-club for Image, and that’s fine. But I think we are also perhaps more responsive to what Christian or faith-based literature could be or is headed toward. Image has a tradition. Every issue looks the same, and generally, every issue sounds the same. It’s a good sound, don’t get me wrong. I’d love to be publishing Pattianne Rogers, Gregory Orr, and B. H. Fairchild. They get great writers. But I think we are better able to take risks, because we don’t have much of a reputation at stake. And things are going on, especially in the evangelical church, that art will need to respond to, that won’t look or sound like traditional mainline Christian art. And that’s kind of where I want us to live.

With such a religious theme, what type of submissions do you receive and how do you decide what to publish?

Laurie and I agreed at the outset that our final consideration for taking a piece of any kind was “Does it demand to be published.” We get a lot of poems called “Psalm.” Lots of retellings or rehashings of familiar Bible stories. Poems or stories from Judas’ POV, or Lazarus’. Lots of annunciation poems. A lot of what you’d expect for a Christian journal. But the best pieces are those that are comfortable with ambiguity, those that acknowledge that doubt is a facet of faith, that in fact, one is meaningless without the other. That’s the central tension of most of the work we publish, I think, though it takes many forms. In that way, I don’t think we’re that different than any lit journal. Is it beautiful? Does it move me in some way? Beauty, even terrible beauty, is an expression of faith. I guess that seems apologetic of sorts. For me, beauty implies aesthetics, and aesthetics requires a big, pure, perfect Something. We call that God, but you don’t have to, and we like work that inhabits some space in between.

Part of my mission as the editor of a Christian literary journal is to show people what Christian lit can be. It isn’t all easy answers, Scripture, and parables. Lived faith is never easy, and the art that comes from it shouldn’t be either.

I’m an atheist with hope, and you’ve published me. Do you think you’ve published other atheists? Do you recognize a difference in poetry between atheists and those who believe in something other?

God, I hope we’ve published other atheists. I was an atheist when I took over the journal, or at least a hopeful agnostic. We don’t have a Shibboleth or anything. The work speaks for itself, and using your poems (or Jeff Dodd’s “Dear Russel Nakagawa” poems in 8.1) as an example, the work demonstrates a kind of faith, regardless of the writer’s beliefs. My favorite pieces we’ve published aren’t explicitly Christian. But as Jonathan Johnson always said, “You’re subconscious is smarter than you are.”

How do you generate submissions?

I have no idea. People knew us from before we took over, and we still get submissions from them, though we probably publish fewer of those folks now. So there is some previous name recognition. Mainly, I think it’s having a good-looking book and taking it to AWP. Our submissions always spike after AWP. We typically get 250-300 submissions a month. Ad swaps with other journals help, I think. We swap with folks like Sugar House Review and Weave Magazine, and some bigger journals, like Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, and Willow Springs. That gets our name out there. Probably half of our website hits come off of searches for “Christian literary journal.” So being a kind of niche helps. We get somewhat higher submissions from places where I know we are selling the journal in stores, or have it in libraries. But we get stuff from all over the world, which is awesome. I really wish I understood how people knew about us, or why they submit work. I hope it’s because the journal looks great, and the work is awesome, and people want to be a part of that.

What do you look for in a submission? That is, do you want a cover letter? What do you want in the cover letter? What’s a perfect submission for you, aside from quality poems and stories?

Ah, cover letters. I train my interns not to read them. I always read them. I like parsing the bullshit. I remember one author, when I was poetry editor at Willow Springs, with a full page of publishing credits. I had never heard of 10% of them. So I started looking them up. Maybe they were so local or small that they had no web presence or even Google hits. But most of them were made up. I kind of loved that. So I have a pretty cavalier attitude about cover letters. I’d rather a cover letter told me a good joke then tried to convince me that I should publish something because The Kenyon Review or Tin House published them. At the same time, I’ll probably read something a little closer if they’ve been published in The Kenyon Review or Tin House.

A perfect submission follows the guidelines (upload each poem separately, not as one doc with five pages), has a three-sentence cover letter (“You guys are awesome. Love the design. Hope you like these poems/this piece.”), and blows me away from the first sentence or line of the submission.

Are you pro or con If you use it, what benefits does it have over email?

I admit to some nostalgia for the days of snail mail submissions, and writing comments on the envelopes, the arguments for various sizes of envelope. But I love Submittable. We got on board when we started up (after having met Michael FitzGerald at AWP), when they were still Submishmash and cheeky. It has built-in organization, which I lack entirely. It catalogs and archives efficiently, it tracks information I’d be too lazy to input, and it makes it easy to get work out to lots of readers, and to comment on that work. I’ve never used Submission Manager, but I don’t see any reason I would switch. And beyond that, it’s still free. That’s amazing, considering the service.

Do you take postal submissions? Why or why not?

No. I lose them, or forget to respond.

The journal has an Editor-in-Chief, which is you, and a poetry editor, prose editor, web editor, managing editor, assistant editor, and assistant prose editors. What do these roles do? How many are students, professors, and contractors?

The poetry editor is faculty. The nonfiction editor is staff, a senior editor in University Communications. (She has an MFA, and serves as the craft essay editor for Brevity, a terrific online creative nonfiction journal, probably the best there is.) Our prose editor is currently an alum, and three-year assistant, a terrific writer and editor. The managing editor is the English department program assistant (Annie Stillar, the daughter of my middle school shop teacher, and she is amazing. The journal wouldn’t happen without her), and she manages the budget, invoices, mailings, booking travel, and all of the many detail things that would kill me. The assistant editors are students who have been around a while, or who have taken my editing and design class. They manage their genre’s submissions, recommend stuff for editorial meetings or for rejection. I do that, too, to help clear out backlogs, but they handle a lot of it. The editorial assistants are all students. They read the work the assistant editors cull from Submittable. If it gets approved in the meeting, it goes up to the genre editors for final approval. I’m kind of in each of those steps, nudging. I’ve bypassed the readers on occasion, and passed stuff up that they didn’t like. It’s all a learning process for them. They are really sophisticated readers, but still not always paying enough attention.

How do you raise money?


How many subscribers do you have? How many are people, libraries, swaps with other journals?

Around 100 subscribers. Another dozen libraries, and a half-dozen journal swaps.

What is your print run?

Now, it’s 400. We started at 1000, hoping to get picked up by Ingram (which demands 400 copies just for them). That hasn’t happened, alas. 1000 is enough to get onto an offset printer, and the quality is so much better. So that’s my aim, to get the subscriber base high enough to justify the expense. (Though it really is more cost effective on an offset printer, 2.05/copy vs. 3.25+/copy with a digital printer.)

What is the best form(s) of publicity? Do advertisements in other journals work?

The journal itself is our best publicity, followed by the authors. I try to design the book so that when people see it, they must pick it up. And I like it when our authors get excited about it, and start telling their friends about it. A great table at AWP doesn’t hurt.

Ads with other journals do work. I’ve seen it in cover letters. “I saw your ad in Redactions, and was intrigued …”. (I’ve really seen that.)

What’s the most enjoyable part of the journal for you?

I’m happy that I still get to do the design. If I had to choose between being the editor or being the designer, I’d probably pick designer.

Also, putting the journal together, once all the work is accepted. The interns have a big hand in that, and I just love watching them reason through an order. We place a big emphasis on the opening and closing sections, and they do a good job of helping see the entire arc of the issue.

Do you ever get lost in doing layout as you would when writing?


How many times do you proofread the journal before sending it out?

Probably five times. After that, I have to stop. It could go on forever.

Do you proofread the proofs or do you just thumb through to make sure there are no glaring errors?

The latter. Widows and orphans, typos, and that’s it.

When you get the final product, do you look through it or are you too scared and already involved with this next issue?

The latter, again.

By the time the final copies arrive, are you bored with that issue already?

I wouldn’t say bored, but I’m already thinking about the shape of the next issue. But when it arrives, I’ve never sat down and read it. I know the work. I know it’s good.

What does your journal provide that other journals don’t or what do you do that other journals don’t?

I think one thing we do that not many other journals do is focusing so much on aesthetics. I want the entire experience of the journal to be beautiful, down to how it looks when we mail it out, where the shipping labels go. I can think of a number of journals who publish really great stuff, but just look like crap. Nobody has paid any attention to what the thing looks like, from the paper to the type to the margins. So I think we build a beautiful container.

I think our specifically faith-focused mission is also somewhat rare. There’s less than a dozen journals with our kind of mission. And of those, I think we are putting out some of the best work, and certainly the most aesthetically appealing journal. My goal with the journal is to reach a wider audience, to get into the hands of the “regular” lit journal audience. The work holds up. I want to teach people that Christian art, or art made by Christians and non-Christians doesn’t have to trite or cliché or boring.

The UPC is on the back cover. Typically, journals put that on the front cover. (I think it’s a law or something.) Why did you put it on the back cover? Why do you even have an UPC?

I put it on the back because it’s ugly, and mucks up the front. I’ve worked in bookstores, and it’s just as easy to scan a bar code on the front as it is on the back. We have the UPC to make it easier to sell to bookstores, which are reluctant to sell anything without a bar code of some sort. It helps them track inventory.

Do you have distribution? Who distributes for you? Where does the journal get sold?

We have distribution through Ubiquity, who specializes in selling journals to indie bookstores, which are more likely to carry a selection of literary journals. Ingram has turned us down twice for distribution, and I think that is largely a function of our longevity (they want to make sure we’ll be around for a while) and the decline of the big-box bookstore.

We’ve also started handling some of our own distribution, which is a bit labor and time intensive, but allows us to track copies more effectively. Ubiquity doesn’t provide any reporting on where the copies are going, which sucks. But I’ll get emails or texts from friends saying, “Hey, I saw the new issue at a store in Houston, looks great!” So I know they are out there. We also see occasional spikes in submissions and subscriptions from particular regions or towns, so I suspect that stores have copies thereabouts.

What part of working on the journal do you like least?

Budget stuff. At least once a year, I have to defend, usually in written form, the journal as a printed thing. “Why not just have it online? That’s free.” Administrators, trustees. People concerned with the bottom line, which I understand. My first response (which I have to restrain) is, “We cost under ten thousand dollars a year. How much to baseball uniforms cost? How much do these ridiculous university-emblazoned water bottles cost?” But there’s a significant value to the students who help staff the journal, and it’s hard for some folks to see past the economic argument, which isn’t even true.

Do you pay authors? What do you pay them?

Two copies. Someday, I’d like to pay money, but that will take some doing. If we can get some big donations and establish an endowment . . .

Do you think it is unethical to not pay authors in money or contributor copies?

Yes. All journals should at least be able to afford to pay in copies. The work is valuable; it’s what makes the journal what it is. Copies are at least a nod in that direction.

Thank you so much.


For the downloadable Rock & Sling Tip Sheet I made for the presentation, click Rock & Sling Tip Sheet.


Miles Davis from The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (Printable High-Res (300 dpi), 8.5″ x 11″)

Miles Davis – Jack Johnson 8_5x11_flat

Click the image to make it bigger, and then download it. It prints well.//


Einstein’s Haiku

When I teach poetry to my students, I teach them wholeheartedly what Pound said, “Go in fear of abstractions.” I teach them that the image is always better, especially in the matters in of love. But sometimes it’s not. The below example illustrates this perfectly.

   Walter Matthau as EinsteinEinstein's Haiku
     (For Melissa)

   Everything I do
   Means I want to love you squared –
   Come with me and prove

Isn’t that fun. It says I love you. It rhymes in two lines and the title. It’s an acrostic for E=mc2. It even has an allusion to Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepard to His Love.” There’s so much going on. And it really does say I love you. It’s complicated in a playful way – just like love.

I wrote this after watching I.Q.//


in pursuit of the juiciest wine: day 101 (Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon 2009)

It’s been too long since I’ve done one of these tastings, but that’s what happens when you have a full-time plus teaching Introduction to Creative Writing at the state college, which takes another 15-20 hours of prep work for a three-hour class.  Work, school, students, girlfriend, dog, food, sleep. Ug. It’s overwhelming.

Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

Click the image to make it bigger so you can read it.

Ok. enough whining. On to the wine.

Actually, I’m going to do an experiment. The next Introduction to Creative Class will be on poetry. It will be the first poetry class. In this class I plan to focus on abstractions and images. Why do young writers have such a hard time distinguishing between the two? I know I did. Why do young writers try to write poetically instead of just writing? I know I did. Anyway. This review will be like two reviews. One review will try to describe the wine with abstractions. And the other will try to describe the wine with some images and concrete stuff.

Tonight’s wine is Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 from Napa Valley. I got it for two reasons. The first was the label. The second was that someone or someplace gave it 89 points. Had I not seen that rating, I would have backed away. But here we are. Hop on board.

But first to get us in the proper mood – Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” from Blues and the Abstract Truth:

Abstract noseNow for the descriptions.

New rules. I’ll describe the wine with abstractions, and the girlfriend will describe with images.

Abstract Color: It’s the color of a newborn’s thought when seeing fall for the first time. Hmm. There are two images in there. It’s the color of an interpretation.

Concrete Color: A dark plumy color with some red.

Abstract Nose: The nose smells like the middle of the solar system. Near the asteroid belt. Hmm. No. That’s too many images. It smells like the berries of time. Ah. There we go. No. There’s still berries. It smells like the dark times before the eruption of change. It smells like a sad smile before a birthday. Ha ha!

Concrete Nose: It’s a little cranberry-like with some spices and perhaps some nutmeg. She says it smells like Christmas spices. And that it smells dry.

Abstract Taste: It tastes like prehistoric earth just after the lava cooled. It tastes like the steam rising from the lava. No. Those are images, too. It tastes dry. It tastes like red. It tastes like the edge of death but in a good way. It tastes like the last words of a famous painter. It tastes like a Paris tavern in the 1920s with Hemingway at a table writing and staring at a woman he wants to put into a story. Damn. All images. Arg. It tastes like the edge or certainty and the corner of joy.

Concrete Taste: It tastes alcoholic. It’s juicy. It’s like biting in currant berry that explodes in your mouth. It started interesting but became boring and unnoteworthy. (Ha. There’s the abstractions!)

I agree. It start off with some gusto. It has some talent. It’s like a boxing match. Talent, fine clothes, and experience vs. youth, impetuousness, and rags. It’s trying to be a real good wine, but behind it, perhaps the abundance of alcohol, there’s a thin layer of cheapness.

I’d say 88 points.

But you know, as the boxing match goes on, the young, cheap fighter is starting to falter. He’s fallen to the mat a couple of times. Talent and experience are winning out. The first rounds it came out strong, stumble a bit in the middle rounds, but is finishing the match strong. I give 89 points.

Most important. This wine taught me that it’s best to describe a wine with both concrete and abstract terms. A good poem does that, too, but the abstractions aren’t the dominant. They just appear every now and then like Miles Davis trumpet in songs from his later years.//

The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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