Friday, March 18, 2011



I am finally sending my manuscript out to some poetry contests.

I have never sent out this manuscript before. I had a manuscript called Hysterical Pastoral which morphed into another manuscript called About the Elephant and I sent out HP/AtE maybe five or six times (to good response surprisingly), but then I read it with some distance/sense and threw it away because it was terrible, and I’m not looking for compliments, it really was (measured against any poetry rubric I might create). Does anyone else create poetry rubrics? Before my ID job, I never did, but I find it’s helpful.

I don’t care as much about publishing as I should. I talk about this all the time to friends and I’m sure they’re sick of hearing it, but maybe you’re not my friend, and so I’ll tell you. I worry that this indifference about publishing makes me look lazy, which I’m not, though there’s no way of me proving this. Also, I worry that it makes me look like I’m not a real poet.

I say this because I constantly doubt that poets (ones I haven’t met) are real poets if they don’t have a book, and I haven’t seen their work anywhere. It’s absolutely stupid to do, of course, but I do it and I’m sure everybody else does too.


I’ll give you a concrete example of one time I did this. I was working in a factory in Indiana that made . . . something . . . It doesn't matter because I never did my job, I just wrote poetry, and one day the plant manager came up to me and looked at my screen and said, “Oh, are you writing poetry?”

I never feel like it’s a good policy to lie in these situations. If you’re cheating a company out of its work time, why be a cheater and a liar?

So I said, “Yes I am, Mike.” He was like, “Really? I love poetry.”

Mike used to sit in his office all day long looking totally bewildered. Sometimes he would invite me into his office to chat about nothing, and his face, the entire time, would say to me, “How did I get here? However will I get out of here?”

So when Mike said, “I love poetry.” I said, “Really?” Oh god, let this conversation be over. And then he said, “I even wrote a poem one time, when I got back from Vietnam.” I said, “Oooh, I bet it was good.” Or terrible. Then he said, “I even got it published.” I said, “Wow.” In the Michigan City News Dispatch, I’m sure. He said, “Yeah, in The New Yorker. Can you believe that?" I said, "Uh . . . that's . . . incredible. So are you still writing?" He said, "I don’t really write poems. I just wrote that one.”


Oh, here’s another good example. My friend Cynthia, one of my closest friends in NY, said to me when we first met, “Oh, my roommate’s a poet, too. You should meet her.”

When I found out her roommate didn’t have a book (and this was before the Internet, or at least before anybody actually used the Internet, so there was no looking up her work), I remember thinking, Yeah [cringe] I’m sure. I never expressed any interest in meeting her, although I did see her a few times in passing during parties at their lesbian loft in Tribeca.

Anyway, a few years later, Cynthia was like, “Guess what, I’m in the acknowledgments section of my roommate's book! She told me she’s psyched because her book is going to be shelved by Shakespeare.”


Every time I think of prizes, I think of disappointing people and losing things. Prizes bring out the worst in people, and by paying to win prizes, I am paying 30 dollars a pop to do just that.

In second grade I won a prize for writing a story. What made it even more great is I was competing against kids K through 6.

Here’s a summary of my award-winning story "No Red." It’s paraphrased (and nicely plotted, if I do say so myself).


In a castle lives a princess named Melissa who is spoiled and vain and bossy. One day the princess spills paint on her pants when she’s playing and then she feels foolish and ugly and enraged that her servants could let such a thing happen to her. In the midst of her anger and pant trauma, she banishes the color red, all things red, from her palace. She feels pretty proud of herself for her great idea.

Valentine’s Day comes, and the princess doesn’t get any cards. She’s kind of sad, but she sticks her nose in the air and holds strong.

Time goes on, business as usual.

Then one fated day the princess is playing in her garden and starts craving a peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich like crazy. Unfortunately for her, the strawberry jelly has been thrown in the trash and forevermore banned from the royal estate—-at her request! Having no other option, she eats mint, a mint and peanut butter sandwich. Then she cries.

For a while nobody hears her because her servants have been banned, too. But then they hear her and the princess feels so sorry for making that red rule, she lets all her servants back into the royal palace. Then she asks them to make her a peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich and deliver all of her belated Valentine’s Day cards. Then she reads all the cards while she’s eating her sandwich.

The End

I picked up my prize for this story at the public library. There was a big box with a bunch of books in it and you could choose whatever book you wanted as a prize.

The one I chose was a book about a mouse that keeps busy by storing colors in his head for winter. His grand plan is to use these mental colors to protect his family when it gets really really cold, like “Surprise! I have sunshine yellow in my mind. Soak it up, family.” But the mouse’s family can’t see his mind at work; they can only see him sitting on a rock all day. Finally, at the height of winter, the mouse reveals what he’s been doing, and all these colors float in a dialog bubble over his head as proof of his boundless altruism and foresight and creativity.

I can’t remember if you see the mouse’s parents’ expression in the book when he reveals his top-secret color solution. I think you just see the mouse standing next to the rock, but, in any case, the feeling the book gives is that his family forgives him and feels bad for thinking he was lazy. Then at the very end of the book, another mouse is like, NO WAY! YOU’RE A POET! (Like me with Brenda S.) And the mouse blushes and says: I KNOW IT.

When I got home, I showed my prize/book to my family and they asked how it was that I could be smart enough to win a prize for my story but stupid enough to choose a 15-page book about a mouse as my prize.

My family was extra irritated with me that day because while I was at the library, I forgot my tea set, and when we drove back to get it, it was gone. The tea set had 25 pieces or something and it was a family heirloom supposedly. I have no idea why anybody would let a child carry around a family heirloom, especially a child who’s perpetually in outer space and loses everything. I also don’t know why I needed to take a tea set with me to the library to pick up my prize. Both remain mysteries to this day.


To conclude, the moral of this post is (because all posts should have morals):

1. If there are books in a box and they’re free, choose the biggest one because it will make your family happy.

2. Do not, under any circumstances, take your tea set to the library and leave it there or it will be stolen, and this will make your family sad and mad at you.

3. Don’t judge someone with no poetry book or else they will get a job teaching poetry at Princeton.


  1. That mouse was Walt Whitman, practically, not being lazy, but being *poetic*. Check it out: "I loaf and invite my soul,/
    I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass." Soak up "Song of Myself," mouse family.

  2. I've told this story many times, but not here: I once went on a date with a guy who told me he had a cousin who's a poet. I thought, Yeah, great, don't we all. A week or so later I went to a BBQ at his house and saw a copy of the journal NO in his shelf, and he said, "Oh, that's my cousin's journal." His cousin was BEN LERNER. I FLIPPED OUT. Flipped out a little too hard, I think -- I never saw him again.

  3. K--The mouse even looks a little like WW, round and gray and hairy.

    E--I would have flipped out too. What is life if you can't get excited about a subject that almost everybody considers boring? You are not almost everybody.