For a few years, back in the mid-0’s, I had some (very modest) success submitting my poetry to journals. I limited myself to print journals, it being a time when people respected online publication considerably less than they’re starting to do now. In an average year I’d submit about 300 poems and get about 30 accepted–a good percentage actually, but I was becoming increasingly annoyed with editors, who couldn’t seem, for one thing, to be able to print my work without numerous misprints–including work that had been sent them in emails and which they could’ve just pasted in. There were also a few editors who assumed that if my poetry didn’t come up to their standards, I’d appreciate their suggestions: but I’ve always been violently allergic to workshopping of any kind, even from close friends, let alone strangers who didn’t approve of my work. I never submitted anything I didn’t consider finished. I was irritated enough, at that point, to abandon submitting altogether. The infinitesimal extra notice it brought me wasn’t worth the aggravation.
Then in 2008 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. My desire to see my work in print while I still had time, in a way I could control, overcame my desire for mainstream recognition.
I began self-publishing using CreateSpace (a service there are ethical issues with for some, but none major enough to drive me away), and this month am about to release my twenty-first and twenty-second book.
I’ve occasionally included poems I was less than satisfied with, or which I came to have second thoughts about, but in the main I think the quality of my self-published work is pretty high. The reasons why I chose this mode of publication are still valid for me, though my cancer hasn’t become more serious, or treatment for it more urgent, in the past ten years. Recently people I respect in the writing community have been encouraging me to start submitting again, and I can tell they deplore my self-publishing practice, judging it only appropriate for poets of lesser talent than mine. As fans, they also want me to have a wider audience. I appreciate their attitude, of course: I’m not immune to the wish for more–or more “official”–notice. But the main approval I seek is still my own, and if my medical situation does become more crucial, I’m preparing a Collected Poems that will eliminate almost all the badly-conceived work. Till then I prefer to go on being known to a limited group of people, through personal encounter.
Of the latest books, only one is actually new. Unpoems collects some shorter prose from the 80’s and 90’s, before I started concentrating on poetry: my novelette Baked Squid, two short stories, “3 Trips to Victoria” and “Walter’s Day,” two plays, Odysseus among the Suitors and efficiency, and a children’s book (not), Plubb Grows Ubb. All these pieces are worth reading, if I do say so myself!
The new book is last year’s output of poems, The Sonnets etc. 2017 was a year in which I wrote some of my best poetry ever, especially the 77-poem series The Sonnets. (77 is half the number of Shakespeare’s sonnets–a move my son Gus calls a really arrogant way of being humble.) Somehow the sonnet form (well, a free-verse approach to it) propelled me into a higher, more powerful diction, effective for dealing with topics beyond my usual private themes. For example, here are the final eight sonnets, named after the eight trigrams of the I Ching:
Heaven: it’s the language the objects use
to declaim themselves, the clarity of order.
Arch and leap of sky are what first give to
our grasp city, wood, ocean, mountaintop.
These name themselves against shifts of
cloud, lightshaft, star huddle, pounding day.
Their names are where the rest of things
end. Their identities are contests. They’ve
taken from the sky the space where they
stand, denied it, bowed to its hovering.
Call it the litany of differences, law of
rising up and out. Wisdom, eyed and
shouldered like the owl, lives in the sky,
picking out prey from high above, hooting.
Lake: a simplicity of relationships,
candor of trades and struggles.
Lilting tall-legged bug on the water
flapped into maw of shining frog.
Grove sheltering in bristling night
the swish track of otter, his roll
splendoring himself with drench.
The pebbles on the bottom bouncing
over smoky clay. Wide, wide the
paths of sound, dips and dangles
in sleek muffled air. The way the
world is layered and interleaved,
fish nosing invisible food in the
margins of twiglife, heron-stabbed.
Fire: not change as such, but
everything’s habit of wavering
outside its native shape, tipping
its wobbledance yellow to blue,
drawing up and forfeiting heat
in the same motion. Brightness
ever an exchange for hard black
disintegration, fuel of life also
its consuming. Nothing can
stop without dying, and dying
is its own pyre. Over the flame-
traveled, smoke stink rears to
heaven, where the buzzards
wheel, deprived of the raw.
Thunder: thunder is the happening of things,
their route through time, the air snapping back
into the past they’ve just created. Things
aren’t only noise, but the part of them that
isn’t is too quickly burned and gone. Their
noise is their mattering to us, or not: a low
grouse in the unclear distance or the very
atoms of here ripping asunder with a crack.
To me with my lightning panic, the thunder’s
both helpful and unfriendly, signal of both
safety and unease. And thunder as time
is also time’s own demise, a future without
event and a present without presence, just
hollow big booming of a frigatebird’s chest.
Wind: the invasion of the other,
of a spew that alters your temperature
and shoves your eyes closed on grit.
Enemy, friend, or lover (namely both),
you walk against it from now on,
a helpless lean. You weakly want
the wind to be your own breath, be
the stuff that can come out of you
because you’ve lured it in—but it will
always be its own, however mingled
it lets itself be with yours. Remember
to it, you are wind. You whip the hats
off one another’s heads, lose them
cawing to the faraway trees like crows.
Water: or the other ceases, and so do you,
in a dark deep whose floor is a strange
working engine, a huge transforming hand.
To drown, to be unmade as a single life,
to know a last vortex—we call it commitment.
We know, beyond any logic, there’s another
side, a springing, a joined pulse. A mere
wander of light in a stranger’s eye noticed
offhand in a public room, a mere stoop or
settle of limb, a mere word: these are both
the mouth of the whirlpool and its unspeak-
able egress, the golden land discovered at
the individual’s sinking, over which, freed
from the mariner’s neck, wings the albatross.
Mountain: but myself is larger than myself.
I feel it shadowing me and over me
all my life long, but hardly see its powered
veins of seething stone. It’s too close
to get a look at, and I’m too tiny, scrambling
along it, valley to valley, ledge to ledge.
It will at best send intimations of its size,
the ways it faces, the hues and denizens
of its slopes, the icy moan of air at
its heights. Those are what? a prickle
on my neck that makes me turn around
and peer backward, but backward just
as vacant as forward, a cold still glade
where the note of the varied thrush descends.
Earth: accept growing up. Accept growing old.
Accept that death is where I’m headed. And
those I love. And the world. And the worlds.
Earth receives and holds, never acts but never
fails to be active. Its roots are fingers twined
around rib and pelvis, spine and skull, cracking
through them with the slowness and strength
of a blossom. Something or someone else then
teeters up out of it and stretches straight, and
orbits the neutral bestowing light, smug,
loudvoiced, hearty with sap. But the earth
holds the rowdy growth to itself, grips its heels,
pulls its head lower, lower, over the decades,
like talons of a hawk whose eye is stern, firm.