Anyone who's been reading my 8-part series on getting a poetry collection published will probably recognize Tom Lombardo's name, since I mention him by name a few times. He's my editor at Press 53. But some readers may remember that I've interviewed him on this blog in the past--years ago--for his poetry anthology, After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events (Sante Lucia Books).
In addition to his editing work, Tom is a poet, essayist, and freelance medical writer who lives in Midtown Atlanta. His poems have appeared in many journals, including Southern Poetry Review, Subtropics, New York Quarterly, Atlanta Review, and more. Tom's nonfiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and he runs the Poetry of Recovery blog at www.poetryofrecovery.blogspot.com. He earned a B.S. from Carnegie-Mellon University, an M.S. from Ohio University, and an M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte.
Tom Lombardo just released his debut collection of poetry, What Bends Us Blue (WordTech Editions), and I'm excited to have the opportunity to share the stage with him later this week at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center (click here to learn more).
Here is one of my favorite poems from the collection:
Daffodils, by Tom Lombardo
For weeks after Lana's funeral,
my mother cooked for me,
handled death's paperwork,
opened a door--
Look outside at your garden.
Looking outward for the first time since burial
prayers, I saw daffodils blooming,
the ones that Lana and I planted
in a sunken rectangular spot last Fall,
set against the bright, new green of Spring,
Easter white and careless yellow.
What are you currently up to?
Four projects: First and most important, I am planning readings for my collection What Bends Us Blue. I have locked into 7 readings between now and November 2014, in Atlanta, Charleston, SC, Charlotte, NC, Cary, NC, and Nashville, TN, and several more I hope to confirm soon. For your followers who want to come to the readings, they may track the details at www.facebook.com/whatbendsusblue. Planning readings takes a bit of effort and persistence.
Second, I’m constantly reading submissions or seeking new poets for Press 53. Third, I am writing a novel, about half-way through it. Finally, the fun of my life, I’m getting my 3 tennis teams ready for the Fall team tennis season here in Atlanta, which has the largest amateur tennis leagues on Earth. I manage my men’s team, my daughter’s team, and my son’s team. It’s a lot of work, but we’re having a blast.
What Bends Us Blue is your debut collection of poetry. How did you hook up with your publisher WordTech Editions?
Open submission period. But I must tell you that this collection had already been submitted nearly 100 times to ALL contests and open submissions, two or three times to each contest, each open submission, over 7 years. The collection received some minor notice, an honorable mention here and there. I had literally given up submitting it.
April Ossmann, whom I’d been working with as my editor, suggested WordTech just before it’s submission period opened, and I always do what April tells me to do, even though I thought, as I put the stamps on the envelope, here’s a waste of $3 postage. Lo and Behold, a few weeks later, What Bends Us Blue had a publisher. I worship at April’s feet.
This collection truly does bend the reader blue with some really charged material at the beginning. Do you distinguish between truth and fiction in your poetry?
Poetry must never be The Truth. Poetry must reveal a truth.
Poetry must never be literal. If it were, it would be nonfiction. Though I do love nonfiction and read a lot of it, when I read poetry, I want to read something that may start with the literal truth but when run through the poet’s diction, syntax, language comes out as poetry that reveals a truth. When describing a truth, poetry must rise above prose through the use of figurations.
For example, my poem “When” from What Bends Us Blue, which is based on the literal truth of my experience at a hospital upon the death of my first wife, ends with these words as the orderly stores her lifeless body in the hospital’s morgue: “you hear / metal slam shut in a room / with a drawer large enough / to hide your life.” Well, that’s what happened, BUT it goes beyond the literal to achieve metaphor. It pushes the reader to a larger truth about life and death and hospitals. Metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, irony—the four figurations described by Harold Bloom in his essay The Art of Reading Poetry—those figurations take the truth and tell it slant, as my favorite poet would say. Poems may begin with a kernel of truth, but they’d better move away from the literal to succeed.
There are several poems in What Bends Us Blue that deal with the friction in relationships between spouses or people who co-habit. What Bends Us Blue contains poems to “my wife.” The Wife in the poems is not really the wife who died in 1985 or the wife I’m married to now. It’s sort of a poetic amalgamation of experiences I’ve had in two wonderful marriages. Some of these love poems are rooted in deep anger and frustration that I experience in the daily course of marriage, for example, when my wife says, every day, “Have you seen my keys?” This drives me crazy. I want to defenestrate her. In early drafts of a poem, eventually entitled “Keys to the Solar System,” I vented hateful, spiteful, violent anger upon the page. OK. 100 drafts later, the poem drifted far from Earth to become a light-hearted, imaginative, imagistic view of a loving relationship. Cathy Smith Bowers, another mentor of mine, called this group “love poems,” though they are not what you’d expect. These love poems start with a kernel of truth and move onto something that I hope reveals a truth about life and relationships.
Even among some truly heart-wrenching poetry, you know how to slip in humor here and there. Did you intentionally focus on varying the mood in this collection?
Absolutely. Who wants to read poetry that makes them cry on each page? Balance of emotion in a collection must be a concern of the poet. Up, down, middle. It’s like all of life. You can’t be down all the time. Sometimes you must be up. And I spent time and effort on the balance of moods in the collection, at the direction of my editor April Ossmann, whose fingerprints are all over this collection. I think humor in poetry is important, but it must be done well, in sophisticated ways, in the diction and syntax and language. Take Emily’s lines: It was not death for I stood up/and all the dead lie down. That’s hilarious. Yes, hers is a poem of despair over mortality, but the entire poem is funny in a goulish way—those cold feet that keep the Chancel cool. Hah! I can feel her laughing as she sings it—a church hymn in common meter—while binding it up into a fascicle. Gosh, I want to meet a poet that can be so wryly humorous in her despair.
When I experienced the deep shock of losing my first wife suddenly in a car wreck, there were times during the first weeks of shattering, shoulder shaking sobs that I laughed. I think I offended some friends by my laughter, which they may have deemed inappropriate given the circumstances. I had just buried my wife, but I laughed at the wake. It was a nice relief, steam whistling from a boiling kettle. Anyone who experiences a loss or another event that shatters their lives will have these experiences. Humor cannot be suppressed forever. It bubbles up. Humans need to laugh, even when they are in extremis. There’s something about us. I hope scientists never figure it out. But poets should.
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Full disclosure: You edited my debut collection of poetry, Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53) and I found you to be an insane resource of poetic knowledge—and a great sounding board. How important do you think studying the poetry of other poets is?
I am insane because I’ve read Harold Bloom’s essay The Art of Reading Poetry seven times, and I have pages of hand written annotations, almost longer than the essay itself. It drove me crazy because I took four readings just to achieve minimal comprehension of that essay, because I am not as brilliant as he is. But that one little essay has value beyond its few pages. Everyone should read it. I don’t necessarily agree with his canon, but he’s right on target with his view of what poetry should be. And his examples are wonderful. This little essay (it’s actually not so little when you consider it’s attached to a 900-page anthology) is a good example of how I study the work of other poets.
As poetry series editor for Press 53, I have responsibility to read widely to find new poets to publish. I do read a lot of poetry, and I think it’s important for poets to do so, of course. You can learn by reading if you read closely enough. Usually, I’m reading, as you say, to study poetry. I look at diction, syntax, language, structure as well as story because I want to understand the techniques that poets are using. There’s a good bit of poetry that I don’t like at all, but I still read it, just to find out what’s not working, so I can understand why I don’t like it. I want to know what I don’t like as much as what I like.
I read from a granular level outward, even at the first reading. I start with diction, then syntax, then language and figurations, then lines, then stanzas, then the whole picture. Start with the atoms, then elements, then compounds, then structure, moving outward to the entire organism.
I read with a pen or pencil in my hand, marking up the poem, noting diction/syntax events that attract me, I track the sounds by notations, I underline figurations or rhythms I can pick up, I put little plus signs at enjambments that tickle me. Poetry I read ends up all marked up. It’s a life-long habit I developed as a young, green eye-shade copy editor. I’ve been an editor for a long-time as a journalist and a granular view of text worked its way into my DNA. This is my way of studying poetry. While reading TheComplete Poems of Emily Dickinson one decade, I began to underline and categorize the bees, bumble and otherwise, and butterflies and other insects, and I made lists and counted them. I won’t say much here about my data because one day I may write about my findings, but I graphed the ebbs and flows, yes, on graph paper—and discovered some interesting connections to the cycles of the natural world. Along the way, I discovered an article by an entomologist in the Journal of Entomology about Emily’s bees that was truly an eye-opener. I mention this because this is a way I study poetry. Something grabs me—and I dig into it and I learn a few things along the way.
Another way I study poets—I try to “feel” the poetry. I just described above how granular I can be, but in an alternate way, I must step back to figure out what the poem feels like. I study it from outside in—which is the opposite of how I do my close reading, which is from the diction outward. When I look at how a poem feels, I view how it looks on the page first, as if I were looking at a painting. What does the structure of this poem feel like? What is the look of this poem saying to me. Are the lines all flush left, organized? Why? Or are they spread out, and why? What is the poet saying to me about this poem? Then, I go inward to stanzas, lines, figurations, syntax, diction. This is more qualitative, more emotional. This does not require a pen or pencil. Requires only feelings.
I like to read poetry journals—both paper and on-line—to keep up with what’s going on outside of my office. Poetry Magazine, New Letters, Denver Quarterly, and online Narrative are a few I read regularly, but I’ll pick up and scan just about anything that has poems. I’ll buy a collection if I see something that catches my eye or if a friend recommends it. A recent example…Kiki Dimoula, a Greek poet, unknown to me. I saw an article about her in the NY Times, with a sample poem, and I bought her Collected. Loved it. From there, I hopped to another Greek poet Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke. I’ll probably spend a year looking for the next Greek, and the next. I work hard to read outside the U.S. I believe that poets outside the U.S. have more to say right now, and I think they would be good models for poets here. Arc Publications has a great series of poets from Europe, especially Eastern Europe. There was an article about an Afghan poet in the Times the other day. I’m trying to find something in print.
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As an editor, do you have any specific pet peeves?
Worst peeve: Poetry devoid of figurations. Immediate rejection. You would not believe the number of submissions I read that do not have figurations. Prose with line breaks.
Next worst peeve: Prose poetry that does not adhere to the very clearly established form of prose poetry. Some people must think that flash fiction is prose poetry. No. Sorry. Study the form before you write it.
Finish this statement: Poetry should _____________.
Poetry should affect how you view the world—and your place in it.
What (or who) are you currently reading?
Embarrassing, but right now I’m reading all of the Delmore Schwartz books that my neighbor had in her library, because I came across him at a gathering of poetry readers one day, and I’d never read any of his work. In fiction, I’m just finishing up Cities of the Plain, the final book of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, and I’m in the middle of the Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which I’d highly recommend to all poets and writers. Some of Fitzgerald’s sentences make me grab a pen to underline them. (“The lamp light shopped in the yellow stands of her hair.” Wow, what a nice use of a verb!) In nonfiction, I’ve just started Love and Hate in Jamestown by David A. Price, for no other reason than it was lying on the living room floor one day, getting kicked around the room as the kids passed through, and I’d just returned from a week in Bermuda, which has a history closely connected to the Jamestown colony.
Here’s something I’m constantly browsing, like bees on pollen. Before I read submissions, I invariably pick up my marked up Johnson edition of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ever-present on my desk, and open randomly and read at least one poem and say a little prayer, “God, don’t let me be like the editors who rejected Emily Dickinson.”
If you could only pass on one piece of advice for other poets, what would it be?
To new or young poets: Learn how to use figurations (first learn what they are and how great poets have used them by reading Harold Bloom’s essay The Art of Reading Poetry or some other appropriate source). If you already know what figurations are, then I can give you no advice other than USE THEM.
Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer's Digest Writing Community and one of Tom Lombardo's happily edited poets. His debut full-length poetry collection, Solving the World's Problems, was recently published by Press 53. Voted Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere in 2010, Brewer edits Poet's Market and curates the Insta-poetry series for Virginia Quarterly Review. He's married to the poet Tammy Foster Brewer, who helps him keep track of their five little poets (four boys and one princess). Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.
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