31 May 2010

You Sank My Prose Poem! A Word About Revision

I spent a good deal of time last week revising poems. Perhaps by some strange alignment of the stars, I’ve been locked into writing prose poems for most of the year. I have even gone back to some older poems, which draped across the page and turned them into blocky-talkie prose poems. What started out as a vital experiment in form locked me into a specific shape. My poems were beginning to feel like Kraft singles neatly displayed in their plastic packages.

Last week I took a chisel to the paragraph blocks of my poems. It felt good to hammer them into pieces. I displayed the old draping forms next to the rectangular ones and proceeded to make new breaks. The new shapes of the poems look like boats in the game Battleship. The depth charges of stanza and line breaks sunk the heavy freighters and left me with sleeker vessels.

With a few snips and hems, my poems make me happier than they have in a long time. They don’t appear “weak” like the draping forms and are no longer clunky word bricks. Again and again, I am amazed to find the real poem within the poem that I have written. Through many layers of revision, the true poem or the heart of verse emerges.

Much like a sculptor, it is my job to knock off the awkward pieces and to reveal what is underneath.

Revision on the page, especially revising a poem for shape, confronts the major differences between spoken word and verse. Spoken word revises for rhythm, musicality and sonic thrust, the same as traditional verse. Spoken word at its heart is an aural experience. It’s a performance that can be recorded and transmitted through visual and audio media, but cannot be translated accurately on the page—at least in my opinion. What thrills me about spoken word is the visceral and ephemeral quality of a spoken word artist performing live. The artist’s becomes as much of a medium for the art as the words. Voice, timing, breath, gesture and facial expression create a dynamic and intrinsic quality to the work performed.

The poem performed on stage is not the same poem written on the page.

There are as many ways to revise work as there are writers. After the initial writing of a poem I will read it out loud and tinker with it until I am either happy with where it is going or frustrated enough to let it go. After which, the poem must sit. I cannot objectively look at my work within a week of writing it.

For me, my first drafts are either brilliant or total pieces of crap depending on my mental outlook for the day. Coming back to a poem a after week or more gives me some breathing room. It may really be fantastic or terrible, but more likely it will land in the horrible place called “It Needs Work.”

I revise poems and let them rest again. A typical draft will see ten or fifteen tinkers at the very least. While these may not constitute major changes, each draft will attempt to take the poem closer to where I think it needs to go. Revision is the method by which I find what I am really trying to say. Initial drafts are just large gestures.

29 May 2010

Lambda Literary Award Winners for 2010

Please take a moment this weekend and buy yourself one or two titles from this year's winners.  There is something for everybody.  I put the poetry winners in bold because, well...I think you should read some poetry.  Congrats to the authors and presses that put these great books out!

Lesbian Fiction: A Field Guide to Deception by Jill Malone

Lesbian Debut Fiction: The Creamsickle by Rhiannon Argo

Gay Fiction: Lake Overturn by Vestal McIntyre

Gay Debut Fiction: Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal

LGBT Nonfiction: The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson

Lesbian Biography: The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar

Gay Memoir: Ardent Spirits by Reynolds Price

Transgender: Lynnee Breedlove's One Freak Show by Lynn Breedlove

Bisexual Fiction: (tie)
+ Holy Communion by Mykola Dementiuk
+ Love You Two by Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli

Bisexual Nonfiction: Leaving India by Minal Hajratwala

LGBT Anthology: Portland Queer edited by Ariel Gore

LGBT Drama: The Collected Plays of Mart Crowley by Mart Crowley

LGBT SF/Fantasy/Horror: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

LGBT Studies: The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America by Margot Canaday

LGBT YA: Sprout by Dale Peck

Lesbian Mystery: Death of a Dying Man by J.M. Redmann

Gay Mystery: What We Remember by Michael Thomas Ford

Lesbian Romance: The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin by Colette Moody

Gay Romance: Drama Queers! by Frank Anthony Polito

Lesbian Poetry: Zero at the Bone by Stacie Cassarino

Gay Poetry: Sweet Core Orchard by Benjamin S Grossberg

Lesbian Erotica: Lesbian Cowboys edited by Sacchi Green & Rakelle Valencia

Gay Erotica: Impossible Princess by Kevin Killian

24 May 2010

Book Notes on Vintage: A Ghost Story by Steve Berman

Paperback, 204 pages
Published by Lethe Press
ISBN: 9781590210536

Steve Berman’s young adult novel opens with all of the elements for a clich├ęd teen horror movie: alienated goths, check; nearly Halloween, check; and an ouija board, check. But he promptly destroys a reader’s expectations and gives me one of the best YA novels I have read to date.

The high school’s star athlete has haunted a stretch of highway since his untimely death in 1957. Enter the novel’s nameless 17-year-old protagonist who has come to terms with his fledgling sexuality, but is caught up in the angst of finding his first love. Boy meets ghost. And then the trouble begins.

This book continues to stay with me more than a year after first reading it. The main characters are believable and inhabit Berman’s detailed landscape with an unwavering presence. (Perhaps the ghost wavers in and out a bit, but that is a ghost’s basic physiology.) The storyline is taut and hums along from beginning to end. At 204 pages not a word or scene is wasted. To Berman’s great credit, he ends the novel with possibility, but no promises.

A great ghost story aside, what lurks underneath it all are the horrors of everyday life for LGBT youth. Rejection by family and the inevitable alienation from peers are common realities for numerous gay and lesbian teenagers. Even if a teen comes to terms with his or her sexuality, there are the feelings of isolation for many. These issues were present in the story without overwhelming the supernatural elements.

This is not a coming out story so much as a coming of age tale. It manages to give its reader a satisfying ghost story with some romance and redemption along the way. Most importantly, it digs out new territory in the YA genre with terrific writing.

I wish this book had been around when I was coming out during high school in a rural community. I know it would have made a difference then and will continue to do so.

18 May 2010

Pulling Up Stakes and Heading...East?

I want this blog to remain largely focused on queer writers, their work and the writing life.  I also have not wanted to post my own poems or go on about my personal life.  I find my day to day life tedious at best.  I don't think any other person would seek out this blog just to read about me feeding the cat or how many times a week I pick up socks off the bedroom floor.

That said, there has been a lot of changes taking place this spring.  In just a few months I will be moving to the state of Idaho.  I am going to attend the University of Idaho in Moscow and attempt to earn an MFA in poetry.

For a number of reasons, I won't go into great detail here about moving or the nitty-gritty of how to I am getting from Bellingham to Moscow (which locals swear rhymes with Costco).  If I thought I was in the boonies now, I better hang onto my hat, because the closest gay bar is now ninety miles away.  I will continue to blog about the usual topics, but if you catch me typing about poetry workshops and writing classes, you will now know that I am talking about graduate school.

12 May 2010

Saints and Sinners Literary Festival

In lieu of a real post, I wanted to make folks aware of a great LGBT conference taking place in New Orleans this week/weekend.  Although I have known about it for the past three years, I have been unable to attend.  I hope that all of the attendees have a great time and that this venue continues to gather steam in the broader LGBTQ community. 

Here is what the website has to say:

The Saints and Sinners Literary Festival was founded in 2001 as a new initiative designed as an innovative way to reach the community with information about HIV/AIDS, particularly disseminating prevention messages via the writers, thinkers and spokes-people of the GLBT community. It was also formed to bring the GLBT literary community together to celebrate the literary arts. 

Now in its eighth year, the Festival has grown into an internationally-recognized event that brings together a who’s who of GLBT publishers, writers and readers from throughout the United States and beyond. The Festival, held over 4 days each Spring, feature panel discussions and master classes around literary topics that provide a forum for authors, editors and publishers to talk about their work for the benefit of emerging writers and the enjoyment of fans of LGBT literature. 

To learn more, please visit the website:


07 May 2010

How the West was Read

I was named after a terrible western novel. I still own the beat up, yellow-paged copy my dad gave me. It was a poorly written book, but my father was nineteen at the time. It sure beats the Christmas themed name my mom had in mind.

A few years ago, my naming got me interested in western literature. I spent my childhood watching my grandfather thumb through his Louis L’Amour books with their sometimes lurid covers. I wasn’t interested in pulp Westerns so much as where they had all come from.

As I understand it, there are three major western novels that have shaped the genre, as it is known today. The first of these is The Virginian by Owen Wister, published in 1902. This novel was turned into at least four movies and a television series. Another early work was Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey first published in 1912. The last book, and possibly my favorite of the three is The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie who went on to win the 1952 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for its sequel The Way West.

Reading these books gave me new insight into western literature, culture and film. I developed a greater appreciation for “The Duke” and even my father’s weakness for dime store paperbacks.

There is a whole universe of western literature today. Much of it is breaking into new genres and carving out surprising territory for itself. Any fan of Joss Whedon’s short-lived sci-fi series Firefly owes Zane Grey a thank you.

Among my favorite western writers are Annie Proulx and her collections of Wyoming short stories, which includes the story “Brokeback Mountain.” The most recent of her collections Close Range, knocked my socks off.

For mystery lovers, I would suggest Neil McMahon’s Lone Creek which should satisfy anyone regardless of how they feel about westerns. His second book Dead Silver, while not as strong is still good.

If you don’t like mysteries or short stories then Rick Bass might be the writer for you. Although he has written in many genres, I feel that his book Winter: Notes from Montana and his memoir Why I Came West spell out the impulse of western literature today.

I didn’t think I would care for western literature, even being named after it. Although I will leave Lois L’Amour where he rests on the shelf, I will continue to read and discover the voices of the West.

02 May 2010

Confessions of a Guilty Reader

When I started writing, I was given some good advice: “Read more than you write.” This bit of wisdom could appear a little trite no kidding, I can’t write a novel every two weeks! On a deeper level, it encourages a writer to branch out to new books, new authors and develop a relationship with many kinds of text.

After reading enough poems by Richard Hugo, certain phrases or word choices will appear in my own poems. Even if I am not writing “in the style of” some of my own lines leap out at me because they could have been penned by other poets that I’ve read. It is a natural human tendency to imitate what we admire. Remember high school? Or if you were like me—remember how you rebelled by being the opposite of the popular kids in high school?

I want to address what I call the “Guilt Pile.” The guilt pile is a stack of books that is overflowing my To Be Read shelf of the bookcase. The even might be spreading into other small piles in the bedroom. The recently purchased, or sometimes distantly purchased books stare at me balefully from their cramped shelf. I always mean to read them. And I will. Eventually.

Perhaps working in a bookstore is not the best place for a bibliophile. Alcoholics should probably not be running taverns. While we’re at it, who trusts a barber who wears a toupee?

I buy more books than I should, but I read more than the average person. In 2008, the average American adult read only one book per year. One book!

Let that sink in. If you read the celebrity biography your aunt gave you for Christmas, then you have fulfilled your yearly quota for an adult American.

I read because I love to. I love encountering new stories and voices. I am in love with language and the printed page. I never regret reading an excellent book. I may sometimes avoid eye contact with my To Read pile, but I always come back to it.

What books are in your to read pile? Send me some of your titles…

01 May 2010


In my earlier rant, I made reference to a hate crime that happened in Missoula, MT.  You can read my original post here:  http://jorymickelson.blogspot.com/2010/04/why-amos-lassen-needs-to-learn-lyrics.html

In the interest of fairness, it turns out that the hate crime may not have been a hate crime.  Police are still investigating.  If you have an interest in following this, you can follow the latest news here:  

I will try and keep up on this and the sources I used in the future.  Thanks for reading.


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