Ramp Up Your Bio! by Chris Dahl, OPN Board Member and Newsletter Editor “What We Learned from Writing 7,000 Artist Bios,” roared the title. After I got over the shock of how anyone could write that many bios, I became curious. What didthey learn? And was any of that information relevant to poets? (If you don’t know what a poet’s bio looks like, check out Carl Palmer’s in “About the Author” on the next page). I’ve been wrestling with one a month for over 15 years, correcting their grammatical errors, trying to shoehorn them into the available space or to inch up the volume on their charisma.
Artist’s bios have a different focus from those of poets, but both allow their authors to present their best selves to an unseen public. For the artist, they represent “a powerful sales and branding tool.” At a time when poets are engaged in selling their own works on the reading circuit, perhaps they should also consider updating their vision of what a bio can do.
One idea to consider, from the Artsy’s Gallery Team, is limiting your profile to 120 words. Why? “Audience engagement researchers at museums have found that visitors lose interest in labels after 150 words.” Don’t bore the reader; entice them.
One of the first things I learned from my publications mentor was to put the most important information first. Over the years, I’ve received several bios that begin with the college the poet attended. Unless you went to the same school (Go Dawgs!), the reader doesn’t care. Won any awards? Lead with that. Books published? Use that. No books? Then step down to publication credits.
But what is truly the most important information about the author? Is it their publications credits or the perspective they bring to their writing. In other words, can you say something about how you view your process or what context the reader might expect in your work? For example, Jane Jones follows in the footsteps of those Beat poets whose attention to meditation and Buddhist traditions led toward new notions of politics and culture. Or Steve Smith writes as if composing a jazz score, each poem containing riffs, syncopation, harmony and improvisations on a theme. A statement that includes something of the artist’s background or their world view, or even how they perceive poetry and their role producing it, adds flavor to what otherwise might be a dry cracker of a bio. One caution is to be careful not to praise yourself or use the language of advertising. Importantor widely regarded, are the kinds of phrases we’ve all learned to discount and even disdain because of their constant bombardment (and our concomitant disappointment with their claims!). As the Gallery Team says, “Most readers will see right through trumped-up language and, even worse, may become skeptical of the rest of your program.” The Team continues, “The best way to maximize the power of a good bio is to try to educate, not “hard-sell,” your reader. Think “simple and authentic messages.”
A brief statement of purpose would then, of course, be followed by the publications and credits, but again, try to pare these to the most important. If you have more than one book published, use the most recent one or two. Awards should certainly be included, but again, if you are an over-achiever and have several, pick the most important to name. A couple recent publications might round out your 120 words. One of the best features of the “poet’s statement” line for beginners is that it gives you a way to offer value to the reader if you don’t yet have a full slate of accomplishments.
Proofread. If you don’t have a firm grasp of punctuation, have someone who does read it over. Have a peach pie of a bio ready, so that when you’re called upon to produce one, you don’t have to cobble one together. Go to your keyboard; type one right now.
Poetic Risk by Chris Dahl, OPN Board Member and Newsletter Editor
I’m going through the containers, filled four years ago, of office detritus. Perhaps one of the mover-helpers just swiped his hand across my desk and tumbled everything into the box that I opened Tuesday because I’m finding all sorts of goodies—including the Kindle that was thought lost all these years. A Susan Rich blogpost and a list of quotes from Jeffrey Levine (some of which I’d apparently used and crossed off) also came to light. What leaped at me in both was their insistence on taking risks. “Send wild cards,” says Rich. Say, “Yes! to possibility. Yes to mystery.” Levine asks how we might recognize risks taken on the page. Clearly, risk is an important component of a poem. One of the ways can we add risk is to expose ourselves. We have all spent years building a protective shell around our vulnerability, but that shell in a poem separates the reader from the core experience. A participant in a workshop I led wrote a poem featuring cancer. We began critiquing it as a “cancer,” poem. “But don’t you get it?” she asked, “It’s a poem about abuse.”
No one had gotten it.
But there are other ways to take risks. Language or images fly into your mind from beyond the horizon. You write them down, but what do they have to do with the subject? Possibly, the mystery elicited by their appearance is central. As Rich testifies, don’t be afraid of mystery. Explore the ramifications. Defy the internal editor urging you toward cutting. If you feel some power in the strangeness, others might, too. That’s not to say, of course, that every oddity will enhance your work, but don’t be too quick to throw away what might make your work singular.
Shadow of the Moment: An American Sentence by Chris Dahl, OPN Board Member and Newsletter Editor The novelist, Stephanie Kallos, calls it, “a Haiku unspooled.” Writing On The Sun says succinctly that “This form, invented by Allen Ginsberg, is simply a variation of the haiku. The rules of an American Sentence are very simple. The poem is one sentence, 17 syllables long.”
Many people, myself and Kallos included, learned about the American Sentence from Seattle area poet, Paul Nelson, a devotee and evangelist for the form, who writes at least one American Sentence a day. On his website, he says, “I find it an amazing way to sharpen my perception and learn how to eliminate unnecessary syllables.” Writing about his collection, American Sentences, published in 2015, he elaborates, “The format of American Sentences serves as a reminder of the conditions, situation, atmosphere and shadow of the moment. If haiku is seventeen syllables going down in Japanese text, Ginsberg would make American Sentences seventeen syllables going across, linear, like just about everything else in US America.”
That’s the structure, but what about content? Ginsberg said, “ . . . the first noble truth most all of us acknowledge . . . is that existence is transitory . . . We are born and we die. And so this is it! It gives life both a melancholy and a sweet and joyful flavor . . . any gesture we make consciously, be it artwork, a love affair, any food we cook, can be done with a kind of awareness of eternity, truthfulness . . . In portraiture, you have the fleeting moment to capture the image as it passes and before it dissolves . . . It captures the shadow of the moment.”
I, too, am interested in that Ping! when some moment, image, some particularity arrests our attention. Even if we are attuned to observation (as we should be as poets and artists), we often let those singularities pass by, lost to the constant flow of sensory experience. An American Sentence would be one way to capture and record what generally races downstream unexamined.
While the American Sentence seems to be a riff on the Haiku, there are some significant differences. John Olson says, “ . . . they’re more suited to the American idiom & so allow a greater range of natural expression. They don’t have the aesthetic stiffness of the Haiku as practiced in English.” Also, as Nelson says in his Essay, “About Form: What Are American Sentences?” these one-line moments are “without all limitations, except for the syllable count . . .” That means that no obligatory nod to the season needs to take place. Although he also points out that, “American Sentences work best when there is an AHA! Moment and when the modifier comes in the last word, or even last syllable.” He gives us such examples as “In charred bus after suicide bomb two corpses in one last embrace,” or “Ground TOTALLY pink from fallen blossoms except for piles of dog shit.”
“I love writing these poems for many reasons,” Kallos says, “as an exercise in brevity; as a way to quiet my Monkey Mind on long walks; but best of all, on those despairing days I call ‘semi-colon days,’ it’s no small comfort being able to say, ‘At least I wrote something.” If you get caught in the same emotional states, maybe American Sentences would be a good practice for you.
(reprinted from the September 2016 OPN Newsletter)