Adventures in Genre Fiction

It’s been a while. Life intrudes; you know how it is. If you’re a parent and a writer, you especially know how it is. That’s why Pen Parentis exists, and the world is richer for it. They are dedicated to helping authors keep writing once parenthood turns their worlds inside out.

After I read at the Literal Latté 20th anniversary party in 2014, a very nice woman came up to me and told me she liked my poem; she was (and still is) M. M. Devoe, the founder and executive director of Pen Parentis. She told me that her group had a monthly salon held in a swanky Wall Street hotel, and asked me to read at it. Given that I’d just driven four hours from Boston to read a single three-minute poem in New York before driving four hours right back again, I said I was absolutely interested.

Months passed, as they do, and eventually we firmed up a plan for me to read at the first salon of the post-summer season, which was to take place this past September. What I didn’t know until I checked the web site over the summer to get the exact date was that I was slated to read alongside Ed Lin and Tim O’Mara, two accomplished mystery authors with at least three detective novels apiece.

And the posted theme for the evening was Crime Fiction.


Eventually I figured that I wound up on the slate for Crime Fiction night because the poem I’d read at the Literal Latté event was “Five-Course Noir,” a poem with criminal elements, but calling it crime fiction was a stretch. I considered emailing Pen Parentis and letting them know that, well, I’m not a crime writer.

But then I started digging through all my poems, just to see if I could scrape together a list that would be at least vaguely on-topic. “Tryst” is about adultery; “The French Have a Word for It” is about theft. “Veninum Lupinum” is about poisoning, “Force Majeure” has overtones of rape, and “HC SVNT DRACONES” is about arson. “Confession” is about unspeakable crimes.

I have many, many more unpublished poems about murder, fraud, terrorism, suicide... plenty more than would fit into a reading slot at the salon.

So maybe I’m a crime writer after all.

Still, what I had was crime poetry, not crime fiction. So after putting together a batch of crime poetry, I dusted off a long-unfinished mystery novel I’ve been putting off for donkeys’ years, and wrote a draft of a particular scene I’d been carrying around in my head for over a decade but never written down. I brought that, too, and let the organizers and audience decide whether I should read poetry or a raw attempt at crime fiction.

Since nobody cares about poetry (you know this to be true), crime fiction won the night. I read my piece about a car at 3 AM crammed full of four adults, a baby, and a severed head, and it went over well. With luck, this will be the beginning of a big push to get the book written. It helps that at the salon, Tim O’Mara revealed that his first book took him twenty years to finish, while I’m only pushing thirteen so far.

Food, Glorious Food

The curse of second place has been broken, perhaps, because I’m honored to have been awarded first prize in Literal Latté’s Food Verse Contest for 2012. Better still, it was for three poems, not one, and all three (“Toothache,” “Five-Course Noir,” and “The French Have a Word for It”) are currently up in the Fall 2013 issue of this fine online publication. Please read them and comment, if the mood strikes you.

None of these poems is much more than two years old, and it’s always something of a relief when more recent work gets recognized instead of stuff I wrote twenty years ago in college. “Toothache” is the oldest, which I wrote as a personal challenge: I usually take forever to finish a poem, but at AWP 2011 in Washington, D.C., Redivider was running a contest in which they challenged attendees to enter poems that they wrote entirely during the three-day conference. I heard about it very late, so I had less than three hours in which to conceive and write something. I ran back to my room, scribbled out a draft, gave myself hand cramps copying it semi-legibly onto the half-sheet entry form, and ran back to the show floor and turned it in while the staff were breaking down the booth.

It didn’t win, but I felt very light to have completed a poem in only a few hours, and a very slightly edited version of that poem was one of the three chosen as joint winners by Literal Latté two years later. Considering that the last poem I wrote that won an award took me something like six years to wrestle together (and is only 18 lines long), I love that something I wrote so quickly was honored as well.

Five-Course Noir” came not long after that, and was inspired heavily by a panel at that same conference about Hitchcock’s movies and how they relate to poetry. The opening Borges quote was cited by someone on the panel, and I watched the movie D.O.A. soon after (not Hitchcock, but classic noir), and also took a good friend out for a very expensive and fabulous five-course dinner to celebrate her recent admission to graduate school. It all sort of glommed together into one of my favorite word-messes, apparently about food and murder? I couldn’t tell you for sure.

The French Have a Word for It” is by far the newest of the three, and describes quite plainly the joy of eating strawberries in the basement of a public library before leaving in a rainstorm. The bit about the pepper is mostly true, except that I was remembering it wrong; while there is a pepper-and-brown-sugar mix that is especially good with strawberries, and friends of mine brought me some from a particular town in France, apparently the pepper in the mixture is from another country entirely. Whatever. It tastes amazing.

Many thanks to Literal Latté for the enormous honor!

A Bargain at Twice the Price

About a week ago I got a rejection, which wouldn’t normally be all that interesting or unusual except that I’ve hardly submitted anything anywhere in almost a year and a half, so I almost didn’t recognize it when I saw it. Okay, no, that’s not true—I've been through this far too many times to ever forget what a rejection is like, no matter how much time elapses between them. It’s just like riding a bike. Or falling off of one.

Since I hadn’t submitted anything in recent memory, though, this particular rejection sent me into a mild state of panic, because for one soul-sucking moment I thought that publications had seen fit to start rejecting me preemptively. Now that I think about it, actually, that practice would save everyone a lot of wasted time and effort: We hereby pre-reject your intended submission before you send it, allowing you not to bother and to save on postage. Please use the time you would have wasted to do something constructive, like make yourself a really excellent sandwich. You’re welcome. Sort of a Minority Report pre-crime paradigm for literary submissions. Scientists, get on that.

But no, my rejection wasn’t pre-emptive in nature. In fact, it was just about the most post-emptive rejection I’ve ever gotten, in the sense that it came so long after the original submission that civilizations had risen and crumbled, continents had drifted, entire constellations had smeared themselves right out of the night sky, and time had more or less looped back around to the beginning again. Which is my way of saying that the elapsed time between my submission and its subsequent rejection was two years, four months, and a fortnight.

You may well be asking yourself, why would a literary journal take that long to read, evaluate, and reject five poems? Actually, no, make that four poems: one of the ones in that packet was “Tryst,” which I had to withdraw once it had been accepted by Sugar House Review. But even if you leave that one in, the entire submission weighed in under 1,200 words. That means that, on average, this journal read about 1.39 words of my submission per day. Now, since the publication in question is a huge, extremely well-known semiannual journal affiliated with a major Ivy League university, it’s safe to assume they’re capable of reading faster, so they must instead have made a conscious decision to really take their time and do the job right. So maybe they read, say, 1.5 words per day and then took two solid months to agonize over whether or not to reject the stuff.

Now that’s service! Those are some mighty careful readers they have over there. I suppose I should be glad; they only charged me a $3 reading fee, so obviously I got my money’s worth. That kind of attention to detail is worth every penny.  I doubt I’ll ever send them any fiction, though; if I’d sent them my last short story, at the same reading rate I wouldn't have heard from them for a whole decade, and it seems cruel to subject them to ten years of painstaking labor for a measly three bucks. The last thing I need right now is to run afoul of federal minimum wage laws and labor protesters.

Shame on all those tiny, independent labor-of-love publications that don’t even charge you money when you send them material, and then have the unmitigated gall to read your work and respond in a matter of months, weeks, or even days! If they’re reading more than two or three words per day, obviously they just aren’t taking the time necessary to lavish your work with the painstaking attention it deserves.

Ah, well. You get what you pay for.