Goldstein’s Lecture on Subject Cliches


Most people with a shred of critical thinking skills and writing experience can recognize a cliche. Generic, trite, overused phrases such as every cloud has its silver lining or time will tell are cliches. But there are other kinds of cliches.

Every professor will hold her head and groan at the following academic cliches: Since the beginning of time, throughout history, in today’s society, because of technology. These phrases are overused and not specific enough to communicate meaning. Students everywhere, please banish these phrases from your vocabulary. Thank you.

Last night at work, a few seasoned tutors were reading a poem as part of one tutor’s writing project. It was a descriptive poem, and did not really bring anything new to the subject.

“Looks like someone needs a Goldstein lecture on subject cliches!” my colleague said. And he was right.

Subject cliches are words that are not generally considered cliches, but become so when applied to a subject. For example, bright as the sun is a solar cliche; cozy is a village cliche; tragedy is a death cliche; and apple pie is a mom cliche (but not for my mom, who really did make the best apple pie in the world, haha).

I once heard a poet describe the sun as yellow as a tulip. Think of the creative opportunities that could replace this subject cliche. The sun is a yellow dwarf star fueled by  hydrogen fusion. It contains hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, and iron. What color is helium? There are a thousand directions a poet armed with the Internet and a love of words can go.

A cliche is an opportunity to go into more detail. I say this frequently as a teacher, tutor, and editor. In fact it has become my very own cliche. I guess I should be proud.

(Photo credit: By Hinode JAXA/NASA – http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/solar-b/solar_017.html)


Reading Poetry Out Loud

Poet Christmas

It’s poet Christmas this week in Salem, Mass.—something even this secular Jew can get behind. The Massachusetts Poetry Festival goes on for three days and offers workshops, readings, a small press fair, and a poetry circus.

You can find me at the Hawthorne Hotel library on Sunday afternoon  (1:00) presenting “The Language of the Unknown”: The Interplay of Poetry and Science with my poet-friends Rosemary Starace and Heather Hughes.

My first real work in grad school was writing poems about star myths as a way to process the death of my father, who was an astronomer. Eventually I ran out of myths and began writing about the stars themselves. Next thing I knew, I was trolling the website IFLScience in order to find ideas for poems. Poets always need new material, and I wasn’t in the mood to embark on a scandalous affair just to have something to write about.

What have I learned about science or poetry as tools of observation? How do you write about science without confusing the former English majors? What rhymes with paleontology? Why is Heather Hughes obsessed by birds? Come find out. It’ll be fun.


Reading Poetry Out Loud

On Being Part of the Problem

I went to a poetry event the other week where multiple poets read. I went to hear one poet in particular, but because I tend to be disgracefully early to things (I blame my father), I heard the end of a talk on publishing.

I was only half listening, but when someone asked a question about diversity in publishing, I started paying attention. There were two white late-middle-age publishers on the stage and a younger white publisher. I knew two of them slightly and respect their work.

However their answers were unsatisfactory. “I publish the best poems I receive,” says one.

“Well, unless they have an obviously ethnic name, I don’t even know the race of the poets,” said another.

“[My press] does not discriminate on the basis of anything, nationality, or uh,” stumbled the third. I don’t think they even knew what the problem was.

I looked around the room. The majority of the people were late-middle-age and white. There were a few people of color, a few older people, and a few people under 40.

What the well-meaning publishers were missing, I think, is the acknowledgment of the institutional racism. If you don’t see people who write like you or look like you contributing to a magazine, you are not likely to submit there. It didn’t occur to them that they could reach out to underrepresented poets whose work they liked. They seemed comfortable with what they were doing so far.

I listened to the poet I came to see (who was good) and a few of the poets that followed. But after a while, dissatisfied, I slipped out of the room. Not too much later, I stumbled across a different group of poets.

Louder than a Bomb is a youth poetry project. Students from all over the Boston area, neighborhoods far from shiny Cambridge and gentrified Somerville, came together to read poems. These poems were not free-floating superficial description. Sure there were lines played for a laugh, but they were about life and death, racism, and misunderstanding. They were about hope and opportunity.

There was not one cheap joke about being gluten-free.

The fact that these two groups were presenting in the same library without any apparent knowledge of each other is part of what is wrong with the poetry world. My own poetry fits into the more formal page-bound model. But it did my brain, creativity, and spirit good to hear these kids doing their presentation-based poems. And it’s all good for my writing.

I need to get out more.



Washington, DC, was to me a place of Saturday trips, museums and concert halls, subways and my sister’s house in endless Northern Virginia towns. My mother and I drove up from Central Virginia and crossed the Potomac to go to piano concerts. One windy day, we decided we’d write a mystery story called “Whitecaps on the Potomac.” We were pretty pleased with our literary genius and tried (and failed) to think of worthy sequel titles all the way home.

I did not know the capital city was built between Virginia and Maryland so that George Washington could keep his slaves, something he would have been unable to do in Quaker-influenced Philadelphia. And of course Washington’s slave-holding colleagues—Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—agreed with him. Lauret Savoy, in her book Trace, examines the history of place and land and family in DC and elsewhere.

Savoy writes about subjects that history and literature gloss over: the unthinking racism of Aldo Leopold, African American settlements in the southwest, and the erasure of Native American place names and their attendant culture. As a geologist, she is used to telling the story of the land, but in Trace, she tells the story of the land and people.

What DC was to me says a lot about my class privilege. Not many of my classmates went to piano concerts once a month. But my mother was raised in a wealthy, Jewish San Francisco  household, where piano lessons were valued. She was encouraged to go to college and majored in music. She could afford the mahogany Steinway baby grand piano in our living room.

Science and nature writing often imitate science by pretending to be entirely objective and above concerns such as class and privilege. It tends to stick to the scientific and shy away from the human and the political. Savoy shies away from very little. And her book is all the better for it.

In Sick of Nature, David Gessner excoriates nature writers for objecting to him (or someone else, I read the book a while ago) saying that a mushroom looked like a penis. He hated the prissiness of his critics. Savoy takes his complaints further and links nature to settlements, invasions, historical narratives, and culture. She shows us that there are no limits to what you can write about the land.


Editing is Weird

That isn’t to say copyediting isn’t weird (I could tell you stories), but editing one’s own work brings up a variety of questions that one has to answer herself.

For example, yesterday I spent more time than I should have deciding whether the Ents should stay in my manuscript. (I also am unsure whether Ents is uppercase or lowercase, but that’s a job for the professional editor side of my brain.) The Ents appear right after I mention The Hobbit. A person might conjecture that Ents appear in The Hobbit. But it isn’t clear, and two of my non-Tolkein-reading friends stumbled at them.

How many times do I have to qualify my dog’s name with “the dog”? One might think she were a human (or a tree person). She thought she was a human. Do people remember dog names from chapter to chapter?

What is the name for paper that is lined like notebook paper, but has a vertical line a third of the way across the page rather than at the left margin? Does it have a name? What is it for?

When I asked my spouse about the paper, he said, “What do I look like, Google?” And I said, “You know a lot of random facts. I was hoping that was one of them.” Spouse fail.

What questions do you ask while editing? Do I have to introduce Ents?

Submit or Die in Obscurity

Submission Season

It’s chapbook submission season. Paper Nautilus’ Vella chapbook contest is open and Durham’s Backbone Press has an open reading period now. Are you a feminist of any gender? Submit to Gazing Grain. Tupelo’s Snowbound chapbook contest just closed. You think I would be tired of submitting to Tupelo as they have been rejecting me for years, but I revised my chapbook and hope springs eternal. Or maybe habits die hard. Pick your cliche.

Maybe you’re more of a contest person. Solstice Literary Magazine has a contest going on right now. They are a fantastic magazine out of Boston that is dedicated to publishing diverse voices. For years my poetry friends and I debated what kinds of work would be more successful in a contest. We thought loud and bold. My spouse (a fiction writer) is untroubled by the nuance and says, “Just submit already.” No comment.

Today Brevity opens its submission period for an issue on race, racialization, and racism. Write a flash essay up to 750 words on an aspect of race and maybe (squee) have Joy Castro read your work!

How do you figure out where to send your work?




What Should I Read Next?

It’s seven o’clock and my tutoring shift is winding down. My spouse has promised to pick me up at work and we’re going to try the new Chinese restaurant in town. His class schedule this semester has him waking up at 4:30 in order to beat the traffic, so by seven, he is falling asleep in his (delicious) plate of General Tso’s chicken.

I look at his thousand-yard stare as we wait for the bill. Last week he literally fell asleep at the table. I do the marital mathematics of balancing our wants and needs. He wants to go home and go to bed. I am not sure I have anything to read. Let me repeat that. In a house of ten-thousand books I have nothing to read next.

Panic ensues.

I could drive home by way of the library and leave him in the car while I go get some books. But I’d have to be quick and I don’t really know what I want to read next. I could take him home and then go back to the library. Nah, once I’m home I’m going to want to stay home.  Then—thank god—I remember Maria Mutch’s Know the Night. I have something to read, and Spouse can go to sleep without interruption. Happiness all around.

Then this morning, someone posted a review of Olivia Laing’s new book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, and I know what I’m reading next.

What are you reading next?