The Delights of Distraction – Part One

Delights of Distraction — Rewards of the Digressive and Dreamy

To be with the one I love and to think of something else:
this is how I have my best ideas.
                                           — Roland Barthes

I recently enjoyed hearing Matthew Bevis talking about poetry and distraction on the Poetry Foundation’s podcast, “Poetry Off the Shelf.” His recent essay in Poetry Magazine is titled “In Search of Distraction: The Rewards of the Tangential, the Digressive, and the Dreamy.”

Who cannot quote a few lines of Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us”?

We hear a lot about our culture’s “pandemic attention deficit disorder,” as Rebecca Solnit has called it, and about our (and especially our youth’s) constant state of distraction, first by video games and then by social media. No one, it seems, can sit still and pay attention for long. We roam the Internet, gobbling morsels here and there but go for long periods of time without the nourishment of long-form reading. Attention seems to be a universally acknowledged virtue. And it’s widely assumed that we need to do something to fix our inability to fix on anything for long.

Bevis notes the publication last year of The Distracted Mind, by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen (a psychologist and a cognitive neuroscientist), which offers strategies for changing our behavior in order to function more successfully in diverse settings. But . . . hold on there. . . .

Bevis makes a case for distraction as closely tied to artistic inspiration, and that the moment in which concerted attention lapses may be the moment at which a new perception dawns. He muses: “I’m writing this sentence as a distraction from a book about poetry that I’m meant to be writing, but also with a hunch that the book may get written via the distraction, that something in the book needs to get worked out — or worked through — by my not attending to it. Or perhaps the book was really always a distraction, and wherever the non-book resides is the place I’m supposed to be.” And he recounts this delightful practice: ““I like to put things up around my bed all the time,” Diane Arbus once noted, pictures of mine that I like and other things and I change it every month or so. There’s some funny subliminal thing that happens. It isn’t just looking at it. It’s looking at it when you’re not looking at it. It really begins to act on you in a funny way.”

Bevis wants more of that funny subliminal thing. And so do I!

Often, it seems, it’s when our attention lapses and we let our imaginations lead us astray, into speculation, hypothesis, and daydream where ideas collide, merge, and morph, that we stumble upon some of our best thoughts. As Diderot wrote: “Distraction arises from an excellent quality of the understanding, which allows the ideas to strike against, or reawaken one another. It is the opposite of that stupor of attention, which merely rests on, or recycles, the same idea.”

Bevis turns to the role of distraction in the writing of poetry and a discussion of the writing of John Ashbery in particular. This was really interesting to me because I’ve always been aware of how reading Ashbery quickly leads me down all manner of mental rabbit holes. Reading Ashbery, even when I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, has often led to writing a poem of my own.

I’ll come back to Bevis and Ashbery in Part 2 of this post. But . . .

By chance, on the same day I was reading Bevis, I came across an article called “The 2 Hour Rule: The Genius of Einstein, Darwin, and Nietzsche Applied” by Zat Rana at Einstein was a daydreamer, Darwin a cogitator, and Nietzsche as well. All of these brilliant thinkers spent hours and hours . . . well, thinking, imagining, letting ideas roam freely leading wherever they would. Darwin and Nietzsche both took long walks for the purpose of mulling over their thoughts and ideas and letting things come together in new ways.

Rana says that “At their core, a healthy amount of daydreaming and reflection enable memory consolidation, and they allow non-linear connections to form, which both help our ability to break down and target issues and look at them through a new lens.” While we all engage in daydream at random moments, Rana suggests that dedicating a two-hour period each week just for thinking in a semi-focused way — that is, letting the mind address some general questions without being overly directive about it. Here are a few questions that Rana reflects on, and he maintains that doing so has been the highest-return activity in his life, forcing him “to balance the short-term with the long-term.” He says, “I catch problem before they become problems, and I’ve stumbled onto efficiencies and ideas that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.”

• Am I excited to be doing what I’m doing or am I in aimless motion?

• Are the trade-offs between work and my relationships well-balanced?

• How can I speed up the process from where I am to where I want to go?

• What big opportunities am I not pursuing that I potentially could?

• What’s a small thing that will produce a disproportionate impact?

• What could probabilistically go wrong in the next 6 months of my life?

The idea of dedicating some thinking time to address meaningful life questions really appeals to me. I never begrudge the time I spend online, even as I flit from topic to topic. (I really don’t use social media much, but do succumb to rabbit holes, following the lead on one interesting tidbit after another.) But setting aside the time for just thinking seems like a luxury and as well as a worthwhile endeavor.

Matthew Bevis is a Professor of English Literature and Fellow in English at Keble College, Oxford. He’s the author of The Art of Eloquence, Byron, Dickens, Tennyson, Joyce (2007), Comedy: A Very Short Introduction (2012), and Life Lessons from Byron (2013), among others.

Previously Published Poems

When and Where to Submit Previously Published Poems

Sometimes, there’s good reason to want to see our previously published poems live again. Many of us draft and develop our work in online workshops that participate in the monthly Interboard Poetry Competition (IBPC) sponsored by Web del Sol. Each month, the participating poetry boards select up to 3 poems to submit. The poems are judged by a guest poet (each of whom usually serves for 3 months) who selects a first- second- and third-place winner and sometimes cites honorable mentions. Poems that place in the competition are posted on the IBPC website and remain there permanently. I have to assume that visibility is somewhat low. The members of participating poetry boards see them, of course, but beyond that, I’m not sure how widely the winning poems are read. Nevertheless, I think most editors would consider these poems “published.”

I’ve only once submitted an IBPC poem to a journal. This was a poem that won first place. I subsequently submitted it to Soundzine (now defunct), which was an online audio journal. In my cover letter, I advised the editors that the poem had won first place in the IBPC competition and was posted at the site, but had not been otherwise published. Soundzine accepted it with no questions asked.

Another, more common reason for wanting to submit previously published poems is when they’ve been published in online journals that are now defunct. Some journals leave their archives up, with our poems still accessible, but many do not. (Note: A poem published in a print journal several years ago is pretty much lost to any potential readers, whereas when you publish online, a reader who likes your work can search for more.) I’d say that at least half of the electronic journals that have published my work are now defunct and more than a dozen have taken down their archives. I recently submitted three poems to a journal that’s open to reprints, saying that the poems had been published in 2008 in a journal now defunct with no remaining archives online. No reply yet. . . .

A search of Duotrope today yielded 205 electronic journals that publish poetry and say that reprint submissions are okay. There are also some print publications that will consider reprints. A partial list of electronic journals is below — first a few fairly well known journals that have been around for a while, followed by some others to consider. The percentages indicate Duotrope’s estimates of the percent of submissions accepted (based on reports to Duotrope, of course). Again, this is still only a partial list. You can also look at any journal’s submission guidelines to find out if they’ll consider reprints. Always check to see if they publish their average turnaround time, too.

Autumn Sky Poetry Daily (16%)                                                                  Defenestration (3.6%)                                                                                                             The Ekphrastic Review (53%)                                                                                           Light (13.7%)                                                                                                                       Lighten Up Online (21%)                                                                                                      Loch Raven Review (33%)                                                                                                      Red Fez (30%)                                                                                                                             The Road Not Taken: A Journal of Formal Poetry (6%)                                         Sleet Magazine (15.4%)                                                                                          SOFTBLOW (5.2%)                                                                                                            Terrain (6.8%)                                                                                                                      Tipton Poetry Journal (19%)                                                                                  Valparaiso Poetry Review (<1%)                                                                                   Verse-Virtual (43.6%)

Here are some others to consider:

Amaryllis — The American Aesthetic — Anomaly LiteraryJournal — Atrium — cahoodaloodaling — Clockwise Cat — Columbia Journal Online — Contemporary American Voices — Contemporary Haibun Online — Corvus Review — Easy Street — Fire Poetry — First Literary Review – East — Front Porch Review — The Literary Hatchet — Man in the Street Magazine — The Michigan Poet — Misfit Magazine — Nature Writing — Neon — The Paragon Journal — Poetry SuperHighway — r.kv.r.y. — Random Sample — Red Fez — River Poets Journal — The Stray Branch — The Sunlight Press — Writing in a Woman’s Voice (blog)


The Digital Poet

On the Digital Poetry Life

I’ve more or less decided not to submit to print journals anymore. When I started submitting my poetry, more than 10 years ago, some friends frowned on the idea of publishing online. I know, those were the olden days. Online journals were considered less prestigious. Or were believed all to be of poor quality. One friend scoffed when I announced a recent publication: “Well, anyone can publish online.” That might have been true, but I was at least somewhat selective in the journals to which I submitted. In fact, my first publication was in The Pedestal Magazine, which has always been respectable as far as I know. I don’t know what its acceptance ratio was at the time; today it’s a bit under 4% for poetry. The Pedestal is still going strong after 17 years (having been launched in 2000) and is still one of the best online journals. Take a look at the current issue of The Pedestal Magazine celebrating 17 years!

Perhaps years ago (and perhaps still), people needed print publications to meet criteria for tenure. That’s one theory I heard. But I remember attending a session on the print vs. digital topic at an AWP meeting in the early 2000s at which a young poet said, “We’re going to continue publishing online and we’re the tenure committees of the future.”

Another argument against online publication is that the journals come and go, sometimes quickly. Yeah, sure they do. But in my experience, so do a lot of print publications. I’ve had about 100 poems in journals that no longer exist, mostly online, but a few print journals, too. Some of the digital ones have left their archives up and some haven’t.

A major advantage of putting your work out electronically is that people can find it. People who read my work and like something I’ve written can search for more of my work online. As long as defunct journals leave their archives up — and I wish that all of them would. One way to deal with this is to try to have some of the poems reprinted in other journals. Editors are often quite amenable to this if the original poem cannot be accessed elsewhere on the web. I think there’s a lot greater chance of having my work found online than in print journals. Admittedly, any single issue of a journal, no matter whether its print or electronic, has a pretty small readership. But once a print journal isn’t current anymore, the likelihood of someone reading it is almost nil. And how about an issue from, say 2008?

Another deterrent to submitting to print pubs, for me anyway, is the (usually) far longer turnaround time, from submission to reply. I’m too old to wait six months for someone to say no thanks. And any editors who say they won’t take simultaneous submissions . . . well, maybe they’re not writers. It’s ridiculous. (That said, I try not to send out simultaneous submissions, as long as I’m submitting to venues with a quick turnaround, because it’s just more work for me. But I believe everyone should do so if they choose.)

I can’t tell you whether or how much times have changed. It seems to me more acceptable to publish in online journals these days. But maybe I have a skewed view, since my poetry life is largely online. I’m not in academia. I don’t need tenure. I’m not even a part of a local poetry scene in my town, but I read constantly online and manage an online poetry forum. So, aside from the occasional conference, online is where poetry takes place for me. In a future post, I’ll talk about how to evaluate online poetry markets and choose the ones that might be a good match for your work.