Apr 172011


The Poetry Audience

by David B. Axelrod 

I’ve always been a populist poet, but that term, “populist” has probably changed meaning substantially.  Using the term when it comes to literature, I use “populist” to mean someone who believes that poetry is for a large audience of people, not just for English majors and academics. More recently, however, populism has taken a sad turn  politically, and even among poets it could me people who are bringing poetry down to a “least common denominator.”

When I first started writing poetry—as a thirteen-year-old boy in a macho culture—it was a secret activity. My father was an auto mechanic, a mechanical genius who could fix anything. It was as if he could talk to any machine, diagnose it, and cure it. He wasn’t very patient with his poet son, however, and to his dying day he protested “I just don’t understand poetry.”

Later, in college, I had professors who made poetry a task wherein they knew its deep, hidden meaning and we, poor students, had to guess it. To read and understand a poem, we had to study the author’s life, the historical context, every conscious and unconscious motivation of the poet. Needless to say, poetry was not for everyone. You had to be a scholar, or at least a mind reader to appreciate verse.

I wrote because I had strong feelings. As often, there were things that pained me—feelings of abuse, rejection, cruelty that I experienced or observed. It took me years to learn that I didn’t have to suffer to write a good poem. There is a stereotype of the poet starving in some garret, penning poems in poverty, depressed, and fixated on suffering. It is also true that, as a group, studies have shown that poets are prone to depression.

I, myself, attribute those tendencies to the fact that poets are keen observers. If life conspires to deaden our senses; if we aren’t inclined or even allowed to look too closely, then those who do take a closer look are likely to see some pretty bad things. Certainly, there is a genuine balance between the good and bad, the happy and sad. We need only watch the nightly news to see the pain and suffer. A sensitive person, someone who gives a voice to all that pain, could well be sad.

Those who know me more recently also know I am a secular Taoist. You might want to read my book


But this is where populism often goes astray. To reach a large group of people, poets should not “write down.” They shouldn’t have to simplify, or worse, censor themselves. Their job, like a good journalist, should be to observe and channel what they see in words that will make others pay attention. Poets, in fact, are freer than reporters who are bound by the classic rules of journalism. The old style of reporting dictated that a news story should not introduce the reporter’s opinion. Poets get to personalize, personify, and set a strong tone and theme.

The task of a populist poet, therefore, is not to simplify or sanitize, but to use all his or her powers to communicate. Words are a poet’s pallet and whether it is photographic realism or abstract art, the poetry should snap the reader’s head back. Controversial subjects, graphic depictions, yes, even politically incorrect statements are fair game for poetry. There are those who say poetry should not use “those words,” or be political, or celebrate violence. To make a list of things a poet can not say is to stifle the art, to deny life.

Of course, I’m not advocating that poets set out to offend people. If they did that they would, first off, not reach a large audience. Poetry can be the antidote to cruelty, the salve for pain if not the cure. It comes from such antecedents as prayer. The poet’s real challenge is to pick the right word for the right moment. In that way a poet captures and preserves what others may not have observed.

The process of poetry can be transformative. It’s a kind of word magic–as surely as poets were not just the storytellers of the past but the shamans, priests, medicine men and women. I make no claims to such healing powers, though I have observed and participated in events where healings have occurred and poetry was the means.

What I do claim now is the right, if not the power, to put all that I see and feel into words. I won’t hold back if things aren’t pretty. I won’t restrict myself only to certain words. I want the whole pallet, redolent with colors–every variation and tone. I want high definition poetry that reflects life back at all the people so they see themselves more clearly and thus understand and love themselves that much more.  



Apr 172011

Is it the Art of Poetry or the Business?

by David B. Axelrod

Have you heard writers complain that they aren’t able to sell their writing? It probably isn’t fair for poets to complain. Let’s face it, the old adage “for love or money” is a benchmark for poets. As there is very little money in selling poems or even books of poetry, devoting yourself to poetry is almost certainly for the love of the art.

You can, however, find a steady outlet and even a small source of revenue in your poetry but it takes the right mind set. (See our tip on increasing your chances of publication as an example.)

It would help if you start with some basic definitions. If art is what you do for yourself, commercial writing is what you do with a particular audience, editor or publisher in mind. Art, if you wish, is from the heart. Commercial writing is for a particular audience.

That doesn’t mean you can’t sell your art. Nor does it mean commercial writing is “heartless.” Rather, it should alert those who wish to get published to the need to know their markets. An educated writer targets submissions to particular outlets. 

For poets, “commercial art” might be most obvious in your trying to write greeting cards or offering poetry written for specific occasions. More likely, a poet who sees a call for poems on a certain theme or for a particular purpose can use that “commercial” opportunity to trigger (if not indeed inspire) a new poem or two.

It isn’t fair to complain if you send your work out blindly and get rejected. Imagine you send poem with a “liberal” use of language to a “conservative” magazine. It would be unlikely you would make a match. You might as well send poems that rhyme “posies” and “rosies” to an experimental poetry magazine. You’d be speaking the wrong language!

Clearly, the directories that list magazines and outlets for writing are of great use. They describe the general requirements as outlined by the editors. However, as often the magazine will say “We are interested in publishing only the best”—whether that is poetry, stories, opinion pieces, etc.  What “the best” is, naturally, is subjective.

You’d do best to find and read a sample of work before sending to a magazine or publisher. If you have “commercial” aspirations, study the contents–not just the table of contents but the advertising and layout. Ask who reads the magazine. Think what you need to do to match your writing to that special audience.

Because magazines and publishers survive and thrive by targeting their publications to special markets, you need to analyze the audience. Often you can get the guidelines for publication from the magazine either by sending a SASE or going on line.

Best of all, if you are an artist, you will be able to write for yourself and match your creations to various markets. You may be that special talent which appeals to a wide audience. If writing is a song, marketing is the dance and after all, you ought to take pleasure in it!

Apr 162011

Publishing Poems

by David B. Axelrod

Want to know how to increase your chances of getting your poems published? Even if art is something you create for yourself, it can be a great thing to share your creations with the world.

There are literally thousands of outlets for you to publish your poetry. Be careful, by the way, not to pay to publish in magazines or anthologies. As often the quality of the work in such paid publications is not very high. (Sometimes it is, but… more often it is just a scheme to take advantage of beginners.)

You can find an audience and outlet for your work if you make a little study of print and on-line magazines. When you want to get published, you need to do some homework to match what you do to the tastes of a particular editor or audience.

It is best, of course, if you can read a copy of the magazine before you send your poems. It is also true that your local library or store will have relatively few of the thousands of journals and alternative press magazines that are actually looking for good poems, stories and even art work and photography.

If you get a copy of the Small Press Review, you can find a list of magazines that offer free samples. You’ll also find announcements of new magazines and markets calling for specific themes. The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses (published by Dustbooks) lists thousands of outlets!

Of course, we now live is a digital world, so chances of publication on-line are simply wonderful. With the cost of printing rising and the facility of publishing a magazine on-line (now known as publishing an “Ezine”) you have a dazzling array of choices. If you Google “poetry Ezine”  you will get well over two million links. Not satisfied? Then Google “poetry magazine” and the list is thirty-nine million, most of which as I scrolled through the first fifty, will accept your submissions on-line.

Here’s a trade secret we have tried and succeeded with: when you read the poems in a magazine, pay particular attention to the title and the opening line of each poem. If the editor likes the opening, that will definitely help you get published. But if you really want to get published, be sure that the last line of your poem ends the way poems end in the magazine you are reading. We have had four times greater success placing poems using these “tricks” to match our poems to the magazines to which we’ve sent our poems!

Take pride in your work. Prepare it carefully—free of typos, well-edited and tested (at workshops) to be sure you have chosen the right words. Then send it out to others. Poems can take on a life of their own. Then, imagine your satisfaction knowing someone half way around the world could be reading your thoughts and poems!




Apr 162011


by David B. Axelrod

Note: I know this memoir/story has no direct bearing on my work as a poetry doctor, but I am proud to offer this remembrance of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

    The neighbor says “Did you hear the news? Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.”

    It’s 9:10 at the bus stop. His wife told me he hits her. He seems like such a nice guy. The Chinese have a saying: “Every family has a hard book to read.”

    “Two planes?” I say, “It must be some kind of beacon problem. They went off course.” Terrorism doesn’t even come to mind. It’s the corner of Here and There in suburban Long Island. All we worry about around here is too many Canada geese in the little pond nearby. They are turning the water a sickly green.

    Who thinks of terrorism on such a beautiful sunny day? Terrorism: 1. a belief in terror? 2. Terrifying things done on purpose? 3. My brother jumps out from behind a tree screaming as I walk to school. I run home crying.

    We put our kids on the bus. His nine year old son hugs and kisses him. “I love you, Daddy.”

    “I love you too.” he says.

    I think of how his wife confided that some nights she lies awake, terrified. “He told me If you ever leave me I’ll kill you.’“

    My own daughter clunks up the steep bus stairs with her oversized red book bag. She hardly looks back. She has her mother’s eyes, sometimes her mother’s caustic tongue. For four years since the divorce, I’ve been Mr. Mom and she still argues with me that I don’t know how to do her hair.

    Inside the house I forget the news, start a breakfast of too much red meat, greasy fried potatoes. As I reach for the Times I remember the neighbor’s bulletin and get up to turn on the TV. Smoke flame billow from the twin towers. An urgency that is usually inappropriate edges the voice of the news commentator. A camera zooms in on what we’re told is someone falling. It isn’t clear if it’s a man or woman but the arms flailing indicates it isn’t a piece of debris.

    The screen splits to show a replay of a large plane approaching the twin tower, angling to impact with a giant ball of flame. I’m surprised at how stunned I am. I’ve seen a lot, more than you’d care to know. “Hi, how are you, “ is just a ritual. Don’t ask is good advice. Don’t tell is better.

    Just as I’m adjusting to what announcers are calling “a possible terrorist act, “ someone with a handheld camera screams “get back” and a tower begins to collapse. It’s just like a slow motion filming of a demolition scene, layer after layer flattening downward faster and faster into a cloud of dust and smoke. It’s so much like the special effects I’ve seen in movies that I’m bothered. It can’t be real.

    The people running, screaming must be movie extras. Only there’s the overweight cop who weaves around other panicking people, shoves a woman and runs out ahead of the billowing cloud of debris and smoke. Much later there will be the video footage of cops beating a fellow who “tried to pedal his bike past a police officer who told him to stop.” The announcer explains, “Impatient, tired, the police seem to be taking their frustrations out on him.” I doubt there will be an investigation.

    The entire World Trade Tower is gone. I feel a surprising tightness in my jaw, hear a ringing in my ears. I’m amazed at how amazed I am. And then the TV voice asks, “Do you think the other tower is leaning?”

    Almost as quickly it’s coming down, only this time the huge TV tower on top is visibly falling in the center. I remember being out on the observation deck atop the South Tower, looking over at the other building and how huge that broadcast antenna was. There as was Frenchman who strung a cable from one tower to the other and walked across the chasm! What gall! I always pictured him walking with his balance pole and the cable tied to the top of that antenna.

    Now it’s falling down, falling down. With it goes the indifference I had recently worked so hard to cultivate. “Who gives a damn. It’s no big deal; all just part of life.” It isn’t nihilism, just a desire to detoxify, to shake loose from too much pain and too much striving. But I feel first a great uneasiness rising out of that dust cloud and later an anger.

    The news coverage goes on and on with details. I place a call to my employer and say I won’t be coming in. I say I have an ear ache–not completely untrue as I realize I’ve tightened my jaw so much I’m in pain. Later they will cancel the day’s work and close up anyway. I’m saved a sick day and a small lie.

    A parade of officials come forward to promise “everything we can do to help.”

    It occurs to me that people inside–one estimate in the thousands–won’t take much consolation from all this, their bones likely ground to dust with the buildings’ collapse. The President comes on to say “We’ll get the folks who did this.” Not exactly inspirational.

    The phone rings several times. Older daughters reassure me they and their spouse, fiancé, friends are okay. Close calls. One might have been down by the WTC but decided to head up-town instead. She tells me later that she walked five miles, from mid-town, over the 59th Street Bridge and all the way to Astoria to get home. “It was a beautiful day. I felt guilty because I was enjoying the walk.”

    The woman who’s husband beats her calls to ask me if I can get her kid if the elementary school closes. “Don’t worry, “ I reassure her. “I’m always here for you.” If only it were that easy, I think. I gave her numbers to call–women’s groups, domestic services, and an attorney. That was a year ago and they’ve stayed together. What can a person do?

    Before I notice, it’s time for my daughter to get off the bus. There she is all flush with the news. “The teacher didn’t give us any homework tonight. She was too busy with what happened and forgot.”

    I bring her in and settle her in front of the TV but every channel is playing and replaying the plane that crashes into the towers and then the towers falling down.

    “Wow, “ she exclaims. “I went there and now they aren’t there.” And then it dawns on her, no cartoons. We experiment and even the shopping channels are either off the air or showing news. A couple satellite channels are still replaying the usual cartoons. Disney has an old Donald Duck cartoon in which, ironically, Donald is parading around in his World War II uniform trying to be heroic.

    When I saw that cartoon for the first time we were still being asked to buy liberty bonds. I think how many times during the day people compared the events to Pearl Harbor. For me, it was a bit like the assassination of JFK, as for the magnitude of people’s reactions. We live through so much. It’s a crazy existence and it’s amazing who does survive.

    Not long after my daughter’s return we decide to head out–upset by the continuing coverage, longing for something to do. We drive toward a department store where I’m scheduled to pick up a new vacuum cleaner. Wow, best suction available. I wonder what’s in the thick dust coating everything where the buildings collapsed. How will they ever be able to clean that?

    I promise my daughter she can get the Tweety quilt she has been asking for. But when we get there, to our mutual amazement, the department store is closed. Why? Why would they close on a perfectly good business day? Was this terrorist thing really such a big deal that a store sixty miles away needed to let its help go home?

    I guess so, I know so, but all the way home my daughter complains until, turning into our driveway I am forced to say, “For pity sake, thousands of people have died.” We spend a quiet evening pretending we are safe at home.






Apr 162011


by David B. Axelrod

                                              Note: Click on this link to see a clock that ticks away to estimate the cost of the war in Iraq:

Consider that the cost of the Tomahawk missiles we fired at the start of the Iraq war alone (at aproximately $1,400,000 for the missles alone, not counting the cost of deploying them to the field of war) is about the same as the entire annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts. In fact, the NEA’s entire budget for 2010 (167,500,000) represents only about one and a half cents per tax dollar. What should a poet make of all this?

Folks have asked me if I would participate in readings against the war in Iraq. I am not a particularly political person. I have always maintained that poetry is a “politics” of its own. I consider it my duty to observe and give voice to what truths I may see. Poetry comes from an ancient an honorable tradition: Seekers of Truth. We write our poems and in so doing, we try to encircle the truth.

Working folks                      Crazy People                     


People of Letters                 Holy People

 Poets can, after all, be people from all walks of life. There are many good, hard-working, relatively un-trained people who write fine poetry. When I lived and performed my poems in Sicily, for instance, I was frequently approached by farmers and fisherman who asked to recite their poems. When they did so,  they spoke with passion, reciting long lyric poems in praise of nature and their land–and all from memory! They were passionate poets! Other people may consciously reject higher education, or they may be self-trained. But theirs is every bit as valid a search. It may be a tragedy in life turns them inward and they find,  perhaps just once in their life,  that they have a poem to express.

Then,  of course, there are those who have spent time in the universities and often those poets who earn their living as people of letters. B.A., M.A., M.F.A., Ph.D.! I myself have more letters after my last name than in it. We who are accredited may have a formal claim on “professing” to know the truth but there is no guarantee higher education will make a person a good poet, let alone a clearer seer of the truth.

Those who claim inspiration–pastors,  priests,  shaman,  gurus,  prophets–are often poets. Certainly, poetry has roots in prayer,  incantation,  mantras,  spells. Words can have great power, can  persuade and lead, can comfort and heal.

We ought also to mention those who may be judged as “crazy.” I use the word to suggest that there is a wide spectrum of people who may also be writing some very interesting poetry. One person’s prophet is another’s madman. Is it the voice of god one hears or a psychotic episode? I am not making fun of religion. Rather,  I am saying that poets often see the world in ways others don’t,  or don’t understand. True genius is often misunderstood. Then again,  it was the court jester alone who might be allowed to speak the honest truth to the King at court. “Sire,  you aren’t just naked,  you are ugly!”

Which brings me to why I, for one, have been spending time in my poetry workshops talking about Iraq, Afghanistan–all the wars we keep fighting– and hoping to move us all a bit closer to the truth. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to see more clearly through poetry. If poets are truth seekers and sooth sayers,  they should be given extra attention and time. Poets have a responsibility to their tradition to speak out at any time they see something that should be noticed! Times of war poets in particular should feel compelled to say the truth as they see it.

Of course,  I sometimes remember the beautifully printed and bound book of poems I found in a used bookstore. Leather binding,  gilded edges,  fine etchings. I should say that, though it was from the 1860’s, the poetry still read easily and the narrative was clear. The only problem,  the poet,  Henry Timrod,  was writing to further the cause of the Confederacy he loved so dearly.  That’s why we don’t find any of his poems in many anthologies since the South lost the Civil War.

For poets,  the real cause is in rendering reality in the most engaging way. Poets aren’t just partisans,  we aren’t just writing poems,  we are from a tradition of poeple who teach the world to care.




Apr 142011


POETRY STANDARDS: or, What I like in a Poem

by David B. Axelrod  

Since poets now write largely blank (unrhymed) and free (unmetered) verse, often it can be hard to tell if what you read is even poetry! Certainly, whether you are reading a good or bad poem can be simply whether what you are reading is your “taste” or not.  Are there no “standards” for poetry anymore? The test I most often apply to poems is whether I can believe them. There are poems written because someone said “I am a poet.” There are poems written because someone felt he or she needed to write a poem. I go with the latter. I guess, therefore, I ascribe to the belief or at least have the expectation that poetry is the language of feeling.

A poem that is written for poetry’s sake at best can appeal to poets. It’s like trading baseball cards. An objective observer is likely to ask, “How could you spend hundreds of dollars for that little piece of cardboard?” Only people really into something can appreciate its fine points. Most folks, however, are no more likely to appreciate the value of a piece of cardboard imprinted with baseball data than they are to like poetry written for poetry’s sake. Poems about poetry are “poets’ poetry.”

A poem written because it needs to be said, however, has a more universal appeal. It is a starting place for credibility and with that, empathy. Unless I believe the poem, how can I think it is real or good? I’m not trading baseball cards here; I’m communicating.

In a “felt” poem, one path (getting in touch with one’s feelings) has sought to conjoin with another (the craft of poetry). There is a confluence of energy. The language emerges from one’s consciousness to communicate a personal feeling to another reader or listener. Given the difficulty we all have when we actually try to say what we mean—and be understood by others—poetry becomes a powerful tool for communication. A well-written poem can not just give a voice to our feelings, it can actualize others—engage their empathy.

That is why poetic formalism, even when exercised with even the greatest precision, as often still feels like just a “drill.” It may show mastery of form, dexterity and even great invention of language, but ultimately, if it is only form—for form’s sake—it is not what I like in a poem.

Without “content, “ a poem is just an exercise, a drill, words marching in step. Art is not just artifice, though as often that’s all we are offered. When a poem says, “Here is how I have survived, “ when it offers a life being lived, then there is a chance for excellence. The only chance we have beyond our own survival is that transfer of some energy, some life-force from ourselves to another.

That transfer of energy happens so dramatically and clearly in birth. It happens so sweetly and simply in the caress of a loving hand. It can happen sometimes in a poem. The gift of language, the freshness of vision, the whole history of everything previously written and read can come together in a few lines so that one existence energizes another.

The effect is quite remarkable—an “anti-bullet.” All the bad intentions, the toxins, the wounds that have been inflicted are addressed in those few seconds as the poem is read and the good is transferred. How remarkable we humans are that we can do this with mere words. All the technology, all the gadgets, all apps aside, just a few odd letters, sounds strung together and one life has helped another along.

For those who might now be saying, “This is too mystical. Too diffuse, ” what would you rather I say makes a good poem? Shall we now pick up our plumes and just rhyme? Very well then…

For all the poems that talk of posies,

for all the people who rhyme their rosies,

if this is what you like in poetry,

I’m just as glad if you don’t show it to me.






Apr 142011

front cover







Dr. Axelrod is pleased to offer A NEW BOOK IS AVAILABLE TO ASSIST YOU. Order it here for just $5 including shipping or read some main points in the essay below.


by David B. Axelrod    

Self-publishing, or publication with a small press is the best America has to offer! There is no greater demonstration of our freedom or vitality as a nation than our chance to speak, write and best of all, publish our creations.  While self-publication sometimes connotes a “vanity” press and the term “small press” might sound, at best, diminutive, there is no stigma in either. 

There are some companies which, capitalizing on a beginner’s enthusiasm, offer to publish work–regardless of its quality–and usually over-charge in doing so. However, studies of the careers of many famous writers reveal that they did indeed pay to see their own work published at least at the start of their career. Indeed, small presses are tremendously diverse, often the only real opportunity for experimentation and certainly the only outlet for small market subjects and creations.

If you believe your work is worthy, why not consider self-publication? A first step, of course, would be to look for a local or suitable literary group to show your work. Through them, you can test your “market.” Workshops provide an opportunity to perfect your art. If art is “from the heart,” then revision and publication should be more” mindful.” We create for ourselves but we revise for other. Publication may be” vanity” to some but it is good to consider it a true act of sharing. Yes, we may be living out the adult equivalent of “Mommy, watch me!” That’s not so bad. Better still, however, we are engaging in the most sophisticated of our freedoms–perfecting and publishing our thoughts and creations.

That same literary group which meets near you as likely also publishes a small-circulation magazine, or maintains a web presence to showcase work. It may be in a position, or at least some individuals within the group may be adept enough, to publish books as well. While the internet has made so much and diverse material available, there is nothing like the feel of a printed book! The task of writing, revising, formatting and publishing one’s work can be a great pleasure.

Here are some pointers regarding the preparation and publication of your work:

To do the job right, bringing out a book takes some genuine effort. Of course it is worth it–a birthing of a sort. But the getting there is work requiring lots of attention to details beyond the poems themselves.
1. Regarding printing: anything up to forty pages may be produced as a chapbook. The term itself has been explained as coming from the Middle English for a “chep” [sic] or bargain book peddled by a chapmen. The virtue of such a book is that it can be stitched or stapled rather than perfect bound and the saving on binding makes the book cheap.

 2. Forty pages is no longer a chapbook. The girth of it makes a spine necessary and so it becomes a perfect-bound book. With desktop publishing and the new technologies for quality photocopying and desktop printing, it may no longer be necessary to make “plates” to print from. However, when laying out a book, it is usual to work with multiples or gatherings of 4 pages (2 pages on each side of a sheet of paper).  

3. One need not travel far to find a print shop and many more print houses on line offer estimates and expertise for printing the job. The closer the book can be, in format, to print-ready, the better for obtaining a good printing price. The layout, the “make-ready” tends to be where labor and thus extra costs are encountered.

4. That brings us to the second consideration: setting up the manuscript as a book. The closer the book is to ready to print when you arrive at the print shop the better. If you are, or someone you know is adept at desktop publishing, then the thing to do is pick a format that looks like a real book–don’t experiment with format–and follow it religiously.  Make your mantra: “It should look like a real book.” Layout is what makes it look other than “vanity.” If it doesn’t look like a big press did it, it looks awful.

Clearly, you’d want it to be perfect. By that I mean both that you should show it around, workshop it, let a respected friend/fellow poet comment (maybe a cover quote). Be sure the manuscript is absolutely without typos and the format is standard from poem to poem.


Apr 132011

Essays and Advice for Writers

Here are a collections of articles and essays that advise writers on both the art and the business of writing. I hope they serve you well. Email me with your comments: