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Back to Literature, Past
A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

What We See Is Not Where We Started

     Greatness does not necessarily rise from the heat of creativity like a Phoenix as most of us came to believe. We took our first literature class and lo! There was Chekhov and Steinbeck and Dostoevsky. They were dexterous. Unattainable. Awe-inspiring.

     Some of us dared not to assume that we would ever be able to fully understand these great artists. The likes of Milton and Shakespeare and Dante were beyond our ken. Too removed. Too difficult. Too intellectual.

     Some of us dared not aspire to write that well. These artist’s fragile first efforts were lost or our teachers did not gift us with them, so how could we not compare our flailing first efforts with their perfection?

     Then comes a teacher like Helen Vendler. The Harvard Press just released her Coming of Age as a Poet. It is book of essays that takes four brilliant poets and humanizes their artistic growth. It is an exercise in understanding of and appreciation for great poets. It also offers hope to those who are taking baby steps to understand (or write) what are or someday may be classics. Even Oprah is asking us to forget that we were once cowed by our experience with great literature and try again.

      I felt fortunate to run across Vendler’s book. (It may be ordered at .) Then, because the universe so groups events, a literary journal called Tin House arrived in my mailbox—I know not why. It may have been a review copy, though there was no letter to indicate that. It may have come because I submitted one of my own works (which one would it have been?) to them for consideration. Receiving it without knowing why was magical. In it was a poem by Michael Leong in a section called “New Voices.” Michael was a fellow student in a class in poetry that I took last summer at Herzen University in St. Petersburg, Russia. It felt like further proof that little seeds (though I knew Michael was very talented even then) can grow very quickly leaving no evidence of the first, pale sprouts of their brilliance.

     Next I received a lovely (yes, rejections can sometimes be lovely) “exceptionally good but not quite right” note from an online review, Tarpaulin Sky. I clicked to their site and found work by Aimée Bender, a young writer with edgy leanings who once sat on a panel at a UCLA writers’ conference I attended. I later took a class from her and I have seen her writing mutate from fascinating to amazing. (Visit

     I received another letter within the same week. This time it was an acceptance from California State University’s Penumbra, their annual literary magazine. They wanted to include a story I just written and sent out only once—to them. I was amazed. Often a story will not be suitable for any given publication or win a contest until it has been submitted several times.(Go to:

     Finally, I was asked to sit on the editorial board of a new journal, Yarrow Brook Literary Review. Their mission is to showcase emerging authors and that seems to fit right into this theme. The editor, Sarah Mankowski, has set up a “Best Excerpts Contest” as well as regular submission process because she doesn’t want to exclude anything that is an author’s “best.” (Go to: for more information.)

     It occurred to me that these events were like magnetic filings, all pointing in one direction. What is it that is pulling them? Perhaps it is that I sense—because I have experienced the feeling—that those of us who want to know more about literature need the assurance that it is okay to only be reaching for the lowest rung of the ladder. That when we finally grasp it, we can pull ourselves up and up and up. Then, someday, someone might look at what we’ve attained and have no idea that our knowledge or achievement was any less great that what they see before them, that what they see is not where we started.

Tips and Tidbits

Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.

Writers' Tidbit: You’ll find a nice den for writers at You can set up your own site there for no charge and add extra services for a fee. The owners and staff, Matt, Jackie and friends, are delightful and you’ll find lots of other authors, other ideas for writing and articles on promotion on the site.

Readers' Tip: In the process of reviewing books for I ran across a site for a small press that finds (and publishes!) fine works by unknown writers. It is If you’re looking for the experimental or for writers who do voo doo with words, this site is worth a visit.

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