I don’t remember exactly what triggered writing “The Year in Review.” At the time we were staying in Borrego Springs, a small town in the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California, and in the afternoon I liked to climb to the top of the garage of the house we were renting and sit on the viewing deck the owner had built for stargazing. Borrego Springs is the only International Dark Sky Community in California, and I’ve never experienced such a sky of stars than I did in Borrego. The city asks that homeowners turn off their outdoor lights at night to enhance the depth of the dark. But I also loved to climb up on the roof and watch the sun set. From the top I could see the desert plains spread out behind me and the mountains rise; I could see the sun dip below the palm trees. It was a fabulous view and had the advantage of allowing me to write. That day I carried my notebook and pen and wrote what came to be “The Year in Review” in one fell swoop as if I was in a class and had been handed a prompt. But, of course, this was not an assignment, just what welled up inside me and asked to be written. Perhaps it was something about the sweep of the horizon from the rooftop that asked me to look at the year I had just completed.
It’s a catalogue, a close relative to the list, both of which I love because they attempt to catch the moments of our lives before they’re forgotten, erased, or written over by new moments. Time is what they are about—the relentless forward motion of time, pulsing ahead and carrying us with it helplessly. These reviews are little life rafts we hold onto to keep us from falling out into the current. They are my attempts to be steady and stay upright, to know where I am and who I am at a specific moment in time. It’s a kind of reckoning, an attempt to get at something I’ll call the personal truth of my life.
Essay Daily published an experiment called What Happened on June 21st last year. They invited anyone interested to write about what happened that day. They received about 250 reports. I was one of the 250 respondents. Now they’ve culled 25 accounts and published them as a slim book and mine is one of them. I mention this experiment because it is related to my experiment of writing a year in review essay—the tasks are similar. One could easily be overwhelmed by the enormity of all that happened in a given day, a given year. What did I experience in one unit of time? So much of our lives is deemed mundane, routine. We walk our dogs everyday—but what makes any particular walk worth noticing? And then, there are those so-called profound experiences when something shakes us awake. Sometimes the mundane becomes profound and sometimes the profound peters out in the end. It’s a complicated dance trying to capture the rhythm of a life, whether it be a day or a year. What details are most telling and how do these details jostle together to create a life while always moving forward? I have found that some of my most telling moments happen while I’m going about my life and they would pass away unremembered if I did not try to write them. That’s one thing we writers do: we write against the erasure of time.
“You are better than you think. A-one, a-two, a-three.”
Remember that old chestnut of writing advice that gets lobbed at all of us—particularly young writers, particularly new writers—write what you know? I ran across it first in my teens. Rather a dispiriting command for those of us whose real lives, the lives we knew, consisted of going to boring school every day in our boring town, and maybe, if we were lucky, going to the mall. My own trips to the mall invariably ended at the bookstore, where I sought escape in reading about other lives, other worlds that were nothing like the world I knew.
Not necessarily better worlds. I favored dystopias and disasters, perilous quests and amorphous monsters, the merest glimpse of which could blast your sanity and leave you a gibbering mindless hulk, not unlike how I felt at the end of double biology class.
My heart is in Middle Earth My heart is not here My heart is in Middle Earth Trembling with fear …
I wrote in first-period algebra, when I compared Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring to the search for the square root of a quadratic equation, and the search for the equation didn’t come off too well. (Nor did my math grades, but that’s another story.)
I read, and re-read, Tolkien and Lovecraft and Poe and Stephen King. My high school library had volumes of the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories, going back to at least 1970. I studied them like scripture. But my own attempts to write in those genres always felt like flat imitation. At the same time, I obsessively chronicled the ordinary details of my own life in notebooks: who wore the yellow dress that made her look like “a squeezed-out lemon,” who wrote “I LOVE KENNY” on the desk I shared in third period English, prompting me to question: “Does he love you?”; which teacher made the whole class stay after school because a few kids were acting up, spurring me to add a new dictionary definition under the word “shit.” Impromptu songs and poems and comics, but I didn’t consider any of it “real” writing, just throwaway stuff.
Only I didn’t throw it away. A quiet voice inside told me not to. I would learn to listen to that voice.
What I remember from my first “real” writing workshop were the yellow sheets the instructor gave us with comments on our stories, comments so detailed it felt as if each story had already been published and was worthy of critical attention. I only remember one piece of general writing advice, but it stuck in my mind as a corollary to write what you know: “You know more than you think you know.”
I can’t explain the sense of freedom and relief that advice gave me. How many times I’d discarded story ideas, telling myself I couldn’t write about X because I’d never been to Y and didn’t know enough about Z.
If a story idea feels right, if it feels emotionally true, then write it. Researching the details can come later. In that workshop I wrote a first draft of my story “The Night Copernicus Died,” about a nuclear scientist haunted by regret. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a nuclear physicist. My only “research” for the story was a book I’d once read about the making of the atomic bomb and a manga written by a survivor of Hiroshima.
But I’d been born into a world shadowed by the threat of nuclear annihilation. I’d never known a time when that shadow didn’t haunt my dreams. As a teen and young adult, I’d wake in the middle of the night with my heart pounding, sure the world was going to end that night. I’d lie awake, making lists of all the things that made the world worth saving, fireflies and forsythia and golden retriever puppies, even though the people in it were so stupid.
Years later, I met someone who’d been in the army during the Reagan years. “You don’t know how close we got, a couple of times,” he told me. But on some level I did know. And that feeling—that inner knowledge—was what drove the story.
It was published in a science fiction magazine. I worried that, because its readers probably included a higher-than-average proportion of MIT grads, someone would question the science.
No one said a word about the science. But I was forwarded a letter by one reader who wanted me to know that, while I had described the 1950s as a time when “gas was five cents a gallon,” it was, in fact, closer to 25 cents per gallon for much of that decade.
In a more recent story, “Skater Girl at Rest,” I wrote in the voice of a former teen-movie star now sentenced to home confinement:
Anna had always imagined an ankle bracelet would look like an actual bracelet, like the cylindrical copper coil she’d bought one year at Burning Man.
But it didn’t. It was bulky and oddly medical, with a thick black attachment that reminded Anna of a garage door opener or an old-school drug dealer beeper. It chafed her ankle and banged against her other leg when she slept and made wardrobe choices so much harder than they had to be.
That voice just came to me, like taking dictation from a friendly ghost, yet having written it I started to worry that I’d got ankle bracelets all wrong; maybe they were discreet and delicate little bands, and what did I know about ankle bracelets anyway?
I consulted the Google (The Google is your friend! Just not in the first draft) and found that they were, in fact pretty much exactly as I’d described them.
You know more than you think you know.
But what could I know about being dead? I would never claim that I know what it’s like to be dead, unless I happened to be singing a song written by John Lennon, but a while ago I became possessed by the need to write a story from the point of view of a dead person. Not a ghost, or an angel, or a spirit trapped in some interdimensional bardo. Just a regular dead person, who was dead but in some way still there, still a part of the physical world.
I had been doing some strange reading, as I’m apt to do, about body farms and unusual disposition of human remains, and some of it was fascinating and some of it was horrifying, and the question I kept asking myself was why? Why would someone choose to have their body thrown down an elevator shaft, strapped into a crashing car, torn to pieces by animals, or left to rot in an open field?
The voice of my narrator, a calm and reasonable voice, started speaking to me. She started telling me her story. And so I had to listen.
They say we’ll get our bodies back whole after the rapture, but I’m pretty much done with mine—like when you’ve got an old nightgown so worn and full of holes that you’re just as happy when it rips, so you can tear it up for rags.
The story, “A Key Into the Language of the Dead,” was published in Superstition Review‘s Issue 23. The characters and what they talk about and think about are made up. What happens to the bodies is real.
What happens to the pumpkin is also real. It grew in my front yard.
So yes, write what you know. That can be good advice, but don’t let it limit you to a narrow definition of what you think you know. You’ve seen things you didn’t realize you saw. You’ve heard things you don’t remember you heard. You know more than you think you know. Trust what you know. Tell the stories that beckon you, the ones that trouble you, even if they seem difficult or strange.
“As a rule, think plain, unadorned, gravitas. No cleavage, thigh-high boots, or microminis. No animal prints and certainly no cowboy fringe.”
— Nina Garcia’s Look Book: What to Wear for Every Occasion, “What to Wear to a Funeral”
Between January 1, 2016 and mid-February 2018, five people I loved died: my best friend, two aunts, my grandmother, and my father. I started writing “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” shortly after the last two deaths, when I was unable to stop myself from dreaming about dead women. It was always the women. Women watching me while I slept, women waiting for me to catch up.
I never questioned the dreams or what was happening on the page. Writing about dead women seemed to be the natural result of not taking off work, not talking about my grief, and not stopping the day-to-day “grind” of grading essays, folding laundry, and hosting birthday parties for a house full of five-year olds.
“How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” was/is part of a longer work-in-progress. The individual sections, though, were born from the blend of influences that seeped into my brain during each of those mind-numbing, grief-filled days.
In no particular order: Sylvia Plath, Selena, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Peaches ‘N Cream Barbie, Lincoln in the Bardo, what to wear to a funeral, how long it takes to grieve, Ouija boards, Bloody Mary, Twin Peaks, Linkin Park, George Michael, Amy Winehouse, The Cranberries, cremation, novel after novel after TV show after movie with a dead woman in the middle of the plot. The question of what happens to your best stories and your worst secrets if you’re the only one left alive to remember?
In his essay, “On Becoming an American Writer,” Alexander Chee says, “Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable.”
Is that what I was trying to do as I wrote in the aftermath of my grief? Did I intend to speak to my dead? On some level, yes. Each time I dream about my friend, always her more than the others, I wake up wondering what she wants me to do now. What stories does she want me to write? What secrets am I allowed to share?
I wrote “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” with her in mind, her at age 35 and age 28 and age 22 and age 12. I saw her passing me a note in 8thgrade English and escorting me to junior prom and holding back my hair when we lived together years later. I saw her holding my son. I saw us shopping and sharing and stealing each other’s clothes. How intimate it all seems now, in retrospect, that I don’t have anyone who wants to borrow my favorite dress.
The dress, I think, was always part of the story, even before I started writing. As I packed my funeral dress for my friend’s memorial service, I might have thought about the perfect symbolism of a black dress and how I would one day write about my loss. I had a feeling more funerals were coming (though I didn’t know how many or how quickly), and if I had thought about writing through my grief, I would have also known how central a dress would be to that narrative.
Otherwise, I don’t remember writing a single word.
One of the benefits of writing at 5 a.m. is that no one cares what I’m wearing. Inside-out T-shirts tops and ratty robes are my uniform. It doesn’t matter if I’m blurry, stumbling, and unable to form complete thoughts yet. There’s coffee, and a cat to keep me company. There’s a (hopefully) charged laptop. The sky is just the right kind of dark.
This is how I write, with my subconscious still buzzing from half-baked dreams, and a complete lack of censorship. The internal editor is still asleep and the lack of perfection, the full-on embrace of imperfection, becomes the fuel for my creative process. A quiet house at 5 a.m. is pure luxury. Better than Burberry trench coats and Missoni knits and Frye harness boots, and whatever else Nina Garcia says I am supposed to own and enjoy.
After I wrote “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive,” my Twitter friend, Steve Bargdill, told me about keening. Keening is a death wail, a public lament that has now grown out of fashion, giving women a voice for their grief. Sometimes professional mourners were hired to grieve publically at funerals. I am simplifying, of course, but the blend of beauty and tragedy struck a nerve. Yes, I thought. That is what it feels like to ache and not have the words, or to not need the words, to express it.
This is not to suggest that writing “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” was a healing experience. Not at all. I like how T Kira Madden addresses the issue of writing and healing in her essay “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy.” She writes, “But to render the art, to render the experience, does not, in my practice, involve ‘bleeding into the typewriter.’ It does not entail a writer spilling or spewing the memory onto a blank page, nailing it down, healing.” I don’t disagree.
Lately, my writing and my mourning are mashed together so brutally, I couldn’t ever call the creative process therapeutic. Instead, it feels like I am crafting a eulogy that no one has asked me to write. Over and over, it feels like standing in front of my family and friends, pretending like I have all the right words instead of one long, imperfect wail.
A Playlist for The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire
Note: The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire playlist can be heard here (on Apple Music) and here (on Spotify).
My parents recently sent me a warehouse worth’s of VHS tapes from my childhood home—a bulky mix of home movies, high school events, and choppy collections of 120 Minutes clips culled from hours of attentive viewing. In those tapes, there were some crystal-clear views of our old house, and my room, which, in retrospect, was something of a folk-art shrine to my favorite music. There are old 45s propped up on shelves, concert tickets in tiny frames, posters and magazine clippings covering most of the walls—REM mingles with the Led Zeppelin, Joan Jett leans up against The Replacements, Prince stands next to Patti Smith. In the nook near the front window, cases of cassettes climb from the ground to the ceiling—the classic plastic rectangle-collage of a music-loving kid in the 80s.
Next to that, though, was the real treasure—milk crates stocked with true, old school, vinyl records. A mix of hand-me-downs and purchases from local flea markets, their artwork would stare at me as I filed through, looking for just the right album to play. Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons leaned on each other and smiled up from the cardboard; the first-pressing Velvet Underground record tempted you to peel the banana back; and Bob Dylan stared straight through you, daring you to decipher the stream of words on the back of his records. And those streams of words, printed across the back of records like Highway 61 Revisited, led me to poetry, and music has been a part of the process ever since.
With the songs echoing through my suburban room, I would hover over the strange poetry on the back covers. On classics like Bringing It All Back Home say, there were rambling, seemingly meaningless word parades on the back of his records—the sort of prose poetry that certainly never won over any literary scholars (it’s one of the few areas of his career that does not garner effusive praise—but I am happy to report that, years later, Denis Johnson discussed discovering poetry through these albums, as well), a sort of confetti of phrases and names that rolls on with abandon. There are no book-length analyses of those back covers like there are about “Like a Rolling Stone,” but for me, they were a gateway to poetry. Never a talented musician, I couldn’t write songs, but I began writing my versions (read: knockoffs) of these sorts of poems (I have volumes of notebooks of this mortifying work). I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t want to.
And, importantly, in that excitement, I began seeking out the poets that inspired him. In one set of notes, he mentions Allen Ginsberg, so I pulled the string, and then wound up reading the entirety of the Beats, and then Blake, and then Rimbaud, and then venturing into more contemporary writers—and once that started, the entirety of poetry was exciting to me.
So, from the very start, music has been ingrained in my writing, as a spark, sometimes as a guide, sometimes as a role model, sometimes even as an editor. It’s not surprising, seeing the direct line from those records, that it would be part of it all. People like Dylan and Patti Smith have fingerprints on what I write now, as do more current musicians like Kendrick Lamar and Waxahatchee. The two worlds, of poetry and music, are always connected. I’m excited that Superstition Review has asked me to share a playlist of songs that connect to my new collection, as so many helped shape the book.
I rarely listen to music as I write, but it serves three important roles during the process. There is the “North Star” approach, where I hear a particular song and something about it pushes me forward, toward its tone, or themes, or lyrics. I live with it for weeks, playing it on repeat, until I write, gaining momentum from the song. Then, there is the “jukebox”—a song comes on, out of the blue, shakes up my vision and I’m inspired to write by it. And, finally, particularly with finalizing a manuscript, there is the “pinball machine”—in crafting the order and focus of a book, it’s as if songs are the bumpers in a pinball machine, helping me see connections and themes that exist in the poems, jolting them toward each other as the ball rolls along the wood surface.
Of course, in writing this, I know that none of this is unique—we all have stories about how music connects to our lives, whether that be as artists or just in our everyday experiences. There have even been great poetry collections rooted in music in every sense of the word (two of my early favorite books, Michael Harper’s Dear John, Dear Coltrane and David Wojahn’s Mystery Train, for example). Here, in this piece, I can just speak to my experience, naturally, and how it shaped the poems in the new book. Music led me to poetry when I was younger; now, older, it helps inspire and shape it.
In writing this new book, certain songs were clearly “North Stars,” those pieces that captured a tone or theme I was aiming for in the collection. I could listen to them and know this is what I’m after. I knew the landscapes I was seeing in my head were reflected in “Dark Eyes”; I knew some of the topics I wanted to explore were in “XXX”; and I knew some of the tone I wanted to evoke was in “Annie Christian.” At other times, a song would appear on the “jukebox” (an iPhone is much less romantic than a jukebox) and either alter my goals, or fine tune them. When Kamasi Washington released “Fists of Fury,” it hit me like a bolt, not only because I had been anxiously awaiting his new album, but because of the themes and ideas in it—which immediately sparked more writing. When I heard Waxahatchee for the first time, a local radio station played “Peace & Quiet.” Hearing that voice cut through the car, I literally pulled over, purchased the album on iTunes (again, not as romantic as running to the record store, I know), and listened to it three times in row before heading home to write.
And finally, when piecing the manuscript together into sections, into an order, and into (what I hope) is a cohesive whole, many of these songs helped serve as posts to guide them into place. I knew, thematically, section 2 of the book was going to house both the Jane’s Addiction and Jackie Shane songs, two of the more vulnerable, romantic pieces, and that helped guide the formatting. Section 3 seemed to call for Leonard Cohen’s voice, and everything fell in place from there.
Of course, this is all a lengthy way to say I love music, and it inspires poetry. I bet most writers reading this will say the same thing. But the chance to express that sentiment, and share how it affected this new book—particularly since there were very specific songs that did—is too enjoyable to pass up. And perhaps, if nothing else, someone else might enjoy the songs that follow, and maybe even listen in conjunction with the book.
All of this is to say that creating a playlist for this new book was something I had been doing for the entirety of writing it, so it was a pleasure to put it together in some sort of “final” version to share with the published collection. As mentioned above, the playlist can be found here (on Apple Music) and here (on Spotify) for anyone who might want to listen along now, or with the book when it comes out in June.
Here are a few words about each track, as they relate to the collection. I’ve forced myself to keep it to two sentences per song, as my enthusiasm for this music could easily lead me down (even longer), rambling, discussion.
1. Bettye Lavette, “Ain’t Talkin’.” An overture for the book, the opening credits theme as the poems start. Lavette’s voice, combined with these lyrics, captures the tone I aimed for in these poems.
2. Kamasi Washington, “Fists of Fury.” Love is always the goal, but love and resistance are not mutually exclusive. There are times for righteous anger.
3. Parquet Courts, “Violence.” Whereas Washington uses swirling jazz to encircle the wrongs of the world, Parquet Courts are more direct here.
4. Talking Heads, “The Big Country.” Flying over the country, watching the news in a seat-back, and turning away from the screen to look down on the huge grids of land and puzzle-piece suburbs, this is always the song that floats in and out of the air vents.
5. Rhianna (feat. Calvin Harris), “We Found Love.” In the very earliest stages of writing this book, we were living in New Orleans, and this song had just been released. It was almost a joke how often it was played throughout the city—even in jazz clubs between sets—and it sunk into my system, with “we fell in love in a hopeless place” a working epigraph for the collection for a while.
6. Kendrick Lamar (feat. U2), “XXX.” He seems to get better and better, and while all of his albums have inspired writing, this song kept reappearing and pushing and guiding. In three short sections of one song, there are countless quote-worthy lines, but “the great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives” might be the best.
7. Jane’s Addiction, “I Would for You.” Slow dancing at the end of the world while the ground falls away in all directions.
8. Jackie Shane, “Cruel Cruel World.” Shane received some well-earned praise near the end of her life, and it is a gift to have her work easily available now. This piece goes hand-in-hand with the previous one—the world may be cruel, but hope is worth it.
9. Waxahatchee, “Peace & Quiet.” Even more than they lyrics here (although she is an incredible lyricist), the first time I heard Katie Crutchfield’s voice, it was like a note from a frequency I didn’t even realize I was tuned to, and I wanted to write poems in that key.
10. Frank Ocean, “Solo.” The summer this album came out, I would drive around at night listening to it on repeat, and it seemed like the tires turned to fog while the car floated through the neighborhoods. That tone, and the lyrics in the chorus here (“it’s Hell on Earth and the city’s on fire . . . there’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky”) seeped into my writing for weeks.
11. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker.” Leonard Cohen is just about the only person who could pull off this song, but I went back to it frequently as license to dive into dark waves.
12. The Veils, “Axolotl.”Few pieces of art affected me over the past few years as much as David Lynch’s return to “Twin Peaks,” which aired two years ago now. This song, which was featured in one of the most haunting scenes in the series, captured what I was after in the poems, and pushed them further.
13. Prince, “Annie Christian.” It may be hard to believe, but Prince is actually underrated in some regards, as in his skill to capture anxiety and chaos. The swirling keyboards and staccato guitar skipping around then-current end-times events were a reference point as I worked on the book.
14. Jeff Tweedy, “Some Birds.”Superstition Review editor Trish Murphy actually blurbed the new book, saying that it works to build an “alternate universe designed to help us better understand our real one” and there are, indeed, at least a few twins from other worlds staring back at us in there. In this song, tonally a breath of fresh air in the playlist, one of those twins appear.
15. Patti Smith, “Pissing in a River.” If there’s an artist more willing to put her heart and mind out there against all risks, I haven’t seen or heard them. I aspire to be as fearless as her voice and heart-on-sleeve passion that builds through this song.
16. REM, “Every Day is Yours to Win.” With all of the darkness in the book, I wanted to end with a more delicate voice, with at least a ribbon of light, in the very last poem. The peace in this song, and (literal) repetition of the last lines are an earnest attempt to do so, even if it is futile.
17. Bob Dylan, “Dark Eyes.” The bookend to the very first song, this was always the piece of music I heard in my head while putting the book together. The images, the tone, the lyrics—it was a North Star, and is the song I hear when I close the book at its conclusion.
There is one final way that music influences writing, and it is less specific than being sparked by a particular line of a song, or influenced by the melody and rhythm. Sometimes, as with all art, the simple act of being exposed to someone else’s creativity is enough to move us to action—the earnest inspiration of someone else’s work. And by listening, and sensing their passion, it puts momentum into our own work. We can’t listen without wanting to create as well.
With this new book, I had a version of the manuscript for a solid year or two that I thought was done. But it wasn’t. If I was being honest with myself (it took a while), about a quarter of the poems needed to go, and be flushed out with new pieces. That was a tough pill to swallow, but it was obvious to me—I just didn’t know where to begin.
At the very start of last summer, we were driving through Northern Arizona, and up through Nevada, along route 93, running parallel to the Colorado River and alongside the White Hills area. After stopping for gas at one of the rare stations, I plugged my phone into the audio output, and hit shuffle. Pharaoh Sanders came on, and the opening sounds of “The Creator Has a Masterplan,” from Karma, played. We pulled onto the road, his saxophone lifted off, the chiming bells echoed out, and as we curved through the desert. The car was flying.
If you’ve never heard this song before, it’s worth a listen, and if you have, it’s worth a second. All 32 minutes and 47 seconds of it. When it started that afternoon, the sun had just started to go down, and by the end of it, we were driving in the dim light of dusk.
When we ultimately got back to California, I started writing, and I didn’t stop until the book was done.
Robert Krut’s new book, The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire, is the recipient of the Codhill Poetry Award and will be released in June by Codhill Press. He is also the author of This Is the Ocean (Bona Fide Books, 2013), which received the Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Award, and The Spider Sermons (BlazeVox, 2009). As a faculty member in the Writing Program and College of Creative Studies, he teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara. More information is available at www.robert-krut.com.
Internships are a great way to get involved in the world of literature, but it can be hard to know where to start and it can take a lot of research. That’s why we did the research instead! Here are the top ten literary internships for aspiring writers and editors:
Plus, here are a few tips for conducting your own internship research:
1. Everything varies widely, from compensation to time commitment.
Many internships are designed for college students: they operate on a semester schedule, require 15-20 hours of work per week, and offer college credit in lieu of money. But most lit mags and presses don’t require you to be a student, and there are many (including 6 of the 10 on this list!) that offer hourly pay or a stipend.
2. Many literary organizations are located in New York City, San Francisco or Washington, D.C.
If you don’t already live in one of those cities and you’re not interested or unable to move for a three-month internship, be sure to check out your local literary scene. Most cities and universities have presses and lit mags, and it never hurts to ask if they have a position open!
In addition to internships, many lit mags offer volunteers the opportunity to review submissions; while not as involved or structured as an internship, working as a reader can be a good way to get experience in the field before applying to positions with more responsibility.
3. Research the actual responsibilities of the job.
All of my top 10 internships offer hands-on editorial experience, but there are also literary internships that focus on marketing, design or events. While those can still be useful experiences, it’s important to consider what you want to get out of the internship and what work you’re actually interested in doing.
Last year, I had the extraordinary privilege of teaching an undergraduate class on music and poetry. I was thrilled to witness the camaraderie that developed between the musicians, poets, and fiction writers who enrolled as they built our classroom community through workshop and discussion. I watched them collaborate, and watched many genuine friendships form. During the last week, I put together my last planned lesson of the course, a sampling of “how-tos” for the professional writing world – how to publish in undergraduate literary journals, how to write a cover letter, how to find resources and enroll in online poetry classes, etc. Thirty seconds into my presentation, one of my students – let’s call her Viola – said, “but Miss Cole, how do you know whenyou’re a poet? When do you count?”
This question both deeply resonated with me and also broke my heart. I abandoned my previous lesson plan, reentered the circle of students, and told them that when I was in my second-ever poetry class, I capped off my portfolio with a poem called “When I am a Poet.” The poem itself has been lost, but the general gist was “when I’m a real poet, my work is going to be so much better, I’m going to be so much smarter, and I’ll be taken so much more seriously.”
To be an artist of any kind is to live with the constant, nagging doubt that your art is not legitimate. We believe, instead, that our legitimacy as artists comes from the world around us – from poems and books we have published, to accolades we have won, to degrees we have earned. We believe that these things are concrete and tangible proof that we “count” as artists in our chosen fields.
And it’s not to say that those things don’t matter. They can be helpful to a poet’s career, especially if one wishes to enter academia, where right amount of acclaim and professional connections can sometimes translate into a teaching job. Publication increases our work’s visibility. Awards and grants provide us funding to continue our work. Books allow a poet to showcase a range of work that readers can keep on their bookshelves or bedsides.
But none of these trappings, however useful to someone’s poetry career, make us poets.
Fewer than ten of Emily Dickinson’s poems were ever published during her lifetime, all of them anonymously, possibly without her knowledge, and she is one of the greatest American poets of all time. But even her greatness, her innovation and brilliance is not what made her a poet. Her poetry made her a poet. And that lesson is less about poetry itself, and more about the system that young American poets are brought up in, a system that teaches them to value their work based on publication credits, awards, Facebook likes, and, ultimately, money.
As poets, and all too often as people, we define ourselves by our external accomplishments because the “marketplace” of poetry – of capitalism, of America – teaches us that the value of our artistic work is directly correlated with how many people see that work and thus how much money it makes and/or how famous we become because of it.
Until Viola asked her vulnerable and important question, I was doing all my students a disservice by focusing their attention on publication, rather than teaching them the far more important lesson that their work has intrinsic value all on its own.
So I invoked another metric. “Class,” I asked, “How many of you think that Viola is a poet?”
The class responded with a chorus of affirmation that, yes, Viola was not only a poet, but a talented poet, one with a gift for strange, defamiliarizing syntax and potent, memorable metaphor. “But you’re my friends!” Viola cried.
“Precisely.” I said. “Now, is there anyone else who feels that they aren’t a poet?”
Every hand went up. Including mine.
When they stared at me—but you’re the teacher—I told them that the “marketplace” of poetry would have them believe that they are not a real poet until they’ve collected a certain, often arbitrary, number of accomplishments. I told them that even with dozens of publications in nationally-recognized journals, with a CV full of accolades, a chapbook publication, an MFA, there are days, weeks, whole months, that I don’t feel like a real poet. I told them about poet-friends I know, friends who have books and NEA grants and lists of accomplishments pages long, who still consider themselves to be “emerging” poets, because the poetry marketplace has told that they don’t count as “real poets” yet.
Viola isn’t alone. Every poet I know wonders, at one time or another, at what point they “count.” At what point they will count as “real.” But that’s just the marketplace talking. It’s an easy thing to forget, in the midst of all the other noise, but it’s the poetry that makes the poet. Not the money. Not the brand. Not the number of fans, or of followers on Twitter or Instagram.
Before class ended that day, I asked my students to do one more thing. They looked to their left and their right, and told each other the one truth that I hope they’ve taken away from class, the truth more important than any advice about publication than I could ever give them: You are already a poet, they said to one another. You already count.
It’s National Poetry Month and I’m focusing on ekphrasis. When I mention this to people, even fellow poets and writers, I usually am met with “ek-what?” Ekphrasis is a term used to denote poetry written from or inspired by visual artistic mediums and traces its lineage back to the Greeks and Romans, including the works of Homer’s The Iliad and Horace’s “Ars Poetica.” The word ekphrasis, in fact, comes from two Greek words, ek, meaning out, and phrasis meaning speak. Ekphrastic poetry, then, functions as a “calling to” or “speaking to” (or about) art.
Historically, conventional forms of art, as seen in Robert Hayden’s “Monet’s Water Lilies,” and “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rilke, are central to traditional ekphrastic poetry. However, in the last few decades, many reservations have been raised about the use of ekphrasis in poetry; mainly, that it limits the poet’s ability to seebeyond the work itself.
Oh, I disagree. Ekphrastic poetry is not just a celebration of art—in all of its forms—but is limitless, in fact, in its scope. The poet may choose a photograph and discuss the subject, yes, but more than that, may choose to write about the photographer one can’t see in the image, or capture something partially exhibited in the background, or simply use it as a source of intellectual and artistic inspiration.
The problem with this argument, and those like it, however, is that when discussing ekphrasis, critics often conjure images of someone entering a gallery exhibit and then rushing home to write a poem about it. This argument, sadly, sells the practice of ekphrasis short. True, there are numerous poems in the vein of I just saw the Van Gogh exhibit and now I have to write a Starry Night poem, but the beauty of ekphrastic poetry is the dialog it creates between artists: poet and image, poet and painter, graffiti artist, jazz musician.
Notable collections such as Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia, Kevin Young’s Jelly Roll andTo Repel Ghosts, Sharon Dolin’s Serious Pink, and Joseph Campana’s The Book of Faces are ekphrastics that speak to an entirely new generation of readers and poets. These poets and their works are helping to bring the ekphrastic out of the museum and gallery and into a new century where the image is dynamic, where the concept and definition of art is limitless.
As the Greeks and Romans utilized the ekphrastic as a means to understand their fellow human and their place in the universe, so do contemporary poets such as John Ashbery, Sharon Dolin, Kevin Young, and Natasha Trethewey. In a modern era, ekphrasis is not limited by tangibility, but by the possibility of what the artistic media can encourage. Many successful modern ekphrastic poems bring the tradition into the new millennia by opting to utilize contemporary media as a means to reflect a modern, often skewed and distorted culture and thought.
In Kevin Young’s collections, To Repel Ghosts and Jelly Roll, Young’s poems are inspired by the blues and the experimental African American artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Similarly, Jeannine Hall Gailey’s poems in Becoming the Villainessare concerned with the modern image of the objectified woman, using the artifice of female comic book superheroes and pop artist Roy Lichetenstein’s women to explore the role of female characters in a culture so visually consumed.
Today’s ekphrastic is not an expected recreation of Rembrandts and Van Goghs, but function as a call- and-response to the media and images of a dynamic, contemporary culture. Music, film, comic books, and pop art are all integral to the way we think about the world around us, our interior and exterior landscapes.
Art exists to hold the viewer and the subject of the work in place, in a moment in time. In this, both the viewer and the object are always present. Beyond the description of a painting, a blues song, or a film, ekphrasis is a work of detail and experience, with the poet’s implement of perspective bridging the gap between the real world and the imagined.
There’s this mansion recurrent in my nightmares. To my knowledge, if knowledge is a word I can apply here, every room of feigned Victorian elegance has been entered, the verdant and monstrous grounds walked a bit, but not completely for the pixilation that becomes their periphery. Some rooms in a stubbed wing of this construction are safe; others terrify me to wake screaming or wide-eyed in a cognizant paralysis of knowing that I should move toward a light switch but cannot. Night terrors borne since childhood: chill-tremor ghosts haunt these high-contrast framed nightmares. The attic is a place of violence and carnage that I’m unable to believe my mind has conjured. My uncertainty with the details of these dreams is mirrored with the uncertainty I have of my adolescence and young adulthood memories. The myriad blank moments a result of trauma and abuse—most mornings I doubt the details and “truth” of my waking existence.
Some summers ago after a stint teaching creative writing in Singapore and while traveling through South East Asia a second time, I taught an online World Literature course of The Early Modern period, 11th to around the 17th century, in which we read some selections of, and learned a bit about, Michel de Montaigne, considered to be The Fountainhead of the essay, the original man of colloquial introspection (to paraphrase Erich Auerbach), whose meandering language structures reflected his doubt regarding his own memory, especially as he grew older and after his post-dome-damage from falling off of a horse. His is, and how I’ve come to think of nonfiction, a process of wandering and discovering, resurrecting one’s memory. My students seemed fascinated with de Montaigne’s ideas, though it was perhaps due in part to their self-important age demographic and/or the course being online. They need only examine texts and look at themselves superficially in a “foreign” place and boom, realization and epiphany of one’s own cultural mores transposed over another’s. I need only realize the realization of myself and assess their essays and reading responses. There was no mirror only the idea of an idea of one.
The writing of reflective and personal essays is a distorted and dirty manner, akin to the early practitioners of black metal, I like to think, the precepts or criteria of which lie in the bleak coldness of black metal’s instrumentation and recording quality. In the beginning, the dirtier more distant and more analog-tape sounding the music, the better. Though as black metal has expanded this aspect has been put on the wayside for more produced, operatic qualities. The musicianship, the dexterity of the players, however, is a lasting and necessary criterion. You have to have stamina, no doubt, much as one needs stamina for any kind of writing and self-reflection. It’s one’s specific type of distortion that may begin to matter.
Memory is distorted. The crunch, fuzz, or compression of that distortion relies upon the writer the creator the distorter. Same as in any black metal, or any other genre, metal band. How unique is your cut? What about your sound and tone differentiates you from the hundreds of other bands? Mark Doty, in his essay “Return to Sender: Memory, Betrayal, and Memoir,” writes of his Memphis childhood experience as being, at best, a distortion. He returns to that city after some twenty years, if memory serves me correctly, with his partner en route to some other obligation and seeks to locate his childhood street and home. To his recollection the street name is Ramses Street, a distortion of his childhood resulted from his interest in Ancient Egypt and columns he remembers of his house, though the actual street name was McIlhenny Street. He eventually finds the location of where his house should be through a type of physical, visceral recollection, though it’s been torn down for a large apartment complex. He had stood before his elementary school and his body recalled its way home. Though, maybe his body had nothing to do with it and I’m projecting or imagining that. The point is that the “true” notes of his memory composition are distorted; however in line they are in regards to position and scale, the memory is blurred in regards to tone and register. He has created, or encountered, his own distortion.
Sometimes I think this way: poetry is akin to the making of a watch in all its components; fiction, countries and its constituents, characters who buy and trade, steal, discover, and yearn for those watches and their makers; nonfiction, why the watch is the watch that it thinks it is or wants to be based on its watchness. Afaa Michael Weaver is a factory worker turned poet who writes the personal, the political, and the spiritual. Since I’ve undertaken the necessary, for me, task of writing nonfiction I’ve been reading and returning to Weaver’s Plum Flower Trilogy, which is made up of the collections The Plum Flower Dance, The Government of Nature, and City of Eternal Spring. The trilogy is a poetic study of the self, race relations, and spiritual decay and growth. Weaver’s poems bring light to his experience with abuse and incest, racism, his fifteen years as a factory worker, the death of a son, madness, survival and recovery, the poet becoming the Poet. A significant and recurring image is that of the house: as place, safety, and understanding, perhaps. The poem, “Improbable Mecca,” is set in Weaver’s childhood house, a house that has the ability to record, see, and respond with laughter to the speaker’s recollections. The poem’s final line is one that resounds from the shadows of memory, one that stays with me:
This house stands before me
and in my memory, a monument
perfectly aligned to the stars,
luminescent and sentient,
a life in and of itself and ourselves,
as patient and kind and suffering
as anyone could ever hope a house
to be when chattering children
kick in its lap, men lie in it,
trying to accommodate their future,
when women paint it with song
from the old world of patriarchal law,
when death comes lusting after it
with sledgehammers and stillness—
I come to the front steps
and sit as I did when I was a child
and hope that I can hold to this
through life’s celebrations and calamities,
until I go shooting back
into the darkness of my origin
in some invisible speck
in an indeterminable brick
of this house, this remembering.
I first began to write, as many of us certainly have, in order find solace, some answers to the depression, anger, substance abuse, and disquiet I have lived and live with. I began writing shitty poems in high school, which continued into college and expanded into my pursuit of writing fiction, of which I’d eventually get an MFA. To be honest, I don’t completely understand my process of deciding which genre to pursue when writing. I might sum it up to intuition or whim, although every piece of nonfiction I’ve published has been solicited (lucky asshole). So, I’ve had to pull it all out of my ass with no real understanding of how and why. Reading a lot of nonfiction has certainly helped, has given me a blueprint for entering the house of my nightmares. Fiction and poetry haven’t really worked for me in regards to writing about trauma and memory. This is entirely untrue, though. It’s best if you believe it, too.
I’m continually in the process of thinking about this process. I wanted to write about empathy, boarding schools, Slayer and Sepultura (speed/thrash metal bands), and the affect that sexual and physical abuse has on an entire family when the abusers are extended family that were supposed to be trusted caretakers. And so far my only real entrance into those topics is Weaver’s poem “Against Forgiveness” from The Government of Nature:
In the moonlight the leaves telegraph
the night’s song, the way they brush against
us as we go under the wooden bridge
across from the Jesuit seminary, stepping
in streams, the horses tunnels of living flesh
that we trust. My faith in him is absolute.
We go into the woods where mad things
can turn the horses into monsters that maim
and crush, but he holds life up with hands
named by what nature tells the living.
I know it from the shadows of whispers
in my mind, from the earliest games in a space
a big brother should have had but was taken by him,
my uncle like a chocolate bear in the dark,
bear that I keep close to me, carving
a dark father from questions I do not know,
questions I have not the courage to ask
as one asks a question to step from shadow
and become the light that leads, shines
on the words carved in stone by water.
This process of shining light into the shadows is often dangerous for me. Many a therapist has told me that I’m only re-traumatizing myself and exacerbating bad behaviors. But, as is seen in Weaver’s collection, I’ll live with this trauma, these distorted memories, forever. So, you know, fuck it, I’ll continue to find sense, understanding, and “truth,” however aberrant / distorted the journey.
Today, we are pleased to feature Ana Brotas as our Authors Talk series contributor. She takes this opportunity to discuss her experience with photography and reveal her creative process. She describes her long journey with photography and how she has used the “process of drawing with light” as a form of expression.
Ana reflects on her early relationship with photography, noting that “there was an amazement embedded in this process.” However, as her time working with the artistic medium went on and became digitized she felt that it lost much of its meaning and no longer felt like the same “conscious decision to capture a moment.” This changed when she went through the many photos she had taken over the years and discovered things she had forgot, saying that it was as if she was “browsing through someone else’s memory” to go through her old photos. So, she found new inspiration in the “nostalgia transformed into an archive” which speaks honestly to the unexpected and complex creative process which can take shape in so many different ways.
One of the recurring jokes in Don Delillo’s White Noise involves Babette’s devout conviction in paying attention to posture, diet, and other quotidian mundanities as a way to diminish her anxiety. As Jack Gladney, Delillo’s bemused “Hitler Studies” professor and protagonist describes:
“Two nights a week Babette goes to the Congregational Church at the other end of town
and lectures to adults in the basement on correct posture. Basically she is teaching them
how to stand, sit, and walk. Most of her students are old. It isn’t clear to me why they
want to improve their posture. We seem to believe it’s possible to ward off death by
following the rules of good grooming.”
Babette’s sublime regard for the ordinary is complemented by Jack’s colleague Murray Siskind, a seemingly Baudrillardian avatar of postmodernism, constantly interrupting with gnomic declamations such “You have to learn how to look,” “People have to learn to look and listen like children,” “We want to be artless again.” The question of whether Murray is indeed an avatar of gleeful PM nihilism or in fact a follower of Zen, praising presence, mindfulness, and attentiveness, has raged for decades and isn’t the point of this post—although you can probably tell already Murray is my hero, and I think Babette’s “jokes,” including additional classes on “Eating & Drinking,” are practical teachings worth more than a thousand MFAs.
The point of this blog is to propose what non-judgmental mindfulness and good writing posture can do for us as practicing writers. In the summer of 2014 I was awarded a scholarship to attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Writing Conference. While there I studied under Steve Almond, who is incredibly awesome and intense and if my writing is ever any good he deserves the credit. Anyway, one of the other teachers that weekend was Anthony Swofford, who had just published Jarhead at the time. My dormmates and I (Hey Bonnie! Hey Jason!) had been pounding jugs of bourbon all day before Swofford’s reading, and thus all I can recall at this time is Swofford waving a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, explaining he re-read it every time he began a new writing project.
I immediately bought/found/stole a copy of the book and started to workshop a story with Steve called “Nobody’s Children,” which was published in Superstition Review a few years ago, and is in fact the occasion for this post. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is structured as a series of brief explanations of the Zen perspective on such sexy topics as “Posture” (“try to always keep the right posture, not only when you practice zazen, but in all of your activities”), “Breathing,” “Nothing Special,” and “Right Effort” (“if you try not to be disturbed, your effort is not right effort”). The central conceit of “Nobody’s Children” was stolen directly from the book, with its evocative statement, “When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door.”
“Beginner’s Mind” teaches us to create things like children, in a state of flow and not expectation. As we age, we invert what should be the correct conception of art: a thing we create added to the world’s plenitude and diversity, which is a good thing, and a fun thing. As adults, however, if you’re like me, we think of art as: something that fails to become what it is or “should be.” We love without hope. We see the cracks, fissures, pimples, noxious smells emitting from our creation and this doesn’t measure up to what’s in our heads. And thus we think it’s a failure—but how can it be a failure in comparison to something that never existed? Any piece of art is ipso facto perfect in its own right, it is itself and nothing else. I believe this is similar to Leibniz’s argument for a greater plenitude.
There’s a Japanese word “Kintsugi” (made famous perhaps by the Death Cab for Cutie album) denoting the practice of “repairing” broken pottery, ceramics, or jewels by leaving the wounds and imperfections visible. Expanded to relate to not just reparation but creation, we can see how this concept connects to or merges with the “Beginner’s Mind” mentality: play like a child, and the heavens will sing. This insight, gleaned four years ago in under the influence in Montpelier, VT, taught me to have the right attitude towards my fragile little stories, this lost island of misfits I visit with love, and hope, looking around me, awakened again with a profound sense of wonder. As Bob Dylan once wrote: “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”