Garfield is a small city in northern New Jersey, not far from Manhattan, that sits on the Passaic River. This is the same Passaic River that William Carlos Williams wrote about in Paterson and the same Passaic River my grandmother repeatedly wanted us to throw her into: “I don’t want to be a bother – just throw me in the river.” Garfield is still a very blue-collar place with a large Polish population, enough so that the early Easter Mass at St. Stanislaus’ my grandmother would take us to was conducted in Polish. She was the only one of us who understood anything other than the three Polish words the rest of us knew: Jezus, Chrystus, and Amen. It was, and I imagine still is, an unusual place to find oneself thrust into poetry.
20 years ago or so, in Garfield, there used to be a bar on River Road, running along the Passaic, which tried very hard to be Tony Soprano-ish before there ever was a Tony Soprano. On one night a month, though, they hung a thin scrim to separate the bar from a small area with tiny circular tables and an even smaller stage and held poetry readings. My first dose of poetry outside of a high school classroom (and the worn copy of Oscar Williams’ Immortal Poems of the English Language that I carried around with me for years) was on those nights when I would sneak into that bar. I don’t know how many normal 18 year-olds sneak into bars to see poetry readings, and don’t actually buy a beer, but few poets that I know are what most people would categorize as normal anyway.
Essence, the student-run literary journal from William Paterson College (now University) is still put out every year (to the best of my knowledge) and most of the readers were students whose work made it into those pages. The thrill of sitting in that bar, someplace I shouldn’t have been anyway, with the lights low, tea candles lit at the tables, and real live poets reading their work just feet away created a seismic shift somewhere inside of me that previously had been used for common sense and sound decision making. I had wanted to study film, or go to art school, but sitting in that bar, holding a copy of that little magazine filled with poets who were never heard from again but remain larger than life to me today, utterly convinced me that I was going to be a poet.
Of course back then there was never a thought of MFA programs or AWP or competing for residencies or fellowships. There was never even a thought of actually publishing a poem beyond making a bunch of copies of some 8 ½ by 11 sheets at the library to hand out to friends (and I’m not sure I even realized that there were magazines that published poetry). This was before email, so we would have to hand deliver or mail poems to each other and we kept them in different colored folders separated by which ones we thought were real poems and which ones were just cool. And then we’d occasionally sneak into the bar.
I vividly recall one night where one of my favorite poets (whose name I no longer recall and I doubt I even knew then) read a poem about waiting for a train, backed by a guy playing a standup double bass. It was like the poetry reading scene from So I Married An Axe Murderer. Later, another reader started reciting his poem from the back of the room, slowly walking towards the stage holding a lit candle. He finished the poem as he reached the stage, then turned toward all of us and blew out the candle. Our minds were collectively blown.
Of course as soon as I was a regular I got pinched by a new guy working the door and was told never to come back. I tried to explain that I was just there for the poetry. He laughed. Hard. So I drove away and found a diner to sit in and drink coffee.
Now, having two very little kids, I don’t get to as many readings as I used to, but I still manage to get to the KGB Bar in New York every other month or so. Some days I sort of miss that innocence, that feeling that everything ahead was going to be new. But that’s the beauty of poetry, even this many years into it: there is always something new. So even as I write this, waiting for the blizzard that will apparently slam into the entire Northeast, I’m thinking about finding a good poetry reading next week, and maybe trying to sneak in.
Whether I stop reading or stop walking is up to the author.
Of course, the nuances of reading nonfiction submissions for a lit mag like Superstition Review are more complex than that. For one thing, I am not the only one making the decisions. I am one of four editors who work with nonfiction, including two professors and two student editors.
The other editors and I look for a variety of things that make us feel strongly about a piece. Whether those strong feelings are positive or negative are discussed at our weekly meetings, where we make decisions about the fate of certain pieces. We tell each other what made us want it, what made us dislike it, what kept us going until the end of the piece. We decide, as a group, whether to accept a piece right then and there or to ask for certain revisions.
Most of the time, when we want to accept a piece, we email authors and ask them for the latter. Copy edits and typos seem to be the main concern, and we occasionally get formatting issues. We try not to accept pieces with major flaws.
Every so often, there comes a story that breaks my heart.
Sometimes it’s wonderful as it is, and we are prepared to accept it with or without revisions. When we email the author, the response is less than what we wanted: Simultaneous submissions are pulled out from under us by faster editors. We are told that the story is no longer available.
Sometimes authors don’t want to accept revisions, thinking their story is perfect just the way it is, as if the piece is a small child with a fragile ego. I understand the desire to hold on, the personal nature of someone telling you that your kid is going through a rough puberty. All of us are writers too. The thing is, if you want a story to reach that grown-up phase that is publication, you have to be willing to let it grow beyond you.
Other times, there are stories with so much potential hidden behind standard words, potential that I wish could just be pulled out through computer screens to make this piece a great one. By happy coincidence, these seem to be written by the authors who are willing to listen to their stories and to their readers. Standard sentences become elevated, stories get stripped down or built up (or both), and characters become flesh in print form.
Every so often, we get a piece that has simple words arranged in just such a way that I can’t help but stop walking. There are those essays that make me understand my mother, with her squamous cell cancer scars and her books on estate laws, a little better. There are essays that gives me a glimpse past my father’s stoic face at his own father’s funeral, singing baritone gospel songs in a minor key that were the favorite of the dead man at the front of the room. One essay in particular reminds me of a time when I got lost in Berlin, completely cut off from the one person in the group who actually spoke German besides the obligatory Danke schoen and Wo ist die… um… sprichst du Englisch?
Some of my favorite stories from this round of submissions have made me reflect on my own experiences, sharing a snapshot of the writers’ lives that is at once universal enough to be widely appreciated and personal enough to make me stop in my tracks and just read.
When I was a sophomore in college, my creative writing teacher, Gail Adams, mentioned to me that I might want to consider attending this thing called the West Virginia Writers Workshop. I was a painfully shy girl, majoring in psychology and taking a creative writing class as an elective. Gail, somehow in that miraculous way she has, saw something in me and took me under her wing. She hooked me up with some funding through the university and, come July, I found myself nervously sitting around a table with several other writers and workshop leader, Pinckney Benedict, an intimidating presence to be sure.
While I don’t remember a ton about the actual workshop now (other than I was scared to death and barely said a word), what I do remember was the excitement of being around so many other writers—men and women at all stages of their careers and of their lives. We were all very different, but we also had things in common—we loved words, and we wanted to do something with that love. And thus began my romance with writers’ conferences.
Since then, I’ve attended many workshops and conferences—some more successful for me than others—but what never changes is the happy feeling at the end of the day of community, of finding ones tribe (no matter how eccentric, strange, or disagreeable members of that tribe may be).
Let’s face it, writing—the very hard center of it—is a solitary enterprise, and I’ll admit that most days, I love that quality. I, like many writers, have always been a bit of an introvert, and don’t mind being alone for a while with just my computer and my words (unfortunately, this happens very rarely these days, but that’s a different blog topic). Writing conferences and workshops, though, give us the chance to blink into the sunlight; maybe get some advice from other writers on that tricky story, essay, or poem we’ve been stressing over; and not feel so alone for a little while.
At this point in my life, I’ve attended a variety of conferences and workshops, so I feel as though I can offer some advice when it comes to choosing the event that is best for you, and how to get the most out of your experience. I’ll start with just a brief discussion of the different types of conferences out there, and the benefits of each.
So far in this entry, I’ve been using the terms “conference” and “workshop” pretty interchangeably (and the events often use them interchangeably, too), but the truth is that not all are meant to be the same. In my experience, a “writer’s workshop” typically has a workshop element, meaning that you (the writer) will submit a manuscript weeks before the actual event. That manuscript will be distributed to the other people in your workshop group, and you’ll come together during the designated time to talk about the pieces, all under the guidance of a workshop leader (usually a successful writer who’s getting paid as a faculty member at the workshop). This is how the West Virginia Writers Workshop (WVWW) that I mentioned above, works. In addition to the individual workshop meetings, there are usually also “sessions” or craft talks offered so attendees will get the opportunity to meet the other workshop faculty, as well as learn about specific themed topics and usually do some writing exercises. There are also usually evening readings by the faculty. The WVWW ends with an open mike where many of the participants read snippets of work they’ve done over the weekend. (Full disclosure, I attended this workshop for several years, and now work for WVWW as the high school participant coordinator, so maybe I’m biased, but it’s an awesome workshop. You should come).
Similar to WVWW is the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington, Kentucky. This is the country’s oldest women writers conference (though men are welcomed too), and the lovely city of Lexington fully embraces the event and the writers who travel from all over the US to attend. There are panels, as well as the option to do a workshop (though this is not a requirement to attend). This low key/low stress event is often the perfect place for a newer writer, just getting her feet wet, while also providing experienced writers the opportunity to work with amazing staff. This year, I worked with National Book Award Nominee Bonnie Jo Campbell.
The full workshop is often the most expensive (though both the WVWW and the KWWC are huge bargains at $350 and $195 respectively), but participants do usually get personal feedback from an admirable writer. These are also usually the events that last the longest (one reason for the increased price). Many, though, try to combine room and board with the tuition so that participants can save some cash, or they offer campus housing when possible. WVWW participants stay in West Virginia University’s dormitory, which creates a fun and nostalgic atmosphere. There is also often scholarship or fellowship opportunities available to help offset costs for some participants. Bread Loaf, one of the country’s most famous workshops, allows some lucky participants to perform a sort of “work study” to reduce their costs.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the “conference”. At a conference, there typically is not a workshop element and, instead, participants attend many sessions and readings. The most well-known writers conference is of course AWP, a massive annual event hosted by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. The conference changes location each year (last year was Boston, the year before Chicago, this year Seattle), and hosts thousands of writers for four days. This conference revolves around panels where writers speak about specific topics, some related to craft, others organized by theme. There are many readings and a gigantic “book fair” where participants can learn about tons of presses, journals, and writing programs. It sounds great, right? It is, but it is also expensive (travel, hotel, conference costs) and it can be incredibly overwhelming. AWP is important at certain stages of a writer’s career, especially if that writer is also looking for an academic job; however, it is not the be-all-end-all. If you’re not ready for the extreme conference like AWP, there are plenty of other options.
One of my favorite conferences is the Press 53 Gathering of Writers, a newish event that’s been offered just twice by the small press, Press 53. The Gathering of Writers is an intensive one-day production held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It’s relatively inexpensive (under $200) and intentionally small (no more than 53 writers can attend). Participants attend sessions offered by the faculty who are usually writers in the Press 53 stable, have a nice lunch provided by the conference, and then go to a reading at the end of the day. Because of the intimate setting, it’s easy to meet new people and talk to the faculty. There is no hierarchy; the faculty is not kept apart from the participants (as they sometimes are at the more prestigious conferences). It’s a great day, and well worth the money.
There are usually conference options locally, especially if your state has a writer’s group or if there are colleges/universities in your area. I’ve attended the Winter Wheat Writers Conference on the campus of Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio for many years. This is an event that hosts every level of writer, from undergraduate students all the way up to writers who have published several books. Another local conference that I’ve always enjoyed (both as an attendee and as faculty) is the West Virginia Writers, Inc. Conference, held annually in Ripley, West Virginia. Here, there are many sessions offered over several days, but the real story is community. There is an incredible, welcoming atmosphere at this conference, be it in the classroom or around the bonfire at night. Check out your local events. Chances are that you can find a conference near you that is inexpensive, as well as fun and engaging.
There are probably many other “kinds” of conferences/workshops/gatherings/events that I’ve missed. The rule here is that there is no rule. Each event has its own guidelines, its own flavor. That’s one of the things that make these events so great. You can find what’s best for you and mix it up each year.
Now, for some Dos and Don’ts (and some advice from other writers)
Do know why you’re going. Don’t have unreasonable expectations.
If you think that you’re going to become best friends with the famous writer who is giving a reading/presenting a craft class/leading a workshop, you will be disappointed. Sometimes a friendship will develop, but that has to happen naturally. If you believe you will get a book contract or agent, you’re going to be disappointed. Sure, this does occasionally (rarely) happen, but you can’t expect it. There is no easy route to publication or contracts. You have to put in the work. The reason to go to a workshop is to better your craft through attending sessions, sharing work, and talking to other writers. Going solely for any other reason is probably going to be a waste of money.
Gretchen Moran Laskas (author, Midwife’s Tale and Miner’s Daughter): Don’t think that a conference is a substitute for the actual hard work of writing itself. There are always some people who are sure it’s just a matter of meeting the right person, making the right connection, having the inspiration, paying the right price, when in the end, it still means you sitting in a chair putting words on the page.
Do go to work with the famous writer that you’ve been cyber stalking if you think he/she will teach you something. Don’t be closed off to the possibility of meeting someone new.
Some conferences have both junior and senior faculty. Don’t ignore the “new guys”. They’re often the ones who are most willing to chat with attendees and who have their fingers on the pulse of the literary world. Be willing to learn from everyone, including other participants.
Phyllis Wilson Moore: If you find a comfortable atmosphere (I’m thinking Hindman Appalachian Writers Workshop or WVW) it is much easier: Low key, comfortable dress, reasonable accommodations, peer acceptance. I will always treasure attending Hindman where even the big name authors mix and mingle with the group and even join in the chores.
Do be open to socializing and making new friends, but Don’t feel like you have to participate in every event and go to every session.
You might need some alone time, and that’s perfectly okay. I personally get caught up in the “I must get my money’s worth” mentality, which often leaves me feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Take some time if you need to. Decompress. Maybe even write a little if the inspiration hits you.
Maggie Duncan: I like a writing conference where not only do you bring work to have critiqued but you also have writing exercises. My favorite in that respect is Tinker Mountain. I’ve always gained something from writer’s conferences, even if it is merely networking opportunities and even if it is just a one-day conference.
Rhonda Browning White: The most important thing, as I see it, is the networking. Connect with other writers. Stick around the for the after-hours cash bar, even if you sip on Diet Pepsi or water. The best information, encouragement, advice and support is often received when the work day is over, and the authors, editors and agents are relaxed and ready to dish about the business and life of writing.
Wilma Acre: Go with an open mind. I learn something in every session I attend–even though it is sometimes what NOT TO DO. Reach out to people. If you see someone sitting alone, ask “May I join you?” Almost all of my friends are people I have met at writing events.
That being said: Do attend events and get your money’s worth, but Don’t be afraid to break away.
Some of my most successful writing event related moments have been on side trips, when I left the workshop and ventured out. As I mentioned earlier, a workshop can be a bit overwhelming (especially big ones like AWP) and a side trip can provide some much needed rest and perspective. There is also something to be said in favor of visiting someplace while all these ideas about writing are fresh in your head. This might create an exciting new piece of writing for you. One of my very favorite side trips is to visit Jeffrey’s: Ohio’s Largest Antique Mall (according to Jeffrey) near Bowling Green, Ohio. Visiting Jeffrey’s has become a tradition for my friends and me when we attend the Winter Wheat conference. There are so many strange and unusual items at an antique store, not to mention tons of history. Definitely fertile ground for any writer.
Melissa Minsker: Do as much as you can and write down everything! So many great ideas and inspirations happen at a writing conference.
Kirsten Beachy: Take a break! If you’re suddenly inspired or too weary to pay attention, sit out of a session or two and rest or write.
Do understand that you’ll have to pay more for the bigger conferences, but Don’t take out a loan, cash in your 401K, or reach beyond your means to attend a conference.
I have nothing further to say about this. Just don’t.
And finally: Do go expecting to write, but Don’t be disappointed if you don’t.
A conference/workshop is a whirlwind. Often, every moment of your time is scheduled and, even though the events are all great, you might be too busy, tired, or plain out overwhelmed to write. That’s okay. Don’t feel like a failure if you don’t leave with a new story, essay, or poem. It will take a while for all the information you’re receiving to sink in. In that way, a writers workshop is the gift that keeps on giving, long after your time there is done.
Brad Eddy: The likelihood of getting anything work/writing related accomplished while attending a conference is an astonishing 0.00001% (and I rounded up).
Laura Morris: Get caught up in the energy of the conference. You’ll come up with a million ideas for new pieces. Take that energy home and use it.
In this blog post, I’ve tried to offer some helpful advice based on what I’ve learned over my several years of attending writers workshops and conferences, as well as what others have learned; however, these are the things that work for us. Just as each conference is different, each writer’s needs, desires, and processes are different. You’ll just have to start doing some research and attend the events that look interesting to you. Or, come to one of the ones I’ve mentioned here and look me up. I’m almost sure to be there!
For many years I resisted submitting my work to online journals. I suppose I was afraid they didn’t have the reputation of paper journals, and that my university wouldn’t consider them legitimate venues for a creative writing professor’s work. Or maybe there was something off-putting about reading something on the same plastic device I composed it on. Reading my work in published form already makes me squirm; too often I want to declunkify numerous sentences. At least if the story or essay is already in a book or journal there’s not much you can do about it. It’s there with all its blemishes permanently intact.
Words on a computer screen, on the other hand, seem so ephemeral. All writers want their work to survive the ages. A book might become thick with dust, but you can still store, and then later find it on a shelf. With one click on a computer you can replace your work in an on-line journal with Miley Cyrus’s latest twerking pic.
But two years ago my attitude towards online journals changed completely. At AWP one year, novelist Leslie Pietrzyk asked me to submit something to Redux, a new on-line journal devoted to “reprinting” stories, poems and essays that had once appeared in journals now “languishing on dusty library shelves.” No one had ever solicited work from me before. I was thrilled, even it was “only” for an on-line journal. Some months later I sent Leslie “Tourist Season at Auschwitz,” which originally appeared in The Gettysburg Review. (I found out later that the issue containing my essay sold out.) It appeared in Redux a month or two later. The journal is a simple affair. Each weekly issue contains just one story, essay or poem, followed by an account of its composition. Leslie uses a simple WordPress blogging program with few bells and whistles. This being a labor of love, Redux can’t pay its contributors.
At about the same time Traveler’s Tales published A Small Key Opens Big Doors, one of four anthologies celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. It contains my essay “Caroline,” which first appeared some years ago in Cimarron Review. (Like “Tourist Season at Auschwitz,” “Caroline” sprang from the same frantic pile of material I wrote after my three visits to Auschwitz in the early 90’s.) It’s a beautiful volume—thick, creamy paper, an eye catching, dark red cover. It looks like an appropriate Christmas gift, or something you’d give to someone going into the Peace Corps. My remuneration? Contributor’s copies.
I pushed both the anthology and the online journal, using all the social networking I could stomach: My blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Because the essays are drawn from a common material I was able to broadcast both on any number of Facebook pages, including ones devoted to Peace Corps Poland, Polish American Writers, and stories of World War II. I included links to the journal, and links to the appropriate Amazon page.
I soon realized what I’m sure is obvious to others: more people read “Tourist Season at Auschwitz” than “Caroline.” You can track hits on Redux, same as you can track sales on Amazon. People responded to “Tourist Season” on all the Facebook pages. Most of them even said nice things about it. It got around. People shared it on other pages. Some still do, in fact. “Caroline?” Not so much. Maybe it’s a weaker essay. I don’t know. More likely, the anthology is simply harder to share. Asking someone one to click on a link and read is far easier than asking someone to click on a link, pony up $20, and then wait a week for the book to show up.
And Amazon makes it easy with books. What about those beautiful literary journals? Numerous times on my travels around the world people have asked me if they could find stuff I published. “Sure,” I might say, “just send a check to this university. Make sure it’s not during the summer. No one’s going to be there. Oh, and I really don’t know the volume number containing my story, so just tell them it came out in 1998. But, given all the delays journals are prone to, the appropriate issue, even though it appeared in 1998, is really, officially, a 1996 issue. You could just give them my name, but interns come and go; whoever gets your check might not recognize my name. Just go by the cover art. Tell them you want the issue with the dog on the cover. I’m pretty sure there’s only one dog cover.”
I don’t have to do that as often anymore. Now, I can just say, “Superstition Review. My name is in the index.” Not even that, actually. If they have a smart phone, I can find my work for them immediately.
The other day I was talking to my friend and colleague, Matthew Brennan. He’s a very well published poet. I asked him if he ever submitted to online journals. He shrugged and said, “Nah, I like how the journals look on my book shelf.”
And they do. I can’t deny it. I like the feel of them. I even like how some of the issues containing my work have begun to yellow and grow brittle. It was a big deal to me when my first story made it into print. It took a lot of years for it to happen. When I see that issue of Red Cedar Review on my shelf it’s like looking at the trophy I won for little league baseball. When the journal first came out I didn’t give much thought to readers. First and foremost I wanted to see my name in print.
Now I think more about an audience. I have enough paper journals on my shelf; I want to be read. For good or bad it’s simply easier to reach an audience with an online journal than with a paper one. Besides, if someone likes my work, say in Superstition Review, they can click on the appropriate link, pony up $20, and in a week my book will be in their mail box. Sure, journals containing your work look nice when you get them. You know what else looks good? Royalty checks.
(This piece was originally delivered as part of the panel “Yoga & the Life of the Writer” at the 2013 AWP Conference)
It was suggested—perhaps in a sly way to urge us to hit that sacred middle-mark of the AWP Panel between 5 and 10 minutes—that each of us contribute testimonials of 7 minutes or so; quote: “one minute for each chakra.” Coming to yoga practice as I have, which is recently and already invested in a practice of poetry, I thought what you might expect: “too bad about the seven chakras, six would have made such a swell entrance to the form of the sestina.”
This is just to say that I am coming to most of the teaching of a yoga practice through my understanding of verse. So that when it is suggested I might visualize a purplish ball of light, it is not at all unlikely I will think of Williams Carlos Williams’ icebox plums, sweet and cold. I don’t see this as a conflict. It is in translation altered but enriched. There are connections; obvious alliances: the way we are encouraged to take our poetry off the page, carry our embodied mindfulness off the mat. An implicit understanding that boundaries blur and that to begin a poem or a session is to begin again living the practice in that strange and arresting world of the moment.
I was once staffing a function at which the general consensus was that the best verse was that which could be recited with military vigor. After hearing C.D. Wright read from her impressionistic, liminal, experiential, imagistic, voice-heavy, Deepstep Come Shining an indignant audience member asked the poet an interesting and entirely impossible question: “So, if it doesn’t have to rhyme, then what is poetry?” I thought her response graceful. Savvy. It was not reactionary against one who wanted parameters by which to appreciate and condemn, but something along the lines of “I don’t pretend to have a definition, but I can tell you what some other people have said about the art of poetry.” She then presented an eclectic array of possibilities about how one—or many—might get at not defining an art. And what is “yoga and the life of the writer” if it doesn’t rhyme? If it is not simply this pose, this form, this collection of stressed and unstressed moments, how can it feed us or be made valuable? I offer seven non-definitions of the connective tissue:
In translation. It begins with breath, with which the history of poetry begins. It is the most basic. It is salvation. Inspiration is not a misnomer. So, thus, as a writer I cast back to that call from an outside source with which to work: my time on the mat is an act not of pure creation, but of translation. Chuparosa: the Spanish for hummingbird. Rose sucker. Does it hum or rose? Yes. The French have a word for the moisture created around inclusions in an omelet. I need that word but know it already in my body. What is found there.
Alice Fulton’s Feeling as a Foreign Language on the table beside my desk. She is gesturing at the content of poetry rather than form alone, that the correct form, rather than being debated for its external merits be the one that allows us to feel something. In a poem. Perhaps elsewhere.
Kathleen Fraser’s Translating the Unspeakable is on the table too. These titles resonate. They are next to each other and close in my mind to this project. And that vibrates. There is field poetics in this book. And in this moment. There is Charles Olson’s “the unit/ the smallest/ there is.” There is the concept that placement in space matters, that proximity matters and the slightest adjustment makes major cognitive shifts possible. I am speaking in analogies. There is the concept that placement in space matters and that the slightest adjustment makes major cognitive shifts possible. Adjust your shoulders, adjust your margins.
I speak to my beginning writing students of the embodied character or moment. I am channeling a bit—something that one of my instructors, Ron Carlson, was wont to say. When students became—and would complain of—(what they viewed as) “mentally exhausted” from the process of creating, Carlson would underline another possible aspect; would emphasize the relation between the actual etymology of “manuscript”—something manual, something built by the sweat of your brow. The connection of your physical body to an abstract concept. I, too, recall Carolyn Forché saying whether you ever go back to the notes you are taking for a poem that the jotting down of them physically, them passing through your body, changes you. It is not merely—and I mean ‘mere’ in the Yeats-ian sense: ‘mere anarchy is loosed’—it is not merely the life of the mind we engage when we write. It is clearly not merely only my hamstrings I go to the mat to limber up.
In a one-of-a-kind erasure book by Mary Ruefle, Now It, there are certain lines of a previous text uncovered or, in light of her technique of obscuring with white-out, left uncovered. One struck me particularly because it included a poetic noun that, like the nightingale, resonates almost prismatically, within poetry: Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking,” Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying,” Robert Hass’ “Picking Blackberries with a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan,” Galway Kinnell’s “Blackberry Eating.” And yet it undid expectation: the un-covered lines were: “looked for blackberries/ else you would never find the strawberries.” A reaching to a known edge and finding something else beyond that is just as sweet, more vibrant: a new place within you, a new access, a greater access-point.
In a sculpture park outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan is a massive work by Mark di Suvero: Scarlatti. It is situated in an open field and it is—to my eye—doing a forward-bend of immense weight and gravity. Its nonfigurative, inhuman sits-bones thrust beautifully back and to a cool sky. But the wind is moving—almost imperceptibly, but perceive it—moving the enormous steel beams that are the childhood slash of stick-figure arms. So there is stillness and balance without rigidity. Make it new.
Finally, a line from Permission, an incredible forthcoming collection of poems by Katie Peterson: “The raven lifts/ like having to is part/ of what it is”
Twelve storeys up in Boston (yes, that’s in British-English, where storeys are not the same as stories) – three days into the word-storm of AWP… I wake after three hours sleep, on a still-visible tidemark of my home time zone. Other tidemarks show through, like one left by Anne Carson’s reading yesterday evening – the point-by-point enumeration, with the sound of logic, of a train of thought… What I sit up and write isn’t imitation, isn’t homage, and is nothing to do with her meaning. At three a.m. a tone, her tone, feels like a place, a set of inner rooms (look, with numbers on them). You can walk through them. Pausing. Glancing around a little guiltily, an interloper. Not quite sure if you’re welcome. But trying the sound of your voice, how it echoes, in each…
Theses at three a.m.
1. That even starting from nowhere, going nowhere else, still simply the numbering of things creates a sense of movement. An illusion… as innocent as a painted backdrop hand-winched along outside the window of a train in an early motion picture.
2. That I catch myself believing that’s what they did – the hand-winching, I mean – because I’ve written it, though I don’t have a shred of evidence.
3. That this too is a kind of movie. Stop-motion animation of a thought like Play-Doh or Plasticine.
4. That human figures made from Plasticine or Play-Doh, from beach sand or mud, grow naturally between our fingers, where they have a kind of life.
5. That somewhere a mullah might even now be denouncing a child for doing that thing, unthinking, with blasphemous hands.
6. That God might, secretly, be eaten up with fondness, at the sight of these blunt malformed child-made creatures. Sad too, knowing that they cannot be allowed to live.
7. That somewhere in the floodplain mud, the alluvium, just outside the city, where the shanties go up, is a lump that desires to be golem.
8. That it was people’s crying out for order, in unformed mud-voices, that set the golem’s mud-tread going in the alleys of Prague.
9. That Golem, in his off hours, must have dreamed of river beds. Or been afraid to sleep, always hearing the drying and trickling away of his skin.
10. That the mullah too wants to get some order into the sticky, the palpable world. For its own good.
11. That, equally, a monk might nail a numbered list of theses to a door, thud, thud, and hear the echoes spreading like the tread of boots.
12. That form is always, in God’s eye, reformation. And creation always recreation.
13. That the rabbi of Prague too watched his hands at their work, and wondered what was being done.
14. That a word breathed in to it made all the difference.
15. That in the breath of ‘thesis’, melting one way into ‘this is’ and the other into ‘these’, we already have a hint of number.
16. That verse was born from voice-mud, in the hands of recreation, with a hint of number, with a hint of tread.
17. That Thesis and Antithesis were a marriage made in Heaven, or in Hegel. Ask their only child, Syn.
18. That there’s always some danger when mud-shapes begin to conceive of themselves. (Aside from God: Don’t I just know!)
19. That each poor bare forked and early Play-Doh figure is somebody’s niece or nephew or great-great-grandchild’s thought nearly conceiving what it is.
20. That to give a child a doll too lifelike, too eyelash-blinking-perfect, is uncanny. Too made already. Too far from the true cloth or true plastic, let alone true mud.
21. That now CGI can seamlessly make seem such perfect monsters, we maybe have to hand-winch the backdrop, as clunky as this, or get clumsy as toddlers, just to reassert a sense of what is true.
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I wanted to be energized by being surrounded by other poets and writers, all of those books at the book fair, the hullabaloo of AWP for three days. I wanted to come back with the desire to return to writing poetry after a near-year hiatus and thankfully, I did get what I so eagerly wanted. Even before I left for the airport, ideas for poems and poem titles danced in my head. I couldn’t wait to get home and begin anew.
2. Was this your first AWP? If not, how does this year’s AWP rate among the ones you’ve attended?
This was my sixth AWP and I think that this year’s was my favorite by far, even though I actually saw little of it (panels and book fair) compared to other years (such as in New York, where I literally ran from one panel to the next) because of AWP-related obligations. I felt that the energy at this year’s AWP was different in a positive way and everyone I met, even if they were exhausted, seemed to be having a great time.
3. Favorite AWP 2013 moment?
I have two favorite AWP 2013 moments actually. The first was being able to read with so many amazing poets and writers at the Zone 3 Press/University of Wisconsin Press reading on Friday night. It was truly a humbling experience to be able to read with the likes of Richard Blanco, Timothy Liu, James Allen Hall, Paul Lisicky, Charles Rice-González, Andrew Kozma, Kate Gleason, John Pursley III, and Karen Skolfied.
My second favorite moment was actually more personal and really not AWP-related at all. I was blessed to meet my biological cousin (I’m adopted), Hope, for the first time at the aforementioned reading on Friday night. We planned this for a while and have chatted a bit over the past couple of years, but meeting her was beyond exciting. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience to coincide with AWP. Who says poetry can’t bring people together?
4. Favorite panels?
I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t go to any other panels (other than the one I was on with Bellevue Literary Review) because I had quite a lot of obligations (AWP-related and otherwise). I really wished I had. There were so many that looked amazing that I wanted to attend, but couldn’t, such as the one on Post-Genre Lit, Essaying the Essay, A Reading by Four Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Authors, Options of the I: The Post-Memoir Memoir, 40 Years of Poetry from Alice James Books, A Tribute to Adrienne Rich, the VIDA panel, and the Copper Canyon Press 40th Anniversary Reading. Next year I am going to come in on Wednesday instead of Thursday late afternoon and try to get my schedule better organized because I’m kicking myself that I couldn’t get it together this year!
5. Most embarrassing AWP 2013 moment?
I have one big embarrassing AWP 2013 moment, which took place on Friday afternoon in the book fair. I ran into Rigoberto González, who I dearly love and who chose (and wrote the introduction for) my first book, The Glass Crib. We were chatting and he mentioned that Eduardo Corral was around (who we both know) and minutes after that, I called Rigoberto Eduardo no less than three times in the space of a five minute conversation. I am still mortified. He must think I’m completely daffy.
6. Fangirl/fanboy moment?
I’m not going to lie: I had the biggest fangirl moment when I discovered that I was reading with Richard Blanco. I about died. I’m really glad that I didn’t know that I was going to be reading with him because I probably would have passed out, wet my pants, or acted like a giddy 10-year-old. Luckily, I held it together long enough to do the reading.
The next day, my husband, Jeff, came over to me at the Perugia Press table (where I was signing copies of my book) and told me that Blanco was also signing books down the aisle. I told my editor, Susan Kan, that I would be right back and weaved in and out of the throng of people on the L aisle to get to where Blanco was calmly seated, pen in hand. I quickly snapped up a copy of his book and the chapbook of his inaugural poem and had him sign both. It was such a high to not only have read with him the night before, but to actually have a few minutes of face time with such a meaningful poet. I felt like the dorky creative writing undergrad that I once was chasing down poets in AWP to get them to sign copies of their books. It was awesome.
7. Did you participate in any AWP-related activities?
I participated in three AWP-related activities: the 10th Anniversary of the Bellevue Literary Review panel reading that took place on Friday morning, the Zone 3 Press/University of Wisconsin Press reading on Friday night, and I had a book signing for my recently-released second book, The Wishing Tomb, at the Perugia Press table on Saturday afternoon. I was a busy girl. I was also originally slated to do the Perugia Press 16th anniversary panel reading, but wasn’t able to in the end because of my flight schedule.
8. How was the infamous book fair at this year’s AWP?
I unfortunately didn’t spend much time at this year’s book fair (maybe a total of two hours) because I had so many obligations. I also didn’t find out there was a second floor to the book fair until Saturday (thankfully, for my wallet)! There are some years where I practically live in the book fair and come home with loads of books, journals, buttons, pens, matchbooks covers, and the like, but this didn’t turn out to be one of those years. What I did see of the book fair, however, looked amazing and I’m so upset that I didn’t at least get to have a peek at the second story! Who was up there?
9. What was included in your AWP book fair haul?
Even though I wasn’t able to spend much time at the book fair, I did manage to score some great things! I got: free copies of Poets & Writers, Looking for the Gulf Motel by Richard Blanco, One Today by Richard Blanco (the limited-edition chapbook of Blanco’s Inaugural poem), free copies of The Southeast Review, Predatory by Glenn Shaheen, Charms for Finding by Rebecca Kinzie Bastian, Bright Power, Dark Peace by Traci Brimhall and Brynn Saito, a copy of The American Poetry Review, a cool little notebook/pen set and nylon drawstring book bag from Zone 3 Press, a diode button, two bookmarks from Boxcar Poetry Review, and two of the coolest-designed books I’ve ever seen from idiot books (a new-to-me press): After Everafter and Ten Thousand Stories. I do wish I’d gotten more swag, but I’m pretty sure my suitcase (and my shoulders) doesn’t!
10. What is one bit of advice you could give to someone who’s never been to AWP and is thinking about going next year?
1. Wear comfortable shoes. Those girls who wear stilettos at AWP? They’re kidding themselves. 2. Take your gummy vitamins and Emergen-C as AWP is a cesspool of flus and colds. 3. You will not make every panel. 4. Budget your money wisely because it runs out faster than you’d think. 5. You will run into your frenemies. 6. The hotel bar is overrated and expensive. Go for the free wine and beer at the dance party instead. 7. You will fall down at least once. 8.That famous poet really doesn’t want to read your manuscript or blurb your book. 9. You will not have time to have meaningful conversations, unless you count a meaningful conversation as three minutes of hellos and one awkward photo taken on a camera phone. 10. It’s the best time ever.
If you are unfamiliar with Redivider, we are a literary journal produced by the graduate students of Emerson College in Boston, and this year we are commemorating our 10th anniversary. Looking back over the past decade, we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished thus far: We’ve published amazing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art since our inception from writers such as Sherman Alexie, Tracy K. Smith, Steve Almond, and Denise Duhamel; we’ve been catapulted into the digital age with the release of our first e-book this past winter, reaching wider audiences than ever; and we created our annual Beacon Street Prize with $500 prizes, for both fiction and poetry, as well as publication—which is open for submissions February 15 to April 30. Each year, we have special guest judges, and we’re thrilled to announce that this year our judges are Amy Hempel for fiction and Heather McHugh for poetry.
With AWP just around the corner, we’re ramping up for a Redivider Birthday Bash— complete with cake, party hats, and piñata— that you don’t want to miss. We will also hold our AWP Quickie Contest which challenges attendees to write a short poem within the span of the conference. The winning entry will be published in our Winter 2013 issue, 11.1, alongside the 2013 Beacon Street Prize winners and our selection of both established and emerging writers.
For our current issue, 10.1, we designed a cover that commemorates some of our favorite covers from the past ten years. It is a simple, yet beautiful, design that showcases what has come before while looking toward the future of our journal. The content includes the winning entries from 2012’s Beacon Street Prize and a breathtaking array of original fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art from Kim Addonizio, Jen Hirt, Diane Cook, and many more. You can read it in print or on any reading device by ordering through Amazon or our website. But, for now, please enjoy an exclusive sneak peak of 10.1–a short fiction piece titled “False Teeth” by Glenn Shaheen right here, the only place you will find it online.
For more details about the Beacon Street Prize, our Redivider Birthday Bash, the fun we’ll have at AWP, submitting your work, or anything else Redivider, check out our website, or find us on Facebook and Twitter.
Sarah loves Halloween. She puts weeks into preparing these parties, putting cobwebs on all our books, fake severed hands in each of our drawers. The parties are always hits. Everybody has Facebook photo albums of them from all different angles. This year Sarah went as a vampire. She got those fangs that they specially make, the really expensive ones. But she left them in even after the party, after Halloween. At first it was funny, like some kind of novelty. Everybody just saying “Oh, Sarah!” and getting back to work. But now it’s almost December. Thanksgiving has passed. I said to her that it can’t be good for her real teeth, to leave those fake ones in for most of the day. I wore mine just during the party and my mouth hurt for like two days. She said that was because I threw my werewolf costume together at the last minute and bought my fake teeth from a gas station. Hers were real art. I said it was probably time to take them out, people are talking. She just raised her arms above her head and said “Blood! I vant your blood!” It’s tough to argue with her when she’s being cute. I can’t stand vampire movies, but when we started dating I told Sarah I loved them. It’s way past the point of no return on that lie. We actually have sex to the Lost Boys soundtrack a lot more frequently than I’d even care to admit. People are strange, thou shalt not kill spilling from the speakers. Jesus. Sarah’s great, she’s not like a goth or anything. But when does that road start? When we fight she wishes aloud sometimes that “her romantic vampire” would just come and take her away. I don’t know how I get jealous of that but I do. Of some imaginary creature that would never exist in a million years. And when we watch any new vampire movie I just get furious secretly. The guys flash teeth and I’m sure she’s getting off on it. I can’t picture my life after her, if she left, but I can feel the air being let out, the pressure letting up. I tell her she’s pretty, she’s the best, there’s no end to my love. “Fangs a lot,” she says.
I went through a phase where I was writing from my dreams. I’d wake up and try to get story ideas from the things I’d written on a little notepad during the night. It went like: susurrous–Cambodia–Remember this!–not harm but the other–bullshit–cantaloupe–too true? Sometimes, it looked more like an unfortunate cardiograph, like I was doing a contour drawing with my eyes shut. I’d turn the page upside-down. I’d wonder what certain squiggles meant.
I switched to a voice recorder. This was better but it scared me. The sound of my voice floating up through deep theta was unnerving, made me think of a seance. I’d be sitting at my desk, cup of coffee, yellow steno pad, obsessive-compulsive story writing pen (Uniball Vision Micro 0.5mm–there shall be no other) poised to take down anything promising, and I’d hear myself half in a dream, speaking from a world of ghosts–a man with a green hat who kept telling me about my mother; my old German Shepherd, Shadow, leading me through the rooms of the house I grew up in; ex-girlfriends; former students.
I’d get sentences, whole paragraphs. Some of it was nonsensical. Other things were deeply painful memories I normally tried not to think about. It surprised me that I was dwelling on those things fairly regularly while asleep–and that some part of me had remembered to wake up and drone into the voice recorder. The sleeping Michael was a different person, a stranger who took emotional risks, who went to difficult places while the protective drawbridge of consciousness was temporarily down. I filled notebook after notebook and learned some interesting things about myself. But none of it seemed to apply to my fiction in any meaningful way.
Around this time, I was in the last year of my PhD. I’d published my first book of stories (Gravity, Carnegie Mellon, 2009) the year before and thought it would be a good idea to go to the AWP conference being held in Denver. I brought the voice recorder, but I didn’t continue my subconscious spelunking while there. Instead, I did what everyone does at the AWP conference. I walked around and bought books, listened to panel discussions, talked to people I already knew, stared wistfully out my hotel room window, and burned through my grocery budget for the next three months. In retrospect, however, the trip was justified because I learned something important about writing: I was going to have to write more and do it more quickly.
In the middle of the Colorado Convention Center’s exhibit level where, in a trade show, there would be a local model posing on a combine harvester, there was instead a table full of literary agents. They were from a local agency and had made themselves available for questions. At that time, I had never spoken with an agent. So I took advantage of the opportunity and struck up a conversation about how one markets a novel to the “Big 6” (Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan–you get the idea). I wanted to know if there was a special kind of etiquette agents followed with the biggest publishing houses.
When I asked the question, the young agent in a navy suit that should have been beyond his earning capacity, pushed his glasses up on his nose and looked at me carefully as if he might have to pick me out of a lineup someday. “No,” he said. “There’s no special procedure.” Then he reminded himself to smile. “But if you want to succeed with the trade houses long term, you need to be really productive. Can you write around 300 pages a year?” I said no, I didn’t think so, thanked him, and got out of there as quickly as possible. A book a year? It had taken me six years to produce the stories in my 200-page collection. I had 75 pages of a novel that had taken me most of the previous year.
Later, catching up on some window staring in my hotel room, I tried to envision that level of productivity. One page a day? Writing from canned outlines? Some kind of method book, How to Write a Blockbuster Novel in 2 Weeks and Avoid the ER? I didn’t know. I picked up my voice recorder and started complaining about it to myself. I bitched for around 90 minutes. Then, as I started to get tired, I thought I might turn my rant into a piece of creative nonfiction–something about running up against the cruel commodifying values of the publishing industry in Denver. When I typed up what I’d recorded, I had 35 pages and a brand new idea about how to write more without sacrificing quality.
Since then, I’ve experimented with narrating stories and novel chapters into a voice recorder the way I’d once narrated my dreams. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write 300 pages of polished fiction a year. But I’ve learned to be more productive this way, to carry some of that dream energy into my conscious drafting. And I’ve learned to hear my own voice the way I hear someone at a literary reading–listening for the caesuras, the paragraphs, the meanings that emerge from syntax.
I tell my students at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop to at least read what they’ve written out loud to themselves. I tell them that their ears will teach them new things about narrative. I say stories were originally meant to be heard and there are lessons about storytelling we can only learn that way. Some of them believe me.
Those of us who have become fascinated with producing spoken drafts have also learned that, while text-based revision is still necessary to produce a finished product, beginning with the spoken word can connect us to a primal source of creative expression. Now I begin every draft by speaking at least part of it into a voice recorder, deliberately tapping into that ghost world of my other self, shaping narrative with the energy of dreams and visions that return to me in my own voice. I listen and write down what I hear, paying close attention to the speaker.