September 29, 2016

Student, Meet Author! (On Assigning Q&As)

I learned a lot, as a student, from reaching out to authors. While at UVA I worked on the staff of 3.7, a literary magazine that regularly interviewed artists and musicians; our big "get" had been Ray Bradbury. As a sci-fi / fantasy lit fan, I waited for two hours in line in order to interview Orson Scott Card upon the publication of EnchantmentI soon realized Card was a touch eccentric, after he referred to James Joyce as the "Pied Piper of 20th Century Literature." (Later in life, I realized he was worse than eccentric, he was bigoted.) He was also super excited, in a hush-hush way, about the potential casting of Ender in the movie version: the "unknown" talent of Jake Lloyd, who was about to debut in the role of a young Anakin Skywalker. Though the Q&A did not go where I expected it to, I learned from the experience. 

When I sat down with the poet Henry Taylor at Michael's on the corner in Charlottesville, our meandering interview--which touched on everything from clerihews and sonnets, to cancer, to his own mentorship by George Garrett--turned out to be a path that led me to American University for graduate school. I still have the tapes of that session. We ordered sandwiches and french fries and stayed in that booth for three hours; he insisted picking up the check.

Once at AU, I used an editorship at Folio to interview one of my teachers from UVA days, Gregory Orr. We had hoped to meet in person, but couldn't get the schedule to work. He had been ill--he was running a literal fever when he replied, he explained--after what had to have been a night of writing. As I opened my email and parsed through the dense, freeform blocks of texts, I saw the stirrings of what would become Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved. Of all the people I've studied with, I probably refer to Greg's body of theory toward craft the most. In part, my loyalty was born of that experience of reading through his raw, unedited replies to my questions. 

By which I mean to say: The season of students emailing for Q&As is upon us. I love hearing from students who have been asked to read my poetry or nonfiction for a course. I'm happy to answer questions via email (or, depending on the context, a Skype session with the whole class). This is a big honor and has, on occasion, created long-lasting correspondences. 

  • Awesome thing, pt. 1: In this age of social media, and given the number of authors who also teach and therefore have public / academic email addresses, it is more possible than ever for students to directly interact with contemporary writers. 
  • Awesome thing, pt. 2: Students get a lot out of it. Books go from being static, sometimes resistant texts to organic expressions of a personality at work. Hearing the "back stories" behind poems, in particular, can illuminate what previously intimidated. 
  • Awesome thing, pt. 3: Writers love hearing that our work is being studied, and that reading our work has sparked curiosity about the creative process. 

That said...I've seen what I can only describe as Q&A fatigue among the writers I know. Email is a big part of that. You're swimming in email. We are, too. What I LOVE about using email as the medium for author Q&As is that it counteracts the privilege embedded in needing physical access to an author. What I struggle with is that it can make a precious opportunity seem casual or worse yet, perfunctory. No one dreams of being someone else's homework. So please make sure your students go into this process fully prepared, and that they respect the author's time and voluntary role in this exchange. That means....
  • Students should include an introduction that gives their full name, grade, the academic institution they're affiliated with, and the assigning teacher or professor's name. Specify what work by the author has been read.
  • Consider requiring students to quote from 1-2 interviews that the author has already done, as part of the narrative of their assignment. This emphasis on research is an important part of journalism (and would be key if the student should take up a career in freelance profiles or interviews). This step also encourages the student to come up with fresh questions versus ones that are general and familiar.
  • Remind your students that it takes a lot more time to answer a question than to ask one. I'd rather get a half-dozen questions that I can answer in full, thoughtfully, versus a dozen that have me scrambling for time. If the student's best expression of enthusiasm is asking a plethora of questions (that's a real thing, I get it), invite the author to only reply to those questions that inspire an equally passionate answer.
  • Be sure your students give the author at least a week to respond, and that they state both their "in-house" deadline and the official / external deadline for the assignment. Students are often primed toward last-minute emails and 48-hour turnarounds; those of us they are reaching out to may not be, even if we want to help. This information should be in the original query, not in a follow-up.
Also: be sure the student writes a thank-you note (er, email). It's weird that has to be stipulated, but it does.  

Thank you, anyone who sees this and puts it in action with their students. If you want to come a knockin' on my door, I will welcome the conversation.

September 26, 2016

Report from the National Book Festival


Last Wednesday, when the Politics & Prose cashier slipped a National Book Festival bookmark in between the pages of my purchase (a paperback copy of Howard Norman's I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place), I blurted out: "I'm going to be there."

She was kind enough to tilt her head and say, "I thought your name sounded familiar."

When Rob Casper of the Library of Congress called back in early August, I was standing in a New Jersey kitchen. We had gone up to help my brother-in-law's family move in, and I had taken on cooking duties for the weekend. The reception was echo-ey, faint. I shook the water off a cutting board before making my way to the porch, where I could make out Rob's voice more clearly. A slot had unexpectedly opened up on the "Poetry and Prose" stage for September 24. Did I want to read?

Yes. Yes. 

It's funny how we can hear something, and carry on our half of the conversation, without hearing the idea behind the words. My inner pragmatic piped up: you're local. You're an easy add in terms of the budget. This was an NEA-sponsored stage, and I hold a 2015 Fellowship. I have a new-ish book out. I ascribed being asked to an intersection of conveniences, a series of checkboxes I happened to fill. I was happy to say Yes. I forgot to say to myself, Hey, this is once-in-a-lifetime. Or You earned this. 

Then the bookmark moment. Then my mom emailing everyone in the family, You are in the Book World section of the Post! And it all started to feel really, really real. 

Waiting to be admitted to the Friday night shindig at the Library of Congress, I watched a man come up the steps behind us. I recognized him by his eyebrows. "That's Salman Rushdie," I muttered softly to my husband. 

"Well, we're probably in the right line, then," he replied.

The guard waved his wand suspiciously up and down HervĂ© Tullet's torso while the tall, wiry-haired children's author turned in a slow circle. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was, literally, a head above every other person in the room. The bartender searched for a fresh ginger beer to top off a waiting line of Moscow Mules while Geraldine Brooks waited patiently for her drink, resplendent in a navy crinolined dress. Joyce Carol Oates darted around, tiny and sparrow-like, wearing a black hat with a wide brim. 




Newly appointed Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden got a hearty round of Woooo from the crowd. The speakers included Edwidge Danticat, James Gleick, and Marilynne Robinson. I've been in the Library of Congress's Jefferson Building for a dozen receptions, but never anything quite like this. There were stations for shrimp and grits, mini-tacos with five different salsa, peking duck rolls and pork buns. I was allergic to all of it, but happy to get another Moscow Mule with a red-and-white striped straw. A few members of the catering staff had been recruited to re-enact the gondola pose from this year's NBF poster for a tableau set up in the middle of the room. 

The next morning, my husband and I left an hour early to trek all of five stops north on the Green Line; that's how nervous I was to not miss Stephen King. Trying to get oriented at the Convention Center, any doubts we had about which door was for the Authors / VIPs was assuaged when the black SUV carrying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's team pulled up. I met Karen, in her periwinkle volunteer t-shirt, who I knew would help us get into the ticketed auditorium. I did a double-take when I realized that the entirety of her volunteer work, for the day, was "handling" me. The bonus, she pointed out, was that it meant she got a seat for Stephen King as well. 


We were second row, dead center. I know he does talks all the time, all over the country, but Stephen King felt present. He showed us his iPad, the remarks he'd drafted for the occasion. Between anecdotes about his modest beginnings (having five people show up for the first Carrie signing), his pride in raising a family of authors, and a dollop of political commentary (he compared Trump's speechifying to "a piano falling down a flight of stairs"), he hewed to the topic of fostering not just literary enthusiasm, but literacy. His philanthropy in Maine is apparently sprawling--he was receiving an award for it--but he found himself hesitant, he said, to talk about something he'd always regarded as needing to be a private act.

Hearing King speak has been a bucket-list goal. His imagery, his sense of both the poetic and perverse, was a foundational inspiration for me. I devoured his books. Nightmares and Dreamscapes is still kept handy on the shelf in my bedroom. 


I brought less expectations to hearing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, simply because I know less about him, but I'd been intrigued since reading Jay Caspian Kang's substantive profile of him for the New York Times Magazine a year ago. He was wonderful: poised, erudite, frank in his approach to racial iniquity ("The only equal opportunity employer for desperate people is crime"), grounded in his faith. Anyone who gets a question about the tradition of the detective story, admires Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and then self-corrects mid-sentence to also credit Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" gets my loyalty. A child asked him whether he prefers being an author or a basketball player. Easy answer, he said--at this point, he's in no shape for the court. I'm glad we've signed him up for Team Author. 

After a hurried lunch of dumplings, I met up with Karen, who walked me down to the signing floor. I wasn't expecting a line--Count the Waves has been out for over a year, with the paperback on the horizon in December. But the dozen or so people I talked with included students from the Writer's Center and American University, two young aspiring poets, the owner of a bookstore up in western Massachusetts who had trekked down for this festival, a heretofore virtual Facebook friend, and a random nice guy who'd found himself in a neighboring line next to my husband. Not to mention the woman who runs a local poetry-book club, which I promptly invited myself to come visit. I'm counting each handshake or hug as an individual victory. 


Our last program of the day was spur-of-the-moment--Michael Cunningham and Yuko Shimizu, with my friend and Washington Post Magazine editor David Rowell moderating. Shimizu designed this year's NBF poster, and the two collaborated on Cunningham's reworking of fable and myth, A Wild Swan and Other Tales; a hypnotizing slideshow of illustrations cycled on a screen to the side of the stage. The conversation was lively, and for a writer married to an artist, it was the perfect date-night note to end on. (To be precise, the "date night" then extended to mezcal cocktails, guacamole, and ceviche at Espita Mezcaleria, two blocks up 9th Street.)

Two small regrets: I couldn't get away to visit the folks selling books for Politics & Prose. And I didn't speak to Congressman John Lewis, though I was thrilled to sit at an adjacent table in the author's lounge for a while. He emanated a stately calm and--on a weekend that featured the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture--a distinct, if slightly exhausted, joy. Being adjacent was enough. 


I read right before Michael Cunningham and Yuko Shimizu. I was touched by the presence of familiar people in the crowd--Rob from LOC, Amy Stolls of the NEA, former students, friends from MFA days and from local literary organizations, fellow DC poets, many of whom have heard me read before and who had so many fancier options of places to be in that moment. I hope I remembered to thank all of them. I thanked Karen. I thanked my husband. I thanked the woman holding up the timecards. I did not thank Siri, who at one point attempted to chime in on the reading. I thanked the ASL translator who dealt with signing "word splooge" on the fly. 

Though I walked up to the podium with I Was the Jukebox in hand, three poems marked, I decided not to read from that collection. I've been fortunate that book has had such long legs. It's usually a relief to reach for poems that are funny and conversational. But the poems from Count the Waves, as difficult and more somber as they may be, are what got me an NEA grant. You gotta dance with the one who brung you. I read new poems, including a sestina, a sonnet, and my contribution to Still Life with Poem (I held the anthology up to the crowd's eye). I took questions. I got to mention Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath, and Sandra Cisneros. I got to talk about the fallacy of form "versus" free verse in poetry. Karen saved the day by getting these snapshots, which my mother had made me promise someone would take. 




I remember the National Book Festival of a decade ago, back when it was still on the National Mall: standing at the edge of tents in years past, trying to stay out of the mud. Waiting in long lines to meet the authors. I can't believe I got to be one of them. 


September 16, 2016

Sharon Olds & Close Reading


There was a whole lotta rejoicing among poets when the Academy of American Poets announced that Sharon Olds has received this year's Wallace Stevens Award, which recognizes mastery of poetry and carries a $100,000 cash prize. The portrait above is Vogue's version of Olds. While a reminder of her beauty, the version I've encountered in person is more endearing--spectacled, with a constellation of clips and barrettes holding back her thick, long hair. Whenever anyone mentions the need for a more professional haircut because of having reached A Certain Age, and I start to wonder about myself, I picture Sharon Olds and think, Nope. I'm keeping it long and unruly. 


I've spent so many years looking up to her work, taking permission and inspiration for my own poems from collections such as The Living and The Dead and The Gold Cell. When I was in college, I gave my mother a copy of Blood, Tin, and Straw, hoping we could form some kind of mother-daughter book club. But I haven't gotten to spend much time with Olds in person. I've spotted her at a AWPs but she seemed both shy and rushed, and I was afraid of bothering her. When we both read at The New School for the 2010 Best American Poetry anthology, she mouthed "I love that poem" as I returned to my seat on stage after reading "Unit of Measure." I about died of happiness. I still didn't have the courage to strike up a conversation. I also spent the rest of the reading trying to see the audience from behind Gerald Stern's hat.


Navigating the creative writing world post-MFA, in the later 2000s, I had sometimes encountered a weird vibe surrounding her work...a weariness? a wariness? I'd mention Sharon Olds as a favorite, then feel like I had to defend myself--and her--the same instinct I had in mentioning Sylvia Plath, another "infamous" poet "of sex and psyche," which is how Billy Collins once described Olds. 


When a poet has disproportionate influence over a subsequent generation, one easy way for insecure colleagues to diminish that accomplishment is to claim that the poet in question only has one stylistic mode; one story to tell. I see this sniping happen over and over. I see this happening now. But when Olds published Stag's Leap in 2012, a collection as powerful as anything she has ever written, those trying to do that to her had to bite their tongues. I didn't just carry that book around; I clutched it to my chest. 


One way we develop as poets is by expanding our ability to show not just affection for a text, but respect. I have a generation of students in front of me, and I want them to take Sharon Olds as seriously as I do. So I don't just use her work as a gateway drug--a quick hit of thematic satisfaction. We slow down. We look at her decisions on a line-by-line, word-by-word basis. We talk about the metaphors and similes that drive "I Go Back to May 1937," the lineation system (that dangling "I"), and the ways in which the poem formally privileges the observer. We read the December 2015 interview she did with Kaveh Akbar at Divedapper. We immerse ourselves in "Stag's Leap," a study of the in media res opening:

Then the drawing on the label of our favorite red wine
looks like my husband, casting himself off a
cliff in his fervor to get free of me.....

I'm always urging my students toward close reading in their annotations and critical essays. Cite illustrating lines; apply your craft vocabulary; resist the urge to summarize. If reading is an act of computation, I'm more interested in you showing your work than in whether your final answer matches my own to the decimal point. Don't tell me what the poem is about; tell me what you notice of the poet's concerns. I imagine, at times, all this emphasis on close reading is a bit annoying. 


What I don't say out loud, but what I believe, is that "close reading" is the first step to "canon-building." If we want the poets we love to be taken seriously, it's upon us to give future readers the tools to do so. There's a magic that happens when we go from "I really like this" or "this really moves me" to being articulate how, exactly, the poem is working (or playing) on the page. It's the same magic that happens the first time you point out to a student how Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" is in formal dialogue with the sonnet. One of my longterm projects is a collection of craft essays, and a component of that will be a half-dozen close readings; "I Go Back to May 1937" is at the top of the list. Maybe the next time I see Sharon Olds, I'll have the guts to say hello--and congratulations.