December 31, 2010

Happy New Year, Nick Demske

I'm in Hawaii. Specifically, I'm in a Bali Hai Villa on the island of Kauai. It's a long story. No, actually, the story is a short one: I have amazing and generous friends. In this surreally lackadaisical and sunny setting, where palm trees sway and roosters run wild (liberated from farms by the hurricanes of '82 and '92), I'm trying to keep a vague handle on life at home. In DC, there is ice on the ground and first-pass proofs of DKTBG are waiting to be returned by January 11.

Must... maintain... writerly... discipline. Must stay on top of emails. Must continue to arrange spring readings. Must try, and fail, to tan. So as a symbolic gesture I brought along my copy of the latest Poets & Writers, "The Inspiration Issue." Yesterday, while watching a light rain fall and sipping a pineapple cocktail, I turned to the 6th Annual Debut Poets Roundup.

As Kevin Larimer's intro mentions, the roundup has a familiar rhythm by now: always a poet whose book got picked up on a first send-out, a poet whose MS was chosen after decades of submitting, one poet who focuses on craft, one who treats verse as play, and so on. I always read the feature with a mix of nostalgia, envy, and nausea. I remember the bridesmaid years. Trying different styles, different niches, ordering and re-ordering, waiting for that first big break, watching as others got theirs: God, how awful it was. And yet, how liberating--but appreciated only in hindsight.

Anyway, one of this year's profiled poets is Nick Demske. I've never met him. To be honest, never heard of him before. Age: 27. Residence: Racine, Wisconsin. Graduate Degree: MA in library and information science from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Job: "I mostly shelve books and do other menial circulation tasks at the Racine Public Library." Award: Winner of the 2010 Fence Modern Poetry Series, selected by Joyelle McSweeney. Publisher: Fence Books.

These roundup profiles are not long or substantial texts. Yet there is something about his Q&A on inspiration and advice that is so winning, so poignant, and so simple and honest, that it makes my whole heart smile; it makes me fall in love with poetry all over again. There is importance to this thing we do--and how it affects the lives we live--and I can see it in his answers.

So I'm going to re-type his P&W profile here (with the caveat: go buy a copy of the magazine!), and I'm sure as heck gonna track down his book to read.


Time Spent Writing the Book: Two Years.

Number of Contests Entered: "About ten. I feel lucky the number is so small."

Sample: "In every sumo, there's a little bulimic awaiting a glorious purge." ("Tragic Songstress")

Source of Inspiration: "My mother died of breast cancer before I was half done with the manuscript. That was a big inspiration. The book is, in part, about bad form. The most blatant way that's enacted in the book is through the form of the poems: They're all loose sonnets--love poems, but their content actively resists the form. Words are cut in half to meet rhyme schemes. The line lengths themselves are so long that the book has to be printed sideways--in landscape, rather than portrait orientation. On many levels, the book is many repetitions of forms that are inappropriate for their contents. My mother dying, my lovely mother dying, was largely the inspiration for this. She had a spirit like wildfire, which could brighten anyone she came in contact with. She was smart, insightful; she loved the natural world and she lived the healthiest life of anyone I have ever met. And yet here she was, incoherent, unable to get off the toilet independently, her very own piss a biohazard. She eventually drowned in fluid in her own lungs. The form--her invalid body--was an inappropriate match for her content, that wildfire, her beautiful spirit. It was after this I realized that, in general, the human body is bad form for the human spirit. Bad form. Bad form."

Advice: "Any advice I give in terms of writing could only be the same advice I would give in the more general terms of life: Enjoy yourself, treat people well, don't take writing too seriously, don't take writing too lightly, make friends and loved ones and spend lots of time enjoying that community. Keep your priorities straight."

The photo shows Demske leaning against an anonymous brick wall, in a plain navy t-shirt and a knit green & turquoise cap with Heidi-yarned tassels on either side. Bright smile. He looks a little incredulous at this whole turn of events.

Here's to new authors, new books, new hometowns, new hopes.

Here's to the staff at Poets & Writers for continuing to put out a great magazine, even in an age when magazines feel imperiled.

Here's to 2011, dreams and all.

And here's to you, Nick Demske!

December 24, 2010

Apply! (Also: Fitch on Franzen) (Also: List-age)

Thanks to Leslie Pietrzyk for a reminder to spread the word about the Jenny McKean Moore FREE Community Workshop, which will be led by Tilar J. Mazzeo in the coming spring semester at George Washington University. Mazzeo, an associate professor at Colby College, is the author of the New York Times bestselling biography The Widow Clicquot and The Secret of Chanel No. 5.

Here's some boilerplate info on the workshop, courtesy of Leslie's blog:

Jenny McKean Moore Applications Due 1/10/11

Come and take part in a semester-long workshop in creative non-fiction—the art of using the strategies of fiction to tell true stories about history, place, and biography. To apply, you do NOT need academic qualifications or publications. The class will be a craft-based workshop that focuses on different approaches to writing biography and autobiography, and it will combine readings, writing exercises, and peer-review of the writing of participants. There are no fees to participate in the class, but you will be responsible for the costs of some photocopies. Students at Consortium schools (including GWU) are not eligible. The Workshop is not open to those who have participated in more than one Jenny McKean Moore Free Community Workshop.

The deadline to apply for the spring session—Tuesdays, 6-8 PM, January 18-April 19, 2011—is Monday, January 10, 2011.

To apply, please submit a letter of interest and a detailed personal narrative in which you describe your writing projects, your goals for the seminar, and how you hope to benefit from the workshop. A 5-10 page work sample may also be included. Include your name, address, home/work telephone numbers, and email address.

All applicants will be contacted by email by January 14.

Send your applications (by Monday, January 10, 2011) to
JMM Creative Nonfiction Workshop
Department of English
The George Washington University
801 22nd Street NW (Suite 760)
Washington, DC 20052

Personal testimony: I took a JMM workshop with poet Dana Roeser, the 2005-2006 resident, and had an incredible experience. Many key poems from Theories of Falling were conceived in that class--including the leadoff poem, "Cherry Tomatoes," "You," and "Drink"--and made connections with fellow DC poets that sustain me to this day. Having graduated from American University with my MFA in 2004, that was my first year of withdrawal from the structured feedback of university-workshops. This is a vital opportunity and a gift to the community--take advantage of it!


Through some random blog-hopping I came upon Janet Fitch's blog. I'm always delighted to find a high-profile author making the time to write online. But in particular, Fitch's entries are substantial and insightful. Check out one September entry, reviewing a Los Angeles reading and Q&A featuring Jonathan Franzen. An excerpt:

The selection he read was funny and mean… his tools for understanding where we are in America in our time are the satirist’s… and whether this is my favorite kind of writing (it isn’t) or not, the suppleness of the prose and the precision won my admiration.

Then afterwards, he settled down to an interesting, awkward conversation with Meghan Daum, author (Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House) and columnist with the LA Times.

I would not have wanted to change places with her. He is a difficult interviewee–though I don’t think he means to be, he just very clearly struggles to speak with precision, authenticity and honesty, and is embarrassed and uncomfortable with anything that would tempt another writer to cozy up to an audience or be a “good boy” for the interviewer–the very trait that caused his Oprah troubles to begin with.

We are not used to seeing difficult, authentic, often awkwardly honest writers on the national stage. We expect prominent writers to be performing seals to a certain degree, dealing with interviews and audiences with the confidence and aplomb of pitchmen selling miracle floorwaxes at the County Fair. So to see someone struggling to be honest and authentic, rather than charming and appealing, is a lot like catching an appearance of Hailey’s Comet.

Find the rest of the post here.


I was so happy to see I Was the Jukebox show up on a few more end-of-year lists, including one at The Millions (thanks Danielle!) and on the blog of Brian Spears, poetry editor for The Rumpus. And you can never go wrong with a thumbs-up from the Literary Mojito Society.

Miami! New York! Dallas! Germany! Pondering a heckuvalotta travel in 2011. Announcements soon~

December 15, 2010

New York, New York

Drive to the city through Saturday's sunrise--my dad behind the wheel, my mother with her cooler of sodas and berries, my sister asleep in the backseat beside me. Check into the St. Giles, up by Lexington & 39th, with its view of the Chrysler building. Gawk at the fossils and geodes of Astro Gallery. Follow the storylines of window displays at Macy's, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue (which for once really is on Fifth Avenue). Prowl the holiday shops in Bryant Park, watch the ice skaters. Drink margaritas made with hunks of watermelon and split the marinated-eggplant and lentil entree at Toloache. The Lion King, complete with an elephant clambering down the theater aisle. The Abstract Expressionism exhibit at MOMA. More walking Fifth Avenue, this time with a bag of roasted chestnuts in hand. Rockefeller Plaza. "A Tuba Christmas." Convince my mother to try a martini at the Algonquin Hotel. Break the news to my dad that I'll be in Mississippi come December 25. Max out on the luxury of a television in the room: watch The Town, then Inception. Snack on hunks of Zabar's sesame-coated baguette, purchased at Grand Central Station and slathered in harissa and balsamic vinegar. Take my mother up to Crown's office and introduce her to my editor, then the head of publicity. Watch as my mother deftly finagles a copy of a Frances Mayes book instead of the tome with a pink breast-cancer ribbon embossed on the cover that they are trying to give her. Head down to Union Square's farmer's market. Slivers of upstate apples. Tea to sniff. A bouquet of dried blooms to brighten my studio in the coming weeks, when I won't be in one place long enough to buy fresh flowers. The long drive home, sun blazing through the windshield as we race down the turnpike, my sister once more curled up and asleep in the backseat beside me. There's never time to make these trips. There's always time.

December 10, 2010

Great Writers of DC

As I write this I am listening to the Schubert Ensemble of London play Dohnanyi's Piano Quintet #1. Sipping Pumpkin Spice coffee. Watching, through the glass doors of my balcony, the first snows flurry sideways over the neighborhood of Woodley Park. Everyone's chimneys have come to life.

Last night I heard Dana Gioia read at the Phillips Collection. He was clearly delighted to get to be a poet again, instead of having to shoulder the burden of being an Official Government Representative. I've always had a soft spot for Gioia's work. He started a lot of great programs during his tenure at the National Endowment for the Arts--including Poetry Out Loud, The Big Read, and Operation Homecoming.

It's easy to make the snarky presumption that those who come to poetry from successful business backgrounds (like Gioia, who most famously worked for Jell-o) prize polish over aesthetic grace. I don't think that's true; I think you can be savvy without being a sell-out. Ron Slate spent years in corporate communications, and his work in The Incentive of the Maggot and The Great Wave is incredible--supple, engaging, philosophically bold.

The strongest poem we heard from Gioia last night was "The Angel with the Broken Wing," which first appeared in the September 2010 issue of POETRY.


I am the Angel with the Broken Wing,
The one large statue in this quiet room.
The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut
Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb.

The docents praise my elegant design
Above the chatter of the gallery.
Perhaps I am a masterpiece of sorts—
The perfect emblem of futility.

Mendoza carved me for a country church.
(His name’s forgotten now except by me.)
I stood beside a gilded altar where
The hopeless offered God their misery.

I heard their women whispering at my feet—
Prayers for the lost, the dying, and the dead.
Their candles stretched my shadow up the wall,
And I became the hunger that they fed.

I broke my left wing in the Revolution
(Even a saint can savor irony)
When troops were sent to vandalize the chapel.
They hit me once—almost apologetically.

For even the godless feel something in a church,
A twinge of hope, fear? Who knows what it is?
A trembling unaccounted by their laws,
An ancient memory they can’t dismiss.

There are so many things I must tell God!
The howling of the dammed can’t reach so high.
But I stand like a dead thing nailed to a perch,
A crippled saint against a painted sky.

-Dana Gioia

I was a little dismayed by his answer to the final question of the night, though. Someone asked if he had written about Washington, DC. No, he said. [Long pause.] But he might once he got back to California. To paraphrase, he said that DC is a bad place for poets. His theory is that our job is to be hyper-attuned to the world around us, and in a city so obsessed with political power ("60,000 alpha males, and 30,000 women who want to be alpha males"), our aesthetic antennae are overwhelmed by the static of constant wheeling and dealing.

"In a capital city this great--and it is the greatest in the world, I think--no great writer has come out of Washington. Now, you have to ask yourself, why is that?"

Ouch. Sterling Brown? Edward P. Jones? Ann Beattie? George Pelecanos? I suspect he realized mid-comment that he may have been a little harsh. He clarified; there's no writer to DC as Faulkner was to Oxford, Mississippi, he said. Aw, to have Oxford used as the contrast. Salt in the wound!

He clarified again; it isn't that there isn't great writing going on now, he said, it's just that all that energy goes into journalism.

I like it when someone says something strong enough to be agreed OR disagreed with. That's why I think an essay like "Can Poetry Matter?" is valuable, even if I take issue with some of its premises and conclusions. But honest opinion is a double-edged sword, and last night, sitting in the audience of the Phillips, I felt cut in two.

No great writer has come out of Washington?

December 07, 2010


I have water again! Laundry! Clean dishes! And that's all we'll say about that. 

Thanks to Kristin Berkey-Abbott for including I Was the Jukebox in her year-end list of "Favorite Poetry Books of 2010." Kristin was kind enough to say the book offers "poems that animate the inanimate, from sand to eggplants to jukeboxes, poems that took my breath away, so unique was the approach of this volume." I'm proud to be listed alongside fellow Norton-folk Beth Ann Fennelly and Kimiko Hahn. 

My friend Bernie Geyer is leading workshops at the Writer's Center in early 2011. So if you have some downtime and want to treat yourself, I highly recommend working with her. She's smart, practical, fun, and savvy about moving your writing forward on both the craft and professional levels. A rundown of her classes can be found here. 

Now, as the cover of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl:

Crown has done a great job. I've gotten a sneak peek at the innards--the font choices for headers and body text, the formatting--and the pages, while easy on the eye, have such exuberance in their design. And yep, it's up on Amazon too

2010 has held travel and adventure and personal earthquakes, heartache and heart renewal. I've lived five years in one. Somehow, amidst it all, this book came to be. In the coming months you'll see shifts in my website and blog, as I open the doors a little wider and welcome the communities of memoirists and those affected by food allergies. 

This Chick will always Dig Poetry, first and foremost. But here's to change...

December 06, 2010


If I've been quiet, it's because I am experiencing the grim reality of DC's public utilities: 72 straight hours of no water (an intensification of a week's worth of low pressure and brief outages), and WASA doesn't seem to be treating it as any real kind of emergency. We've had a steady stream of workmen, each starting from scratch on their level of info, each progressively more shocked at how long we've been waiting.

When a WASA truck pulled up in front of our building last night, an email went out to everyone saying, in essence, "Anybody home--go outside! Surround 'em!" As I stood by with my fellow seventh-floor residents, the guy pleaded into his phone, "Look, you gotta do something for these people. They look like they want to stab me right now."

It would be comical if it weren't gross. I've lived in the city long enough that I can survive the occasional dry spell. You buy a jug for the kitchen, a jug for the bathroom, you put your hair in a ponytail and you deal. But this is somewhat frightening, to be so at the mercy of the system and to have the system just not give a damn. Many of the building's residents have fled to other homes, which I'll be doing soon. But, oh, how I wanted to be able to nest after so many weeks on the road.

In brighter news, I sent off edits for the book. We're at the stage of making changes only to the hard copy of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, and the next time I see the text it should be as a bound galley. Hooray! I'm going to share the cover art tomorrow, since I'd prefer it not get conflated with the post in which I bitch & moan about being grimy.

This, on the other hand, can overcome even the grimiest of moods: