April 27, 2009

On Salons (and Where to Go from Here)

Is it a DC thing? Having grown up here, having attended a lot of evening events framed as cultural ambassadorship--a mixing of "officials" in purposefully un-official settings--I'm charmed by the notion of this emerging dinner party tradition, hosted at the Watergate by David Bradley of The Atlantic, in which politicians and journalists mingle for off-the-record conversation. I've heard Andy Shallal of Busboys and Poets hosts evenings in a similar format, focusing on people from peace-activism and international-policy communities. This gathering impulse reaches the arts scene as well: tonight I'm going to a potluck for Washington's women writers.

Last night I was sitting on my balcony with another poet, and we talked about the siren call of academia. I love the pace of being in class--the performative and improvisational aspects, the chance to see someone light up in response to finding a new author they like. I would welcome the chance to teach for a year or two in conjunction with being a working writer. But so much of higher-level academia seems to be about cultivating mastery of a very narrow area of focus, as in the majority of Ph.D. dissertations, and acquiring a precise vocabulary of core texts and theories shared with those in your field. Sometimes (and perhaps this is my insecurity showing) I feel like I've spent the last 40 minutes not so much conversing as bluffing.

What I crave are conversations that emphasize breadth rather than depth of knowledge--colliding with people of different backgrounds, expertise, or ideological persuasions. I suspect this dovetails less with a university professorship and more with an administrative position at an arts non-profit or a government organization. I dream about staying in DC and building a roster of acquaintances I can draw from for dinner parties of my own some day, inviting a different mix each time, talking about ideas on the horizon.

I'm not quite there yet. My food budget is limited to hummus and pretzels; my living room lacks a couch. Perfect for standing-room-only poetry readings, not-so-ideal for a salon. But there's time.

*Confidential to Rahm Emanuel (featured in the Washington Post article linked above): Sorry about almost hitting you with my car as you biked through Rock Creek Park on Sunday afternoon. I was about to be late for a funeral, and not watching the road. You were gracious. And handsome! No wonder everyone invites you to their dinner parties.

How I Discovered Poetry

...I read poetry on the school bus. I read poetry in my grandfather's garden, down by the unnameable purple flowers. I read poetry in my tent. I read poetry while eating artichokes one leaf at a time. I read poetry on the cold mornings in my house, standing over the air vent with my nightgown tucked under my feet, trapping all the hot air against my thighs before it could escape to the rest of the house....

[From a post at Dustin Brookshire's blog, "I Was Born Doing Reference Work in Sin." Thanks for the opportunity, Dustin!]

April 24, 2009

In Which People Who Deserve Money Get Money

Press Contact: Holly Bass, NAAW press liaison
202-518-3609 / langstondays@gmail.com


(Washington, DC) On Thursday, April 16, 2009 Michael Sragow and Brenda Wineapple were announced as joint winners of the National Award for Arts Writing, now in its third year. The authors will split the purse with each receiving $7,500. This year’s award was judged by noted book and film critic David Kipen; Linda Pastan, National Book Award winner and former Poet Laureate of Maryland; and Reynolds Price, National Book Critics Circle Award-winner and author of twenty-two novels.

The National Award for Arts Writing, sponsored by the Arts Club of Washington, gives $15,000 to an outstanding nonfiction book about the arts. This annual award is designed to recognize excellence in arts writing for a general audience and is one of the highest monetary awards for a single-author book. (The Pulitzer awards $10,000, for comparison.)

The winners will return to Washington, DC in May for an Awards Dinner and public reading. They will also speak to students at Duke Ellington School for the Arts and give radio and print interviews to the news media.

The winning books are:

Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, by Michael Sragow (Pantheon Books)

White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple (Alfred A. Knopf)

On the selection of the two winners, judge David Kipen says, “The idea of the passionate but chaste Emily Dickinson on a blind date with Byronic, swashbuckling Victor Fleming, if only for one night, encompasses precisely the breadth of inspiration that these awards exist to honor.”

The Award was established by long-time Arts Club member Jeannie S. Marfield in honor of Florence Berryman and Helen Wharton. Publishers, agents, or authors may submit books for consideration. The submission for the 2009 award will begin in July 2009.

Previous winners include: Jenny Uglow in 2007 (finalists Carolyn Brown, Alex Ross, Nigel Cliff, William Jelani Cobb; judges Jamaica Kincaid, Robert Pinsky, Nancy Pearl) and in 2006, Scott Reynolds Nelson (finalists Ross King and Julie Phillips; judges Alan Cheuse, Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates).

To arrange an interview with the Award recipients, please contact our press liaison, Holly Bass, langstondays@gmail.com. For more about the awards and finalists, please visit the site: http://artsclubofwashington.org/award.htm. You may also contact Kim Roberts, Award Administrator at 202-331-7282 x15.

About the Arts Club of Washington:
Headquartered in the James Monroe House, a National Historic Landmark, the Arts Club of Washington was founded in 1916 and is the oldest non-profit arts organization in the city. The mission of the Arts Club of Washington is to generate public appreciation for and participation in the arts in the Nation’s capital.

April 23, 2009

Tasty Sauces

What follows is from a great entry up at Harriet (the blog of the Poetry Foundation) by Camille Dungy, on a semester's worth of introducing her students to contemporary poets related to their own projects. In the excerpt below Dungy talks about the kids' reception to Patrick Rosal, one of my favorite poets and an absolutely phenomenal performer...

"The other poet who surprised me with his broad reach was Patrick Rosal. In this case, two poems from his latest book, American Kundiman, struck very different students’ interests. One particularly philosophical student, taken to long, meditative narratives featuring professors, barmen, scatologists, etymologists, and priests who meet in far away towns, found himself drawn to “An Essay on Tango Composed While Listening to Adriana Varela” which begins:

I swear to you I heard someone on Avenida Santa Fé shout my name but I ignored it Who knew me in this city anyway? I’d come here trying to forget the woman whom I’d made love with every night for three weeks in another August in another city whose once-in-a-lifetime dog-licking summer stewed the hot copper reek of coins right out of my palms But in this city I put my head down as I walked thinking of that story about the boy who remembered everything: every swelter of ascent every susurration of fire every etymology of touch

And another student, apprenticing herself directly to Rosal’s work, turned in a poem modeled after “The Woman You Love Cuts Apples For You” complete with the second person, multiple story lines, unpunctuated sentences, and tasty sauces of the original. She learned a lot trying to write like Rosal. She learned, for instance, that she couldn’t write like Rosal. In so learning she began to see some of the reasons why not, which lead her to understanding some of the things she could do in her own writing and also some of the things she still needed to work to perfect."

Read the whole entry here.

April 22, 2009

In a Moment of Self-Correction

I went to hear Ethelbert Miller tonight, reading from The 5th Inning at Riverby Books, hosted by Monica Jacobe at "A Space Inside"--one of my favorite local reading series. The reading was great; not only the excerpts themselves but the larger reflection on the transition from prose to poetry and the role of the memoir in contemporary culture and the life of an author.

Afterwards, I gave Ethelbert and another poet a ride home. The radio was being kind. The Beach Boys crooned about Good Vibrations.

As we arrived at the Dupont Circle metro, and I pulled over to let Ethelbert out, I meant to say "Stop rocking my world." Or possibly "Stop blowing my mind."

What I said was "Stop blowing my world, Ethelbert!"

Before I had a chance to correct that, he had closed the car door.

Sorry about that, E. Everyone gets tongue-tied sometimes. Even the poet-types.

An Interview Over at the Writer's Center Blog

"When you’re reading two hundred poems in one sitting and eight of them use flowers as a metaphor for cancer, the bane of cliché takes on a more tangible quality. I became less likely to indulge in familiar language because not only did I suspect it was being said elsewhere, I knew it for a fact. The evidence was in our slush pile...."

April 20, 2009

The Ugly Wand

Many, many thanks to everyone who has come by the blog to say congrats about the Barnard Prize. It's a thrill and a terror. Right now my 2 A.M. fear is that the poems won't be worthy. But the boulder is rolling and at a certain point my job, like Indiana Jones, is just to get the hell out of the way.

Everything is moving very fast. Marketer's survey due this week. Final text due last week. Author photo due ASAP. The electronic MS formatting required by Norton is double-spaced, Times New Roman, 12-point font. Translation: The fairy godmother of formatting dipped tapped my manuscript on its poor defenseless head with the Ugly Wand. The book grew from 54 to 84 pages, producing a bunch of widows (pages occupied by just one or two last lines, of a poem begun the page before). I have to hope this is essentially raw text, and it will be anointed by a Pretty Potion before being set to type.

Elsewhere on the web...

There's bad news in the publishing world daily, but this hit me hard: the poetry editor at Publisher's Weekly has been laid off. I don't know Teicher personally, but what I know of his work as a poet, critic, and freelancer is that he fights the good fight to raise awareness of poetry in mainstream venues (not only PW but Time Out New York, the NBCC, and so on). We need people with the critical skills and tenacity to seduce the public with poetry, and to refute the idea of it as a self-segregating market. So thank you for your much-needed service, Craig, and I hope you land on your feet soon.

On a brighter note, my article on publishing poetry online is up over at the website for Poets & Writers and appears in the May/June print issue. Thanks to T. R. Hummer, Edward Byrne, and others for their thoughtful responses. Thanks as well to the Wom-Po list serv for offering helpful leads and quotations.

April 14, 2009

The Barnard Women Poets Prize

For some reason, I always get big news in transit. When Theories of Falling won the New Issues Poetry Prize the managing editor spent three fruitless days trying to get a hold of me--but I was in Switzerland. (Don't hate me. It's not a regular occurrence.) I received the call from my agent telling me that Crown had bought Don't Kill the Birthday Girl while waiting on a flight to AWP Chicago at National Airport (the one time a delayed departure proved fortuitous).

So a few weeks back I was staying at a friend's house in Charlottesville for a reading at the Festival of the Book. Even though he had long since gone to bed, I was still wired from the evening's Rita Dove/Boyd Tinsley performance. Realizing my friend had left his laptop in the guest room, I started restlessly deleting spam from my Webmail. Click...click...click...

I thought the fourth email was spam, too; it didn't have a subject line. I almost deleted it. Thanks god I didn't, because the email was telling me I'd won the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize. I Was the Jukebox has been selected by Joy Harjo and will be published by W.W. Norton in spring 2010.

I had big news. I had big news at 2 AM in a house that wasn't my own, with no one to tell. I hopped around my friend's house in my socks, by myself, mouthing "O O O" over and over, before remembering I have a sister in college. And undergrads are ALWAYS awake, which is part of why we love them.

Then for the rest of the Festival, surrounded by fellow poets, teachers, mentors, I got to share...nothing. It was excruciating! But I'd been sworn to secrecy by the prize coordinators.

Up until today. More to come, but here is the official press release. And if you want first look at the details, you can find them on the revamped website. New book, new look.

April 07, 2009

Where I'm Going, Where I've Been

Aw, what kind of poet am I? Celebrating the the first week of April with...blog silence. I'm quiet, but that doesn't mean I haven't been busy. I'm rebuilding my website--new host, new CMS, new design--and I only have so many hours in the day that I can sit in front of a computer screen.

Sites providing inspiration (both things-to-do & things-to-avoid):

Steve Almond
A.J. Jacobs
Jennifer 8 Lee
Victoria Chang
Erika Meitner
Richard McCann
Cate Marvin
Sarah Manguso
Joseph O. Legaspi
C.M. Mayo
Jonathan Weinert
Stephen Burt (and here again)
Neil Aitken
Julie Klam

Not too long ago C.M. Mayo wrote an essay for Foreword Magazine that offered smart advice for writer/bloggers (my favorite: don't use white text on a dark background: Mark Doty, I'm looking at you!). But I think there's still some room for thoughts on the subject...

Things that irk me:

-Lists of readings where, because the year is missing, you're for not sure if you're looking at the recent past or far-off future.

-Calendars, unless hyper-linked to author-related events (and there has to be TONS going on, at least one event each week).

-Word clouds and generic widgets that don't serve any purpose beyond filling space. Fun to see once, useless on return visits.

-Flash-driven sites, stunning to watch, that don't let you select text (and may not be accessible for sight-impaired people).

-Images of words that look like navigation bars (you mouse over to click) but are just static invocations: Poet | Guitarist | Guru.

Elements I love:

-Snapshots of the author giving readings, signing books, showing off the latest beard length. When the only photo is the official back-cover portrait, it can feel a little Dorian Gray.

-Author interviews. Sample poems/prose I have probably read already (leading me to the site), or I can Google easily enough. Good interviews can fall off the radar pretty quickly, especially if they are archived offline or in a way that search engines won't find. If you can link to an audio interview AND provide a transcript, that's the best of all possible worlds.

-Thematic visuals. Could be random (bugs!) or from your book. If you don't have hi-res files from your book art, talk to your press. They might pass along a Photoshop file (PSD) where the "layers" can be separated and used for the web. Publishers like author sites; they're inclined to be helpful.

-Fresh content. Basic, I know. But nothing makes me sadder than an "Upcoming" 2008 event trumpeted on your index page.

-Whimsy. Sure, author sites have clear-cut duties: events, bio, buy the book. But if there's an X factor--something you can't find anywhere else--all the better. Miranda July drew me in with enigmatic dry-erase scrawls; Sloane Crosley built (and Flickrd) dioramas.

Also, as someone who hosts readings, I like to see publicity files available for download:

-a short bio (100 words highlighting major accomplishments

-a full bio (3-4 narrative paragraphs) or a c.v. in PDF format

-a hi-res JPG author photo (300 dpi or greater). Make sure the photo is hosted via a link, NOT posted to the page--which takes forever to load in someone's browser. Use a low-res (72 DPI) thumbnail to display the image.

Note that I'm guilty of some of these sins on my current site--and missing some things I am praising. Hence the rebuild!

Hope these thoughts are helpful to some of you if you decide to create or update your own sites. What are your favorite sites, or your pet peeves? It's a bit of a wonky subject, but I'm in a practical headspace these days. At least, until I can tell you the thing I can't tell you yet.

April 01, 2009

NaPoWriMo & Real Life

Hmmm...the funny thing is, I never actually said I was participating in NaPoWriMo. My schedule's a little crazy this month. Yes somehow I have been added to the list of participants (and I certainly support the cause!). Ooof. I'll see what I can do.

***Update: So far, I've done some drafting but nothing I can post online--for reasons both aesthetic and, well, contractual. Forgive me! I've been enjoying everyone else's NaPoWriMo-ing.

In the meantime, I'm happy to see the following pop up:

-A recommendation for Claudia Emerson's Figure Studies over on Ron Slate's website, as one of 24 poets offering April poetry picks.

-Inclusion in Beltway's "First Books Issue" alongside A.B. Spellman, Brandel France de Bravo, Kathi Morrison-Taylor, and Gregg Shapiro.

-A stunning, gratifying, unexpected review of Theories of Falling courtesy of Caroline Klocksiem over at Gently Read Literature.