March 28, 2012


This week I return to Pittsburgh, one of my favorite towns. The first time I drove here I did not know what to expect--bare steel and depressing concrete, perhaps--so I was shocked by the verdant hills, graceful bridges (more than Venice, so goes the rumor), and the bright iron colors that accent rather than constrain the landscape. This is the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Building, a.k.a a modern castle. Magic. And it's not just the place, it is the people: there is a real underdog enthusiasm here when it comes to the arts scene. Last night I gave a reading as part of the Point Park University Poetry Series to 111 people. Afterwards at least a dozen students lined up, books in hand, to share their dreams of becoming writers. It takes your breath away. 

The Point Park University "campus" makes a space for itself by reclaiming buildings originally dedicated for other purposes. It is very vertical, very dense. My reading took place in an auditorium of a former hotel that also houses academic offices, classrooms, and student housing. My master class took place in an old bank that has been turned into a library--including this reading room fashioned from the vault.

Our master class was on the sestina, so a close-up of the vault's combination lock feels apropos. We looked at examples from Philip Sidney, Elizabeth Bishop, Miller Williams, and Sonya Huber. The students were totally tuned in--it was a lot of fun--and I think (I hope) that we banished the bum rap that the sestina is an inherently inorganic, forced form of writing. For certain topics and certain voices, the turn of those endwords serves a vital purpose. You just gotta get the tumblers lined up right. 

Before my reading I went to the Gandy Dancer Saloon for a gimlet and their "Buck a Shuck" happy hour. The Saloon is part of the Grand Concourse, which opened in 1978 but looks a century older (the building was built in 1900 to house the Pittsburgh Terminal Train Station). I had John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, and for an hour I enjoyed that rarest of pleasures: reading on the road. Sullivan is an interesting and higly self-aware essayist; I was unexpectedly moved by his meditation on Michael Jackson, of all people.

The poet who brought me here is Sarah Perrier, the author of Nothing Fatal, and afterwards I joined her and fiction professor Karen Dwyer for a meal at Salt of the Earth. (Mmmm. How did I go this long without knowing the wonder of "duck ham"?) One of my favorite parts of book tour is meeting the faculty at these schools, so have often put in hours of works to fight for the creative writing programs that their undergrads crave. Both women are forceful, smart, and funny, with a legion of devoted students. Point Park is lucky to have them.

From here I journey to New York state for the Alfred Literary Festival. I'm excited to give the kick-off reading on Thursday afternoon--and to hang out with Juliana Gray, an incredibly talented poet and the author of Roleplay, the forthcoming winner of the Orphic Book Prize from Dream Horse Press. I first met Juliana the Sewanee Writer's Conference, and (ahem) her drinking ability rivals my own. There will be hijinks. I'll be reading alongside Ed Falco, a novelist who heads up the MFA program at Virginia Tech and is carrying on the story of the Corleone family with a prequel to Mario Puzo's The Godfather, which is coming out in May. When I first met Ed at AWP this year, he was wearing a leather jacket. In otherwords: double the hijinks. Onwards~

(As I sing the praises of Pittsburgh, I can hear a horrific thunderstorm come on. All right, city, I get it! Something has to happen to make those hills so emerald green....)

March 22, 2012

The Horizon

This week I have four readings as part of my term as the Writer-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo). At one of the high schools a student asked about "the hardest part of being a full-time writer." I answered it was not only being a full-time writer but being a full-time secretary, publicist, and travel agent. In other words, it would be a mistake to think that being an writer is the same as giving oneself more time to write, at least in my case. I felt my answer was a bit disappointing (or perhaps too bureaucratic), but it was honest. Some weeks it is all I can do to keep my paperwork in order and clean clothes in my suitcase. 

That said, last week this job took me to Colorado. Yes, I had to hit the ground running--make the plane, get the rental car--and I did five readings and classroom visits in less than 36 hours in Denver and Pueblo. But then got to steal an extra day and a half to spend with long-lost family in their mountain home, where I got to shower outside, by a lake (the view above), and then watch sunrise over the same pond (the view below). I might not have gotten much time to write last week (save a new Modern Alice story, "Old Flame," which I shyly drafted while flying Frontier Airlines), but I will never take such weeks for granted. 

Speaking of the many things coming up in March and April! Look to the right & you'll see I'm busy--this weekend's Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, a seminar at The Writer's Center, trips to Pittsburgh and New York. But let me draw your attention to non-Sandra-centric events that promise to be great....


The Writer's Center is located at 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815.

Three of the Writer’s Center’s 2011–2012 Emerging Writer Fellows come together to share their award-winning work with our community. This event is free. Don’t miss this opportunity to see rising stars in American fiction and poetry. 


TRACI BRIMHALL - Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins, selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery, winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in New England Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, Poet Lore, and Southern Review. She teaches at Western Michigan University where she is a doctoral candidate and a King/Chávez/Parks Fellow.

JOANNE DIAZ - Diaz is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, The New York Times Foundation, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her book, The Lessons, won the Gerald Cable first book award and was published in 2011. Her poems have been published in AGNI, The American Poetry Review, The Southern Review, and Third Coast. She is an assistant professor in the English department at Illinois Wesleyan University.

IRA SUKRUNGRUANG - Sukrungruang is a Thai American, born and raised in the southside of Chicago. He co-edited with Donna Jarrell two literary anthologies about fat: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. His work has appeared in The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, and other literary journals. Recently, his memoir, Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, was published by University of Missouri Press. He is the co-founder of Sweet: A Literary Confection, an online periodical, and teaches in the M.F.A. program at University of South Florida.


Thursday, April 5 - 7 PM - CAFE MUSE LITERARY SERIES

The Word Works presents monthly literary programs that open with Michael Davis on classical guitar. Open readings follow the featured readers. Sign up begins at 7:00pm. This event is free to the public. Friendship Heights Village Center is a five-minute walk from the Friendship Heights Metro stop (red line) at 4433 South Park Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland. 


KEVIN MCFADDEN - McFadden is the author of Hardscrabble (University of Georgia Press), which received the George Garrett Award for poetry from the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the Great Lakes College Association’s New Writers Award. His poems have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Fence, Kenyon Review, Poetry, and in other publications. He is the Chief Operating Officer at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

ANGIE HOGAN - Hogan's poems have been published in journals including The Antioch Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. She holds degrees from Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia, where she was a Hoyns Fellow as well as the recipient of a Javits Fellowship. She lives near Charlottesville and works at the University of Virginia Press.



Politics & Prose at 5015 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008

WHAT: Pitchapalooza is American Idol for books (only without Simon). Twenty writers will be selected at random to pitch their book. Each writer gets one minute—and only one minute! In the last month, three writers have gotten publishing deals as a result of participating in Pitchapalooza.

WHO: Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company dedicated to helping authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010). Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for 18 years at The Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. She is also the author of seven books and the co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 12 books, on a wide variety of subject including memoir, sports, YA fiction and reference. They have taught their workshop on how to get published everywhere from Stanford University to Smith College. 

HOW: At Pitchapalooza, judges will help you improve your pitch, not tell you how bad it is. Judges critique everything from idea to style to potential in the marketplace and much, much more. Authors come away with concrete advice as well as a greater understanding of the ins and outs of the publishing industry. Whether potential authors pitch themselves, or simply listen to trained professionals critique each presentation, Pitchapalooza is educational and entertaining for one and all. From Miami to Portland, from LA to NYC, and many stops along the way, Pitchapaloozas have consistently drawn standing-room-only crowds, press (a New York Times article) and blog coverage, and the kind of bookstore buzz reserved for celebrity authors.

PRIZE: At the end of Pitchapalooza, the judges will pick a winner. The winner receives an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her book.

PRICE OF ADMISSION: To sign up to pitch, you must purchase a copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published. Anyone who buys a copy of receives a FREE 20 minute consultation, a $100 value. If you don’t want to pitch, the event is FREE.

...C'mon guys, you have to admit: this is intriguing. If I'm in town, I'll be there. 

March 12, 2012


Thanks to all who came out for my events in Illinois last week. In Urbana, I was lucky enough to join host David Inge for an hour-long "Focus" interview on WILL, the local NPR affiliate. You can hear the entirety of our conversation here (MP3 or streaming). 

My discussion of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl caught the ear of a mother whose daughter, Samantha, is both an aspiring poet and someone with firsthand food allergy experience. They fought post-school traffic to join us for a packed afternoon reading at the Illini Union Bookstore. Samantha, a whip-smart kid if there ever was one, was kind enough to share this poem that she had written just that day:


A white
small pearl in
your mouth.
When it wiggles a
pearl is 


It is 6 AM as I type this, readying to hop a plane to Colorado. Last night I got to sleep in my bed for the first time in two weeks...for a whole three hours. My feet are swollen from piggybacking a drive to & from Illinois and with a weekend trip to & from Charleston for a friend's wedding. But it is worth it. You hit the road each time hoping, just hoping, you're lucky enough to meet a girl like Samantha. 

March 05, 2012

Thoughts from Chicago ~ AWP 2012

I was catching up with a friend about March travel plans. She stopped me and said, "Something's weird when you're thinking about AWP as your downtime." But it's true; AWP was the only week this month when I didn't have a single formal reading or speaking commitment. I was free to float and, thanks to the Hilton's draconian fees, forced onto an email diet. My roommate was the fabulous poet and indomitable AWP veteran Erika Meitner. She's the friend with whom you know you can always share a sidelong look or three--a necessity when hanging out in the hotel bar.

A major shift for me was paying attention to the creative nonfiction offerings in this year's conference schedule. A couple of tips: anytime you see the names of Cheryl Strayed, Stephen Elliott, Robin Hemley, or Daniel Nester in the line-up, GO. It will be a good one. I came away with real insights on the question of whether it is possible to "sell out" the ones you love in writing memoir; using immersion or travel to enrich storytelling; and thinking outside the box of promoting one's work, even if that means getting over yourself as a capital-A Author. Stephanie Elizondo Griest perfectly articulated my hesitation about memoirs that intersect with contemporary experience: "This style of writing has ethical landmines all over the it fair [to new friends/subjects/loved ones] that by virtue of hanging out with you, they have become part of your literary petri dish?"

Todd Zuniga had a basic but brilliant point on why you should always, always keep your readings short: "What people want to know is whether or not they like you."

In Chicago, I have realized that I need to stop thinking about using my identity as a writer to promote/support any one book. I need to stop introducing myself as a poet when among poets, as a memoirist when among creative nonfictioneers, as a sometimes Washington Post contributor when when among journalists. I need to introduce myself as a writer. Period. I have to start looking at every book as one in a series of (I hope) many, one that evolves but does not define my success. There will be growing pains in changing mindsets, but they are necessary, and embracing those pains was worth the cost of the hotel in & of itself. 

The panel that did the best job of mixing commentary with brief but stunning readings was "A Face to Meet the Faces: Five Poets on Persona, Empathy, and Race" with Stacey Lynn Brown, Eduardo C. Corral, Cornelius Eady, Patricia Smith, Jake Adam York. Everyone walked out buzzing about the anthology. I used Oliver's camera to get a snapshot of the crew; seriously, these folks could take this show on the road to paying audiences. 

My last panel of the conference was "Men from Venus, Women from Mars: Writing from the Perspective of the Opposite Sex" with Reese Okyong Kwon, Jennine Capó Crucet, Alan Heathcock, Kyle Minor and Kevin Wilson. It may have been one of the most platonically perfect panels I have ever attended. And that's as a poet and memoirist--meaning this wasn't even particularly relevant to my writing practice. Much as when I read fiction, I could just sit back...and enjoy. Every author was articulate, keeping their remarks short up front, building on each other's comments rather than repeating each other, answering a moderated Q&A with additional insights. 

I knew Jennine would be great; we read together for The Potomac Review's anniversary last year. She made really nice craft-centric points about differentiating between using gender to shape a character's internal self (what someone would think or pay attention to) and using gender-appropriate dialogue (what someone would say out loud to reflect those things). Those concerns are overlapping but not congruent. 

Alan Heathcock was a revelation, and I am going to go out and buy VOLT just from having heard his intelligence and dry humor as a speaker. Besides, who could resist that cover? Heathcock resists being daunted by writing across gender lines, pointing out that the main goal must be authenticity of a unique character's emotions and motives. Noting that in his first story collection gender is never a core issue ("None of my female characters menstruate on the page"), he admitted the challenge emerged with his next project. "My current book has a 17 year-old pregnant girl, so I'm having to ask my wife a lot of questions. Which is fine. Just like when I wrote about a chicken farmer, I had to ask a lot of questions to a chicken farmer. [Pause.] Not to equate chicken farming with pregnancy."

Kevin was his typically modest self. "The terrifying thing about going last is that all of the best stuff has already been said," he observed. "The awful thing is looking at what you planned to say and realizing that it contains none of that stuff. So let's just get through this." He then went on to give a beautiful, vulnerable account of some of the editorial insecurities he grappled with in both Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (confiding that the gender of one story narrator has been switched from the original draft) and in taking on the POVs of both a brother and a sister in The Family Fang. He dared emphasize not where he had succeeded, but where he feels he may have failed, may continue to fail, and thus is compelled to explore. 

Headliner readings by Audrey Niffenegger, Lyn Hejinian, and Irvine Welsh were the best kind--changing my understanding of styles that border on the iconic (perhaps causing us to not read the text as closely as we should). These readings made me laugh. These readings complicated my understanding of the authors, challenged me. Plus, Welsh spat into the microphone to simulate the sound of a nail gun going off. He squatted onstage during a bathroom scene. The man has no filter. 

My tradition of minimizing meals out continues. When it works, it works. I loved the afternoon simplicity of 20 minutes in my room, spooning smoked oysters onto Triscuits, eating fresh blueberries by the handful for dessert, all in blissful utter silence. That said, I have yet to perfect the amount of hot water that should be fed through the coffee machine to make instant oatmeal--resulting on more than one occasion into a strange sugary, raisined gruel that was not the cheeriest way to start the morning.

The flask continues to come in handy, and every year I notice a few more folks carrying. It's not necessarily that I'm a cheapskate. Even at receptions where the alcohol is free, I feel silly waiting in line for 25 minutes to receive it. Not to mention that the scotch available tends to be Johnnie Walker Black, my least favorite. If you were looking for my at Kitty O'Shea's, I apologize; I took to hanging out in the other bar (which I spent four days calling "non-Kitty") when I realized that space was more flask-friendly. 

The downside of non-Kitty was that they closed down early. At one point Stephen Burt reached behind the bar to steal glasses and fish out ice from the bin himself, annoyed that it wasn't even 1 AM and they were refusing us even water. I worried a waiter would yell at him, which would have been the oddest kind of trouble-making to befall someone on the NBCC Board. I was so flattered by his chivalry that I couldn't bear to tell him the glass he used for me was clearly waiting to be washed. 

Me, Melissa Stein, and Marie-Elizabeth Mali
On Saturday as they turned up the lights and pushed us out, I bumped into Sewanee friend Frank Giampietro. Each recognizing the other was still conversation-hungry, we impulsively hopped in the elevator and got off on one of those mysterious renovated floors (11? 13?). We sat on the white leather lobby couch, trespassers. We clinked flasks. We talked, confided, and commiserated for one last stolen hour of AWP. Those were the best kinds of conversations--the real one-on-ones--and I was grateful for similar moments with Heather Hartley, Marie-Elizabeth Mali, Jehanne Dubrow, Douglas Ray, Daniel Nester, Steve Schroeder, and Martha Silano. In the case of Nick Flynn I had to settle for a long elevator ride from the 21st Floor to the Lobby...but what can you do? The man is busy. I'd have been happy with just 6 or 7 floors. I was also content to know that Dear Sugar's room was on my hall, even though we never actually spoke. I suppose syntactically she's just "Sugar," but she is Dear to me. 

With Mary Biddinger at the fancypants party
Ah. Add to that list of one-on-one chats my time with AWP Board member and Orchises editor Roger Lathbury, who I got to talk to in the Conrad Hilton suite, also known as the top-floor duplex where Liz Taylor took a lot of jacuzzi baths and Obama found out he won the presidency. This was the site of the lovely fancypants party--fresh cut jicama!--where VIPs could watch Taylor Mali play pool and, incidentally, watch Taylor murder the palm tree that periodically interfered with his shots. Whenever I see Roger, I remind him that the first time we met was at a past fancypants party when he composed a poem for me on the spot. He always reminds me that was after I asked him to stop staring at my crotch or, rather, the long-corded name tag hanging immediately above my crotch. This was as Martin Amis stood nearby, smoking indoors and apologizing for offending my female sensibility. You gotta love AWP, and with that you gotta love Roger Lathbury. This time we talked about Henry Taylor, a topic that always makes me happy, and my sister, a topic that always makes me even happier, and the surviving lover of a famous reclusive writer, a topic that elicited a hilarious facial expression that will not be further described here.

Next year the conference goes to Boston. Have you reserved a room yet? Kidding! Kidding. Kinda. It'll be good to return to Boston after this fall's Book Festival. I'd love to be asked to do a reading (is that too pathetic a hint?), and if not I'll throw my hat in the ring to coordinate a panel or two--Michael Martone is on board for a discussion of Lewis Hyde's THE GIFT that could be amazing, and Tara Betts and I are considering a panel on how Sylvia Plath is received by today's rising poets. I hope to help Dan move an anthology forward into the world, so maybe I'll be bookfairing with intent. And I'll be in the middle of a semester-long visiting writer stint, details soon be public.... other words, even the free-est of free radicals likes to feel a little pull now & again.