August 31, 2012

Lessons of Summer

Lordy, the weekend is upon us. The End of Summer. My balcony's planter-box--once a bright birthday gift from my sister, back in May--has now gone weedy and brown. I'm ready to make chicken chili and pumpkin soup. I'm ready to wear shawls again. 

It's been a good season, driven by a promise that I would stay in and around DC and take care of myself. (The secret: allotting one hour of bad reality television if, and only if, it corresponds to one hour of working out.) I wish I had another two weeks. I have specific ideas for two essays I want to draft, and 4-6 poems. But still, I feel good rounding up the writing and editing I did get done, and a dozen lessons learned. Namely:

1) I need to have faith and be more patient with editors, especially in the case of building ongoing relationships. Twice this summer I turned in nonfiction, and when a week went by with no response I thought "Agh, it's horrible"--to the point of wanting to withdraw for a brute revision/rewrite. To pretend it never happened. Both times it turned out the editors liked what they saw, but it is just one of 1,000 things on their desks. You can burn bridges with insecurity; you gotta be careful. 

2) Even after four years of amazing workshops at the University of Virginia, two years of amazing workshops at The American University, and the Jenny McKean Moore workshop at George Washington University post-MFA...I still benefit from having a writing group. There is something to having an outside set of eyes on your work, no matter how disciplined and discerning one may be. I am particularly grateful to have Kyle Dargan as a reader, more than a decade after we first met at UVA. He rocks.  

3) I am not going to write reviews anymore. There are people who excel at the craft. I am not one of them or, if I am, I take no pleasure in it. It's also the lowest-paying rank of prose that I see out there in the freelance market right now. I'd rather use the work of contemporary poets to illustrate craft essays...and I suspect that'll actually keep their work alive more effectively, three years from now, than a review. 

4) My Colorado uncle is right. Celery salt makes a Bloody Mary. It feels a little weird to season a glass, but that smokiness is all it takes (plus vodka, V8, a bit of Trader Joe's jalapeno sauce, maybe a celery stick garnish). I only ever use one little low-sodium can of V8 at a time, though, so don't worry: it's a mini-Mary. I'm not lushing it too much. 

5) I get more done on days when not all my reading is off a computer screen. Recurring go-tos are New York (not just for that culture matrix--their cover stories are stellar), Rolling Stone, Poetry, and Real Simple. We'll see about The Oxford American.  

6) If you're a creative type who I know to cheat on your significant other in real life, I give myself permission to never fully invest in your work. Life is too short. 

7) I am not going to spend time on Op-Eds anymore. If they don't get taken on the first try, they start feeling stale too quickly. There is also a stridency there, a heightening of stance versus reason that is neither natural nor conversational; it reminds me of the email tomes I used to read & write for my college debating society's list-serv. 

8) 5,000-8,000 steps is the perfect length walk for my neighborhood. Depending on level of ambition I can make it a post office run, or a tour of the National Zoo. 

9) Nationals Stadium has a superb array of beers available, but a pitiful shortage of great french fry purveyors ever since Five Guys left. Boardwalk Fries, you've been letting me down with your lukewarm, undersalted spuds. On the upside, a ketchup-detesting dad and a mustard-allergic daughter have discovered the perfect dip compromise: Cholula hot sauce. 

10) Junot Diaz and I share a love, and that love is Encyclopedia Brown. The world is a strange and serendipitous place. 

11) None of my poetry collections are going to resemble each other. While I hope to have a signature intensity of voice, maybe a specificity of phrasing, and probably always more sestinas than most poets, these books are going to jump all over the place in terms of mood, theme, and rhetorical focus. I'm a restless poet. This is both exciting and terrifying.

12) My love for the essay is beginning to rival my love for poetry. Given druthers, right now I might pick being a regular columnist over writing a second nonfiction book. 

I think that's a PhD's worth of summer research, don't you?


Some links for those whiling away final hours before their holiday begins...

-For DC friends planning calendars: please come to the Arts Club of Washington on Tuesday, September 18, when I host a poetry reading by Meghan O'Rourke. 

-For NYC friends planning calendars: join me at Le Poisson Rouge on Sunday, September 23, for a show with pianist Inna Faliks & baritone David Adam Moore. 

-For friends adrift at what to do with a post-MFA fall, apply for fellowships and prizes using this invaluable list compiled by Erika Dreifus. (My goal: to head back to the Millay Colony next year. Their deadline for 2013 residency applications is October 1.)

-...And for friends returning to teaching, Matt Bell made me laugh with this McSweeney's Internet Tendency contribution: "MY GRADING SCALE FOR THE FALL SEMESTER, COMPOSED ENTIRELY OF SAMUEL BECKETT QUOTES."

Enjoy, and see you in September~

August 25, 2012

The Last

A whimsical posting of this photo on my Facebook account sparked a discussion of the 1982 animated movie, The Last Unicorn, which (along with Peter S. Beagle's wonderful book) made a serious impact on my young creative consciousness. So, resisting shame, here is my one of first published poems--which appeared in my 1998 undergraduate thesis at the University of Virginia and won a contest sponsored by Charlottesville's writing center and now-defunct literary magazine, Streetlight. I got to drive to Harrisonburg and record this winning poem, which was played on public radio for the subsequent month. They backed it with a Joni Mitchell song. 

The Last 
                    For Peter S. Beagle

Lloyd never calls them unicorns, no.  They don’t grow those in Kentucky.  Sure—
four feet, one horn—but they bleat just like goats, they still bleed at the gums 

when they get into the barb wire.  Not like the horn is some shining gold either, 
sparkling with magic: just dim white bone, and an occasional crust of dung.  Still, 

one comes almost every spring to the Mathers’ farm: the veined head 
emerging from the womb of a perplexed mother, that single deformed horn 

which makes Lloyd wipe his brow nervously with a loose blue rag, and take 
his whiskey break at one in the afternoon.  All the other kids get names like 

Billy, or Janey: but this one will be called Nuisance, or perhaps Dammit,
and will crop the back pasture for a few lonely years.  It just ain’t natural, 

Lloyd complains to his wife.  Nobody wants that one.  Molly nods, promising
to mix a better feed grain this year, to add eggshells for calcium and clover

for luck.  Yet in the evenings, after Lloyd has laid his overalls over the rocking chair
and snores hard in the birch bed, she likes to sneak out in her white nightgown.

Stepping lightly in the tractored dirt, leaving no more than a single smudged toeprint,
she eases open the barn door and goes to where those goats are, the strange ones

nobody wants.  They come to her handfuls of alfalfa, gently butting and jousting 
each other, and she calls them by their real names: Amalthea, and Marek, Lir

looping his horn through the sash on her gown, pulling apart the loose bow; 
Fortuna, always wary of dragons as she chews a lace hem but skitters from touch.

If this were a fairy tale, and Molly a young maiden, she would braid a bridle of golden 
wheat and be gone by morning. But this is Kentucky. Molly will pick the last strands

of hay from her hair long before Lloyd wakes up; and the sun will rise a red bull, 
snorting at our need for real beyond real. 

~Sandra Beasley (circa 1998)

August 24, 2012


For most of the last two weeks I've been living in my robe, eating dinner after dinner of shucked mussels, spinach, quick-chopped Kumato tomatoes (this is what happens to "readymade rations" if you live near a Whole Foods), Triscuits, and the occasional icebox vodka. Off Facebook, off Twitter, off anything that could distract me from the profile of a musician that I've been working on. 

Well, okay, I took a break for a trio of baseball games. This has been a revelatory season, and it's fun to be part of it. I have many memories of trekking up to Baltimore to watch the O's, and when the Nats first came to DC I accompanied my dad on some obligatory outings. But this year I've gotten to follow closely enough to recognize the tics (and fill in the bios) of individual players; this year the visiting team's at-bats is not the time to chat, but the time to watch Strasburg work his magic. I've always loved the game in the abstract, but this year I get to love it in the day-to-day.

Back to the writing. I'd be specific, but until the assignment feels like a sure thing I don't want to jinx it. I could hear a smile in my editor's voice when I called yesterday and told him he had copy coming his way. "Your job is done for a bit," he said. 

Nope. I wish hitting "Send" felt that way. Something I've noticed in journalism: there is no sigh of relief. Instead I am doubting last-minute cuts for length, concerned someone's feelings will be hurt if they are not mentioned, already thinking ahead to the first edit, aware I have to work up an annotated copy for the fact-checkers that requires re-tracing hours of tape. It is different when your source material is your life, or the imaginative well of poetry, or even the static object of a book being reviewed. With profiles or travel pieces, we capture people and places as a kind of permanent record. In spite of everyone's inherent quirks and myths, their inconsistencies, they trust us to dedicate reality faithfully to the page--and sometimes the more ambiguous the reality, the better the piece, which means we must both record and interpret. I take that responsibility seriously. I worry I'm not good enough. I lose sleep over it at night.  

I'm not saying this to whine, just being honest.  I have a feeling my friend Wright Thompson, who works for ESPN and wrote this amazing piece, would laugh at me. Loudly. This is part of the gig. But I'm an MFA baby--no one trains us for this. 

There are some good posts going on around the blogosphere. I loved Leslie's anecdote about interviewing for The New Yorker. I felt a sharp pang of sympathy for Jeannine, whose press has announced closure. People talk about blogs as a dying form, yet neither one of these experiences would have been told right through Facebook or Twitter alone. 

August 09, 2012

On Visiting Colleges

Since I don't have a new book out, I won't have the whirlwind travel over the coming school year. And that's fine by me. Just as this summer has been about my third poetry collection, the fall will be about planting seeds for the next nonfiction book. And in the spring of 2013 I'll be the Writer-in-Residence at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina. It's a small town outside Asheville, but the program has a big reach--just check out their Visiting Writer Series line-up.

That said, I've been booking things here and there, and I've finalized a trio of visits to colleges over a week in October: dropping in on a creative nonfiction workshop at Ole Miss, a reading and workshop at Belhaven University outside Jackson, and a craft talk and poetry reading at MSU in Starkville. I'm thrilled to return to Mississippi, but in particular I look forward to the variety of these events, and the students I'll meet.  

These visits matter. I take them seriously. We talk about the benefits they have for the students--the advice about publishing, the chance to network--but the impression is significant for the author as well. I was just reading the Washington Post and I came across a book review by a woman whose name, to this day, makes me shudder. Why? Because she was a nightmare when she came to visit my MFA program. She critiqued the manuscript of a fiction student, which was identified as a chapter of a novel-in-progress, and in her opening salvo announced that she didn't find the protagonist likeable, thought the work setting was boring, and that the section (and by association the book) used the wrong choice of POV. This was a semester before theses were due.

There's nothing wrong with drastic suggestions, except subsequent remarks--which confused the names of characters and obscured plot points--made it clear that she hadn't read the manuscript that closely. The writer, a kind and thoughtful student who had based his character's job on months of research, left on the verge of tears. He'd come in so excited to be the one workshopped by the Very Important Writer. (We knew she was Very Important because The New Yorker had reviewed her book which, when I tried to read it after her visit, proved witty but emotionally arid.)

When you show up disinterested in student work other than as a chance to show off how smart you are or how merciless editors can be, they notice. When you check your watch, counting down the minutes until you're off duty, and you skip the round of beers back at the favorite grad student bar, they notice. When you're rude to a beloved program mentor because he or she has "settled" into the teaching life while you've gone on to publish another three books, they notice. And they have a right to notice! They've spent their money on your books, they've spent hours studying your craft, they got up at 6 AM to pick you up from the airport and ferry you back to campus. 

So show up, damn it. I don't mean that you can't demand coffee as a premise to cogency, and I don't mean that you have to magically recall everyone's name when signing books. You can be human. But please, be present. 

We had some wonderful visiting writers as well. One was, at the time, just a poet on tour to support his second collection--a philosophical, slightly difficult book with an indie publisher. Since then he has become a superstar; his life was made a movie. It would be easy to resent someone who has come so far, so fast, but I will always remember how attentive he was students in workshop, how engaged and kind at the reception afterwards. For years after he would say hello at AWP, remembering our meeting at American University even if he couldn't quite remember my name.  

He showed up. 

August 01, 2012

We Need Another National(ish) Poetry Series

Art by Doug Beube
Last month I had the pleasure of attending a reading at the home of Reb Livingston, the editor of No Tell Books, which featured poet and editor Bruce Covey. As I chatted with Bruce about the upcoming slate of publication for Coconut Books, I asked: 

Why doesn't a consortium of publishers start up another "national" poetry series for indie and/or experimental presses?

The principle is simple: poets pay a reading fee to have their books considered not by one press, but by five quality presses simultaneously. The existing National Poetry Series (which currently incorporates Coffee House Press, Fence Books, HarperCollins Publishers, Penguin Books, University of Georgia Press) has a great track record of selecting poets from a variety of aesthetics and matching them to appropriate houses. But they get a ton of incredible manuscripts, of which they can only publish a few. 

There is room for another national poetry series, one that recognizes an annual cohort of exciting new voices. Coconut, Black Ocean Books, Octopus Books, Switchback Books: I am looking at you. Doesn't need to be the same publishers every year, though there should be a quality control mechanism for rotation in and out of presses (perhaps approval by an advisory board) that includes a pledge of minimum reasonable levels of support in terms of editorial infrastructure, design, number of copies printed, distribution, secondary award nominations, and publicity. The reading fees could fund an auxiliary force that works to market each year's winners, and by association the publishers. While I realize that there will always be variations in aesthetic--different opinions of what the "best" manuscripts are--that is why one employs multiple judges. 

One thing the NPS does not do is create a network between each year's winners/judges, though the invaluable perks include name cache, an AWP reading, etc. But imagine if these indie presses went all in, and pooled their resources in terms of connections to opportunities with readings series and classroom visits around the country. Anyone who attends AWP offsite events recognizes that these likeminded affiliations already exist on an informal level. Imagine if this gave heft to freelancers trying to pitch small press books for review? Imagine if Small Press Distribution did an "Indie Poetry Series" summer special, a package rate for all five titles? 

I'm not naive about the bureaucracy or ethical complications associated with contests, but I'd love to hear some discussion. Nothing great ever happens unless you start with the "imagine" phase.