Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Poetry & Baseball: An Interview with E. Ethelbert Miller

Originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of The Writer's Guide

Poet Lore executive editor and beloved poet E. Ethelbert Miller has hit another home run with his 16th book, If God Invented Baseball. Drawing on his love of sports and baseball's zen like quality, the 49 poems in Miller's new book center around America's favorite pastime. B. Perryman caught up with the Bard of Baseball just in time for spring training.

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BP: This is your 16th book and your first about baseball. What separates these poems from your prior works?

EEM: I’ve become a better writer after years of editing and teaching. I felt when my collected poems edited by Kirsten Porter and published by Willow Books (2016) came out it marked the end of a chapter in my life. Many of those poems were written during my 40-year tenure at Howard University. Since departing from Howard I’ve grown considerably as a result of new opportunities and having more time to read and write. The increase in my leisure time has provided a chance to watch and attend more baseball games. I like how If God Invented Baseball is a collection built around one theme. One will find in this book the game explored from many angles and in a variety of poetic forms. I’ve always made references to baseball in my work but this new book is an expansion of love.
 

BP: Who is your favorite team?  Favorite player of all time?

EEM: I’m a Washington Nationals fan. I’m happy baseball returned to this city before my last inning. All major cities need ballparks and teams that help develop a sense of community. Look at the importance of the Houston Astros winning the World Series last year after the city of Houston was hit with a terrible hurricane. I love that the Nats play just a subway ride away. Growing up I lived not far from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, so the Yankees were the team I cheered for during my childhood. There are many references to people who played for the New York Yankees in my new book. But I guess my heart will always have a special place for Sandy Koufax who pitched for the Dodgers. When Ichiro Suzuki entered the major leagues in 2001 he was the player I began to follow daily. But going back to my favorite team The Nationals, I’m a fan of Bryce Harper, Trea Turner and Michael A. Taylor. Oh, and I miss Dusty Baker.


BP: How is baseball like poetry, for you? What do the disciplines have in common, and what makes baseball so compelling to write about?

EEM: Baseball teaches one patience. Getting a hit is like trying to find the right word. Striking out can be like writer’s block.  Standing alone in the outfield can be as lonely as sitting at one’s desk. We all want to make it to the majors; we what to be successful and win. Baseball instructs us that the majority of the time we won’t get a hit; we will seldom pitch the perfect game. Baseball reminds us that we are human and we make not just mistakes but errors. 


I find baseball compelling because it teaches me how to embrace aging. Every year there is spring training. An older returning player never knows if this is the season a youngster might take his place on the roster. We are all replaceable. I take comfort in the slowness of the game. I admire the beauty of a great fielding play or a majestic homerun. Trying to capture this on the page is what I attempted to do in my new book.
 

BP: What is your writing process like?  Do you have advice for budding (or established) poets?

EEM: I’m always writing, especially on social media. Some of my poems begin with letters to friends. Lines start in emails and get posted on Facebook. I’ve written more poems the last two years than at any other point in my life. I write fast and revise when I’m sending things out for publication. I’ve been deeply grateful to have my friend Kirsten Porter work as my literary assistant. She is always providing excellent feedback on the new work I create. I’ve been visiting museums more and spending time with visual artists. This has help me look at poetry in terms of color and white space on the page. My daughter has returned to drawing and we’ve begun to have nice conversations around her work. I think it’s very important for poets and writers to be engaged with our changing world. I’ve been trying to add more science and technology to my diet. I want to create art that embraces the new while respecting the past. My advice to writers is that they always attempt to tackle the big philosophical questions – who are you? Why are you here?


BP: When did you first know you were a poet?


EEM: The idea of becoming a writer started during my college years at Howard. I gave my first public reading in 1969 at All Soul’s Church located in Northwest Washington.  I read with poets Carolyn Rodgers, Askia Muhammad Toure, and Ebon. The jazz musician Marion Brown also performed that evening. My early poems were published in the college newspaper (The Hilltop) and read on the radio (WHUR-FM). Having an audience will encourage you to believe in yourself.

BP: When did you first know you’d be a lifelong baseball fan?


EEM: I love sports. One of things I most enjoyed was watching my son play basketball in high school and in college. He remains my favorite basketball player. I keep a picture of him on my desk and I always wear one of his NCAA rings. I admire my daughter for her passion for running and her discipline. Now that both of my children are married I look back at the past and realize it’s been a lifelong journey of not just loving baseball but other sports too. Maybe I knew I would be a lifelong fan after walking into Yankee Stadium as a young boy and looking at a field of green, a sea of grass.

BP: What’s next for you?

EEM: I want to see the public response to If God Invented Baseball. Maybe this is the book that will finally bring me a World Series ring. In the preface to the book I made the following comment:
“I admire Dusty Baker and should have written this book with a toothpick in my mouth.”
Dusty is no longer the Nats manager but what is baseball if not memories of the good times and the people that we loved.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Screenwriting 101: Liar, Liar Pants on Fire


By Brian Price, author of Classical Storytelling and Contemporary Screenwriting

Any decent screenwriting program will tell its students that the very first writing manual was Aristotle’s Poetics, in which he examined the Greek tragedies of his day in meticulous detail to discern the patterns and recurring elements in the most successful ones.

These programs usually have their students read it, discuss it profoundly, and then summarily forget about it as they deal with more contemporary filmmaking realities.

Which is why, during speaking engagements, I’m constantly meeting screenwriters who say: “Yeah, we had to read Poetics, but couldn’t ever get through it. But it’s really just about Greek tragedies, right? Well, I don’t write those. I write superhero body swap serial killer comedies.”

Which is a shame.

Because what’s most interesting about Poetics, for writers today, is not what Aristotle had to say about Oedipus Rex. But what he had to say about Star Wars and Some Like It Hot. Because those observable patterns and universal principles he identifies and explores are not at all specific to Greek tragedy—but to EVERY successful dramatic narrative that’s ever been told.

But for a full accounting of those principles and how you can utilize them in your own creative work to make it more successful (warning: shameless plug), you’ll have to read my book. In the meantime, I wanted to mention one of my favorite observations.

When discussing history’s most successful stories, Aristotle defines the craft of dramatic writing as simply “the art of telling lies skillfully.”

His point is that, as writers, we must embrace the artifice of our craft. We tell lies—but we tell them to reveal a bigger, general truth, a truth about the human experience.

I think about this whenever a student comes to me with a “brilliant movie idea” based upon some experience they had in their real life. They often think that if they can just get it down on the page precisely as it happened, it will make a great script.

It won’t.

That’s because movies are not life. Though the best ones certainly illuminate something interesting about life.

For Aristotle, dramatic writing is of a much higher order than historical writing since the latter is simply concerned with the particular, while the former is concerned with the universal.

So a good story cannot simply be a depiction of events in another person’s life. It must show our lives reflected back to us in the experiences of that other person.

And for Aristotle, a story cannot accomplish that when it is strictly bound to what HAS happened. Instead, it must dramatize what MAY happen—what is POSSIBLE according to the same laws of probability and necessity that govern all our actions and outcomes. Only then can we relate the events to what COULD happen to us.

That is why the first rule in my writing classes is “…but that’s the way it happened” is barred from ever being spoken. I don’t care what actually happened. Your audience doesn’t care. The only valid reason for any choice you make in a story is that it makes the story BETTER.

For no matter how well it is written, it will matter to no one but the writer and those who participated in that history. It will have no resonance beyond the particulars, since it is just concerned with recounting the facts, not getting at the universal truths that transcend those facts.

But before you dream up some wildly fantastical movie premise, know that the opposite of this observation is just as true.

For every real-life TRUE STORY OF MY CRAZY COLLEGE ROOMMATE, I’m pitched THE ROBOT HOBBITS OF NINJA ALLEY, a story far too removed from real life to accurately reflect anything of it.

If we are looking for LIES to tell a GENERAL TRUTH then we must find a balance, a sweet spot between reality and artifice that allows truth to be spun from fiction, the universal from the particular.

I’m reminded of that movie written by that guy who grew up in Modesto, California with dreams of becoming a racecar driver while all his friends spent their dead-end lives simply cruising around the Malt Shop. His dad wanted him to join him as an office supply salesman and never quite understood his son’s wanderlust, leading to increased conflict between them. As a student at USC film school, this writer actually got to write about that experience growing up. What do you think he called this deeply personal work?

If you answered Star Wars, gold star to you.

George Lucas made a very personal film by taking his real feelings and concerns, and placing them within a fiction. By doing so, he made those experiences universal, by dwelling not on the facts of his adolescence, but on the truth of it.

As screenwriters, we must find that proper proportion of CREATIVE INVENTION and PERSONAL TRUTH. That balance allows an audience to laugh and cry and scream, and say, ah, that is my experience up there on the screen.

The personal truth makes it real, authentic, and believable. But the creative invention makes it universal, relatable, and accessible.

So while screenplays may contain lies, the spark that creates them must be a truth. A truth about YOU. Not just your experiences, but your passions and interests. Your fears and obsessions. What you dream about. What repulses or consumes you. But above all, the idea must be predicated on something personal that you care deeply about—or you will never have the necessary investment to devote the blood, sweat, tears, and time required to see it through to the end.

That then is the most basic and essential quality of a solid movie premise: If a screenplay is made of lies to get to general truths, then its foundation must be a truth about YOU that has been transplanted into a fiction, allowing it, through your experience, to relate a universal one.

And if you don’t believe me, go ask Aristotle.


*     *     *

Brian Price is a screenwriter and screenwriting professor who teaches at UCLA, Yale, and Johns Hopkins. His new book Classical Storytelling and Contemporary Screenwriting, an examination of the universal patterns and recurring elements found in the great dramatic narratives throughout history, from Oedipus Rex to The Incredibles 2, can be ordered at: https://www.amazon.com/Classical-Storytelling-Contemporary-Screenwriting-Scriptwriter-ebook/dp/B0789HXHQH

Monday, June 18, 2018

Interview with Ryan Habermeyer, author of The Science of Lost Futures

By Zach Powers, Communications Manager, The Writer’s Center

One of my favorite literary topics to discuss is weird fiction. Why are some writers drawn to the fabulist, the speculative, and the strange? I’m certainly one of those writers myself, and so is Ryan Habermeyer, author of The Science of Lost Futures, which won the BOA Short Fiction Prize and was published earlier in 2018. My own story collection was also published by BOA Editions, so though Ryan and I hadn’t met before this year, we’re literary brothers of a sort. When he’s not writing, Ryan is Assistant Professor at Salisbury University on the nearby Eastern Shore, where his specialties include, among many others, “Monster Studies.” Ryan joins us now at The Writer’s Center blog to answer a few questions about authoring far-fetched fiction, his influences, and the writing life.

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ZP: I’m going to start with the big, broad question: why weird stuff?

Ryan Habermeyer
RH: That’s a little like asking why someone is left-handed. I’m not sure we choose our aesthetic obsessions. There’s a mysterious instinct to it, or so I want to believe. Weirdness is something I feel innately drawn to. That’s not a very satisfying answer, though, so I would add that since I was a child I always wanted to be elsewhere. Someplace different. I daydreamed considerably. I found relief in odd things, grotesque things. My friend and I, for example, used to snap Polaroids of road kill and turned it into a photo album. We were very popular with the girls. Somewhere along the way, subconsciously I think, this leaked over into my sensibilities as an artist. I decided the purpose of art—whether it’s literature, music, painting, sculpture, whatever—is to make life strange. Depict real things, familiar things, but strangely. Estrangement. That’s the key. Estrangement pulls us away and brings us closer in the same breath. I love seeing things, reading things, that wrench me out of my routine. You look away but you can’t look away. Isn’t that what literature is supposed to do? Make us uncomfortable while simultaneously desperate to see the object of our discomfort. That’s what weirdness does for me. The weird is the real. Or in the least it’s what lies behind the fa├žade of realism, of normalcy.

ZP: There’s a certain dark logic to fairy-tales, and I think I see that in your writing. Instead of moving forward through cause and effect, I feel your plots are often driven by cause and comeuppance. Many of the stories are about paying a price for actions or desires. Is this something derived from fairy-tales? How does a fairy-tale differ from, say, contemporary realist fiction?


The Science of Lost Futures
RH: You’re not the first person to point out the lack of cause and effect in my writing. Which is odd because I think of my stories as very much contingent upon cause and effect. What throws people off, I suppose, is that the effects in my stories are quite random, sudden, inexplicable, chaotic, without any correlation to the cause in question. A giant foot washes ashore in town. What do we do? Well, we clean it, of course, and try to assign it an identity, and empathize with it to come closer to this monstrous tragedy. But the one thing that can’t happen in that story (the most natural and normal instinct) is to dispose of it in a biohazardous-friendly manner. You can’t pursue that rational impulse if you’re going to have interesting speculative fiction. Or, in another one of my stories a woman wakes up and discovers her womb has fallen out. Quick—call the doctor? Nope. That story is D.O.A. So you’ve got to pursue a sideways logic. And, yes, you’re absolutely right: such tangential cause/effect relationships are very much a fairy tale motif. It’s the strange logic of fairy tales to defy our rationalist, scientific perspective of cause and effect, which is why I think they’re so lovely. There is a beauty to the randomness of fairy tales, a harmony to their chaos I find satisfying and truthful. With realist stories you're tethered to existing reality. If you write a story set in, say, Iowa, then you had better depict Iowa flawlessly. Those are the rules. But I think there’s more to learn about life, about ourselves, when we deviate from realism by following that unconventional thread of cause and (illogical) effect. Like going down the rabbit hole.

ZP: What drew you to the fairy-tale form as an influence for your writing?


RH: Well, I’m not a fairy tale revisionist. I’m not Angela Carter (but I love her work!). Fairy tales manifest obliquely in my writing. I’ve always been drawn to the imaginative quality of traditional tales. I love the imagery, the narrative leaps, the grotesqueness, the playfulness of the genre. I love how fairy tales invent reality and make it seem as if what happened was historical fact. And they’re instructive for writers, stylistically. Fairy tales are not all magical indulgence. They teach us something about creative restraint, which I think is incredibly important for those of us who are fabulists. Magic is used sparingly in fairy tales, and often comes with a price so if you use it, beware. Lately, though, I’ve been attracted to the form of fairy tales more than their content. The flatness of characters. Lightness. Brevity. Compression. The elegant simplicity of fairy tale language. Eschewing showing for telling. My current projects try to capture a mood, an ambiance of fairytale-ness. One of my incredible former professors, Kate Bernheimer, talks about these very elements in an essay she wrote: “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tales.” It should be required reader for anyone serious about writing, especially those aspiring to be fabulists.

ZP: What other writers of the weird would you recommend to someone who may not be familiar with speculative literary fiction?


RH: Before I go on endlessly about great weird writers, let me say I benefited considerably from reading realists. Weirdness, fabulism, magical realism, slipstream—whatever you want to call it, is grounded in realism. It’s not a complete abandonment of reality. Writing weird fiction is about inventing reality. Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Amy Hempel, and Joy Williams are wonderful realists. As far as literary weirdos…there are the obvious choices: Calvino, Borges, Kafka, Marquez. Bruno Schulz is one of my favorite writers ever. On this side of the pond: Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Helen Phillips, Kevin Brockmeier and Steven Millhauser do a particular kind of American fabulism. Should I keep going? Read Russians. Nobody does weirdness better than the Russians. Gogol, Bulgakov, Nabokov, Kharms, Krzhizhanovsky, or someone more contemporary like Ludmilla Petrushevskya. She’s amazing. There are times when I lament I am not a Russian—but probably because it is my dream to ride shirtless on a horse reminiscing about my time in the KGB.

ZP: Let’s talk publishing. If I recall correctly, some of the stories in your book are over a decade old. Can you talk about the long haul of writing and compiling a story collection?


RH: I wrote the oldest story in the collection in 2004. So, yeah, it took a while. I’m not bothered by that. Hats off to those people smarter than me that figure it out quicker. To be honest, I’m not sure I could have arrived at the collection sooner. I’m slow. I’m meticulous. I’ll sit on a single word in a sentence for two days before going on to the next one. I want the right words in the right places. It took me a while to find my voice, find my aesthetic comfortability. And then it took a while to puzzle out the collection. Compiling a story collection is a strange beast. You want stories that resonate with each other, build off each other, but also dissonance; stories that feel incongruent, stories that clash thematically or stylistically. It’s all about finding balance. I kept plodding along for years, publishing pieces here and there, waiting for the right combination of stories to manifest. Writing is a long, lonely process. It might take me another decade to get the next book out. So be it.

ZP: What keeps you writing?


RH: Somewhere, I read Toni Morrison said something like this: if there is a book you want to read that has not yet been written you must write that book. That should be motivation for every writer. It’s hard to argue with Toni Morrison.

ZP: What’s one piece of writing advice you’d give to an aspiring author?


RH: Read. You’ve got to be in love with words if you want to be a writer. Otherwise, don’t bother. Read old stuff and read new stuff. And when you read pay attention. Writing fiction is not just about plot and characters. It’s about structure, it’s about form, it’s about style, it’s about voice. Read, because the more you read the more voices you’ll discover and then you’ll borrow and steal from all those writers to create your own voice. So, read voraciously. Oh, and stop writing fan fiction. It doesn't count. Whoops. That's two pieces of advice. Feel free to disregard me entirely.

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Order Ryan's book »



Monday, June 4, 2018

LOVERS: A TRIBUTE TO POET LORE'S FOUNDERS

LOVERS: A TRIBUTE TO POET LORE’S FOUNDERS

But I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches…
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
Not the month’s rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear. 
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment. 
- Jack Gilbert

We know this much: after Helen Clarke died in 1926, Charlotte Porter left Boston and moved north to their old house on Isle au Haut, where they used to spend summers. There were the old familiar hills and pines, rocks leading to the sea and sharp-eyed gulls for company. Maine’s coast-line was visible but only reachable by boat, and that was fine.

Sixty-some years early, three years apart, the two had been born in Pennsylvania and, improbably, were both named “Helen”—though Charlotte later shed the name and took “Endymion” (after the Keats poem) for herself. Maybe Helen (“bright one,” “torch-bearer”) better suited her partner. Charlotte Endymion Porter: her names meant “free man,” “diver,” and “gatekeeper,” respectively. There was irony for a woman holding these identities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when laws were being debated and passed above her head, out of reach. But Charlotte must have known what all overlooked people know: that there are subterranean worlds—that there are ways to outlive surface dwellers.

I don’t know if they met in autumn, but I picture it that way, the frost of breath and collegial intelligence of the season cutting through summer’s haze. They met first, fittingly, in words: Helen had written an article about music in Shakespeare’s plays that Charlotte admired published in Shakespeariana, the journal she edited in the mid-1880’s. I can see her reading at her desk, pen poised above Helen’s paper. Did she recognized this stranger’s voice even as she read?

They loved the same writers—Shakespeare, Robert Browning—before they loved each other, and they loved each other, in part, because of this shared passion for art: a sign, perhaps, that it might be safe to land, that friendship was possible. And so they became friends, and within a few years formulated and founded the journal Poet Lore together as a way to share the art they admired with the wider world.

Porter and Clarke launched the magazine in January of 1889 in Philadelphia as a monthly “devoted to Shakespeare, Browning, and the Comparative Study of Literature.” The comparative aspect of this work was essential: art, to them, lived in exchanges, in the folding over and combing through by multitudes of minds: in community. The magazine quickly drew an avid readership from among the nation’s many literary clubs and societies, though it was not particularly lucrative. Porter and Clarke actually moved the operation three hundred miles northeast when, in 1891, a Boston publisher offered them free office space in exchange for advertising. They continued to edit the journal for more than 30 years after that, publishing their own critical essays and commentary alongside featured artists.

They wanted art to pierce the ordinary. They thought that if enough Americans absorbed literature into their lives and then discussed it with each other, the broader culture would evolve, and so they made Poet Lore a vehicle for introducing new, often foreign, voices to their readers. They encouraged subscribers to respond critically, both in their own private literary clubs and in written letters to the magazine. Charlotte and Helen believed it was not enough to read literature, though that was the starting point; they felt that culture would not change if people kept their thoughts to themselves. Through their journal, they succeeded in engaging literary communities across the nation.

I can’t help wondering how much of Poet’ Lore’s continuing legacy—its culture of aesthetic openness, its willingness to take risks in pursuit of discovery—stems from their imperfect, entirely human, flesh-and-blood love. Having never started a magazine, or stayed with the same person for more than a few years, I can’t help romanticizing their ability to build a life and an enduring literary institution together.

Like me, most of the women I know write alone, on the couch or bed of a modest apartment. If we share our work, it is often with outer women writers—those rare friends scattered near and far—rather than with our partners whom we love with tender ambivalence, with parts of ourselves. Our lives are often fractured, not because of indifference to connection but, more likely, because of the difficulty we’ve had maintaining it. We move through the day, navigating our various duties. We speak quickly and sometimes forget what we’ve said, or typed, moments later. That is the pace at which we live now; that is the level of distraction. Was there more time to think—more time to focus—for Helen and Charlotte

When they met, they were in their twenties. Helen would live another four decades, and Charlotte six. Helen would die in Massachusetts, and so would Charlotte, years later. And many years after that, I would stumble upon their magazine, when I was close to the age at which they met. I would publish my first poem in its pages.

It occurs to me that to see myself as isolated, a lone writer working sporadically in the quiet of her home during the short stretches before and after work, would be to miss the truth that Helen Clarke and Charlotte Porter devoted themselves to making clear: that we are all part of an ongoing conversation, connected by a mutual love and admiration for art, the language that flows beneath all language. My writing—everyone’s writing for that matter—is the product of an old and ongoing interplay of minds, of voices, and the best thing we can do is to pick the conversation up when it flags. The best thing we can do is to keep it going.

- MEGAN FOLEY,
Volume 109, No. 3/4

(2014) 


MEGAN FOLEY works as a producer for FoundTrack creative and 522 Productions. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University, where she also taught creative writing. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Freerange Nonfiction, Thought Catalogue, Canteen Magazine, The Village Voice, Poet Lore, and others. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Poet Lore Remembers Walt Whitman


It's a question we've asked over and over: Walt Whitman subscribed. Do you? 

But today, on Whitman's 199th birthday, we remember that he not only subscribed to Poet Lore but engaged with us, too.

In 1892, Whitman purchased ads for "Leaves of Grass" in three consecutive issues. When he passed later that year, our editors included a memorial message for the poet in the Notes and Notices section, highlighting his prior impact and predicting his lasting influence. "Inclusiveness was his point," an excerpt of the message reads. "For illimitable hope and love he stood and for that his style stood also; although it was strange, it was fit, and had a music all its own."

Many years later, in our 107th volume, Poet Lore would feature a page from Whitman's notebook on the cover of our spring issue. In the accompanying Editor's Page, our editors would echo their forebearers sentiment, saying, "The [image of the notebook page] radiates conviction and expansiveness. Who can fail to recognize Whitman in that?"

Today in particular, though hopefully always, we remember Whitman by finding and crossing the blurred lines between expansion and inclusion. We try to cross those lines—extending ourselves only by fiercely embracing the world around us. Perhaps we try to recognize those elements of Whitman our Poet Lore editors have cherished for so many years—hope, love, evolution, style—not only in his own work but in that of our peers and ourselves.

And if we find it hard to do so (or if we'd prefer a music all our own), there's still hope. It's simple enough to follow in Whitman's prodigious footsteps...just subscribe to Poet Lore!

The full text of the 1892 note on Whitman's death can be read below:




Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Interview with Philip Dean Walker, author of Read by Strangers

By Zach Powers, Communications Manager, The Writer’s Center

Philip Dean Walker was one of the first writers I met when I moved to this area. A native of Great Falls, Virginia, he received his MFA in Creative Writing from American University and now lives, works, and writes in Washington, DC. His first book, 2016’s At Danceteria and Other Stories, imagines the personal lives of 1980s-era celebrities as the AIDS epidemic simmers in the background. His follow-up story collection, Read by Strangers, was released last month. Phil was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his new work and what it’s like to be a working writer in Washington.

*     *     *

ZP: Your first book focused on a cultural moment, but Read by Strangers covers a lot more ground. What were the advantages and disadvantages of writing thematically linked stories?

At Danceteria by Philip Dean Walker
PDW: Before my first book was published, I always resisted writing a “linked” short story collection. It seemed like everyone in my MFA program was either writing one of them or working on a novel (which has always seemed equally daunting to me). My stories have always been, like, all over the place and were only ever linked by virtue of the fact that I was the one who wrote them. I never thought I would (or even could) write a linked collection. Then I stumbled upon the first story of At Danceteria and Other Stories. Then I wrote another, then another and another and another and then, all of a sudden, I had a thematically linked collection. So, never say never, I guess! The advantages of writing a linked collection is that you have a kind of blueprint for each new story. I had five elements that each story in Danceteria needed to hit in order to make it into the book so I had a rare road-map by which to travel (you just DO NOT really get those in the world of fiction). One disadvantage would be that lack of free range malleability one has in a collection that is more disparate (like Read by Strangers where I kind of “off-road” quite a bit with stories, characters, form, etc). This disadvantage can easily be made into an advantage though. I think it’s always a good idea to not let the reader get too comfortable. I wrote a story for Danceteria that veers off the path of the other stories, yet is also still of a certain theme (“The Boy Who Lived Next to the Boy Next Door”). It gave me some room to play around within my genre. This sounds super corny, but I love the power of turning a supposed negative into a positive.

ZP: For me, the most striking aspect of your writing is your characters. They come alive on the page in even the simplest of interactions. Why is character so important to you and how do you develop it so well?

Read by Strangers
PDW: Thank you for that compliment, Zach. It means a lot to me because I really love character. The only thing I love more in writing is probably the language itself. Characters drive story. When characters do something on the page, they are moving the momentum of the narrative (this seems obvious but it actually needs to be stated outright sometimes). I spend a lot of time with a character before I even put a single word down on the page which might be why they seem more “alive.” I love flawed people mainly because they provide so much material for story. I love to think of the things they would say – dialogue has become really important to me in the past couple of years, it just has to be believable or your reader will check right out. I might have spent too much time worrying about the characters in Read by Strangers and how readers would respond to them. Many of them are, to put it plainly, not good people. Some of them make horrible choices and do bad things. But I don’t think people want to read about nice, boring people doing nothing. If someone walks away remembering a single detail about a character, weeks or even months after reading a story, it’s a success to me. I think one of the most important skills a writer can possess is empathy. A good writer must have it and must be able to summon it to deal with all kinds of characters. I think that’s one of the key ingredients to making them seem real. I mean, who was the last sociopath you know who put out a good novel or short story?

ZP: You also write about place beautifully. How has living in Washington influenced your writing?

PDW: Living in Washington has given me an appreciation for all kinds of people and all kinds of stories. And story can be located anywhere—at a big weekend brunch, at a party, on the other side of town in a neighborhood you've always driven past but never ventured into. I was speaking about setting and place with another writer and I told her that setting should never overwhelm a story (unless the setting or place is essentially acting as a character in the story similar to what I do in Strangers’ “Unicorn”). There are a couple stories in my new collection that take place in Washington, DC, or the surrounding environs, but it’s really just lightly suggested. Place is as important to a story as a writer chooses to make it. My stories that take place in Tokyo are very much connected to that setting, so “place” has a more vital function in those pieces.

ZP: Finally, what’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring writers?

PDW: This is a great question, Zach. My biggest piece of advice is this: if you’re afraid of writing it, you must write it. Simple but true.

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Read the rest of the interview in the Fall issue of The Writer's Guide. Click here to sign up for a free subscription »

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Meet Zach Powers, The Writer’s Center’s new Communications Manager

Chances are you’ve already seen some of Zach Powers’s work in one of our emails or on Facebook and Twitter. He started helping us out at The Writer’s Center at the beginning of the year and came on full-time this month. Zach is a seasoned media specialist with 15 years of experience, including many years working with nonprofits. He’s also an accomplished author of literary fiction, including an award-winning short story collection (Gravity Changes, BOA Editions, 2017) and a novel, First Cosmic Velocity, forthcoming from Putnam/Penguin.

We asked Zach a few questions so he could introduce himself to The Writer’s Center family.

*     *     *

TWC: We’re all writers here, so let’s start with that. Can you tell us a little about what you write?

https://www.boaeditions.org/products/gravity-changes
Gravity Changes by Zach Powers
ZP: I usually call it “weird literary fiction.” My first book is full of stories that borrow speculative elements from genre fiction, or have premises that upend reality in some way. I love fiction that uses absurdity as a lens through which to view the more mundane aspects of existence. Haruki Murakami, another writer of the weird, was one of my first and greatest influence, as well as Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, and Italo Calvino. I could of course keep listing similar influences. My novel is a little more straightforward than my stories, but it still has a sort of existential strangeness. In short, I hope I write stuff that some people will love but will make others say “what the heck?”

TWC: You didn’t start out in either in writing or media. How did you end up at this point?

ZP: I actually studied music in college. After graduating with no practical job skills, I took an entry-level position at a TV station in my hometown, Savannah, Georgia. I worked my way up from there, and stayed in TV for nearly a decade. I started writing seriously on the side, and eventually got my MFA and started publishing. I was a little disappointed in the writing community in Savannah, so I co-founded a literary arts nonprofit called Seersucker Live. The organization hosted readings and events, featuring well over a hundred national, regional, and local authors. I also led the writers’ workshop at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home, where I served on the board of directors. I was looking for a similar literary community when I moved to the DC area, and that’s how I ended up here at The Writer’s Center.

TWC: What other nonprofits have you worked with?

ZP: After I left the television industry, I worked at Savannah’s Telfair Museums, the oldest public art museum in the South. I was the digital communications coordinator, and worked in a small marketing department. I love visual art, and it was great to be behind the scenes, helping exhibitions come together. I also served as a volunteer with Deep Center, teaching creative writing to middle and high school students.

TWC: You’ve also taught college writing, correct?

ZP: That’s right! I taught composition and creative writing at University of South Carolina Beaufort, and I currently teach classes at Northern Virginia Community College. I like sharing my love of writing with students. That’s one of the reasons it’s been so exciting working at The Writer’s Center. I’m also looking forward to becoming more involved with the DC literary community, and I know The Writer’s Center puts me right in the middle of things.

*     *     *

You can learn more about Zach and his writing at ZachPowers.com.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Quality or Quantity: Which is More Important For a Writer?

By Patricia Gray

If you’re busy turning out bestsellers, quantity is the answer, right? But if you want to write a literary masterpiece, then quality is more important. Well, not exactly. These two writerly desires for most of us are inseparably linked, and here is why.

The more you write, the more you increase your chances for the really good pieces to emerge. Not only does writing a lot help you learn the craft, but writing proves to your subconscious that you are what you profess to be—and you have the pages to prove it. Once your subconscious gets the message, it won’t distract you as much when you sit down to write. And sitting down does help. As fiction writer Flannery O’Conner once said, “I sit at my typewriter from ten to twelve every day, so just in case something comes I’ll be there to receive it.”

To remind myself of all this, I promised a group of writers to finish a piece of creative writing every day in May 2018. We email our finished pieces to about six other committed souls before midnight each day. We do that without giving or receiving feedback. Every day there’s a feeling of having done what one was meant to do. It’s also a reaffirmation of what is important to people like us—actually doing the writing!

Though we may have to trick ourselves to do what our whole hearts want to do, the next step in the process—sending it out for publication—may also require some sleight of hand. LitHub author Kim Liao wrote recently about setting a high rejection goal. If you aim for say 100 rejections this year, you will have to send things out. In the process, you’ll up your acceptance rate and remove some of the sting of rejection, because, after all, isn’t rejection what you’re aiming for?

“Ok, ok,” you may be saying, “but I want to write really well, if I’m writing a lot.” The Writer’s Center has plenty of workshops to help you do just that—but here is something especially for poets that you might want to look into. I will be teaching 3 Poems in 4 Days, June 4, 5, 6 and 7, 2018 in TWC’s temporary home. In this workshop, you will find that it is possible for you to write both often and well.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Poet Lore 2017 Pushcart Nominee - Julie Wendell

Poet Lore has 8 poets and 17 poems nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize! We spoke to nominee Julie Wendell about her poem “The Art of Falling.” Read it here and see what Wendell has to say about it. From the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Poet Lore.



THE ART OF FALLING

You fall from a horse enough times
and you learn how to fall—
like snow, rain or love,
all goose-down and no elbows.

He spooks at a leaf, knocking you
sideways, the saddle slips—and well,
you’re going down again.
Relax, you’ll get used to it.

Relax, you say to the lobster,
just before plopping him
into the roiling pot.

Relax, you say to a friend
on the eve of another bender.
Or to yourself, falling off a ledge
onto a concrete floor.

It’s easy when you imagine
a soft landing. But when your mother
sinks into her pillow in her final hour,
she knows she’s not falling the right way.

Blah, blah, blah, she mouths,
flicking the back of her bruised hand
as if brushing away a gnat,

when the priest lowers his head
to trace the thumbprint of oil,
first up and down, then sideways
on her glistening forehead.

*     *     *

Poet Lore: Your poem seems to be a treatise on handling loss. Do you believe there is such thing as a happy ending?

Julie Wendell: Fate is a series of inevitable accidents. You can't change that, but you can become good at the accidents. I have been falling off horses for years, and like anything you do a lot, you get better at it. There's a way to fall and not get hurt. You can practice the falls until you're so good at them your conscious mind doesn't even obsess over them anymore. But there are other falls you can't rehearse, like losing your mother. After some falls, you don't land the right way; you break your hip, you lose your life. Loss, you have to practice that too. Does anyone really want to say she doesn't believe in happy endings? I guess that's why some of us cry when we hear about a friend having a baby.


Julia Wendell’s most recent book of poems is Take This Spoon (Main Street Rag, 2014). She is the author of several other poetry collections, as well as a memoir, Finding My Distance (Galileo Press, 2009). She currently lives in South Carolina with her husband, poet and essayist Barrett Warner, and is finishing another memoir, Come to the X.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Poet Lore 2017 Pushcart Nominee - Frank Stewart

Poet Lore has 8 poets and 17 poems nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize! We spoke to nominee Frank Stewart about his poem “Light Work.” Read it here and see what Stewart has to say about it. From the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Poet Lore.


LIGHT WORK

Desolation makes us peaceful
Makes us gentle with ourselves

For now, seeing the ragged
Pillage, their shoulder blades

Rounded and yellow as leaves
Some fall by the river, others

Remove their clothes and defecate
No infants except

A red-haired girl with inflamed skin
Villagers brought us hot broth and horsemeat

Then hid again under the earth
Three got down from the train without light

Except for some stolen candles
Which wasn’t enough

*     *     *

Poet Lore: Can you comment on “Light Work” in relation to our historical moment?

Frank Stewart: Forced human migration is among the greatest global crises of our time. Although men and women have been displaced in every era, we are conscious of individual suffering in greater detail than was ever possible before. “Light Work” is one of a series of poems that concern refugees and exiles; the pieces are set in a variety of locations and time periods, some recognizable as caused by specific wars, famines, or other traumas, and others not; some voices are those of real men and women.


Frank Stewart has published four books of poetry, most recently By All Means (El Leon Literary Arts). He edits Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing in Honolulu.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Poet Lore 2017 Pushcart Nominee - Steven Sanchez

Poet Lore has 8 poets and 17 poems nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize! We spoke to nominee Steven Sanchez about his poem “What I Didn’t Tell You.” Read it here and see what Sanchez has to say about it. From the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Poet Lore.



WHAT I DIDN’T TELL YOU


—for my brother

You can ask me anything,
even about my first kiss,
which was at your age
and tasted like stale beer.
I used to feel guilty swallowing
the pulse of another man,
but now I know there are many
ways to pray. There’s a name for
that most intimate prayer:
la petite mort—the little death.
If, when your lover rakes
your back, you recall
the flock of worshippers
surrounding you like raptors
when they learned you’re gay,
clawing at your shoulders,
squawking for your salvation,
remind yourself you have to die
before you can be resurrected.
Never forget what the Bible says:
when two people worship together,
they create a church
no matter where they are—
which must include
the backseat of a car
or the darkest corner
of Woodward Park.
These are some of the things
I wanted to tell you
that night in April
you called me for help
with your history report
about the gay-rights movement.
Neither of us admitted
what he knew about the other.
Instead I started
with the ancient Greeks,
told you it was normal for them,
that for one brief moment
they were allowed to shape
their own history and religion,
organizing the stars, forming
Orion, for example,
flexing in the sky, arms
open in victory, belt
hanging below his waist.
But he was punished
for his confidence,
a scorpion’s hooked tail
piercing his body
like a poison moon.
When I see Orion,
I think of you and remember
what it felt like
for my knuckles to sink
into your stomach,
for my fist to collide
with your face. Your voice,
your walk, your gestures
reminded me of myself,
your figure bright and fluid,
creating a reflection
I wanted to break.
And now I see
your body spill open—
Big Dipper hooked
to your ribs, North Star
nestled in the middle.
I reach for that ladle
and drink.

*     *     *

Poet Lore: Can you comment on the longing in this poem, which seems, to me, to be well satisfied with its deep expression of love?

Steven Sanchez: I like to think that the speaker gains power (and by extension, finds some small bit of happiness) by acknowledging, confronting, and challenging their internalized homophobia. However, I don’t think a person can ever truly finish interrogating the ways we internalize toxic cultural narratives. Poems can absolutely end with a moment of happiness, but I wouldn’t consider happiness an ending—rather, happiness seems like a place to rest before moving forward.


Steven Sanchez, a CantoMundo fellow and a Lambda literary fellow, was selected by Mark Doty as the winner of Marsh Hawk Press’s 2016 Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. His poems have appeared in Nimrod, Crab Creek Review, Assaracus, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry, among others.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Poet Lore 2017 Pushcart Nominee - Andrew Motion

Poet Lore has 8 poets and 17 poems nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize! We spoke to nominee Andrew Motion about his poem “The Edge of the World Twice.” Read it here and see what Motion has to say about it. From the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Poet Lore.




THE EDGE OF THE WORLD TWICE

1.

The first time I reached the edge of the world
I lay in the prow of my ship and looked down.
The water beneath me was now so shallow
I could very easily have dipped my fingers
and dragged them through the ocean floor.

As it was I preferred simply to take notice
of the way our gentle bow-wave magnified
the least yellow pebbles and white stones,
a single knobbly and sick-looking boulder
flying a flag of bright green oily seaweed,

and the miniature collapses of sand-grains
where a timid creature fleeing my approach
buried itself and waited for the threat to pass.
You have to see this, I called over my shoulder,
forgetting for a moment that I was now alone.

2.

Or to put it another way
I might well be
ballooning,
and today the day
wind switches from the north
to north-north-east,
which makes my wicker basket
leap a yard into the air
and creak
exactly like the collie’s bed
whenever she treads round
then round again
and settles down to sleep.

Be that as it may.
A little change is all it takes
to let me climb away
and find immediately below
the moss-starred tiles
and chimney stack of home,
which as it shrinks and fails
appears to crowd my eye
like matter in a microscope
with my collie outside now
and barking in the yard.

While I consider that
and what it means,
I see the garden table
where my children sit,
which tells me among other things
I must be traveling through time
as well as space.
The boys as usual convulse
at something that escapes me,
but my daughter,
she is silent,
staring hard into the laurel bush
as though she meant to seize
that shadow slinking off the leaves
because she really thinks
it might be mine.

Then all this also falls,
or maybe I should say
it rises from my sight,
and after that the flight
begins in earnest.

Deer I notice
plunging through deep bracken,
and a farmer in his field
as shadows lengthen
calling home his cows.

Afterwards a mill-wheel
and the river driving it,
which sometimes shines like mercury
and sometimes darkens
with reflections of the roofs
heaped up like dirt on either side.

In this way daylight fades
but never quite gives out.
Although
when I approach the coast at last
and hear long waves
hiss-hissing on a sandy beach
like human hands
arranging tissue paper,
I still struggle to believe
that sunset is already
hammering the water.

Only now does it occur
I should have left much sooner
or
I should have left tomorrow.
But I am where I am—
and for all the good it does me,
I continue looking down.
I wonder
which is one more thing among the many.
Are those lights below
reflections of the sun,
or are they—magical—
the fire of phosphorescence?


*     *     *


Poet Lore: Can you talk about how your poem navigates time?

Andrew Motion: ‘The Edge of the World Twice’ derived from an impulse (and then another one, which attached itself to a different little narrative) to explore the ways in which our sense of time passing intensifies as we get older. Intensifies, that is, to a point where our dismay at not having that much time left is held in more or less equal balance with our pleasure (admittedly sometimes mangled with regret) in remembering the times which comprise our past. The mingling of these feelings (and the tension that inevitably remains between them) is often painful, but it also gives our existence its salt and savour.

Andrew Motion was the UK Poet Laureate from 1999–2009; he is now a Homewood Professor at Johns Hopkins and lives in Baltimore.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Poet Lore 2017 Pushcart Nominee - Ruth Elizabeth Morris

Poet Lore has 8 poets and 17 poems nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize! We spoke to nominee Ruth Elizabeth Morris about her poem “Woman with a Postcard.” Read it here and see what Morris has to say about it. From the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Poet Lore.


WOMAN WITH A POSTCARD

I stick the postcard to the fridge, writing-side down,
so the miniature version of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon

is visible. Each time I go for milk, the women
in the painting stare back at me with strident focus.

For years, Picasso called this painting my brothel
with affection. He observed his models for months,

confronting each angular cheekbone and sturdy muscle,
rendering each woman as colossal, nude, all hacked up

and somehow intact. They made eye contact as Picasso painted,
so even now, when you look at them, they don’t look away.

He plucked their unblinking eyes and reset them
in animal masks over bodies agape as windows—

above a head, a dismembered hand against red dirt.
Darker still, a fractured body, fused to a thrust of sky.

Arrested in brushstrokes, the disjointed women move
as if guided by unseen strings, like grotesque marionettes

poised before the point of collapse. These women
remind me of another version of myself, sleeping naked,

wholly open, as an ex-boyfriend sat at the foot of the bed
writing a poem about the parts of me he found most beautiful:

my sleep-hooded eyes when he woke me for sex, the cleft
at the center of my chest where he annexed his thumbs,

his hands sliding from breasts to spine
as if pulling apart the segments of an orange.

Picasso said his women had within them a savage magic
that thirsted to be captured and seen. I wanted to reveal

this magic in my flesh, to see what men could see
that I couldn’t—so when I left my old lover,

I kept his poem. But the woman he’d fashioned on the page
didn’t seem anything like me. Parts of her were close:

her stunted torso, the mole on the bottom of her foot,
her small mouth with its open smile. From this, I learned

a muse is only a woman cut to pieces.



*     *     *

PL: In what ways do you think “Woman with a Postcard” might relate to the #MeToo movement? 

Ruth Elizabeth Morris: “I became obsessed with this painting after a relationship ended with a college boyfriend who was also a poet. At the time, he was more accomplished in his craft than me, and everyone agreed that I should accept his opinions as expertise. When he wrote poems about our sexual experiences together and workshopped them with my teachers, I spent months walking around the campus feeling like my professors had seen me naked. If I expressed discomfort, I was reminded of the honor it was to be a muse, even if the woman I was on paper was only a body with male fingers that curled like a nautilus inside her. I kept quiet and tried to ignore it all. I like to reimagine his poem, sometimes, in a version where the woman on paper is more like the women Picasso painted: even in “his brothel” they look strong and sharp, and they don’t look away.”

Ruth Elizabeth Morris has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Marlyand, where she is a coordinator for Academic Programs. She was the first-prize winner of the 2015 Writer’s Digest Poetry Award. Her poems have appeared in The Seventh Wave, [PANK], and JMWW.

Pablo Picasso, Spain, 1881–1973Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
oil on canvas
244 x 234 cm
Museum of Modern Art
Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest
New York City