Monday, September 29, 2008

On Reading Lit Journals

Does anyone read lit journals? (Admission: I'm reposting this slightly revised version of a post I wrote a long time ago on a different blog (
I've been thinking a lot about this today, because I've been thinking about Poet Lore--the Writer's Center's own literary journal (the nation's oldest continuously published poetry journal).

You see them on bookstore shelves, usually with fine, glossy covers with really cool images. They're attractive things to look at, for the most part, but typically you have to wander around a bit among the forest of magazines to find the dark little region where they languish. (Note: I mean “young” here to include any unpublished or up-and-coming writer of all ages.)When I go into bookstores these days the first thing I do is check out the lit journals.

In a way, some of the most dynamic writing published today can be found in these journals, by writers living in near monk-like obscurity. Yet it seems a dwindling number of people are recognizing these journals. Why is that?

Let's make a test. Ask yourself this question: How many lit journals do I subscribe to? If you answer one, congratulations. If you answer more than one, terrific. But if you answer none, then you're probably in the majority. You could even ask yourself this question: How many journals do I subscribe to that I didn't also submit a contest submission to (and therefore get a year's subscription as part of your entry fee). Or even: How many lit journals do I subscribe to and read? It's an odd business, this lit journal business. I mean, here you have an outlet for and by (generally) new, publishing-contractless writers. And, according to those editors I've talked to, who struggle to keep their journals alive and well, it's languishing. Why is that? Isn't there a market out there for these journals? Of course there is. It's you.

"There are more writers out there than readers."

This is a common thought, and it would seem to be true. I used to be an editor for a journal that would receive scads of submissions from writers who thought their stories were "perfect" or "just right" for our journal, though a quick glance at page 1 suggested otherwise. True, many journals undergo structural overhauls from year to year, as editorial hands (and tastes) change. That makes it difficult for writers to know with certainty what a journal might publish from year to year. Nevertheless, even a quick glance at a lit journal can tell you what kind of things they are interested in publishing—and, more than likely, journal standards won't change that dramatically. There are web resources that will give you a rundown of the many journals that are out there and what they're looking for. My favorite is

But while knowing what a journal likes to publish may help you get editors to take longer looks at your stories/poems, it doesn't change the fundamental dynamic of the disappearing lit journal reader. Without readers and, especially, subscribers, can these journals survive? Like Pindledyboz, they might go to online publishing only, where the costs of printing and distributing are weighted in their favor. What will happen to aspiring writers if lit journals disappear from print and go online? Will they have a print venue to send their stories to? A sympathetic ear? A greater than "impossible" chance to get their stories published and noticed? It's hard enough getting your stories/poems published now. How much more difficult would it be if the number of print lit journals was scrunched to only those that were big enough to survive? (If this is starting to sound like the fate of the dying newspaper business, and I think it is, then writers should be concerned.)

This is NOT to say that online lit journals aren’t cool. They are. CHeck out WC director Charlie Jensen's LocusPoint, or Kyle Dargan's Post No Ills. And Kim Robert's Beltway Quarterly. Increasingly, they’re becoming the best forum for young writers to gain exposure. What can be done to get more people reading print journals? Well, for one you can subscribe to some journals (and encourage a couple friends to subscribe). Start there. Pick two or three journals that you'd like to really get to know and subscribe to them. I do that each year. Most journals don't cost that much for a yearly subscription. Maybe you'll be out $40-60, but you'll be supporting the industry you'd like to be part of someday. Besides, with the cost of books rising to as much as $25 for a hardback original, it wouldn't cost that much more to subscribe to two or three journals than it would to buy two new hardcover books—and at least here you'd be supporting a noble cause.You lead a busy life, sure.

No one is expecting you to sit down with a journal and read it from end to end. But you can read what appeals to you, and in my experience, there's usually much more good than bad in lit journals. Young writers are honest writers, and in fits and starts they do their damnedest to find that voice that is authentic to them, to write that story that is within them. That's a commendable service to humanity. Trust me. Writing is hard, and anyone who tries it is brave.

Which is all the more reason to support lit journals. It’s a brave enterprise to offer short literary work by generally unknown authors to a reading public that mostly ignores lit journals. After spending months reading through stacks of submissions to find those rare gems that leap out and convince them to take a risk and dedicate page-space to these authors, editors hope, hope, hope there will be an audience out there who’ll read their journal.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Open Mic Night

Last Friday, I hosted our first open mic for the fall season. I'm still recovering from all of that heat, raw energy, and all of those stirring poems. Each of them moved me in different ways.

Truth be told, I haven’t had much time to attend any of the open mic venues in the District where I live and claim my literary allegiance. Hosting the open mic at the Writer’s Center, however, took me back to why writing matters so much.

Just sitting in the audience and occasionally introducing poets, I got entered a dozen people's lives. Suddenly, I cared about what pressed on their chests. I listened to pastoral poems. Poems about loss, war, heartbreak. There was a beautiful woman who performed a song “in the language of the deaf.” There were whimsical poems, sound poetry whose words would riff right off the page.

It was quite a spectacle, something that I look forward to doing again, and I hope to see you there next time.

Did any of you attend out open mic event? What did you think? Don't be shy.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Guest Interview with author Solveig Eggerz

I'm going to take a slight break from my interview series with poets for National Poetry Month. I'm going to re-post this interview with longtime Center member and novelist Solveig Eggerz, who'll be reading with poet Wendell Hawken at The Writer's Center on Sunday, May 3 at 2:00 P.M. right here in Bethesda.

I was excited to pose a few questions to Solveig Eggerz regarding her first novel, Seal Woman. It's a fascinating first book, and in many ways a very ambitious one. Yet it's a novel that's firmly--and grittily--grounded in the harsh realities of life during and following WWII. Please visit Ghost Road's website, at the bottom of this page, for a complete description of the book. I did not--and do not--wish to give away too much with these questions. A special thanks goes out to Solveig for graciously spending time answering my questions.

Seal Woman is a novelization of German "refugees" in Iceland during WWII. For those who aren't familiar with the story, can you tell us a little about why Germans went to Iceland?

In the late 1940's Icelanders, especially women, were leaving the farms to find work and more comforts in Reykjavik. At the same time, employment conditions were dreadful in Germany. The Icelandic Agricultural Association decided to advertise for farm workers in German newspapers. About 314 Germans sailed to Iceland, most of them women.

What was the genesis of the story for you?

During the years 1988-96 I told folk and fairy tales to children in the library of my son's school. Among the stories I told was one about a lonely farmer who falls in love with a creature sitting on a rock by the ocean. It's not clear whether the creature is a seal or a woman. He marries her and they have children. All goes well until she hears the call from her past or from her other world and she returns to the sea. This is a Celtic and a Scandinavian story. I was moved by this story and felt it applied to particular human situations--especially to the immigrant experience when much is gained in the new place but much is also left behind.

The other stimulant for writing the story was a German/Icelandic film I saw in Iceland, Maria. It was about one of these German women. She is contracted to work on a very primitive farm where she is greeted with a profound silence. It was the silence more than anything that impressed me about this film. I imagined that a woman coming from the huge trauma that the Nazis inflicted on the world and on their own citizens might arrive in this new land with a need to talk, a need to process that trauma. I wanted to solve the riddle of how such a woman in those circumstances might respond or develop.

How long did it take you to write the novel?

I drafted the novel in ten days in 2001 when I was attending a writers' conference at Sewanee. After that I revised it for a couple of years. And after that I changed it some more.

Did you write any of the book while in a workshop at the Center?

No, but I was concurrently working on another novel, which I workshopped at the center. Much of what I learned in those workshops undoubtedly carried over to the writing of Seal Woman.

Charlotte, the novel's main character, is an artist shorn from her life & family in Germany. In Iceland she finds a new life. Can you tell us a little about the complications of writing a novel set in two different times and places?

The complication lies primarily in needing to research the details of life in two different places and two different times. The nature of the research was also entirely different for the two parts: for the sections set in Iceland, I researched plants and their uses, foods, and work methods; for the German sections I researched the historic details of the Weimar Republic, the Nazi years, and the Holocaust.

And how did you come to the technique you use--shifting back and forth between post-war Iceland and Hitler's Germany?

I adopted this technique because I wanted to show what Charlotte might be thinking. The entire flashback to Germany might be contained in her memory and in her heart. Chang Rae Lee's novel A Gesture Life made a strong impression on me.

The passage of time is a unique feature of your book. It's compressed into small units, and months--even years--pass in a single page (Erik's marriage and life with Lena, for example). Can you talk about the difficulty of writing about the passage of time in fiction?

Passage of time is for me a matter of focus. If you are coming in real close and focusing on a single moment in a character's life, you will describe it second by second. But then if you pull away and focus from a distance, you can can allow several years to pass on a page. Readers will usually stay with you if they realize what you're doing. I think, however, we as readers get resentful when the writer combines both forms of focus and pushes them together into one sentence: The newly married couple spent an hour picking out a lampshade that would match the beige decor of their bedroom, and then the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union.

What, if anything, do you think this novel says about today?

This novel says the same thing about today as it said about yesterday---that humans, brave as they are about pulling up roots and "moving on," often must struggle to regain their balance and to integrate any kind of trauma that they have experienced. It tells us also that silence and the suppression of memory is often not the best way to move forward from the past.

Can you tell us how your book has been received, if at all, in Iceland?

I was interviewed last May and received a full page display in the main newspaper. This generated considerable interest. However, I can't really say much about reception in Iceland until it is published in Icelandic.

Will you be reading there?

Because the book is published in English, I won't be actually reading from it, but I hope to talk about it in some forum during my next visit.

Seal Woman a novel by Solveig Eggerz
Publication date: 5/15/2008
Ghostroad Press:

Friday, September 19, 2008

Richard Currey, James Grady, and Roach Brown DC Noir at The Writer's Center Sept. 21

"Writing for Veterans" instructor Richard Currey (Fatal Light, The Wars of Heaven) will join James Grady (Six Days of the Condor, Mad Dogs) and Roach Brown ("Christmas in Prison") in a reading from the Akashic Press collection DC Noir 2: The Classics. The event is from 2-4p.m. in the reading room at the Center.

This event is part of the Fall for the Book Festival sponsored by George Mason University.

Born in the small town of Parkersburg, West Virginia, Richard Currey is the author of Crossing Over: The Vietnam Stories, Fatal Light, The Wars of Heaven, and Lost Highway. A writer of exceptional range and versatility, Currey has published short fiction, poetry, essays, and investigative journalism. His fiction has been adapted for theatre, most recently in a new staging of Crossing Over: The Vietnam Stories now in workshop productions. The recipient of many awards, prizes, and fellowships, Currey's books have appeared in 11 languages, receiving critical comparisons to Joseph Conrad, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Kerouac along the way.

James Grady is an Edgar nominee and winner of France's prestigious Grand Priz Du Roman Noir. He is the author of Six Days of the Condor (made into a film starring Robert Redford) and the recent Mad Dogs. Praise for Mad Dogs:"What a pleasure to be in the hands of a master storyteller. James Grady's MAD DOGS starts off with one of the best first sentences I've read in a long time and goes full-throttle, pedal-to-the-floor right up until the final page. A great, great read."Dennis Lehane, MYSTIC RIVER"MAD DOGS is the literary equivalent of a supercharged Hemi, a rock-and-roll road novel that roars out of the gate and never slows pace. James Grady, the king of the modern espionage thriller, is back with a vengeance."George Pelecanos, novelist and producer for THE WIRE

Rhozier “Roach” Brown, while serving a life sentence for murder, founded the Inner Voices, a drama troupe that was allowed out of prison more than eight hundred times to perform their brand of social drama. Largely as a result of the group’s success, President Gerald Ford commuted Brown’s sentence to immediate parole. The play Group Work was nominated for three television Emmy Awards and won Best Social Film at the New York Film Festival. A television documentary titled Roach was created about his life story. Later, he worked as a special assistant to Mayor Marion Barry for offender affairs and has been active in endeavors dealing with prisoners and former prisoners, both as the director of community-based programs and as a political activist. Brown played a key role in getting legislation passed that gave ex-offenders the right to vote in D.C. elections. He has also worked as a television and film producer.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Book Blogger Appreciation Week Begins Sept. 15th!

This will be a short post. It's been a busy week. I'm tired and ready to go home. Don't forget that next week is "Book Blogger Appreciation Week." See some information about it here:

Today I wanted to feature one of the blogs listed in the lower righthand corner of this page. A fairly new blog called Art & Literature. So far, I like what I see. It features a local poet today, Brian Brodeur, who will be reading at the Writer's Center on Nov. 23rd (together with poet Eric Pankey of George Mason University). Brodeur's book, Other Latitudes, his first, won the Akron Prize.

You can click right here for quick transport:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Embracing Technology (Slowly)

One of the hallmarks of being a writer is that it’s a solitary endeavor. Its probably the most democractic of the arts. Not everyone can paint, act, or play piano. But, with some imagination, pencil and paper--almost anyone can write. Also it requires little technology to do so, just an imagination and some elbow greese. My interaction with machines (e.g computers) is limited to dumping my thoughts from my brain onto the white screen, which happens relatively easy if you can type fast, and an occasional email check a few times a day (ok, I'm lying, a few times an hour.)

All the fun happens away from the computer: eavesdropping on juicy conversations, the pictures that creep inside your head, all of the poetry, the sounds, and colors that only writers can create with language. Writers do this all in our heads and in our notebooks. It’s only when we want to publish it or enter it into the market do we have to encounter the computer.

And yet, fate has it that I learn Adobe InDesign, a computer software that would enable me to do more things as an editor, such as laying out The Carousel which will replace our former Writer’s Carousel and Brochure. My uncle used to say to me “You’re way too young to be so rigid.” Alas!, I will now have to spend the next couple of weeks playing with this new system so that I can, join my peers and embrace this machine that continues to find ways to bring you in.

Is it old fashion of me to think that computers distract us from our work or is there some validity to my suspicion?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Guest Blogger Caitlin Hill on Poet Lore

Poet Lore has been alive and kicking out new issues of poetry continuously since 1889.

As we approach our 120th year of introducing new poets alongside established writers, we have developed a website exclusively focused on Poet Lore.

Visit to read samples from past issues, get information about submitting your own poetry, subscribe, read news on our poetry blog, learn more about our editors, and much more!

And keep your eyes peeled for information about our 119th Birthday Reading this November featuring DC's own A. B. Spellman, and introducing NYC's Gardner McFall. Gardner's poetry is highlighted in the Poets Introducing Poets section of our upcoming issue of Poet Lore. Be sure your subscription is all paid up, so you'll receive your copy hot off the press.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Happy Birthday, Sonia Sanchez

Many writers are asked what books matter to them the most. While this question may give me pause, on this day, September 9, I can easily say who’s one of my favorite writers and why.

I believe it was around this time, autumn, at the Library of Congress when I met Sonia Sanchez. There’s an organization named Visionary Project that allowed young people to interview and archive an elder over the age of 70. So there I was watching Jackie Robinson’s widow and other luminaries, when a little woman walks out, with a voice that filled the room. She charged us with living an examined life and even offered her phone number. We all laughed at this mighty little woman’s boldness.

Towards the end, I brought one of her books and asked her to sign it. So many people swarmed around her, making it difficult for me to say anything. About a year later, I spotted Ms. Sanchez at Union Station on New Year’s Day. I walked up to her and said “Happy New Years, Ms. Sanchez.” She gave me a hug with a quickness that caught me off guard. She invited me to call her. And ever since, I’d send her a postcard, see her in Washington D.C. I even got to honor her at the National Press Club reading from her work with three other poets.

Today, Ms. Sanchez turns 73, and I’m sure that she has no plans of slowing down. She is still as fierce as she was in her youth when she help found the Black Arts Movement with Amiri Baraka, and her work appears in many of the seminal texts of that exciting period.

Here's a poem I heard her read to a mixed crowd at SummerStage at Central Park, NYC last summer.


by Sonia Sanchez
(after the spanish)

forgive me if i laugh
you are so sure of love
you are so young
and i too old to learn of love.

the rain exploding
in the air is love
the grass excreting her
green wax is love
and stones remembering
past steps is love,
but you. you are too young
for love
and i too old.

once. what does it matter
when or who, i knew
of love.
i fixed my body
under his and went
to sleep in love
all trace of me
was wiped away

forgive me if i smile
young heiress of a naked dream
you are so young
and i too old to learn of love.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Open House Pictures

Thank YOU members for making last weekend's open house a great event. Here are some photos, thanks to Carol Cissel, our Business & Operations Manager. Here's one of instructor Richard Currey (Writing for Veterans) posing with Kyle.
Instructors Khris Baxter (screenwriting) and Kathryn Johsnon(popular novel)

Abdul Ali & David Taylor (science writing)
Poet Lore turns 119 on Nov. 16th!
Caitlin & Janel teamed up to register guests.

Charlie and Janel giving away raffle prizes.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Guest Blogger Charlie Jensen: On Voice

I'm eager to get out to Leesburg tonight to attend my very first First Friday event at the Leesburg Town Hall. Author Kate Blackwell will be on hand discussing voice in writing.

It's interesting, the synchronicity of the topic and my work this week. In the course of preparing for our Open House on Saturday, I was invited to select one book to recommend to readers as well as a 5-book package for our silent auction.

For my pick for readers, I chose Robert Olen Butler's Severance, a book I wish he hadn't written because I would have liked to write it. Butler writes in the voices of history's most famous severed heads. While the voices themselves are compelling and unique (and numerous!), what I really envy about this book is how Butler calculated the likely number of words the human brain can process from the moment of beheading until loss of consciousness--and then wrote these little pieces using that number of words. I love the constriction of form, and I also love obsession. This book hits all my buttons.

For my auction selections, I chose poets whose voices are also unique, distinctive, and important:

Sandra Beasley's Theories of Falling
Robin Becker's The Horse Fair
Richard Blanco's City of a Hundred Fires
Carolyn Forché's The Country Between Us
Belle Waring's Dark Blonde

Of these, consider Forché's poem "The Colonel," which details an event from El Salvador during its violent civil war:

The Colonel

What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on
its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings
like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in
Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go f--- themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

The voice here is horrified, as we are reading of the event, yet the detachment, the attention to details, are lyric and scattered, the way we tend to remember traumatic or frightening events. Forché's austerity, her lack of judgment of both the speaker and the characters within the poem, allow her images to do the work another voice might do through rhetoric. This is truly a remarkable poem, one I return to again and again in my own reading.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Writer's Center Open House Saturday, Noon to 3p.m. (And Odds & Ends)

Busy week this week preparing for the Open House, which is...ahem...Sept. 6th from noon to 3p.m. You can register here: And don't forget the kids! We'll have an activities room set up where they can do fun things with three of our great children's instructors: Sally Canzoneri, Ellen Cole, and Adele Steiner. Here's a sampling of what we have in store for you:

-Every attendee gets a coupon for $50 off any multi-session workshop
-One on one conferences with our participating instructors.
-A raffle with a grand prize of one FREE multi-session workshop
-A silent auction, where participants can bid on one of the following:

Dinner for 2 at one of three fabulous restaurants on Wisconsin Ave.
A book basket
A one-hour consultation with a Writer's Center instructor

Caption contest DEADLINE!

Remember, the winner of our caption contest, here, gets one book from our selection of "new" titles. Contest closes at 5p.m. Friday. Good luck!

I discovered--thanks to Serena, one of our commentors--that Sept. 15th-19th is Book Blogger Appreciation Week. You can vote for which book blogs are best in many different categories. This is a fantastic idea. Check it out here:

or perhaps here:

or here:

These are all great blogs. See you Saturday!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Summer Leaves

No matter how much you try to fight it, summer is fleeting. I learned this much as I waltzed out of the house this morning without a jacket. While the temperatures may be slowly dropping, our earnest to writing ought not. There is so much going on around town. September is bursting at the seams with readings, socials, and opportunities to revisit those unfinished poems, manuscripts, family stories, et cetera. Check out the following:

Open House at the Writer’s Center, this Saturday, September 6, 2008. Meet our instructors; get a $50 discount on a workshop; participate in our raffle where the winner receives a free multi-workshop ticket; special activities for younger writers; and enjoy some lite refreshments sponsored by Trader Joe's.

- Visit the Folger’s Poetry Series as they celebrate their fortieth year. For a full listing of their readers,
click here.

-Attend the
Nation Book Festival on September 27. Nearly 70 authors will be in attendance.

And yet, I urge you to not forget to attend the most important event: that is your meeting with your desk and chair. There is no substitution for writing. I’m learning this the hard way. I’ve set out to write a poem each day for the month of September. I know it sounds corny but it’s so easy to talk about what you want to write about and how you want it to get done. But, without the doing; it becomes cliché, and we all know that clichés are the enemy. Check out my last blog for a list of telltale signs of being cliche.