Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Twitterific: Entering the New Year with--Poetry & Twitter?

Okay, it's notable, I admit, that there are NO books of poetry on yesterday's 17 notable books of 2008 post. Another admission: I read exactly ONE book of poetry in 2008. (Of course, it was a good one: Brian Brodeur's Other Latitudes. It was featured on this blog right here.) That's pretty pathetic, I admit. As someone interested in books and reading, I should be ashamed of myself, shouldn't I?

Well, no. But I AM going to make it a point to at least double my reading of poetry books in 2009. Small steps. Small steps.

Those of you interested in poetry would do well to check out Growler at This site is managed by the good people at Barrelhouse Magazine.

Interested in submitting a review of a book of poetry? It's easy. Contact them at

Oh, and yes, I'm now on Twitter. Look me up. I'm not exactly sure what I'm doing over there yet, or how to go about doing it, but I'll learn soon enough. It's a crazy world. What's next? What's next?


I remembered two other books of poetry I read this year: Carsten Rene Nielsen's Husundersøgelser and a bunch of David Keplinger's fine translations of some of Nielsen's poems, collected in The World Cut Out With Crooked Scissors.

17 Notable Books of 2008

Following Abdul's post yesterday, I'd like to list my favorite books read in 2008. Unlike many year-end lists, my notables weren't necessarily published in 2008. I just read them this year. Oh, and for those of you who may be wondering why it's 17 and not 10 or 5 or whatnot. It seems like a good number. It's the number the great, the legendary, pitcher Dizzy Dean wore. Does that seem any less arbitrary now? I have no idea how my mind works.

The Given Day, Dennis Lehane. I've blogged on this before. It's the best novel I read in 2008. Enough said. If you'd like to hear more about what I think about this book, click here: Here.

Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper, Paul E. Johnson. I've long wanted to read this book, ever since it came out a few years back. I grew up in Rochester and was pretty familiar with his story: guy jumps from waterfalls, grows famous, then dies in a fall/jump at the High Falls in Rochester. What Johnson does here is provide a lot of background on Patch and the time he lived. Read my review of the book here.

Deliverance, James Dickey. Why is this book not read by more people? Yeah, maybe it's Iron John stuff for men before Robert Bly, before Chuck Pahluniak. (You read this novel, didn't you Chuck?) But the prose is beautiful, deep and somehow very earthy and slow (in a good way--the kind of thing you see rarely anymore). This is a book that builds through language and a good old-fashioned story. Kind of like Huckleberry Finn for grown-ups in the Age of Suburbia. Oh, and I wrote about it here.

Modellen, Lars Saabye Christensen (translated as The Model by Dan Bartlett)

I'm a big fan of Norwegian writer Christensen's elegant, dialogue-rich prose. (When will his weird, wonderful Maskeblomstfamilien be translated?) You may recall the big fat translation of The Half Brother in 2005. I read Modellen while on my annual trip to Denmark this year (and my wife's family was so kind as to gift us with three more of his books this Christmas!). Modellen is a portrait of an artist going blind and trying to find ways to cure his malady. It's a book that refuses to allow you a moral core to latch onto, and it's frighteningly scary for that reason.

Savage Peace, Ann Hagedorn. This is a book of history written by a gifted historian who happens to write prose like a musician and a poet. A thoroughly researched story of the year 1919 from many different viewpoints. Anyone interested in post-WWI life will enjoy this one. It reminds me in its scope of Don Delillo's super-brilliant Underworld. (It works well in tandem with Lehane's The Given Day, which is set in the same year. Many characters, like young J. Edgar Hoover, appear in both books.)

Last Known Position, James Mathews. This collection of stories by longtime Writer's Center member won the prestigious Katherine Anne Porter Prize this year--and for good reason. The stories range remarkably from sad and touching to comic and breathtaking, sometimes in the same story. "Grenade" stands in the tradition of great coming of age stories (think TC Boyle's "Greasy Lake") with a modern military twist. "Last Known Position: 2,000 Feet Above the World and Descending" manages to be funny and tragic (and in fact shocking) at the same time. "The 5th Week" might be one of the best short stories I've read in a long, long time. And "Man Swallows Goldfish While Sleepwalking, Chokes to Death" is delightful. All in all, a great and worthy collection. I can see why Mathews won the Porter. Those of you who've toiled on your stories for a long time, take heed! (By the way, James Mathews will read at The Center together with Alex MacLennan on January 25th at 2 P.M.).

Charming Billy, Alice McDermott. This is a book that won the National Book Award in 1998 and I'd begun reading it with my writing group three years ago. We read only the first chapter (it was for an exercise we did on starting novels). I'd wanted to finish but never got around to it until 08. It's a slow-moving novel but rich in detail. The prose is leak-proof. Irish American lit. Is there such a thing? It's a novel about love and surviving (or not surviving) its loss. A touching book without being melodramatic.

The N Word, Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why, Jabari Asim. This is one of two books I "read" while driving home to western New York. So, yeah, I actually heard it read to me. Still, this was a fascinating book, and in fact one chapter on 19th century "race" literature made me want to go back and find some of these rare books. The title says a lot about what you need to know going in, but you'll learn a lot about race in the U.S. by reading this book.

Muhammed, by Karen Armstrong. This is the second book I read while driving this year. A former nun turned academic, Armstrong has written extensively on religious matters, on diverse subjects. She's a cool, steady hand when it comes to religion. Which is to say: objective, fair, balanced. I think every American should read a book on Muhammed, and this isn't a bad start at all.

In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O'Brien. Perhaps most interesting use of storytelling comes from this book. I'd just read, finally, The Things They Carried and loved it so much that I had to go and read this one, which had been left untouched on my shelf for years. No more! Given that the story involves the disappearance of the wife of a politician (who'd just lost an election thanks to a scandal, one in which a Vietnam atrocity plays a part), it seemed an appropriate book to read in this election year.

Lost Highway, Richard Currey. This fascinating story by a Writer's Center instructor is about a country musician's struggle to the top he never truly reaches. Those of you who've seen the disappointing Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story may recognize some elements here. Not that the film is based on the book; it's not. I just wish it had been.

By the way, if anyone wants this book I have a CD version of it. If you'd like the audiobook, contact me at this blog and I'll send it to you FREE.

Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, Jackie Wullschlager. I'm a fan of Andersen's work and also a fan of his life--that is, I'm interested in him. This book provides rich source material on that life.

The Pitch that Killed, Mike Sowell. A fine, fine baseball book subtitled Carl Mays, Ray Chapman, and the pennant race of 1920. About the only baseball player ever killed by a pitched ball. Was it an accident? Find out by reading the book. (Sowell apparently has an itch to write these kinds of books--no harm there! He earlier wrote this awesome-sounding book.

Confessions of an Economic Hit-man, John Perkins. The third book I "heard" this year. I didn't realize I'd driven so much this year until now.) This is about, among other things, exploitation of the so-called Third World by the so-called West. For all the confessing Perkins does in this book, what's truly interesting, to me, is what he doesn't seem to want to admit. Still, it's a courageous, interesting book that affords lay people like me a unique perspective on things.

I Got Somebody in Staunton, William Henry Lewis. I saw Lewis read a week before joining The Writer's Center staff. It was a great reading, so I bought the book. What can I say? This guy's got jazzy, musical prose that hums on the page. His characters and stories are not easy to pin down but for that reason I truly admire them.

The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex, Pagan Kennedy. This collection of essays on the quirkier side of life was written by Pagan Kennedy, who during her high school days in Bethesda attended workshops at The Writer's Center. She has since moved on to writing more than ten books (including the Orange Prize finalist Spinsters). The publisher of this book is another local product, Andrew Gifford. You can read about him here.

Chronicles, Bob Dylan. I deeply admire Bob Dylan. And now I finally got around to reading the volume one of his memoir, which I'd bought when it first came out a few years back. You can see Dylan's unique voice in this odd, disjointed, wonderful little book. When will volume two be release? Inquiring minds want to know!

So there it is, my little list of notable books 2008. Some clear pattens have emerged, it seems, in my reading. But I'm too tired to think about that right now. Hope you've had good reads in 2008 and many more in 2009.

If there are some you'd like to call out, do let me know.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The 2008 A-List

2008 came and went. With just under 72 hours remaining to '08, I thought I'd enumerate a few memorables (in random order, of course.) Won't you take a walk down memory lane with me? [Trumpet playing] I humbly present to you my the "A-List." This list represents significant happenings that I haven't been able to recount until now.

1. Kay Ryan is selected Poet Laureate of the U.S.
2. Carol Cissel and Kyle Semmel join the managment team here at the Writer's Center.
3. Charlie Jensen becomes our new director.
4. I attend my first Lucille Clifton reading.
5. Barack Obama becomes our President-Elect.
6. Celebrated author David Foster Wallace commits suicide.
7. The movie The Great Debators brings the life and times of poet Melvin Tolson to a new generation.
8. Elizabeth Alexander is selected as the inaugural poet.
9. Eartha Kit dies.
10. Poet Patricia Smith becomes a National Book Award Finalist for her recent collection of poems, Blood Dazzler, a meditation on the aftermath of Katrina.

The Greatest Game Never Played

All the Stars Came out That Night
By Kevin King
413 pages

If you're like me, you start missing baseball this time of year. Now that the holiday craziness is behind us. Isn't that right? Well, to prepare for the upcoming season--now only three months away!--I'm going to post my review of a book that came out a couple years back.


Those who enjoy baseball novels will adore Kevin King's All the Stars Came out That Night. At the center of this book is, like so many baseball novels, an event that never happened: a legendary game between a Negro League All-Star team and a white All-Star team at Boston's Fenway Park following the '34 World Series. But before we reach that game, King takes readers on a looping and whooping joyride across the country, from Pittsburgh to Hollywood. We meet John Henry and James Atwood, two bumbling would-be criminals who determine to kidnap Dizzy Dean for ransom during the World Series; they fail to kidnap Diz but manage, instead, to get caught up in Diz and Satchel Paige’s plot to arrange the first inter-racial All-Star game. In fact, just about everyone gets swept up in this plot.

What's remarkable about this nifty first novel is how King channels an impressive roster of characters and deftly shifts the point of view between them. We find a regular Who's Who of early twentieth-century American culture: Clarence Darrow, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, Henry Ford, Gus Greenlee, Walter Winchell, George Raft, and Carole Lombard, among others. Add to that list the baseball All-Stars: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Dizzy Dean and the biggest names of the Cardinals’ famous Gashouse Gang; even Shoeless Joe Jackson, baseball's tragic, lost soul, makes an appearance (what baseball novel is complete without baseball's greatest fallen hero?). The sheer number of characters in this novel is incredible, but King manages to present each with astonishing depth and humanity. A drunken Babe Ruth, for example, stinks up the dugout with his gastrointestinal troubles, but at the same time we see him as a man suffering deeply the frailty of his age, his body, and his declining career. He's finished, and he knows it. We laugh, but doing so is a poignant reminder that the Babe was, after all, only a man. His great bellyache is our great bellyache.

Walter Winchell, the gossip columnist, is the “narrator”—a fact you may forget for half the book—and as a result there is a kind of hybrid feel to the story: half tabloid expose, half historical study of major league baseball before the integration of the game. What King elucidates well is the resistance many powerful Americans felt toward inter-racial play during the pre-Jackie Robinson era. At first, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis and automaker Henry Ford ardently oppose the game, fearing that a Negro win would prove Negro superiority. A loss for the white team, Henry Ford tells his trusted right-hand man, Harry Bennett, would be “a national humiliation”(95). So when Ford finally assents to sponsor the game, he does everything in his power to assure that the white team will win. And just in case the Negro team does win, the game is played under portable lights and with only a handful of spectators so that that the game remains top secret.

Until, that is, Winchell decides to tell this, “his last story.”

If there is a drawback to this book it may be, for some readers, the fact that it is predominantly a baseball novel. For all its power and charm, for all its humor, those who know a little bit—or preferably, a lot—about The Gashouse Gang or the Negro Leagues or baseball history generally will be in a better position to appreciate the gags and the magical baseball images King presents his readers (though for those readers unfamiliar with these things, this book would be a fun introduction to them). Take this gem, for example:

Then he (Joe DiMaggio) saw him (Joe Jackson). A tall specter with a lubbed-up belly like a house that had poorly settled, and crooked teeth stained with decades of tobacco juice. The Natural. The one who broke molds with a full, powerful, fluid swing that sent balls with stunning frequency off and over stadium walls. Line drives you could hang your wash on (322).

Baseball novels like this are in fact a rare treat for the baseball fan: a story that combines the lush atmosphere of the game we love with the storyteller's art of building a captivating drama. But they're also limited to the playing field, as it were, of the ball diamond. Even a novel as insistent as this one is on proving that it is more than just a baseball story—by inviting a whole slew of interesting characters into the mix—remains in the end a book whose substance is the hard stuff of the country's longest-running sports institution.

While many novels in this niche genre—from Wallop's The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which is now famously adapted as the Broadway show Damn Yankees, to Malamud's classic The Natural, to W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy—tend to move toward myth and legend, this one, to its credit, does so in moderation. It creates, instead, a much larger social panorama of America anno 1934, by focusing on the dark side of baseball: the game's less than noble history of racial segregation. For those of you who can hardly wait for the next baseball season to begin, this book should provide a measure of comfort to hold you over until opening day.

If you're into baseball books, by the way, then you might also enjoy Dennis Lehane's The Given Day. That book, written about frequently on this blog, also features baseball in a fascinating way, with Babe Ruth in a supporting role. Since reading The Given Day, I've read Lehane's Shutter Island. So look for a post later this week on these two books, particularly as they concern genre.

Monday, December 22, 2008

What We Mean When We Say What

The title of this post means nothing, that's what. What I mean to say is Happy Holidays, but that's a lame title for a post, isn't it? I kind of like the sound of the words. It reminds me of a great song ("What is not but could be if") by a terrific band (whose new album I got for my birthday recently), The Silver Jews.

Today's brief post is really only to say that First Person Plural will be taking a slight break over the holidays. That means nothing will be posted on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. But there is plenty happening in the local blogosphere. C.M. Mayo has posted her "top ten books read in 2008" over at Madam Mayo. I've not read any of them but they're worth noting next time i'm looking for a book to read. Leslie Pietrzyk at Work-in-Progress has some things to say about the inauguration poet Elizabeth Alexander. Serena Agusto-Cox writes at Savvy Verse & Wit, and she's doing great work supporting authors there. Susan Gray at Gottawrite Girl has a great blog. So too does Art Taylor at Art & Literture (an interview with me appeared yesterday). Oh, and Jeannie at Rat Manor makes great drawings that are worth a long look.

On the right side of my page is a link to This site provides a listing of area blogs in many different categories, from sports to literature. It's definitely worth checking out. You can really get a good feel for just how many great blogs this area has to offer.

Though I won't be posting much this week--my wife and I are driving back to snowy cold Rochester, NY (yay for snow!)--I'll be active next week. See you then!


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Writing Retreat in the Rockies

From time to time I get e-mails from folks who've got special programs for writers, and when I think it's a good fit I'll post information on this here blog. Those of you who've ever been to the Colorado Rockies know how beautiful they are. If you're a writer and a nature lover, then check out the opportunity below.

Before you do that, though, let me say here that Art Taylor interviewed me on the topic of literary translation over at his blog Art & Literature. If you're interested, hop on over.

If you just want to learn about this retreat opportunity, read on.

Writing the Rockies

Wednesday, July 8 to Sunday, July 12, 2009


June Naylor, Travel and Food Journalist - from Fort Worth, Texas
Jill Brown – founder of "The Duchess Guide, from Los Angeles, California;
Jill also writes a weekly column in
Barbara Albright – see “About Us” page on this site.

June Naylor – June is a regular contributor to Texas Highways magazine, and awared-winning author of several books and currently serves on the board of directors for the Society of American Travel Writers. She will be your instructor for 2 full days at this conference/retreat. See her bio here.

Jill Brown, The Duchess Guide, based in Los Angeles, will speak to the group about blogging as a format for writing, journaling, and recording your travels, inserting photos and video clips to bring your writing to life. Bring your lap-tops for hands on exploration.

Barbara Albright, one of the founders of Rocky Mountain Retreats, will teach a class on the art of travel writing that crosses over into sketching, ephemera, photos, etc. Art elements will be mixed into the curriculum as an exploration of how art can enhance your travel writing.

You will be writing both indoors and outside.

Wednesday, July 8

Dinner and speaker.

Thursday, July 9

Wake up to a hearty, healthy breakfast prepared for you in the Mozaic dining room. Attend an optional meditation class to feel centered and invoke your muse or take an invigorating walk along the Santa Fe trail just steps from the Inn. This easy trail leads to the shores of Palmer Lake or you can point yourself in the opposite direction and follow the trail as it meanders the same route as the RR tracks with awesome vistas along the way.

Class will start at 9:30 a.m. in the Sundance Room, a cozy space with panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains, Pikes Peak, and rolling hills. You’ll gather with the intimate group of fellow writers to be instructed in some genres that might surprise you. Classes today will include blog writing about your travels and art and life, with some awesome new methods and sites to explore and enrich, and an afternoon class on the art of travel writing with a sketchbook, to include writing, doodling, ephemera, photos, sketching, etc. You can step outside the Sundance Room to a sweeping 2nd floor patio/deck where you can also write and sketch, dabble, and obtain individual instruction/help.

We’ll take a lunch break together, driving a very short distance into the historic town of Monument for an outdoor meal on the lush garden patio at the Wisdom Tea House,

Dinner tonight will be up the road from the Inn at one of our very favorite local spots - Bella Panini – where we will casually dine on excellent Italian fare.

Friday, July 10

The earlier morning hours will be filled with whatever you desire, sleeping late in the overstuffed beds at the Inn, meditation classes, a walk on the trail, reading, journaling, etc. Your breakfast will again be prepared fresh and amazingly by the chefs at the Mozaic Restaurant in the Inn.

Friday, we’ll meet again at 9:30 in the Sundance Room, where June Naylor, Travel and Food Writer, extraordinaire (!!) will begin her 2-day instruction on travel writing. Visit her web-site:

June will begin with you this morning, introducing herself and her work and perhaps her process with travel writing. (When offered a flight up here to Colorado from her home in Texas, she declined, preferring instead to drive. This gave us a little hint about her constant eye toward recording her travels, you know, the journey is more important than the destination kind of thing….? )

Some time will be structured for you to work in pairs in brainstorming ideas and participants can send June writing samples ahead of time if and only if, you’d like some one-on-one feedback time. Each participant will also write something to read to the whole group, allowing them to discuss with their peers what they’ve created.

We’ll explore imagery and talk about when the first-person voice works better than the third-person voice.

There are 3 or 4 cafes we can suggest in Palmer Lake or Monument for your lunch, or you can stay right where you are and lunch at the Mozaic restaurant.

Friday night’s dinner is open as well. You can go with the group to a local Mexican restaurant, or dine on your own.

Saturday, July 11

After breakfast and whatever optional ways you start your day, we’ll meet at 9:30 in the lobby of the Inn and head outdoors to write today where June will continue to pass on to you what has been fashioned out of her life as a writer. Writing time will move from individual to group or pairs, listening to others and sharing your writing. June will be spending time with you individually if you’ve opted to send her some writing before this retreat. Class time will offer challenge and delight.

Saturday evening we’ll meet together for dinner and, as always at our retreats, we will close with some show and tell time. This time together is always fabulous and the sharing elevates us all. We are reminded that we are all unique and yet really, we are all so very much the same. It’s a joyful experience!

Sunday, July 12

This is the morning the retreat experience ends, at least here. Some of you will be leaving for home after breakfast and making your travel connections. If you will be staying in the area for a while, be sure to see our Useful Links page or ask any of us about the many things to do while in Colorado. But all of you will be creatively charged and enriched for having been here. Know that we see you all as beautifully expressive gems and a privilege to travel these creative journeys with you!


$1025 – double occupancy - in spacious, 2 Queen sized bed room w/2 vanity areas
$1350 – single occupancy
$260 – classes only
$385 – classes, Wednesday night welcome, dinner & lecture and Saturday night dinner.
$20 - optional morning meditation classes

Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday night meals are included.
A full, fresh breakfast is included every morning with your stay at the Inn.

For more info:

Friday, December 19, 2008

Inaugural Poet, Elizabeth Alexander

So, it’s official—Elizabeth Alexander will deliver the inaugural poem on January 20th.

I met Elizabeth Alexander through hours of uninterrupted reading as a student at Howard University. I admire this women for her poetic powers, the way she bends images gracefully. The way she takes the sting out of innuendo yet let it hang. I’d like to recommend Elizabeth Alexander to all of you, in case you haven’t heard of her.

Alexander has an amazing range. She does, however, write mostly issues surrounding the female body, gender, history, and race.

Here’s a taste. Click here to read the entire poem. I'd love to hear what you all think.
Autumn Passage

On suffering, which is real.
On the mouth that never closes,
the air that dries the mouth.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Will Grofic: Why Write Poetry?

“I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.”

To refuel my creative drive, I read Donald Hall’s “Poetry and Ambition” essay. It’s basically a go for broke or go home message to poets, which I agree with in spirit. It can be hard (read: depressing) to look at every one of my poems and put it up against Ozymandias or Lycidias, but Hall does make a good point that….why not? It’s a little naïve in that, what poet is striving for mediocrity? But within the essay, Hall hits on a few points I’d like to share.

In a discussion with some of the Writer’s Center staff today, we were talking about manuscripts, and one person said some of your best poems are the one’s you would never think of, which goes along with Hall alluding to Keat’s tombstone:

“[Keats] convinced that his name was ‘writ in water.’ But he was mistaken, he was mistaken. ... If I praise the ambition that drove Keats, I do not mean to suggest that it will ever be rewarded. We never know the value of our own work, and everything reasonable leads us to doubt it: for we can be certain that few contemporaries will be read in a hundred years. To desire to write poems that endure—we undertake such a goal certain of two things: that in all likelihood we will fail, and that if we succeed we will never know it.”

Geez, a little depressing. But how to write good poems, there’s the rub.

After reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest article in New York, I think that being a good teacher can be like being a good poet. It’s about letting the ideas and words take on their own meaning, engaging with the words, not coercing them to fit your own structure. The greats of the past were iambic rhymes that had to be constrained to a certain poetic barb-wired fence, but nowdays, the best advice I receive from my professors is that of allowing the poem to become its own entity.

Hall describes this as “a stage where the poem is altered for its own sake, to make it better art, not for the sake of its maker's feelings but because decent art is the goal. Then the poem lives at some distance from its creator's little daily emotions; it can take on its own character in the mysterious place of satisfying shapes and shapely utterance. The poem freed from its precarious utility as ego's appendage may possibly fly into the sky and become a star permanent in the night air.”

Gladwell parallels this type of embracing the poem with a teacher who seamlessly interacts with students. In my metaphor, consider the teacher as the poet, the students the poem (its ideas, word choice, all of that jazz). In talking about a videotape of a great teacher, Gladwell writes:

“Pianta’s team has developed a system for evaluating various competencies relating to student-teacher interaction. Among them is “regard for student perspective”; that is, a teacher’s knack for allowing students some flexibility in how they become engaged in the classroom. Pianta stopped and rewound the tape twice, until what the teacher had managed to achieve became plain: the children were active, but somehow the class hadn’t become a free-for-all.

A perfect creation of a poem: to not let the poem become a free-for-all, but still be active and learning from it.

Donald Hall’s Essay “Poetry and Ambition

Malcolm Gladwell’s Article on Teaching

Will Grofic is the Publications Intern for The Carousel and in the M.F.A program at Bennington.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Art Taylor Interviews Writer's Center Workshop Leader Nani Power

We'll have not one but two guests today, as Art Taylor, who drives a great blog over at Art and Literature, will be interviewing one of our instructors, Nani Power. This interview originally appeared over on his blog, but it's a great interview and it works well for our Wednesday instructor feature. Nani will be teaching the advanced fiction workshop this winter.

For those of you who're interested in translations, by the way, check out Art and Literature next Monday. Art will be interviewing yours truly on the craft of literary translation. Should be fun. Here is Art's interview with Nani:

Nani Power’s first novel, Crawling at Night, earned the kind of attention and honors that most debut novelists would surely envy: Named a New York Times Notable Book of The Year, it was also a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the British Orange Prize, and has ultimately been translated into seven languages. Her second novel, The Good Remains, was also a New York Times Notable Book of The Year as well as a finalist for The Virginia Library Award, and her third, The Sea of Tears, was praised by Publishers Weekly as “a fine yarn of the lost and lonely seeking intimacy and love.”

This fall saw Power shifting genres with the publication of Feed the Hungry: A Memoir With Recipes, a book which begins with her childhood in Virginia and follows her adventures — culinary, familial, romantic and more — around the world: to Mexico, Peru, Rio, and Japan, with Power both broadening her cultural horizons and delving deeper into an understanding of herself. By book’s end, Power is urging readers toward journeys similar to her own, not only “tasting” the world out there but also savoring our own histories: “Start remembering what you ate as a child,” she writes, “ask people what they ate. Their stories start to tumble out as quickly as the memories of food, because they are all intertwined, food and memory, love and taste, all piecemeal of this lovely, sensual world we live in.”

In the Washington Post review of Feed the Hungry, critic Carolyn See wrote: “In Feed the Hungry, Power gives us the story of her family, along with the misunderstandings, the tragedies, the resentments that dogged them for as long as she can remember. The metaphor for all this restless longing is… food: what it means to all of us, how we present it to each other, what we especially crave and value, how it becomes the ultimate symbol for who we are and what we want to be, as well as what we want, or love, to eat.”

Power recently took the time to answer some questions about the new book and her writing in general.

After three novels, what prompted you to write a memoir?

I actually came about this book as an attempt to write about food. I’ve always loved cookbooks. They seem to have a storytelling quality when I read them — jottings of good times, tastes, cultures. Then, I started thinking about my favorite family recipes and how they intertwined through the tales of my family. As that materialized, I realized I also wanted to try and understand the reasonings and flaws of my family. As I wrote, I understood more of their fragility and the ephemerality of our lives — and food personifies this. A moment of a taste, a sensation, and then, gone. Recipes attempt to capture those moments.

The book avoids strict linearity — a straightforward “this happened and then this happened” narrative. Individual chapters don’t necessarily proceed chronologically (Chapter 7 is Peru 2003, for example, while Chapter 8 is New York 1990), and even within chapters you often flashforward and flashback, mixing together stories from different parts of your life. Can you comment on your use of these time shifts?

I guess you have really clued in to what really interests me stylistically in writing. And I suppose I shouldn’t say style because that implies a superficial mechanics, perhaps. What I strive to do — what interests me — is exactly the shifting and transformative nature of memory. Memory, at least as I can percieve it, because it is so subjective, appears to be the essence of fiction, an inaccurate and impressionistic blanket surrounding our minds. What makes one memory take precedence over another? And how they are woven in our daily consciousness, jumping to the surface with various markers — smell, déjà vu, sounds, and of course, back again, food. Eat something you ate as a child and the sensation is forcibly retrospective.

I find that what happens in real life distinctly breaks many of the “rules” of writing craft that we are taught, and I’d like to find a way to create a more of a sensual expression of this experience called life for the reader — merging time and place, shifting point-of-view, even bringing in major themes or characters late in the story. Playing with these ideas interests me a lot.

One of the book’s richest and most persistent themes is about how various cultures meet and mesh or clash: different worldviews from generation to generation, different nationalities or ethnicities meeting and greeting, even that scene where you compare your house to your childhood friend Nono’s, with its “refrigerator crammed with soft drinks and Cheez Whiz.” Is this a theme you explicitly set out to explore, or a pattern that emerged in the writing?

Oh, this is something that fascinates me endlessly — the merging and intertwining of ancient cultures and American modernity. I love the suburbs actually — strange, isn’t it? I grew up in the country and the suburbs were frowned upon as artificial and plastic. And yes they are, in a delightful way. To me, the suburbs reappropriates life and repackages it in a rough yet poetic sense. Restaurants that are theme parks of various cultures. Small ethnic food stalls amidst strip malls with mainstream Dollar shops and grocers. Immigrants in Costco buying burlap bags of Basmati rice and giant frozen boxes of pigs in a blanket. It is in the suburbs that we see the meshing and evolution of new cultural terroir.

To a great degree, your experiences make you who you are. Is it your experiences that give you the best knowledge and perspective (of self, of world)? Or your writing about those experiences that offers the greater wisdom?

Writing offers a sense of completion. One can explore the family as a separate whole, and thus gain a compassionate new view of the workings. A writer must view a character in all their dimensions, and as you do this to your own family — I mean take the time to remove the reputation, the biases — and see the person as a human, you gain an immense sense of understanding. I think everyone should write a memoir in their life, even if it is never shown to anyone. The main word to remember in memoir, that I tell my students, is “witness.” To tell the truth as you knew it. Whether you wish to share it with the world is your choice. The benefit in the end is very personal.

About Art Taylor:

Art Taylor is a fiction writer, book critic, and assistant professor of English at George Mason University.

His short stories have been published in several national magazines (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Lifeboat, and North American Review, for example) and in various regional journals/newspapers — among them Cities and Roads, The Lone Wolf Review, Wellspring, and the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer’s “Sunday Reader” section (the latter twice).

Since 2001, he has been a contributing editor to Metro Magazine in Raleigh, N.C., writing a monthly literary column. Since 2005, he has been a semi-regular reviewer for the Washington Post Book World, with a focus on mysteries and thrillers. Other literary essays/reviews have appeared in publications including The Armchair Detective, Mississippi Quarterly, Mystery Scene, North Carolina Literary Review, Spectator, The Independent, and The Oxford American.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Around the Beltway- National Museum of American Indian with Guest Will Grofic

Hey, those of you in the DC area should join me (Kyle) and The Writer's Center tomorrow at the National Museum of the American Indian for Alan Cheuse and Colin Sargent's reading. If you DO join me, I'll have a special treat to give out that involves a discount on upcoming workshops.

I will return with a post on Monday. But for now, here's guest Will Grofic to give this installment of "Around the Beltway."

The National Museum of American Indian (NMAI) has great lectures on literature, and their Writer’s Series brings Native American writers from around the world to DC (such as National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie). The beautiful building on the National Mall has a great new exhibit, Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian, and they contribute greatly to the literary writing scene with their Writers' Series.

Along with the Writers' Series, the museum also has writers come to talk about books associated with Native Americans. NMAI hosts two writers this weekend in conjunction with The Writer’s Center, Alan Cheuse and Colin Sargent. They are part of NMAI’s Tour, Talks, and Lectures and will be at NMA at 2pm pm Saturday in Rooms 4018-19, Fourth Level.

Alan Cheuse is the “voice of books” for NPR’s All Things Considered and has received great reviews for his new book To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming (Sourcebooks Landmark, October 2008), the life story of Edward Curtis, famed photographer of American Indians. The New York Times Book Review says "[Cheuse] reminds us how close art and chaos really are." Anyone who is a friend of an artist would know that! But it’s good to forewarn those without artist friends. Publisher’s Weekly said, “The narrative brims with keen insight.”

Colin Sargent wrote his first novel about Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the child of Sacagawea. It is a piece of historical fiction and has received good reviews in Publisher’s Weekly. Colin wears many literary hats, as he is a playwright, poet, and the publisher of Portland Magazine.

About Will Grofic
Will Grofic is the Publications Intern for the Carousel and in the M.F.A program at Bennington. Full disclosure, Will is engaged to a staff member of NMAI, and in no way has that affected his judgment on the museum. Seriously.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Why it's Good that Joe the Plumber and Gov. Palin Publish Books

So Joe the Plumber (Sen. McCain's ploy to win over the working man during the election) apparently has a book coming out. Gov. Palin too. There's a long history of "non writers" writing books, novels, memoirs, and books of poetry for big sums of cash (celebrities, sports heroes, etc). Or how about that 9-year-old boy who wrote a "funny" little book on dating for his male friends at school? Now his book is being optioned for a film by Fox. Does that sound crazy? It does, because it is.

To show how far behind I was at age 9: I neither wrote books nor paid attention to girls (or cared to lecture to my friends on how to act around them). When I was 9 I was too busy thinking about baseball (the St. Louis Cardinals in particular) to give a darn about girls. Besides, girls didn't like me much then. Probably still don't.

Anyway, I doubt for most writers it's the cash advances these celebrauthors receive that's so galling to them: it's the fact that people who've never had to struggle at improving their craft as a writer are getting published at all, who've never sent dozens of stories/poems off to journals only to receive a wave of rejections in response. It seems unfair.

It is unfair, of course. But.

This Timothy Egan article was forwarded to me by a friend the other day. Though I agree with everything he writes and feel the same frustration over this trend, I'd like to say for the record that I am HAPPY that these people are getting books published. (Okay, happy's not the right word. Let's just say that I've made peace with it.)

You see, I'm just impressed that these "authors" or their handlers or whoever put them up to writing a book (even if they're ghostwritten) thought that a BOOK was the right medium to send their messages through. That these people are writing books and expecting people to read them means that books still matter. As everyone knows, The Industry is facing some serious issues. So it's good that people believe in books--maybe it'll help turn around The Industry? Of course, it could also mean that The Industry will consolidate around BIG name celebrauthors and expect to turn huge sales with each book. This is possible. But as long as the publishers use these books as sales weapons for their special titles, as Egan notes, the titles by the little guys and gals, the yous and mes, then I can live with it. Remember this one fact: Most publishers (at least I hope this is still true) got into publishing because they loved good books.

Keep writing your books and make sure they're as good as they can be. Eventually, yes eventually, you'll get them noticed by the right person if you're serious enough (and able to revise and improvise). I don't look forward to the day that celebrauthors and their staff turn a blind eye to "the book" and find some other means of getting their stories out. IF these kinds of books stop getting published, well....

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Wednesday Instructor: Rose Solari on Writing a Novel

Our guest blogger today is Rose Solari. Rose is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, Orpheus in the Park, and Difficult Weather, and two chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in many journals here and in the U.K., including Parnassus, Gargoyle, Poet Lore, The Mississippi Review, The Potomac Review, and Nth Position, and her poetry and prose have appeared in several anthologies, including American Poetry: The Next Generation; Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction by Washington Area Women; and Women: Images and Realities, A Multicultural Reader. Her other honors and awards include the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize (selected by Philip Levine) and, in 2007, her third Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist’s Grant. She has taught at The Writer's Center for fifteen years, and joined the board of directors there in 2006. She's leading three workshops at the Center this winter. Learn more here.

Her Web site is here.

And now Rose is here...

Though I’ve been a devoted lover of novels since I was ten years old, when Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre awakened me to states of mind and heart I didn’t know I knew, I was as surprised as my poet friends were when I decided to try to write a novel myself. After all, I’d been writing poetry since I could hold a pencil, but save for one “experimental” (read, unfinished) piece published in my undergraduate years, had never even produced a complete short story.

But while doing research some years ago for a magazine article on the changes that feminists in the Christian churches were working toward, I kept finding more and more material about their medieval predecessors, and about the great flowering of women’s mysticism and learning that rocked Christianity in 12th century Europe. In particular, I got hooked on tales of radical nuns, hundreds of years ahead of their time, who made their abbeys incubators for female intellect, creativity, and reform.

A research trip to England followed, conducted on a shoestring, with my then-boyfriend, now-husband as an eager compatriot. (Romantics, take heed: this is how to woo a writer.) We spent hours in the beautiful high-domed halls of the Bodleian, Oxford’s medieval library; we made pilgrimage to Glastonbury, to see the ruins of the great abbey that burned in 1184 and the pagan relics that surround it; we walked the high cliff ruins of Tintagel, on the Cornish coast, a medieval castle where King Arthur is said to have been conceived. I returned with a pile of notebooks and the bones of an idea: a story about a medieval nun with mystical powers and radical ideas, and of the contemporary woman who comes into possession of fragments of her story and goes on a journey of her own to recover the rest.

But if research is the courtship phase, giddy and full of surprises, then settling down to write the novel is the hard work of commitment. And though writing is writing, I found many differences between my relationship with this new love, the novel, and my work in poetry.

The biggest difference is time and how I use it, or rather how the writing uses it. Never the best multi-tasker, I find it hard to work on fiction and poetry in the same day — each one requires a complete absorption, a giving over to its own unique demands. I’ve always loved what the late John Gardner had to say about a successful work of fiction having the quality of “a vivid and continuous dream,” and believe that good poetry has just that same elusive but undeniable quality. When in the making process, I find that one dream a day is just about all I can handle.

Then there’s question of quantity. I can accomplish a lot in an hour of concentrated work on a poem; an hour into working on the novel, I’m just getting my bearings in that other, fictional but oh, so real world. This is why, in part, I decided not to teach this fall. Even during my busiest teaching sessions, I can find chunks of time to devote to poetry. But the novel takes more. To write fiction, I spend longer and longer hours away from what we call “everyday life” — and yet a work of fiction, much more than poetry, seeks to portray everyday life.

In order to see my heroine as she traverses London’s Bloomsbury Square, I must resolutely not see my street, my neighborhood, my own daily life. Paradoxically, it is when I am most removed from real-world concerns and obligations that I can best bring to life the real worlds of my characters.

Still, some things are true for both kinds of writing. Talking too much or too specifically about a work in progress ruins it for me, whether it’s a poem or a chapter of the book. I’ve learned that the hard way. When the writing is going well, in whatever form, I am blessed by the particular and sacred happiness of doing something I feel I was born to do. And when it’s not going well — as in last week, when I rewrote a single, very important scene five times before discovering what the characters actually wanted to say — writing is still the most rewarding act that I can imagine. It teaches me new things every day. It requires stamina, discipline, courage, and skill, and like the best teachers, it keeps upping the ante: as soon as you achieve one level of competence, it asks you to reach higher.

Perhaps this is where my fascination with the religious life, and with one nun in particular, came from. Like her, I have a vocation. Like her, I have to follow it wherever it takes me. And oh, what a ride it is — one that I wouldn’t miss for the world.

What I'm Writing

I have a confession to make—I’m a lazy writer. Remember when you were a kid riding bikes, and you’d eagerly charge up a hill only to give up mid-hump? That’s me. I ride flights of fancy only to burn out before the plane lands safely. My plane usually ends in an almost wreck. And the thing that frustrates me is that I have only the best intentions of finishing my work. But, no, it never goes down like that. Hours, days, occasionally weeks will past before I get this ache that I must finish that draft in order for me to make it to the next day. It gets to be a heavy load that needs doing away with.

It’s deceptively simple, the business of rewriting. Tuck a little here, add a comma there. It ain’t necessarily so. It’s like surgery. Break a vein here, move quick before clotting, scar tissue, fractures, mending heat. In a word, it’s a mess. Rewriting is a lot like this. What sane person wants to relive those moments that you’ve buried years ago? Only writers are crazy enough to do this again and again without the promise of fame and fortune.

There used to be this quiet that came over me whenever I scribbled something in my notebook. It could be an image, something simple like apple core turning brown that sits in the margin of my page looking beautiful and this voice will come out of nowhere saying well aren’t you going to finish that? And what are you really trying to say?

These days I try to quiet those voices some. I’m learning that each of us have our own personality, our own rhythm, and thus, our own way of rewriting. Some of us cannot sleep until they’ve gotten their story almost completely out of their system. I belong more or less to the intuitive lot. I don’t know where the piece is going; I just rock back and forth enjoying the ride, tasting the river. Of course, my breed of writer is the most frustrating for publishers, editors, and agents because it’s hard for us to follow deadlines.

Right now I’m trying to fulfill an end-of-year freelance writing assignment, and whip some of my poems into shape in hopes of putting together a chapbook that would be done if I could just finish a few poems and put them together!!! It had the potential to be a real masterpiece (chuckle.) If I’m steadfast, I’ll have it ready to read at the staff reading next month, Sunday, January 11th .

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Small Presses

As a follow up to my Thursday post, I'm going to list 6 local (and not-so-local) small presses worth noting. This seems like a reasonable thing to do. After the publishing industry "melt down," as some are calling last week's events, it seems like a good time to discuss the power of the small press.

With a small press you can do big things. Of course, you may have to be satisfied with a tinier marketing budget or a steeper climb up the reviews ladder. But you can at least be happy knowing that you're working with a group of individuals who believe in and support your project: your novel, collection of poems, whatever you have. That's why, in this Age of Publishing Troubles, it's really worth supporting the small presses. The holiday season is fast approaching. What better way is there to satisfy your reading pleasure than to help support a small press with the purchase of some books?

Space considerations allow me to mention only six publishers in this post, so this is not an exhaustive list by any means.

Washington Writers' Publishing House This publisher has been around for as long as The Writer's Center. Over the years they've published a lot of people, including Grace Cavalieri, E. Ethelbert Miller and, recently, David A. Taylor. Each year, WWPH runs annual poetry and fiction contests.

Paycock Press
Like WWPH and The Writer's Center, Paycock has been around since the mid-seventies. Rick Peabody, a local legend, is the publisher. Rumor has it that Rick was also the very first WC member back in76. In any case, he's been publishing books (and Gargoyle Magazine) for a very long time. A recent title is Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction by Washington Area Women. But you can find plenty more on their Web site here.

Santa Fe Writers Project. Andrew Gifford publishes SFWP. In the spring of 09 they'll release the anniversary edition of Writer's Center instructor Richard Currey's terrific novel Fatal Light in the spring of 09--the definitive "author's cut" with a really cool cover--but this year they published Orange Prize finalist Pagan Kennedy (a Bethesda native who once, in high school, attended workshops at The Writer's Center).

Vrzhu Press. This is a relatively young press that focuses on poetry. New titles include books by Hiram Larew, Carol Guess, and John Gilgun, and Kim Roberts. See all the titles here. Includes a wonderful blog right here.

Open Letter. This is a new press based out of my home town of Rochester, NY. It's a publisher, connected to the U of R, that specializes in translations. They've already got an impressive roster of books that includes Norwegian author Jan Kjaerstad, Marguerite Duras, and Icelandic Bragi Olaffson (former bassist of The Sugar Cubes--Bjork's band). A very nice Web site is found here. And over at their official blog, Three Percent, they have an interesting reading idea, A Year of Reading, wherein you read as many books as "you pick a literary charity that you want to support in 2009. You sign up to be part of The Year of Readers, get people to sponsor you and just start reading whatever you like." Sound cool? Pop on over to Three percent, here, to learn more.

And finally Tinfish. Based in Hawaii, Tinfish specializes in Pacific Rim poetry, but it's a wide and glorious variety that it offers. Last year I got a CD of a Hawaiian poet reading his poetry with music in the background. The sounds of Hawaii as it were. Tinfish is a nonprofit press founded in 1995 by DC area native Susan Schultz, herself a poet (and she's got a great sense of humor). Find them here.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Whatever Happened to? Larry Woiwode

Another new and semi-regular feature I'd like to introduce here on First Person Plural is "Whatever happened to?" In this feature, we will publish a post on a writer who once was a name but who now has (or seems to have) fallen by the wayside. It happens. Remember Winston Churchill? No, not that Winston Churchill. The other one. The famous American author, a bestseller in his day? I bet you didn't. Wikipedia doesn't know him, which practically means he didn't exist. But in his time he was so big that the Winston Churchill of England, the one everyone remembers, asked him to change his name. His response? You change your name--I'm bigger than you.

Anyway, Larry Woiwode. Woiwode (his surname is pronounced WHY-woody, according to this New York Times article that Leslie Pietrzyk sent me after reading this post--thanks Leslie!) is a North Dakotan who has written eight novels, a book of poetry, and a bunch of essays. His Wikipedia page is rinky dink, and that's both unfortunate and unsurprising given that he's fallen off the radar. Which is exactly why he's the subject of this post. That Wikipedia site deserves to be longer.

I first came across the work of Larry Woiwode as a graduate student in Kansas. The book was a trim collection of stories called Silent Passengers. The first story, "Wanting an Orange," is a meditation on the joys of eating oranges. John McPhee's brilliant history of the orange, Oranges, is at 152 pages a monstrous tome by comparison. As someone who begins each day with a tall glass of OJ, I can't tell you how much I appreciate the richness of pleasure I gain from language like this, from "Wanting an Orange":

Each one, stripped of its protective tissue, as vivid against the purple as a pebbled sun, encouraged you to envision a whole pyramid of them in a bowl on the dining-room table, glowing in the light, as if radiating the warmth that arrived through the windows from the real winter sun.


All the stories in this collection are meditative in the sense that there's a lot of meat on the bone of each sentence. These are not stories that are stripped bare of muscle: these are stories with an extra layer of muscle. Take "A Necessary Nap" as an example. In this story a father comes to the understanding that he's been "trying to supplant his own son." His son is 4 years old. In the movement towards the story's revelation we discover that the family has moved to a remote eastern Montana farm and the boy, Will, has difficulty sleeping; he's absorbing his parents anxieties. Here the boy tries to sleep as the father watches: "He stares into Will's eyes, past irises of interleaved silver and blue, and tries to smile, fighting back an irrational fear that the boy is possessed." The "irises of interleaved silver and blue" is particularly striking, but even in this small passage we gain an inkling of where the story is going. This is a father who cannot understand his son, and therefore fears him in some way.

Woiwode published his first novel at age 28, What I'm Going to Do, I think, and it always humbles me to read of people who've published books when they were younger than I currently am. His Beyond the Bedroom Wall, a real sizzler of a novel, big and fat, sold, according to his Wikipedia site, over 2,000,000 copies! On this Amazon page you can see his books.

Yet few people have ever heard of him. Most recently, in February 2008, Counterpoint published his memoir, A Step from Death, which Publishers Weekly gave a Starred Review. Not bad, not bad. I haven't read it yet, but it's on my list.

My suggestion is for you to pick up Silent Passengers, and if that appeals to you, ride on to the next of his books. He's one not to be missed.



Do you know of a writer who has slipped under the radar? Do you want to reintroduce him or her to the world? Let me know.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

In Praise of Villainy

Last night, while reading Dennis Lehane's terrific new novel, The Given Day, I reached a particularly brilliant stretch of scenes that culminated in a head-on collision between one of the book's "bad" guys--and I'm talking bad as in Super Bad--and one of the book's "good" guys--a guy who's all the more interesting because he's had some run-ins with the law and he's even killed a man. Sounds like your average good guy, no?

The bad guy is a white cop named Eddie McKenna, and the good guy is a black man named Luther Laurence. Up till this point, McKenna was circling Laurence like a hawk circles a mouse before swooping down on it. Laurence had showed up in Boston rather mysteriosly, at least to McKenna's taste, and McKenna suspects foul play. He's right, of course, but we still hate him for being a jerk to Luther. I won't give anything away, but I will say that McKenna shows his true colors in this scene and presents Laurence with an ultimatum. It doesn't look good for him now, Luther Laurence, so I look forward to finding out what happens.

It's the hate in Eddie McKenna that makes him interesting.

The novel is set in 1918 Boston, during the time of a Red scare, flu epidemics, riots, war, and strikes. It's a story rife with conflict, in other words, and I love it! (My only quibble with it, and it's minor really, is that, to paraphrase Ambrose Bierce, there's too much space between the covers.)

Still, I'm reading this thing slowly, savoring it like a piece of milk chocolate on the tongue. Last night's passage reminded me of something that I thought I'd share in today's post. Every piece of fiction, as everyone knows, needs conflict of some kind. But what I was reminded of last night was this: Villains are good, villains are very good. As Washington Post columnist Dan Zak recently pointed out, bad guys are in these days. This is great news, I think, because great fiction is produced by the bad stuff bad guys do in a story.

It may be natural to try to show the "humanity" of all characters in fiction. But let's face it, you can be "human" and also a terrible person. And that's what Lehane has done so well in The Given Day: he's created a character who reminds the reader of a real hate-filled ogre.

What's to note, however, is that McKenna, while bad, is presented as a rounded figure. He's not a buffoonish bad guy, not one-dimensional. He's not the Joker. He's not some of the bad guys in Bond flicks. He wasn't put on this earth to do evil. He's a character who has been shaped by the values--yes, the values--in society to be the bad man he is. And that's the difference between a flat bad guy and a well-rounded bad guy: well-rounded bad guys still reflect the culture they live in. Because they do, they are far more compelling. You recognize them. You've seen them, you've met them.

One thing I haven't written about here, but I suspect I will have to in a future post, is "genre"--as in "genre fiction." A couple years ago, when Lehane published a collection of short stories, Coronado, he was roughed up in reviews for trying to write "literary" fiction. I didn't understand that criticism, and I still don't. Why isn't what Lehane writes literary? Is writing a "bad" guy in your story un-literary?

Genre fiction is often disaraged because its practioners present good guy vs. bad guy scenarios. Sometimes it's terrible to read that stuff, and embarrassingly bad, but this is true of so-called "literary" fiction as well. For my money and time, though, I'm happy to have villains to read about--just as long as I recognize them.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Wednesday Guest Instructor: Adele Steiner

Today's guest is Adele Steiner. The photos you see below are from her Look Ma, "Hands" on Poetry reading, which took place at the Center earlier this fall. Adele Steiner holds a B.A. & M.F.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing (Poetry) (University of Maryland). She's also been a Poet-in-the-Schools for the Maryland State Arts Council; a Veteran Artist in Residence, Georgetown University Hospital; and she is the author of Refracted Love , Freshwater Pearls, and most recently The Moon Lighting. Her work has appeared in Wordwrights, Maryland Poetry Review, Gargoyle, Smartish Pace, Promise, and So To Speak, among others. Here she is.

In my new book, Look Ma, “Hands” on Poetry, I deliberately created writing workshops in which students would be asked to use their five senses to help them learn how to read, understand, and write poetry. In other words, I wanted to get them physically involved in activities and artistic endeavors so that they would have a first-hand experience to write about. You often hear well-known authors advise aspiring writers to “write about what they know” because it is the “up close and personal” experience that provides writers with the kind of raw material that is crucial for crafting the authentic and honest writing that readers crave.

In one of the workshops in Look Ma, for example, I asked some younger students to spend 5-10 minutes enjoying a Tootsie Pop. I then requested that they engage their five senses and relate that experience in a poem. I enjoyed reading about “…crunchy crispy thunder,” a “honey bun” that was “blue, “ and “…looked like a shoe…falling into a mouth.” There were also tales of the moon “…made of popsicles and cherry ice cream,” and readers were advised to “Eat the moon with a spoon.” Another student said that she preferred the candy lollipops with bubble gum (not Tootsie Roll) inside because she could blow bubbles after the candy was gone and, perhaps, blow one “…that’s big enough to take to the purple sky until it pops,” and she falls down into a “purple pool” that she can swim in. As a result, my students didn’t just describe how they ate a Tootsie Pop—They had an experience with the candy that they wove into some magical poems.

Older students really enjoy an experience-oriented workshop as well. Both middle school and high school students jump at an opportunity to participate in my Cloud Poem Workshop. If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to find a student from this age group who wouldn’t like to spend an English period outside on a beautiful day, lying in the grass, and watching clouds go by so that they can use their musings as the inspiration for a poem. In this workshop, I’ve learned that clouds are “shadowy figures…sky crawlers…and climbers.” They are hats “because they cover the sun,” and they are “diamonds shining…, smoke rising…,” and “…pillows sleeping…” because “Clouds show your dreams!”

My new Fusion Art and Creative Writing Workshop for 8-11 Year Olds is a workshop that I’ve been wanting to offer for a while because the entire series of workshops relies on art and art related activities to provide the experiences that students will write about. As an artist in education with the Maryland State Arts Council, I have generally only been able to incorporate one of the workshops listed in this class description into a poetry residency. Time constraints as well as the logistical demands involved in setting these workshops up make it difficult to do much more than that. Students, however, love them.

One student told me that he didn’t want to stop painting with water (in Buddha Board fashion) because he said that all of the different things he was seeing in his brush strokes were giving him so many ideas to write about. “ Black clouds, water turning black and fading” while “rain comes down…” and “swords swish” are just a few of the images from his poem. Another student wanted to create not just one Mandela, but two, because she enjoyed being hypnotized by the art form, especially when she spun it around on her pencil point. Her poem revealed “people sleeping in a circle, standing on each other’s shoulders” and “…singing like a heart.” These students and others responded to these two workshops with some wonderfully creative writing.

Their stories and poems were so good, as a matter of fact, I couldn’t help but think that an opportunity for students to engage in these activities, as well as others like them, in a series of workshops would result in “pure gravy.” Specifically, the Fusion Art and Creative Writing Workshop would “jump start” young writers’ imaginations and provide them with a variety of techniques and tools to help them learn how to invoke as well as sustain the creative process in order to write original and exciting new stories and poems.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Trends in Publishing: Self-Publishing Vs. Traditional Publishing

I'm going to wade into shark-infested waters with this post. I've been thinking about the epic battle between self-publishing and traditional publishing. I've seen arguments from each side. Self-publishers might say: "Traditional publishers don't give authors the time of day. They can't get their foot in the door. No one is even looking! We help them get their foot in the door, get found." Traditional publishers might say: "We've developed a tried and true formula and we know what we're doing, and we're going to keep doing it. Besides, we ARE looking for new writers all the time. The writers just aren't good enough for us."

Who's right? Who's wrong? Well, I'm not going to answer those questions. I'm going to note some things I know and let that stand. Today I'm going to write about self-publishing.

Anyone who picked up last weekend's Washington Post Book World may have seen the two very large ads for iUniverse and AuthorHouse, the two biggest self-publishing companies. iUniverse's ad on page 13 reads: "Discover Tomorrow's Authors Today!" and then proceeds to list a few of its titles. I've not heard of the authors, but I guess that's the reason for the ad. The covers of the books look, well, exactly like professional covers that any publisher might put out. Authorhouse's ad appears on page 5, and it goes like this: "Check out These GREAT READS from exciting NEW AUTHORS." From my perspective, the covers from Authorhouse look better--but I'm not going to judge books by their covers!

What's interesting about these ads is that, in each case, they implore the reading public to go and and find these titles (which is good: it's an ad and that's what ads are supposed to do) and they both note (though again, AuthorHouse notes this better) that you can buy their titles at your local bookstore (but does that mean that the stores will actually carry them or will you have to order them once you get there? More likely the latter). Behind this ad, I will argue, is something aimed directly at writers: Hey, People, we're here for you! Come market your books with us.

There's something nice and cozy about this. Say you've written a book. You've had agents and publishers look at it. Maybe they admire it but say it's not for them, maybe they politely don't admire it at all. Either way, the manuscript sits on your shelf collecting dust. What do you do? Well, it's terribly tempting, I'd imagine, to jump at the chance to run to AuthorHouse or iUniverse and have your book "published"(some might disparagingly say "printed"). After all, don't they advertise in Book World?

But wait. Not so fast. Let's consider something. Have you ever seen a self-published book reviewed in a major newspaper? Probably not--major newspapers rely on the machinery of the publishing business--the agents, publicists, etc.--to get the best books into their hands. I don't know what kind of PR AuthorHouse and iUniverse gives its authors (and there's a big difference between the kind of marketing that gets you paid space in newspapers and PR that gets you free space in newspapers). There were over 400,000 books published alone last year, and a large portion of that number, I'd bet, are self-published. With book review sections dwindling throughout the country and more books to sift through, how can these companies ensure that their titles get reviewed? I'm not sure they can. They rely on paid advertising (and BW is not cheap). By the way, consider the amount of page space used up on those two ads--that's space for 2 or 3 book reviews if the business was doing well. That's really something to consider.

The bottom line may be that distributors are more likely to touch your book if you go the traditional route. And once a traditional distributor works with your book you'll have a better chance at landing a review (presuming that your publisher/publicist is angling for you). Also, exploitation rights--big, big, big--are where you can really get the most "value" out of your book. Traditional publishers may be the way to go on that.

All this is not to say that it's not possible to find your book on the bestseller list with a self-published press. Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass was self-published, as was, apparently, Dickens' A Christmas Carol (Yardley pointed this out in his review of The Man who Invented Christmas in the same Book World). And how can anyone ever forget the gi-normous success of The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield? Self-published until a major publisher realized the thing could make some serious dough.

As I reread this now, I realize that I may be harder on these folks than I am on traditional publishers. (In another post I could discuss traditional publishers more, and I'd no doubt be hard on them too.) But the business is suffering at the moment and I admittedly do side with the traditional presses, particulary the smaller ones who're promoting a truly diverse range of books.


Monday, December 1, 2008

Behind the Scenes: Abdul Ali

As part of its makeover, this blog is going to be doing a semi-regular feature called "Behind the Scenes." In this feature, Writer's Center staff will discuss what they do at the Center and what it's like to work for a small nonprofit. Hint: it's deeply rewarding, but it's also challenging. Not to mention humbling.

Abdul Ali, Managing Editor of The Carousel, seems like the perfect way to begin. After all, our new and improved Carousel was published last month. We're pleased with how it turned out--though we know there are some things we missed (yes, there are typos, and we deeply regret those) and things we'd like to do better next time. But overall, this is what we wanted: a consolidated brochure/newsletter that brings you interesting content plus the workshops. One neat, tidy package. Abdul is a big part of the process that brought the publication to life, and here he is to talk about it:

It all starts with an idea. Let’s take travel, our next issue’s theme, for an example. The floodgates open and I think of all the ways the notion of Travel can connect with The Carousel, The Writer’s Center, and the writing life. It becomes an overnight obsession. That’s right, sweaty rashes, no showers, just brainstorming until the balloon pops. As writers, we tend to see things in layers. Of course, I do. When I think of travel, there’s the physical act of traveling and there’s the mental flight our minds make when we engage a work of literature.

Most of what I do is quite routine until it quietly builds into a supernova, a crescendo. As the deadline looms, emotions erupt, hair falls out, my eyes turn colors (not from alcohol, I promise.) Most of the routine comes in the form of following-up with authors, lots of back and forth e-mails, tracking down potential advertisers. It can sometimes be mind-numbing.

But then there are those moments—twilight ones--when an idea you have for an article or column pops out of the ether, flows through your mouth at a staff meeting, and everyone is on your bandwagon. You immediately e-mail a writer who you know is perfect for this assignment. And, they say “of course, I’d be happy to do it for free” and the rest is a wrap.

Aside from the hours that go into making The Carousel happen. A lot of it is collaborative, such as the design portions, or the conversations that make certain decisions definitive, the editing, the proofing, etc. Or the interns who make great pains to help me with this publication. It’s heartening to see members with a Carousel rolled up under their arm. Or, letting me know what they thought about a particular article. Because so much of what I do is in a vacuum, it’s lovely to hear outside voices. I’ve even created an e-mail account for this reason. It all begins with an idea so if you have any or would like to see yours into print, drop me a line,