Sunday, February 28, 2010

Monday Review: Monika Fagerholm's The American Girl

The American Girl
by Monika Fagerholm
Other Press
Released February 2010
507 pages

Reviewed by Kyle Semmel

In recent years, Scandinavian writers have provided readers around the globe with some interesting novels—novels that, to the overwhelming delight of their publishers, also happen to sell tons of books. Names like Per Petterson (Norway), Henning Mankell (Sweden), and Stieg Larsson (Sweden) come to mind. Go to Stockholm and you can even take a tour of Larsson's "fictional" city. But with the booming worldwide popularity of especially Mankell's and Larsson's detective fiction, the question arises: Is there room for other, less traditional Scandinavian voices to break through in the United States?

That's a question Finnish author Monika Fagerholm's newly released novel The American Girl may soon answer. Widely acclaimed in Europe, Fagerholm, who is part of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, is not yet a household name in the United States. Though her novel Wonderful Women by the Sea (1997) was published in the U.S. and was even shortlisted for the prestigious International IMPAC Literary Award, it's The American Girl and next year's sequel, The End of the Glitter Scene (which has been nominated for Scandinavia's most important literary award, the Nordic Council Literature Prize, and will also be published in English by Other Press), that may truly bring her widespread American recognition.

Or not.

Like many popular Scandinavian novels to reach these shores, The American Girl uses some elements of the mystery genre in its genetic coding. But let me be clear at the outset: this is a book that defies convention and is difficult to categorize. If you think you're picking up a quick, easy beach read—if you think you're picking up a novel modeled on Mankell—well, you're absolutely, definitely not.

At the book's start, the American girl, Eddie de Wire, has drowned in a marsh in the "district," a region near Helsinki populated with some fairly strange, insular characters, and Eddie rapidly becomes part of local lore. Enter Sandra Wärn, Sandra's father—referred to as the Islander—and Sandra's mother, Lorelei Lindberg. They move into the large, mysterious house the Islander builds for Lorelei in the district—"the house in the darker part of the woods." One day Sandra finds a lone girl, Doris Flinkenberg, sleeping at the bottom of their empty swimming pool. Like Sandra, Doris is an odd girl with a troubled past, and Sandra knows that it was "the right time for the first meeting, one of the most important meetings in Sandra's entire life."

This meeting marks the beginning of the girls' friendship--a friendship that serves as the driving force of the novel. Though The American Girl toggles back and forth between characters and scenes—and does so in a way that will challenge you at times—the novel is, ultimately, their story. They are smart, imaginative girls attracted to solving the mystery surrounding Eddie de Wire's death, and together they form a deep bond that is only severed by a tragedy involving one of the girls.

The American Girl is, at its core, not a mystery but a coming-of-age story, a kind of YA novel for grownups, combining the breathless immediacy of young adult literature with the darker knowledge of adulthood you find in, say, the best of Joyce Carol Oates' novels. To be sure, this book is decidedly not a young adult novel. Far from it. It is a sprawling, slowly unraveling narrative that would probably be a slog for young readers. For adults, however, there's much to appreciate. But it remains to be seen if it can generate the kind of hyper-buzz that recent Scandinavian novels have generated here. Still, Monika Fagerholm's is a unique voice that deserves a wider readership.

And with translator Katarina E. Tucker, a past winner of the American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize, her work gets a loving and faithful touch. American readers who prize the pleasure in a good novel told slowly, who chew thoughtfully on the language and the structure of stories told unconventionally, may find in The American Girl a rare treat—to be continued next year in the sequel.

Kyle Semmel is the publications and communications manager of The Writer's Center and administrator of First Person Plural. In addition to his work at TWC, he is a writer and translator (under the name K.E. Semmel) whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, The Washington Post, Aufgabe, The Brooklyn Review, The Bitter Oleander, Redivider, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. His translation of Jytte Borberg's classic Danish story "Englene" will soon appear as "Angels" in The New Renaissance. His interview with internationally acclaimed poet Pia Tafdrup is in the current issue of World Literature Today. For his translations of Simon Fruelund’s fiction, he received a translation grant from the Danish Arts Council.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Series, American Ensemble Theatre, and More

Tonight is American Ensemble Theater's FREE staged reading of Larry Shue's Wenceslas Square, directed by Krista Cowan. This admission-free series is co-sponsored by The Writer's Center. Workshop leader Martin Blank is a co-founder of this theater. You can read a nice write-up in The Washington Post from earlier this week here. The story is in the same article with one of our Bethesda friends Round House Theatre. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Jane Fox Reading Room.

About the Play:
In Larry Shue's dark comedy, an American professor and his student find themselves in danger as they struggle to discover what happened to the rebellious Czech theater movement. Visit their Web site at

Workshop Leader Rose Solari

Rose Solari's poem, "Math & the Garden," will appear in the anthology, Initiate: An Oxford Anthology of New Writing, forthcoming from Oxford University Press and Blackwell Books in November, 2010. In June, Rose will lead a seminar at Oxford's Kellogg College Creative Writing Series, entitled, Divided by a Common Language: Divergent Paths in British and American Poetry. Unfortunately for those here in the DC area, Rose's A Sense of the Whole workshop has already begun.

Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Series

Thanks to Deborah Ager of 32 Poems for sharing this news with me. D.C. area poets wanted:

It's time to apply to the the Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Series.

It takes place Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. in Rock Creek Park, Picnic Area Number 6, during June and July. Two poets are usually featured, reading their original poetry.

TO APPLY to the series, send the following:

5 poems, typed, one poem per page. No one poem longer than two pages.

Name, address, telephone numbers, email on first page of the submission. Name on every page.

Brief biographical note, including publications, readings, literary studies, prizes.

Stamped, self-addressed envelope for reply (for return of poems, add sufficient postage as needed).

NOTE: All manuscripts must be typed. Any form or style of poetry will be considered; selection is made on the basis of the poems submitted. The biographical note is for information only. The director is assisted by a panel of writers in choosing poets.


Rosemary Winslow , Co-Director

Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Series

Department of English

The Catholic University of America

Washington, DC 20064

DEADLINE: Postmarked on or before March 31 of each year.

IF SELECTED, you will read your work at the cabin and receive a small honorarium. If you have books published, you may sell them at the reception. If you live out of town, need a place to stay, an effort is made to provide lodging by the director and Word Works staff.

Pia Tafdrup

And finally, if you're so inclined, my interview with internationally acclaimed Danish poet Pia Tafdrup appears in the new issue of World Literature Today. By the by, there might just be some big news in the offing regarding international writers and TWC. Stay tuned for that!


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Amy Dawson Robertson on Publishing Her First Novel: Miles to Go

Member Amy Dawson Robertson is a native Virginian and graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis. She lives in the Washington DC area and her writing interests include genre fiction, short stories, and graphic novels. She creates strong female characters in action-packed stories drawn on current events. Here she is on getting started writing and publishing her first novel, Miles to Go. Find her online here.

Though my early writing interests tended more toward literary fiction, I knew that I needed a better understanding of the basic mechanics of fiction. Unfortunately, I hadn’t heard about The Writer's Center yet. As a kind of self-directed workshop I decided to write a genre novel. I figured that a plot-centric work would be the ideal vehicle for learning to handle point of view, description, dialogue – all of the fundamentals. It turned out that I was engaged by both my characters and my plot and worked the novel until it was in the best shape I could make it. I thought, Why not try to sell it?

At first, I went the traditional route of sending off query letters to agents. Much too easily discouraged after a few form letter rejections, I contacted The Writer's Center for help on my query letter and synopsis. Working with Barbara Esstman and Noreen Wald improved my submission package dramatically. Unfortunately, I was still unable to gain representation (though I admit giving up fairly quickly). Becoming more aware of the publishing market, I understood that my novel, an action thriller with a gay heroine, was not going to be picked up by a mainstream publisher. So I focused on submitting directly to small presses known to publish gay genre fiction. That did the trick. In November 2008, Bella Books contracted Miles To Go, the first in The Rennie Vogel Intrigue series. The book was released this month.

There are many pluses to working with a small publisher. I was lucky to have Katherine V. Forrest – a true icon in the genre – as my editor. Writing in a niche genre brings with it a very dedicated built-in audience who are hungry for new titles. And it doesn’t hurt that I am actually in a niche within the niche since the predominance of titles are romances and mine is an espionage style thriller.

These days publishers – small and large – are putting less and less money into promoting an author’s work. A small fraction of books and authors are still heavily touted but the rest of us, especially those of us at small presses, are left to fight for attention in a media saturated world. But what opportunity there is now for direct marketing! I am on Facebook, Goodreads, Library Thing, Filedby, Shelfari, She Writes, Yahoo Groups, Delicious – the list of social networking opportunities is seemingly endless. Now if only they weren’t so time consuming that I could sit down and write that next book...

Though I still crave to write the perfect short story, I am having fun with my thriller series. And who knows? It may just turn out that it’s where my strength lies. I would recommend that writers trying to sell their first novel should investigate where it best fits into the market and then develop their pitch strategy from there.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Keep Poetry Sacred: An Interview with Dora Malech

At our Sunday, March 7 Open Door Reading at The Writer's Center, Dora Malech--a Bethesda native and former workshop participant--will join one of our current workshop leaders, Nancy Noami Carlson, for what will be a great, great poetry reading. Here's an interview I recently conducted with Dora. But first, here's Dora's bio:

Dora Malech was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1981 and grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. She earned a BA in Fine Arts from Yale College in 2003 and an MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2005. She has been the recipient of a Frederick M. Clapp Poetry Writing Fellowship from Yale, a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship from the Writers’ Workshop, a Glenn Schaeffer Poetry Award, and a Writer’s Fellowship at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Umbertide, Italy. The Waywiser Press published her first full-length collection of poems, Shore Ordered Ocean, in 2009. The Cleveland State University Poetry Center will publish her second collection, Say So, in late 2010. Her poems have appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Poetry, Best New Poets, American Letters & Commentary, Poetry London, and The Yale Review. She has taught writing at the University of Iowa; Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington, New Zealand; Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. In Fall 2010, she will serve as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence in Poetry for the MFA Creative Writing Program at Saint Mary’s College of California. Her paintings and drawings are represented by The Chait Galleries in Iowa City, Iowa, where she lives. Find her online at

Kyle Semmel: Before I ask about Shore Ordered Ocean, I want to know when you took your workshop(s) at The Writer's Center? Who was your workshop leader(s)?

Dora Malech: I must have “discovered” The Writer’s Center in the mid-nineties, in late junior high school or early high school. My family went to the Chinese restaurant (it used to be called Peking Hunan, but it’s Moongate now) at the other end of the big parking lot from TWC, and when I saw The Writer’s Center, it felt like destiny. Keep in mind that I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and thus prone to interior drama and believing in destiny whenever possible. That said, it truly was exciting to open the doors and discover a place where people were making a life out of what I loved to do, which was write.

I remember the coffee-and-photocopier smell; I remember flipping through the literary magazines and reading contemporary poetry for the first time, really. I bought a copy of Hayden’s Ferry Review and pored over it and eventually ripped out a poem by Jon Pineda that I held onto for years.

I ended up taking a Summer workshop with Rose Solari, and then a Fall workshop with Rose Solari, and so on. In short, I fell in love. Rose was a passionate, sensitive, intelligent, no-nonsense workshop leader. I remember her as being reverent when it came to poetry and irreverent when it came to everything else. I bought her collection of poems, Difficult Weather, and carried it with me everywhere. I underlined and dog-eared and asterixed it up. She was like the high priestess of poetry to me as a teenager: I worshiped the way she carried herself in the world and the way she carried herself on the page. In her presence, poetry was no longer a lofty abstraction; it was a life.

KS: How did your experience at TWC help prepare you for future writing workshops--at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, for example?

DM: Being in writing workshops at TWC, as opposed to English classes at school, taught me to read as a poet, to tune into language and form and image and so forth, as opposed to trying to hack past the language to critique the so-called content. I learned to share my reactions without being proscriptive; I learned that asking good questions is usually more helpful than trying to sound smart; I learned to take criticism and I learned the importance of rigorous revision. I also learned, however, that different writers have different visions of what a poem should “do”, of what a poem “is”, and that we should value that diversity instead of trying to homogenize. Internalizing those lessons at TWC enabled me to be a more constructive workshop participant and, eventually, a more constructive workshop leader.

KS: You've had a lot of success in your career. What would your advice be to young poets who aim to make a life out of writing, reading, and teaching poetry?

Oh, boy. My first impulse when I see the words “success” and “career” is to start self-denigrating, to list the publications that have rejected me, to admit to the great literature that I still haven’t thoroughly read and absorbed, to rail against the adjunct system in American colleges that leaves so many of us underemployed, or benefit-less, or unsure if we’ll have a job from year to year or term to term. That, however, is just my first impulse. Then I take a deep breath, and try to take my own advice, which is the following: don’t blame poetry for the shortcomings of people/things/society. Keep poetry sacred.

Don’t let a rejection slip, or an egomaniacal workshop leader (not at TWC, of course, but they’re out there!), or a snarky blog, or a careerist prize-winner, or a rude editor get between you and the page. The only thing between you and the page is a pen or a pencil. I hope this makes sense; I guess I’m trying to say that if “po-biz” or academia or interpersonal tzurrus or apathy or small-mindedness get you down, which they will, don’t let that poison your relationship with poetry. Easier said than done, I know. But we have to try.

My other piece of advice for young poets is much simpler: read like crazy. Read it all. There are conversations happening on the page that defy time and space; when you read, you enable yourself to enter those conversations. Your world becomes richer and more complicated, and your writing follows.

KS: The poems "Makeup" and "S.O.S."--which, along with many other poems in this collection, explore death--are immediately followed up by a wonderful "birth" poem called "Delivery Rhyme." Can you talk about the writing and the structure of Shore Ordered Ocean? How did you go about putting these poems together?

The book came together much like my poems come together: I don’t force a “theme” or “subject” when I’m generating a poem; I’m more like a hunter-gatherer than a farmer who can cultivate a particular crop. I do, however, eventually step back and look for patterns and threads, rearranging for juxtapositions and maximizing discourse between images and moments of language. With Shore Ordered Ocean, I had a big muddle of individual poems and I tried to let them talk to each other, literally spreading them out on the floor, shuffling and reshuffling. They talked to each other about love and death and family and relationships and war and distance… all kinds of distance. I wrote the poems during a time when I was trying to navigate different kinds of distance: the frustration of being a citizen of a country at war when the media mediates all of the horrors of that war for me; the more straight-forward physical remove of a long-distance relationship. I tried to weave these, and other, distances together to create not a narrative exactly, but perhaps a trajectory or momentum through the collection. I think about that Dylan Thomas line, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”; I hope that that “force” is present in the collection, even if I can’t exactly explain it. I hope there’s at least some resonance, or friction, when birth and death or love and war rub elbows from poem to poem, and within poems as well.

KS: I'm curious about "The Numbers Game." How did you come to write a poem consisting solely of surnames of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq?

When I wrote that poem, I was thinking a lot about the war in Iraq; I was living in New Zealand, so I felt doubly removed from what was being done in the name of my country. I watched the war from a distance, and the Bush administration from a distance, and America from a distance. I struggled with how to make the images and events in newspapers and on television real to me, and then I struggled with my own lack of agency. What did I think my individual empathy could accomplish? I didn’t have an answer and still don’t.

“The Numbers Game” is actually kind of a companion piece to the poem that precedes it in Shore Ordered Ocean, “O-Dark-Hundred”, in which I explore the aforementioned frustrations and doubts. I finished venting in that poem, and obviously, the dead remained. We can’t will them back (or will them away). Mission never accomplished. I felt like my usual “materials” (images, syntax, etcetera) were inadequate, so I just let the names speak for themselves.

Reading the names of the dead aloud is certainly not my own idea; every year, on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, we read the names of the dead. There are readings of the names of service-people who died in Vietnam. There are readings of the names of individuals who have died of AIDS. There is something incantatory about saying those names, even if the incantation can’t possibly “do” what we might hope it could.

KS: This summer, coming full circle, so to speak, you'll be teaching at the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop. Can you tell us about your philosophy of creative writing teaching? What can your students expect?

I’ll be teaching an eight-week Graduate Summer Poetry Workshop through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; usually the Workshop’s courses are open to graduate students only, but undergraduates and non-students can also apply for this summer course. I’ll also be teaching a few workshops through the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I believe in a balance of rigor and nurture in a workshop; a workshop should be a place to take risks and explore new possibilities, to get out of your comfort zone. Of course, to enable participants to take those risks, there has to be a supportive atmosphere and a constructive classroom community. I think that a workshop leader has a responsibility to strive to establish that balance right away, although the participants themselves are ultimately responsible for their own community as well. I try hard to get the ball rolling and then park my ego, allowing my voice to be one of many voices in the room. I think a good workshop requires energy on everyone’s part, but a good workshop also creates energy that propels and informs its participants’ writing even after the workshop itself is over. I’m getting excited already!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


The Writer's Center has formed a partnership with myNeighborsNetwork. TWC members can get free memberships to this unique service (please read below to find out just what you can get). If you're interested in getting your free membership, use the code below. Once you register, we'll just check to make sure your TWC membership is up to date. The following was written by MyNeighborsNetwork founder Sharon Rainey:

It can be tiresome always having to find someone to ask about who they recommend for painting or HVAC help. And it can be even more difficult to find out which dentist or ob-gyn a trusted friend goes to. In a pinch, like a few weeks ago, just finding a snow removal company was a challenge for many!

myNeighborsNetwork offers you more than 10,000 referrals from your neighbors (with their names attached) for the above professions and much, much more; everything from acupuncturists, pediatricians, and yoga instructors.

myNeighborsNetwork also offers community announcements and the latest police and fire information. Our members have notified the network with bank robberies, electrical outages, and road closures.

And one of our favorite sections of the site is the Lost & Found Animals, ranging from the classic cats and dogs, but also including horses, parrots.

We are also fortunate to have participated in the successful find of two missing children.

We have been in the D.C. Metro area since 2003, growing through grass roots referrals of super-satisfied members. Our renewal rate is 85%.

myNeighborsNetwork operates in Montgomery, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties. Sign up today for a free year’s membership to the communities you want to be involved in. There is no catch; you may cancel at any time. Simply enter WC12 in the Gift Code when you sign up. You will be asked for a credit card number (yes, we are a secure site), but the card is NOT charged.

Questions? Feel free to call 703-759-2102. We are happy to help. Take advantage of this wonderful FREE offer and see what YOUR neighbors are talking about!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review Monday: The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel)

Macedonio Fernández
The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel)
(translated from the Spanish by Margaret Schwartz) with a foreword by Adam Thirwell.
Open Letter
Pub Date: February 23, 2010

Reviewed by Luis Alberto Ambroggio

In this extraordinary literary creation, Borges’ mentor, Macedonio Fernández, masters in the reader's playful engagement to games of the word and of the mind beyond literature and metaphysics. One of the great Argentine writers of the twentieth century, Macedonio (as he preferred to be called), wrote this novel (or anti-novel) with an originality and perversity second to none—way ahead of his time and beyond the avant-guard rupture with previous conventions. He redefined the genre and influenced the great literary geniuses among Hispanic-American writers, including Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Ricardo Piglia, and many others.

“Whoever preceded him might shine in history," Borges wrote, "but they were all rough drafts of Macedonio, imperfect previous versions. To not imitate this canon would have represented incredible negligence.”

The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel) is structured as a challenge to realism, to logic, and to structure itself, as if the author intended to demolish the sense of fluidity of a normal novel and its aesthetic tendency towards realism and the solemnity of style. Instead, we (the readers) are forced (as well as intelectually seduced) to immerse ourselves in continual digressions and discussions on the roles of authors, readers, critics, characters, theories on genres, etc., as if these topics were objects which are acquired and kept in a Museum. This Museum is also, as Adam Thirlwell writes in the foreword, a “laboratory for investigating whether every philosophical question can be observed through the condition of falling in love.”

Museum starts by offering over 50 prologues with a wide range of themes: mortality and eternity; perspective and the viscitudes of the author (including authorial despair); critics; context; non-existence; and so on. Many of these themes have digressions containing dedications, salutations, and narratives on whether readers should accept or reject a chracter in an elaborate effort to playfully frustrate and challenge.

Following the prologues are twenty chapters concerning a group of characters (some borrowed from other texts) who live on an estancia called "la novella." Three sets of lovers (Eterna and the President; The lover—Deunamor—and his anonymous lover; and Maybegenius and Sweetheart) in different settings exemplify or put into practice or reason the so-called concept of “todoamor,"—“totallove"—which overcomes what the world calls death, merely “hiding/ocultación” in Macedonio’s vocabulary. He writes: “I do not believe in the death of those who love nor in the life of those who do not love.”

Thus the only death possible and present in this novel is the academic death of the characters. Critics have suggested that the long process of writing this novel from 1925 until his death in 1952 was Macedonio’s attempt to fight his pain and fear following the untimely death of his wife, Elena de Obieta, in 1920.

The translator, Margaret Schwartz, Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, has done an outstanding job translating Macedonio’s baroque, convoluted prose, complicated language, and invented words, preserving his unique voice. The quality of her translation no doubt comes from her time spent in Argentina prior to and under a Fulbright fellowship in 2004, her first-hand familiarity with living in the literary circles of Buenos Aires, and her meticulous research on the life and work of Macedonio Fernández. This is more meritorious when, in her own words, she is translating “someone who deliberately tangles his words, uses antiquated language, and who writes at the speed of thought, without regard for syntax and punctuation.” But even more so, I might add, because Macedonio Fernández is a genius like Cervantes and Kafka—who not only created their own language but masterfully caused the unpredictable methamorphosis of the genre.

Luis Alberto Ambroggio, a member of the North-American Academy of the Spanish Language, is Writer's Center workshop leader and an internationally known Hispanic-American poet born in Argentina. He is the author of eleven collections of poetry. His poetry and essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines (including Passport, Scholastic, International Poetry Review, and Hispanic Culture Review), poetry anthologies (DC Poets Against the War, Cool Salsa), textbooks (Paisajes, Bridges to Literature, Voices: Breaking Down Barriers) and award-winning electronic collections of Latino Literature (Alexander Street Press). Recently, another Writer's Center workshop leader, Yvette Neisser Moreno, edited his Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems. You can read a review of that book here.

He can be reached at

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Member News

First off, thanks to our great new receptionist Zachary Fernebok for putting together this new First Person Plural layout. What do you think? The design across the banner is by another great new staff member, publications & communications coordinator Maureen Punte. Incidentally, it's been such a busy day that we've not yet completed the overhaul. That white space up above will soon be fixed.

Note a couple of new blogs FPP is following. The Real Writer and Embarking on a Course of Study.

Second, Story/Stereo tonight. One small adjustment to the schedule. Andrew Beierle will read instead of Steve Fellner (who is ill). J. Robbins and Marianne Villanueva will join him, as scheduled. 8p.m. And it's free!

The new Web site is looking really good (and I mean We saw the initial designs yesterday and we're all super excited. More on that later.

News flashes: I'd just like to point out this Newshour interview with Writer's Center member James McGrath Morris, author of the new biography Pulitzer: a Life in Politics, Print, and Power.

And check out these great events going on at the Southeast Neighborhood Library in DC all this month--in honor of Black History Month. Tonight, for example, is an Open Mic.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Remembering Lucille Clifton

Poetry lovers were saddened to hear of the recent death of Lucille Clifton, a poet long-active in the community (and native of Buffalo, NY). Merrill Leffler, a poet and editor of Dryad Press, emailed a letter to Grace Cavalieri after her passing, and Grace was moved to forward it to many friends. We’re posting the letter, with Merrill’s permission, for today’s blog entry. Lucille Clifton read at The Writer's Center in 1979. See photo to the left. (This event also featured Tom Jones, The First Washington Poetry Quartet, Linda Pastan, Edward Weismiller, Elisavietta Ritchie, Roland Flint, Robert Zelenka, Sterling Brown, Ann Darr, Henry Taylor, Rod Jellema, Deirdra Baldwin, and Susan Sonde.)

I just turned on my computer and there was your message about Lucille's death. A large woman in more ways that I can say -- I didn't know Lucille well at all, only through her poetry. She took part in a couple of workshops I did at St. Mary's -- we spoke in passing; then there was the Maryland poet laureates fest at UM, and a couple of other times.

You didn't ask but I'll mention this: I first heard Lucille read her poems in the spring of 1969 -- I think it was at GW and I went with Rod [Jellema]because of Carolyn Kizer who may have been instrumental in arranging the reading and perhaps getting the manuscript to Vintage for the book that was to come -- I don't remember. How could I not be taken by the poems themselves and Lucille's presence and voice. They were new! Of course she had a wholly distinctive voice. Not long afterwards, Ann [Slayton] and I left for England, August 1969, for a year at Oxford that turned into three. It must have been sometime in late 1970 that I was in a used bookstore in London and miraculously, it seemed then, happened on Good Times on the shelf. I didn't even know it had been published. What a joy to read the poems I had only heard one time! I wound up writing an essay-review of eight books, "O Children Think about the Good Times" for Dryad 7/8 (1971), opening with Lucille's, then going on to books by Raymond Carver, Robert Mezey, and several other poets. So here's the piece, though again, you didn't ask for it.

"O Children Think About the Good Times"
when I watch you
you wet brown bag of a woman
who used to be the best looking gal in Georgia
used to be called the Georgia Rose
I stand up
through your destruction
I stand up

("Miss Rosie")

Lucille Clifton's Good Times has an energy, which is difficult to describe. There are not many poems, less than forty, all short, and it takes little time to read through. They are still there when you are finished. Very few drift or blur one into another; they press themselves and hearing Mrs. Clifton speak then wakens you again to the realization that poetry, oral poetry, can alter your sensibilities; that words have the power for affecting beyond the moment, that in their vigor and health, they genuinely convey the primacy of the active will. In the midst of an America where whatever side you choose to find yourself, as Louis Simpson writes, "standing against the wall," how is it these poems manage their positiveness? It is not enough to say that they are celebrations. They inhale the city and they inhale the south; they inhale the past and we sense the deep breath of that past in the present; they are the poems of a woman, a daughter, a mother, of a human being in America who is -- inseparably -- black; who is proud and bitter, compassionate and angry, who is a poet, who is all of these roles in one and shrinks from none.

To describe these poems as celebrations is not to imply a poetry of joy; the under-riding pathos negates that. "My Mama moved among the days/ like a dreamwalker in a field":

She got us almost through the high grass
then seemed like she turned around and ran
right back in
right back on in.

So does the sculptural concreteness of daddy:

My daddy's fingers move among the couplers
chipping steel and skin
and if the steel would break
my daddy's fingers might be men again.

The city, the "inner city,' is no place you live simply to survive. Survival is no longer the question: that's been proved.

If i stand in my window
naked in my own house
and press my breasts
against my windowpane
like black birds pushing against glass
because I am somebody
in a New Thing
. . .
let him watch my black body
push against my own glass . . .

I could go on quoting. These poems impact with a power in an exuberant voice -- they are direct and directness is wrought from a language that is, at the same time, simple and sophisticated: from the repetitiveness of endings to the confident handling of metaphors (i.e., "my daddy's fingers"). Mrs. Clifton's poems have that unique expressiveness of a life -- not as it should be lived, not as it is hoped to be lived -- that is being lived. It is an expressiveness that seems the extension, the creation, of self. It is a joy to be able to share.

If you'd like to hear Lucille Clifton reading from her work, click here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Opportunities for Writers

A quick post today to let you know of a couple opportunities for writers. First, as announced here before, Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Urban Partnership are holding their annual short story/essay contest. The deadline for this is approaching (Feb. 26). For complete guidelines, click here.

And the Santa Fe Writers Project, who has long had a literary awards program, is now branching off to having a screenplay contest. In fact, they're offering both this year. For more information on those contests, click here.

Monday, February 15, 2010

From the Ashes: Using Words to Inspire Youth

by Jenny Chen

JJ Express Magazine

I was quite the prolific writer as a kid, filling entire Whole Foods bags with my scribbling about boarding school girls, orphans sent to battle mythical creatures, and detective shorts. Since my efforts were acknowledged by a smattering of youth awards and publications, I aimed my sights higher – my dream was to be published in Cricket Magazine. Cricket is a high-quality literary magazine for children. The late Lloyd Alexander sat on its Advisory Board…this was the real deal.

As a 10-year-old, I sent off a manuscript into the unknown land of New Hampshire to begin what I was sure would be an illustrious career as a writer. Then I waited, and waited, and waited. Nearly a year later, a letter arrived. I opened it up – inside was my unopened manuscript and a rejection letter.

The letter read, “We’re sorry, we don’t publish student work.”

I was crushed.

There had to be some way, I told my brother, for youth to be published alongside adults. I was frustrated that youth work were always relegated to magazines specifically for young people – like Creative Kids – or in the back of a magazine somewhere. There had to be something we had in common.

In taking out the recycling for my mom, it hit me. Change. More specifically, social change. People young and old, rich and poor, were all affected by issues like pollution, discrimination, and poverty. If there’s one thing that all people have in common, it’s the desire to see a better world for us and for our children.

The idea stewed in my mind and didn’t really take hold until I was a junior in high school and I started doing research for my Humanities and Arts Senior Independent Project – on picture books and comics. Comics were a powerful, timeless art form that combined both words and images in an almost alchemical way.

Spurred by this thought, I contacted several artists about my idea. The Managing Editor of New Moon Magazine for Girls at the time, Lacey Louwagie, answered the myriad questions that I had about everything from layout to editing. I enlisted the help of my brother who had the artistic skills I did not possess. We received a $1,000 start-up grant from Youth Venture

And that was how JJ Express Magazine – a quirky little publication that resists categorization – was born. We use comics to inspire youth to create social change.

It isn’t a comic book – because the comics inside are illustrated by artists from all over the world and in all different styles. Within one issue, you can find manga and Dick Tracy style back to back. It obviously isn’t a bread and butter literary magazine. It probably can only be described as an anthology of sorts for children.

True to our founding mission to involve everybody – all ages, all backgrounds, all walks of life, I have had the opportunity to work with artists from Brazil, Vietnam, France, and some just from Maryland. Some are students, some are professionals, and some are just life-long dabblers in the cartoon arts. We’ve received grants and awards from Youth Venture, the Best Buy Foundation, and the Disney Minnie Grant Foundation. We currently circulate magazines all over Montgomery County.

Today, I stay up late at night listening to the outside chatter of college students die down as the drift off sleepily to bed while I layout the latest issue, chat with an artist in France, and answer mail from readers. I love every second of it.

And to think – all this came from the stubborn dreams of a young girl who just wanted to be a writer.

Jenny Chen is currently a freshman at Colby College.

Monday Review: Towers of Gold

Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California

By Frances Dinkelspiel
376 pages (paperback)
St. Martin’s Griffin, New York
Published January 2010

Reviewed by Linda Singer

With sumptuous description and meticulous detail, Frances Dinkelspiel traces the exciting history of California through the biography of her great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman. Born in Reckendorf, Bavaria in 1842, Isaias’s multi-layered life allows us a close view of the pioneers whose skilled determination and personal risk-taking were critical to the early development and formative years of the State of California.

Because they are Jews, Isaias and his younger brother Herman leave Reckendorf seeking refuge from European persecution, first in Los Angeles and later in San Francisco, where they find comfort and safety in places where no attention is given to religion. Both brothers become large benefactors to synagogues in northern and southern California and continue throughout their lives to be socially, economically, and politically involved organizing and acting as leaders of these newly founded Jewish communities.

Between the years 1859 when a penniless Isaias Hellman arrives in Los Angeles and 1910 when he becomes, as Dinkelspiel puts it, “a major investor and promoter of at least eight industries... banking, transportation, education, land development, water, electricity, oil, and wine...,” Isaias amasses a fortune worth approximately $38 billion in today’s currency. The intricacies of his numerous business dealings and the diversity of his friends and financial partners leaves one’s head reeling.

Personal as well as public image was very important to Isaias Hellman. More importantly, he was a family man with high principles and enormous integrity. Numerous times, and often at serious personal risk, he stood up to his foes as well as his friends to stabilize a vulnerable infant economy. Repeatedly he contributed huge sums of his own fortune to bolster, improve, protect, and grow California’s economy while mobilizing his peers to do likewise.

How monumental the task undertaken by Dinkelspiel to assemble overwhelming amounts of data accumulated from stacks of letters, diaries, and cartons to reconstruct this larger than life man.

At times it is a bit difficult to keep all the “players” straight. Their vast fortunes, complex business transactions, frequently changing personal interactions, and alliances are nearly impossible to grasp and hold onto as one weaves through the very fabric of early California politics and economics. Nonetheless, this is an exceptionally well-documented and eloquently written biography of a key figure in the history of the state; a superb read, especially if California is near and dear to your heart.

Find the book here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Workshop Leader Sue Ellen Thompson Wins Maryland Author Award

Congratulations to workshop leader Sue Ellen Thompson. Her next workshop at The Writer's Center will be Syntax as Strategy beginning on March 7. Here's the word from the official release:

Sue Ellen Thompson of Oxford, Maryland has been selected to receive the 2010 Maryland Author Award from the Maryland Library Association. The award is presented annually to recognize a Maryland author for his or her “body of work”.

Sue Ellen Thompson is a graduate of Middlebury College, Vermont (B.A.) and The Bread Loaf School of English (M.A.). Her first book of poems, This Body of Silk, was awarded the 1986 Samuel French Morse Prize. A second volume, The Wedding Boat, was published in 1995 and a third, The Leaving: New and Selected Poems, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. A fourth volume, The Golden Hour, was also nominated for a Pulitzer in 2006. Her work has been included in the Best American Poetry series, read on National Public Radio, and featured in U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s nationally syndicated newspaper column. She recently edited The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry.

Ms. Thompson was the 1982 National Arts Club Scholar in Poetry and the 1987 Robert Frost Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. She has taught at Wesleyan University, Middlebury College, Binghamton University, and Central Connecticut State University. She currently lives in Oxford, MD and teaches at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda.

Ms. Thompson will be presented with the award on April 22, 2010 at the annual conference of the Maryland Library Association in Ocean City, MD.

The Misfortune of Kings: A Play by Member Thomas Mason

Check out this play by member Thomas Mason. (Note the date is now February 22.)

The Washington D.C. Playwrights Forum will sponsor a public reading of my new play "The Misfortune of Kings" at St. Mary's Armenian Church in Washington D.C. If not for The Writers Center I do not think my writing would have progressed to the point where another organization would have taken such a serious interest in it. To The Writer's Center I will always be grateful!

Anyone who is interested in attending, feel free to come on down. The contact information is below.

Play: The Misfortune of Kings by Thomas Mason, Jr.

Directed by Catherine Aselford

Synopsis: Johnny Williams, a rising young superstar, is forced into a desperate struggle with the president of the Red Hawks baseball team, Charles McDaniels, over his fight to obtain better treatment for his long-time friend and mentor.

Time: 7:00 PM, Monday February 22

Location: St. Mary's Armenian Church (off of Wisconsin Avenue, several blocks from the Friendship Heights or Tenleytown metro stations), 4125 Fessenden Street N.W., Washington D.C. 20016

$3 Donation Requested at the door


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

David Keplinger & Myra Sklarew: Art in a Post-Holocaust World

From the good folks at American University:

Survival in the Aftermath: Art in a Post-Holocaust World

Wednesday, February 17

6:30 to 8 p.m.

Bender Library MUD Box

With AU Professors Myra Sklarew and David Keplinger and University of Ostrava (Czech Republic) Professor Stanislav Kolar, the panel will present readings of poetry and a discussion on stories and books by survivors including Paul Celan Miklos Radnoti, Viktor Frankl, Arnost Lustig, as well as Jewish American writers and the children of survivors, while investigating the links between writing, survival, and memory.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Story/Stereo Rocks Bethesda with Emerging Writers, J. Robbins of Jawbox, February 19

Story/Stereo, The Writer’s Center’s showcase emerging writer event, rocks Bethesda on February 19th. Indie Rocker J. Robbins (Jawbox, Burning Airlines), who recently reunited with his band Jawbox on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, joins Emerging Writer Fellows Steve Fellner (All Screwed Up) and Marianne Villanueva (Mayor of the Roses) at this one-of-a-kind event that merges the musical and literary arts.

When: Friday, February 19, 8:00 P.M.

Where: The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815

Admission: FREE. Contact 301.654.8664 or visit

Story/Stereo can be found at 

About the Emerging Writer Fellows:

Steve Fellner is the author of the memoir All Screwed Up (Benu Press) and a poetry collection (Marsh Hawk Press). He currently teaches at SUNY Brockport in western New York State. He blogs at

Marianne Villanueva is the author of Mayor of the Roses. She is a former Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford, and has been writing and publishing stories about the Philippines and Filipino Americans since the mid 1980s. Her critically acclaimed first collection of short fiction, Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (Calyx Books 1991) was short–listed for the Philippines’ National Book Award. Her work has been widely anthologized. Her story, “Silence,” first published in the Threepenny Review, was short–listed for the 2000 O. Henry Literature Prize, and “The Hand” was awarded first prize in Juked’s 2007 fiction contest. She has edited an anthology of Filipina women’s writings, Going Home to a Landscape, which was selected as a Notable Book by the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. She currently teaches writing and literature at Foothill College and Notre Dame de Namur University. She blogs at

About J. Robbins:

J. Robbins began his career as a bassist for Government Issue, and has also led four of his own bands: Jawbox, Rollkicker Laydown, Burning Airlines, and Channels. He was a touring bassist for Scream and played bass on the debut 7" from Jack Potential, which was issued by DeSoto Records in 1993. He is also a successful producer and engineer for bands such as Ponytail, Clutch (and sideproject The Bakerton Group), Jets to Brazil, Hey Mercedes, Shiner, The Life and Times, Miranda Sound, Time Spent Driving, Faraquet, The Dismemberment Plan, The Monorchid, The Promise Ring, Dwindle, Pilot to Gunner, None More Black, Jawbreaker, Against Me!, Goodbye Soundscape, Modern Life is War, Murder By Death, MewithoutYou, and Nakatomi Plaza. [From Wikipedia]

See J. Robbins on NPR's Project Song here.

About Story/Stereo:

What is Story/Stereo? It’s the headline event for The Writer’s Center’s “Emerging Writer Fellowships.” Each year, following a nationwide application process, a special committee selects these really great up-and-coming writers. We then invite them to The Writer’s Center, and we give them the stage with the best local bands Story/Stereo’s musical curators, Chad Clark (Beauty Pill) and Matt Byars (The Caribbean), can find. Basically, it’s a monstrous, lovely hybrid: a reading with music. Where else can you find that? And even better: it’s FREE. Visit the event’s Web site at

What people are saying about Story/Stereo:

“I experienced a trilogy of stirring art: a snippet of wonderful new fiction read by Alexander Chee, an introduction to the extraordinary poems of Srikanth Reddy, and stirring music by the two brothers who make up the band Bluebrain. Each event alone was worth hearing, but to have this mix together made the evening a resounding trifecta of brilliance, inspiration and creativity that uplifted in the way all good art does. What is StoryStereo? An evening not to be missed.” —Eugenia Kim, Writer’s Center member and author of The Calligrapher’s Daughter.

“I had a wonderful time participating in Story/Stereo—from the warm welcome I received to hearing Neil Smith read from his novel, from Howard Norman’s introductions to hearing the Roofwalkers and their rendition of my poem – I am so pleased to have been part of this series' debut.”—Suzanne Frischkorn, Emerging Writer Fellow and author of Lit Windowpane.

Leesburg First Friday--in March--with C.M. Mayo

More craziness during snow week. Here's some news for next month. (By then the snow should be gone, right?)

March 5, 2010 Leesburg VA

"Staying Focused: Researching and Writing the Longer Book Project"

C.M. Mayo to talk about what she learned in writing her novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire and her travel memoir, Miraculous Air, with plenty of Q & A.

To finish the marathon of writing a long book, more than talent, more than free time, more than anything, in fact, a writer needs mental toughness to avoid the myriad distractions, damaging self-talk, frustrations, and sometimes just plain old boredom along the way. C.M. Mayo, a long-time Writers Center workshop leader and author of several books, including a deeply researched travel memoir and, most recently, an epic historical novel based on the true story (and many years of original archival research), offers tips, tricks and more to inspire you to start, stay with, and finish your book. Register for this event here.

Her next workshop at The Writer's Center is Dialogue Intensive Techniques beginning March 7.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Snow Week!

This week might be a strange week on this blog. Because of all this snow--whether you're calling it Snowmageddon, snowpalooza, or whatever--I'm stuck at home in DC and unable to get to my office. Which means regular features like the Monday Review won't be happening this week. Look for those to return in earnest next week.

I do hope things return to normal. Over on The Writer's Center's Facebook page we had a nice, snowy thread going: What books do you know that feature snow in some manner? One person mentioned The Shining. Let's hope it doesn't get that bad!

If you've not become a fan of The Writer's Center on Facebook, you should do so. Then join the conversation.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Friday Discovery: dirtcakes

Today we have Catherine Keefe, founding editor of a brand new journal called dirtcakes. (You may recognize the name: she reviewed Christopher Buckley's poetry on the blog Monday.) Do you know what dirtcakes are? I didn't until I read this piece.

Once when I was an intern at a small poetry press, I attended a Grantmakers Forum in Port Hadlock, Washington. Nonprofit group representatives who had appealed to the Jefferson County Community Foundation could observe the debate which would ultimately result in a $1,000 grant.

At the first coffee break, a man smiled as we both reached for green grapes, accidentally bumping knuckles. He read my name tag. The poetry press was printed in bolder type than my name.

“How can you even think about being here when all you do is print poetry? There are people going hungry every day. Why should you get any money until everyone is fed?”

I withdrew my smile, dropped the grapes and turned away from the stranger, mumbling something profound like, “I don’t know.”

Truth be told, that question persistently simmers with answers splattering out in odd and ungraceful ways.

“If this magazine gig doesn’t work, I’ll go spend my spare time at the soup kitchen!”

I hurled this line, as if a threat, at a colleague after a particularly contentious English department meeting at the small university in California where I teach part-time. I had once again been denied the possibility of housing my nascent little journal under its institutional shingle. The irony, lost on all who don’t know me, is the fact that I do spend countless hours working with the disenfranchised homeless within my community.

“So why bother starting this journal which will only cost, never make, money plus suck dry your time?”

This question followed me out of the meeting, into my car, and back down the freeway. This question moved into my office and remains obstinately hunched behind my writing desk.


I wonder what kind of arrogant thing it is to spend any moments with words and art when someone somewhere dies of starvation every day, every hour, every minute.

The top volume on my bed stand stack is the Fall, 1978 TriQuarterly 43 titled “The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History.” Within its pages of essays, letters, and photo-documents is an attempt - according to then-editors Elliott Anderson and Mary Kinzie - to explore the “phenomenon of little magazines.” What is plain in its 750 pages of essays, memoirs and photo-documents from editors of small literary endeavors is one recurring theme expressed eloquently by Salmagundi editor, Robert Boyers:

“The function of the little magazine is, must be, to serve to erect and stand by principles of intelligent and imaginative discourse.”

I am not a politician, not a business entrepreneur, not a monk, not a soldier, not asleep. I am a human being writer and words are the tools I best wield to ignite “intelligent and imaginative discourse.”

I learned about dirtcakes, the thing, long before the giant earthquake tumbled Port-au-Prince. Dirtcakes are a staple in Haiti, a handmade stomach filler concocted from soil, water, and a little vegetable oil. Sometimes they are produced in single family batches. Sometimes they are made to sell.

“How much you don’t know about the world,” I thought of myself when my friend returned from Haiti years ago with the story about this fare. I wrote the thing - dirt cakes - as two words on a yellow sticky note where it clings still to the globe on my desk.

That such a thing as dirtcakes exists speaks volumes about unimaginable poverty, but also about resilience. It represents the irrepressible human force to do something with whatever meagerness is at hand to fill a gap, even if that stuffing is more about quieting the gnaw than nourishing the bones.

Within the act lies a stubborn fist rising and held up against despair, against all odds.

Within that fist lies sustenance for tomorrow.

Like any kitchen alchemy, there is something miraculous about the way dirt is just dirt and water is just water until correctly proportioned with a smidge of fat, patted, and formed by an attentive hand.

I am attempting the same type of transmutation, to create dirtcakes as a place where soul victuals are offered and made palatable by elegantly abutting words and images, hoping for a synergistic awakening of thought. It is this stirring which I believe precedes the movement of hands toward any acts of compassion.

dirtcakes, with its focus on themes suggested by the UN Millennium Development Goals to end extreme poverty by 2015, is a place to simultaneously remember the disaffected and a place to discover we are all, in some way, others.

Years before Alejandro Amenábar’s film, The Others, decades before The Others of Lost, there existed a little literary magazine called Others: A Magazine of the New Verse. Published between 1915 and 1919 under the editorial direction of Alfred Kreymborg, it became something of a hearth for the modernist poetry movement.

The book right under TriQuarterly 43 on my bed stand is The Little Magazine Others and the Renovation of Modern American Poetry. Here is the folded-over page where author Suzanne Churchill writes, “The little magazine was not just a stage for artistic innovation; it was also a locus of social change.” On Churchill’s book cover is reprinted the front cover of Others' January 1919 issue. “THE OLD EXPRESSIONS ARE WITH US ALWAYS AND THERE ARE ALWAYS OTHERS.”

Something in the wording of this reminds me of the lines from Matthew’s gospel. “The poor will always be with us.”

If the poor will always be with us, then one person’s hunger will always be with us. Yes, and in (re)spite of that, beauty must always be with us too. For it is from the couch of beauty that we can more easily recognize dreadfulness, and where we must be allowed to retreat.

With wisdom gleaned from the little magazines which came before, and in the spirit of Others, I birth my response to the man at the Grantmaker’s Forum and the colleague who questioned spending precious resources publishing art and literature.

dirtcakes is currently accepting submissions for The Hunger Issue.

Deadline is February 20.


Catherine Keefe is the founding editor of dirtcakes. She teaches meditation classes at a shelter for battered mothers and chops onions and potatoes for soup to feed the homeless. Her essays, columns, and interviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, and national special interest publications. She teaches writing at Chapman University in Orange, CA, and is at work on flight, a book of poems.

The Difficult Beauty of Translation: An Interview with Yvette Neisser Moreno

As readers of this blog may know, translation and international literature are near and dear to my heart. As readers may not know, The Writer's Center offers translation workshops taught by Yvette Neisser Moreno, the Pushcart-nominated poet/translator of Luis Alberto Ambroggio's Difficult Beauty. (Incidentally, since Yvette introduced him to us, we've also brought Luis into the fold as a workshop leader. He teaches a poetry workshop exclusively in Spanish.)

Kyle Semmel: In your translation of Ambroggio’s Difficult Beauty, there’s a beautiful poem called “Conversation” that would probably ring true for any writer: “I know how it hurts to be tortured by words,/ to use them, to live insufficiently in their weak outlines,/ to want to eat them again, convinced they will taste of needles.” When a writer writes, it’s obviously a matter of finding the exact right word. For translators the process is really the same—though textured by an extra layer of cultural and linguistic skin. What advice would you give to a young translator?

That’s kind of a tough question. In my translation workshops here at The Writer’s Center, I spend about six weeks answering that question!

The best brief answer I can give is to spend the time trying to find the exact best word or phrase for every key word that you translate. This is especially true for poetry. Literary translation is not to be rushed through—take your time to dwell in the words of the original language, and then take the time to dwell in the possible ways to convey the meaning in the target language. When I’m translating from Spanish to English, I find a good English thesaurus indispensable.

KS: Though you are the translator for the majority of the poems, some poems are translated by other translators (including Writer’s Center workshop leaders C.M. Mayo and Naomi Ayala). Can you talk about the collaborative process of working, as editor, with so many translators? What if you disagreed on the translation of a line, for example?

I didn’t actually collaborate with most of the translators, but I did have the chance to collaborate with Naomi Ayala in editing her translation of “The Poem Bodies Make,” which was a real treat, as Naomi is one of my favorite poets. In this case, the editor at Cross-Cultural Communications, the book’s publisher, had pointed out to me some aspects of the translation that he wanted me to revise. I then went through the (English) poem carefully and made notes for Naomi of how I thought those issues might best be addressed. Then we sat down together and went through it line by line, discussing options, brainstorming, and then coming to agreement. It was fun and very interesting!

KS: In the Ambroggio translations there is an admixture, to me, of playfulness, sexuality, and social critique. This may reflect the range of translators, perhaps, and Ambroggio has many books. How did you determine which poems to include, which to leave out? The poems demonstrate significant range, in other words. For readers unfamiliar with Ambroggio’s work, how would you describe it? What should they look for or expect to find in his poetry?

That’s very true—Ambroggio has an incredible range of topics and styles in his poetry. Sometimes it is hard to believe from one page to the next that you are reading the same poet. This is partly because his writing style has changed over the years, and Difficult Beauty covers a period of 20 years.

What readers should expect to find in this book are all the features you mentioned—an appealing sense of humor, poems of love and sexuality, poems about social issues—as well as beautiful lyric poems, poems about the human condition, about human relationships, about death… What you will encounter is a poet fully engaged with the world around him at the macro and micro levels—a poet concerned about what happens in all parts of the world, and also who is moved by the flight of hummingbirds. You will find moments of surprising tenderness and beauty, moments of social outrage, of political commentary, of musings on ancient myths. You will encounter short lyric poems and long prosaic poems. You will find wisdom and insights, and beautiful language.

KS: To shift to your own work, you’re also an emerging poet in your own right. How has your translation work inspired or influenced your own poetry writing?

First, reading good poetry—and translating is a form of very close reading—often inspires my own poetry.

Second, the play of words and attention to words required in translation may indirectly influence my own poetry, as the words I use and discover while translating get stored in my head and added to my poetry “word bank” if you will.

And finally, one of the reasons I encourage young poets to translate is that by translating you get to try out a style of writing that might be different from your own. You get to take on a new, different voice. The words in the translated poem, to some extent, become your own. So, while I can’t trace a direct influence from Ambroggio’s poetry to my own, I do think the experience of translating has probably influenced the way I write.

Can you tell us a little bit about your poetry translation workshop here at The Writer’s Center? What should participants expect when they take it? How much of a foreign language do they need to know?

I LOVE teaching the poetry translation workshops. In the first session or two, I give an overview of the various approaches to translation used by well-known translators, as well as the major issues that one has to consider when translating poetry. Then we usually look at a few different translations of the same poem as a way to see how a translator’s choices can impact the poem’s effect in English. And I typically do a translation exercise where I ask all the students to do their own “translation” of the same poem. (To find out how I do this when the students don’t always know the same languages…you’ll have to sign up for the class.)

After these introductory sessions, I run the workshop very similarly to other types of creative writing workshops, in that we spend most of our class time reading and discussing students’ translations, and giving suggestions for improvement/revision. Students choose which poet/poems they want to translate.

Also, I’d like to point out that I teach two different versions of this workshop: the Spanish-English translation workshop (which will start this month) and the general poetry translation workshop, in which students can translate from any language into English.

In the Spanish-English workshop, obviously we focus on these two languages only. The emphasis is on translating from Spanish to English (my specialty), but students are also welcome to translate from English to Spanish. In this workshop, we have the opportunity to delve more deeply into the two languages and how they are used in poems.

In the general translation workshop, English is the only common language among the students, so we concentrate mostly on the English translations, with context about the original language provided, as needed, by the student-translator.

For both workshops, however, anyone who can read a foreign language with the help of a dictionary is welcome. My personal experience has been that the act of translating itself can improve your knowledge and comprehension of a language.

Finally, I’d like to mention that students can expect to be part of a diverse and fascinating group of classmates, from whom I always learn as much as they learn from me.

Yvette Neisser Moreno is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The International Poetry Review, The Potomac Review, Tar River Poetry, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Her translation (from Spanish) of Argentinian poet Luis Alberto Ambroggio’s Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems was published by Cross-Cultural Communications in May 2009. In addition to working as a professional writer/editor, Moreno teaches poetry and translation at The Writer’s Center and has taught poetry in public schools in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hard Wins: An Interview with Matt Bell (Part II)

Here's the conclusion to the interview with Matt Bell, begun yesterday. I'm particularly struck by his description of a "book story."

KS: In your short fiction, from the stories published in How the Broken Lead the Blind to The Collectors, there's a wonderful conciseness of language that becomes poetry. Take "Once She'd Been a Brunette," for example; so much life, so much heart, is given in so few words. Can you talk about how important it is for fiction writers to work in the margins between poetry and fiction? What can fiction writers learn from the brevity of poetry?

MB: One of the hardest aspects of writing for fiction writers to talk about is language and the way we use it. I don’t know exactly why that’s the case, but I think that it’s partly because fiction writers—unlike many poets, who in my experience have developed a very large vocabulary for describing their work—often have a more limited set of terms with which to describe what they do. Most of what we're taught in MFA programs and other types of workshop settings has to do with plot or point of view or characterization or setting, rather than rhythm and sound and language, which probably makes sense, in some ways. Plot and story are probably what attracts most writers to fiction in the first place, with language emerging as a primary concern only later. So reading essays about poetry or taking poetry classes can be a great way to get a jump start on learning some of the vocabulary that fiction writers generally lack, which in turn allows you to think a little deeper about language than maybe you have before.

In general, I've always gotten a lot out of time spent seriously reading certain poets, and certainly out of taking poetry classes—I'm not a poet in any way, but just hearing the concerns of people who are has taught me a lot. In undergrad, I took several playwriting workshops toward a similar end. Working under a different set of constraints forced me to grow in ways that fiction hadn't up to that point. I think that there's a lot to be learned by crossing over to another genre, as a reader or as a writer.

Thankfully, there are fiction writers who do know how to talk about language and sound in more concrete and useful terms. Gary Lutz's Believer essay "The Sentence is a Lonely Place" is an excellent example, as is "A Ribbon of Language That Can Be Heard Without Speaking," an interview from Unsaid between Michael Kimball and Blake Butler. I've returned to both of these pieces over and over again during the last year or so, and continue to learn from them.

KS: In 2010 you will publish a collection of short fiction, this time with Keyhole Press: How They Were Found. Can you talk about that collection? What should readers expect?

MB: How They Were Found is made up of twelve stories plus The Collectors, giving people who missed getting one of the limited edition Caketrain chapbooks another chance to own a print copy of the novella. At the time I began assembling the manuscript, I’d published about fifty stories, and had another half-dozen or so that were out making the rounds that I was pretty sure were among my strongest works yet. Michael Czyzniejewski, the editor at Mid-American Review and author of Elephants in Our Bedroom, was a great help to me during this process, reading the first long-list draft of the collection, which included every story that I thought might be something I’d want to include. One of the best pushes he gave me was to learn to distinguish between what was a “book story” and what wasn’t. That was a great way of thinking about things that helped me cut out stories which I think are good—like “BeautyForever,” which you mentioned earlier—but that, for whatever reason, probably won’t be collected and certainly didn’t fit into this book. In that story's case, it's maybe a little too derivative? That's a clearly Saunders-esque story, and the fact that I can so easily point out its literary ancestors probably means I was right to leave it out of the book, even though it’s a story I’m proud of and really enjoyed writing.

What was left: These thirteen fictions, which I think represent me best as the writer I am right now, showing off what I believe are my most distinct qualities, while also (hopefully) coming together to make a book that is more than the sum of its parts when read as a whole, instead of jus a random grab bag of stories I've published. In the end, this meant very little older work made it into the book: There is only one story in How They Were Found that was written before the summer of 2008.

KS: Many of the stories in How They Were Found have been published in various literary journals, and you yourself are the editor of The Collagist. Everyone talks about the slow decay of publishing, but one thing that's often overlooked is that there's a wealth of literary journals and small presses, like Keyhole, who're publishing some seriously good work. I like to ask this question to writers and editors: Where do you see the future of book publishing going?

MB: I don't think the situation is nearly as dire as it's made out to be, at least for most writers, who were never going to be part of the big press end of the business anyway. Obviously, the big presses are struggling and will continue to struggle—for some reasons that are of out of their control and also others wholly of their own making—but that's not the same as saying that literature is dead, or that fiction is dead, or that no one reads in this country, or that e-books are killing books, or any of the other "truths" constantly being trotted out in all these doomsday articles that seem to crop up every day now. I don't know personally what the future of book publishing is, but I do think it's more likely to be figured out by the great indie presses than it is by the giant conglomerate presses in New York. I think it’s most likely that publishing is headed in a direction that is similar to that of the music industry, where small and independent labels have become a driving force not just artistically but financially as well.

Looking at literature purely from an artistic point of view, I don’t see any doom and gloom at all: This is an incredibly exciting time to be a reader and a writer and an editor. There's so much talent out there right now, and so much great work being written and published. The indie presses like Dzanc and Keyhole and ML Press and Publishing Genius—all less than five or six years old—are, in my mind, publishing some of the most innovative and interesting work around, as are the independent magazines like Hobart, Barrelhouse, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. Plus there's the Internet, with its own plethora of literary magazines—1200+ online, when we did our search for Best of the Web. It takes an awful lot of writing to fill all those magazines, and much of it is very, very good. And those are just the newer magazines and presses. There’s tons of important and enjoyable writing being publishing by more established houses and journals, including the biggest presses and magazines.

The economics of literature may be changing, but that's only one aspect of it, and hardly the most important. I feel very fortunate that I spend most of my time as a writer and an editor with people who are actively trying to push forward the state of our art, rather than just moaning about its impending end. I have no doubt that many of these people I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with and befriend over the past few years are—each in their own way—contributing right now to make whatever future literature awaits us.


If you'd like to learn more about Matt Bell, visit his Web site at

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hard Wins: An Interview with Matt Bell (Part I)

Matt Bell is the author of a forthcoming fiction collection, How They Were Found (Keyhole, Fall 2010), as well as a novella, The Collectors, and a chapbook, How the Broken Lead the Blind. His fiction has appeared or is upcoming in magazines such as Conjunctions, Willow Springs, Unsaid, American Short Fiction, Redivider, Gulf Coast, Caketrain, Hayden's Ferry Review, Hobart, Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, and Gargoyle. He is also the editor of The Collagist and the series editor of Dzanc's Best of the Web anthology series.

Kyle Semmel: I came across your short fiction first in an issue of Barrelhouse, with the incredible science fictionish "BeautyForever", then later in the most recent issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review. After reading that second story, I just had to read The Collectors, the runner-up novella to Caketrain’s Fiction Chapbook contest. It’s impossible to read The Collectors—a novella about Homer & Langley Collyer—without thinking of E. L. Doctorow’s version of their story. How does that make you feel to see his novel follow so closely after your own work?

Matt Bell: First, thanks so much for interviewing me, and for taking the time to follow me from story to story. I really appreciate your reading as well as the kind words about the stories.

I was initially pretty excited to read Doctorow's Homer and Langley, and I guess now I'm not. When the book first came out, I read the sample chapter of it that was available for the Kindle, and just wasn't interested enough to pick up the book and read the rest, even though I’ve read several of Doctorow's books and loved at least one of them (City of God). Homer and Langley doesn't seem to be one of his stronger books, at least judging from the admittedly small sample I read, and I haven't seen a review or heard a personal recommendation to convince me to give it another chance. I actually saw the hardcover for fifty percent off the other day and almost bought it anyway, then changed my mind.

That might not have been what you were asking, of course. If you're asking about the connection between what I've done and what I perceive Doctorow as doing, then I'll only say that I don't really see much to compare. They're very different books with greatly diverging worldviews and aesthetics. One thing I do see (or think I do, since again I haven’t read it) in Doctorow's book is a forcing of the writer's wants into another person's life without apology or even recognition—he seems more interested in the story he wants to tell than he ever is in the historical subject, something I think he’s freely admitted in interviews by calling them the “mythological Collyer brothers” or something to that effect.

For instance, in his Homer and Langley, both brothers are kept alive through Watergate, whereas the real Collyers were dead by March 1947. Doctorow does this (I believe, from what I've read in reviews) so that they might serve as the chroniclers of the century, but to me that's not a good enough reason. Combined with all the other major deviations from their biographies, Doctorow's decisions suggest to me that the choice of Homer and Langley is little more than marketing. After all, Doctorow could have used some invented pair of brothers that fit his plot, but then he wouldn't have had a hook to sell the thing to interviewers and reviewers with: The Collyers generated the buzz for this book, not Doctorow's writing (or at least not only Doctorow’s writing).

One of the things I tried to do differently in The Collectors was to acknowledge that this sort of sin is impossible to avoid committing in the act of writing historical fiction, even if you try to stick close to the ground truth. Inevitably, as you write you’ll want to rearrange history to fit the wants of his story rather than the facts of the history. The problem is that history is more than just dates and important events. It’s also the remains of real people's lives and the stories of those lives, and when we unapologetically change those lives to fit our own needs we are—perhaps— making lies of the people who came before us.

This process made me increasingly uncomfortable, until finally I found that the way to complete The Collectors was to enter into it, to use my own obsessive qualities to inform the first-person voice of the author character who joins the brothers in the house, so that I could admit that I was probably wrong for manipulating the stuff of their tragedy into my own fiction.

It’s also honest to say that I didn’t do this consciously at first—it wasn’t until I started assembling and rearranging the sections that I realized there were all these lines scattered throughout the manuscript where I’d been inserting this author character a little bit at a time as I wrote the rest of the book. From that discovery, it took some reflection to figure out why I’d been doing so, and also what to do about it. A lot of what I’ve written above comes from that part of the process, already a long way into the writing of the novella.

KS: In a recent book review in The Washington Post, Tracey Lee Simmons writes: "All historical writing is an act of revision, an exercise in re-seeing figures and events of former times in the light of new or neglected evidence." You use a loving hand with Homer & Langley. Now that you've let the story into the world, do you still feel "wrong"?

MB: Maybe “wrong” isn’t quite the right word. Maybe what I mean is that I’m more conscious now of the fact that it's complicated to make fiction from the lives of others, because by doing so we inevitably take something of theirs and make it ours in a way that isn't necessarily honest to who they were or are. Obviously, this isn't just a problem with historical fiction. I'd imagine that even the most non-realist piece of fiction has all kinds of tendrils reaching out of it back into the writer's life and the lives of his friends and family. I often make the claim that I rarely write anything even remotely autobiographical, and on the surface of my stories, that claim probably holds up more often than not. On closer inspection, maybe not so much. There's a lot of stolen bits of life in every work of fiction, and I think my saying "apology" is my way of recognizing that while that kind of theft is perhaps an inevitable part of making art, that doesn't mean it should be taken lightly. It doesn't have to be a thoughtless or unconsidered act, and probably shouldn't be.

Another example of this sort of thing: There's a line in another story of mine that’s based on a traumatic experience that happened to someone close to me, that perhaps wasn't mine to steal. Every time I revised the story, I took that line out and then inevitably put it back in. The story needs that secret to work—it's part of the story's fuel—but that doesn't diminish the guilt I feel about it being there.

All this said, it’s not like I’m advocating that people should quit writing historical fiction or stop borrowing from their lives and the lives around them. I’ve written historical fiction since The Collectors, and certainly I’ll continue to steal whatever else I need to. I’m just saying that sometimes it makes me feel guilty, and that in the end I'm maybe glad I feel that guilt. The alternative would probably be worse.

KS: The Collectors and “Dredge” in Hayden’s Ferry Review both explore the dark parts of human psychology. What is it that motivates you when constructing your characters?

MB: I’ve always been drawn to the kind of characters who have been backed into a corner, either by themselves or others. I'm also interested in what happens to characters whose options have been limited severely, so that the only choices left to them are extreme ones. In The Collectors, Langley has gathered around himself everything that once belonged to his father and mother and his brother, and his reshaping of those piles creates iterations of a home that never becomes sufficient to make the family he wants it to. He could start over by leaving the house, but that would also mean abandoning all the objects he has claimed as his family for so long. Either choice is extreme—abandoning all he knows or else eventually dying inside a house buried from the inside out—and much of the tension in his character comes from his refusal to make that choice.

In "Dredge," I wanted to write a "failed" detective story. Due to his mental and social limitations, Punter is incapable of solving the "crime" he sets out to solve. He tries to act as he believes a detective should act, but because he understands so little of what he sees, he isn't capable of drawing appropriate connections. Partly, this is because he has been isolated for so long: No family, no friends, and everyone else in his life—his counselors, his co-workers—have all faded out of his life by the time the story starts. What happened to the drowned girl in this story is something that Punter can only understand if he understands the people around him, and since that's impossible, the story becomes about what he does instead. Without giving anything away, I think what happens at the end of "Dredge" is a positive thing for Punter, as dark as it seemingly is. For me, it's a hopeful ending, even though an outside observer would think much about Punter's life is now going to be worse than it was before. But from Punter's perspective, his getting to release his history has got to be a triumph, no matter what it eventually costs him. That kind of "hard win" interests me a lot—what if the best we can hope for is still a bad outcome? We still have to try, right?

Read Part II of this interview.