Friday, November 28, 2008

Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper (Book Review)

Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper
By Paul E. Johnson
Hill & Wang Publishers
Published in 2003

Sam Patch, one of the first working-class heroes in American history, was a melancholic and suicidal drunkard who achieved fame by leaping from waterfalls (including the great Niagara, twice).

His career ended on November 13th, 1830, when he made his final leap from atop the High Falls of the Genesee in Rochester, NY. Though less known than its gigantic cousin to the west, the High Falls was and remains a treacherous cataract. Patch’s frozen body was discovered in the mouth of Lake Ontario by a farmer several months later, but by then Patch the man had morphed into Patch the myth. For the rest of the nineteenth century his story would be told in songs, in plays, and in books—many of these stories deliberately or inadvertently falsifying the life that, when it came right down to it, few knew.

In his fine biography, Sam Patch, The Famous Jumper, historian Paul E. Johnson painstakingly examines the record and paints a fresh, if also limited, portrait of the man who was one of the “pioneers” of “modern celebrity." Born into poverty in Rhode Island, Patch was destined to work the mills of Pawtucket, where a poor, uneducated boy could get work and, if he had talent, as Patch apparently did, learn the craft of mule spinning. This was no small achievement: “the spinning mule was among the biggest machines in the world,” and spinning was a craft practiced mostly by English immigrants.

It was a difficult operation, mule spinning, and it “required experience, along with a practiced mix of strength and a sensitive touch,” Johnson writes. “With each cycle of the spinning mule a long, heavy carriage rose out on tracks from the machine, stretching and twisting the carded and roved cotton into yarn.” Young Patch impressed his employers and the older mule spinners, and later he would become one of the first American mule spinners.

When not working at the mill, Patch, along with other Pawtucket boys, made daredevil leaps from Pawtucket Falls. To these boys, this was a craft—one that involved practice and skill. They even developed their own jumping style. “The Pawtucket boys,” Johnson writes, “all jumped in the same way: feet first, breathing in as they fell; they stayed underwater long enough to frighten spectators, then shot triumphantly to the surface." Pawtucket was an impoverished town, dominated by mills and mill workers, and for many of the boys, there was little hope of rising out of the crushing cycle of their lives. Yet leapers were held in high esteem, their courage and skills valued.

So later in the book, when Patch begins to leap for fame and for money, there seems nothing peculiar about his career choice. But it’s here Johnson scoops out the juiciest fruit. Patch’s first major leap was a protest leap in Paterson, NJ, where he had moved. An entrepreneur named Timothy Crane had turned a chunk of forest used by workers into an exclusive reserve for the wealthy. That town, also a mill town, was split by the Passaic Falls. To build a shortcut to his new park, Crane constructed a bridge spanning the falls. On the day the bridge was scheduled to be placed, in September 1827, a crowd gathered to watch. Workers knew that they would soon be forced to pay an entrance fee to get into their former playground, which effectively cut them off from the forest. When Patch leapt from the falls, he disrupted what was to be Crane’s moment in the sun. The crowd roared its appreciation, and a star of the working class was born.

But his stardom was fleeting; from this leap to his last stretched only three years. And he would die, quite probably drunk, at the peak of his fame. Johnson, also the author of a terrific study on Rochester, NY in the nineteenth century, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium, writes in clear and lively prose that makes reading history easy and fun. He depicts, for example, both the promise and the pain of the rugged “frontier” country of western New York as the newly minted Erie Canal brought thousands of migrants to the region. His book is especially enlightening when describing the social stratification of the era, a time when Jacksonian democrats rubbed the nation’s elite raw and a man like Sam Patch could jump to glory. Whether you enjoy reading history or not, you may find yourself attracted to the people Johnson describes surrounding Patch as much as Patch himself. Indeed, Sam Patch disappears for long passages of the book, as if there simply wasn’t enough material to find on him. Working class heroes, no doubt, received little ink in the nineteenth century. Still, Johnson does an admirable job of uncovering a man who leaped to fame—then fell into obscurity.
Note: A new children's book about Sam Patch will be published by Holiday House in January 2009. I've not seen the book, so it's impossible to tell whether it will continue the "legendary" elements of Patch's life at the expense of the "factual." Based on the cover that's available on, it seems like it's leaning toward the former.

(Got a book you'd like to review? E-mail me.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Brontes Reborn in Twilight

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Those of you who're planning on avoiding watching football and heading off to see a movie after your big dinner may want to check out the vampire flick Twilight.

After posting last week, Carollyne Hutter suggested writing about the just-released film. Because I've heard so much about the book that the film is based on--and pretty much ALL of it was negative--I was curious to see what Carollyne had to say about the film. Since she's also writing YA fiction, this seems pretty apt. Here's Carollyne.

Last week I joined the throngs of teenagers and read the wildly popular, young adult novel—Twilight, which was just released as a motion picture. As I wandered into Bella’s story of love to a vampire, I kept getting interrupted by a nagging feeling, like an itch that won’t go away—this book reminds of something else. Then it hit me. Twilight is like a Bronte novel, especially Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Take Edward, the love interest of Twilight. In many ways he’s another Heathcliff—the perfect hero and anti-hero. Edward keeps saving Bella in the novel (ah, the hero), yet his inherent desire is to suck her blood (the anti-hero). Both Edward and Heathcliff epitomize the Byronic hero—they’re moody, mysterious, magnetic men with a streak of danger to them. It’s interesting that Robert Pattinson, who plays Edward in the movie, is British. And what is also telling is at the end of Wuthering Heights, Nelly wonders if Heathcliff is a ghoul or vampire.

The setting for Twilight is very Bronte-like, very Gothic. The dark, constantly wet, verdant Olympic Peninsula of Washington state evokes an image similar to the moors of England. Both are precarious places where you can easily lose your way.

Twilight in general has a very anti-modern, antiquated feel to it. Even though the novel is supposed to be set in current time, little modern technology exists in it. In reality, technology is a lifeline for most middle-class American teenagers: their lives are full of text messaging, IMs, Facebook, and Youtube. All these are absent in the novel.

Twilight’s strong connection with the Brontes reminds me as a writer not to forget the classics. The classics can help a modern writer in so many ways. Jane Austin’s delight, insightful novels have spawned a whole industry of current novels that use her plots, including my favorite: Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary.

So I think it’s time for me to re-visit the classics, many of which I read when I was in my teens or an undergraduate in college. This time when I read the novels I am going to look at them not with the eyes of a reader or student, but as a writer. My questions for these works of art are: Why did they become classics, why have they lived on? And why is modern, popular culture drawing from them?

To help me with my journey, I discovered two great resources, although there are many more out there. One is Nancy Lemann’s Inspired by Literature class at The Writer’s Center. The other is Francine Prose’s book: Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Like One.

I wonder as I begin this journey, or shall I say quest, what other old, but forgotten friends, like Heathcliff, I will meet along the way. And what illustrious places we will revisit together.

About Carollyne Hutter: For over a decade, she has been a freelance writer/editor in the Washington, DC area, specializing in international and environmental topics. Her website——will be up soon. Please visit the site to read Carollyne’s stories (including the opening chapters of Homesick), quirky essays, and nonfiction pieces. You can contact her at

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thanksgiving Week (Where Does the Time Go?)

So as we glide toward the Thanksgiving holiday and a mild reprieve from work, I'd like to share some small bits of information. First, tomorrow's guest blogger will be C.M. Mayo. She will share three of her most frequently asked questions about writing and the business of writing. It's always a treat when C.M shares what she knows. On Thursday, Carollyne Hutter returns with a post about the new movie Twilight. Her last post generated some good feedback. Those of you out there who're interested in YA lit should know this: I hear you. I'll look for some cool ways to bring more YA lit discussions to this blog.

ONE way is to share Gottawritegirl's excellent post today about the Susan Shreve and Tim Seldes event at the Center this fall. As you know, Susan is a wonderful YA writer (having written many YA titles). So head on over to that blog (when you're done here!) and read all about it.

The Center hosted Eric Pankey and Brian Brodeur over the weekend. Kiley Cogis was kind enough to share these two photos from the event. We had a good turnout and an equally good time hearing these two poets read from their work. If you didn't get the chance to read his excellent post on what it was like to win the Akron Prize, you can do so here.

As an FYI item, from December 1st to December 31st The Writer's Center will have an ad in Metro buses in northern VA, NW DC, and Montgomery County. Those of you who ride the bus should have a look for them--and take a picture. You could win something! The ads will be placed right behind the bus driver, so you can't miss them. Anyone who sends us a picture of the ad--either electronically or in person--will be entered into a drawing to win a FREE multi-session workshop of his or her choice.

And finally, The Center is closing on Wednesday at 2:30 and it'll reopen on Tuesday of next week.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Around the Beltway

In preparing for a kind of overhaul of this blog, I've developed a bunch of regular departments that I'll roll out periodically. One of these departments will be unveiled today: Around the Beltway. In this feature, I will highlight a local arts organization (esp. literary arts). As you all know, there are LOTS of arts organizations around DC. So this ought to be easy, right? Well, I hope so. Btw, before I forget, keep checking back to this blog. It will have a new name by the end of the week.

Today I'm going to start "Around the Beltway" with the literary journal Beltway Quarterly. BQ publishes poetry from poets "who live or work in the capital." They publish a really diverse range of poets, and that includes the work of first-time authors and Pulitzer Prize winners alike. The most recent issue is something special: an audio issue! You can actually HEAR poets reading their work. As I'm typing this I'm listening to Fred Joiner read "Song for Anacostia." The sound is terrific, crisp and clear, complete with background jazz. And I love it.

Other poets in this issue include Thomas Sayers Ellis, Grace Cavalieri (who's reading at the Center on December 7th), Kenneth Carroll, Joel Dias-Porter, and Reb Livingston. Plus lots more. Check it out here.

Kim Roberts is the indefatigable editor of BQ. I met her recently at a poetry event at The Writer's Center (and you may recognize her from the "Last Word" column in the latest issue of The Carousel. In addition to gathering together great poets and great poetry, Kim does something that members of the WC should be aware of: she puts together a resource bank at BQ. This bank includes grant opportunities for writers, conferences, literary blogrolls, new books, readings, and more. It's an excellent resource for area writers.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Member Carollyne Hutter: Teens on my Mind

Writer and instructor Leslie Pietrzyk recently alerted me to one of her workshop participants, WC member Carollyne Hutter, and suggested that a post that Carollyne did for her wonderful blog, Work in Progress, might make a great fit for our Writer's Center blog. I agreed. As I'm coming to discover about Leslie, she knows what she's talking about.

Carollyne has recently written a YA novel. And in this post she discusses the genesis of that project (and beyond). At the end of her post you'll find her bio.

When a baby is born, a parent usually gently rocks her or him and thinks about the road ahead—the baby’s first words, first steps, first day at kindergarten. With misty eyes, the parent will continue rocking peacefully and then freeze with dread: What to do when the baby becomes a teenager? “How will I survive living with a teenager?” the parent anguishes.

A few years ago, a teenager, Brigit, came to live with me, but she didn’t move into my house, she moved into my mind. I was looking out the window, pondering the difference between the U.S. and Germany, when I heard a teenage voice in my head complaining how difficult it was to move between the two countries. I tried to shake the voice out, like water after swimming, but Brigit’s voice kept bubbling up.

A couple of weeks later, I dropped in at the last minute at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) New York conference. When I went to register, they told me that only a few break-out sessions were available and they put me in teen writing.

Ben Schrank of Razorbill led the teen writing session, talking in a relaxed, conversational tone about writing a young-adult novel (YA). He eased some of my fears of writing a YA, such as how to deal with current teenage jargon (His advice: Don’t bother, by the time the novel comes out, the jargon will be out of date.)

Ben stressed the importance of putting humor in a YA. When he said that I knew I was hooked (I had wanted to use more humor in my writing) and that Brigit and I were going to live together for a while.

So after the conference, I let Brigit unpack and move in with me. I would like to say it all worked fine and it was wonderful having a sarcastic teenager living in my mind, but it wasn’t. Sometimes, I was so annoyed with Brigit—her fixation on clothes and appearance, her obsession with coolness, and her stubbornness were trying. I wrote quickly trying to get her out of my head.

As I wrote, I did come to understand her and feel a real sympathy for her—it’s a big move from Munich, Germany to Madison, Wisconsin. And it is tough being 14, struggling to feel grown-up and yet being dictated by her mother’s world.

When I had a good second draft of Brigit’s story, Homesick, I asked talented fiction writers I know to comment on parts or all of it (Deanna Carlyle, Bonny Becker, Rebecca Flowers, and Leslie). This led to a couple more rounds of revisions.

And then the moment came. I felt the story was ready. I humbly lay the manuscript at the feet of a delightful, but picky 14-year-old girl. I armed her with markers and asked her to comment on what worked and didn’t. Her simple words: “I love it,” when she finished reading the novel were for me the highest praise I could possible ever get.

Now Homesick is done and I am dealing with the publishing process, looking for an agent with whom I mesh. In the meantime, I’ve started on the next book. The other day two voices and two books came into my head. One was Brigit, explaining her story wasn’t done and she needed a sequel.

The other voice was talking about being a teenager and dealing with Washington politics. I wrote up the opening page for this new novel and read it to my mother. There was something strange about this voice. “It’s a boy voice,” my mother said. Oh, no! This is really going to take me into new foreign territories. Can I survive living with a teenage boy in my head?

Carollyne Hutter

About: For over a decade, Carollyne Hutter has been a freelance writer/editor in the Washington, DC area, specializing in international and environmental topics. Her website——will be up soon. Please visit the site to read Carollyne’s stories (including the opening chapters of Homesick), quirky essays, and nonfiction pieces. You can contact her at

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Guest Blogger: Brian Brodeur on Winning The Akron Prize

This Sunday The Writer's Center will host poets Eric Pankey and Brian Brodeur. Brodeur won the Akron Prize this year, and I asked him to share his thoughts on winning the prize to the WC blog's readers. So here's Brian:

When an interviewer recently asked if I’d thought the publication of my first book would change my life, I responded with one word: “No.” I then went on to express my gratitude for the trickling of e-mails I’d received from sympathetic strangers who wrote to tell me how much they’d enjoyed my book. How shocked I was that anyone had actually read it. Feeling a little guilty now for not being one-hundred percent honest, I’d like to revise my answer.

Yes! Like many poets actively submitting first-book manuscripts to contests and open-reading periods, I confess to hoping the book would change not only my life but the lives of every living person in the world. Why else write poems? Why else participate in an enterprise completely devoid of any promise of wealth or fame, an enterprise in which selling two thousand copies of a book constitutes “success,” or reading one’s work aloud to a crowd of one hundred at a local university for an honorarium enough to pay for a couple of beers after the event equates to “making it”?

Of course this ambition is impossibly naïve. Even if 375 million people on earth speak English as their first language, the percentage of those who read contemporary American poetry is only a fraction of that figure, and the percentage of that fraction interested in the work of a first-book poet is infinitesimal indeed. Yet we continue to assemble our slim volumes; publishers somehow find a way to publish them; and readers go on buying and reading them.

The whole prospect remains a mystery. When I received the phone call from Elton Glaser, former Akron Series in Poetry Editor, letting me know that Stephen Dunn had chosen my manuscript, Other Latitudes, as the winner of the 2007 Akron Prize, I was at work. I remember sweating through my socks and later asking my supervisor if I could leave early to go to the bar. Beyond the prize money, beyond the pleasure of seeing my book in print, that moment represented the culmination of the last five years, the time it took to compose the poems and to form a manuscript I wouldn’t be ashamed to submit for publication. At least temporarily, that phone call from Elton meant I wasn’t a complete failure, that my decision to dedicate my twenties to the art of poetry, while irresponsible, may not have been bat-shit crazy.

As Auden famously said, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Instead, “it survives, / a way of happening, a mouth.” However simplistic, this remains an important paradox. While poetry is a solitary art, composed in isolation and read alone, poems come alive only within the minds and bodies of readers. That’s part of the magic of all good writing. Until a reader responds to the text, words on a page are just that—words on a page.

For better or worse, the publication of my first book has calcified this hope that my poems can reach others, no matter how small the number. For me, this idea that my work could actually mean something to people I don’t know, keeps me rattling away at my keyboard.

About Brian Brodeur:
Brian Brodeur was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. His poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Gettysburg Review, Margie, Meridian, New Orleans Review, Pleiades, River Styx, Smartish Pace, and the anthology Best New Poets 2005 (Samovar Press, 2005). Brian is the author of So the Night Cannot Go on without Us (2007), winner of the Fall 2006 White Eagle Coffee Store Press Chapbook Contest. Other Latitudes is his first full-length collection.

The reading will be held at 2p.m. at The Writer's Center.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Instructor Wednesday: Playwright Richard Washer on DC Theatre as "Second Rate"

Okay, so the DC theatre scene got slammed recently. When I heard about that I thought, Hey now! And I knew I just had to invite WC instructor Richard Washer to share his thoughts on the matter. Richard is a playwright, director, and educator, and has led Playwriting and Mixed Genre workshops at the Writer’s Center since 1995. He currently serves as Company Dramaturge at Charter Theatre (which incidentally got its start at The Writer's Center. His play Quartet was scheduled to be produced early in 2009 at Charter Theatre, but that's been put on hold for now. These are lean times for the theatre, which makes Slate's comments all the more egregious (at least for me). Anyway, enough of me. Here's Richard:

A recent article in Slate claims that Washington theatre is "… still second rate at best" caused me to laugh and sigh in almost one breath. I have worked in the Washington theatre community for some twenty-five years now (that statement alone is enough to make anyone sigh). The last ten years I have worked with Charter Theatre, a company devoted to developing and producing new plays, and this has provided me with the opportunity to meet and work with some of the most talented local artists (actors, designers, directors, and writers). That privilege of that experience alone is enough to make me laugh at the absurdity of the statement. Besides, it seems pretty clear to everyone that this is an instance of sloppy journalism. So why even honor it with another moment of attention? Because I sighed.

I sighed because I thought this conversation had finally faded away. I sighed because I felt like Washington theatre artists and residents are once again being called upon to defend our theatre community. And many are speaking up. Helen Hayes, Vice Chair, and Glen Howard over at DC theatre scene have begun a lively conversation on this topic. There are now more than sixty professional companies in Washington. A number like that reflects a vibrant and engaged community on both the part of the artists and the audiences that support and attend the events.

But I also sighed because in some ways the judgment that theatre here is second rate conjures in my mind the extra effort it takes to get the word out to the greater community about the good work being done. It's not just a matter of producing quality work. It's a question of reaching out to people who don't go to theatre, but would enjoy it if they did. If you are not a theatre enthusiast, or an artist working in theatre, an article dismissing the entire community as second rate can drown out any invitation to participate in theatrical events.

I have every confidence that President-elect Obama and his family will open to the Washington Post's "Guide to the Lively Arts" and be overwhelmed by the diversity and richness offered by the theatre community here. By all indications, from what I have read in recent articles, they will attend some performances. And they will judge for themselves. By then a careless, thoughtless and misguided comment made in Slate will be long forgotten.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Guest blogger: Will Grofic on Poetry & Blogging

I’d like to point out an interesting article by Ron Rosenbaum over at Slate who writes about his journey to find great blurbs of adulation on poetry and poets. He goes through how hard it is to blurb, to condense a great poet or poet’s book down to two sentences (with a great quote from T.S. Eliot on being chided for praising too little and too much):

"I wanted to find a way to praise the poem that would do justice to it after so many others had praised it to the point of exhaustion. I wanted to convey to others why I thought "To Autumn" was probably the greatest lyric poem in the language."

Keat’s “To Autumn” is Rosenbaum’s trip down the rabbit hole. With more research, Rosenbaum starts to find some particularly choice praises for Keats. He brings up our distinguished teacher Stanley Plumly and his Posthumous Keats:

Plumly does a pretty good job of describing what is remarkable about "Autumn," its burnished bucolic surface, and the Modernist shadows it harbors…

There is something ineffably "self-created" about the poem, a melancholy Grecian urn of the psyche (in ode-speak) set down like the monolith* in 2001 and leaving us little to do but gather round and gibber at its flawless alien perfection. He's onto something.

Next, Rosenbaum tells us of his find at The Page, which has the best, wittiest, sharpest, and most striking two-line excerpts from reviews of contemporary poetry. They’ve also got a huge blog roll, and my favorite part is on the left-hand side at the bottom page: links to classic essays by Donald Hall, Marjorie Perloff, and others on what poetry is.

Like most of the Internet when you click on an article, you usually click another link in that article, then another, and farther down the rabbit hole you go. But these classic essays by Donald Hall and Marjorie Perloff are great for beginning poets and a spur in the backside when any poet needs a jumpstart.

Monday, November 17, 2008

No Wining Allowed; or, Where's Gonzalo?

This Summer, The Center had three great interns. One of these interns, Gonzalo Fernandez-Coffey, has since been hired by Francis Ford Coppola. What's his job? It's a writer and winelover's dream: he's touring around Europe (and later South America and the U.S) writing about wine & wine culture.

Yeah, that's right. Not too shabby. Today's post is the start of our periodic check-ins with Gonzalo. Where is Gonzalo today? Munich.

Check it out on this link.

Yesterday's Poet Lore event was a big success. Large turnout. Mass quantities of cake consumed (thanks to a local bakery, Hotbreads). I'll post some pics in the coming days.

Contest ALERT:

Oh, and to you loyal WC blog readers a special opportunity: The WC blog needs a name. What better way to find one than to ask readers to give us ideas? There will be some sort of prize associated with this contest. I just don't know what that is yet (I've only just thought of it).

Friday, November 14, 2008

A.B. Spellman: Things I Must Have Known

As promised, today is part two of my Poet Lore blogging for Sunday's event.

Poet A.B. Spellman took a long hiatus from writing poetry to make a career at the NEA. How long? Well, his first book of poems, The Beautiful Days, was published by Poets Press in 1965. His second, Things I Must Have Known, was published this year by Coffee House Press.

As everyone who reads this blog knows, creative writing is a difficult task. It often makes you more lost than found. You know those days when you wake up and decide you just want to stay in bed, go nowhere, do nothing? That's what creative writing sometimes feels like: there is a deep longing, sometimes, to put down your pen or close your document, click on your Internet browser of choice, and tell all your friends on Facebook what you're thinking is that "you just can't do it today." (Tell me that's not true!)

In the latest issue of The Carousel, Spellman reveals that he was "the guy who once started a magazine to get out of writing a book." That's what I'd call being productively unproductive. When I feel like not writing I generally do something far less interesting.

But with Things I Must Have Known Spellman is back, and what's on the pages inside the covers of this book is the kind of wisdom associated with only veteran poets: a lifetime of experience compressed into a small space.

In "The Truth About Karen" the speaker "in the solitude of distance" sees an unnamed woman in a "snapshot." Whether the snapshot is literal or figurative isn't clear; nor does it matter. The emotional power of the poem is the speaker's connection to the past. There is a hint that the woman of the past is also very much a woman of the now: "even in sleep you are never still/ beneath that woman/is the tender you/ the one i breathe with." And in an evocative moment of intimacy and self-revelation: "i know that you better than you."

Time has past, and a once powerful bond may be strong no longer. Time has created distance. As with Gardner McFall's poem "My Father Meets Amelia Earhart," which I discussed in yesterday's post, it's the speaker's relationship to the passage of time--and the joining of that time to an individual history--that marks a major moment in this poem.

In "Thursday, Early April" the speaker has lost his partner and is reminiscing on what is gone. It's a mournful, touching poem that penetrates the core of what it means to love: "i eat, hear the violations of the day/ on all things considered and wish for you." Perhaps even more powerful: "i go to bed with the radio/ the sheets are cold on your side."

In this, one hears yet again the echo of lost time, time lost. A.B. Spellman's great achievement in this collection is his ability to weave memory together with emotion to create a rich, wise, and illuminating series of poems with real lasting power.

A.B. Spellman is the author of Things I Must Have Known and The Beautiful Days. He is also a noted jazz critic and has taught at several universities. Come see him this Sunday at Poet Lore's birthday bash at The Writer's Center. 2p.m.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gardner McFall meets The Writer's Center

On Sunday, as you've heard from this blog before, The Writer's Center will host Poet Lore's 119th birthday party. The featured poets are A.B. Spellman & Gardner McFall. In the next two days I'm going to take a look at their work on this blog, starting with McFall's.

She has a selection of poems in the new edition of Poet Lore (she was introduced by poet Jane Shore as part of the Poets Introducing Poets series), and I want to concentrate on two of these terrific poems.

In "Stopping at the True, The Good, The Beautiful Company in Bac Ninh" the speaker is visiting Vietnam. Emotions of guilt (of both the personal and the public variety) play into it: "After a cruise on the Halong Dream,/ the guide informs us we will stop/at a typical silk and embroidery store,/only not exactly typical, since/ its employees are orphans and children/maimed by war after their mothers, exposed/ to Agent Orange, bore them."

Robert Olen Butler's Pulitzer Prize winning collection of stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain , depicts Vietnamese characters in the U.S. Here, by contrast, an American is transported to Vietnam. What's striking here is the tender way McFall connects the speaker's history with that of her father's (and by extension American history with that of Vietnam's). "I buy a dozen, each with a scene/ of Vietnam, carefully stitched/ in thread so fine the eyes could dim/ putting it there: a woman wearing/ her conical hat with her buffalo/ in a field of rice, which my father saw/ and knew, high and small, from the air."

The supple juxtapositon of imagery in this poem continues in the next poem, "My Father Meets Amelia Earhart," as if the two poems are meant to be together. In the concluding line of "Stopping" we find the speaker's father "high and small, from the air" and in the opening sequence of "My father" we find a jarring image: "After my father's plane crashed in the Pacific,/I used to think how sad that he was alone/ when he died."

In this poem, the speaker's father shares coincidences (like dying in an airplane at the age of 39) and eternity with the famed aviator Amelia Earhart, "death-wed too early, like Icarus./ They could talk shop--his Skyhawk/ versus her Electra, compare hops and their DFCs,/play rummy."

As in "Stopping," the conclusion of this poem is stunning in how it twines the historical with the personal. Two lives, one famous, one not become "legends in people's minds."

About Gardner McFall:

Her poems have appeared in such publications as Plougshares, The Atlantic Monthly, Tin House, Poet Lore, the Sewanee Review, the New Yorker, The Paris Review, Southwest Review, and others. She has two books of poetry, The Pilot's Daughter and the forthcoming Russian Tortoise. She lives in New York City and teaches at Hunter College.

Meet her this Sunday and get your own copy of Poet Lore, where these poems and others appear, at The Writer's Center at 2p.m.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Guest Instructor: Dennis Drabelle

Today's post features Dennis Drabelle. In addition to being a contributing editor at Book World, Dennis teaches the "Book Reviewing" workshop here at the Center. Many of you may know that Book World has its own blog, "Short Stack." Last Friday he posted an interesting piece on Barack Obama's reading habits (and the reading of fiction). The link is here.

Here's a short Bio:

Dennis Drabelle has been an editor with the Washington Post Book World since 1984. His reviews have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, The Nation, Outside, and In 1996 he won the National Book Critics Circle's award for excellence in reviewing.

And I want to point out C.M. Mayo's comment on a recent WC blog post. She provided a link to her blog with relevant information on lit agents (from fellow instructor Lindsey Maines). Right here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Poet Lore's 119th Birthday, Nov. 16th 2:00 p.m.

Poet Lore, the nation’s oldest continuously published poetry journal, celebrates its 119th birthday with a special reading featuring renowned jazz critic/historian and poet A.B. Spellman and award-winning poet Gardner McFall.


When: November 16, 2008. 2 p.m.
Where: The Writer’s Center, Bethesda, MD 20815
Poet Lore Website:
This event is FREE and open to the public. All who attend get a free issue of the most recent journal. Public contact: 301.654.8664 or

Founded in 1989 by two iconoclastic women, Helen Clarke and Charlotte Porter, as a journal “devoted to Shakespeare, Browning, and the Comparative Study of Literature,” Poet Lore developed an early following among literary societies and later expanded it by offering unique features, such as its “Play Series”—which in 1913 was the first to print a complete, English-language edition of Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull. And Walt Whitman, in the final year of his life, made a paid advertisement in Poet Lore for Leaves of Grass.

During the course of its illustrious history, Poet Lore has played an active role in introducing American readers to the likes of some of the finest international poets. In its early years, in fact, very few American authors were published in Poet Lore. For the majority of its content, Poet Lore set its sights abroad. Among the many authors who were discovered or whose careers on the international stage were advanced by Poet Lore include Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Paul Bourget, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Maxim Gorky. And it was the first publication to introduce the work of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore—who would later win the Nobel Prize in literature—to readers of English. More recently, Poet Lore has been instrumental in publishing the work of emerging and established poets: Carl Phillips, Carolyn Forché, Sharon Olds, John Balaban, Alice Fulton, William Meredith, Sandra Gilbert, among many others.

Since the early 1980s, Poet Lore has been published by The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. And each November, the Center plays host to a birthday celebration/issue launch. This year, Poet Lore editors E. Ethelbert Miller and Jody Bolz have invited two fine poets whose work will be featured.
About the Featured Poets:

A.B. Spellman is the author of The Beautiful Days and, recently, Things I Must Have Known. He is the former Deputy Chair for the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a nationally renowned jazz historian and critic and an alumni of Howard University, where he studied with the poet Sterling Brown.

Gardner McFall is the acclaimed author of The Pilot’s Daughter. She is the recipient of the Thomas McAfee Prize in Poetry and the Discover/The Nation award. Her work has been published widely including the Partisan Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and Tin House.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The State of Publishing, or Whatever

Today, because I'm exhausted of novellas, I'm just going to post a link to a blog that I subscribe to. Lit agent Nathan Bransford.

It's well worth checking out. If you're looking for expertise on how to approach a lit agent, how to write a query letter, how to mow your lawn in jockey shorts. Well, okay, not that last one. Some things you just got to try on your own.

Anyway, good stuff to be found here.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Friday's Open Mic

In just hours, I’ll be hosting our open mic event. Open mics have a curious history. For so many writers that I’ve come to know, there’s a love-hate relationship. There’s camaraderie and vulnerability that happens when you bleed in front of strangers. Yet, one of my writer-friends recently pointed out that the thing about Open Mic is that most people don’t listen to the poetry, they scramble through their notebooks to decide which poem they will read while their fellow poet labors to get through his first stanza.

I’m a bit torn on this as I’ve cut my teeth as a poet at open mics, or was it in a poetry book? I digress. I do believe that people should listen to poetry whenever its being read, be it a reading at the Folger’s or an open mic at the Writer’s Center. I’ve always tried to avoid wholesale generalizations.

What’s your take on Open Mics?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Guest Blogger: Leslie Pietrzyk on Word Collages

Today's Wednesday guest blogger is instructor Leslie Pietrzyk. She was our guest on Friday, and today's post is a kind of prequel to Friday's post. But it's a good post to read in tandem with the last one right here.

Leslie Pietrzyk, MFA, is the author of the novels Pears on a Willow Tree (Avon) and A Year and a Day (William Morrow), which was selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Borders “Original Voices” series. Her short fiction has appeared in many publications, including Washingtonian, TriQuarterly, Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Confrontation. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences.

Her website is here:

And she blogs at

A couple weeks ago I conducted a workshop at the Writer’s Center based on the principles of word collage. I was a bit apprehensive—it’s an experimental approach to writing; very open and loose; trying to remove barriers between right and wrong, good and bad; and so I think the process requires a certain open-mindedness and trust to have a successful experience. Because I’ve used these collage techniques before, I know that my faith will be rewarded in a surprising, interesting way. But here were 15 strangers who might not have the same faith. What if they’re not interested in writing about candy corn (our first assignment)?

But they were.

I’ve written about the class before right here, including a step-by-step description of how we proceed, so I won’t go into that again. But it’s worth reminding myself that what I enjoy about this class is the reminder that the path to creativity is not always (ever?) smooth and straight. There are times for tight control (revision) and times to let go, as nerve-wracking as that may be. (One of my challenges as I work with the class is to remember that I’m in charge, and not to let myself get carried away if part of the exercise is working especially well for me…or if I strike a deep memory that makes me want to cry!)

It’s hard to trust that this meandering path will arrive somewhere—but it will. It may not be the destination you expected—or wanted—or even recognize as a destination, but it will be somewhere you could not have reached by any other way. And it will be meaningful in some way. I often forget that this wandering is a crucial part of the process: I get too caught up in thinking that sitting at the computer is the best or only way to get work done.

By the end of our evening, people had come up with amazing insights, complicated observations, challenging memories, and lots and lots of beautiful words. I love the end of the class, when everyone compiles their hodge-podge, mass of writing into a magical, deeply personal collage that has the impact and power of the most evocative piece of abstract art. It’s a remarkable feeling to hear such personal writing without knowing exactly what it may mean…I imagine it’s like Hemingway’s iceberg principle, that only one-tenth is visible, with nine-tenths lurking underneath…packing enough power to sink the Titanic.

Glen Finland*, one of the participants, was kind enough to share her lovely piece, and I think that by reading it, you’ll have a better sense of what can be accomplished in this process:

The Secret Life of D.R.

Behind his thick glasses, D.R. was the kind of slow reader who searched for meaning in the silence between words. The measured progress of non-events in his life had turned him into a frustrated and gloomy man who took the time to whiten his teeth, but couldn’t slow the forward march of his own baldness.

Yet here in the darkness of his basement, with the movie projector ticking audibly beside his right ear, he had discovered a way to come alive. Veiled in the blue light that accented the puffiness of his eyes, D.R. sat mesmerized by the old black and white movies that played out the life he was meant to have. Mouthing every line before Cagney or Borgnine could spit them out, D.R. was no longer the forgotten little mouse whose son had taken to calling him by his first name. Here he was the tough guy who ordered goombahs around and said things like, “Listen, Wise Guy” and “Beat it, Sister.”

That was until… she showed up again. The dame, the sweater girl on the drugstore stool, twirling her way back into his head.


And here is my own piece:

Whatever There Was

We weren’t the type of kids who lost mittens—in fact, we didn’t lose much of anything. Once we had something, we held onto it.

The loaf of bread wrapped in paper wrapped in Saran wrap placed in a plastic bread bag.

I bet she never even ate peanut butter.

What else am I trying to fill that won’t be filled?

That snow fort was so perfect.


I hope to offer this class again at some point in the future. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

*About: Glen Finland writes fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of a novel, The Sweetgrass Code, and a collection of short stories, The Inside of An Egg. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, American Magazine, Revolution, A Cup of Comfort, and the East Coast Women’s Anthology. She is the recipient of the Southeastern Writers Association Best Fiction award and the Leroy Spruill Fiction award. She is listed as a Noted Writer from the 2005 and 2006 Boston Fiction Festivals. Glen teaches college writing at American University in Washington, DC, and has been a Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Casa Libre en la Solana in Arizona.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Long lived The Carousel

"Leaves, 2007" by Danielle Scruggs (
For the past month or so, I've been glued to my computer, learning the basics of InDesign, how to give our publication some flare. What to keep and what to throw away or approach differently were among the questions I had to attend as managing editor. And finally, there was the issue of the cover. What would communicate the theme just the way I wanted it to? I must have looked at almost a hundred photos until I came across Ms. Scrugg's photo. Like Scruggs, I come from a family of visual artists. The way that her two subjects are framed, side by side, struck me. With our issue being "new beginnings" I couldn't help but think of all of the new and unfamiliar paths writers must take and also abandon to make this writing life thing work. I am very humbled by the generosity of my colleagues here at the Writer's Center. Often we worked late into the evening, and most recently through the weekend. And finally, a very special thanks to all of the instructors, writers who will read at the Center in coming months, and the very talented Ms. Scruggs for donating her art to us for this issue--Thanks a million!
Will Grofic, our Publication's intern, spoke with Danielle Scruggs, the photographer whose photograph "Leaves, 2007" graces our cover in our newly designed themed issue of The Carousel.
What about this pavement and space made you snap the picture in the first place?

Well, at the time I had just started a project on solitude, the nature of absence and presence. I wanted to find places that were quiet and could convey what I wanted to say about those subjects. Plus there were aesthetic qualities too: the lighting, the placement of the leaves on the ground. Something about that area, which was just a few blocks from my apartment spoke to me.

Why'd you take two photographs of the same space? Did you take them at the same time? Different times?

I think the accumulation of time, of moments building up and passing by is one the largest defining factors of solitude and I thought using diptychs would be the best way to illustrate that progression. For all the photos in that series, they were taken moments apart, with mostly subtle changes between the two images.

How did you decide on photography as your artistic medium of choice?

I guess because photography has always been a part of my life. My dad was a photographer in the Army and when I was growing up, he showed me how to use his camera, encouraged me to take art classes, even gave me his old notebooks on darkroom film and print processing. Sometimes we would even go out shooting together and we still critique each other's work. What I've always loved about photography is that it gives me the chance to capture a single moment and then freeze and preserve it forever. Also, there's something about having a camera up to your eye that gives you permission to do things you couldn't do otherwise.

What is your creative process? Is there a difference between your writing and photography creative processes?

My creative process I guess, is a lot of trial and error. A lot of improvisation, some of it's following my intuition. I think I'm learning more and more to trust my instincts more and that if I'm working on something that starts to veer from my original idea or intent, that it's all right to explore another avenue, instead of rigidly following that original idea, if that makes any sense. I think I approach writing the same way I do photography.

What about the DC area inspires you artistically and visually?
The contrasts. High culture and low culture seem to live nudged against each other out here and I enjoy that contrast.

As "New Beginnings" is our theme this time, I have to ask, what does "new beginnings" mean to you?
To me that means moving forward. The need to push myself in whatever I do, and to never become complacent, even when the easiest thing would be to do the exact opposite.
Send us your thoughts on The Carousel at