Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Seal Woman: An Interview with Solveig Eggerz

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

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

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

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

What was the genesis of the story for you?

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

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

How long did it take you to write the novel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you be reading there?

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

Seal Woman a novel by Solveig Eggerz
Publication date: 5/15/2008
Ghostroad Press: http://www.ghostroadpress.com/

Monday, April 27, 2009

From This Embodied World: An Interview with Melissa Tuckey

Melissa Tuckey is author of Rope as Witness (Puddinghouse 2007, chapbook). She is recipient of artist fellowship awards from DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and Ohio Arts Council and a residency from Blue Mountain Center. Her poems have been published in numerous journals, including Beloit Poetry Journal, Hayden's Ferry Review, Poetry International, Poet Lore, Verse Daily and others. Melissa is co-director of Split This Rock and a host of Sunday Kind of Love. She's taught writing courses at George Mason University and Univeristy of Maryland.

You’re an activist and a poet. In the ‘60s Dylan balked at being called a “protest singer.” What would you think of the term “protest poet”?

I’m not a protest poet. I don’t write poems to protest. I write poems because I love the music of language and I enjoy the process of writing a poem. I don’t think poets or poetry can be so easily categorized.

I care passionately about social issues and have been involved in a lot of activist work, so it’s been important for me to find a voice in my poems that can encompass these experiences as well as other experiences. So I write about these things, but I wouldn’t call my poems a kind of protest.

Poetry is a kind of internal resistance. It’s the part of our minds that can’t be colonized or recruited or controlled or categorized. It’s the part of culture that can’t be destroyed. The poet Mahmoud Darwish said, “every beautiful poem is an act of resistance.” I love this idea.

When angry over current events, it’s easy for writers to let their emotions sway what they’re writing. How should poets—all writers—approach topical material so that the raw emotions don’t overwhelm the art of craft?

The answer for poetry always comes back to craft—structure, form, music, originality. Poetry is a process of discovery. So to start with an issue or something to say is very difficult.

I don’t very often start a poem knowing what I’m going to write “about”--it’s more an image, or phrase that starts the poem, and I follow it. At some point I recognize that I am responding to a current event, or that I have the opportunity to do that. It’s usually something that was deep inside – I’d slept on it, dreamt with it, walked around with it rattling in my head somewhere. Every poem is different though! I would encourage writers to read as much as possible, look at how other poets deal with these issues in their poems.

Adrienne Rich writes, “The poet today must be twice-born. She must have begun as a poet, she must have understood the suffering of the world as political, and gone through politics, and on the other side of politics she must be reborn again as a poet." I like this idea because it implies is that social consciousness is something that must be lived and breathed and understood. Poetry comes from this embodied world.

When we begin to “understand the suffering of the world as political,” this shapes the stories we tell and the way we perceive our own experiences. We cannot keep the suffering of the world out of our poems, anymore than we can pretend we are somehow immune to politics. We learn to see that all things are connected. Not only that, but there are systems of oppression and histories. None of this makes for instant poetry, but our world-view does come across in our poems.

You’re one of the founders of the Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Can you talk about what motivated you and the others to found this organization?

Split This Rock was born out of the poets against the war movement. It came about as a result of the tremendous need poets were feeling to come to Washington and speak back to the monsters in the White House. It’s challenge is to speak to social concerns within poetry. How do we begin to speak about these things with an authentic voice? We wanted to celebrate those poets who are doing so courageously and with such power. We also wanted to celebrate DC’s poetry community and literary history, and to link a national network of poets who are writing what we are calling “poetry of provocation and witness,” not just relating to the war, but relating to a wide range of topics.

Sarah Browning, founder of DC Poets Against the War, had the idea to organize a national festival, and there was huge excitement around the idea. It garnered all kinds of support and took on something of it’s own life thanks to Sarah’s tenacity and vision. The festival addressed a deep need so many of us were feeling to speak out, to be involved, to be part of a larger community, to reclaim language, to name names, to imagine change, and to do this with poetry. We also had the opportunity to connect with activists and thinkers, and to learn about and celebrate the many ways that poets are active in their communities.

So now we are establishing a non-profit organization, Split This Rock, to build upon the work of the first festival. We’re working on the line up for our next festival in March of 2010 and we’ve got a call out for panel proposals. Our website is <splitthisrock.org> .

With all your work supporting local poets and the poetry scene here, how do you manage to write your own poetry?

This is a challenge that all writers have, right? I am grateful to work with poets and poetry. Making time for my own writing, means setting everything else aside sometimes. Finding the right balance is challenging. This month, I’ve been trying to keep up with the write a poem a day challenge, and though I’m behind, it’s been instructive. So much of writing is about stealing time for it. In September, I have a one-month residency at Blue Mountain Center. I’m looking forward to that.

What are you working on now?

I’m shopping around a book manuscript, which has been a finalist in several first book contests. I’ve also been working with my friend Ye Chun to help translate a book of poems by the Chinese poet Yang Zi; and we’re working on getting that manuscript in order and into the world. Meanwhile, I’m writing new poems, revising, shuffling poems around, reading as much as I can. I’m always jealous of those who have clear “projects” they are working on. My project is usually just to write the best poems I can and to keep writing.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Giving a Voice to the Voiceless: An Interview with Marjory Heath Wentworth

Yesterday we featured an interview with Tom Lombardo, editor of the poetry anthology After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events. A number of poets in that volume will be reading at The Writer's Center on Sunday, April 26. To see the complete list of readers or to register for this free event, click here. Today's blog post is an interview with contributor Marjory Heath Wentworth, the poet laureate of South Carolina. Her poems have appeared in numerous books and magazines, and she has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times. Her collections of poetry include Noticing Eden (Hub City Writers Project 2003) and Despite Gravity (Ninety-Six Press 2007). Her most recent book is a children’s story called Shackles.

How did you become involved in After Shocks?

I think I first heard about After Shocks through a call for submissions on the WOMPO list serve.

Your poem, "Linthong," depicts the story of a Laotian refugee. For many years you worked in the field of refugee resettlement. Can you discuss what you did in that capacity?

In 1979 I won a fellowship to to work at UNHCR (UN HIgh Commission for Refugees) in Geneva. I was assigned to the eduction section, where I worked on developing materials for the refugee population in Somalia. The Boat People Conference was taking place at the time, and I was sent to some of these meetings for my department. This was the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and I began to learn about the genocide in Cambodia and became passionatley involved with their plight. When I returned to the US I studied the cultural assimilation problems for dispaced Laotion and Cambodian refugees and went to work in the field of refugee resettlement at The Whole World Institute in Boston and then at Church World Service in New York City. Over the years I worked with refugees from Eastern Europe, Haiti, Africa, and Latin America; as well as those from Indochina. Their stories continue to both haunt and inspire me. Sometimes a poet's job is to bear witness and give a voice to the voiceless. There's something inherantly redemptive about that process that is very rewarding.

The boy in "Linthong" is a kind of composite character. Every detail of his life is based on direct experience - from meeting incoming flights at JFK Airport to doing home visits in places like Lowell, Massachusetts. Imagine walking into an apartment where shoes were stored in the refrigerator? These kinds of specific details inspired the poem.

Water plays an integral part of "Linthong." I'd like to ask you about your creative process: Do you look for such images when you write the first draft—that is, do you know exactly what you're aiming for—or do you return to the material during rewrite and look for those images?

The role of water is important, and I am thrilled with your question. Geography plays such a pivotal role in political situations. Ports, for example, are critical places where battles are fought. Cambodian's juxtaposition to Vietnam determined its role in The Vietman War. Cambodia was neutral, but because of its location, the country was drawn into the conflict. I won't get into that particular history - the US bombing, Pol Pot, genocide - because I assume this is widely known. Water, it seemed to me, is a kind of metaphor for the global connections that exist. In "Linthong" it is the one constant element that ultimately controls his destiny.

I have always lived on the Atlantic, and I lived on a barrier island for 10 years, so it's hard to escape that imagery. With "Linthong," I wanted the water to unify the poem and reinforce the importance of geography in terms of his particular story. My poems often start with a specific image or group of sounds. This poem started with the description of shoes stored in the refrigerator and cooked food out on the cupboard, and it grew from there.

Creative writers are commonly told "write what you know." But, from your experience, what are some of the dangers of writing what you know?

The dangers of writing what you know can stifle the imagination or make novice writers worry about the facts of the poem than they should. What is actually true many not be best for the poem you are writing. The poem wants what it wants, and the poet needs to follow that thread.

You're the Poet Laureate of South Carolina. Can you tell us about your role? What exactly does a Poet Laureate do?

Right now I am in RI with Poets Laureate from all over the US. We are doing readings and teaching in schools throughout the state; as well as discussing what we each do back in our home states. There's a lot of public service involved, because our "job" is to bring poetry into people's lives in a variety of ways. There's no requirement - beyond writing poems for occasions like the governor's inauguration, the opening of a bridge I write a newspaper column on poetry that is published every other Sunday. I assume I am writing for a non-poetry audience, and I try to be informative and interesting. It seems to mean a lot of people.

I started a writing organizatin with my friend, poet Carol Ann Davis. It's called LILA, Lowcountry Iniatiative for the Literary Arts. We provide services to the writing community and the greater community. (www.lilaconnects.com) For example, we offer a reading series and writing workshops at the public library, poetry in the schools etc

Read Wentworth's poem "Hurrican Season" here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Poetry of Healing: An Interview with Tom Lombardo

This Sunday at 2:00 P.M., The Writer's Center welcomes editor Tom Lombardo and other contributors (look for an interview tomorrow with another) to After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events. More information on this book can be found at its Web site: www.poetryofrecovery.com.

Tom Lombardo earned a B.S. from Carnegie-Mellon University, an M.S. from Ohio University, and an M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte. His poems have appeared in many journals in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and India, including Southern Poetry Review, Subtropics, Ambit, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, New York Quarterly, Kritya: A Journal for Our Time, Orbis, Salamander, Ars Medica, Pearl, Asheville Poetry Review, and others. His criticism has been published in New Letters, North Carolina Literary Review, and South Carolina Review. He was the founding editor-in-chief of WebMD, the world’s most widely used health web site, and he lives in Midtown Atlanta, where he works as a freelance medical editor.

In an interview you’ve said that the reason for this book was that there seemed to be a lack of poetry for those in grief, who are suffering. What kind of responses have you heard from readers so far?

Responses have generally been phenomenal. After Shocks has touched more people, more deeply than I ever dreamed it would. At readings, audience members come up afterwards to talk about their situations, and how much the poems they've just heard have helped. Or maybe they talk about how After Shocks will help a family member or friend in need, and they ask me to inscribe the book to that person. I've received some post-purchase feedback along those lines directly from readers, too. Here's a quote from one letter: "Your poems…really touched me. I would like to congratulate you on After Shocks…Thank you for this beautiful book."

The negative reaction I've heard—and this is from people who like the anthology over all—is that After Shocks is in places emotionally difficult reading. Though each poem shows a path to recovery, the stories in the poems are at times traumatic. I've heard readers say it's not a book they can read for a length of time. I can understand that feeling because I had the same trouble while reading the submissions. Some of the poems were emotionally difficult for me. Reading the submissions that dealt with recovery from the loss of child brought me to tears at times, and I had to stop reading, leave my office, go for a walk.

As editor of the book, could you tell us about your process of cobbling these poems together? From the “in appreciation” page it would seem that this collection grew almost organically once you decided to do it.

The germination of the concept was organic. As the "In Appreciation" page in After Shocks recounts, the concept came from a lunch I had with Fred Marchant, director of Creative Writing at Suffolk University. Fred bumped me down this path with his question: "Why don't you become a poetry publisher?" The question left me without an answer, but a couple days later, the idea sprung forth, nearly whole.

But compiling the anthology was hard work, not quite what I'd call organic, more like very intensive farming. I placed calls for submissions in several reputable places on the Internet: the Wom-Po listserv, Creative Writing Opportunities, Cave Canem, etc. I advertised on paper in the UK in two journals. I spread the word via key poets I knew. I solicited work from a few well-known poets whom I had met over the years. And I read, read, read collections to find poems of recovery. In the end, I had about 500 candidate poems to select from. I spent the summer of 2007 reading, reading, reading, trimming, trimming trimming, selecting, selecting, selecting. As I read the poems, I started piles on my office floor of the various categories, which eventually became the chapters of the final version of After Shocks. The stack of poems about recovery from grief eventually split into three chapters: Recovery from Death of a Spouse, …From the Loss of a Child, …from the Death of Loved Ones. Other stacks contained poems of recovery from war, exile, abuse, addiction, bigotry. One stack of very good poems that seemed to me related, but were still amorphous and resisting categorization, crystallized around a line from a poem by Charleston poet Kurt Lamkin: "We lose our innocence believing" and emerged as a chapter on Recovery from Loss of Innocence. Another stack of poems that were excellent, but were lighter in tone than the others, wound up as the final chapter Recovery from the Stresses of Living, a soft-landing for After Shocks.

What’s very intriguing about the book is its structure. Rather than putting all the poems together, you’ve sectioned the poems so that readers find poems about losing a child, about bigotry, about addiction, and so forth. How did you decide on this structure?

The anthology is organized in a way that readers could USE it as well as read it. I wanted readers to find with ease the poems that they wanted to read first—the poems that pertained to their own life-shattering events. I didn't want to frustrate readers in their search for poems that might help. I wanted to make the search easy. What I ended up with were chapter titles that were very precise: Recovery from Death of a Spouse, Recovery from Exile, Recovery from War, etc. The chapters are very clearly labeled. I believe this to be a great benefit to the readers.

It's certainly not the way most poetry books are structured. In the typical poetry collection, you might see chapters with titles, sometimes just numerals and no titles. If the chapters are titled, the titles try to capture something in the chapter, something emotional, a hook of some sort. Sometimes, the chapter titles build upon each other. When they work, they carry great insight. When they fail, they become mysterious, indulgent, distracting. Either way, that's fine for what those collections might want to accomplish, but from the beginning, I intended After Shocks to be PRACTICAL poetry. Plus, I've covered a VERY broad set of topics in After Shocks. It's not a collection of grief poetry. It's not a collection of addiction poetry. It's not a collection of war poetry. After Shocks comprises 12 different topics in recovery, each with a completely different underpinning of human experience. The challenge for me as editor was to organize the anthology in a way that was clear and concise. Whereas a typical poetry collection might want to use metaphor or intellectual stimuli to set itself apart from the real world, my challenge was to make After Shocks a very clear part of the real world experiences of readers.

The drawback, of course (and I can see some poets rolling their eyes), is that the chapter titles are not poetic, not very mysterious, not metaphoric, whatever. The organization is very un-po-biz like.

Frankly, it was a difficult decision to make. I'm a poet, too, so I want to appear to be at least as clever as Billy Collins or Kim Addonizio. But sometimes clarity is good, not bad. Sometimes simplicity is beautiful. Sometimes redundancy works to the benefit of the concept. And After Shocks is nothing if not a concept book. And I would do it the same way again. The feedback from readers has been quite positive. They go to the chapter they will find useful to their own recovery or a friend's recovery. It's quite a revolutionary concept, eh? Poetry that might actually be used by a reader? That might be practical in some sense? In which you may find something germane to your own personal experience?

“Daffodils,” your poem on the death of your spouse, is a powerful, memorable, and moving poem. In it there is a deep sense of melancholy and yet also of hope (“Looking outward for the first time since burial/ prayers, I saw daffodils blooming,/ the ones that Lana and I had planted/ in a sunken spot last Fall”). Did writing this poem serve as part of your healing process? Can writing serving this role?

Melancholy. A deep sense of it. Yes. That's what I feel still when I read this poem, even after scores of readings. And that's what I felt while writing it. But yes, also hope because this poem represents a turning point in my life.

The poem most certainly helped my healing. Written 15 years after my wife Lana's death in an auto wreck, the poem represents what I see as the exact moment of the beginning of my recovery. When I saw those daffodils blooming, and felt that deep melancholy, and reacted to the words my mother said to me "Look outside at your backyard," I remember having this visceral re-alignment within my body and mind, a re-alignment from looking backward to looking forward. I felt a physical sensation, a tingling from head to toe. I understood that those blooming daffodils didn't care that Lana was dead. I had dug the holes, Lana planted the bulbs in the Fall, she died in April, but the daffodils still popped up, eager to live, beautiful as daffodils in the sun ever can be. "Easter white and careless yellow" is the final line of that poem. They were a very basic symbol of life moving forward no matter what the circumstances. After a nuclear war, daffodils will pop up. After the next comet hits Earth, cleansing us from this planet, daffodils will still pop up. Their cycle can hardly be stopped.

I understood at that moment that I had to pick myself up and move forward. I was a young man, and I had a life to live. This feeling did not diminish my grief even in the slightest, but that single moment turned me physically and emotionally 180 degrees. I had resolved to live.

On the side of Mt. St. Helen's, which I visited 10 years after that devastating eruption, there were green shoots popping up through the layers of ash. It surprised me, but it's the same thing. Life wants to live. However, the scars remain for a long time.

Writing this poem and others about my wife Lana's death helped me to understand and comprehend what I had gone through, how it had affected my life, her parents' lives, her sister's life. I wrote a series of poems about my wife's death around the time I wrote "Daffodils," and I remember being depressed and irritable during that time. I felt that I was picking at a scab covering a wound that had not quite healed completely. Perhaps I had not worked completely through my grief at the time of her death? I'll never know. Obviously, there was still some pain beneath the surface, even more than a decade later. The series of poems I wrote helped me release more of that grief and helped me understand more fully what I had lived through. I learned that there is no such thing as full recovery. When you experience an event of life-shattering proportions, you really don't ever get back to normal. You may achieve equilibrium, but it's a new place, you may be a different person. Writing helped me understand that.

Can writing serve this role? Absolutely, without a doubt. It worked for me. And as poetry therapists attest, it works for many. There are numerous books about this: The Cancer Poetry Project and The Vital Signs Poetry Project of the Children's Inn at NIH are excellent examples.

And it's not only poetry. Memoir, essays, nonfiction—anything that gets someone writing about their woes is good. Drawing and painting, of course, are more well-known tools in the culture of recovery, but writing seems to be gaining acceptance.

Are you working on another project now?

Yes, several projects occupy my time. I'm working on a series of guides that show how to use After Shocks as a tool in recovery. The guides will be aimed at poetry therapists, psychotherapists, and clergy—basically, those who counsel people after life-shattering events.

I've recently signed on as Poetry Editor of Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC. I'm reading and selecting manuscripts for publication. Once I select, I spend a great deal of time editing and consulting with the poet prior to publication, and then work on the marketing and promotion of the collection. At this moment, I am screening the entries for Press 53's Open Awards, selecting the 10 finalists that will go to the finals judge, Kathryn Stripling Byer, the poet laureate of North Carolina.

And after nearly a year away from writing my own poetry while I was compiling After Shocks, and then promoting it and scheduling and conducting readings, I've started writing my own poems again. It's feels good to get back to putting my words into verse once more.

I'm also working on a nonfiction manuscript. I have published a number of memoir-ish essays, and I've continued writing them on and off over the years. I don't know if it's a memoir or not because it's not a continuous day-to-day, year-to-year book. It's more episodic. I will begin to seek representation for that series in the coming year.

I'm continuing to do a good bit of freelance writing and editing in the medical and health media, which was my career for years when I worked full-time.

But my most consuming project: I am Mr. Mom to my two children, Lucy, 12 and Sam, 10.
My wife, Hope, works as an Internet executive and has great ambition to continue her career, so I left my position as editor-in-chief of WebMD a few years ago to stay home with the kids. Frankly, I was ready to leave the daily stresses of the media world behind—my own ambition tapped out. Now each day at 2:30 PM, I shut down my office, no matter what I'm doing, to pick up the kids at school, manage their after-school activities, get them through their homework, coach their sports, cook dinner for the family, etc. It's been a wild but rewarding ride, and I believe it's my personal recovery from a career as an editor at newspapers, magazines, and the Internet!

Board Member Les Hatley on The Writer's Center's Musical History: Part II

Today's post is the conclusion of my interview with board member Les Hatley on the musical history of The Writer's Center. If you'd like to start with Part I--in case you didn't see that--click right here to be magically transported back to last Wednesday.

You’ve told me that Nils Lofgren of the E Street Band grew up in Bethesda and played here. What was he like? How often did you play music with him?

Nils Lofgren is the pride of this town and of the era we’re discussing. He was, and remains, a phenomenal guitar player. He played at the Bethesda Youth Center (BYC) many times. I only recall sharing a stage with him once. Sometimes the BYC would book two bands for a dance, for variety, and one time his band and the Showmen played the same night. I was nervous to say the least!

Who were some of the other acts that performed on The Writer’s Center stage? Did you have a favorite?

Some of the other local acts that performed on the Writer’s Center stage included the Velours, Lawrence and the Arabians, the Newports, the Fallen Angels, the Resumes, the Soul Set, the Viscounts, the Zebes, the Nowhere Men … the list is long. One of our pals, Frank Radice, played there several times with various groups. Frank is now President and Chief Marketing Officer of the The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (they give out television’s Emmy awards).

The Wheaton Youth Center hosted many more nationally known acts. However, my favorite BYC experience was when the Showmen played a show as the backup band for The Fantastic Johnny C, who had a national hit record at the time called “Boogaloo Down Broadway.” (Click here to hear this song.)

In 1965 I started a scrapbook and maintain it to this day. The thing is nearly 800 pages long. It includes far more than just the history of the groups I’ve played in over the years. The scrapbook is really about my huge extended music family that largely grew from a common bond, that of the Bethesda Youth Center. The first 50 or so pages feature the 1960’s music scene and include many photos taken at the BYC. The scrapbook may be a feature of a documentary currently in production which focuses on the very music scene we are talking about here. It is my intention to publish the scrapbook in 2009, tentatively titled “An American Journey.”

Who were some of your biggest musical influences?

My early influences were guitarist Steve Cropper of Booker T and the MGs, guitarists Travis Wammack and Freddy King and, though I am not much of a vocalist, Otis Redding. Hands down, my favorite song is Redding's “These Arms of Mine."

Tell us about your most recent musical project. How is that going?

Thanks in particular for asking about that! I’ve recorded with a number of people, mostly just adding guitar tracks to a song here and there. Two of my groups have recorded CD’s, and one of them, by the “Shakers”, gets occasional radio airplay. In 2008 I began recording my first solo CD, which will be called “Second Chair” and will consist of 8 instrumentals and 2 songs with vocals. All of tracks were written by me except one that was co-written with Billy Bowman, one time Billboard Magazine Indie artist of the year. We have 8 of the tracks recorded,2 to go, and hope to wrap up the project this spring. The CD is being recorded by Human Factor Productions and produced by Grammy nominated Blake Althen, who not only produces CDs but provides music for television, movies and radio.

Other"projects” consist of playing out with a number of music partners. My main group is called Seneca, and is a three time Wammie nominated contemporary gospel group. There are 10 of us in the group plus 2 sound engineers. We are currently rehearsing for some upcoming performances. I frequently accompany singer/songwriters in acoustic settings. Most frequently my acoustic gigs are with Don Bridges and Loralyn Coles or with Rick Crump. Rick and I bill ourselves as “Crumpled Hat.” Occasionally the Shakers and the Blue Dog Band play out. On any given weekend night when I am not booked I usually wind up taking an electric guitar somewhere and sit in a bit with other bands such as the Newports, Boomerang, and Bill Mulroney and the Second Wind Bandits.

What kinds of projects can you—as both a SAW member and a Writer’s Center member—envision the two organizations can do together?

The first thing we want to accomplish is to provide songwriting workshops. We have some Grammy and Wammie winning songwriters interested in participating. Lets hope this moves forward soon. Additionally, we would like to host open mics and produce concerts in the Writer’s Center auditorium, which is where we played music back in the 1960s.

Interested in reading more about the musical scene here in Montgomery County? Click here.

Monday, April 20, 2009

On the Lookout for Falling Pianos: An Interview with Sandra Beasley

Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, selected by Joy Harjo and forthcoming from W. W. Norton. Her first poetry collection, Theories of Falling, won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize judged by Marie Howe. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she writes for the Washington Post Magazine and is working on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, forthcoming from Crown. She blogs at http://sbeasley.blogspot.com/

First, congratulations on winning the Barnard Women Poets Prize. I Was the Jukebox will be your second book of poetry (following Theories of Falling). Can you tell us what it’s like to win this prize and to publish with W.W. Norton?

Who gets this kind of luck? I am on the lookout for falling pianos. I don’t know much yet about publishing with W. W. Norton, but there is much more machinery for design, marketing, and publicity than with smaller presses. My contract is three times as long as the last one. When I first got the news I sifted through my poetry library and plucked out every Norton title I owned. I stroked the hardcovers. I surveyed author photos. I scrutinized the inside jacket box where the layout people tuck one more blurb. The roll call of Norton Poets: Rita Dove, Marie Howe, Kim Addonizio, Stephen Dunn, Stanley Kunitz, e.e. cummings—is staggering. I’m honored and flustered.

You’re definitely on a roll lately. In addition to the Barnard Prize, you’ve recently sold a book of nonfiction (Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl) to Crown. Readers might like to know: What are the challenges you face in writing your manuscript now that you’re on deadline?

Like many writers, I work well under pressure, but that has always been on projects where short and frantic bursts of drafting could sustain the task at hand: the poem, the 750-word column. I’m now looking at a 60,000-word project that needs to have a consistent emotional tone throughout, and strike a balance between memoir and a cultural history of food allergy. It’s a bit daunting. On the other hand, I now have days when I can sit down in front of the laptop and think Today it is my job to write, and my mind doesn’t question that as a priority. Book advances are just a way to ensure that the writer gives herself permission to do what, really, she wanted to do anyway: get lost in the flow of drafting. Ideally while still in my pajamas.

How has your experience editing literary journals shaped your writing?

On a micro level, working at the small office of the American Scholar cultivated my eyes for line edits. There’s no point of rushing past sloppy writing because sooner or later—before I can sign off on each issue’s blueline—it has to be fixed. It’s not enough to flag a rough spot with “this isn’t quite right”; you have to be prepared to suggest a specific correction. This all adds up to being a fierce reviser, and making those revisions as I go along, which saves me a lot of time.

On a macro level, serving as the editor of Folio (the literary journal of American University) cultivated my understanding of trends and clichés. When you’re reading two hundred poems in one sitting and eight of them use flowers as a metaphor for cancer, the bane of cliché takes on a more tangible quality. I became less likely to indulge in familiar language because not only did I suspect it was being said elsewhere, I knew it for a fact. The evidence was in our slush pile. But I also saw a lot of wonderful things come across the transom—fresh work using styles I’d only been barely aware of, stars on the rise. I’m proud to look back and see some of the people I published before they were “known.”

Along a similar line, how would you say writing workshops have helped you develop as a poet, editor, and teacher?

Here’s my basic take on workshops: what you’re cultivating is not really the individual pieces—a piece can be workshopped to competence, but never to brilliance—or even your ability to critique the work of others. What you’re developing is the ability to critique yourself. 85% of workshop comments I hear are not about the draft on the table, but about the speaker’s larger craft concerns or his hopes or frustrations with his own work. And that’s okay—once you’re outside the constant feedback loop of an MFA environment, the ability to revise is more critical than the ability to critique.

During the workshop itself, it’s important to remain in good spirits, indulge in bagels, and always feel free to crack a joke—especially one that breaks the tension. My favorite workshop bonds, and I have some very important ones, are all with the people who were able to do that. At the end of the day we’re all in the same mucky trenches.

Many young writers—of all genres—sometimes make mistakes when submitting to journals or book contests. In your experience, and as a prelude to your upcoming one-day workshop on book contests, what would you say are common errors young or inexperienced writers absolutely must avoid when submitting their work?

Don’t summarize the work or instruct me as to why I should admire it. Better to use a generic “Dear Editors” than to make a personal address to an editor who no longer works there. Don’t cop attitude—cute, sarcastic, sycophantic—in the cover letter. It’s not that we don’t want to see your personality; we do! But that’s what the manuscript is for. This is all welcome-mat advice, getting your foot in the door. But once a full-length manuscript is in an editor’s hands, strong individual poems are not enough. There are higher-level questions to be asked. For some insight on those…come to the workshop.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Your Own Voice: An Interview with Bernadette Geyer

How did your interest in poetry begin?

I specifically remember becoming interested in poetry in high school. I had a great English teacher who encouraged my writing and suggested I submit a poem to a small local newsletter, which they accepted and published. I have a diary from that time which includes various short poems I liked, including Résumé, by Dorothy Parker. I wrote some poetry within the context of English classes in college, but never thought of poetry as a serious vocation until I participated in a poetry workshop, sponsored by a local bookstore, back in 1996. Now it’s hard for me to remember what it was like to NOT feel the need and/or urge to write.

You’re widely published in a number of literary journals, and your manuscript The Inheritance was a finalist for two prizes. What literary journals should young or unpublished poets be reading? And should they worry about prizes?

Young or unpublished poets should be reading any journal they can get their hands on, and any journal they come across on the Internet. Even when I read something that doesn’t necessarily rock my world, I come away with a better idea of what types of poems do blow the top of my head off. Reading a wide variety of publications (both print and online) will introduce you to kindred spirits, and will also help you figure out where are the markets in which your poems may be best suited.

As for prizes, poets should never worry about prizes. Sure, it’s great to win one and pay off your debt to the post office, but it’s completely unproductive and harmful to your psyche to “worry” about winning. It’s far better to worry about whether you’re being true to your poems and your own voice. I’m more concerned with finding connections with readers. When you find a connection, publication will come.

In the age of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Good Reads and all the rest--a glance at your Web site suggests just how involved you are with the Internet—what must a poet do to market him or herself?

I think poets should find their niche, their community. The people whose poetry speaks to them and to whom they want to speak through their poetry. Where do they hang out? Which journals, which presses, which online forums or conferences? No poet can be everything to everyone. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you try. With the other web sites I manage, I saw gaps I thought should be filled. My Resources for Poets site grew out of my own need for a way to continue my education in poetry/poetics when I was trying to hold down a very stressful, full-time job that didn’t allow me to take one month off to go to Greece or Russia – or even Vermont – to take workshops. The web site began as a list of resource links I could use for myself, but I realized it might be valuable to others in the same situation.

I think the best way for a poet to “stand out” is to find his/her voice and nurture it. You are the only person who thinks and writes like you. Don’t try to be like “so and so famous poet X”… just be who you are with your unique perspective and way of writing. If you just try to write like everyone else or do things the way everyone else does them, you’ll sound just like everyone else.

How do you manage it all—being a mom, poet, and literary promoter?

I work a lot. I probably push myself to do too much. I also have a few regular proofreading and writing gigs that bring in a modest income. I watch less than an hour of TV a day, on average. And, thankfully, I have a husband who understands how important my own writing is to me and helps me carve out time for my writing. I also don’t really think I “manage it all.” At least not all at once. I don’t consider myself to be a very prolific poet, but I feel if I can write a few really good poems each year (and maybe a couple of pretty good ones as well), then it’s been a good year. Since my daughter started preschool a few mornings a week last fall, I’ve been able to say “I’m not going to work on weekends or after 10pm during the week” and pretty much stick to it (though I am writing this at 10:50pm, so it’s not a hard-and-fast rule).

Last year, you and Sandra Beasley participated in a 32 Poems reading featuring a live musical performance by the local band The Caribbean. What is it about poetry and music that works so well together? Would you do it again?

I would definitely do it again! That event was a lot of fun. As for why poetry and music work well together I think perhaps it is because they stem from the same roots. Before writing, cultures were purely oral. History was passed on from generation to generation in song and story. The songs were the stories. It’s just a shame that so much contemporary music seems to be generated by a cliché-compilation machine. That’s why I appreciate bands like The Caribbean…you’re not simply hearing something written to purposely tug at heartstrings or to be sung drunk in a bar at 2am. I appreciate music where the lyrics are a little more complex and unique. I think it all goes back to not trying to sound like everyone else. I appreciate bands that have their own unique perspective and sound, just as I am drawn to poets whose work exemplifies distinct perspectives.

About Bernadette Geyer:
BERNADETTE GEYER is a poet and freelance writer/editor in the Washington, DC, area.
Her poetry chapbook, What Remains, was published in 2001 by Argonne House Press. Her full-length manuscript, The Inheritance, was a finalist for the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Poetry Prize and for the Richard Snyder Memorial Publication Prize from Ashland Poetry Press. Geyer's poetry has recently appeared in Hotel Amerika, The Marlboro Review, South Dakota Review, The Midwest Quarterly, 32 Poems, The Evansville Review, and other literary journals. Geyer's non-fiction has appeared in Elle.com, Sustainble Development International, The Montserrat Review, World Energy Review, and Marco Polo Magazine.

You can read another interview with her at savvyverseandwit.blogspot.com.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Interview with E. Ethelbert Miller

Q.What makes good poetry (to you)?

I often asked myself this question when I was teaching in the Bennington Writing Seminars. What did I expect from my students? It's also a question I find myself "going steady with" each time I sit down with a stack of Poet Lore submissions. The good poem begins with its beauty. Selected words placed in an order that gives pleasure to the reader. The good poem kisses me and promises a second read and another date. I look for work that is memorable- the after taste that lingers or the nakedness that seduces again. Visual beauty is important. Control on the page. Order and clarity.I also want to inhale a degree of freshness. The good poem surprises me like magic or a one night affair. I want to take something away with me -even if it's just a fragrance.

Q. Can you talk about the ideas that went into the writing of The 5th Inning?

My second memoir is waiting for the critics to arrive. Don Allen who works at Teaching for Change cast the book as being post-modern. One will find me using excerpts from letters and blogs. I once again created voices to include in the text. This memoir is built around baseball as a metaphor. I refer to the fifth inning as not just middle-age but perhaps the last point in one's life. In baseball the fifth inning can be a complete game - something for the record books. I've written a dark tale but an honest one. When you see my reference to Ettta James then you know I'm also writing about the blues. My book is shaped by loneliness, depression and despair. One will find me constantly exploring what is happening inside the home. Marriage and children. In baseball all things begin and end at home (plate). One must either learn how to pitch or hit in order to survive. Too many people just know how to swing; too many people just know how to throw. Hopefully the reader of my memoir will understand the difference.

Q. What was the greatest word of criticism you ever received, and how did it make you a better poet?

I've been fortunate to have been around a number of writers who gave me excellent criticism. I will always be grateful to my mentor Stephen Henderson. He gave me almost daily feedback on much of my early writing. Haki Madhubuti (then Don L. Lee) provided the encouragement I needed to become a poet. June Jordan gave me the love I needed to write. Ahmos Zu-Bolton gave me the criticism of friendship. I remember him rejecting some of my poems for publication. He claimed I didn't know how to write "hoo-doo" poetry. He tried to teach me. Tom Dent reviewed one of my first poetry books for Freedomways and I saw in print what I needed to learn. He said I would one day find my voice. But maybe it was the writer Steve Cannon (one day sitting in my DC apartment) who looked at my work and said it was just the stuff of a beginner; Cannon's tough comment I had to swallow but it made me stop writing poems about p oetry. I stopped making love to myself. I became a poet with something to say and share.

Q.Any advice to emerging poets?

This is a tough question. I really don't have any advice unless someone is seeking it. I think it's important for all poets to ask the basic questions:Who am I? Why am I here?It's important for poets to find pleasure in their work but to understand that it's work and not just pleasure. I often talk about the heart because each day I find so many of us failing at love. Much of my work was created out of desire. Hopefully emerging poets will always attempt to hold their hearts in their hands and try to figure out what makes it go- how the beat creates the line. Only language can hold us together. Emerging poets must find the common language and seek the Beloved Community. If we fail, history will be forever a mistress.

E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist. He is the board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank located in Washington, D.C. His most recent publication is The 5th Inning,a second memoir, published by Busboys and Poets Press. Mr. Miller is also one of the editors for Poet Lore magazine. Website: www.eethelbertmiller.com.
Photo Credit: Shyree Mezick

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In the Interstice: An Interview with David Keplinger

This Saturday, The Writer's Center is pleased to welcome poets Michael Collier (Wild Dark Night) and David Keplinger (The Prayers of Others). To get us all warmed up for that event, which is here at the Center at 7:30 p.m., I asked David Keplinger a few questions. You can view more about the Collier/Keplinger reading here.

The poems in your book The Clearing are influenced by poets throughout the ages--Blake, Keats, Frost, Donne, Lorca. Did you deliberately sit down to write a group of poems involving major poets?

I think the first poem in that series was Keats'. I had read a poem by Auden that used that form (a very loose iambic pentameter structure with five line stanzas, the rhymes varying from stanza to stanza) and the poem seemed to write itself. In the first section of The Clearing I was meditating on departures, departures from form, departures from ideology, and literal departures from the known into the unknown. Part one soon became an effort to simultaneously honor and clear away the influences who represented form, ideology, and the known. In part two I was focused more on honoring form and limitation; so certain other poets were evoked in that section. In part three, where the Lorca poem appears, I was thinking about the poets of the 20th century who could so beautifully embody tradition at the same time they were able to seem apart from it. Having that structure helped me to craft the manuscript and, of course, it got me to write all kinds of poems I otherwise would not have written.

Your poem "Pig Slaughter" in that same collection is absolutely stunning. Could you tell us a little about its genesis?

This is a strange story because it is one of those eerie examples of how a poem can sometimes lead the way without your (the writer) knowing it. I wrote "Pig Slaughter" in a few minutes. I rarely hold on to the first draft of a poem, but this one I did. It's based on a tradition called "zabijacka" in the Czech Republic. "Zabijacka" means "slaughter," but it's not simply that. There's a gathering of the community to kill, cook, and eat this pig together. When I witnessed one, I thought it had a kind of religious tone to it. After the collection came out, one interviewer noted that I had been using the Anglo-Saxon form -- three alliterations per every four or so beats, with the line breaks serving as the caesura. I looked at the poem and was amazed that he was right. But I hadn't intended that at all. Now I sense there is a part of every poet that moves the poem towards form without our knowing it - and form is always a product of the place and time out of which it came. The Anglo-saxon form is an evocation of the stoic search for dignity; how duty in that tradition supercedes what we desire for ourselves. The pig takes me as an unwilling but necessary martyr; he's killed, cooked, and his body and blood are taken in. In this country we eat plenty of pigs but we avoid confronting the messiness of their deaths. Having to look at it and participate in such a death, I sense the Czechs were honoring the pig, in the old way.

How did you get started translating Carsten Rene Nielsen from Danish?

When I worked in the Czech Republic in the mid-90s I spent one Christmas in Copenhagen with a friend. One afternoon we were sitting in his apartment trying to get the feeling back into our toes (we had just gone on a hike to the water and back), when he pulled a small book from his shelf and started to extemporaneously translate. I so fell in love with Nielsen's poems I contacted him later that year, and, with his help, starting translating him. We worked on email at first, and then Skype. Probably about fifty of the poems were published at different places before we started thinking about a book. In 2007 the book appeared; it was for me just like having my own book published. We had spent so many hours on it! This summer I'm returning to Aarhus to start working on his new collection.

How much has your translation work changed you--if at all--as a poet? Do you think your collaboration has changed Nielsen in any way?

I don't think it's changed him much as a poet, but I sense his English is much better. Sadly, my Danish is still practically non-existent. Without his literal translations in the first draft stage, none of this would be possible. But to answer the first part of your question, I do think that his poetry inspired my third book, The Prayers of Others. That's a collection of short-short prose poems (each about 80 words), which, I'm sure, would never have been written without Nielsen's playfulness and ingenuity to lead me.

Final question, why should young poets read or even translate poetry?

You should read poetry only if you feel drawn to poetry. If you're not, there are plenty of other media and literary genres that could delight, surprise, challenge old ideas, and inform. As for translation, I always say that being a translator means being an intensely close reader. You see that the levels of meaning exist in these untranslateable gaps, and your job as the advocate of this poet in the new language is to try to recreate a kind of environment in which the poem might live again. Charles Simic says, "The idiom is the lair of the tribal beast." I love that, because it suggests that in order to translate well you have to worry about the words, of course, but also the tone; that translating is like trying to create the perfect environment so the poem can be read in the new language without sounding translated. It's about as difficult as getting Pandas to mate in captivity. Young poets should translate poetry because they see their own work should be so rich in subtext; their own work should be breathing like that, in the interstice, the in between.

David Keplinger is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently The Prayers of Others (2006) , which won the Colorado Book Award, and The Clearing (2005). His first collection, The Rose Inside, won the 1999 T.S. Eliot Prize. David has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the SOROS Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, and the Katey Lehman Foundation. From 1995 until 1997 he taught at Gymnazium Petra Bezruc in Frydek-Mistek (Czech Republic) and creative writing at the University of Ostrava. His essays on creative writing pedagogy, now a book-in-progress, have appeared in The American Voice, Teacher & Writers, AGNI, Radical Pedagogy, Theory and Science, and in various anthologies. His co-translations with Danish poet Carsten Rene Nielsen, World Cut Out with Crooked Scissors, appeared in 2007.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Guest Interview: Board Member Les Hatley On The Writer's Center's Musical History, Part I

The Writer’s Center recently partnered with the Songwriters’ Association of Washington (SAW) to bring songwriting workshops to the Center. This may seem like a stretch to some, but the fact is The Writer’s Center actually has a long history of hosting musicians at its facility. Until the early 1990s this building was a community center, and in the 1960s there was a very vibrant music scene. Les Hatley, a board member of both The Writer’s Center and SAW, was an active part of that scene. In addition to his full-time professional life, Les is a musician (guitarist) and songwriter. I asked him to tell this blog’s readers a little bit more about the interesting musical roots of The Writer’s Center’s building.

What was the music scene like here in the 1960s?

Kyle, thanks for inviting me to visit with you and The Writer’s Center blog readers. Lately there has been a good bit of interest in the Washington area music scene, especially about what it was like in the 1960s. This is the fourth interview I’ve had recently about the topic.

My music world started in the early to mid sixties, and, like countless others of my generation, was largely inspired by the Beatles. I watched them when they performed on the Ed Sullivan television show. Their music was unlike anything any of us had ever heard. We were in awe about all aspects of the Beatles, including the music, their long hair, the Hofner bass guitar Paul McCartney played, the jangly guitar sound, the “Beatle Boots,” the tight harmonies and, very importantly, their attitudes.

However, the local music scene was not inspired entirely by the Beatles or the numerous groups cast as part of the “British Invasion” which included the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Cream, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Dave Clark Five, the Searchers, and many, many others. We were also inspired by James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MG’s, the Temptations, the Four Tops … the list goes on and on of rhythm & blues acts that equally inspired us. Interestingly, American rock and roll (Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, etc.) lost ground to the British and soul acts during this period.

In fact, to a large extent there were two camps in the local music scene during the mid 1960s. The R&B bands, also referred to as “soul bands” or “horn bands” generally were large groups, usually lined up with guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and a horn section (usually saxophones and trumpets, some including trombones). Vocals were often double duty for one of the instrument players. Many soul bands also had a front man (sometimes a woman) as vocalist, and some groups would have a full band as well as several vocalists. The other camp, the rock and rollers, usually had a line up of two guitars, bass, drums and often keyboards.

We were so cool, at least in our minds. We knew we were involved in something new and exciting. We acted the part and dressed the part. For years we wore maroon colored tuxedos, and after gigs bands would show up at the Hot Shoppes at the corner of Wisconsin and East-West Highway. Just being there meant one was a player. The Hot Shoppes no longer exists, but imagine the hangout in the movie “American Graffiti” and place it in Bethesda, Maryland.

The music scene was vibrant, fresh, exciting and an awful lot of fun. Opportunities to play were plentiful, with venues from school dances to concert settings to clubs (Ok, they were bars. But “clubs” sounded cooler then). Two unique and, as it turns out, greatly influential venues, were the Bethesda Youth Center and the Wheaton Youth Center. Both Centers still stand, and of special interest to me is the Bethesda Youth Center, as it morphed into The Writer’s Center. An awful lot of music was played there.

The equipment we used in the 1960s, to a large extent, resembled equipment used today. For example, to just look at a bandstand it seems that the guitars and amplifiers look pretty much the same (then versus now). However, the electronics have advanced tremendously. Electronic tuners are standard fare now as opposed to actually tuning by ear. Amplifiers have gone from tube to solid state. In the mid 1960’s guitar players started experimenting with sound effects, primarily “fuzz tones.” If you listen to The Rolling Stones song “Satisfaction” you’ll hear the lead guitar player using a “fuzz tone”. Now you’ll routinely see guitar players use a variety of effects ranging from raw distortion to sounding like a church organ.

One of the more significant changes in equipment use was not relative to advances in electronics as much as just getting smarter. We used to plug our guitars into our amplifiers and stand out in front of the amplifiers. Guitar players still do that, but when a gig calls for any appreciative volume the amplifiers will be “miked.” That means that the real volume is fed through the main speakers, of which the players stand behind. Besides being better able to control the sound mix of the various instruments and vocalists, that also saves the eardrums of the players. Stand in front of the volume and your ears are hurt. Stand behind the volume, and the ears last longer. What that means is that a band might be extremely loud to the audience, but it can be quiet enough on stage to hold a conversation.

Tell us about the band you played with back then. What kind of music did you play?

Back then I played in a group called the Showmen. We were a “soul band” featuring the music of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, and many other R&B artists. We were a busy group, playing nearly every weekend at dances, shows and such. In concert settings the Showmen shared a stage with acts ranging from Roberta Flack to the Fantastic Johnny C to the Chartbusters. The Chartbusters were a local group that had a national hit record and was the group that Tom Hanks used as model for his movie That Thing You Do. Many years later I briefly played in a band with The Chartbusters drummer. Frankly, I don’t know how good we were in comparison to other groups, but we were certainly one of the better known groups. We need to give a lot of credit for our success to the Showmen’s bass player, Tom Carrico, who was also our manager. Tom made music his career, which included managing acts such as the Nighthawks, Billy Price and, for about a decade, Mar Chapin Carter. Several of us Showmen, along with former members of the Velours and Lawrence and the Arabians, let go of other music projects and formed the Blue Dog Band in 1990 and had a great 11 year run until 2001. A highlight gig of the Blue Dog was playing as part of an American Bandstand 40th Anniversary concert with the Coasters, Gary U.S. Bonds and Lou Christie. We still occasionally get together to play a gig.

In Part II, Les discusses Nils Lofgren's performances at what is now The Writer's Center.


Les Hatley is a Washington DC area native, having been born in DC and raised in nearby Bethesda, Maryland. For the past 25 years he and his family have lived in North Potomac, Maryland. His wife, Cindy, is also a Washington, DC native, having been born in DC and raised in the Palisades area of DC. In fact, 5 consecutive generations of her family have lived on the same street in Palisades.

Les, a CPA, is Managing Member of Hatley Insurance Consulting, LLC (HIC), primarily consulting with state insurance regulators about solvency concerns of insurers. His practice takes him to locations all over the United States. Prior to forming HIC he worked for several different insurance groups, was the Director of Financial Analysis for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and worked for a couple of consulting firms. However, career does not get in the way of dedicating weekends to family (including 3 beautiful grandkids) and playing music. Les has been an active musician since 1965, and continues to play a variety of genres including rhythm & blues, rock & roll, contemporary folk and contemporary gospel. His first solo CD is Second Chair.

When not traveling for HIC, spending time with the family, or playing music Les enjoys serving on the Board of Directors of The Writer’s Center and the Songwriters Association of Washington.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Good Writing is Just Good Writing: An Interview with Charlie Jensen

Photo: Shyree Mezick.

You are the author of 3 chapbooks of poetry—The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon, Living Things, and Little Burning Edens. Your first full-length book, The First Risk, will appear this fall. How many of the poems in that collection have appeared in the earlier chapbooks? And for those readers who may be less familiar with chapbooks, how does a poet shift mentally from the chapbook to the book?

All of my chapbooks are excerpts from full-length manuscripts; in the case of my forthcoming book The First Risk, The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon serves as the fourth and final section, and I think any of the other sections could stand as chapbooks too, but taken together they have an emotional and thematic arc they lack when taken separately. I tend to write in longer forms—Living Things is part of a book-length series of poems, for example—so excerpting work into chapbooks isn’t too difficult for me. I feel almost as though I write chapbooks that build up to books rather than writing books that break into chapbooks, if that makes sense.

There’s a storyteller’s immediacy to your poetry. While reading The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon, I was pleasantly struck by how storylike the chapbook was. Can you tell us how you view “storytelling” in poetry?

By and large I prefer poetry that resists straightforward storytelling. I believe the poem is a made thing, a structured thing, and that’s one of the ways we set it apart from other forms of literature. Although The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon has a clear central narrative, it’s fractured, splintered, told out of order, so that the narrative isn’t the driving force of the book; the urgency is built through the reader’s desire to investigate, fill in blanks, draw conclusions. The form trumps its narrative. I don’t enjoy poems that just let a story unspool as if the story itself were poetic. It’s the job of the poet to use all the tools at hand—language, diction, rhythm, form, etc—to turn narrative into art.

In a similar vein as the last question, some of your recent poems concern real life figures (such as Mathew Shepherd). In telling their “stories” you employ the fiction writer’s tool of stepping inside the character. Of course, I don't mean to suggest this is solely the domain of the fiction writer. But for those readers out there who see poetry and fiction as relative opposites, you prove there is in fact overlap. What would you say, as a poet, to a fiction writer who says he or she doesn’t read poetry because he or she doesn’t write poetry?

A fiction writer who won’t read poetry is like a person who likes ketchup but won’t eat a tomato. I just don’t understand it. I read fiction so often, especially lately, and have found so much to love there—writers like Mary Gaitskill, Carole Maso, and Mark Z. Danielewski who are able to turn all my expectations upside down with gorgeous language and lyric narratives. I think fiction writers who resist poetry do so most likely because they’re just not familiar with it, don’t know what to read, etc.—or have read things they don’t like and therefore think “I don’t like any poetry” rather than “I don’t like this poetry.”

My poetry is much more informed by and influenced by cinema and film form than any other kind of art, which may be why you sense a connection to fiction and storytelling. I think people who like movies would like my work.

The online lit journal you founded, LOCUSPOINT, focuses on a new city each issue (the most recent issue is in New Haven, CT). What motivated you to this concept?

My working life has long focused on communities and community development, starting back in college when I was a resident assistant. As a poet in my MFA program, I came to depend on my “in-person” community of classmates and colleagues a great deal. When I graduated and started blogging, I got connected to poets around the country in a different way that was also helpful. LOCUSPOINT bridged those two interests—on the one hand, I really wanted to know more about the connections among poets in different cities and regions around the country—like how Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton both workshopped with Robert Lowell at one time—and how place affects us. And on the other hand, I wanted to help communities by bringing people together, identifying resources, educating and inspiring people to get involved…LOCUSPOINT for me really brings together the solitary art of writing poems with the collaborative act of fostering an arts community, both of which I would consider the overwhelming motivating forces in my life.

You’re a fan of television, and you’ve written about such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gossip Girl on your blog “Kinemapoetics.” What role could/does/should television play for the creative writer?

I think good writing is just good writing, and there’s a lot of innovative and interesting writing on TV these days. I’m a sucker for melodramatic storylines and operatic highs and lows (I think Maribel Dixon really demonstrates that affection) and draw that kind of inspiration from TV. LOST was a huge influence on me while writing Maribel Dixon.

But I also enjoy a lot of shows because they’re serial in nature—they build, over time, toward a massive conclusion, and I feel that’s a guiding principle for my poetic practice. I like to write in sequence and I’m kind of obsessive. I’ve seen Buffy about 7 times through now. Along with Gossip Girl, I love/have loved Veronica Mars, Arrested Development, Grey’s Anatomy, and The Hills. Right now I’m so intrigued by the lines we draw between “fiction” and “reality,” and that’s popping up in my poetry a lot—I’m writing in the voices of Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz and Joseph Smith who founded the Church of the Latter-Day Saints in the same sequence—because in my mind, their concerns aren’t mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, I’m not able to rationalize my obsession with America’s Next Top Model in poetic terms, so you’ll just have to trust me on that.

CHARLES JENSEN is the author four collections of poetry: The First Risk (Lethe Press, 2009) The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon (New Michigan Press); Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O'Hara Chapbook Award; and Little Burning Edens (Red Mountain Review 2005). In 2007, he received an Artist's Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. His poems have appeared in Bloom, Columbia Poetry Review, Court Green, FIELD, The Journal, New England Review, No Tell Motel, and West Branch. With his collaborator Sarah Vap, he published interviews with Lynn Emanuel, Beth Ann Fennelly, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Frank Paino, and C. D. Wright. He serves as the director of The Writer's Center, one of the leading literary centers in the United States, and maintains a blog on culture, cinema, and poetry at kinemapoetics.

Unanswerable Questions: An Interview with Brian Brodeur

Brian Brodeur is the author of Other Latitudes (2008), winner of the University of Akron Press’s 2007 Akron Poetry Prize, and So the Night Cannot Go on without Us (2007), which won the Fall 2006 White Eagle Coffee Store Press Poetry Chapbook Award. Recent poems have appeared in Gettysburg Review, Margie, The Missouri Review, River Styx, Verse Daily, and are forthcoming in Many Mountains Moving. Brian lives and works in Fairfax, VA. He blogs at http://howapoemhappens.blogspot.com/

When did you first know you wanted to be a poet?

I didn’t start to get serious about writing until college. While studying abroad for a year in Galway, Ireland, I took a class on W.B. Yeats and James Joyce. Ulysses bowled me over. I remember reading that episode in which Bloom huddles behind the rocks on Sandymount Strand to “admire” Gerty MacDowell, getting so excited I kept thinking: this can’t be literature, can it? By the end of my first semester at UCG, I had drafted ten short stories, much to the detriment of my course work. When I returned to Salem State College the next fall, I enrolled in my first creative writing workshop. The instructor, J.D. Scrimgeour, introduced me to the poetry of Garcia Lorca, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O’Hara and many others who would become touchstones. He also encouraged my own fledgling attempts, exposing me not only to the vastness of modern and contemporary poetry but, as a poet himself, exemplified writing as a way of life.

If you had an opportunity to prognosticate the future of poetry in America —as you do right now, in fact—what would it look like?

I love this question because it’s impossible to answer. When I think about why poetry matters, I often return to Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of 10 O’clock,” which ends with these lines: “Only, here and there, an old sailor, / Drunk and asleep in his boots, / Catches Tigers / In red weather.” That drunk sailor seems the perfect stand-in for the artist, the outsider, the dreamer, the one who preserves the health of a culture by living far enough outside of it to subjectively criticize it, even if that culture despises or (worse) ignores him.

When Plato and Socrates banished the poet from their Republic they were completely justified. Poetry provokes unrest by upsetting the status quo, by raging against complacency. What do I think the future of American poetry will look like? Beats me. But I hope it continues to push itself into new territories—to find new forms, new subjects, new tones. I’d like to see an even heartier inclusiveness, an entirely different breed of drunken sailors.

Last year you published your first book, Other Latitudes. How different is it to be working on your second book from your first?

I’m not sure how to answer this question either. Though I keep a regular writing schedule, I feel far away from a second manuscript. Basically, I’m trying to write poems that are better than those in my first book. Which is proving to be difficult considering OL is an assemblage of the best work I produced over a period of five or six years. Writing for me, especially the writing of poems, is mysterious at best, painful at worst. Can I say that I’m superstitious, would rather not comment on what hasn’t yet been finished, and hope the muse will still return my calls?

Tell us about “How a Poem Happens.” What prompted you to start that blog?

The project began in selfishness. I wanted an excuse to contact some of my favorite living poets and ask them how they wrote some of my favorite poems. So I came up with this scheme of an online anthology, like the print anthology Alberta Turner edited in 1977, Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process. “How a Poem Happens” is a collection of interviews with poets who discuss the making of specific poems. I choose one poem, ask the author of that poem to answer ten to fifteen more-or-less standardized questions about it, and post those answers on the blog. As of April 6, 2009, fourteen posts have gone live, featuring interviews with Eric Pankey, Stephen Dunn, Adrian Blevins, Daisy Fried, Dorianne Laux, Michael Ryan, Ron Slate, Steve Scafidi, Richard Newman, Dan Albergotti, Sandra Beasley, Richard Frost, Philip Levine, and Oliver de la Paz, with posts from many others forthcoming. Honestly, the generosity and graciousness of the writers I’ve contacted has confounded me.

If you shaved your beard, would you, like Samson, lose all your superpower?

Yes, sir. Try it and die.

Friday, April 10, 2009

National Poetry Month Interviews

I've been preparing a lot of interview questions of late.

For the rest of this month, this blog will feature local poets in "mini-interviews" about their work and the craft of writing poetry. This is, after all, National Poetry Month. So look for interviews with a bunch of poets, including Brian Brodeur, Charlie Jensen, Bernadette Geyer, David Keplinger (who'll be reading at The Writer's Center on Saturday, April 18 with Michael Collier), E. Ethelbert Miller, Reb Livingston and many more. We're still lining up interview subjects.

Also, on Wednesday I'll have a special interview post with a musician who knows the history of music here in DC and at The Writer's Center in particular. That'll be part I of a II-part interview.

During the first week in May we'll have our first ever Member Week on the blog. I'm busy collecting submissions for that right now. We've got enough for one week, but if I get any more (hint, hint) then I'll extend that to two weeks (or longer). Contact me by posting a comment on this blog.

For those of you interested in checking out a completely unrelated interview of mine, visit Art & Literature today (all weekend) for my interview with sportswriter and author Brett Friedlander, who co-wrote Chasing Moonlight. Chasing Moonlight is the untold story of Moonlight Graham, the baseball player who in 1906 got one stinky whiff of the Big Leagues when John McGraw of the New York Giants put him in a game. He never batted, and he would never return to the majors. Later he was immortalized in W.P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe (which was then turned into the film Field of Dreams).

I guess that's it for now. Please look for all the interviews in the coming weeks.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

News & Notes

A couple notes to pass on for Writer's Center members and readers of this blog:

Writer's Center member Sean Brijbasi recently acquired the publisher Pretend Genius (who'll have a booth at next week's Small Press Fair at The Writer's Center).

Part of Pretend Genius is www.writethis.com, and it is going to start accepting submissions again and this time they'll be paying $50 for each accepted piece.

Go here: http://www.writethis.com
or here: http://www.pretendgenius.com/

It's a good looking site.

Also, The DC Area Screenwriter’s Group is looking for new members. Here's some text that was sent to me by a Writer's Center member and a member of this group, Jamie White:

About us: We are a group of writers and film enthusiasts living in the District of Columbia Metropolitan Area. The group’s primary goal is to support members by providing constructive feedback to each other by sharing our writing projects in a caring, honest, and open manner.

About You: Are you serious about screenwriting? Do you welcome constructive feedback on your scripts? Are you willing to read the work of others and offer thoughtful advice? Can you commit to meeting once a month?

If you answered yes to these questions please submit a writing sample and contact information to: DCAScreenwriters@yahoo.com. You will be contacted shortly with details about the date, time, and location of our next meeting.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Wednesday Guest Instructor: Virginia Hartman

Today's Wednesday Instructor guest is Virginia Hartman. She is the editor, with Barbara Esstman, of A More Perfect Union: Poems and Stories about the Modern Wedding (St. Martin’s 1998). Her stories have appeared in The Hudson Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Iowa Woman, and she has recently completed a novel. She has had two fellowships at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from American University.

A lot of my writer friends don’t like to blog. They say it’s like publishing a rough draft. Well, yeah, I guess they’re right, in a way. It’s more raw, more spontaneous than the pieces I’d write, then put in a drawer, then take out and polish, then put away, then polish, etc. until some deadline forced me to let go of the thing and send it out into the world. With a blog, you go out of the house without make-up. Here I am, world!

Another instructor at The Writer’s Center argues that a blog is purely a promotional platform. And I guess that’s true, too, if you want it to be. Some bloggers started out thinking they were keeping a journal on line until they realized, (omigosh!) they had an audience.

I like to think of a blog the way I think of a hand-written letter. (Remember those?) You generally don’t go back and cross out, the letter is fairly stream-of-consciousness in style, and the reader understands that it’s not a piece of work you’ve labored over. It’s just a hello. So, hello! Kyle has asked me to blog, and so I blog.

My topic today is writing every day. There are books about it, so I probably won’t give advice, I’ll only give my own experience. On January 9, 2007, I was sitting with my friend Sarah Sorkin having a cup of tea at her kitchen table. Sarah and I have been friends for years—we met in the MFA program at AU. But I’d lived away and come back—in fact, I’d moved into her neighborhood—and we’d been meeting periodically to talk about our writing. Sarah, uncharacteristically, had gotten out her little black calendar one day and said, “Let’s write down our goals for our projects, and some dates.”

She wanted me to hold her accountable. And she wanted it to be a mutual accountability. On that January 9th morning, we’d been doing this for a while, setting goals, reporting our success, even getting together to write for blocks of time. But that morning she had a new idea. She told me about a book she’d read in which a painter started a new canvas every day for 365 days. Now Sarah’s a Brit by birth, and to hear her speak you have to imagine an English accent that’s been pummeled by “American” for 25 years. She said, “I was thinking that could be done with writing.”

I said (my voice: immature valley girl plus college-educated sophisticate with flat Ohio a’s), “You mean, write every day for a year?”
“I was thinking 100 words,” Sarah said.
“I’ll do it if you do it,” I said, having no idea what I was taking on.

That day, I wrote about my son’s first piano lesson. It was fresh, having happened that morning, and it was dramatic. I counted my words. I was surprised to see that 100 words was only about half a page—about 2 paragraphs. It felt good—I’d written something with a beginning, middle and end, something with action, something I was satisfied with.

Sarah wrote, I think, about a dream. We read what we’d written, out loud, to one another. We were both pretty proud of ourselves. So “I’ll do it if you’ll do it” turned into a pact, a commitment to write 100 words a day, every day without fail, for an entire year. Three-hundred and sixty-five days. And not only that, but to read aloud to each other what we’d written. Every day.

Here’s the remarkable thing—we did it. If Sarah had a migraine, she still wrote. When I went overseas, I still called Sarah and read what I’d written that day. I read to Sarah while she was hiking in California, and she read to me from that location. I wrote in my car, I sat down and read in a chair I happened to come upon in the grocery store, I wrote on the days that I taught and on the days I volunteered at my kids’ school, on the days it snowed and the kids were home, the days we went to the beach...get the idea? Some one was waiting to hear.

There’s more to say about this process, but let’s just say we kept on for about 379 days. I’m so in the habit now that even though our pact has expired, I’ve continued to write a minimum of 100 words a day.

That’s the process. For those who want to know about product, well, I’ve got a draft of a novel I didn’t know I was going to write, Sarah has an entire play and most of a novel, and no one can say we are not writers, dangit!

So there’s my letter. That’s what I’ve been up to. And like a letter, a blog seems to end when the writer feels she’s written enough.

Oh, P.S., Sarah and I will be talking about the writing partnership at the June edition of Leesburg First Friday, presented by the Northern Virginia Writers in cooperation with the Writer’s Center at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 5 at the Leesburg Town Hall, 25 West Market Street, Leesburg. So a blog is a promotional platform! Wow, the things you learn by doing.

There you have it, my rough draft, my promo, my letter. From me to you. Blog back soon!