Thursday, May 28, 2009

Glimmer Thursday: Aria Beth Sloss

Glimmer Train, that venerable institution of American letters, has kindly made available some online pieces to First Person Plural readers. That's right, Glimmer Train. Beginning today, we'll post a link once a month at First Person Plural. We'll call it Glimmer Thursday--the last Thursday of the month.

For those of you who may not know, Glimmer Train is one of the most well known literary journals in the country--one of those journals you really hope to see your fiction published in.

Find a history of the journal right here.

It's quite an honor for us to bring these links to you. Here's a post by Aria Beth Sloss: "Moving Beyond Emotional Minutiae."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What Will Become of The Literary Translator?

Back before I went off to graduate school, an earnest literary-minded guy who really wanted to make the most of his studies, I earned enough money to attend a language school in Zurich where I would get to live with a host family. That host turned out to be Frau Annaliese, an amazing Swiss woman who'd once worked as a cook for a Minnesota politician.

Learning German in Switzerland is actually not that easy, but it's what I wanted to do. I'd always wanted to visit that country. Upon returning home six weeks later, I was better able to converse in German, but I wasn't great. So I enrolled in classes at my local university in western New York. (Okay, it was Geneseo.) By the time I launched my graduate "career," I knew German pretty well. I'm a fast learner. Once there--at Kansas State--I continued to take German classes and even won a scholarship to attend Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany. I'd had a notion in my head that if I was interested in comparative literature, as I was, and if I was in graduate school, as I was, then doggone it I needed to know another language.

Which turned out not to be true, to my great, great disappointment. Though I would've learned Germany in either case. I'd wanted to learn it from the time I was small--my name is Semmel, after all, and my father's interest piqued mine.

But all was not a loss. I also happened to meet my future wife in Kansas. She happens to be Danish. After Giessen, I finished up my graduate studies and together we moved to Denmark. Thankfully, my German studies really helped me learn Danish. After taking some classes with a bunch of other international students--an experience that was unbelievably funny, worthy of another blog post some day--I picked it up. Nowadays, in between doing my own creative work and working at The Writer's Center, I translate fiction from Danish to English. (You can read an interview with me here.) It's not easy to do, translate, but I enjoy it. Often, I do it on the bus or Metro on my way to work. And I've discovered there's a hunger for translations here, and many of the stories I've translated have been published in literary journals like Hayden's Ferry Review, Redivider, The Brooklyn Review, The Bitter Oleander, Aufgabe. And I'm certain now that more will come--it's an interesting creative endeavor.

Where am I going with this? Let's flash forward to Sunday, May 25, 2009. I'm reading the Washington Post. There's this article on a new program Google is making called Google Translate. Google's truly amazing. Seems they're developing a tool to translate text from one language to another just like that. Great. But I have to confess I'm pretty disheartened by the thought that all a future person might have to do to "translate" is use this program, click a few keys, and voila, a translation. In the same way I was disappointed that I didn't actually need to know a language to finish graduate school.

When I told Pia about this she pooh-poohed it. They've been doing this for years, she told me, you know that.

That's true. You can translate text from one language to another pretty easily on the Net using programs like Yahoo's Babel Fish. But what comes out is usually silly and needs repair. Human repair. But what if they fix the problems and it truly becomes a near-perfect machine?

Don't worry, she said, they're not interested in literary translation.

I'm not sure that's a comfort. But I wonder enough about it to write a longer-than-expected blog post about it when surely there's something else I can do. Electronic translation. Nonhuman translation. What will become of the literary translator?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Whatever Happened To: James T. Farrell

I haven't done this "whatever happened to" feature on the blog in a while. So today I'm going to post on an author who has long since faded from everyday lips: James T. Farrell.

Studs Lonigan is his most famous work. Remember this novel? About the boy Studs and his journey into manhood in Chicago? (It was voted #29 on the Modern Library's list of 100 best novels.) James T. Farrell (1904-79) was a contemporary of Steinbeck, Dos Passos, and Hemingway, and I wonder why in the world he's not still remembered more today? I have a theory on that, but I'll come to it in a minute.

First, I want to say that Farrell is the author of around 30 books, including the Studs Lonigan Trilogy, This Man and This Woman, An American Dream Girl, and A Brand New Life. I have no idea, actually, how many of these titles are still in print. Beyond Lonigan--which I began because of my interest in 1930s America--I've recently tackled his early volume The Short Stories of James T. Farrell (1937), which brings together in one book three early books: Calico Shoes (1934), Guillotine Party (1935), and Can All this Grandeur Perish? (1937). Let it be known that Farrell published 9 books during that span. The guy was definitely prolific.

In "Helen, I love You" from Calico Shoes, Farrell tells the woeful tale of a boy in love with a girl who doesn't love him. Which sounds like my high school experience. Much of the story revolves around this boy, Dan, and his argument with another boy named Dick. They argue. It's what boys do. The words "Helen, I love you" appear as a kind of sad refrain--desperate, really. By the end of the story, little has actually happened. Dick and Dan have grandstanded, Dan for the love of Helen and Maybe Dick too. But to no avail. Helen never appears.

Let me say now why I think Farrell's all but forgotten today: He was a socialist. His work is imbued with the spirit of rebellion and social injustice. A working class bloke, he was not afraid to write on what it was like to come out of that milieu. It is for these reasons that I enjoy reading him today, but also for these reasons--I am pretty sure--that he is nearly forgotten. Steinbeck, we might recall, was a socially conscious writer but one who never really took a stand one way or the other. Sure, he wrote pretty well, and empathetically, of dust bowlers in Grapes of Wrath. But in his private life he seemed neutral, more concerned with his art. Farrell was the opposite: a man who joined the Socialist Workers Party and later the Workers' Party. He lived his beliefs. It's also possible he let his beliefs groove too far into his literary work--but I will have to read more to verify that.

How's this for socially aware?

"For White Men Only," from Can All This Grandeur Perish?, is exactly what you'd expect. Two black men defy "rules" and go to a whites only beach, only to be beaten savagely by racist whites. Written long before Jackie Robinson, long before the Civil Rights movement, the story is somewhat of a watershed (for me). Here was a white writer writing on the travesty and injustice American blacks knew intimately. Farrell certainly was no apologist to racists; in this story the racist whites come across as the villains they are. It's a bleak story, and given the fact that we know today just how desperate the times were, also a very heartrending story.

But I give Farrell credit for writing it.

And so I want to say: Try reading James T. Farrell. Overall, the stories in this collection are uneven. There's "The Wedding Bells Will Ring so Merrily" from Guillotine Party that describes the life of a young family struggling to make ends meet, and a father who's trying to reconcile his past dreams with his current situation. It's tough, it's gritty, but it's every bit as real as what we're seeing today. People struggling, people trying to get ahead but, due to circumstances beyond (in some cases) their control, unable to move beyond inertia.

Some of his work is a little thick, a little old-fashioned. "Helen, I Love You" strikes me this way: a story that spends a lot of time telling us what it is rather than showing us. It's a quibble, and one growing out of my several writing workshops (which always lean us toward show not tell). But all in all, I'm taken in by Farrell's deft control of language and story, by his ability to flesh out characters using very little but the bones of dialogue and a few carefully chosen bits of meat.

The fact that he's got a heart for the little guy is an added bonus.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Introducing Our Summer Intern: Henry Gass

My story begins much the same as anyone else’s: in the womb of my mother. My life has also followed paths less traveled than most, taking me from country to country and continent to continent, but back to my mum’s womb, and the subsequent fallout. This womb was more crowded than usual, but after two agonizing minutes I was born after my twin sister in Winchester, England.

Days later I began growing up in my childhood home: Yew Tree Cottage, in Worlds End, Hambledon. Yew Tree Cottage – deceptively named after two giant yew trees that bathed my garden in shadow – might have been the perfect place for a writer to grow up. This quaint English cottage, with bleach white walls, timber frames, and ivy crawling around dusty windows, provided in liberal doses the torrential rains and caressing sunlight the nurtured my bud of creative energy into the seething jungle that now runs wild in my mind. Worlds End, the peaceful country lane and definition of irony, was in Hambledon, the sleepy rural village with four pubs, which was over the hill from Portsmouth, the historic Navy town I went to school in.

My dad was in the Royal Navy, but as far as naval families go we remained largely sedentary. I was thus able to enjoy six years at Portsmouth Grammar School, a converted military school in the middle of the city, surrounded by pubs, cobblestone streets, and antique ships from the Napoleonic Wars.

History lurks around every corner in Portsmouth, naval and literary. Admiral Nelson died literally down the street from my school after the Battle of Trafalgar. The Mary Rose sank in the harbor, Charles Dickens was born there, and writers including Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, and HG Wells lived there.

All this was relegated to the dusty shelves of my memory when my dad accepted a job at the British Embassy in D.C. six years ago. I was transported in all my quaint, rural English naiveté to the capital of the free world and its wide streets, sweltering summers, and outspoken residents. Now, after five years at the Bullis School in Potomac, I have been sufficiently integrated into American life.

I have been at McGill University, in Montreal this past year, a city that filled my heart faster than Canadians fill a hockey rink (despite the fact I don’t speak a lick of French). The narrow streets, gothic architecture, reckless driving, and vibrant, multi-lingual atmosphere reminded me curiously of the Europe I left behind. Maybe it’s come full circle, for those of you reading into any allegory here, or maybe it’s just another unpredictable turn on the road from Winchester nineteen years ago. I like to think that every new country I live in does not change me, but adds to me, and lets me see the world from different mountaintops.

Either way I hope I can help the Writers Center as much as they can help me, and I hope to see you all around in the coming months.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Last Known Position: An Interview with James Mathews

This post originally appeared on Jan. 19, 2009. I'm re-posting it because tomorrow James Mathews will be part of the Muse of Fire roundtable discussion at The Writer's Center. (He was also the workshop leader of the Operation Homecoming workshop that just concluded.) Tomorrow's event should be terrific. In addition to Mathews, others included in the program are Jon Peede of the NEA, poet/activist Writer's Center board member, and author of the recent memoir The Fifth Inning E. Ethelbert Miller, and two members of the workshop: Bob Johnson and Carolyn Schapper. It should be a great time. The screening starts at 7p.m. and the documentary runs about 50 minutes. For more information or to register for this free event, click here.

How many years did it take for you to write Last Known Position? And did you consciously sit down to write a collection?

Most of the stories were written after September 2001. Following the 9/11 attacks, I found myself activated for long stretches which is why many of the stories deal with military characters and subjects. Because of these similarities, I anticipated pulling them into a collection but I don’t think I wrote any individual story with the idea that it had to connect with another. Also, although each of the stories is self-contained, they examine desperate characters under extreme pressure – sometimes to the point of lunacy – which was reflective of where I was creatively.

The story "The Fifth Week" strikes me as a wonderfully innovative short story. Much is packed within its few pages, and readers are left feeling a sense of sadness and frustration for the lives of the characters. But you still manage to make this story funny. How important is the "comic" to your work as a fiction writer?

“The Fifth Week” was actually the only story in the collection that I finished prior to 2001. The setting is the fifth week of basic military training (“boot camp”) which entails the breakdown of the individual and the formation of a team mentality. It can be a brutal physical and mental experience, but it’s also necessary given the nature of the job itself. Just to give you an idea how it can affect people, my flight experienced two suicide attempts during the first two weeks. I felt bad for these individuals, but I also knew that some of these guys could be working with nukes one day so, in a way, you’d rather they crack there than in the field. Anyway, I set out to describe the experience as I remembered it and soon realized that describing it in a story left me at a loss because it’s definitely one of those things that can’t really be described but has to be experienced to be understood. I tried coming at it in a more experimental fashion, using present tense and the ‘we’ narrative and it clicked with me right away.

One of the great things about using humor as a writer – especially the darker variety - is the ability to tap into a character’s subconscious tendencies to be funny. The best humor – I think – is humor that the characters themselves are completely unaware of, but is clear to the reader. It’s important, of course, not to slip into mocking the character because that’s when the curtain drops and the writer intrudes. I don’t always succeed at this, but I’m always shooting for a ‘less writer, more character’ presentation.

Each war of the last century has its storytellers--Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Tim O'Brien, Richard Currey, etc. These writers portrayed lives involved in war. How important is it that the Iraq War finds its storytellers?

Very important. Again, I think there are feelings and issues that can best be conveyed by veterans who have been there, done that. I don’t mean to suggest that gifted non-veterans can’t capture something of value when writing about war or characters in a war setting. I just think there’s an element of the human condition– at least as it relates to combat – that is best conveyed by those who see it and live it, especially after they’ve had time to reflect and understand the experience better. Real-time journaling has its place and there have already been good pieces written, but I really look forward to veterans taking a serious look back on the experience and rendering it into fiction.

You can already see the effects of non-vets trying to convey the experience on film. I’ve personally seen little value in the Iraq war movies that have been made to date. The veterans in these films are usually portrayed as either brutes to be mocked or pawns to be pitied. Very few of the veterans I’ve come across – regardless of their own personal view of the war – would be inclined to take such a cardboard approach to the experience.

What is the difficulty in writing about a war in which the country is currently involved?

Again, I think it’s a question of distance. Some of the best presentations of war are usually written years after the conflict ended. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (10 years after), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (16 years), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (24 years), Richard Currey’s Fatal Light (15 years), and Tobias Wolfe’s In Pharoah’s Army (21 years). I’m sure there are exceptions, but I also think it’s a line-up few can argue with.

There are certain experiences that I’ve had while deployed to Iraq that I can imagine using in a longer work, but it will take time to process them.

What makes writing about the Iraq War different than, say, Vietnam?

Based on conversations with Vietnam vets, I would say that the differences are minimal. Any wartime experience is harsh. When I was deployed in 2003, my ‘home’ was a tent, no running water, no privacy, questionable food, harsh weather, hostile population, and whole lot of “hurry up and wait.” That pretty much sums up most vets’ experience. I think when any writer-veteran observes human behavior under these circumstances – and also while engaged in combat – certain aspects of character and behavior are formed that are especially applicable to good fiction, regardless of whether the setting is a desert or a jungle.

Can you tell us a little about the genesis for the title story: "Last Known Position: 2,000 Feet above the Earth and Descending"?

The first scene in that story describes a horse which has jumped off a cliff and landed in a tree. There the horse is suspended several hundred feet above the ground. My wife’s uncle – who grew up in Peru – told me he had witnessed just such an event as a boy. When I asked him whatever happened to the horse, he said he couldn’t remember but added that “it probably didn’t end well.” I took that small anecdote and ran with it which made for an enjoyable writing experience and, hopefully, a worthy story.

Can you tell us what it was like to win the Katherine Anne Porter Prize?

Great satisfaction for sure, especially after learning that Tom Franklin – a writer whom I admire – was the judge. I’ve been publishing my stories individually for years, but this gave me a chance to see a collection in print. My understanding is that the runner-up for the KAP Prize went on to win the Drue Heinz Literature competition so I feel like I was definitely up against some good competition.

James Mathews grew up in El Paso, Texas as well as a variety of Army bases throughout the country. After active service in the U.S. Air Force, he settled in Maryland with his wife and children.

His fiction has been published in numerous literary magazines including The Florida Review, the Northwest Review, the Greensboro Review, Carolina Quarterly, the Wisconsin Review, the South Carolina Review, and a dozen others. He has been awarded two Maryland State Arts Council Grants for fiction and a number of other awards including the Carolina Quarterly’s Charles B. Wood Award for Distinguished Fiction. He can be found online at

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

New England Review

One of the blog's I follow is Hayden's Ferry Review's blog--HFR is one very fine literary journal and a member of our Literary Discount Program.

On their blog today is a post about another member of The Writer's Center's Literary Discount Program, the wonderful New England Review. Seems, sadly, that NER is suddenly in jeopardy. It's been told by Middlebury College, as the HFR blog notes from the LA Times blog Jacket Copy, that it needs to become "self-sustaining by 2011."

This is all written in the HFR blog (and the LA Times blog), and you can see this for yourself on those sites.

But to this I have to say: My God! In this time of declining support for literary journals, we have to absolutely support great journals like New England Review. I've said this before and I'll say it until I'm blue in the face, or dead, whichever comes first: Literary journals are one of the prime movers on the literary scene. Many young or unestablished authors first get their pub creds here--and in fact that's where many get noticed by agents and publishers. I know I personally have benefitted from a number of great journals supporting my work. It's such a wonderful thing to get that letter or call or email from an editor who says: "We love your work and want to publish it."

If these literary journals are not supported by the very people who submit stories to them, what will happen to them? And what will happen to that very democratic playing field where it is possible for you to get your work out to a broader audience? Journals like New England Review are trusted friends.

Dear Readers of this blog, consider subscribing to New England Review. Trust me, you will not be disappointed! And remember, as members of The Writer's Center you can get a 40% discount.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Shaping New Words: An Interview with Brandon D. Johnson

D.C.-based poet Brandon D. Johnson shared with Abdul Ali his thoughts on poetry and some insights he picked up along the way. His recent collection of poems is Love Skin.

What makes good poetry (to you)?

I want the contemporary work that I read to feel new. It must be something that doesn’t remind me of someone else’s poems directly. It is something that makes me want to write. I love work that causes me to go ‘I wish I’d thought of that,’ or that makes me say, ‘I wish that I could do that.’ I like poets with distinctive voices and work from which I learn. I’ve learned a great deal from these poets’ work: Yusef Komunyakaa; Henry Taylor; Philip Levine; Ai; Patricia Smith; Gwendolyn Brooks; Sterling Brown; Cornelius Eady. I have to stop there. I go back to their work over, and over, again.

Can you talk about the ideas that went into your recent book Love Skin?

What did you set out to do with that manuscript?I always work to tell stories. I want to get a reader involved in a person’s character. I want to tell tales. I love movies, so my mind works from images, like stills. The greatest compliments I’ve gotten are that someone liked my images; that they knew someone like ‘that’; or, that a piece sounded like a movie.

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

"What you cut out of a poem is as important as what you leave in.” But notice that I said cut out, from editing. The first thing is to write down everything, then later concern yourself with what can come out. That was advice given me, that I’ve used. I can’t remember the greatest word of criticism, but I can remember the first day someone critiqued one of my poems. It was Joel Dias-Porter (DJ Renegade). He looked at a poem of mine and he said, “Can I write on this?” That’s when I first started learning about poetry. That continued among the larger group of poets I’ve workshopped with over a span of time. They are now the ‘workshop’ I carry around in my head. I’ve often said that I can’t figure out what I like most, the initial writing of the poem, or the subsequent editing. I think it is more the editing, because that’s when I really figure out what my ‘mission’ is with the piece. There is no such thing as a couple of edits. It is something that goes on even after the piece is lucky enough to be published.

Any advice to all the emerging poets who will read this in blog-o-sphere?

Read everything; everything and everyone. Maintain a writing thought process, even when you’re not writing something. I always wonder what something I hear, or see, would look like on paper. Read more poetry. If you read, or hear, someone you like, ask the writer who they read. Anything that you do write must be edited; even email.

C.M.Mayo, Luis Alberto Ambroggio, and Yvette Neisser Moreno Reading

Great event at The Writer's Center yesterday. Here are some pictures for those of you who were unable to attend. We have two more events this week. On Thursday we'll host a reading from Grace Cavalieri's play Anna Nicole, and on Friday we'll host a screening of the NEA's Operation Homecoming documentary Muse of Fire. Each event begins at 7p.m., and each is free. Hope to see you there! Oh, and look for an interview with local poet Brandon Johnson on this blog tomorrow.

Luis Ambroggio contemplates.

Yvette Neisser Moreno reading from her translation of Ambroggio's Difficult Beauty.

C.M. Mayo shows us her newest novel, The Last Prince of The Mexican Empire.

For more on this event, check out SavvyVerseandWit. She's even giving away a free copy of C.M. Mayo's book.

Or you can go to Art & Literature to read more.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Olney Theatre: The Glass Menagerie

A message from the wonderful folks at Olney Theatre in Olney, MD. For those of you interested in seeing a performance of The Glass Menagarie, a special offer:

Olney Theatre has a couple of morning matinees for its upcoming production of The Glass Menagerie, and they're offering a special discount. Here are the dates and the discounts:

Wednesday, May 27th at 10:15 am
Thursday, May 29th at 10:15 am
Tuesday, June 2nd at 10:15 am
Olney will reduce the ticket price for any interested Writer's Center members (& blog readers) to only $10 a person (usually $39 - $49).

To reserve your seats, or if you have any questions, please contact Weldon Brown at Olney Theatre Center: or 301.924.4485 x121. You can also use code MCC010 online.

Here's a little bit about the play:

May 27 – July 5

Directed by Jim Petosa

In the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab

Amanda Wingfield hails from a genteel southern family. She was once the most popular girl in town with her pick of eligible bachelors...but she chose poorly. Amanda is desperate to make sure that her two adult children do not replicate her mistakes. As she struggles to create a future for her son, an aspiring poet who is rarely home; and her daughter, a cripplingly shy woman who is home too much, she might just lose the family she is desperate to save. Join Olney for Tennessee Williams' glittering and haunting masterpiece.

Featuring: Briel Banks, Michael Kaye, Paula Langton, and Jeffries Thaiss

Visit Olney Theatre Center's Web site for more information on their lineup of great shows.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Joys (and Challenges) of Translating Poetry with Guest Instructor Yvette Neisser Moreno

Exactly 4 months ago Yvette Neisser Moreno blogged on the topic of translation right here on First Person Plural. Yvette's a translator and workshop leader at The Writer's Center, and she and Luis Alberto Ambroggio, the poet whose work she translates, will be reading this Sunday at 2:00 P.M. at The Writer's Center. They'll read along with C.M. Mayo, who posted here yesterday. Scroll down to see that post, if you didn't get the chance already.

Yvette's book of Ambroggio translations, Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems, will be out this month. Learn more about Sunday's event here.

Now on to Yvette.


It's funny. Nearly every time I tell someone (a non-translator) that I translate poetry, the response is inevitably the same: “That must be difficult.”

Well, my friends, I’m here to tell you that first and foremost, translating poetry is a pleasure. This pleasure—like all forms of creative writing—is accompanied by challenges and sometimes frustrations. But isn’t this true of any life passion?

Two of my great passions in life are poetry and languages. For me, reading poetry in foreign languages is a great pleasure. So translating poems into my native English involves many pleasures: the linguistic pleasure of learning new words; the creativity of creating a poem; the pleasure of looking for a way to express a foreign phrase in my own language; and perhaps the deepest reward is the intimate relationship I develop with the original poem.

I had to say all that to preface the actual question posed to me for this blog—how does one handle the difficulties of translating poetry? Well, the “difficult” parts are what make translating poetry interesting. Occasionally, I have run into such a simple poem that I was able to pretty much do a word-for-word translation. That’s easy, but not particularly rewarding! The joy is in the word play, trying to figure out those linguistic puzzles, how to take something particular to one language and transport it into another.

I’ll give a brief example. One of the first poems I translated from Pablo Neruda ["Sonnet 64" from 100 Love Sonnets] included the following line: “Fui de rumbo en rumbo como las aves ciegas”. Literally, something like: "I went from one direction to another like blind birds." The word rumbo means direction, like a compass direction, but the phrase "fui de rumbo en rumbo" would usually be translated along the lines of “I wandered aimlessly”. But this is poetry—in poetry, sound is equally important as sense, particularly with an incredibly rhythmic poet like Neruda. The repetition of the word rumbo seemed important to me. I looked in Roget’s thesaurus for an English phrase with a similar meaning/effect: hither and thither, for example. Captures the sense and repetitive effect, but for the sound of this poem—flat.

Ultimately I decided to take a risk of doing something that poetry translators are cautioned against: I added a couple of images that were not in the original, in order to stay faithful to what I felt was the sentiment, the sound, and the rhythm of Neruda’s line: “I tumbled from limb to limb like a blind bird.” Believe me, I spent many hours pondering possible variations of that line, playing with the “mb” sound from rumbo, considering English verbs to use in place of the simple Spanish fui. But for a poet, what could be a more pleasant way to spend one’s hours than trying to mimic the style of one’s favorite poet?

This line was very difficult to translate, but I thoroughly enjoyed the process. May the adventurous among you find as much enjoyment in your own translations.

Yvette Neisser Moreno is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The International Poetry Review, The Potomac Review, Tar River Poetry, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

Her translation (from Spanish) of Argentinian-American poet Luis Alberto Ambroggio's Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems will be published in 2009 by Cross-Cultural Communications. In addition to working as a professional writer/editor, Yvette teaches poetry and translation at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and in public schools in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. The next workshop she will lead at The Writer's Center is Poetry Translation: Spanish/English.

Her translation Web site can be found here.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Midnight Voices: An Interview with Deborah Ager

A big thanks to all those Writer's Center members who participated in this blog's first ever Member Week last week--and thanks to all you out there who read those posts!

Last month, you may recall, I interviewed a raft of poets on all manner of questions, from Brian Brodeur and his beard to Jody Bolz and Poet Lore. It gave me such a warm fuzzy to reach out to poets and ask them a bunch of questions that I've decided to make it a regular part of this blog. Won't be just poets, though. Look for writers of many different stripes to come through this blog at some point. Today we do have another poet, this time Deborah Ager. Her first book, Midnight Voices, came out last month.

Your first collection, Midnight Voices, was recently published by Word Tech/Cherry Grove Collections. Can you tell us how long that book was in the making?

When I studied at Florida, a mentor told me that I'd probably decide to include none of the poems from my thesis. He said he found that true with most of his former students. I did end up including a few -- "The Healing Dirt of Chimayo" and "Santa Fe in Winter" -- which were published in the New England Review. That means this book was roughly 10 years in the making.

Now that your book is out, you're giving readings and promoting the book. What should new poets expect once they publish their book(s)?

I don't know that a new poet should expect anything, and I don't think poets should be satisfied with that.

We all hear how the poetry audience is shrinking. Every poet should work to increase that audience. Where is that audience? They were born last week and will be born tomorrow. You see them in car seats and strollers. Some are in elementary school and others are twelve.

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting a class called "Poetry and Performance" taught by Daniel Nester at the College of St. Rose. Most of the students in the class are education majors. Part of what he teaches them is how to share poetry with children. What can you, dear reader, do to develop an audience? I'm asking myself this same question.

You've received fellowships from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In addition, you were a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. How important were these experiences to you as a writer? What would you suggest for young writers interested in applying for writers' conferences and retreats?

To a young writer, I'd say send in the application and then return to your work. Do your best not to fret.

Each experience introduced me to new creative people and their ways of thinking. Conversations with other artists have spurred poems, ideas for future projects, and artistic collaboration. At the same time, these retreats, for me, are mostly about silence. I can sit in complete silence for several hours and write. I developed a rhythm of waking, eating breakfast and then heading to work for several hours.

Then, I'd stretch my legs with a walk in the woods and revise in the afternoon. The VCCA is a wonderful place; I highly recommend applying.

You co-direct the Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Reading Series. What is the reading series and what kind of poets are you looking for? Which poets have appeared?

In 1976, WordWorks writers gathered inside Miller Cabin for poetry workshops. Eventually, a reading series grew out of that. We host eight readings on Tuesday nights in June and July at the Joaquin Miller Cabin in Rock Creek Park. Readers have included Stan Plumly, Temple Cone, Tun-Hui Hu, Kyle Dargan and Sarah Browning. I'm not sure I'm allowed to say yet who will read for 2009. Please visit the website. Soon, it will be updated with 2009 news at

32 Poems--the magazine you founded and edit--is a young publication. But poems in that journal have already been honored in anthologies like Best American Poetry and Best New Poets. What would be your advice to anyone interested in starting their own literary journal?

I'd suggest that anyone who wants to start a journal write out their vision for it, so you can remember it when the process becomes hectic.

Consider the following questions:

How much will it cost you?
Do you want to create a print or online journal?
What is your main reason for creating the journal and how will it differentiate itself?

After lugging large literary journals onto the metro with me, I decided it was time to start a magazine that I could carry around town without breaking my shoulder. 32 Poems was born. Although it weighs little, we publish 64 poems per year and publish anyone from talented undergrads to talented Pultizer-prize winners. 32 Poems blogs at

Deborah Ager's first book, Midnight Voices, was published by WordTech/Cherry Grove Collections in 2009.

Her poems appear in Best New Poets 2006, Best of the Tigertail Anthologies, The Bloomsbury Review, New England Review, The Georgia Review, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. She's received fellowships from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference.

She codirects the Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Reading Series in Washington, DC.

She is founding editor of 32 Poems Magazine. Many poems first appearing in 32 Poems have been honored in the Best American Poetry and Best New Poets anthologies and on Verse Daily and Poetry Daily. The magazine publishes 64 poems per year. Visit her online at

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Guest Member: Jim Beane


Two weeks ago, I read an article written by Charles McGrath for the New York Times titled "The Artful Codger." At that time, an unusual level of frustration and self-doubt blanketed my writing career. Lit-mag rejections crowded my mailbox, my collection of linked stories had sparked little interest in the publishing community and that endless task of editing and re-editing, preparing and sending, editing and editing and editing… had begun to wear me down. Hard work is not always enough, despite the optimist’s mantra. McGrath's article spoke of aging writers and their changing styles and levels of output. McGrath tried to lay to rest the myth that our best creative work is left behind with our youth. I am in my late 50’s. I’ve written stories since my teens. I’m not sure I’ve left much behind. I don’t have an MFA. I have stories to tell and I tell them, simple as that. My reward: two copies of the literary journals that choose my stories for publication and the occasional assurance that my work has value. Carpentry work has paid the bills for the last thirty years or so.

When I was a boy, the men in my life, friends and family alike, earned their livings with their hands. Plumbers. Pipefitters. Tile men. Railroad workers. Coal miners. Farmers. Fishermen. My father was the only man I knew who read anything beside a newspaper. He valued education. He loved to read and it turned out, so did I. I liked school, it came easy. I did well. The prize was college and some windows did open up for me while I was there. Free thought. Argument. Questions. Answers. But I still lived in the world of ‘real work’ and I could not help but follow the footsteps of those I knew.

I worked construction jobs during my high school summer vacations, I’ve never really tried my hand at much else. I like working outside, despite the weather, and being part of building structures that remind me of the men I'd come to know and respect. Carpentry suited the ‘cowboy’ in me. Like Salinger said, “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters”.

John Hershey compared the process of writing a story to building a house. Writers build the skeletal frame and cover it with details of flesh and bone; carpenters do the same. That metaphor stuck with me.

McGrath’s article made me feel good. He dispelled the notion that age diminishes us. Sure, my bones ache but not all the time. When the sun’s hot and the day’s short and the last rafter’s almost set, I feel strong, new, and I remember that feeling. I don’t kid myself, there’s an end, my body won’t hold up. But I get that same strong feeling writing, workin’ those words. What changes, in all our lives, is the balance. Sometimes we need reminders. Charles McGrath reminded me. Maybe, this blurb will remind you.

My first published story told of an old Carpenter forced to address his prejudice against youth and the fear that gripped his future. More published stories followed, I’m not very prolific, my first drafts are longhand and several edits precede each story’s placement on the computer. I’m terrible at sending out. I've linked a dozen stories into my first collection titled ‘MARIS STELLA & other stories’. Currently, I am at work on my first novel and circulating five stories on the lit-mag circuit. A half-dozen new stories beg for my attention. Another half-dozen lie waiting in various stages of completion. None of them is ready to send out. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. My time there was bliss, no chores, no demands, no schedules. I hope to go again, after the completion of my novel’s rough draft.

I continue putting forty hours a week on the clock. I drive a full-size work van that leaves my house every morning at 6:30. I've built stuff in neighborhoods all over the city and suburbs. My dear wife has stuck by my side for thirty years. We’ve raised two college-educated daughters. I’ve restored our home, a ramshackle 1920’s two story bungalow, in the spare time of living in it for twenty-three years and I get two weeks paid vacation per year. I have a second job. I am a writer and writers write. Here's how.

Domestic life: I located someone who loved to read and appreciated good writing and latched onto her and never let go. Don't believe those who say you have to suffer starving artist time, that there’s only room for you, the writer, and your muse. A life of single-minded pursuit offers little comfort and less financial reward.

Education: I read and read and read. I workshop my stories and wear my thickest skin. I attend writer functions, conferences, readings, classes, anything. I make time to do all of the above. No excuses. No complaints. I take action to improve. I cannot learn too much.

Network: I helped form a writers group. Groups allow new perspectives on one’s work and free constructive criticism. My group stemmed from a workshop at The Writer's Center. Our organizing founder culled six writers from the workshop and invited us to her home. We talked about what we wanted from a group, set up our conditions and called ourselves a writer’s group. We meet once a month, rotate submissions and workshop our stories. We organized eleven years ago. The impact on my writing is immeasurable. There are seven members now, and all have logged significant successes since we formed.

Make time: I utilize vacation time. I organize my schedule and take blocks of time devoted exclusively to writing. I always use the week between Christmas and New Year’s day to catch up. I work for sympathetic bosses who understand what's needed to work creatively and afford me the time off as needed, without pay of course, except those two weeks and a handful of holidays. I try to schedule time away at retreats and conferences.

Discipline yourself: My writing schedule consists of early Saturday and Sunday mornings (I wake around 5 a.m. and work in my basement workspace until noon or whenever my dear wife bangs the floor above my head as reminder that there are other things that need my attention). I work two or three nights a week for several hours or until I start to nod at my desk. My life prohibits an output of a thousand words a day like some might insist is the minimum requirement to call yourself a writer. If I come up with free time, I read or write.

Stay current: I subscribe to three writing magazines. The Writer, Poets and Writers and The Writer's Chronicle. These mags are my industry resources. My shelves are stacked with countless instructional and philosophical books on writing. Most of the titles are forgotten, all the copies are dog-eared. I force myself to use the internet. I study websites of literary magazines and websites of writer’s resources.


And I write and write and write.

And I remember ‘The Artful Codger’ that lives in all of us and relish my powers as a creative writer even as I worry about losing them.

Jim Beane lives in Hyattsville, Maryland with his wife of thirty years. Carpentry work helps pay the bills. His stories have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Scribble, The Long Story, Potomac Review and the anthology DC Noir, edited by George Pelecanos. The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts granted him fellowship in 2006. His story collection Maris Stella & Other Stories is looking for a publisher.

Jim worked his first construction in the summer of 1968. He settled on carpentry as his trade after college and has spent the years since practicing that trade and learning the craft of creative writing.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Member Week: Norma Tucker


How am I ever going to become a great ballerina? I have fat thighs and short arms, and sometimes I forget to reach, circle, tighten, or quiver along with the movement of my feet and body, and I hate to practice. I go to Ella Banks Studio of Dance, and sometimes Ella Banks is my teacher. I like the way her name feels in my mouth, El la. Her daughter also teaches, Ruth Banks; she’s married and has fat thighs. So does El la. Ella Banks’ hair looks yellow, not blonde, yellow. Yellow feels different than El la.

I’m the lead dancer in a tap trio of me, my sister, Sally, and another girl, Arlene. I’m the oldest, Arlene is the youngest, and Arlene’s mother doesn’t have a husband. Sometimes I tap dance solo. I did a military number at my last recital to the music of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and my costume was white satin with red and blue trim and something gold on my shoulders called epaulets. I wore a white satin cap shaped like the one my Mom’s friend, Anne, wears. She’s in the army, a woman soldier. They call them WAC’s. My Mom’s used lots of bobby pins to keep the cap from falling off my head while I danced.

She said, “Try not to lose any. They’re hard to get now with the war on.”

Another thing about me ever being a ballerina. I look ugly with my hair pulled back tight off my face.

Today I went to my ballet class right after school. Sally and Arlene do not take ballet. They used to. Once, in a recital, we were the flowers in “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker. We each had a different pastel colored tutu -pale green, yellow, and mine, pink.

My Dad is picking me up today. He usually waits for me downstairs from the Ella Banks Studio of Dance by the barbershop door right off the lobby of the movie theater on the first floor. Ella Banks Studio of Dance takes up the whole second floor above the movie theater on the corner of North and Pennsylvania Avenues in Baltimore, Maryland. Pennsylvania Avenue at North begins one of the colored sections of town.

Odelia is colored; she comes to our house once a week to do the ironing. Everything in our house gets ironed, even sheets and the towels we use to wipe the dishes. My Mom calls them tea towels. One time Odelia brought her little girl with her. I wanted to play with her, but Odelia wouldn’t let her play with me.

My Mom said, “Leave it alone. She’s younger than you, anyway.”

I see my Dad waiting by the barbershop. He’s not smiling like he usually does when he sees me. His large brown eyes in his thin, pocked face seem sad. He’s not telling me to hurry along. He’s just watching me with those big eyes.

The radio in the barber shop is really loud. And now that I’m by the open door, I hear the announcer.

“President Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia today.”

“Oh Daddy, what’s going to happen to us?”


Norma S. Tucker of Bethesda, Maryland, native of Baltimore, Md., retired after over a twenty-five year career in higher education administration. She served at a Maryland community college, a women’s college, in associations, and in university and international institutions. She is now fulfilling her long-time desire to write short stories, a memoir and essays with occasional ventures in poetry. She has participated in numerous workshops at The Writer's Center.

Member Week: Ann Barnet


In the 1930s when everyone was poor, complaints about clothes salvaged from the Missionary Barrel would evoke a reproachful reminder from our mother, “Other children are suffering.” Shoes, however, were always bought brand-new. Mother had bunions; she was fanatical about a proper fit for growing feet. Perfect size leather lace-ups were guaranteed by the shoe-store fluoroscope, an X-ray machine widely employed to fit children's shoes, until some authority thought of the cancer risk.

Our next-door neighbor, Mr. Schleiner, committed suicide because he lost all his money in the stock market. His daughter Grace was in the same grade as my brother, Paul. Mean Gracie tattled on us when we ate some of her mother's raspberries from the bushes that leaned over onto our property, so I hated her. I was sorry, however, when I learned that her father might not go to heaven. I pled for him, but mother who understood such matters was doubtful. "It depends whether he accepted Jesus as his personal Savior." Gracie had to move away because of the lost money. Her house was empty for a long while. The raspberries were there for the picking, but, as is the way in such matters, they didn’t taste as good as before.

A railway ran along our big back lot behind a row of bright hollyhocks. We waved to the conductor, balanced on the rails and smashed pennies stuck onto the tracks with chewing gum. I solved one of my first scientific questions: Which sense is first aware of an approaching train? I lay balanced against a track. When I felt a vibration, I rolled down the embankment. Then I would hear the whistle, and then see the approaching engine. My place on the track was warm in the sun, and sometimes I dozed. Although I always rolled to safety in plenty of time, I decided to quit experimenting before my sister, Eva, told on me. I didn’t want to risk a spanking, or worse, a prohibition from going into the back lot.

Most of the traffic on the Aurora and Elgin was commuter trains, but freight trains also rumbled down the tracks. They delivered a plentiful supply of hoboes to our back door. "Hobo," one of us would yell when we heard the knock. It was a perfectly respectable appellation, as far as we knew. It never entered into our heads to be afraid of our visitors. Rather, I longed to hop a freight with them and live a far-away life of thrill and adventure. Then mama would pine for me – sweet revenge.

Mother kept twine and a pile of old clean sheets torn into squares in the pantry. We would help her make baloney and mayonnaise and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and wrap them in wax paper. She would tie them into the cloth squares for convenient carrying, along with an apple if we had one. A tract that explained how to get Saved was placed in every package. Hoboes usually carried their own sacks, but mother wanted her food to stay clean. Besides she wanted to be sure the hoboes received spiritual sustenance along with their daily bread. Cleanliness and Godliness in one convenient packet.


Ann Barnet grew up as the daughter of a minister. She became a physician and medical researcher at Children’s Hospital in Washington. In 1980, she founded a community center, The Family Place, which serves low-income expectant parents and preschool children. She is writing a memoir called, “Border Crossings: A Spiritual Journey in Medicine.”

Our family lived in the town of Elmhurst, a half hour from Chicago on the Aurora and Elgin Railway. My father took the train each morning to work in Chicago. The track ran along our big back lot behind a row of bright hollyhocks marching along the edge. We waved to the passing trains, balanced on the

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Member Week: Camille E. Gaskin-Reyes

Today's member is Camille E. Gaskin-Reyes. Currently an adjunct professor at George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs, she spends most of her free time reading and writing. Her favorite poets are Pablo Neruda and Rumi.

Spooning Out Childhood Memories

Reaching back into my South American childhood is like stirring a huge pot of memories with a ladle and dishing out experiences, some wonderful, some painful. One vivid flashback takes me to the tender age of three. Every morning as my older siblings left for school, I, the youngest of nine children, would tearfully wave at them. While they went off into a mysterious world, I puttered around the house by myself, until they reappeared.

After my daily crying fits, my mother took pity on me and asked my brother’s kindergarten teacher to allow me to accompany him to school for one day. When the big day arrived, my mother wrote my name on a satchel, and placed a bottle of milk (I still drank from a bottle), a small slate, white chalk, a pacifier, and a handkerchief inside. That morning I proudly entered my brother’s class. The teacher made me sit in a small chair at the back. She told me to be very quiet.

By mid-morning I was completely worn out, slumped in my chair like a senior citizen napping in the sun. I missed my mother and home. When I wasn’t dozing off, I got out my slate and chalk and tried to write what I could see on the blackboard. Everything was strange, confusing, and noisy. I decided right there and then that home was a better deal.

At the ripe age of five I formally started kindergarten. Most of my siblings were in the same school, but in higher classes. Every Monday was Inspection Day. It was a Catholic school and nuns would inspect students for cleanliness and appearance: uniforms (for girls length below the knee), nails, hair, socks, and shoes. The latter had to be immaculate. And there were penalties for lack of compliance. Due to this Monday morning ritual, Sunday night in our house was always a mad rush, as children had to wash or iron school uniforms, blouses, shirts, trousers, and socks, as well as find and polish the decreed school shoes.

I soon figured out that there was a business opportunity in shoe-shining. Since some of my siblings were already pre-teens or teens with numerous social or sports activities at weekend, they had little time to polish their shoes, come Sunday. I offered my services for the princely sum of one cent per shoe or two cents per pair, with advance notice. For last minute requests, say Sunday night late, I doubled the price. I put all my earnings in a piggy bank. Like Scrooge, I would take them out now and again, lovingly count them and carefully put them back. I kept my piggy bank hidden in a drawer, quite a feat, since there was so little privacy at our house.

At the end of the year as the holidays rolled around, I often lent my siblings some of my earnings to buy gifts. At times I charged them interest. I knew what interest was at a relatively early age. Being the youngest child, I often accompanied my mother to her savings cooperative. She and neighborhood women pooled their savings every month and deposited the entire sum into a bank account, which they withdrew at Christmas, thus earning more interest for all. My mother and these women were raising their children on their own. Every penny counted. I still marvel at their creativity and the power of collective action. At eighteen my first job was at a commercial bank. I think I know why.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Member Week: Michael Stein

Today's featured member is Michael Stein. He was born and raised in New York. In his formative years, he spent many summers at his family’s home in Amagansett, New York. He lives in Arlington, VA and is a consummate advocate for The Writer’s Center bringing up its brilliance, oftentimes too frequently during conversation. One of Michael’s favorite pastimes is having a cold beer on a hot Long Island day. His reviews can be found on his beer-blog at

The Writers, The Artists and Me—1993

Beads of sweat trickled off of my nose, collecting at the bottom of my pinstripe nylon jersey. Stepping outside the brown '82 Volvo, it was clear today would be another August scorcher on the East End of Long Island. I grabbed my Louisville bat bag from the trunk. I wasn't sure what to expect when I stepped onto the field but what I saw was definitely not what I had expected.

I came to play ball at the Annual Artists vs. Writers Softball Game. My dad had come to participate in the affair which started 46 years before in Wilfred Zogbaum's Springs neighborhood yard. The air reeked, a dusty dingy smell, a combination of Bengay and baseball bags that had been sitting in the shed all year. As I took a quick glimpse around it occured to me there were more braces here than an orthopedist's office. "This is going to be cake," I thought. As a nine year old I was sure these old timers were going to be a cinch to beat.

We headed towards the right bench where writers, strapping on their armor, prepared for battle. To the left, the artists and actors practiced their diction and enunciation. Their warm-up was not physical, but audible "the Mongolian man moved his massive money from Manhattan to Martha's Vineyard." This was how they warmed up? "You have to be kidding me," I said to myself, and sure enough, they were. But this kind of revelry was lost on a nine year old, especially one who had one purpose: to get to the plate.

My father pulled out his off-white brace, placing his left elbow into the holster. The brace's jaundiced color was the result of too many doubles matches and too much sunscreen. However, today's game would not be played on the clay courts of Amagansett but rather on the dirt lot behind the East Hampton A & P.

"Stein, you no-good weasely hack, how the hell are ya?" it was Bill Fiegelman, an old friend of my father's. As the game progressed, this teasing introduction seemed tame as the artists and writers continued to toss out insults. "Zuckerman you old codger you couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a t-bird!” The writers had the wittier lines as the artists and actors stuck to profanities, at the plate and in the outfield.

Finally, in the fifth inning I got to the batter's box. The actors complained that the writers were playing by the rules too closely, but to a nine year old, even the lack of a consistent batting order was baffling. Here I was, ready to take a crack at the mean right-hander Roy Scheider. He had been retiring the writer's team all afternoon, but I was ready for him.

The Jaws star wound up and the lob dropped in as the umpire called a strike. I took another pitch for a ball and got the timing down. The slow-pitch was much different than I was used to. As the third pitch rolled in my eyes were glued to the softball. With a swing I made contact and sent the ball into the outfield. I hustled around the bases, almost passing Mike Lupica as he headed for third. I had to hold up at second--I could have gone for three, but my triple was cut short. In front of all of the East End's well known writers, I was content to have a run batted in.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Member Week: P.B. Stevens

All this week--and a little of next--we'll be featuring Writer's Center members on First Person Plural. They are going to tell us their stories. Today's featured member is Pamela “P.B.” Stevens. She is a writer, consultant, and mom, living in Arnold, MD. She is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts honors English program and has taken workshops at the Center. She is currently writing a memoir and various other personal essays and has been published in Connecticut’s County Kids magazine.

Saturdays and Snowstorms

I sit in my living room in my fluffy robe and tattered slippers. I sip steaming coffee while gazing at fat snowflakes falling on the already thickly covered ground. It is in this moment that I recall a friend’s recent, incredulous question: “What exactly makes winter your favorite season?” I could not answer her specifically until, curled up in my living room chair in the midst of the raging snowstorm that encased Annapolis, I remembered a recent Saturday outing to the beach at Sandy Point State Park.

Sandy Point can only be described as a unique beach. The hallmark terracotta-colored sand stretches out to the Chesapeake Bay and the imposing Bay Bridge, a reminder that progress often trumps beauty. I always avoid this part of the beach. The whir of minivans and roar of eighteen wheelers creates a clenching in my chest that even the softly rippled water cannot soothe.

Instead, I turn left and head to the area marked for boat launches. There is a path along this part of the beach that bends around to the left and takes one away from the disquieting scene. Soon, on this bright and cold winter day, I am amongst tall reeds that sway and scrape. I am amidst bleached beach grasses that splay their long, lustrous fronds out onto the sand, reminiscent of a girl’s summer tresses.

I make my way to a jetty, where two lone benches sit upon a knoll of grayed grass. The water laps at the shore. Like the patch of ice on the craggy boulders that jut out into the bay, the tightness in my chest and the crease in my brow begin to slowly melt, drip by drip.

And then I hear it. A cacophony of noise erupts upon the quiet as a large group of school-aged children races past me, stirring up great clouds of orange sand. They chase each other around the base of a nearby playscape, machine gun trills falling off their tongues. I sit on a bench facing a lighthouse and a cove carved out of tall sea grasses. Time passes. I wait for the children to look up, to see water rippled by the wind, to smell the sweet, pungent sea air. But they cannot engage the quiet. Their bawls and bellows puncture the air and send sea birds scurrying.

It is like this for some time. I yearn for the quelling of their voices. But they continue to purge their frenzy upon the land, their parents talking amongst themselves, aloof and detached. I wait some more. I hear more machine gun trills and decide I can wait no longer for the quiet to return. I start to make my way back around the bend. The sounds of the children begin to blend into the rush of Route 50.

This is the day that returns to me on this snow-covered day in my cozy, fire-lit living room. It is in this moment that I realize my love of winter resides in this hush that comes over the land, undisturbed by man or beast, a blankness into which you can step and hear your own gentle breath exhaling into the great white expanse.

It is not just this hush placed over the natural world, but especially the unnatural world. The snow lay atop car roofs, strip mall rooftops and along the long, busy highways, uttering a soft, slow “shhhhh,” like a mother who lays her child’s head in her lap and gently strokes his hair. And I wonder, I hope, that the children will notice.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Poetry is a Gift Community: An Interview with Reb Livingston

You are the founder and editor of No Tell Motel and No Tell Books. What need did you see in the industry that you wanted to fill with No Tell Motel?

I don't think I'd use the word "industry" to describe poetry publishing and don't consider it to be some sort of capitalist venture. I don't approach publishing with a supply/demand model. If I approached it in those terms, I never would have done any of it. In those terms there's a poem glut and a dismal demand for them. In those terms there should be 2 publishers putting out 5 books a year and maybe 4 or 5 poetry magazines. Publishing poetry means you're very likely to lose money. Publishing poetry books generally means sales numbers in the low hundreds. Success is selling over 500. Any "industry" person would pick anything other than publishing poetry.

Luckily poems aren't widgets. There were then (and are now) hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals contributing to the poetry community by supporting (i.e. publishing) the work of other poets. I wanted to be one of those contributors. To me it wasn't enough to just write my own poems. I wanted to do my small part to contribute. Poetry is a gift community. People who care about and are dedicated to poetry make sure poems get out there. They're not profiting, they're likely spending their own money and they're definitely donating their time and work. I do think that anyone who is serious about poetry is responsible to contribute in some way to the community, whether that be publishing/editing, curating a reading series, writing book reviews or essays, translating foreign-language poems, etc. That is how poetry thrives and I don't care what any studies or reports declare about poetry, it thrives and will continue to do so because it is not an industry. As other art forms come and go based on industry and market demands of the century, poetry will continue to exist because it does not fit into such models. Poetry won't become popular or profitable, but it will endure.

Tell us about the books you publish. What are you looking for in a poet?

Our most recent title is Rebecca Loudon's Cadaver Dogs ( . It's been described by readers and reviewers as evocative, spiritual, primal, bittersweet, unconscious, outrageous, titillating, brutal, lustful, crisp and musical. You can probably use those adjectives to describe other titles from No Tell Books, but the books are VERY different from one another, but on closer look, similarities abound. In 2008 the three books I published each had spiritual undercurrents -- and I didn't even realize that until one of the authors pointed it out. The upcoming title PERSONATIONSKIN by Karl Parker is really unlike any book the press has published, yet there are links.

There's not a particular style or subject that I'm specifically looking for. Basically I publish books that I love and think are wonderful. Usually these books don't fit easily into a specific style category. You can get idea of the range of types of work I like by reading No Tell Motel ( and the books I publish.

As a publisher, what I look for in a poet is someone who's responsible, responsive and easy to work with. Someone who will contribute to the process, not hinder it. I have very limited time to work on these books and have little tolerance for hand holding or drama. When I'm working on other poets' poems and books that's time I'm not using for my own writing, or my family for that matter. I consider my time precious and expect the poets I publish to respect that.

What's the most difficult thing about publishing poetry? What should poets understand about the business side of things?

The first thing to understand is that publishing poetry really isn't a business, or at least not in a capitalistic sense. As I mentioned in the first question, poetry is a gift economy. Very few poets make any kind of a living from publishing their poetry. Sometimes people can get jobs or grants, like teaching positions, based on their poetry publications, but that too is a small percentage.

So remember that people who work to promote poetry whether through publishing, writing reviews and essays, curating reading series, translating, etc. are contributing to poetry's existence. While they are certainly providing service, they do not exist to serve -- and in most cases, they're poets too.

What I find most difficult is explaining the above to poets who look to me as someone who can help them. Now, I help lots of poets and many poets have helped me in all sorts of ways (gift economy in action). But I don't exist to make things happen for anyone and everyone. First of all, I'm just one person (pretty much like anyone else) who can only do so much. But also, there are a lot of poets who I have no interest in giving any kind of hand. For instance, poets who ask me to consider their manuscripts without ever reading or buying a single book my press has published. That's wasting both of our time and more importantly, it's incredibly self-centered and disrespectful. If I had a quarter every time that happened, I could afford to give away books for free. This is why there are things like reading fees and contests. Many people who most want to be published don't support the presses they wish would publish them, in fact, they often know very little about those presses or the work they do. So presses have figured out that while they might have a hard time selling books, they have a very easy time selling the *hope* of publication. I think that's a very defeating situation, for all involved.

How has running No Tell Motel affected your own poetry? Are you working on something now?

Running a magazine and a press has opened my eyes to a range of poetry and poets that I was before unfamiliar. It's been a rich education, at least as valuable as any MFA. It's taught me that I am not helpless to the whims of others, that there is no one who will make or break me or my poems, no one except myself.

I'm finishing my next book, God Damsel, which I'll be publishing with No Tell Books in early 2010. Coconut Books, my publisher for my first book, offered to publish God Damsel and although I have a very good relationship with the editor, Bruce Covey, I'm choosing to do it myself. Why? Why not? I must know something about publishing books because people keep asking me to publish theirs. Most of the poems in the book have been published in magazines, so other editors must see quality in the poems. Why not take control of my own poems, take control of my art? Why don't more poets take back control of connecting their poems to an audience? I know the standard answer to that question and find it all a rather foolish "business."

About Reb Livingston:

Reb Livingston is the author of God Damsel (forthcoming, No Tell Books, 2010), Your Ten Favorite Words (Coconut Books, 2007), Pterodactyls Soar Again (Whole Coconut Chapbook Series, 2006), among other titles. Her work appears in literary magazines and her poem ”That’s Not Butter“ appears in The Best American Poetry 2006 (Scribner). She has Creative Writing degrees from Bennington (MFA) and Carnegie Mellon (BA).

She keeps a poetry blog that is updated on a regular basis.

Reb and Molly Arden edit No Tell Motel, an online poetry journal devoted to meaningful and discreet poetic encounters, and The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel anthology series.

Reb is the editor and publisher of No Tell Books.