Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Story/Stereo 2, Charles Jensen, and Merrill Feitell

The Writer's Center celebrates the beginning of October with the second part of Story/Stereo, and an installment of our Open Door Reading Series with Charles Jensen (The First Risk) and Merrill Feitell (Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes), as they read from their work. Read on!

Story/Stereo Part II
Friday, October 2, 7:30P.M.

Story/Stereo is the headline event for The Writer's Center's Emerging Writer Fellowships. It features two writers on stage with great local musicians. The musical component of the event is co-curated by local muscians Chad Clark of the band Beauty Pill and Matt Byars of The Caribbean. Last year, The Writer's Center hosted an event with poets Deborah Ager, Sandra Beasley, Bernadette Geyer, and The Caribbean. That event was the prototype for Story/Stereo.

After the success of our first Story/Stereo, please join us for Story/Stereo Part II!

Join Alexander Chee as he reads from his forthcoming second novel, The Queen of the Night. He is joined by Srikanth Reddy, author of Facts for Visitors. Workshop leader and board member Rose Solari will introduce the emerging writer fellows and their will be a performance by special musical guest Bluebrain.

Alexander Chee was born in Rhode Island, and raised in South Korea, Guam and Maine. He is a recipient of the 2003 Whiting Writers’ Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in Fiction and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the VCCA. His first novel, Edinburgh (Picador, 2002), is a winner of the Michener Copernicus Prize, the AAWW Lit Award and the Lambda Editor’s Choice Prize, and was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year and a Booksense 76 selection. In 2003, Out Magazine honored him as one of their 100 Most Influential People of the Year. His essays and stories have appeared in, Out, The Man I Might Become, Loss Within Loss, Men On Men 2000, His 3 and Boys Like Us. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has taught fiction writing at the New School University and Wesleyan. He is currently the Visiting Writer at Amherst College and lives in Western Massachusetts.

Srikanth Reddy’s first collection of poems, Facts for Visitors, received the 2005 Asian American Literary Award in Poetry. His work has appeared in various journals. Reddy is currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago.

About Bluebrain (from Chad Clark of Beauty Pill, co-musical curator with Matt Byars of The Caribbean):

Bluebrain's music is electric, serrated, often abstract, always texture-fixated. Upon first listening, you will detect a decidedly futurist bent. However, under the veneer of hallucinogenic, technological treatments, there is storytelling and communication. Each song is a vista unto itself and they often highlight this with a video component to their performances. The word "multimedia" is a little banal, but it applies here.

The band is a duo of brothers Ryan and Hays Holladay. Bluebrain was borne in 2008 from the ashes of their respected and recently disbanded group, The Epochs. The Epochs were a clever, mischievous, and inventive pop band who I became acquainted with through my studio work. They were clients who impressed me enough to invite them to open for Beauty Pill, where upon they proceeded to blow us away and, frankly, embarrass us as headliners. Bluebrain's aesthetic extends outward from The Epochs, but has a distinctly different feel and perhaps a darker, more erotic persona. Learn more about Bluebrain here.

We are honored to have Bluebrain, Alexander Chee, and Srikanth Reddy with us for Story/Stereo Part II, and would be even more honored to have you as well!

Open Door Reading Series: Charles Jensen and Merrill Feitell
Sunday, October 4, 2:00

Charles Jensen reads from The First Risk, his first full-length collection of poems. He is joined by Merrill Feitell, who reads from her first collection of short stories, Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes.

Charles Jensen is the author of three chapbooks, including Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award, and The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon (New Michigan Press, 2007). His first full-length collection, The First Risk, is forthcoming in September 2009 from Lethe Press. A past recipient of an Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, his poetry has appeared in Bloom, Columbia Poetry Review, Copper Nickel, The Journal, New England Review, spork, and West Branch. He holds an MFA in poetry from Arizona State University and is currently pursuing an MA in Nonprofit Leadership and Management. He is the founding editor of the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT, which explores creative work on a city-by-city basis. He serves as director of The Writer's Center.

In four extended sequences, The First Risk confronts the murder of Matthew Shepard and the myth of Venus and Adonis through the eyes of Italian Renaissance painter Luca Cambiaso; the eccentric women of Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother and the search for authenticity; the nature of love and obsession in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and the pain and confusion of loss; and the compelling story of a physicist in search of his lost wife, haunted by a phantom voice that may or may not be hers...

Merrill Feitell was born and raised in New York City. Her first book, Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes, won the 2004 Iowa Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in many publications, including the Best New American Voices series, and have been short-listed in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Awards. She was selected as one of Fiction’s New Luminaries in the Virginia Quarterly Review, has been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and was the Theodore Morrison Fellow in Fiction at Bread Loaf in 2005.

From bookstore manager Janel Carpenter:

Merrill Feitell has put together a superb collection of stories in Here Beneath Low Flying Planes. She has the ability to unravel seminal moments in characters' lives, full of messy complexity and intricacy, in tidy prose. Her stories are at once revelatory and a thoughtful look at the wonder in ordinary occurrences.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Adele Steiner & the Young Writer's Corner

Workshop leader Adele Steiner--and her young workshop participants--are my guests today. Adele Steiner has a B.A. & M.F.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing (Poetry) (University of Maryland). She has been a Poet-in-the-Schools poet, a Maryland State Arts Council grant winner; a veteran artist in residence at Georgetown University Hospital. She's the author of Refracted Love and Freshwater Pearls. Her work has appeared in Wordwrights, Maryland Poetry Review, Gargoyle, Smartish Pace, Promise, and So To Speak. She will be leading two workshops for young people beginning October 31st--Poetry and Narrative Verse for Teens and Kids Write for Kids (8 to 11 year olds)

Welcome to the Young Writers’ Corner!

Many thanks again to Kyle at The Writer’s Center for yet another opportunity to feature the poetry written by students in my workshop, Poetry and Narrative Verse for Teens.

The work I have chosen for this next publication comes from the Mandala Workshop. Mandalas are circular, symmetrical designs that have been used for centuries in Eastern as well as Native American religions as guides to enlightenment. Their various geometric patterns represent the harmony of the cosmos; and Buddhists believe that creating them as well as meditating on them promotes deep states of mental concentration.

Wondering whether the intricately beautiful patterns of the Mandala might sitr the imaginations of young writers and provide them with creative inspiration, I constructed a workshop around the use of the Mandala. I found that in my work at the Writer’s Center, and, in particular, with this most recent group of talented young writers in Poetry and Narrative Verse for Teens, the Mandalas worked their magic. So enjoy!

Adele Steiner

"Refusing Defeat"

I sliced Mr. Pac Man’s tail off with a butter knife, but it grew back.
He hissed at me and slithered into an anthill, an intruder of the Earth’s crust—
into a trumpet.
The monstrous drip-castle comes into view beyond a watery valley
of lily pads and barbed wire.
The dusty Earth is slippery with spilled milk, fried eggs.
Broken glass dots the cratered floor and glistens.
Mr. Pac Man is nowhere to be found, but I sense him
behind each arrowhead.
Perhaps he has regenerated infinitely, just like his silken tail.
The sound of his sandpaper beard still rings in my ears,
still sends shivers down my spine.
Lustrous ghosts dance around the marble cross, statuesque,
hanging before the eventual entrance.
They try to engage me in a game of peek—boo.
How ignorant they are.
I should leave, but I crouch at the base of the castle
and await my moody prisoner.
He iso n his way.
When he finally gives up, waving that white flag of surrender in my face,
His beard begins to fall out.
I smile wickedly
and ride with him on the backs of seahorses into the sunset.

Molly (age 16)

Her heart lies in the middle of burning flames
Spreading quickly and wildly
Taking whatever comes in their way.
Her hopes, dreams, and fears disappear.
If frustration takes over,
She may lose sight of her hopes and dreams,
The ones she feared she’d never achieve.
Her heart lies in the middle of burning flames.
They’re too wild to be tamed.
She’ll watch helplessly, becoming heartless
Just like the rest of the world.

Karina (age 16)

"At Everest’s Peak"

At Everest’s Peak
Gazing into the unknown
I’m flying in my heart
Falling in my fears

Screaming blizzard
Howling wind
Biting chill
At Everest’s Peak

Luci (age 13)


Spinning, overlapping eyes
Torment awaiting symmetry.
Behold the death of time in an instant.

An explosion of lost paths. Choose?
A plain, colorless, and intangible illusion

Spinning unrequited hallucinations
This fake reality.

There is no way out of this.
All is nothing.

Camilla (age 15)

"The Zen Wristwatch"

All is not done.
For all has not begun.
It is just
Merely going, going.
Once here,
Always there.
Twice here,
Never there.
Does that make sense?
Of course not.
For that was another time,
And another time is not now—
In fact, now is not now either.
Now is earlier
When later is now—
Does that make sense?
Of course not.
I’ll tell you later,
just not now.

Christopher (age 15)

James Ellroy Photographs and Event Review

Here are some photographs from James Ellroy's reading (thanks to Fall for the Book and their wonderful photographer). I did not write a review, but Charlie did. Read it on his blog.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Tuesday Interview: Brett Friedlander, Chasing Moonlight

With the baseball playoffs nigh--and my beloved St.Louis Cardinals in this year--I've decided to repost this interview I did with author Brett Friedlander (it orginally appeared on Art & Literature).

Chasing Moonlight, by Brett Friedlander and Robert Reising, is the true story of Archibald Graham, a native North Carolinian and brother to former University of North Carolina President Frank Porter Graham. Known as “Moonlight” Graham during an all-too brief baseball career, he was a career minor leaguer until he got one chance to play for John McGraw’s New York Giants in 1905. That chance turned out to be one game, and he didn’t make it to bat. Sent back down to the minors shortly after, he never again spent time in a major league uniform.

But Chasing Moonlight isn’t about a minor league baseball player. It’s the story of a remarkable journeyman ballplayer turned renowned country doctor in a small northern Minnesota town, far from his North Carolina home — a man whose careers in baseball and medicine provided the inspiration for one of the characters in W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe and who was then immortalized by Burt Lancaster in that book’s film adaptation, Field of Dreams.

Chasing Moonlight seeks to find the man behind those depictions, and early chapters from the book have already won a 2007 N.C. Press Association Award.

How did you and Robert Reising write this book? As co-authors, how did you determine who would write/research what?

Brett Friedlander, co-author: Since I am a sports writer by trade and Bob is a college professor, I did the bulk of the writing while he did a great deal of the research, though we both made contributions in both areas. The great thing about our partnership, however, is that we worked so well together. We made several trips to Minnesota together and spent many combined hours in the research libraries in Fayetteville, Chapel Hill, and Charlotte, as well. As for the writing, whenever either of us was finished with a chapter, it would be emailed to the other for any additions, subtractions or other revisions. The most cooperative effort came on the final chapter, which was written over the better part of two days together at the Fayetteville main branch library, where we bounced ideas off one another and wrote the conclusion as we went along.

This is a book whose genesis, you write, begins with W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe — which, of course, later became the popular film Field of Dreams. Because its subject is a career minor leaguer, it’s easy to see the book’s appeal for baseball fans. What considerations, if any, did you have for those readers who might not know Shoeless Joe or Field of Dreams?

Not as much in the original draft. But thanks to the persuasion of a great editor, Steve Kirk of John F. Blair, we eventually included a lot more background and basic facts that were covered in the novel and movie into our text. I think these were important additions, because without the context of Shoeless Joe and Field of Dreams, the significance of Graham’s accomplishments and the depth of his many sacrifices would have been lost on the reader. By going back and providing that context, I believe we broadened the appeal of this book to an audience beyond that of a typical “baseball book.” As is the case with Field of Dreams, baseball is only one aspect of Graham’s life story. It’s a hook, if you will, that leads you to a much more inspiring and complex subject.

When reading the book, I was struck by a couple instances when you substitute the fictional Graham’s dialogue for the real Graham’s. Oddly, those passages seem very fitting to the person you portray in Chasing Moonlight. Can you talk about the difficulties you faced in discovering just who this remarkable, yet largely obscure man was? Here, I’m thinking especially of the gaps between the facts of his life and the fiction.

The most difficult aspect, by far, in researching and writing this biography is that virtually no records or writings remain pertaining directly to Graham. I remember going to Chisholm, Minnesota for the first time hoping to find some sort of journal or diary or even just a pile of notes he made during his 44 years as the town’s school doctor and being disappointed when I was told that they were all lost or thrown away either after Doc had died or a few years later when the school that housed his office was torn down. No one thought to keep any of that stuff because at the time, there didn’t seen a need. It was only after his death, when Kinsella stumbled across his name and decided to include him in Shoeless Joe, that Graham became famous and people outside of Chisholm began caring about him. That forced us to to rely on personal recollections of his friends and former patients to fill in the gaps of his story. What we couldn’t get from them, we had to find by going back through nearly five decades of newspapers archives in Chisholm, Hibbing and Duluth, Minnesota. Most of the quotes attributed to Graham in the book are from those sources. The others came from the fictional Graham created by Kinsella — who like Dr. Reising and myself, got a feel for Doc’s personality and characteristics through extensive interviews with the people of Chisholm.

While Moonlight Graham was playing ball with the New York Giants and pursuing his medical degree, he’s described as a soft-spoken, almost genteel Southern gentleman. A year later, after Graham’s contract is sold to Scranton in the New York League and the Giants come to town for an exhibition game, this quiet man challenges one of the Giants speediest players, George Browne, to a footrace. This seems to me the most powerful moment in Graham’s baseball career; he’s at the height of his confidence and playing very well. But this brash move seems out of character for him. Do you think Graham was trying to prove his skills to Giants manager John McGraw, or to himself?

While it is true that Graham did not often call attention to himself, something he learned at an early age from his parents and a trait he carried through most of his life, I think he understood that this occasion was different and called for bold action. By this time, Graham had come to the realization that, though his minor league career was flourishing, his chances of ever getting back to the majors and getting that elusive at bat were rapidly slipping away. In other words, desperate times call for desperate actions. While this episode was clearly out of character for Graham, the feeling is that this was one last-ditch effort (that failed) on his part to show McGraw that he was fast, aggressive and confident enough to play for his team.

Though a career in professional baseball was frowned upon by many — as you write — Graham continued to play the game. Did you find any information on what his family thought of his ballplaying career? especially since he continually interrupted his medical studies to pursue it?

There is really no record of how his parents felt about his continued flirtation with baseball, though there’s a very good chance they tried very hard to get him to give it up and concentrate on medicine. His siblings, however, probably encouraged him since they were all very close and frequently participated together in athletic endeavors during their youth. Frank, in particular, was likely the most supportive of Archie because he idolized his other brother and secretly dreamed of being good enough to follow in his footsteps. Instead, he went into coaching and then later, become a staunch advocate for college athletics during his time as president of UNC-Chapel Hill.

Do you think Moonlight Graham’s pain at not getting another shot at the majors was mitigated by his success in the minors, particularly at Scranton?

Absolutely. He knew he had the talent to play at a higher level if only he would have been given the chance. The hope, no matter how faint, that he might eventually get that chance continued to drive him, at least until his final season, when he was persuaded to come back by the Scranton team owner because of his popularity with the fans there (and his potential for selling tickets).

Once Graham’s career as a ballplayer was over and he emerges as a doctor in northern Minnesota, he seems to have settled into a life as a beloved small-town eccentric. For all his quirks, Doc Graham was the very first physician to recognize the importance of taking children’s blood pressure, and his report on the matter garnered him widespread acclaim in the medical field. Was there any indication that Graham would have left Chisholm, Minnesota had a big league hospital come calling?

No, once Graham established himself in Chisholm, he became too entrenched in the community to go anywhere else — especially to a “big-league hospital” where the expectations and pressures would have been much greater than he preferred. I’m sure he had several opportunities to join his colleagues in the blood pressure study at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester (his wife’s hometown), but he chose instead to stay in a place in which, as Kinsella put it, ”the wind never blows so cold.” I think he loved the people and the pace of life in Chisholm too much to look elsewhere, the old big fish in a small pond concept. He also owned so many properties and had so many other things going on in Chisholm that at a certain point, it would have also made his life much to complicated to leave.

Much of Graham’s success was earned beyond North Carolina’s borders, but he was born and bred in the state, and the brother you mentioned earlier, Frank Porter Graham, earned fame in both the educational and political arenas. To what degree would you say Moonlight could be considered a North Carolina figure today?

Though he spent the majority of his adult life in Minnesota, I believe that he is still just as much a son of North Carolina because of the roots he grew here. For one thing, there is his family legacy. Not only did he spend his formative years in both Fayetteville and Charlotte, but because his father and brother made such significant names for themselves here, there will always be that connection. Furthermore, his success on the baseball diamond at UNC and with the record-setting 1902 Charlotte Hornets helped him carve out his own niche in our state’s history’s history books.

Brett Friedlander is sportswriter for the Wilmington Star-News and co-author of Chasing Moonlight: The True Story of Field of Dreams’ Doc Graham

Ellroy Interview Podcast Redux

The podcast interview with WC member Art Taylor and James Ellroy appears to be up now at the Washington Post's Web site. I haven't tested it, but I am posting the link to Book World here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review Monday: Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months

by John Dufresne
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
320 pages, $26.95 (hardcover)
Forthcoming, February 2010

Reviewed by Bernadette Geyer

Having little formal training in writing prose, I came to John Dufresne’s Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months as an interested skeptic. Six months? Reading this guide, I realized how many erroneous preconceptions I had of the novel-writing process. The method Dufresne lays out jettisons the idea of sitting down, starting at page one and plowing through page after chronological page until you get to the end:

“Writing a novel does not proceed in a linear fashion even if the novel itself eventually does. Writing a novel is messy; it’s labyrinthine at times; it’s recursive and indirect; it sputters and lurches and frustrates and generates.”

In mapping out weekly assignments for the novelist, Dufresne advocates extensive up-front research and thinking to develop characters, their motivations, histories, backgrounds, influences and anything else that will help you understand what makes your character tick. It isn’t until Week 13 that Dufresne assigns the task of writing the first scene. But by this time, you know your novel’s characters, its setting, point of view, theme and, finally, some idea of a plot.

Early on, in the section “In the Beginning Were the Words,” Dufresne offers an extensive variety of examples of how one can start a novel. Some of the examples Dufresne provides tend to hyperexplain the process of how A can lead to B, followed by C, steering towards D, resulting in E, and so on. But I can see, specifically by way of the hyperexplanation, the usefulness of such tangential thinking towards the writer’s goal of a well-developed character or scene.

By providing examples from his own writing and quotes by other writers on the subject of novel-writing, Dufresne puts the first-time novelist more at ease with the process in an effort to help him/her see that any fear or stumbling block can be overcome: mainly by writing through it. “Doubt and uncertainty are not only a part of, but are fundamental to, the writing process. Not knowing is crucial to the making of a novel. It sets the wonder in motion.”

Once the first draft is complete – bedraggled though it may be – Dufresne says the writer must understand the real novel emerges from the editing process. Dufresne writes, “Revision is not a matter of choice. Now that you’ve got black on white, you’ve got something to work with. Now the real creative writing begins.”

What is clear, from Dufresne’s Is Life Like This?, is that the prospective novelist must first be in love with the process of discovery that comes with writing and revising. Dufresne cites Elie Wiesel, “Writing is … like sculpture, where you eliminate to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.”

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. Geyer's poetry has 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, Sustainable Development International, The Montserrat Review, World Energy Review, and Marco Polo Magazine. Find her online here.

James Ellroy

James Ellroy put on quite a show last night. Many thanks to Fall for the Book for helping us put on such a great event. Here's one photo from the event (taken by FFTB's photographer whose name I didn't catch). I recorded it, and as soon as I master Mac's editing tools, I'll post what I have on this blog.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

James Ellroy podcast

Art Taylor's podcast interview with James Ellroy is up on the Washington Post's Web site. Check it out, and maybe I'll see you tonight at the reading. Remember, it starts and 7p.m. Be there early, even if you registered.

Caitlin and I will be at Magical Montgomery in Silver Spring all day. If you come out, say hello!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Interview with Andrew Gifford of SFWP (Part II)

Here's the second and last installment with Andrew Gifford, publisher of the small press SFWP. To read part I of this interview, click here.

At our next birthday celebration, in January, The Writer's Center will bring in Pagan Kennedy. Pagan is a Bethesda native, and one of her very first creative writing workshops happened right here at the Center. What was it like publishing your heroine Pagan Kennedy?

Well, all the authors I’ve published are my heroes. Ray Robertson is the quintessential artist. A man who has devoted his life to the craft of writing and who hits hard every time. Alan Cheuse is in possession of a writing voice unmatched in modern American literature. Richard Currey captures the mind and soul with razor-sharp images that linger for a lifetime.

When next I have my hands on a few thousand dollars, I want to bring forward a new author whose work I’ve been supporting for many years. A young writer who also has the devotion, the voice, and the electric power of Ray, Alan, and Richard.

Pagan, though, does hold a special place in my heart. It’s her zine – and her early works – that inspired me in the early 90’s. My impressionable high school years. Her quirky participatory journalism, and her stunningly addictive fiction, has kept her on my bookshelves for 20 years. I was and still am ecstatic to have published Dangerous Joy, even though we made a mistake on the layout and found ourselves stuck with the inventory. But, hey, that’s publishing. Now they’re collector items. Or they will be, when we get around to a second printing.

What would you recommend for anyone beginning a small press?

The first rule (and this also applies to authors) is that you won’t make money. You must accept that. The old saying is true – you need a large fortune to make a small fortune in this business.

You’re in this because you love books, because you love writing, and you are willing to pursue that love all the way to the bitter end, regardless of the challenges you face or the obstacles in your path. You must also be willing to work. It’s a job – both publishing and writing – and it’s the sort of job that will follow you home, that will steal your evenings and weekends and vacations, and that will compete with your significant others, your children, your life. And that’s got to be okay with you.

If that doesn’t describe you, then stop what you’re doing right now. Sweep it all into the trash can and, please, get on with your life.

Now, the practical stuff: Don’t try and find a mainstream book. Don’t ape a dying industry. Be daring. Be different. Increasingly, as the Old Boy Network of publishing slowly topples, it’s the daring and different work that will begin to emerge.

Once you’ve found that book, then you should do the publicity yourself. Don’t outsource. Use the social networking sites – connect with people. Finally, after all this time trying to put together books with no sense of what the public truly wants, your audience is right there in front of you.

Shell out the cash to get a media list. Shell out a little more to make some nice galleys. Pay attention to your cover, your layout, your editing. Reading books, for many people, is also a tactile experience. The feel, the smell, the look. (Which is why ebooks and the Kindle will never truly destroy the printed word.) And, of course, a nice cover will sell more books than the words inside. That’s the sad truth publishers must face when working with booksellers and trying to get the casual shelf browser hooked.

Publicity should begin six months before publication. But a small press doing one or two books a year? Publicity should start a year before publication. Don’t be afraid to try and do the impossible. Explore translation rights, pitch excerpts to magazines, try and get reviews from big places. It only costs you postage, or a few minutes on email. You’ll strike out 90% of the time but, hey, to hell with them then. All you need is one good hit.

Join PMA. They’re worth it. And, if you don’t have the time or stamina to sell out of your basement, then get a distributor. In fact, I would urge you to take that path. Independent Publisher’s Group is a wonderful organization, and they’ve recently started working with PMA to cater to small presses. Don’t overreach in that area, either. Don’t go for the gold and try to get in the regular trade catalogs. You’re a small press, so act like one. Embrace it.

Indie bookstore owners and many authors are going to keel over as soon as I say this, but you need to focus on online sales and look towards electronic formats. The reason for this is simple – brick and mortar stores order more than they need to cover a supposed demand. They then return unsold copies, and typically get a free hand when it comes to salable condition. Working just with brick and mortars sees a 30-50% return rate, and a percentage of those are so damaged they need to be dumped. Online stores, however, maintain a smaller inventory. They order what they need to meet an immediate and real demand. You’ll still see returns, but maybe just 5-10%.

The industry is not about preserving indie bookstores – it’s about getting the writing to the general population. It’s about the authors, and their books. And it’s your job – by hook or by crook – to get those books into the hands of readers. There’s no room for weeping in the face of technology and change. Your future, as a small press, is to be an agent of change.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Poetry Deep Like the Rivers: Socially Conscious Poetry with David Salner

New workshop leader David Salner is our guest today. He has worked as an iron ore miner, furnace tender, machinist, and garment worker--and he's a longtime activist in social struggles. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His fourth collection, John Henry’s Partner Speaks, was published in 2008, and his poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, North American Review, Threepenny Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, and many other journals. He has received grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Puffin Foundation.

His workshop, Poetry Deep Like the Rivers: Socially Conscious Poetry, begins October 10.

To me it is a no-brainer that poetry needs a social conscience. First and foremost among art forms, it derives its creative impulse from the lives of ordinary people. It should be a lively art form, based on the good nature and genius of humanity. But the assertion of our humanity in the face of an oppressive society implies resistance. How this is reflected in poetry will be the topic of this workshop. It is a rich topic. There are countless examples of powerful poems taking up the African-American experience, the status of women, war, and working class issues. The environment and gay rights also informs many fine poems. Through the course of this four-session class we will pinpoint the tools that make socially conscious poetry work.

The course is open to non-writers, but about 20 % of it will be based on developing our own socially conscious poetry and workshopping the results. Everyone will have the opportunity to develop poems based on writing exercises and to bring in previously written poems.

Together, we will look at the roots of antiwar poetry in the twentieth century and today’s antiwar poems. We will discuss the irrepressible genius of such divergent poets as Robert Hayden, Dudley Randall, Dorianne Laux, and Shirley Geok-lin Lim. We will watch video clips of Lucille Clifton and Philip Levine and discuss their poetry and their perspectives on poetry. Time will be available for all workshop participants to present their favorite poems for discussion.

By the end of this class, we will have taken up important background questions: Is protest poetry a valid form? How much weight must poets give to the arguments of those who urge art for art’s sake? And what about the controversies stirred up by poets like Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka?

America is a brutal society, where creativity is crushed and hopes imprisoned. Does that mean poetry is impossible in such an environment? Join this workshop and help celebrate the creativity of human resistance!

Note: Copies of the poems we will be studying will be distributed; a class outline will be available at the first session.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An Interview with Brian Teare and Charles Jensen

Today we feature director Charles Jensen's interview with poet Brian Teare. This is a follow up to yesterday's post: an interview with Paula Bohince. Teare and Bohince will read from their work at George Mason on Thursday at 3p.m. at the M & T tent just outside the Johnson Center.

Brian Teare is the author of the award-winning The Room Where I Was Born, as well as the forthcoming volume Pleasure and two chapbooks. He has received Stegner, National Endowment for the Arts, and MacDowell Colony poetry fellowships.

The poems in Sight Map and The Room Where I Was Born are often concerned with erotic situations, but more than that, they are built from language that is erotic in nature—your words and lines have a richness, a fullness, and a texture that tends to reinforce their meaning. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to the erotic and what you find poetic there?

Well, poetry and the erotic have always had a pretty intense relationship—it’s there in the lyrics of Sappho and Archilochos and Catullus, it’s there even earlier in Gilgamesh and the Homeric epics. Desire as an occasion for song, desire as an occasion for action—those are some of the classic situations from which poetry arises. In that desire often gives the poems their occasions, my work’s no different, and Sight Map in particular is a book whose center is desire—for certainty in love and in faith. It’s lack of certainty that gives the book its shape, which is also pretty classic. As Anne Carson writes of Greek lyric in Eros the Bittersweet, “Who is the real subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole” left in the lover by their desire for the beloved. Looking back on them, I can see that a lot of the poems in Sight Map are about desire at a physical distance or a psychic remove, and their atmospheres depend upon how emotionally and physically unsettling distance is—whether that’s distance from God or from the beloved.

However, I like that you point out the language of my poems creates “a texture that tends to reinforce” their erotic situations. My day-to-day relationship to writing is based on the pleasure I take in its materials, both its graphic and sonic aspects. I like the look of letters arranged into words, lines and stanzas as much as I like the actual sonorities created by phonemes and syllables hooked together to make words hooked together to make lines, ad infinitum. And though the visual aspect of a poem eventually becomes as important to me as its soundscape, I tend to draft poems by following an aural rhythm—both alliterative and prosodic—and it’s my hope that an essential quality of what I’m writing about adheres in the actual feel of the language. Hopkins called it inscape, the essential quality of the subject as captured by his prosodic system, but I’d hesitate to lay claim to anything so systematic. Sometimes I think writing is desire’s own experiment: doesn’t desire itself desire a tool with which to articulate and understand itself?

The Room Where I Was Born is a dark collection, building on the innocence and horror of the fairy tale tradition, the gothic, mythology, and even Biblical violence. At its heart, it feels like it is full of love, but a ruined or broken kind of love. Sight Map feels like a true departure from this in its embracing of the natural world, and more directly of a love that transcends: “Between two who love each other there is no room for doubt.” How do you see the idea of love working in these two collections?

I know for sure that I was thinking about love while writing Sight Map. The first three sections were written while in a long-distance relationship, me on the East Coast and him on the West. Since I had been the one to leave the Bay Area for a semester’s residence at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and then part of a summer at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, I was at first very conscious of feeling responsible for the ways in which the relationship started to unravel almost immediately, something that you can literally see in “To Be Two,” whose first two sections imperfectly “zip” together to make the third. In that final section, “the veil/is torn, but not sundered,” so there’s hope of repair—but as the reader discovers by the book’s last section, that hope doesn’t last. “Sanctuary, Its Root Sanctus” is the end of that relationship and the beginning of others.

But I was also thinking of other loves while writing Sight Map. And if one of my essential conflicts is that I am always ambivalent and awaiting a release from doubt, these two loves still seem to me like what I love most completely and what I love with least generosity: the natural world and the theology I was raised with. Given that, at least for me, there was a lot of slippage between the objects of devotion in any given poem, I came to think of the book as a love quadrangle:

poet beloved

God site/nature

I thought of the book this way very early on, and was very conscious that this was like the four corners of a page; I thought of these words as the frame for each page, and part of the journey of the book was negotiating the charged field created by these words. On the one hand, I know I began to visual it this way because of Brenda Hillman’s poem “A Geology” (from Cascadia); on the other, her pages are framed by four words which are always changing and which only sometimes repeat. I felt productively stuck within my own unchanging predicament, largely because the site itself often changed, doubt waxed and waned, and eventually the beloved went plural.

As for The Room Where I Was Born: I couldn’t say if I had love much in mind while writing it. From the distance of the at least seven years since I finished it, The Room… seems to begin as a book about the impotence of being a child—not being able to affect the course of one’s own fate, being subjected to adult desires and emotions—and the rage over that powerlessness. I see it then develop into a story about the person who emerges from abuse carrying its legacies of impotence, rage and a deep need for love. What follows is a lot of sex, betrayal, violence, shame, and power games. If there is love between men in that collection, it arrives at the end, hard-won, always too much jerry-rigged, tenuous and unsustainable. I see these lines from the last poem in the book, the fourth section of “Circa,” as perhaps more accurate of the whole: “a boy slipped the skin//of the literal until there was no house/could hold him, goodbye.” I was at that point in my life more trusting of and in love with art than with men.

Both collections work extensively with sequences and long poems, which I really admire. First and foremost, I find your work to be so expressive through—and innovative with—form. In the first section of Sight Map, the pieces arrive sort of fragmented or broken, but the last piece in the section, “To Be Two,” ends in an overlaying of some fragments, forging a “full” piece from pieces. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how form guides your work, or how you arrived at this essential use of form and sequence.

I do believe that each poet’s sense of form, like water, finds its own level—part of the difficult maturation of the poet is in learning to allow the mind to shut up so that the ear can hear the poems, which are often quite different in form than we want or expect them to be. By the end of Sight Map mine seemed to have settled somewhere between a two-page meditative lyric and the sequence, though lately I’ve found that my individual poems hit eight pages with increasing frequency. And while I’ve always had a hard time writing anything truly short, I haven’t really interrogated my recent tendency toward sequence and the longer poem. My gut response is an image. You know how, with some dogs, you’ve never seen them really run until you’ve given them an acre of field to run in? Some of my poems feel that way to me: they need range in which to be magnificent.

It wasn’t quite this way during the writing of Sight Map, which I began to write my way into with much hesitation and uncertainty. When I arrived at Bucknell, I was very conscious of trying to find a way out of the poems of my second book, Pleasure (which is finally coming out next year), which I had already largely finished. The first poems I wrote—“Emerson Susquehanna” and “To Be Two”—didn’t seem like finished poems to me; I put them aside for a month thinking they were too attenuated and sketchy, that I wasn’t hearing the poems correctly. It wasn’t until I sent them to a friend who said, “Hey, these are really good,” that I began to take seriously what I’d begun to do.

And though I was quite aware of the formal “gamesmanship” of certain poems, like “To Be Two” and “Sanctuary, Its Root Sanctus,” in which I set up procedural rules to help guide the poem’s composition (something I’d done in Pleasure as well), largely the forms were intuitive, their prosodies breath- and ear-driven. In “listening for the syllables,” I was definitely given permission by Charles Olson’s ideas about “projective verse”: “to step back here to this place of the elements and minims of language, is to engage speech where it is least careless—and least logical.” I love that he marries precision and intuition within the syllable, and it’s there that my own ear yokes Olson with Hopkins: the linkage of syllable to syllable with precision and intuition is my own version of inscape.

Along with nature and love, Sight Map embeds itself in the tradition of the journey, or the journey. You’ve titled sections with coordinates—objective signifiers of place—and one with the word “Pilgrim.” The pilgrim is one who travels for faith, for discovery, or out of an irresistible compulsion to meet God. The poems themselves have a reverence and respect for nature that borders on the religious as well. How is the notion of faith at work in this book for you, and what did you, as the poet, discover in your journey to write it?

After being raised in a devout family and having gone to Catholic school, I left the Catholic Church when I was a teenager, when I figured out I was gay. For a long time I didn’t think about God or theology at all, but when my first love died of AIDS, I found myself completely unprepared for his death. This is what Pleasure is largely about, facing his death by going back into theology as a gay man in the age of AIDS. Of course I was in mourning, which is not an especially good time to try and develop a relationship to theology: being matter seemed like a terrible curse, and God seemed malevolent and silent, and there was no sacrifice aside from human life. But I nonetheless started to get interested in Gnosticism, in the significant loopholes it provided the Christian upbringing I’d had.

Sight Map really began when I went to the well-stocked library at Bucknell to browse and find something to read: I’d arrived from California in a landscape very cold and full of snow, and the weather was a good excuse to start a reading project. It was in browsing the stacks of the library that I came across a complete edition of Emerson’s Journals, which inspired me to begin reading the Transcendentalists, who despite my education, I had really never read before. “Emerson Susquehanna” came from reading his journals during the blizzards of that winter and experiencing quite viscerally the difference between my childhood theology and that of Transcendentalism. Without Jesus, there was no suffering sacrificial incarnation, no mediator between man and God, no material Godhead—it was as if flesh had been released from the habit of pain. This was at the same time comforting and odd, fairly unbelievable. It was a release from what Emerson called “the God of rhetoric,” but it was also challenge: what now? “It isn’t//mastery I’m after,” I write in that poem, “It’s certain//other terms/than my own//I wait for.” The book’s journey starts that; all the poems unfold from that first poem.

Another piece that really moved me in Sight Map was “Sanctuary, Its Root Sanctus.” You’ve “braided” some lines, phrases, and images in this piece so that the storytelling has an echo that reminded me almost of the work of prayer, but it’s perhaps a more “contemporary” form of prayer that involves sex, the erotic, profanity, and God. I find this a recurring motif in your work, the pairing of what you might call the sacred alongside what many would consider the profane, yet you seem to have an equal reverence for both. Can you talk a bit about the interaction between the sacred and the profane in your work?

My favorite Gnostic text is “The Thunder: Perfect Mind.” There’s a receipt from 08/05/01 tucked in my copy of James M. Robinsons’s Nag Hammadi Library, and this impromptu bookmark opens the book to “The Thunder: Perfect Mind.” It reminds me that I’ve been reading this text for about eight years without exhausting it. Why? The text is likely spoken by Sophia, the feminine principle of divine wisdom, and her voice does this beautiful job of embracing dualism and then shattering it.

In its vatic breadth and its ecstatic yoking of opposing forces, “The Thunder: Perfect Mind” reminds me at times of Leaves of Grass, at other times of Rumi, and in doing so it also reminds me that the tradition of visionary poetics has profound ties across cultures, across centuries. “I was sent forth from the power,” she begins,” and I have come to those who reflect upon me,/and I have been found among those who seek after me.” First she establishes her source and power, and then her relationship to the reader: “Be on your guard!/Do not be ignorant of me.” And then she begins her litany:

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin…
I am the silence incomprehensible
and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the word whose sound is manifold
and the word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name.

This text embodies my own sense of the relationship between sacred and profane: they often share the same name. Even with its origins in mystical theology, this is nonetheless an explicitly political position—as it was for Whitman—and in my case, this means it’s also pro-feminist and pro-queer. My becoming a poet at all was made possible by feminist and Gay Liberation writers like Adrienne Rich and Allen Ginsberg, and I find the legacies of these writers to be the most obvious connection between The Room Where I Was Born and Sight Map: a refusal to be shamed, a deep pleasure in the erotic, and a desire to give language to a sexuality that has often been denied language.

Some reviewers have pointed out that the fourth section of Sight Map is the least theological, an observation that gave me pause. And though I agree that after “Sanctuary, Its Root Sanctus,” the poems are less obviously spiritual, I still find their insistence on the unity of experience to stem implicitly from spiritual belief. The argument of “Abandoned Palinode for the Twenty Suitors of June,” for instance, rests on the claim that sexual experience might lead to spiritual change: “you fucked them all…and you,/in the center of your life, finally changed,/both within your language and without.” Given my personal history and subject position, I can’t discount the transformative potential of sexuality, especially given its ability to make changes wordlessly, on an unlanguaged level of consciousness it takes work to get to, to bring words back from. To say it another way: why does our culture believe that sexual violence radically transforms a person, while a loving sexual experience doesn’t? I have always believed one of poetry’s jobs to be the demonstration of truths that counter our culture’s dependence on convention. Which is why I’ve been thinking about “The Thunder: Perfect Mind” for the past eight years and have just put the bookmark back in the book at this passage, which strikes me as a good definition of poetry:

For what is inside of is what is outside of you,
and the one who fashions you on the outside
is the one who shaped the inside of you.
And what you see outside of you,
you see inside of you;
it is visible and it is your garment.

Monday, September 21, 2009

An Interview with Paula Bohince and Sandra Beasley

The Writer's Center is pleased to co-sponsor an event at Fall for the Book this week: Poets Paula Bohince and Brian Teare. The reading will take place on Thursday, September 24 at 3p.m. at the M & T tent outside the Johnson Center on the campus of George Mason University. Today we've got an interview with Paula Bohince (interviewed by workshop leader, board member, poet and sometime XX Files writer Sandra Beasley). Tomorrow, Director Charles Jensen interviews the other poet at the event, Brian teare. If you can get out and see these two wonderful poets, you should.

Paula Bohince is the author of a poetry collection, Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods, which was published in 2008 by Sarabande Books and received its inaugural Aleda Shirley Prize. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Literary Imagination, The Kenyon Review, Slate, and The Yale Review. She has received the Grolier Poetry Prize, the “Discovery”/The Nation Award, the Amy Clampitt Resident Fellowship, and a 2009 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has taught at New York University, the New School, and elsewhere, and she was the University of Mississippi’s first Summer Poet-in-Residence. She lives in Pennsylvania.

I'm struck by the depth and complexity of your first collection,
Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods. What are some of your key influences--professors, beloved books--and how are they reflected in these poems?

Thank you, Sandra, for saying that. I’ve been lucky to have had a number of incredible professors, including Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Marie Ponsot, Mark Doty, Lynn Emanuel, and Agha Shahid Ali. I think, for brevity’s sake, I’ll concentrate on Galway Kinnell, who was my MFA thesis advisor at NYU and whose presence might be most evident in the book, both by his books and his teaching.

During my last semester of graduate school, Galway and I would meet weekly in a coffee shop near school. We’d go over my poems line by line, side by side, and talk about word choice, about simplicity, about creating a musical line, about thoughtful description. I remember making a lazy description of a snake moving through grass, and he said very gently, “You know, poets have been trying for centuries to describe the way that a snake moves.” And we were both quiet for a minute. That moment felt very humbling and generous to me. He made me want to go more slowly, to be more thoughtful. In the book, I describe a snake in “The Gospel According to Paul,” and I thought about Galway when writing it. After those meetings, after school ended, I wanted to begin fresh. The only poems in the book that began in graduate school are “Trespass” and “First Day of the Hunt.”

I learned so, so much from Galway and his kindness toward me and my work, from his time and attention given to my rough poems. I thought of him often during the writing of this book and continue to do so, especially during revision when I have those WWGD questions. Wondering what he’d find necessary or obfuscating. How he would respond to a particular music. I feel such kinship, via his poems, with his vision of the natural world. I always return to his books when I’m feeling lost, when I need to be grounded in the qualities that I want my poems to have.

One of my most beloved books is Jane Mead’s extraordinary The Lord and the General Din of the World. I had first read it in my senior year of college, and it completely changed the way that I approached poetry. It seemed utterly open, vulnerable, and questioning. You know those books that resonate with you so much, on a level you might not even be able to articulate? That was, and continues to be, Jane’s book for me. It was the book that I literally carried around for years, trying to absorb its lessons, both on how to approach poems and how it might be possible to live.

There have been so many other collections that have been influential, but I will always be grateful for this particular book for its continual effect on me. And to have my book also come out with Sarabande, which has been amazing, and to have Jane’s words on my book…I never could have imagined.

Your first book has an unusually specific framing story, as reinforced by this gloss on the back cover: "...Spanning decades, and set on a decrepit, inherited farm in Pennsylvania, the daughter and father navigate the poverty of their environment and their own troubled relationship. Details of the father's murder are gradually uncovered, and we eventually learn that he was killed by a trusted laborer." At what point in the composition and accumulation of these poems did you decide that would be the thematic focus?

Both ordering and the use of the framing device of the mystery came very late in the writing and organizational process. I’d been writing the book from 2001-2006, and I’d viewed the manuscript as a collection of elegies: the lyric I couched in both a remembered and dreamed Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until the summer of 2006, shortly before I moved back to Pennsylvania from New York, that using the idea of an unfolding mystery formed. The poem “The Apostles” and the “gospel” poems were written during that summer; these four poems are the only ones, in my mind, that speak directly to the crime presented in the book.

After I had written “Prayer,” I felt that the poem may work as an opener, but I wasn’t writing any poems with a sense of how they’d eventually connect.

“Eating Fish in Pittsburgh” was one of the earliest poems written, as was “The Fatherless Room.” After the vast majority of the poems were written, as I began thinking about order, a particular poem would find its “partner” poem, and so pairs and clusters began to form. Thinking about a seasonal progression also helped create another kind of arc. It was difficult for me, nearing the book’s completion, to try to present a story that “made sense” for a reader. That was a real leap for me: imagining someone reading the entire collection and what questions they might have and what answers I should try to provide.

When you are reading selections from the book in a live venue, how do you adapt to an audience that doesn't have access to the "full story" of the collection?

Giving readings has been such a pleasure, and I especially enjoy looking out into the audience and connecting with people as I read from the book. I usually begin by saying something like, “This book takes place on a farm in Pennsylvania and concerns itself with the sudden death of a father.” After that, I usually ignore the narrative of the book and read poems that I think work individually and are sonically interesting and different from each other. I’ll usually read poems in the general order in which they appear. Usually any talking I’ll do between poems is to offer a kind of break for the audience. I might briefly explain how I got an idea for a poem, or maybe a tidbit of my family life, i.e. my father’s hunting in “First Day of the Hunt” or a phrase my mother would say in “Still Life with Needle.”

I was intrigued (and ultimately, impressed) by the inclusion of the acrostics in this collection--a form more often associated with wordplay, versus such a grave subject. How did you gravitate to the form?

I’d never written acrostics before, but maybe four years into writing this book, I was exhausted. I was exhausted by the emotional work of getting into the headspace necessary to access these poems. I’d begun to feel, as the poems accumulated, that I’d been building a house and then living in that house solely occupied by my father and myself. It was wrenching. I honestly feared that I would never be finished writing the book. I needed a door out for a while, and I wanted to write in a form because it felt like a way of being less alone in the writing process.

I thought, hmm, sonnets? Nope. I write terrible sonnets. So I tried one acrostic, which I believe was “Acrostic: Outhouse.” It felt like a gift, it came so easily. I tried another. And then another. All but two acrostics that I wrote during that time made it into the book. At the time, I told myself that I would write acrostics about lighthearted subjects to get away from the book. Well, that didn’t happen, naturally, but it was one more poem, and then another, and then another. I’m actually very grateful to those acrostics, which provided a kind of ease and encouragement that I needed to push through the rest of the book.

Many thanks to Sandra and The Writer’s Center for the opportunity to answer these great questions. It’s been a pleasure.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Monday Review: James Ellroy's Blood's a Rover

This SATURDAY, James Ellroy will read at The Writer's Center. If you're planning on coming, remember that the reading starts at 7p.m. This is a pretty hot event, so you might want to consider registering early, right here. Seats are limited. Here's a special, extra-long Monday review/essay to get us properly juiced.

Blood’s A Rover by James Ellroy
Alfred A. Knopf
Reviewed Ryan Sparks

It’s not the size of the head of a sledgehammer that gives it its weight and danger; it’s the mass. All those individual molecules forged together tight and inseparable and heavy. The same goes for James Ellroy’s sentences. And Blood’s a Rover, his latest novel and the final volume of his Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, is a heavy mother full of those tiny, elemental sentences. And after writing a couple million of them over his career, he’s more than mastered the effect.

In Blood’s a Rover, as in his other recent books, it’s almost a necessity to move the action along so fast, to pronounce so much detail with so few syllables: Ellroy’s scope is massive. The novel careens through four of the most volatile years in American history, 1968-1972: the end of the birth pangs of revolt and protest, the last gasp for automatic respect for authority, the first test drive of the new American Identity. Those sentences need to hustle.

Ellroy long ago proved that he had the balls to recast the noir novel as something beefier, sexier, and headier than anyone thought possible, and now, with the completion of this trilogy, he’s brought that same fearlessness to historical fiction. The language is racist and racy, which always seemed to fit his fifties-era gumshoe novels, but seems to be toeing the line in a book that is preoccupied with the black uprising in America and black subjugation in Haiti. Almost every racial epithet for blacks and Hispanics makes a cameo somewhere in the book, and almost always from the narrator, not just a character using the ubiquitous parlance of the times.

But for Ellroy, being sensitive to overt racism is our problem, not his. Neither is his firm denial to assign Right and Wrong labels on the characters he takes seriously, whether they’re Communists, exiles, right-wing toadies, or perverts. His take on historical fiction isn’t—like so many others who make their living at it—to conceive a likeable hero and buff him with a modern polish who tut-tuts through period pieces and affirms our contemporary separation from outdated prejudices. Ellroy knows that today is not so different from yesterday, that White Fear is running as hot as it ever was and we just play it closer to the vest. Ellroy knows political ideologies are paper masks for our irrational emotions. Ellroy knows that history would prefer to be uncategorized and unbridled, so he tells it like it was.

Ellroy brings in two minor characters to chronicle their own difficulties in jiving their personal desires with what is expected of them from the groups they serve. Marshall Bowen, a black police officer recruited by Dwight Holly and the FBI to infiltrate and discredit a Black Panther-like group, takes turns working for and against The Man as well as running toward and diverging from black stereotypes. Karen Sifakis, a hard-left activist without the guts for human collateral damage struggles magnificently as Dwight Holly’s mistress. Karen and Dwight take turns leading a tango of political subversion and diversion. Ellroy recreates these two characters’ journals, giving us further license to peep and pry into the conflicted psyches of the era’s population. Their diary entries are always a great breather from the mainline bop of the rest of the book, and provide an alternative to the willful motives of all the hard white men who have otherwise dominated the entire trilogy.

Ellroy is an old man now, and he is wiser and craftier than ever. Blood’s a Rover, like each of his last six novels, contains its own lifelike maze, something that tunnels dark and dirty, overwrought with dead ends and tough choices. Ellroy invites you to mourn the ones that die in search of an exit and reminds you that the survivors are not always the lucky ones. And while it sometimes seems that the mad arena of convergence and complexity is what occupies Ellroy, what he’s boastful of, the true follower of his logic knows that that’s not the case.

What Ellroy revels in are the moments when two of his characters meet at the corners sprinting from separate chambers and the deception, the horror, or the confessions they share. The Old Man knows greed and lust, but he prefers heartache and sacrifice. The Old Man seduces us with pulp but then keeps us in bed until morning with the substance. We don’t read Ellroy for the chase or the blood or the shock. Any lech with a typewriter can give you that. We read him because he’s the only one doing what he does. And now that he’s finished with the flash and trash of the sixties, it’s only a matter of time before he sets his sights on some other sinister age and winds up with that sledgehammer for another swing at greatness.

Ryan Sparks is an American writer working out of New Orleans. His rhythm-based work appears frequently on the Santa Fe Writers Project Journal,

For more Ellroy information, check out this interview with Ellroy by member Art Taylor (who interviewed Ellroy for the fall Carousel). Or check out the Washington Post's review here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Saturday Morning Post: Barrelhouse

Here's a special Saturday post. I should call it, and will call it, the Saturday Morning Post. Information from local literary journal Barrelhouse. Everyone should know: Barrelhouse actually kind of got started at The Writer's Center. Meaning: Once upon a time, the guys who founded this journal were all taking a workshop here. They met, fell in love, and decided to do something really crazy. Okay, maybe two out of three of those (to poorly and incompletely paraphrase Meatloaf). Anyway, they've got some news I'd like to share to Writer's Center members and readers of this blog. Next month one of the editors, Dave Housley, will be the subject of a Friday interview. He'll introduce the journal and tell us more about how it got started and where it's going. For those of you who want to check this journal out after visiting their website, we do sell the journal at our bookstore. Check it out.

The following info comes directly from Barrelhouse:


For everything we've been up to check out the new Barrelhouse has just redesigned and relaunched our website. Check it out. Pretty fancy, right? It doesn’t just look shiny and new, we’ve got a lot of new stuff for you, too.


For the past five years, we’ve concluded every interview with the same question: what’s your favorite Patrick Swayze movie? We’ve asked Ian MacKaye and Chuck Klosterman and the Hold Steady and Malcolm Gladwell and literally anybody who would talk to us. Now, in honor of Patrick Swayze, somewhat patron saint of Barrelhouse and star of some of our favorite bad movies (and a few of our favorite good ones), we’ve pulled together all the responses to The Swayze Question.


A fresh online issue featuring a lament for the wasted life of a Bond villain’s henchman, Elvis obliterating action figures with a rifle while blown out on cocaine, a Facebook note gone awry, lyrics from a cliché-obsessed-Nashville-songwriter-turned-lunatic, a statement on womanhood, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, all by Tara Laskowski, Sean Lovelace, Kevin Winchester, Aaron Gilbreath, Molly Gaudry, and Kevin Wilson, respectively.


Originally a side project, we’ve decided to bring Growler in-house. Growler reviews debut collections of poetry and, soon, fiction. You can read reviews from the archives of first books by Jericho Brown, Timothy Green, Aaron Baker, Anne Boyer, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Fady Joudah, Nate Pritts, Eireann Lorsung, Thomas Heise, and loads more. We’ll be updating regularly so check back to find out the best of the latest.


You’re going to have to wait a little longer for this one, but not too long. Mixtape is Barrelhouse’s monthly podcast on the indie lit scene. It’s just like This American Life, but without all the high production values and famous authors with interestingly whiny voices. Our first episode focuses on Baltimore, and features interviews with publishing genius and head of Publishing Genius Adam Robinson, as well as Michael Kimball and Smartish Pace’s Stephen Reichert. Mixtape will launch in mid/late September. We’ll let you know when it’s here.


We are once again willing to read your writings and make judgments about their value relative to our bottom line. THIS IS A BUSINESS, DAMN IT! For real, though, we’re happy to read your work and appreciate that you’d consider Barrelhouse a home for your stories and poems. We’re open for everything right now—fiction, poetry, non-fiction, online, art, whatever other new genre-bending thing you’re working on.


And in More Submissions news, we’re launching a new contest – the Barrelhouse Invitational: Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll Edition. Send us your best fiction, poems, and essays on the aforementioned topic (come on, you know you think about it all the time anyway). We’ll choose the ones we like best and print them in a special sexy, druggy, and rock and rolly section of Barrelhouse number 9.


We’ve got some special deals right now. Five dollar back issues. Fifteen dollar subscriptions. That’s some good bang for your buck. In this economy, you’re not going to find cheaper, high quality, new independent writing unless you look around the Internet some more. One more note, our first issue has been sold out for a long time now so we’ve put the whole dang thing online for free.


We would have called this section “the ushge” but we couldn’t figure out how to spell it in a way that you’d know what we’re talking about. The ushge, short for “the usual?” Right. We’ve still got all the Barrelhousey goodness you’ve grown accustomed to -- the blog, news updates, and more. So stay tuned and keep plugged in. We’ll keep doing our thing, bringing you the poetry, fiction, pop flotsam and cultural jetsam you love.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Discovery Friday: SFWP on the Future of Small Presses (Part I)

Today we're joined by Andrew Gifford, publisher of SFWP.

What possessed you to publish books?

My first response is to say “Dunno,” because it’s a hard question. I’ve spent my inheritance, my savings, and all my credit to publish books. And I will gladly do it again as soon as I get my hands on a few grand.

Neurologist Alice Flaherty gave popularity to the term “Midnight Disease” in her book. On the surface, it’s a memoir about her bout with depression and hypergraphia, but she takes it a step further and analyzes the compulsion that drives all writers to write. And it is a compulsion. It is about exorcising demons, or appeasing that voice in your head. There’s lots of real work and dedication required to bring that voice to paper, but it all starts with that weird, lonely compulsion.

I think of publishing as a branch of that midnight disease.

Since the Washington Post article about me, I’ve put lots of thought to this question. I told the journalist, Laura Wexler, it was because I loved Moody Food and wanted to give it the worldwide distribution it deserved, and then the wheel just sort of kept rolling. But the real answer is that I’m compelled to do this. I wrote my first book when I was eight years old, and my mother lovingly bound it and drew some cover art. I pitched my first book – and received my first rejection – when I was 12 years old. I started my first publishing company when I was 15, collecting poets and authors in homemade chapbooks and actually making a nice profit. What possessed me? Dunno…

What is the future of the small press? Is there room for small presses in the publishing world?

Right now, I’d say the future looks both grim and promising. Following the traditional path in the industry is impossible for a small press. The traditional path being the publication of a "marketable" book (whatever that may be), working with a distributor, doing the whole no-nonsense PR thing, putting the author on tour, etc. All the stuff the larger publishers do.

Unless the small press is well funded and, well, just damned lucky, taking the traditional path means bankruptcy. The industry nickles and dimes the publisher into oblivion. First you get clipped by the distributor, and that's just fine because they're performing a vital service. But when you're dealing in sales measured in the hundreds, you're not really making enough to justify the cause. Then you get clipped by the bookstores -- indie stores that charge for readings really rattle my cage. Suddenly you get a bill requesting "co-op money" for "advertising" that didn't go beyond the store's electronic newsletter. Sometimes these bills will be $500 or a thousand bucks. The larger publishers pay them, to keep playing nice. Or they can afford to ignore them. The smaller presses get blacklisted. All this goes on usually without the author's knowledge. Of course, that's also something that's burning the indie bookstores. I know, based on my experience, that I now seek author engagements at the chain stores or indie stores (like Politics and Prose) who truly embrace authors and good writing and don’t extort money from publishers. (And, of course, Politics and Prose is doing well, while other equally famous indie stores now sink beneath the waters. Lesson learned.)

Though there's plenty of resentment for the chain stores, as well. The chain stores have an automated returns policy designed to bolster their tenuous budgets. Books might be returned en masse without ever getting put on the shelves. So they buy the books at a 50% discount, you lose 20-some percent to the distributor, then the books are returned immediately for a full refund and another small handling fee paid by the publisher to the distributor.

Meanwhile, there are a plethora of organizations geared towards "investing" in small presses and their books. It worries me to see more and more small presses moving towards these options. Chances are it's just a money grab on the part of the so-called investors. Usually I see this take the form of a group of industry professionals -- editors and PR folks -- who promise that, with their help, the book will be able to fund a moonshot. Typically, they don't put forward real cash or enable the publisher in any way. They do some PR work and demand a huge up-front payment from the proceeds and, after that, a percentage that guarantees nobody but them will see money from the book. Publicity people are the last great mystery in the business, and these organizations use that to their advantage. But, really, publicity for the small press is easy. It's about buying a list, it's about crafting the right sort of language, and, increasingly, it's about using "guerilla" tactics: Facebook, Twitter, webpages, blogs, etc. There is no mystery.

That gets me to how the future is not really grim if you know what you're doing. SFWP’s first book came out in 2006. If I could go back to 2005 and start all over again, I would. Gladly. I have no regrets. But I'd do a lot of things differently. It's taken four books to really learn this trade and see how it can work. And it can work.

So that's the long-winded answer to the first part of the question. The second part -- is there room for small presses in the publishing world -- is easy. The answer is yes, of course. There always is. A small press won't ever make big money. Those days are (temporarily) over. But there is still a demand for what small presses can offer. My favorite story is North Point Press (now Counterpoint) and Son of the Morning Star. This struggling small press puts out an unusual book that straddled history and fiction by a writer with a strong literary reputation but no sales track record or name recognition. And lightning strikes. That sort of blind luck used to be okay to expect (and I think it still should be). Look also to the story of Graywolf Press.

Now, though, the small presses have become more mainstream. They don’t do daring things. We don’t notice them as much as we used to. Many small presses have become cookie cutter versions of the big presses, or of each other. Readership, meanwhile, declines. How can a dusty old book combat iPods and movies on the laptop and internet downloads and that lovely plasma TV after 12-hour nose-to-the-grindstone days?

The only way is if it’s different. Daring. Interesting. Forget trying to find the next Dan Brown… Gamble a little bit. Why not? Small presses need to do what they’ve always done: Find the next Bukowski. (That’s another favorite example for me – Black Sparrow.)

Would you, as a reader, say there’s no room for another Black Sparrow, and another Bukowski, in the current publishing world?

Join us next week for the conclusion of this intereview. Meanwhile, check out Andrew Gifford at SFWP, at the SFWP blog, or at SFWP's online literary journal.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Poetry Instigator

Today we welcome Lucy Biederman of The Poetry Instigator. The Writer's Center and Fall for the Book have teamed with them to have a free poetry contest as a way of drawing exciting for upcoming poetry events at Fall for the Book(and poetry in general). The Poetry Instigator was the driving force behind this great new idea. Remember, several poets connected to The Writer's Center will be reading at the festival, including Charles Jensen (Director), poet & translator Yvette Neisser Moreno (workshop leader), Paula Bohince & Brian Teare (poets who're reading at The Writer's Center co-sponsored event, and Therese Svoboda (workshop leader).

What is Poetry Instigator?
The Poetry Instigator is a community that, we hope, encourages poets and nonpoets alike to write and share poems they might not otherwise have written. The site has two sections, the blog and the forum. On our blog we offer prompts, discussion, debate, and interview with poets. Our forum gives people a chance to share the poems they've written based on our prompts.

What prompted you to start your Web site?

Eleanor Tipton and I are both MFA students at George Mason University, where many of our classes involve writing and sharing poetry prompts. Even outside of class, I make up prompts for myself when I write; I love the sense of being "freed" to write something new, something I didn't expect from myself, by some kind of conceit or constraint. Ellie mentioned the idea of setting up a blog that featured our prompts, and I loved the idea. We got to work immediately, with the help of Alison Strub, a poet and friend who is wise in the ways of the Internet.

What separates you from other poetry places online?

What we most want to offer is a community of writers. We hope to be a place where graduates of MFA programs and writers who are interested in poetry but trepidatious feel comfortable trying it out and sharing their work. Right away, people were pretty active about posting poems on our forum; it's exciting to see the enormous diversity of poems that can come from a single prompt.

Tell us about the contest.

We're partnering with George Mason's weeklong fall-semester book festival, Fall for the Book, and The Writer's Center to offer a contest that is free and open to everyone. Write a poem that incorporates a quote from ANY Fall for the Book 2009 author, and email the poem, with your name, contact information, and the source of the quote, to Send your poem as an .rtf or .doc file, and please keep your name and any other identifying information off the actual poem, as we'll read the entries anonymously. We're looking forward to reading these poems!