Friday, October 30, 2009

Saturday Morning Post: Quotidian's Port Authority & Special Discounts for Members of TWC

The Quotidian Theatre Company is getting very good reviews for its production of Conor McPherson's Port Authority, which runs at The Writer's Center through November 22. Footlights DC, a great community resource for area theatre lovers, includes excerpts from two recent reviews, posted below. As a special membership benefit, Writer's Center members get discounted $10 tickets to Quotidian Theater Company productions. Also, scroll down to learn about a special discount The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts is offering Writer's Center members on a Writing for Sitcoms workshop with David Emerson Toney.

Quotidian's small but mighty production very well done.'s a credit to McPherson's humane, observant pen -- and to the three adept actors who illuminate his material in Quotidian Theatre's local premiere of his 2001 play -- that even when nothing much is happening, it feels like everything's at stake. ...the epiphanies here are like atoms, miraculous for their smallness and ubiquity. McPherson knows that insight is more likely to arrive in the frozen food aisle than on a mountaintop, and that wherever we are, we experience these shattering moments privately. ...McPherson's work has been all over D.C. stages recently. Scena's production of his "Dublin Carol" closed last month, while Studio staged "The Seafarer" last January and "Shining City" 14 months before that. Quotidian did its own "Dublin Carol" only a year ago. Given all that, it's surprising that "Port Authority" took so long to find its way here. That's its arrived in such lovingly curated, brilliantly performed fashion is the one happy ending amid a show that otherwise has no use for such dismissive reductionism.
-- Chris Klimek, DC Examiner

Read the complete review

Port Authority is well worth a trip to The Writer's Center in Bethesda for its stellar writing and three strong, complex performances from Flanagan, Beall, and LaRocque. This story of love, loss, and the life unlived is theater at its most captivating.
-- Ben Demers, DC Theatre Scene

Read the complete review

The Area Premiere of Conor McPherson's


October 23rd – November 22nd, 2009

The Quotidian Theatre production features Steve Beall as Dermot, James Flanagan* as Kevin, and Steve LaRocque as Joe, directed by Jack Sbarbori.

Performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.,
Sundays at 2 p.m., with an added Matinee on
Saturday, November 21st at 2 p.m.

PLEASE NOTE: This play contains adult themes and language and is not recommended for those under 17.

Tickets: $25. ($5. Discount for Seniors/Students)($10 tickets for members of The Writer's Center.)


All performances at the Writer's Center at 4508 Walsh Street
in Downtown Bethesda

*Member of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States, appearing under a Special Appearance Contract.

The Quotidian Theatre is a member of the League of Washington Theatres and the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington

Visit their Website at
301 816-1023


The Theatre Lab of Washington DC offers Writer's Center members a special 15% discount on a workshop, Writing for Sitcoms, with Instructor David Emerson Toney. The workshop meets Monday evenings, 7 to 9:30 p.m. from November 2 to December 14, with no meeting Novemer 9. General tuition for the class is $230, and The Theatre Lab is offering Writer's Center members a 15% discount. In order to receive the discounted tuition of $195.50 please register by phone at 202-824-0449 and indicate your Writer's Center membership. These classes will be held at 733 8th Street, NW, very near the Gallery Place Metro station in downtown DC. To learn more about The Theatre Lab, visit their website at

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Discovery Friday: David Leavitt and Subtropics

David Leavitt is the editor of Subtropics, a literary journal at the University of Florida and a member of The Writer's Center's Literary Journal Discount Program. If you are a Writer's Center member and don't know about this program, you can get 40% off a subscription to each journal listed at the link above. Click on it when you're done reading this interview.

Leavitt graduated from Yale University in 1983 with a BA in English. He is the author of the short story collections Family Dancing (finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award), A Place I’ve Never Been, Arkansas, and The Marble Quilt, as well as the novels The Lost Language of Cranes, Equal Affections, While England Sleeps (Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize), The Page Turner, Martin Bauman, or A Sure Thing, and The Body of Jonah Boyd. In 2002, he published Florence, A Delicate Case as part of Bloomsbury’s series “The Writer and the City.” His Collected Stories was published in 2003 by Bloomsbury. The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Origins of the Computer appeared in 2005 and the novel The Indian Clerk (finalist for the PEN/Faulkner prize) appeared in 2007. The rest of his bio is at the bottom of this interview.

Subtropics is a new journal, only 8 issues old, but already it’s making a big splash on the literary journal scene. How did Subtropics come about?

Subtropics really came about as a result of a conversation I had with the then chair of the English department when I was hired back in 2000. Of course, those were financially easier days for everyone. At one point he said, “Now that you’re coming in here to teach, is there anything you’d really like to do, something you could do for the university?” And I said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to start a literary magazine and we don’t have one.” So a couple years later, he approached me and said, “I think we should try to start one.” He had a plan involving what’s known around here as Gatorade money. The University of Florida owns the patent to Gatorade, and there’s a fund that at least partially draws on Gatorade that’s designed to support various research by faculty, and usually we’re talking about millions of dollars for big science labs. But it was the chair’s feelings, and the then Dean’s feelings, that we could put together a proposal for starting this magazine. So we did, and it worked. Since then, we’ve kept going. The goal—like with any literary magazine—is to reach some degree of self-sufficiency, which has been harder than we anticipated, in part due to economics and in part due to various internal matters within the university. But they’ve been consistent in their support, even times have been tough and there’s less discretionary money available. But the university really likes the magazine. From the point of view of an administrator, it’s a nice thing to give to a potential donor.

So that was how it started. I don’t need to tell you that it’s a pretty tough time to be editing and running a literary magazine. When I read about the death of Triquartely, that was very, very upsetting. We’re hoping to do a couple things: We’d love to get an endowment from a donor, and the other thing is that we’re involved in this big push to sell subscriptions electronically, directly, which is turning out to be much more of a hassle than it should. But I won’t waste your time with that. It’s pretty tedious. With any luck, we’ll have that service available by the end of the year.

What would you say is the Subtropics aesthetic? What kind of work are you looking for?

You know, we decided pretty early on that we didn’t want to have an aesthetic. We didn’t want to set up a standard—deliberately at least—of taste or style. We just wanted to publish work that we liked. And to try to be as open as we could be, and that’s sort of the philosophy of our MFA program, which our Web site kind of makes a big point. We don’t encourage any particular school of writing. We like diversity, and even perversity. And that’s because we have four wildly different fiction faculty. So we don’t really have an aesthetic, above and beyond the basic: quality, significance—in the sense that something really matters.

There are two things we do that are unique. One: We really like to publish long pieces, which I know many magazines don’t. We’re open to novellas, and we’ve published at least two that are 15,000 words or more. So we don’t shut out the long piece. Two: We’re very committed to translations. We’re doing this all-translation issue coming up, which we hope to be part of a bi-annual translation issue. Part of the reason for this is that Sidney Wade, our poetry editor, is a translator (and the secretary of ALTA), and she’s been pushing the translation of poetry pretty heavily, including printing poetry translations with the original on the facing page. We have a strong commitment to the principle of translation, and want to continue to encourage translations.

You’ve published a wide selection of established writers, but you’ve also published up-and-coming names. How do you strike the right balance between the established and the emerging?

I, to best of my ability, try not to think of a writer’s reputation when I decide to publish something. Obviously, you can’t ignore the fact that you’re reading a story by someone really famous. But I often wish that there was some way I could publish a list of all the famous writers I’ve had to turn down. I mean, it’s very important not just to publish a story because you like the writer. You may not like that individual story. You may not think it works. Often, what happens is that you get sort of their shopping lists, because their really good stuff is sent to The New Yorker and whatever’s left over they send to journals like us. So we don’t really try to strike the balance. We just publish what we like. The only exception was the first issue. We really did want to load up the first issue with big names, just to get us on the map.

But there wasn’t a single piece in that issue that I didn’t believe in. Interestingly, a story in that issue that got the most attention was by Eileen Pollack, who was probably the least well known writer in that issue. Her story got a lot of good mileage (Best American Short Stories). So we’re trying to read story by story and not writer by writer, to the extent that I can. Although with this translation issue we’ve got a story by J. M. G. Le Clezio, a Nobel Laureate. I can’t really get that out of my mind.

Moving on to your own work, you published your first and second stories in The New Yorker while still an undergraduate. Your first collection of stories, Family Dancing, followed not long after you graduated. I want to flip this question on its head a bit: Can you talk about some of the difficulties of starting your career with early success?

Yeah, but first of all I want to say the advantages far outweigh the difficulties. I’m not one of these people who complain, Oh, it was so awful!

I was really lucky, and I still consider myself fortunate to have established myself as early as I did. But there were some negatives to it. One: When you publish a first book that’s really successful, everyone’s out to get you with your second book. Which is why I’ve noticed now that a lot of younger writers wait a long time before they publish a second book. They wait until that impulse to publish a second has passed, which is really a smart move on their part. I was really not mature enough to handle the degree of attention I was getting. I think I was making the mistake a lot of young people make when they get a lot of attention, which was to be really pompous. Because suddenly I was being treated as if I had authority, and I didn’t. I wasn’t mature enough to know how to handle that. I recall certain episodes that make me wince, episodes where I acted like a real brat.

I think, though, what sort of saved me was that I was very, very distrustful of the whole idea of early success. I had been warned by teachers of mine to be very wary. I knew about the likelihood that one could be sort of a one-hit wonder or flash in the pan. This was the period of the so-called literary bratpack: Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, all of whom I was associated with. I didn’t really know them—I’d met them once—and I was such a different personality. I was not a partier. I was not a New York club person. I’d lived in New York, but I was pretty reclusive. I didn’t trust that sort of limelight, so I stayed out of it. And that was good. But the problem was—you just can’t win—that I started getting a reputation for being a snob. That was really why I left New York and decided to get out of that whole world. I really have not gone back.

The other problem is if you start publishing when you’re really young you end up publishing things that you’re later embarrassed about.

Do you feel that now?

Some of the things I’m a little embarrassed about, not too many. But there are some stories—not so much the fiction—but the nonfiction I wrote at the time. And I’ll tell you a funny story. When I was about 24, the late Anatole Broyard of The New York Times Book Review, asked me to review this novel by Ethan Canin. I didn’t like it terribly. Emperor of the Air, it was called. And I wrote sort of a mixed review. Much to my horror, when the review was published, Broyard had—without telling me—edited the opening paragraph and added the line “He is just twenty-seven, yet he has already published his first book.” Well, I was 24. So people came after me, saying, “who are you to say he’s just 27? You’re not even that old!” And it was just done by the editor, so that was the sort of thing that would happen. That one wasn’t even my fault.

Well now, years later, you were a finalist for the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for the novel The Indian Clerk, among such luminaries as Jean Echenoz, Mohsin Hamid, and Junot Diaz. Can you tell us what that experience was like?

It really wasn’t much of an experience. It was very exciting, I was glad to be nominated, but the nomination was really all there was. I got an e-mail telling me I was nominated. There wasn’t really much to it except for the honor, which I was grateful for. I thought I was in really good company. A lot of the books I had read and were really first-rate books, including the more obscure ones. I read the Jean Echenoz book, Ravel, which I loved. I’d already read Travis Holland’s The Archivist’s Story, which I also really admired.

The Pen/Faulkner nomination—the book was also a finalist for that prize—was much more of an experience, because they bring the finalists to DC, and that was a lot of fun. I invited a couple of my former students, and that was really fun to have them as my “dates.” We had a blast and everyone was really nice; it was such a different atmosphere than in New York. There wasn’t that sort of insiderish quality you get in New York. Most of the people there were not part of the publishing world.

In addition to your novels and your short story collections, you’ve also published a collection of wonderful novellas called Arkansas. Since the novella is such an undervalued and underappreciated art form today, I wanted to ask you: How would you define the novella? What—besides word count—makes a novella a novella?

That’s a really good question. It’s hard to answer. I would say: You know one when you see one. I think of the novellas I have loved the most, like Smiley’s “The Age of Grief.” Some of the long Alice Munro stories I love seem to be very much stories. Maybe it’s as much scale with the novella as it is length. It has more amplitude to it than a short story but less amplitude than a novel. There are certain tricky cases. Look at some books that have a novella length but standalone as a book, like Westcott’s The Pilgrim. Is that a novella or a novel? It’s a gray area. I think of a novella as the anchor of a book, but not something that could be published alone. Like “The Age of Grief.” She published that in a collection of stories. When she published her two other novellas, she published them as a pair.

I would say the most novella-ish thing we’ve published in Subtropics is Peter Wells’ story in issue 6, about a girl from New Zealand who after the war becomes a servant. It’s called “A Titled Lady Requires,” and it’s a novella no question. He’s better known as a filmmaker—a New Zealand filmmaker—than as a writer.

One of those novellas, “The Term Paper Artist,” is playfully close to autobiography in the way that Philip Roth often seems autobiographical. You seem to be having a lot of fun in that novella. Was writing it as comic an experience as it seems on the page?

It was fun. I wouldn’t say it was comic, because it grew out of a terrible situation. The origins of that novella developed from my being sued by Stephen Spender. What really started down the road was a comment that Spender when he was objecting to the pornographic scenes in my novel [While England Sleeps]. “Leavitt seems to think it’s all right to write these pornographic scenes about my life, but I’m sure he’d never write pornographic scenes about his own life.” And I thought, well, sure I would. I was thinking very much about the issue of privacy. The fact that fiction writers are often terrible hypocrites on this question. They regularly invade the privacy of people they know, because they use the material of what they know, but they become extremely angry when anyone writes about them. And there are numerous examples, and probably the most prominent is J.D. Salinger. But you can also go back and look at Gordon Lish’s lawsuit against Barry Hannah when Hannah wrote a novel that had a character based on Lish, which was pretty hypocritical if you ask me. So I wanted to turn that inside out by not only writing very explicitly about the things in my own life, but actually going beyond and attributing to myself behaviors that were really more outrageous than the things I’ve done. One of the smartest comments about it came from a reviewer in The NY Times. He said that when I dropped a hint that it was all fiction—he thought that was a cop out. In retrospect, I think he was right.

* If you'd like to read an interview with Subtropics poetry editor Sidney Wade with local blogger Serena over at Savvy Verse and Wit, click here.


With Mark Mitchell, David Leavitt is co-author of Italian Pleasures and In Maremma: Life and a House in Southern Tuscany, and co-editor of the anthologies The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories and Pages Passed from Hand to Hand. His work has appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s, Esquire, Vogue, The Paris Review, DoubleTake, The Southwest Review, Tin House, Food & Wine and Travel and Leisure. He has also taught at Princeton University. Visit Amazon for a list of his books.

A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Institute of Catalan Letters in Barcelona Spain, David Leavitt was recently named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Must See Poetry Tonight and Sunday

Poetry can be described as lyric with a beat. From sleepy lullaby to rowdy rock-and-roll there are certainly many speeds. “At a fixed rate, comes the sound of a sound—watch it now, watch it,” as Terese Svoboda’s poem “Wooly Bully” ends, she reminds us of the sixties tune by the same name while also reminding the reader to actively look for poetry.

Well, look no further. Visiting writers present “must see” poetry this Thursday, October 29th and Sunday, November 1st at The Writer’s Center. Free and open to the public.

Thursday, October 29th, 7:30 p.m. - Terese Svoboda and Wendy Mnookin Writer Terese Svoboda, Weapons Grade and Trailer Girls and Other Stories, joins poet and professor Wendy Mnookin, The Moon Makes Its Own Plea. (Read a First Person Plural mini-interview with Svoboda by The Writer's Center's bookstore manager Janel Carpenterhere.). Svoboda’s “What another Genre Can Do For You” workshop is at capacity, although you can still catch her and Mnookin during our Q&A segment with all your questions on craft

Sunday, November 1st, 2:00 p.m. – Open Door Reading Series: The Rockpile Journals

Legendary beat poet David Meltzer and poet/editor Michael Rothenberg discuss Rockpile, an 8-week, 8-city cross-country tour to perform with local musicians and artists in each city, all composed while on the road. They are joined by pianist and composer Burnett Thompson and members of his New Columbia Orchestra.

Special guest readers include readers Terri Carrion, Ed Baker, Carlo Parcelli, Beth Joselow, Tala Abu Rahmeh, Reuben Jackson, Sarah Browning, Tom Mandel, and Brian Gilmore.

While creating collaboration, Meltzer and Rothenberg reinforce the tradition of the troubadour. They’ve been all over America since the sixties. Join them this Sunday and celebrate the Beat Generation—the momentum carries on.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Something Is Written in Denmark

There’s a touching story in Jackie Wullschlager’s wonderful, illuminating biography Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller. In it, a seventeen year old H.C. Andersen enters a school in the town of Slagelse where all his classmates are six years younger. When asked by the headmaster to locate the city of Copenhagen on a map—a town just 57 miles away and where he had recently lived for three years—he is unable. Imagine that. Andersen, probably the single most recognizable Danish author of all time, was for a time the class idiot to a bunch of eleven year olds.

But it’s that story of the iconic figure of H.C. Andersen which I find compelling in a discussion of contemporary Danish (and American) literature. The question, you see, is where is it? Who can locate it on the map? It’s alive and well, of course, this thing called Danish literature. Denmark supports its authors and its publishers, and it has its individual champions here in the states—Garrison Keillor and Paul Auster come to mind. Jonathan Rich of The Paris Review. Or Jeffrey Frank of the New Yorker (who recently, together with his wife, produced new translations of Andersen’s work). Then you have your regular posse of translators, a noble breed that’s too often overlooked by academics and media alike. Without translators, there would be no. such. thing. as. world. literature.

Every now and again, a Danish author will break through in the United States. Think Peter Høeg (Smilla’s Sense of Snow) or, more recently, Morten Ramsland (Doghead) and Peter Fogtdal (The Czar’s Dwarf). But like so much of international literature, it’s backburnered in favor of the homegrown stuff. It’s been a while since a Danish author broke through in the way that, say, Swede Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) or Norwegian Per Petterson (Out Stealing Horses) has broken through.

Why is that? It’s certainly not for lack of quality authors. Part of me wonders whether it’s a reverse Andersen effect: it’s now us who can’t locate Copenhagen on the map. Historically speaking, Denmark has always been a powerful force to be reckoned with in Europe—and especially in Scandinavia. But since the end of World War II, when globalization’s engine really started to heat up, Denmark has lagged behind in the self-promotion department. Swedes and Norwegians—much larger land masses to the north—tend to usurp visibility in this area. Perhaps the lesson here is that when you think you’re small, you are small.

Denmark is a nation of only around 5.5 million people, but it’s a leading cultural light in western culture (the cartoon fiasco notwithstanding), very much on par with all of Scandinavia. With its self-sustaining environmental policies, its copacetic, slightly more relaxed way of life and its brilliantly altruistic social welfare programs, Denmark is a role model to other nations. (Sadly, I can envision that privatization will strip the country’s social welfare programs bare in another generation. Am I being cynical?)

In such an environment, it’s no surprise that Danish authors have produced—and continue to produce—terrific material. Stuff worthy of world circulation. According to Open Letter Press’s blog Three Percent (although it’s not original to them), only, that’s right, “3 percent” of the total number of books published in the United States are translated. That’s a whoppingly low number—and perhaps proof that U.S. literature is indeed “insular,” as Horace Engdahl of the Swedish Academy notoriously suggested?

A special thanks to Scott Lindenbaum at the fabulous new Electric Literature for requesting this piece originally, and for posting it on their awesome new blog The Outlet. They are also responsible for the clever title of this post.

Monday, October 26, 2009

120 Year Old Poet Lore Needs Your Support!

Thank you so much for being part of The Writer’s Center’s community. Last year, we welcomed more than 6,000 people to our events and programs, making this one of the largest and most active literary organizations in the metropolitan Washington area. Given today’s economic climate, our continued success depends more than ever on your support.

As you know, the Center has served writers at every stage of their careers for more than 30 years. It may surprise you to learn that for well over a century, Poet Lore, the ground-breaking journal published here since the late 1980s, has done the same. A recent issue of Poets & Writers took note of its longevity, contrasting it to a newer journal:

Five years is…a blip in the history of a journal like Jody Bolz and E. Ethelbert Miller's Poet Lore, the poetry magazine that was established in 1889, making it the same age as the Wall Street Journal,the Eiffel Tower, and van Gogh's Starry Night.

If only Poet Lore were as well-known! As we celebrate 120 years in print, we’re eager to spread the word. Poet Lore’s founders, Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, were Shakespeare scholars with an uncanny eye for emerging literary genius. They published many of the great poets and playwrights of that era, often introducing them to American readers for the first time. Early issues of the magazine include the writing of such luminaries as Rabindranath Tagore, Maxim Gorky, Frederic Mistral and Henrik Ibsen. An early edition of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” appeared in English in Poet Lore, and Walt Whitman himself took out ads in three successive issues to promote Leaves of Grass.

In the late 20th century, under the guidance of Porter and Clarke’s successors, Poet Lore published the early work of many remarkable contemporary American poets—Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Carl Phillips, Kim Addonizio, David Baker, D. Nurkse, Dana Gioia, Pablo Medina, Cornelius Eady, Colette Inez and Linda Pastan among them. Our new issue features a showcase of these writers and others whose talent Poet Lore embraced before they’d established national reputations. We hope you’ll join us on the evening of November 14th at the Historical Society of Washington to celebrate Poet Lore’s 120th anniversary and hear three of these poets—John Balaban, Gary Fincke and Myra Sklarew—give a very special reading.

Poet Lore is funded by subscriptions and generous contributions from readers who know the value of supporting opportunities for writers at every stage of their careers. Please consider making a gift to The Writer’s Center now to help subsidize the costs of producing this historic journal. Your contribution will directly fund opportunities for today’s emerging poets.

For generations, Poet Lore has opened its pages to the work of gifted writers, including those breaking into print for the first time. Mindful of tradition and eager for discovery, we carry on its work—reading each submission that crosses our desks without regard for previous publication. We need your help so that Poet Lore can continue to thrive and serve future generations of writers and readers. We’re grateful for your support of The Writer’s Center and look forward to seeing you at an event or in a workshop here very soon.

Best regards,

E. Ethelbert Miller & Jody Bolz
Executive Editors

The Writer's Center Announces Undiscovered Voices Fellowship Recipient

The Writer’s Center is pleased to announce that Susan Bucci Mockler is the first recipient of its inaugural—and already highly competitive—Undiscovered Voices Fellowship. In this initiative, The Writer’s Center provides a one-year-long fellowship to a promising writer earning less than $25,000 annually. At a time when economic challenges make it difficult for many writers to pursue their literary goals, The Writer’s Center’s Undiscovered Voices Fellowship aims to provide that extra professional boost for talented writers like Bucci Mockler.

A mother of three, Bucci Mockler is a poet and writing instructor at Marymount University in Arlington, VA and a substitute teacher. For the last 20 years, she has honed her craft—while taking several workshops at The Writer’s Center—and her poems have been published in literary journals such as Sow's Ear Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, The Paterson Literary Review, Poet Lore, and The Innisfree Poetry Journal. Bucci Mockler is eager to get to work. “This fellowship will provide the atmosphere to write more and better poetry,” she says. “I will be challenged and motivated by the workshop leaders, other students in the workshops, and the feedback they give. To me, being around people who are taking their writing seriously is a tremendous inspiration.”

With her Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, Bucci Mockler will receive complimentary writing workshops for a period of one year. During the course of the year, she hopes to use The Writer’s Center’s workshops as a “place to be inspired, motivated, and pushed to write and revise with the goal of publishing a book of poetry.” In addition to receiving free workshops at The Writer’s Center, Susan Bucci Mockler will give a reading from her work at the close of the fellowship period (June 2010), and she will be invited to speak with local high school students on the craft of writing.

Here is a sample of her work, from her poem “Black Schist”:

When I saw the emptiness of that screen—
the blackness not pulsing, no life or breath
in it, I fell backward into someone else’s body.
The doctor said there were just membranes,
That sometimes the baby does not grow.
When I heard those words, I knew that the place
in me where you had been was already turning
to stone—shale and slate compressing
layer by layer over time.

Stanley Plumly, a workshop leader at The Writer’s Center and Maryland’s new poet laureate, says that her work “speaks with precision and defining understatement in poems that honor their archetypes as well as their strict language.”

Sarah Antine, a Writer’s Center member, was part of the selection committee for the fellowship. “Bucci Mockler’s poems are alive with sensory detail and emotional impact,” she says. “The music reverberates within the walls of each poem’s structure and story. Her voice holds out a hand and pulls the reader into her work.”

Other members of the selection committee for the 2009/10 Undiscovered Voices Fellowship included workshop leaders Peter Brown, Virginia Hartman, Adam Meyer, Cara Seitchek, and Gina Hagler; board member Sandra Beasley; and member Karla Araujo.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Saturday Morning Post: Open Door, Margaret Atwood, and the JCCGW Book Festival

Three upcoming local events for lovers of literature:

First, On Sunday, October 25 at 2:00, as part of our Open Door Reading Series, The Writer’s Center features winners of the 2009 Washington Writers’ Publishing House poetry and fiction competitions. Novelist William Littlejohn reads from Calvin and Jehanne Dubrow reads from her new collection of poems, From the Fever-World.

William Littlejohn holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Virginia. After serving in the United States Marine Corps, Littlejohn practiced law in Chicago for thirty years before retiring to write full time.

Jehanne Dubrow is the author of a poetry collection, The Hardship Post, and a chapbook, The Promised Bride. Her third collection of poetry, Stateside, will be published next year.

The Washington Writers’ Publishing House (WWPH) is a cooperative press that’s been publishing for 30-plus years.

Second, the JCC of Greater Washington celebrates its 40th annual Book Festival from Nov. 5-15. There will be plenty of great readers, including Deborah Tannen, Peter Yarrow, and Jeffrey Zaslow. For more information click here.

And third: On Friday, October 30 at 8p.m., Margaret Atwood will appear at The George Washington University Lisner Auditorium, 21st & H Streets, NW, Washington, D.C.
(Two blocks from Foggy Bottom/GWU Metro, Blue & Orange Lines).

Celebrated novelist and poet Margaret Atwood makes her George Washington University debut with a special event highlighting her new novel, The Year of the Flood. For this unique combination of book launch, dramatic reading with music and a fund-raising event for environmental organizations, George Washington University students will join the Booker Prize-winning author to dramatically stage select scenes.

The Year of the Flood focuses on a group that appears in the background of Atwood’s 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake: the God’s Gardeners, who attempt to reconcile religion, science, and nature. The piece begins in Gardener Year Twenty-five, when much of the human race has been obliterated in a man-made pandemic.

TICKETS: $35, $25
GW Students and Alumni: Limited $20 and $10 tickets available at the Lisner Auditorium Box Office. Group rates available for groups of 10+. Tickets available at the Lisner Auditorium Box Office (Tuesday - Friday, 11 am -5pm) TicketMaster outlets, PhoneCharge (301) 808-6900 and For more information, call (202) 994-6800.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Discovery Friday: Reverso Magazine

Tonight, The Writer's Center features a special literary journal reading with Reverso Magazine, a Spanish-language publication. The event is co-sponored with the Mexican Cultural Institute. Readers include some writers published in the magazine: Hernán Bravo Varela, Alejandro Tarrab, Dwayne Betts, Sandra Beasley, and Carlos Lopez de Alba (editor of Reverso). Their Web site is here.

What is Reverso Magazine?

Our primary objective is the promotion and diffusion of literature, especially from young writers. We strive to promote contemporary creative expression by giving space to new writers, fine artists, and graphic designers. In collaboration with them, we seek to occupy an important place in the country’s cultural landscape.

As such, we hope to establish a cultural program that will enhance the intellectual relationship between USA and México through artistic expression, via literature and photography, (concluding in a dossier dedicated to pictures). We also wish to publicize these efforts and to sponsor related events in different forums.

We have published literature from regions and countries such as Spain, Slovenia, Catalonia, France, Germany, Galicia and Norway; coproduced with organisms such as the Embassy of France, the Goethe Institut, the Xunta de Galicia and The Royal Norwegian Embassy in Mexico.

Where can people get a copy of the magazine?

Reverso is sold throughout Mexico in bookstores, museums, cultural centers and more than 50 sale points. It is published quarterly since its foundation on the year 2000; it publishes short stories and poetry, and it is illustrated by the plastic or graphic works of regional artists. The print run is 3,000 issues.

Reverso is a literary magazine that has received on three occasions (in 2004, 2005 and 2007) the Edmundo Valadés prize from the Support for the Publication of Independent Magazines, funded by the National Council for Arts and Culture (CONACULTA) through the National Fund for Culture and Arts (FONCA) and the National Institute of Fine Arts (INBA). Reverso circulates in bookstores, cafes, art galleries, universities and magazine stands in Guadalajara; throughout Mexico it is distributed by the bookstore chain Educal, Libros y Arte; en universities, cultural centers and diplomatic offices in Barcelona, Galicia, Paris, Frankfurt, Caracas, Buenos Aires and Santiago.

Who are your readers?

Our average reader is a young university student or professional, ranging from 18 to 35 years old, as likely to be a man as a woman. Throughout the major Mexican cities readers include artists, teachers, housewives and managers between 25 and 45 years old.

What does the magazine look like?

Reverso is 56 pages long, with a photographic dossier added in, with a clean design that respects the value of art direction in presenting the work. The magazine publishes short stories and poems, illustrated by fine and graphic art by local artists. There is a section of reviews of independent books and editorials promoting literature that meets rigorous aesthetic standards. The production run totals 3,000 copies, the final size is 21 x 27 cm.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

David Taylor: On 1930s film pioneer Leo Seltzer and Soul of a People

David A. Taylor is a workshop leader at The Writer's Center. This winter, he will teach a workshop called Starting a Documentary Film Project. (The winter workshops will go live on Friday, so check out David's workshop then at David wrote and co-produced the documentary Soul of a People: Writing America’s History and is the author of Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America (Wiley). You can learn more about Soul of a People at the book's blog, and you can learn more about him and his other books at his Web site.
This Sunday evening at Busboys and Poets, you can enjoy the surroundings and a bite or a drink while you watch the drama of David's compelling documentary (view a trailer here on Youtube or below) and experience the thrills of this 1930s story (with Richard Wright, John Cheever, Zora Neale Hurston, Studs Terkel and more!), then join in a Q&A with the filmmakers afterward. You'll also be able to get your signed copy of the Soul of a People book (which features a chapter on DC)...

When: Sunday, October 25, 8 pm
Where: Busboys & Poets, Shirlington
4251 S. Campbell Ave
Arlington, VA 22206

Get more info and watch a trailer at:

But here's the meat of this post: David writing on Leo Seltzer, a pioneer filmmaker in the 1930s:

One morning four years ago I took the train into Manhattan for the sole purpose of hand-carrying Leo Seltzer’s 1938 film, The Technique of Fresco Painting, from his house on East 69th Street across to West 55th Street for duplication. It would have been cheaper to courier it over instead of my making the 90-minute trip from where I was living in Connecticut, but that wouldn’t work for Leo.

I had met Leo a few months before, tracked him down in the course of making a documentary about 1930s culture (Soul of a People). Seltzer’s film First Steps had won the 1947 Oscar for best documentary, but it was his earlier work as a social documentarian in the 1930s with the radical Workers Film and Photo League that drew my interest. I had seen his early films, which captured strikes at Detroit auto plants, the 1932 Bonus March where thousands of World War I veterans were tear-gassed and scattered by government troops, and Supreme Court protests. Seltzer’s films had a visceral feeling and showed the 1930s as a dynamic time, not simply one of breadline newsreels. When I called him, he said he had fallen into film by chance.

He’d studied engineering after high school, but when the Crash of 1929 wiped out engineering jobs he figured he’d be a painter instead. At the painting studio in lower Manhattan, his knowledge of how to fix lighting set him apart. The filmmaking group was nextdoor. “Someone figured that because I set up lights I could do the same for the filmmaking studio next door.” When he went to see, he found the film group more interesting and became a filmmaker.

He prided himself on being more technician than social theorist. “If I photographed a picket line, it was people picketing,” he said. “I was picketing with a camera.” He liked when an article called him an unemployed worker with a camera. “That’s what I was,” he said. Seventy years later, he still had the Eyemo camera that he’d carried through the city shooting homeless people in a hooverville on Twenty-third Street, longshoremen, striking factory workers, midtown construction workers. It was his education. “Often I slept on the cutting-room table, wrapped up in the sheet that we used as a projection screen.”

He made films that were 35mm soundless. (Sound had been around for several years but few theatres were equipped for it. Soundless was cheaper and better suited for screenings in union halls and churches, he said.) The audience provided the soundtrack, with boos or applause, depending what was on the screen. Often the audience was seeing themselves or their coworkers. “When these people saw themselves picketing on the screen, it gave a morale boost.”

After several years with the League, he needed a paying job. He joined the Federal Art Project, the only filmmaker in the New York office. His 1938 film on how to make a fresco followed the progress of a WPA mural as it went up in Evander Childs High School in the Bronx. Seltzer used all the tricks he could, from time-lapse footage to verité street shooting, plus a surprise burst of color at the end, for the completed mural (he had stashed a reel of Eastman color stock). I found no other copy of the film, so during my first visit he set up his projector on a coffee table. It was unnerving to see this 95-year-old on one knee, leaning over the projector he hadn't used in nine years, but he insisted on doing it himself. When the image lit up the living room wall, I felt like I was watching something from a lost world.

Leo was understandably wary when I asked to make a copy (although it’s in the public domain). I found a place that could duplicate it in one day and Leo finally agreed to the plan. I’d come late in the morning, which left just enough time for same-day duping.

That morning, within a few minutes of my ringing his doorbell, Leo appeared in his red bathrobe with black lapels. He handed me the ancient brown box with the reel and I took off. Traffic snarled around Central Park and my driver complained, but we finally made it across the park and down Broadway.

I was filling out a form when Mike the technician came in from prepping the film and said, “We have a problem.” He led me back and pointed to the film. It was fluting at the edges – it wouldn’t sit flat. There was a risk that the telecine would damage it. The perforations were good, but a vinegary odor signaled that the print was decomposing. He shook his head, but if Leo and I insisted…

Eventually he went ahead. I watched as he sat at the console. The shots were beautifully composed, just as they’d looked on Leo’s living room wall. “Not as bad as I thought,” said another technician who had come to watch. Color bloomed at the last minute. Mike said it was better preserved than films not nearly as old. Rock on, Leo, I thought. I had time to kill while they finished the copies so I circled the block, imagining how Leo would have seen the spot 70 years before.

“I would describe my politics of that time as anti-government,” he’d told me. “To me, it was simply the haves versus the have-nots. And being one of the have-nots, I was very much involved in the thing.”

I gathered up the film reel, digital tape, and the VHS copy for him, and started back to Leo’s place. Ultimately his film gives Soul of a People some of its most authentic moments of WPA artists at work in the Bronx, and street scenes he filmed on Manhattan sidewalks.


Stephen Elliott Tonight at Lincoln Memorial

Hey, folks. Our friends at Barrelhouse--a literary journal that kind of got started following a writing workshop at The Writer's Center--are hosting a flash-mob type event tonight at the Lincoln Memorial. It features Stephen Elliott, author of The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder. He's also the editor of The Rumpus. Elliott will be reading on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at 7:30 p.m. More info here on Barrelhouse's Web site.

Tonight! Pass it on.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mini-interview: Terese Svoboda

On October 29th, The Writer's Center welcomes Terese Svoboda and Wendy Mnookin for a special Thursday evening reading. Terese will also be giving a one-day workshop, What Another Genre Can Do for You, on Saturday, October 31st. That's not as spooky as it sounds (okay, sorry for that). There are seats still available for the workshop, if you're interested in seeing this multi-talented, genre-bending author. She will read from her book of poetry called Weapons Grade.

Terese Svoboda is author of several novels and collections of poetry, including The Tin God, All Aberration, Laughing Africa, and Treason. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly,, Bomb, Lit, Columbia, Yale Review and The Paris Review. Her honors include an O. Henry for the short story, a nonfiction Pushcart Prize, a translation National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, and a PEN/Columbia Fellowship. Visit her online here.

Following is a mini-interview between The Writer's Center's bookstore manager, Janel Carpenter, and Svoboda.

In Trailer Girl, your background in poetry is evident by the brevity and density of the language. Was it difficult to write prose after poetry and vice versa?

I write both at the same time. That is to say, I find poems in the margins of novels, plots struggling to get out of poems. I like to talk to both heads when I can, to check to see if they're still screwed on.

Not to harp on your cross-genre status, but do you have a way of determining whether poetry or prose would better convey a story?

A scene will show up that unfolds rather than implodes and it’s prose. Or else I have to do it the hard way: the novella, Trailer Girl, began as a poem, and was published as a short story, then I converted it to a screenplay but soon realized I didn’t have the energy to hustle it, so I turned it into a novel. After it was published (jammed in with a lot of short stories, it became a novella), it was turned into a night of dance. Persistent inspiration.

The characters you write about in Trailer Girl and Other Stories have mostly been through some sort of trauma. Do you find it difficult to find original ways to write about trauma?

Something’s always at stake in a story, whether it’s a knife in the back or a pregnancy. Beating a story into shape makes it cry out. Originality is highly overrated.

In your story “Cave,” I found it delightful that the two characters (the Greek woman and her lover) intrude in on the narrators’ “no-fun” life. As a writer, I often feel my characters are intruding into my life. Was that your intention? Or did you have another purpose in the unique narration style?

This is a case of parallel intersecting plots: the Greek man ends the tempestuous relationship by freezing to death, the male of the other couple disappears from the life of the narrator. What happens during a story is less important than its overarching metaphor. But to make the metaphor without arching too far or being seen, like some kind of icky rainbow--that's the trick.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Celebration of Stanley Plumly and Poetry at The University of Maryland

Writer's Center workshop leader and University of Maryland Professor Stanley Plumly is the new poet laureate of the state of Maryland. Congratulations to Stanley. On October 29th and 30th, Stanley will be honored at the University of Maryland. It's free and open to the public. If you have the time, head on out and see some of these great events!

Stanley Plumly is a Distinguished University Professor and Professor of English at the University of Maryland. His work has been honored with the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award. Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2000 received an Academy Award for the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001.

October 29-30, Ulrich Recital Hall, Tawes Hall

Center for Literary and Comparative Studies
Department of English, University of Maryland

October 29, 2009

3:00pm: Welcome and Introductions: Robert Levine (Director, Center for Literary and Comparative Studies), Kent Cartwright (Chair, Department of English), James Harris (Dean, College of Arts and Humanities)

3:15pm: Keynote lecture by David Baker (Denison University and Poetry Editor of the Kenyon Review): "Melancholy Host: Mr. Plumly's Paradox." Introduction by Michael Collier (University of Maryland)

4:30pm: Poetry reading in honor of Stanley Plumly: Elizabeth Arnold, David Baker, Joelle Biele, David Biespiel, Michael Collier, Stuart Dischell, Linda Gregerson, Meghan O'Rourke, Paul Otremba, Patrick Phillips, Teresa Svoboda, Chase Twichell, Joshua Weiner

5:30pm: Reception at Tawes (2nd floor, main lobby)
October 30, 2009

8:30am: Coffee at Tawes (2nd floor English Department lounge)

9:00am: Posthumous Keats: A Panel Discussion with Duncan Wu (Georgetown), , Morris Dickstein (CUNY Graduate Center), Meghan O'Rourke (The Paris Review), Susan Wolfson (Princeton University). Chair: Martha Nell Smith (University of Maryland)

11:00am: Poetic Influences on Stanley Plumly: Linda Gregerson (University of Michigan), Stuart Dischell (University of North Carolina, Greensboro), Chase Twichell (Keene, NY), Teresa Svoboda (New York City). Chair: Joshua Weiner (University of Maryland)

12:30pm: lunch break

2:00pm: Stanley Plumly’s Influence As a Teacher: Patrick Phillips (Drew University), James Hoch (Ramapo College), Joelle Biele (Ellicott City, MD), Paul Otremba (University of Houston), David Biespiel (Wake Forest University). Chair: Elizabeth Arnold (University of Maryland)

3:30pm: Keynote lecture by David Wyatt (University of Maryland): “Walking with Stanley.” Introduction by Charles Caramello (Dean of the Graduate School)

4:30pm: Reading by Stanley Plumly

5:30PM: Reception at Tawes (2nd floor, main lobby)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Review Monday: Dylan Landis' Normal People Don't Live Like This

by Dylan Landis
Persea Books
Released: September 28, 2009
ISBN: 978-0892553549
Reviewed by Caitlin Hill

Is Dylan Landis’ debut, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a collection or a novel? It’s a fair question, and the book jacket refrains from answering, preferring the ambiguous “debut” where the label would usually be affixed. As this particular work blurs the lines between “novel” and “short story collection,” let’s call it a “novel-in-stories.” Each story can stand, unwavering, on its own two feet, and yet the collection as a whole tells a grander story; one that, when read cover-to-cover, still has a sense of movement, of working towards a greater understanding. What binds this work together is a cluster of women, most notably our main protagonist, Leah—in whose story and perspective we spend the most time—and her mother, Helen.

Leah is introduced in the second story in the book, “Fire.” She’s in middle school, and we are dropped into her world of fairly standard teenage fare. What Landis does well here is crafting individuals: Leah, tapping things thrice whenever she’s nervous; Helen, exhibiting her oppressive concern for her daughter’s well being by scaring her with specific stories of rape and murder: “He used a hammer,” leading Leah to wonder if the hammer was for the rape or the murder; Rainey, a beautiful bully who entrances Leah, even as she’s repelled by her cruelty. When Leah realizes that another bully, Chris, has flaws, Landis doesn’t simply state that Leah’s fear ebbs, she writes: “She thought about these things, and in thinking them she ran a tender finger along the edge of her fear.” It’s no general calming; it’s Leah’s specific experience described as only Landis can. And Leah progresses through the stories. Though she is never devoid of a hunger for connection, never abandons her triple-tap in times of crisis, she is still growing and changing, until the final piece “Delacroix,” in which she leaves us literally under Paris, in the sewers, taking in the world that Leah is still just beginning to understand, but with a promise that she has at least taken her first steps.

In one of the most touching segments, the title story “Normal People Don’t Live Like This,” we get our first section from Helen’s perspective. She confronts a fellow mother, Bonita, with a handful of clothes and sundries that their daughters have pilfered together. The disarray of Bonita’s place—the dirt, the grime, the haphazard arrangement—is a clear reflection of how this house is run: by a slew of teenage girls. Helen is simultaneously revolted and enchanted, and it is in this piece that we really begin to get into Helen as a character, to see her flaws and her yearning, so she is no longer merely a domineering, anorexic mother. She is beautiful and pitiable and perplexing. Each story reveals more about her, and she helps carry us through to her own final section, wherein we realize this book is as much about Helen as her daughter, and that she too has reached a turning point. Landis ends the collection before we fully dive over that edge and into a new life for Leah and Helen, but the promise is somehow enough.

Landis fulfills us. Each story builds off the previous, and builds to the next. Each story is a morsel in itself; it leaves you full, and there’s a whole tableful to gorge on. This is what Landis does, and does so well, and had she written us a standard novel, we might have become fed up and walked away. Instead, we have a contract from the start—we will be given small, digestible stories from multiple points of view, and we will want to come back and read them all—and we allow ourselves to sink into this world, to become immersed in these women, never quite sure where Landis will take us next, but trusting it will be beautiful and haunting. Read it one story at a time. Read it as a novel. Read it out of order. Read it upside-down. Just read it. You’ll see what I mean.

Caitlin Hill is the Managing Editor of Poet Lore and and MFA candidate at American University (fiction). Her fiction has appeared in So to Speak. She loves the Red Sox (even though all they ever do is break her heart).

Friday, October 16, 2009

F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Today!

The F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference is today. Here's some information from the Web site here. (All pertinent links can be found at this original site.)

Now, 113 years after the great American author’s birth, many writers will put their character in action by registering for 14th annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference in Rockville, Maryland on Saturday, October 17.

The Fitzgerald conference offers the unique opportunity for writers to hone their craft in top-notch workshops, and then listen to the masters who already have.

Julia Alvarez is this year’s honoree. Alvarez excels in multiple fields of writing: storybooks for children, young adult books, nonfiction, poetry — and most notably, novels. She is best known for her critically acclaimed novels How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. More recent fiction includes Return to Sender and Saving the World.

Azar Nafisi, best known for her national bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books, will share her experiences teaching The Great Gatsby in Tehran in the morning keynote address.

Pulitzer-prize winner Henry Allen will moderate a panel discussion on "Literary Border Crossings." The afternoon panel will include authors H.G. Carrillo (Loosing my Espanish) and Olga Grushin (The Dream Life of Sukhanov).

In addition to talks from these masters, writers attending the conference will participate in writing workshops lead by top-notch professionals, including editors of literary journals, authors of books, writing instructors, publishers, and others involved with the art and industry of writing.

Support comes from the City of Rockville, Montgomery College, Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, Gazette Newspapers, the Rockville Cultural Arts Commission, Peerless Rockville Historic Preservation, Ltd., Legacy Hotel and Meeting Center, Vermont Coffee Company, Roundhouse Theater and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society.

The conference runs from 7:30 a.m. until 6:15 p.m. with events for everyone. Visit for a complete schedule. Learn more about Julia Alvarez and her work at her website.

Learn more about the conference—and register now—at the conference website, where you can find a complete schedule of the day’s activities.

If you have any questions, you can email us at or

Best Places to See a Reading: VoteToday!

Hey, folks. If you like The Writer's Center's new and improved reading series, featuring a diverse array of authors, from Holocaust poetry to Story/Stereo, from Obie Award-winning actor/author Martin Moran to Washington Writers' Publishing House winners William Littlejohn and Johanne Dubrow, vote here at Express Night Out. They're doing the "best of" contest. Under "Arts & Entertainment" click other and votes us in! Voting ends today!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Discovery Friday: Jay Bates of A River and Sound Review

Jay Bates is the founder of A River and Sound Review, a new online literary journal based in the Puget Sound region of Washington state. The journal grew out of a project he started while attending the Rainier Writers' Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. The first issue of the journal, published in June, features the work of David Huddle, Brian Doyle, Simon Fruelund (Disclosure: I translated the Fruelund story from Danish), Peggy Schumaker, Anne-Marie Oomen, and more. But A River and Sound Review is more than an online literary journal. Periodically, Bates and the editors host live shows in the Seattle area. Imagine a northwest version of Garrison's Keillor's Lake Woebegon. That's not the best comparison, but I don't need to tell you about it. You can click here, find the podcast and go to iTunes, then download it to your ipod. It's great stuff, and definitely worth a listen. The most recent live show features the editors of Crab Creek Review. Jay's complete bio is at the bottom of this post.

What is A River and Sound Review? What makes it unique?

In its very basic respects, RSR is like every other literary journal/reading series in that it exists to showcase, publish, and promote the literary talents of emerging and established writers. But in many more respects, we're different from other literary organizations because we are the only organization I know of that began with the need to keep its audience awake during readings (or, at least keep me awake). I confess, I am a chronic daydreamer, and have been since I was a kid. My parents took me to a Lutheran church service every Sunday, and when it came to the sermon I would get as far as the preacher saying “Dear Friends in Christ,” and I’d start spinning stories in my head or blatantly fall asleep. To this day I blame my inattentiveness during sermons on preachers who were no more animated in their oratorical gyrations than a mold spore. No matter how beautiful the words on paper, they can be deadened by lifeless oral interpretation. I discovered this truth while in college back in the mid-1980s, when I fancied myself an actor and spent an entire semester calling myself a Theatre major. But it was my preference for the written word that won out, and as a result of that preference I dismissed all interest in theater pursuits and instead attended literary readings that had same effect on me as all those Lutheran sermons of my youth.

It wasn’t until I went back to school in my 40s to obtain an MFA that I followed through with the notion that I could combine the best of what the theater offered with the best what the literary world could put on paper. I designed a structure for a reading series that would keep me alert, not to mention awake: short, intense readings (around 10 minutes) combined with live musical interludes and audience participation game shows. RSR grew out of this brainstorm and has come to be known as a review that both celebrates its taste for sophisticated literature, but then turns around and pokes fun at itself for celebrating its taste for sophisticated literature.

For those readers who may shy away from online publications, what would you say are the benefits of publishing your work in an online publication like A River & Sound Review?

See, I think this is absurd, to shy away from internet journals just because they are printed on the internet. That’s like the art critic from 30,000 years ago who dismissed all paintings if they didn’t appear on cave walls. The internet isn’t the art; it is the platform for the art. Same with paper; the printing press made great literary art more accessible. “Experts” at the time may have preferred hand-printed texts in Latin, but in the end the more accessible platform (paper) won out—just like cassettes over 8-track tapes and DVDs over Laser Disks.

Nevertheless, I think the cause for widespread dismissal of internet publishing is largely due to its relative ease and affordability of bringing poems and stories to print. This has led to a vast collection of poems, stories, essays, and blogs to be published without a fine and discerning process of editorial selection, which in my opinion makes them truly not worth reading. (Most blogs are not even line-edited, for God’s sake, much less put through a second draft.) But this happens with print literature as well, in the form of self-published books and vanity presses. If we were to dismiss all print literature because some publishers are sloppy we would miss the opportunity to read some amazing work.

As for the benefits of publishing work online, they are the same as if we published on paper, provided we are particular to our voice, discerning in our selection, and consistent within our design: in short, we will find readers and readers will find us. This process is quite thrilling, like a courting ritual before a high school prom. Granted, the occasional rejection stings, but if you keep asking, there’s a chance you might get lucky.

A River and Sound Review began--as it states on the Web site--as a way to "help you stay awake during readings." Would you say your primary focus is on the live performances then?

Originally, yes. When RSR began, I didn’t intend it to be anything more than a reading series. But I also didn’t intend it to last more than a year. Funny thing happened, after what I thought was the final show, people asked me when the next show would be. So I planned another show, expecting it to be the last. Only it wasn’t. Then someone suggested I record the show and publish it as a podcast, and a few other crazy folks volunteered to join me in producing more shows, taking it on the road—to Portland and Seattle. It soon grew to a point where I could not stop it. A couple years ago, our current poetry co-editor, Boyd Benson, suggested we publish an online journal to go along with our live production. It seemed a sensible thing to do. I’d love to say this whole organization was pre-formed in my brain and I’ve spent the last five years bringing it to fruition (isn’t that how Microsoft was made?), but RSR perpetuates and grows itself, and those of us on the RSR staff simply serve as channels. In this sense, it’s like writing an epic novel: the plot of our organization develops as it grows.

How did you get involved in performing?

Honestly, I don’t recall a period in my life when I was not involved in performing. I am the youngest of four children in my family and when we were kids, my parents had us sing at church and at potlucks and at family reunions. We were like the Bates von Trapp Family singers. I was always resistant to sing, until it came time for me to perform my signature solo of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” which I sang with a bluesy bending of notes. (Think six-year-old and Hank Williams singing Gospel.) I had no idea what I was doing, but the attention I got from it (even from stoic Scandinavian Lutherans) was nothing short of addicting. As a result of growing up like this, my three older siblings are now ordained Lutheran ministers, and I’m a writer, teacher, and host of a live reading series. (People ask me, “What happened to you?” and I say, “What do you mean what happened to me? What the hell happened to them?”)

I later developed my skills as a performer entirely on accident. I was blessed as a kid to not have many friends, so I spent a lot of time playing baseball alone in my back yard. But I didn’t merely throw the ball against the house; I acted out an entire game—the pitching, the hitting, the fielding, the play-by-play announcing. I learned to perform the same way I learned to write—by doing it. Sometimes the games I acted out were so epic I went directly to my bedroom and recorded their events on paper.

Sure, as I got older, I learned a bit more about the craft of acting, just as I did the craft of writing. I was in a few plays in college—Romeo & Juliet (Gregory), The Miser (Master Jacques), Death of a Salesman (Bernard)—but I failed to understand that just because I wasn’t an ingénue didn’t mean I wasn’t an actor. The same translation goes for young writers: just because you haven’t been published doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. True, it’s easier to brag when you attend a cocktail party with a six-figure book deal in your pocket, but the real product of our work as actors and writers is accomplished by letting our imaginations be at play.

You published my translation of Simon Fruelund's "Phosphoresence" in the first issue, and that was cool of you. So you're looking for international work & translations as well as work from the Puget Sound region. What kinds of submissions--translated or otherwise--are you looking for?

Oh, golly. I’m going to give you an answer I heard several editors give me a few years ago when I asked this question, and it’s an answer that pissed me off because of its vagueness. But despite its lack of specifics, it’s an answer that speaks the truth.

I’m looking for submissions that surprise me, that show me what I was looking for but didn’t know I was looking for. I’m looking for submissions that make me laugh and make me cry, that hold me rapt and make me forget I am breathing, that impress me to the point of insane jealousy. Unfortunately, I have no idea what kind of submission will do any of these things until I come across a submission that does it. It’s what happened in our first issue with Brian Doyle’s humor piece, “Chino’s Story.” I sent him a note asking if he could send me something funny, and what I got back was a little monologue in the voice of Chino from West Side Story, confessing how he’d not meant to kill Tony at first, but only “wing him.” I read the piece and nearly shat myself from laughing so hard. Your translation of “Phosphoresence” had a similar effect on Julie Case, our fiction and translation editor (without the shitting, I mean): it so captured her attention that she could think of no alternative but to accept it for publication.

Where it gets difficult as a staff is when fellow editors don’t share the same enthusiastic reaction to a submission—but this is hardly a problem that exists only at RSR. When this occurs, we engage in that difficult debate about artistic integrity and authorial vision and grapple over those intangibles of literary merit that, quite frankly, I’m too stupid to understand.

Last year, Horace Engdahl of the Swedish Academy called American literature "insular." What is your response to that? If it's true, how can we make it less insular?

Hmm. That’s the same thing I say about journal editors whenever they reject my work.

But honestly, it seems to me this statement is composed with the assumption that “American literature” is the creation of a single mind, that it isn’t a collective as much as it is the product of a great literary sorter determining what does and doesn’t qualify as American or literature or both. In this sense, I don’t think it is capable of being insular any more than it can be intentionally inclusive. All literature is a mass collective incapable of intention, one way or another.

On the other hand, this collective does say something about us as creators and consumers of literary art—just as our behavior as world tourists says something about our shared assumptions as Americans. I went to France when I was 20 but didn’t bother to learn French. I depended on Parisians to be accessible to me because it would have required more effort than I had time to put forth to be more linguistically accessible to them. There are many reasons why so many Americans do this, one being that the North American continent is isolated from Europe, Africa, and Asia, where there is a greater variety of tongues spoken. Still, that strikes people as an idle excuse because I still hear so many other voices, like Engdahl’s, say, “Why do you Americans expect everyone to adapt to you?” It’s interesting, when I was in France I asked for help from many people who could speak English but refused to do so. I ended up asking, “Why do so many French expect me to adapt to them?”

This is why I think the work of translators is so powerful and imperative in the Twenty-first Century. It is the translator who makes the foreign accessible to the local, and the local accessible to the foreign. As an English-only speaker, I confess I want the language of the story I’m reading to seem as if English is the story’s language of origin; this is the linguistic equivalent to Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief. It isn’t that I’m uninterested in stories coming from a different language as I am interest in getting lost in a good story, period. The first time I read Dostoevsky (one of my favorites) I lost interest because I believed his prose was witless and pedestrian. Turns out, it wasn’t the author whose words were witless and pedestrian, but the translator’s. Sometime later I read Ignat Avsey’s translation of The Brothers Karamozov and fully believed the illusion he created—that Dostoevsky had written the book in English, full of wit and humor and with a tone of human angst that only he could speak.

So thankfully, the “insular” characteristic that Engdahl speaks of, if it exists, consciously or not, is dissolved by the work of translators such as yourself, without whom I would not have had access to A Hundred Years of Solitude, a book of such profound influence on me as a writer that I might not continue to write without it.


Jay Bates (Founder, Humor Editor, & Live Show Host) grew up an innocent in Puyallup, WA during the 1970s and 80s. He was so innocent that when a girl asked him in the 8the grade if he was a he was a virgin, he said, "No, I'm a Taurus." As a grown up, he teaches English and writes fiction, humor and sub-par doggerel poetry. His work has appeared in Dog Fancy Magazine, Elysian Fields Quarterly, and The Edgerton Elementary PTA Newsletter. He still makes his home in Puyallup with his wife, son, daughter, and dog, a yellow Labrador retriever named Ulysses.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Jonathan Eig: On Film

A new feature on First Person Plural begins today: workshop leader Jonathan Eig's once a month post on film. Eig is a teacher, 1995 Austin Heart of Film Festival Winner, Nicholl Fellowship Semi-finalist, CINE Golden Eagle recipient, and 2001 Recipient of Artists Fellowship from the Montgomery County Arts & Humanities Council. He's currently teaching the feature film screenwriting workshop.

When Mike Figgis released Leaving Las Vegas in 1995, the brutal character portrait of an alcoholic screenwriter resolved to drink himself to death struck a real emotional chord – and not just with alcoholic screenwriters. A common debate amongst film people at the time was the lead character Ben’s (Nicholas Cage) absence of motivation. Figgis only gives us the briefest of glimpses into Ben’s past, leaving us to fill in what may have triggered his self-destruction. Figgis used the following metaphor: when you are driving down the street and witness the aftermath of a horrible car crash, do you really need to know where the driver was coming from in order to feel sympathy?

The increased use of character back story has been one of the (many) ways mainstream Hollywood movies have changed over the past several decades. Brian Helgeland’s screenplay for the recently released remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 provides a case in point. The original version, scripted by Peter Stone in 1974, eliminates almost all back story. We learn nothing about Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) besides the immediate fact that he is a transit cop caught up in a hostage negotiation. The bad guy, Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), barely speaks to him. Mr. Blue is some vaguely defined “mercenary” soldier. But in 2009, Denzell Washington’s Garber has a well defined past involving scandal, humiliation, and punishment, all of which he reveals to John Travolta’s bad guy, Ryder, in one of their lengthy conversations. Ryder also has a more well-defined back story as a Wall Streeter who got caught and did time.

You will find that absence of back story far more common in films of the 1970s. I recently presented the horror classic Alien (1979) to an audience and was struck by how little we actually learn about the pasts of any of the seven crew members on the ship. Hollywood filmmakers in that era were far more likely to be influenced by the iconic indie director John Cassavettes, who developed a theory which essentially stated that everything we come to know about the characters should be learned from watching what they do on screen. As with any artistic theory, this one needs to bend sometimes. Sometimes, we need to learn a little something about the past in order to understand the present.

So which approach is better? For my money, I prefer the original Pelham and I think back story may figure into it. Well crafted back story can be a powerful piece of a narrative, but too often, I think it feels contrived. Or it feels as if the writer is actually more concerned with revealing a secret from the past than with revealing a character in the present. So use it at your own risk. The key I think is to remember that characters are not defined by their pasts. Whether you use back story or not, you need to make sure your characters have enough to do in the present tense story.