Friday, April 30, 2010

VideoView: Carolyn Clark on Classical Mythology

As part of a new feature here on First Person Plural, I'm going to interview workshop leaders, members, writers, and other interesting folks using our new Flip camera. The interviews I post on our YouTube site, and then here on First Person Plural. You've seen the Charlie spots, but these interviews will be different. They'll be one to three questions about the literary craft. In today's case, it's about Carolyn Clark's upcoming workshop called "Classical Mythology," which begins here in Bethesda on May 5. Click on this link to learn more about this workshop.

Carolyn Clark is a teacher-scholar-poet with a passion for Classics and Archaeology. Her formal training is from Cornell, Brown and Johns Hopkins University (Ph.D, Classics). Since the 1980s, while teaching at university, college, and high school, her work appeared primarily as scholarly articles, book reviews, and a long dissertation; now she is working on her “slender” (lyric) poetry - and a smaller book.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Zaraha Heckscher's Writing Staycation: A Week Long Writing Retreat at The Writer’s Center

Our guest today is Zaraha Heckscher, a new workshop leader and co-author of the book How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas. She has also written numerous articles that have appeared in books and the online travel magazine, where she serves as Contributing Editor. Heckscher teaches professional writing at the University of Maryland at College Park. She is a breast cancer survivor who prefers to be known as a "cancer thriver." She blogs at

This winter, while editing the manuscript for my novel, I had a vision: A quiet space where I could spend a week focusing on nothing but my writing. Preferably in the company of other writers to help me stay focused. With a few workshops and other treats. In other words, a writing retreat.

Then I checked into writing retreats and discovered that most are two week residential programs that require expensive travel and have no accommodations for families. That doesn’t fit my budget or my busy schedule as a working mom.

So I called The Writer’s Center. Sunil and Charlie agreed with me that there must be many people out there looking for a practical, affordable in-town writing retreat.

With their help, I’ve created a Writing Staycation – a retreat for all of you who crave more time to write, want the structure of a retreat, but just can’t get out of town.

The Writing Staycation will take place at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Monday through Friday, June 7-11, from 10 am to 5 pm with optional evening activities.

My goal for the Writing Staycation is to create an atmosphere that feels like we’re in the cabin in the woods. A sacred space, in the middle of busy Bethesda. Sacred time in the middle of your busy life, for you to write, write, write.

Each day will be organized around writing time, with optional activities including lunch-time speakers, dinner events, and a daily neighborhood walk.

I’m thrilled that I have been able to secure some wonderful lunch speakers for the retreat, all successful writers with different perspectives on the writing life. The guest speakers will stay after their presentations for one-on-one sessions with participants who want some extra advice and support – for example, ideas on poetry workshops from NPR commentator Reuben Jackson or personalized tips on finding an agent from Shannon O'Neill of the Sagalyn Literary Agency.

Our other speakers will include Charles Jensen, poet and Director of The Writer's Center, and James Mathews, author of Last Known Position, a winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction.

I’ll be at your disposal all week as well. Whether you want help getting started with a new writing project, feedback on a draft manuscript, or strategies for getting published, I will be there. I’ll also create a packet for each participant with writings, resources, and worksheets to help you stay on track with your writing project.

I’ll also pamper you a bit with free coffee, specialty teas, and healthy snacks.

For those who can stay in the evening, we’ll have dinner events that build community, develop skills, and provide more time for writing.

And my own writing? My manuscript is almost complete thanks to other Writer's Center classes. But if there is a spare moment at the retreat, I’ll have pen and paper available to jot down ideas for my next project.

Sign up for the Writing Staycation or learn more at The Writer's Center's Web site.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Writer's Center's New Membership Benefits

This is an exciting time at The Writer's Center. Not only do we have a new Web site on the way; we also have brand new levels of membership. Today is the final video in our six-part series of videos with our director, Charlie Jensen. Today he's talking about the new membership benefits, which go into effect July 1, 2010. For the complete list of benefits, please visit The Writer's Center Web site to read them all.

I want to to take one quick moment to give a special thanks to Maureen Punte, one of The Writer's Center's great new staff members. She's been instrumental in creating this video series.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Emerging Writer Fellowships: Last Call for Submissions

The deadline for these fellowships is April 30. So if you've got an interest in applying, get us your applications by Friday!

The Writer's Center, metropolitan Washington, DC's community gathering place for writers and readers, is currently accepting submissions for several competitive Emerging Writer Fellowships for Fall 2010. We welcome submissions from writers of all genres, backgrounds, and experiences in the following genres: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Emerging Writer Fellows will be featured at The Writer's Center as part of Story/Stereo, our Emerging Writers Reading Series and live music fusion events.  The readings, held on Friday evenings, bring together writers and some of the area's best local musicians.  The Writer's Center book store will sell titles by the Emerging Writers throughout the season in which they appear in an effort to promote them and their work to a wide audience. 

Selected Fellows may be invited to lead a special Saturday workshop at The Writer's Center, with compensation commensurate with standard Writer's Center provisions.

Fellows receive an all-inclusive honorarium to help offset their travel costs, depending on their place of departure.  Writers within a 250 mile radius of the Center will receive $250; all others will receive $500.

Fellows for Spring 2009 include poets William Archila (The Art of Exile), Nicole Cooley (The Afflicted Girls), and Kathleen Flenniken (Famous); fiction writers Anthony Varallo (Out Loud), Marianne Villanueva (Mayor of the Roses), and Josh Weil (The New Valley); and nonfiction writers Steve Fellner (All Screwed Up) and Dawn Potter (Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton).

Emerging Writer Fellows will:
·        have 1 or 2 full-length single-author books published in a single genre, and no more than 3 books published to their credit (including as editors of anthologies) in any genre.  Chapbooks and pamphlets will not be calculated into an author’s total publication record and cannot be substituted for a full-length single-author book. Self-published titles or vanity press titles are not admissible and will not be considered.
·        be judged in the category in which their submitted creative selection falls.  In cases of cross-genre work or multiple-genre work, our staff will determine the genre of consideration.
·        have published books "in hand" or be in the uncorrected proof stage of publication at the time of their submission.
To be considered, please send:
·        a one-page letter of interest that includes the name of your creative selection and a short bio
·        a resume or CV that details publication history and familiarity facilitating group discussions or workshops
·        a creative selection from your most recent published book-length work in a Word document or RTF format:
o       Poetry: up to 10 pages of poems (1 poem per page)
o       Fiction & Nonfiction: up to 16 pages of text double-spaced with 1-inch margins
o       Your creative selection does not need to be one excerpt, but can be comprised of multiple sections or excerpts up to but not exceeding the total page limit.

A committee comprised of The Writer's Center board members, staff, and members will evaluate submissions on behalf of our community of writers. The deadline to submit is April 30, 2010. E-mail submissions are preferred.

Applicants are welcome to contact Charles Jensen, Director, with questions or for more information at 301-654-8664 or by email at

The Writer's Center, established in 1976, is one of the nation's oldest and largest literary centers, dedicated to cultivating the creation, publication, presentation, and dissemination of literary work.  We provide over 60 free public events and more than 200 writing workshops each year, sell one of the largest selections of literary magazines in our on-site bookstore, and publish Poet Lore, America’s oldest continually published poetry journal.  Visit us at

Monday, April 26, 2010

Review Monday: e.e. Cummings' Erotic Poems

Erotic Poems
by e.e. Cummings
Pub. Date: February 2010
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Paperback: 80 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0871406590

Reviewed By Will Grofic

Simultaneous orgasms don’t happen often, or maybe not often enough, and therefore sex becomes a match of wills. There is a power to pleasuring and a relinquishing of power to being pleasured that e.e. Cummings erotic poems taps into beautifully, and this power struggle is the spine of these poems.

Of course inside this book are all the hallmarks of e.e. Cummings poems: compound nonce words, cutting and enjambing words by syllables, comedy, and repetition. But the tension in his poems comes from the realization he’s helpless or the admission that he wants to be so. One of his most famous poems “16” is a he said/she said poem about an affair. The man starts out with the power, while the woman asks “is it love said she)/ if you’re willing said he/ (but you’re killing said she.” By and by, they start with the whoopee, and the last stanza illustrates the release (and catch) of power:

(come? Said he

ummm said she)

you’re divine! said he

(you are Mine said she)

Even when Cummings incorporates awe (“the sudden flower of complete amazement”) or primal violence (“my loveFist in her knuckling/ thighs”), the lines that sparkle are those that tense up at the thought of the sex being over, the relationship finishing, and eventually life ending. In “xxx.” the speaker asks his lover to ponder the decrepit statues and aqueducts of past civilizations, and his logic is that if these things are so ephemeral “let us make haste” with “constructive/Horizontal/ business” and to “consider well this ruined aqueduct/ lady,/ which used to lead something into somewhere).” Of course countless poets have made the same claim to their lovers, but his word choice and images of aqueducts and statues are fresh and compelling.

And then you have to think to yourself, he wrote these in the 1920s? When Harry Douglas and someone named Mary Pickford were the big silent movie stars? Contemporary poets still use poetic moves that he championed like the compound nonce words and humorous use of ecstatic “O”. Although his wordplay for that day and age holds up for the most part, Cummings does sometime combine words that aren’t necessary to the image or rhythm of the poem (“greenslim” and “smelloftheworld”), making the poem all that much clunkier, but then he follows those words up with highly innovative concoctions like “mancurious” and “pseudomind” and “gropeofstrength” that all but make sense to be put in next year’s Oxford English.

Overall though, Cummings’ images seemed less modern and contemporary than the famous poems recast him. The subjects of his usual erotic images were often staid nature references, not what we remember from his great poem included in this collection about driving a car “xix.”:





brakes Bothatonce and

brought allofher tremB


The other outdated factor of reading Cummings today was his staggering amount of adverbs that garble and jumble without a function or reason. With that said, it’s remarkable any of these poems are fresh almost a century later.

Back in 1920, these were considered controversial poems, and today they’d fit in with other contemporary erotic poems. In one of Cummings’ weirdest metaphors, he biological inverses the sexual insertion:

there is between my big legs a crisp city…

all the house terribly tighten

upon your coming; and they are glad

as you fill the streets of my city with children.

Cummings has become the waiting taker, while the woman fills him. It’s odd and off-putting, power is reversed, and Cummings asks for her to “murder (his) breasts, still and always// I will hug you solemnly into me.” Even when Cummings wants to be the victim, his pleasure comes from a violent relinquishing of power and the peace that comes afterward.

Will Grofic is Managing Editor of Potomac Review and a recent graduate from the Bennington Writing Seminars where he received an MFA in Writing. His poems appear or are forthcoming in No Tell Motel, Gargoyle, The Coachella Review, and Anti-. He also teaches at Montgomery College.

Friday, April 23, 2010

LitArtlantic: A Three-Day Arts Extravaganza, May 20-22

Over the past couple months I've talked a little about LitArtlantic. I've thrown the word around here and there, and maybe you wondered what it's all about. So just what is LitArtlantic? It's a three-day arts extravaganza AT The Writer's Center, and it's FREE (though a $5 donation is suggested per family per day of attendance). The festival kicks off on May 20 with The Writer's Center's own Story/Stereo event and ends Saturday, May 22 at 4:00 p.m. In between you'll find some seriously great stuff. Our co-sponsors (see list below) have been instrumental in bringing in great artists and perfomers for each session. Read on!

photo below: Margot MacDonald

Credit: Veronika Lukasova
The Writer’s Center and five leading local arts organizations are pleased to announce the creation of LitArtlantic, a multi-day, multi-discipline festival loosely organized around the four main “storytelling” arts: literature, songwriting, theatre, and film. Headliners include 9:30 Club founder Bill Warrell (featured this week in Washington Post Magazine), producer Askia Muhammad, documentary filmmakers David A. Taylor, Adele Schmidt, and José Zegarra Holder, and musicians/performers Christylez Bacon and Margot MacDonald. And many more.

(Note: During the next few weeks I'll highlight, here at First Person Plural, these and others who'll be part of LitArtlantic. We have a LitArtlantic Fan Page on Facebook, of course, which is just getting started. To get updates on the event or to just get involved in the talk, please click here and "like" it. And, as always, feel free to spread this around!)

Growing out of The Writer’s Center’s former “small press fair,” LitArtlantic now features—over three consecutive days—readings, concerts, workshops, panels, screenings, and performances, as well as The Hive @LitArtlantic, a resource fair attended by local and regional organizations whose work supports artists and the art of storytelling: small presses, record labels, funding organizations, and arts education organizations. Organizations already registered for The Hive include the Maryland State Arts Council, Furniture Press, Baltimore Review, and the National Writers’ Union. Organizations interested in participating in The Hive should contact Janel Carpenter at

Christylez Bacon. Credit: Veronika Lukasova
Please click here for the full slate of LitArtlantic Schedule of Events.

To learn more about selected artists at LitArtlantic, please click on the live links above.

Our partners for LitArtlantic (in alphabetical order): American Independent Writers, Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County, Docs in Progress, Round House Theatre, Songwriters' Association of Washington.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Playwrights Collaborative Event, May 1

A group of Writer's Center members have formed a playwriting group, and on May 1 they will perform six short plays. I don't have much more information on the plays themselves, unfortunately, but here are the titles and the names of the playwrights:

“The Cleaning Lady” by Mary Jane Williams

“The Cardinals Can’t Lose!” by Lenny Levy

“Why Did I Marry an Alien”’ by Lenny Levy

“Joan and Jihad” by Catherine O’Connor

“Adam and Evie” by John Sowalsky

“Play with Words” by John Sowalsky

Saturday, May 1 at 7:30 PM

The Writer's Center
4508 Walsh Street
Bethesda Maryland
Refreshments and discussion following the plays. For more information, call Mary Jane Williams at 301.656.2295

The Playwrights Collaborative is a group of playwrights, actors, and directors who meet monthly to develop plays.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Part V of Charlie Jensen Discussing The Writer's Center's New Web Site

This is the final week in The Writer's Center's Web launch videos. Today I am posting Charlie Jensen talking about the ability to upload images and PDFs to the new Web site. Please feel free to share this video--as well as Parts I-IV.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Richard Washer on Using the Rehearsal Process in Workshops

Richard Washer is our guest today. He is a playwright, director, and educator, and currently serves as Company Dramaturge at Charter Theater. His most recent play, "The Fetish," was produced at The National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in December, 2008. His play "Quartet" was performed at the Hamner Theatre in Nelson County, Virginia in April of 2009. He has led Playwriting and Mixed Genre workshops at The Writer’s Center since 1995, and he'll be taking over for Michael Kinghorn on the workshop "Playwriting from Scratch" beginning May 1.

I recently attended the American College Theatre Festival (ACTF) held at the Kennedy Center, an annual springtime event that celebrates the talents and accomplishments of university students and their instructors from schools across the nation. As both a playwright and an educator I was reminded of the challenges faced by those who attempt to guide others through the creative process of writing plays. I know some of these university teachers and I am humbled by their unflagging energy, enthusiasm, and dedication. I also know they face the same challenges as I do: how do you teach this stuff?

Actually, I resist the label of teacher and in workshops I make a point to introduce myself as a facilitator, a guide, and later in the process of developing a play, as a dramaturge. Most writers I know agree that writing is a process of discovering one’s voice, or at the risk of sounding a little precious, a journey of self-discovery. I can’t teach that voice. What I can do is share the craft and encourage the discovery.

That’s all very nice, but how does one go about doing this? I have been wrestling with that question in the twenty-some years I have led workshops. Similar questions motivated me in the first years of Charter Theatre, when I set up an outline for a developmental process that is only now (thirteen years later!) being realized and refined by the talents and energies of director and playwright Leslie Kobylinski and dramaturge Suzanne Maloney.

The basis for the developmental process at Charter Theatre grew from a fundamental precept for writing in general: writers learn by writing and rewriting. Extrapolating from that I argue that playwrights learn more from the rehearsal process (and the subsequent rewrites) than any other method. At Charter the idea was to bring in actors and rehearse the script with the playwright in the room where he or she would listen to the actors question, grapple, and improvise ideas with the script. This was not a new idea, but the implementation and logistics remain a challenge today (cost, schedules, rehearsal space).

This approach yields a benefit almost immediately: elements of craft rise out of the world of theory and become practical tools; theory becomes palpable as the words on the page leap to life through the actors. However, I have always been frustrated by how few playwrights we can serve in this manner. Playwriting presents challenges similar to the composer or arranger who has to know the qualities and limitations of musical instruments in order to write for them. The requirements for a playwright is perhaps less demanding, but the more familiarity the writer has with the collaborative nature of theatre, the better.

Recently, working with some high school seniors, I applied this rehearsal principle to my workshops and looked for ways to simulate the process of working with actors on a script. This included asking questions the actors might ask, or exploring some scenes where I take on the role of director. The limitations of this approach is the lack of acting experience among the writers in the room, so another solution is co-teaching the workshop with an actor and in some cases bringing in actors periodically during the course of the workshop. This makes the workshop more engaging and provides the writers in the room with insights won through discovery as opposed to theories discussed in the abstract.

Nothing can replace a full rehearsal process for production (and the terrifying experience of an audience watching your work); this is the ultimate teacher for the beginning or even seasoned playwright. But those opportunities are woefully scarce. Based on what I observed at the Kennedy Center festival, universities provide wonderful production opportunities for student writers. However, this experience may not be replicated for many of these students in the years after they graduate, when they will join a legion of playwrights striving to grow as writers. I remember the frustration and struggle of that growth. I suppose for that reason I continue to look for ways to offer what I longed for as a young playwright: practical ways to learn practical lessons.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Monday Review: Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives

Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives
by Brad Watson
Pub. Date: March 2010
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Format: Hardcover, 272pp
ISBN-13: 9780393057119

Reviewed by Jason DeYoung

Aliens are adult men estranged from their families. They are also young, lusty women road-tramping. Aliens are women who abandon their lives for their kooky dreams, and they are also strange children who peek in windows from darkened trees or watch you like a feral animal behind pool fences. Aliens are people whose lives ache from isolation or separation from that which they most covet. Or that’s the way it is in Brad Watson’s new book Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, a solidly built collection of short stories.

By far, the best story in this collection is “Visitation,” a story free of any artificial resolutions. It tells the story of Loomis, who travels every three weeks or so to see his young son who lives in California with his mother. The father and son stay in a run-down motel and make cursory visits to San Diego tourists’ sites, trips that usually lapse into awkward conversations that go nowhere. These visitations seem to prove to Loomis what a terrible parent he is. Their interactions are set against the backdrop of the other motel customers—the uncouth, “Gypsy” couple who scream and seemingly abuse their children.

Other stories are filled with the same kind of sadness, but often Watson finds the humor within. “Vacuum” is told from the perspective of three young brothers who scheme to make their mother happy as she goes through the first painful stages of divorce. But they’re young, clueless boys, and their schemes are marked with missteps and odd outcomes. In “Are You Mister Lonelee?,” the narrator struggles with what he calls the death of his wife, but in reality she has run off to join Majestic 12, a kind of hybrid art collective/biker gang.

These stories also take risks in their narrative form. In the novella-length title story, Watson coddles the reader for nearly twenty pages with a story about teen pregnancy before unexpectedly dropping in the book’s only actual appearance of visitors from outer space—or at least they claim to be. At this point, the story ceases its banal teen pregnancy narrative to explore much more interesting territory. And “Ordinary Monsters,” the most daring piece in the book, is not a story per se but a collection of short-shorts about odd events—a woman discovers a group of gorillas in her woods, an elderly couple sips scotch as their plane shears apart, a pack of wild pigs are seemingly possessed by the spirits of their human hunters.

There’s much to like in this collection—poetic prose, top-notch storytelling. Watson looks upon the weird and the ordinary with the same artistic eye that made his first collection, Last Days of the Dog-Men, so good. But in the end we still know these characters, these aliens, as Watson writes in the coda to “Ordinary Monsters”: “We were all just normal people, before we changed. Pretty much locked into our lives.”

Jason DeYoung’s fiction has appeared most recently in Painted Bride Quarterly, Gargoyle, and Harpur Palete.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sigrid Undset Gets a New Translation

Rather than post a Discovery Friday, I thought I'd post this teaser about an event taking place at The Writer's Center next Wednesday, April 21 at 7:00 P.M.

The Writer’s Center and the Royal Norwegian Embassy are pleased to present a special evening featuring Norwegian Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset’s poetry. The Honorable Wegger Christian Strømmen, Norwegian ambassador to the United States, will greet guests.

2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Undset’s rare collection of early poems, Ungdom (Youth). The book has now been translated into English, for the first time ever, by translator Harold P. Hanson, with illustrations by Evabeth Astrup. Joining Hanson at the event will be acclaimed actress Michelle Alexandra. Poems will be read both in English and in Norwegian. A reception will follow the event.

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) is best known for Kristin Lavransdatter, which portrays the life of a woman in medieval Scandinavia in three volumes. She was a hugely prolific author, penning more than 40 books, and ranks as one of the most important writers in Norwegian literature.

A sample translation from Youth:


Jeg sitter på mit kammer i mørke, det er nat,

alle folk i huset er isenge

I en gård borti gaten spiller dansemusik,

piano og syngende strenge.

Det verker indi hjernen, jeg er så træt, så træt

og det svir I mine øine—gud ved, har jeg grætt,

eller bare sittet oppe for længe?

It is night. I sit in darkness on my bed.

The others have the sleep that nighttime brings.

In a house down the road are people dancing

to piano music and softly singing strings.

My tired brain is aching. What is wrong?

My eyelids sting—God knows if I have cried,

or have I just been sitting up too long?


Dr. Harold Hanson is a retired professor of Physics, a one-time staff director of the Committee of Science and Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives, and an ex-Provost of three universities, including the University of Florida. He has been a Fulbright scholar in Norway. He is the editor of the translation journal, Delos, and the primary translator of the Undset poems found in Youth.

A duel citizen of the U.S. and Norway, Michelle Alexandra has studied acting in London at The New York Film Academy and in Oxford at The British American Drama Academy. She has spent a great deal of time in Norway and speaks the language fluently. Since graduating from college, Michelle has been living and working as an actress in New York City. Favorite roles include "Jen" in John and Jen, "Lady Anne" in Richard III, and "Veronica" in the world premiere of Stephanie Gardner's The Point of No Return.

Recharge by Norma S. Tucker

On Saturday, March 20, 2010, I attended a conference at The Writer’s Center, “Writing the Future.” We listened to discussions on uses of present and emerging technology in the field of writing. At the start of an afternoon session, the power-point failed. The presenter fumbled, adjusted, and relied on her hand-written notes and memory. This technology failure brought to mind two days in my writing life just a month earlier.

Silence woke me that first morning. The power had gone out, and the soft whir of my humidifier ceased. I got up and looked through the slats of the cold Venetian blinds. Heavy snow had started the day before and continued through the night and into this early morning.

My sister, Sally, called to check on me. I told her how much I had looked forward to a snow day. To spend a whole day at my computer working on my stories: editing, checking facts, preparing for an on-line submission, perhaps start something new.

“Guess I’ll have to adjust, use pen and paper,” I said.

“What a novel idea.” We laughed.

I hadn’t counted on wearing Uggs indoors, long silk underwear beneath layers of clothing, and a shawl over my legs. I packed and stored my refrigerated and frozen food in backpacks and plastic bags and tucked them in the snow on the balcony.

I gathered my emergency supplies: plugged my princess landline phone into a jack and placed flashlights and candles in every room, a box of long kitchen matches by the gas stove. I turned on my AA battery radio to “chill-out” and listen to classical music.

Framed by my living room window, nine floors up, I watched someone in heavy dark clothing, walking and carrying an orange flag for safety. The flag reminded me of “The Gates,” an array of orange saffron flags created by artist Christov and his wife, Jeanne Claude, and hoisted sixteen feet high along the miles of footpaths in snow-covered Central Park during February 2005.

I remembered a painting by nineteenth century French painter, Gustave Courbet. White shadowed snow, dark trees, a last burst of light at sunset, and a small figure in red in a horse-drawn wagon. I saw it only once, years ago, at The Phillips Gallery in Washington, DC. “Winter in the Urals.”

The wind picked up, and snow patterns formed on my windows. I thought they looked like greatly magnified images of a single snowflake.

I kept my cell phone and laptop off to save the charged batteries. I felt keenly my dependence on things made of chips, fiber, batteries, and controls all dependent on electric power.

That evening, I curled into a chair in the living room of a neighbor who still had lighting. I wrote about the day, my adjustments and memories. With my Esterbrook pen on lined paper in my black leather bound journal, I drew circles and arrows in blue ink, changed word and paragraph order. I scratched out phrases, added others, and noted what needed research. No key or mouse to manipulate, no Google to search. My hand-written words and drawings became a mind-map. What thought is prelude to the next? Is there a logical progression or a chaotic crash of words seeking coherence? Will some of that blue spread and take further form – a novel idea.

At the “Writing the Future” conference, panelists talked of how new forms of publishing force us, as writers, to use technology to interact with our publishers and readers. To tweet, to create personal blogs, webpages, and Facebook, to submit our works to on-line publications, and to explore technical novelty in our content.

For me, the effect of a snowstorm created the circumstance to contemplate technical novelty and its significance on the structure of my life. The slower pace of pen to paper allowed me respite from use of this often overwhelming, frustrating, instant novelty, as I waited anxiously for the electricity to be restored, my batteries to recharge, and to reconnect.

Norma Tucker, native of Baltimore, Maryland, lives in Bethesda, Maryland where she is a member of The Writer’s Center. She is a member of SOMOS, Society of the Muse of the Southwest in Taos, New Mexico where she spends summers. Her essays have appeared in The Taos News, “My Turn,” and here on First Person Plural.

Photo by Phaedra Greenwood, Taos, NM

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Part IV of Charlie Jensen Discussing The Writer's Center's New Web Site

It's week four in The Writer's Center Web launch videos. Today I am posting Charlie Jensen talking about online workshops on the new site. Feel free to share this video.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain: An Interview with Garth Stein

On Saturday, April 17 at 7:30 P.M. at The Writer's Center, Garth Stein, author of the NY Times bestselling novel The Art of Racing in the Rain, will read from and discuss his work. Here's an interview to whet your appetite. Bio first.

Garth Stein (from is the author of the New York Times best selling literary novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain (Harper, 2008). Now published in 23 languages, The Art of Racing in the Rain was the #1 BookSense selection for June, 2008, the Starbucks spring/summer 2008 book selection, and has been on the IndieBound™ bestseller list since its publication. Stein's previous novel, How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets (Soho Press, 2005) won a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, and was a BookSense Pick in both hardcover and paperback. Raven Stole the Moon (Harper, 2010) was Stein's first novel. He has also written a full-length play, Brother Jones, and produced a number of award-winning documentaries.

With an M.F.A. in film from Columbia University (1990), Garth worked as a documentary film maker for several years, and directed, produced, or co-produced several award winning films.

Kyle Semmel: The Art of Racing in the Rain is told in the point of view of a dog. Can you tell us a little about some of the challenges you faced while writing in this point of view?

Garth Stein: Well, to be perfectly honest the challenges of writing a book are extreme enough. The challenges of finding an authentic voice from any perspective. I’m not quite sure it’s any different if you’re using a narrator from an alternative viewpoint. For me, I’m not writing from a dog’s point of view. I’m writing from a character’s point of view. That character is Enzo. And Enzo is a nearly human soul trapped in a dog’s body. He’s very anxious to be reincarnated as a person, so he can do all the things he wants to do. But at the same time he’s very attached to his family and wants to stay with them. That’s the classic double bind. That’s a character who’s stuck between two worlds and doesn’t really know which way to go. So from that grows a certain amount of frustration that Enzo then takes out on his enemies non-verbally. That kind of character could be a dog, as I chose, but it could be someone else, someone who has medical issues, someone trapped in a body that won’t move, fully aware, fully awake, fully conscious yet unable to speak properly. That person is essentially Enzo. I’m not sure it was ever a dog’s point of view I was concerned about but being authentic to the character and the character’s hopes and dreams and fears and intentions and desires.

KS: What should a writer be doing to make sure his or her character’s voice is authentic?

GS: I really do think it goes back to this idea of intentions. One of the things I often suggest to writers who want to better their craft is to take acting classes, and specifically improvisational classes, just because they’re so spur of the moment. If you’re an actor you have to know not just what’s happening in the scene, but also what came before that scene. I wrote a play called Brother Jones and it was staged in Los Angeles a few years ago. I went down there for the rehearsals and one of the actors came up to me during the break and she says to me, “Oh, I’m acting the scene in which my husband is there, it’s the morning and we have this fight. And I have one question for you: What did my character have for breakfast?”

Which seems like an irrelevant question, possibly. But it really isn’t, because if she had half a grapefruit and six cups of coffee she’s going to feel differently than if she had a cup of yogurt and went for a three-mile walk. In other words, she wanted to know what her character was bringing into the scene to inform how she reacts and how she acts in the scene. If you extrapolate that and say, Now, do that for every single character in your book, for every single scene, for every moment. Go back to what they had for breakfast that morning, where they came from, what they’re thinking, what is informing what is happening now. The thing we get to do in long-form fiction, which is different from what you do in drama. In theatre you’re dealing with the now; it’s the drama that’s unfolding right now in front of people. With fiction what you do is get to say, Okay, there’s the now of it, but we also get to go back as far as we want with as much depth as we want to find out what informed the now. So I think that how you build a character and stay true to the character is by understanding that you need to lay the groundwork on where that character’s coming from. Why did I pick a purple popsicle instead of an orange popsicle? And it can’t be random—oh, I just happened to pick up a purple popsicle. No, no, no. It’s because when I was a kid I once picked a purple one and my brother punched me in the head. We’re constantly making decisions based on things that happened a long time ago. For the most part we’re well-adjusted human beings. Maybe we think about it for a flash and then it’s gone. If we’re not so well adjusted I dare say—if we’re a character in a novel—we don’t just think about it in a flash; it triggers a flashback, or it triggers a phone call to our brother with whom we haven’t spoken in 20 years. Or it changes us in some way, acts as a catalyst for something. That’s why I think that, if you want to make a solid character, you need to trace back as far as you are willing to do it.

KS: How much of that “tracing back,” for you, comes in revision?

GS: It depends. Honestly, some people write extensive biographies of their characters. I don’t, because I have it somehow organically for the most part. But sometimes it goes wrong, and that’s when you have to go back and figure out what happened. I was talking to another writer out here a few weeks ago about revisions, and how so many people despise revisions. I despise some revisions, but love other revisions. The way I look at it is this: The first draft of anything I’m writing, I’m writing for myself. I have these ideas, I have these thoughts, and I want to tell a story. Then when I go over it I have to look at it very carefully to make sure that I didn’t betray my characters or my story in any way, so at that point when I’m revising, I’m revising for the piece, I’m revising for the characters in the story, because I have to make sure I didn’t contrive anything for my own interests. In other words, you have to be true to your characters. If you’re going to have a purple popsicle, there’s got to be reason why he picks the purple popsicle. If I’m going to say, Oh, well, one day an alien fell from the sky. Well, that’s not in the story. So I have to make it work. Then that history becomes part of the revision process, and I make sure that the initial idea I had still works with the character having evolved in the book.

KS: This might be the first novel I’ve read where auto racing figures so prominently. You create such a rich metaphor with it that I have to believe that A) you’re a big racing fan, and B) you kicked around the idea of this novel for many years before you wrote it. Can you tell us about the genesis of this book?

GS: I’m a fan of race car driving, but I’m not a fanatic of anything, really. As a writer, it’s good to be a fan, but I can’t go over that edge and become too deeply involved. I don’t want to write about the same thing for the rest of my life. I first got into race car driving when I was a kid. My Dad and I used to watch races on Saturday afternoons on our black and white Zenith television. It was sort of a heyday for Formula 1. Coincidentally—and this could’ve been one of the first germs of the book—we would watch the races with our dog Mugs. My father and I would have this big bowl of sunflower seeds and we’d spend two hours eating sunflower seeds and watching a Formula 1 race. Mugs would sit there with us watching the race, and I thought to myself, “How interesting that she likes watching race cars.” Well, she didn’t like watching race cars. She wanted sunflower seeds. She was waiting for us to drop something so she could eat it. For me as a five year old, I thought, this is kind of cool that she watches TV with us. That goes into hibernation for 25 years, and then I see a film. I see a film about dogs in Mongolia and how there’s a belief they get reincarnated as people. That germ takes hold and that sits for seven years. I go to a poetry reading and hear Billy Collins read a poem from the point of view of a dog in heaven, berating his master for all the things he did wrong in his lifetime. It’s a very funny poem. Then at that point I was ready to write the book. I have a dog who wants to come back as a person. I have a dog who is very judgmental about the world he sees around him. And I’ve got this idea of racing in the background, as a metaphor. At the time I started writing the book I was racing cars myself—I raced for about four years, on the amateur level, just for fun—and so it all kind of came together at the right time for me. The first draft of the book I wrote in four months. But it took me 38 years, I guess, to put all the pieces together.

KS: Chapter 18 of the book is pretty much given verbatim in the video trailer for the novel. As a documentary film maker, how much role did you have in creating that short video?

GS: I made it. Harper said they wanted to do a video and I said that’s great. You pay for it and I’ll make it. They said that’s great. I had this idea of using that narration and having the dog sitting in front of a television. I got great racing footage from the folks at Red Bull Racing. They were really nice to give that to me for free. I found stock footage from Mongolia, from the Mongolian mountains. And some stock music of a little Mongolian dance. Then I needed a dog. I did some casting for a dog and found one that looked like Enzo here in Seattle. We went to the studio to shoot the parts where he was staring at a television set. But the dog was absolutely a horrible actor. He couldn’t sit still, couldn’t focus. It was just a disaster. Then I thought, Well, there’s only one dog I know—though she doesn’t look like Enzo—who would stare at a television for two weeks if I put a cookie under it. That’s my dog, Comet, and that’s how Comet got cast in the trailer. We shot it and watched it and decided it needed a little more, some family. So I got out my old 16mm film camera and went to the park with a friend of mine, her daughter, and Comet, and we shot the scenes where Comet is running around in the park. Kind of like a home movie style. We’re introduced to Eve and Zoë and then that was it. We put it together and that was the video.

Videos are interesting ideas for marketing a book. They’re kind of antithetical to the whole idea of a book, which is that when you read you create your own images in your head. Yet here we are with videos putting images into people’s heads. Does it greatly affect the marketing of a book? It can. I’m sure it can. There’s some that are really good. They’re getting much better, now that some people are getting savvy to the world of putting together these videos. Two or three years ago I don’t think they were nearly as good as they are now.

KS: How has the success of The Art of Racing in the Rain changed you as a writer?

GS: It’s a good question that’s a little difficult to answer because there are a few layers to it. It’s certainly freed me up to spend all my time writing. But I can’t spend all my time writing. I have to spend a lot of my time continuing to do promotion and marketing for The Art of Racing in the Rain. It’s my obligation. My job as a writer is not just to write a book and leave it be. My job is to make sure people read the book. So the ongoing marketing is very important for a writer to follow through on. At the same time, I do have to write my next book. It’s a very tricky balance. In terms of time, generally writers—at least from my experience—sequester themselves in the world of their book and don’t come up for air until it’s finished. I don’t get to do that.

In terms of managing expectations of readers, I don’t know what to say about that except that I have to write what I feel is my next book. I have to make sure that it’s true to what I want to say, and I have to make sure that it’s true to my feelings. And if it is, then I think it will be good enough and people will love it. When I teach workshops I say to people, You have to feel the joy of the writing process and you have to feel it to your very essence while you’re writing, because, if you don’t—if you’re writing for another reason—the reader will see through that and know that it’s not from the heart and is not genuine.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Review Monday: The Day the Falls Stood Still

The Day the Falls Stood Still
by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Hyperion. 301 pp. $24.99
ISBN: 9781401341367

Reviewed By Jared C. Clark

At first glance, The Days the Falls Stood Still reads like a work of historical chick lit set in a far-removed time. The main character and narrator, Bess, first meets us as a 17-year-old girl, torn between a vagrant love interest and the best interests of her family. But soon Cathy Marie Buchanan leaves these childish notions behind, transforming her novel into a compelling narrative that grapples with friendships forgotten, death, war, and a more mature, complicated notion of love and security.

"Standing there at the brink of the falls, I asked for a young man to be spared, a young man for me," thinks the early Bess. But before long, she's forced to face adulthood and becomes a character who later ruminates intelligently on more significant matters, thinking "it is then it seems that her life was inconsequential, that mine may be as well and everyone else's too. We all matter so little, not at all after a generation or two."

Buchanan's narrative stays with Bess, who finds unlikely love with the river man Tom Cole the same day her family's financial ruin forces her early departure from boarding school. Set against the backdrop of WWI in a rapidly changing Niagara Falls, Canada, Bess' narration comes across as serious and contemplative: she's a person trying to make sense of a world that becomes more chaotic with every passing day. Tom offers her salvation, but this salvation comes at a cost: the relationship will doom what little social standing Bess and her family have left.

Bess' narration paints an exceptional portrait of Niagara Falls between 1915 and 1923, providing intricate details of the town, people, and styles of the time. Buchanan supplements this narration with photographs, letters, and fabricated news clippings that immerse the reader in an era when daredevils shot the rapids above the falls, when power companies threatened the life of the river itself, and when thousands of Canadian men--including Bess' Tom--shipped out to fight a war across the Atlantic.

While Tom survives the war, everything threatens the happiness that he and Bess work so hard to achieve. The novel depicts this struggle without becoming sappy or melodramatic, and while these struggles occur a century before the present day, they remain reminiscent of more recent times with images of a young man haunted by war, of a woman who dreams of a house with "closets, those modern tiny rooms for housing linens and clothing and other bits best kept tucked away…an up-to-date bathroom," even at the risk of depleting her new family's savings.

And this is what makes The Day the Falls Stood Still so compelling--it provides a portrait of the past that won't alienate modern readers, and it keeps the pages turning and turning all the way to the novel's masterfully-constructed conclusion.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Friday Discovery: 2010 Reveal Your Inner Vixen Contest

This post comes from the Maryland Romance Writers. Since I don't cover so-called "genre" fiction here on FPP that often, I thought it'd be good to mix it up. As always, I encourage you to do your research before submitting to this or any contest.

Attention romance writers: show us the chemistry!

Maryland Romance Writers is proud to announce the 2010 "Reveal Your Inner Vixen" Contest for writers of romantic fiction. Send us your most sizzling scene showcasing sensual tension between your hero and heroine. Your scene can be a flirtation, a kiss, or a hot and heavy love scene, just as long as the reader can feel that tension!


• FEEDBACK: Entrants receive constructive feedback from first-round judges, many of them published authors. Finalists receive a brief critique by the final round judge.

• EXPOSURE: Finalists in each category will be judged by editors publishing in that subgenre. First place winners and category finalists will be listed in advertising and announcements in the RWA® Romance Writers Report.

• PRIZES: First place category winners receive a $50 cash prize and a gold Vixen pin!

• OPPORTUNITY: Last year, ONE THIRD of our contest finalists were asked to submit partial or full manuscripts. One Young Adult finalist has already sold her manuscript!


Up to 20 pages of any scene that showcases your use of sensual tension, plus an unjudged 1-page set-up (optional).


Anyone! Membership in Maryland Romance Writers or Romance Writers of America is NOT required. The author can be published or not yet published, but the contest entry must be original and uncontracted as of June 1, 2010.


(Word counts apply to targeted length of completed manuscript.)

Series Contemporary: 1950-present, 40,000-79,000 words

Single Title: 1950-present, 80,000-120,000 words

Historical: BCE-1950, 40,000-120,000 words

Alternative: time travel, fantasy, futuristic, paranormal, 85,000-120,000 words

Erotic Romance: 60,000-120,000 words

Young Adult: 40,000 words or more


Reveal Your Inner Vixen is a fully ELECTRONIC contest. To enter, you will need to visit the Maryland Romance Writers Web site at and visit the Contest Page.

On or about March 15, 2010, you will be able to download the Entry Form and pay for your entry via PayPal. The Entry Form will include complete instructions for formatting and submitting your manuscript.


$20 MRW members

$25 Non-MRW Members--U.S. entries and International entries


Each entry will be judged by THREE qualified judges, i.e., trained and/or published authors. The three top-scoring entries in each category will advance to the final round for evaluation by TWO EDITORS in that genre.


Series Contemporary: Gail Chasan, Harlequin/Silhouette; Rhonda Penders, The Wild Rose Press

Single Title: Allison Brandau, Penguin/Berkley; Bethany Morgan, Samhain Publishing, Inc;

Historical: Mary Altman, Ellora's Cave Publishing Inc; and Deb Werksman, Sourcebooks, Inc

Alternative: Chris Keeslar, Dorchester; Amanda Barnett, The Wild Rose Press

Erotic Romance: Raelene Gorlinsky, Ellora's Cave Publishing, Inc; Angela James, Samhaim Publishing, Inc

Young Adult: Krista Marino, Delacorte; Lindsey McGurk, Samahain Publishing, Inc


Entries must be time-stamped no later than June 1, 2010.


Email the 2010 "Reveal Your Inner Vixen" Contest Coordinator,

Beth Werrell,

Show us the chemistry... we dare you!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Peter Brown on the Death of Rhett Butler

Workshop leader Peter Brown is our guest today. Way back a whole month ago, I ran into him at The Writer's Center with a fat and torn copy of Gone with the Wind. Naturally, I asked him just what he thought he was doing with that book. And he told me. And what he told me made a lightbulb go off in my brain: Hmm. Maybe he'd like to share these thoughts with First Person Plural's readers.

So here he is. Briefly, his bio: He’s the author of the award-winning novel RUTHIE BLACK, and the story collection ASSORTED CHARACTERS. He has just launched a blog entitled THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER at His workshop, “Ten Reliable Rules for Writers,” will start in September (not posted online yet).

THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER’s never been written before, so I couldn’t resist. He’s my idea of a perfectly conceived character, who’s desirable and handsome, but he’s at odds with people and society. So I said, in my Winter workshop, "Characters Are Everything."

From the beginning, however, the estate of Margaret Mitchell made THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER almost impossible to publish. Their lawyers had taken everybody who had written about GONE WITH THE WIND to court, for copyright infringement. For that reason, Attorney Dan Stephen advised me to forget publishing my novella commercially. Nevertheless, just as Rhett himself outsmarted everybody in town (except Scarlett!), the internet enabled me to outwit the lawyers of the Mitchell estate. I published THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER as a blog on the internet instead of in printed form, which solved the legal problem (copyright only applies to works for sale). My blog was created for free and readers can enjoy it for free. You can read THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER online, but it’s not for sale!

Oddly, the story that was hard to publish was pretty easy to write (easier than this article!). I had an overflowing spring of ideas. As a "parody," or critique of Margaret Mitchell's book, my story was based upon hers, so I never had to dream up sources of conflict. The characters I hated in GONE WITH THE WIND seemed to taunt me. I relished dragging Ashley Wilkes right over to Rhett, so they could have it out. I put Scarlett on the hot seat. I gave Suellen, Scarlett's older sister, her day in the sun. I asked Belle Watling, Rhett's beloved prostitute, everything she knew. It’s indisputable that GONE WITH THE WIND is told from Scarlett's point of view, and biased in her favor. THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER turns the tables on her!

I wrote for fame, not for money. Right away, people began urging me, even nagging me to write it. GONE WITH THE WIND groupies are so starved for stories (because of the Mitchell estate lawyers), that they were eager for me to finish. With such fame and glory awaiting me, who needed money? It made me believe my story would succeed, despite the copyright barriers. Writing fiction isn’t usually easy, because I expect the writing process to be a discovery for me, not a restatement of clichés. I ask myself: Would I care to read it, if someone else had written it? Is every sentence interesting? In the past, I had merely hoped people would take interest in my stories. This time, I was sure.

New readers by the HUNDREDS! Each week, THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER blog gets a crowd of new visitors. The "comment" function on the blog facilitates identifying and communicating with my readers. Those who stay anonymous are appreciated too.

Writing THE DEATH OF RHETT BUTLER was also a form of revenge. Early on, I had gotten fed up with GONE WITH THE WIND, after enduring eighteen years of incessant hype. Growing up in Atlanta in the 1960s was like being Scarlett O'Hara's next door neighbor. Antebellum beauty pageants occurred every Summer. Leow’s built a palatial, single-screen, colonial style theater named “Tara,” for the 25th year anniversary of the movie. Popular restaurants were named "Pittypat's Porch" and "Johnny Reb's,” and neither French nor Mexican food could be found. Headquarters of Channel 2, the most popular TV station, was a colonial mansion called "White Columns." Huge likenesses of Confederate Generals were currently being etched into Stone Mountain, the nearby geological wonder. The official seal of the city featured a phoenix and said, “the South shall rise again.” Only Rhett Butler stood by me as comrade-in-skepticism. Just as he criticized the Confederacy, Rhett would have also ridiculed Atlanta’s nostalgia mania as a pastime for losers, even if it meant panning GONE WITH THE WIND itself!

Part III of Charlie Jensen Discussing The Writer's Center's New Web Site

For week three of The Writer's Center Web launch videos, I am posting Charlie Jensen talking about how buying books and registering for workshops will be easier with the site's new e-store. As always, please feel free to share this video.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Nan Fry: The Poetry Experiment

Today we have poet and workshop leader Nan Fry, in a post that originally appeared in The Carousel, Winter 2008. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Relearning the Dark (WWPH) and Say What I Am Called (Sibyl-Child), a chapbook of riddles she translated from the Anglo-Saxon. For over twenty years she taught in the Academic Studies Department at the Corcoran College of Art + Design. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, anthologies, and textbooks. Her poems can also be found online in the archives of The Journal of Mythic Arts, Innisfree Poetry Journal, and Beltway Poetry
Quarterly. Here she is discussing her upcoming workshop.

“Sources and Origins of Poetry,” one of the workshops I teach at The Writer’s Center, grew out of my practice as a poet and instructor. Early on, I was intrigued by poems about ordinary objects by writers such as Charles Simic and Nancy Willard. At the same time, I found myself re-reading the Anglo-Saxon riddles that I’d studied (and translated slowly, word by word) as a graduate student. In these poems, a familiar thing or creature is described in ways that are both accurate and mysterious. The accuracy comes from closely observed details, while metaphor creates a sense of mystery. I admired the way those Old English poets presented the ordinary in ways that were still fresh and surprising. With that model in mind, I found myself describing—and addressing—the sprouts I was growing under my kitchen sink.

Alfalfa Sprouts

You’re born and grow in secrecy,

in moisture and darkness.

Together you’re a shock

of thick, wavy hair.

Singly—a small green heart

squeezing out a spindly stem.

When I tuck you into an omelet,

wrap you in that bright yellow blanket,

you stick out all over

like curious children

who won’t go to bed

or like those people in pictures

hanging out of the dragon’s maw,

all dangling arms and legs

furiously signaling

their final protest.

As I eat you I graze

back to my animal past

munching the earth-sweet

grasses and hay.

(From Relearning the Dark, Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 1991)

In working on this poem, I realized that one source of poetry—my experience—was as close to me as the blanket on my bed and the darkness under my sink. I also discovered that if I was stuck, I could sometimes lure the muse by placing an object such as an apple, a plum, or a roll of scotch tape on my desk, staring at it, and then describing it or letting it or letting it describe itself.

Like the Anglo-Saxon riddles, which were probably composed during the seventh through the ninth centuries, all poetry was originally oral and had to be memorable in order to survive. Though we no longer face that particular challenge, poets today still use some of the strategies of those early bards. In “Sources and Origins,” the participants and I seek inspiration in ancient forms such as proverbs, lists, chants, charms, and riddles, and also explore how contemporary poets draw from these inexhaustible wells to create work that is fresh and compelling.

For instance, proverbs, which distill the traditional wisdom of a people, had to be brief and to stick in the mind like a burr in a dog’s fur. Often employing rhyme, alliteration, parallel structure, and striking imagery, proverbs are models of poetic economy that suggest much while saying little. They have inspired poets as diverse as William Blake, the French surrealists Paul Eluard and Benjamin Péret, and Mark Strand. Whether or not we wish to write actual proverbs, I’ve found that reading traditional and current examples can help us to write evocatively and precisely and to approach the sound, structure, and imagery of our poems in new and useful ways.

List poems, which also have an ancient lineage, provide a more expansive model and a way of bringing sensory detail and the richness of experience into our work. Our sources here might include American Indian chants; Homer; Ovid; Walt Whitman, with his exuberantly long lines; or Gary Snyder, who turned the to-do list into an art form. Another contemporary poet, Joe Brainard, took the association of catalog verse and memory to new levels with his I Remember books. Even people who swear they can’t remember what they had for breakfast find themselves inspired by his wonderfully inclusive lists.

In their experiments, scientists bring together different substances to see how they will react, often in the hope of creating something new. I suspect something similar happens with poetry. Whether they are drawn from ancient or contemporary works, the models I use in this workshop are presented not for slavish imitation but as catalysts, as points of departure, and examples of possibility. Poems written against or in negative reaction to the models are always welcome. In-class exercises and longer at-home assignments are offered as experiments, something to try in a spirit of inquiry and exploration. Such practice will, I believe, strengthen our ability to observe and to imagine, two sources of poetry we all have within us. Our goal is not to “get it right” but to write—that is—to generate material and to find fruitful ways to approach the creative process.

Review Monday: Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-Short Stories from the United States and Latin America

Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-Short Stories from the United States and Latin America
Edited by Robert Shapard, James Thomas and Ray Gonzalez
W.W. Norton
March 2010
ISBN: 039333645X
Review by Tara Laskowski

It is no surprise to readers of literature that short-shorts, or flash fiction, can pack as much punch in their brevity as the longest of novels. Sudden Fiction Latino is a collection of these short-shorts, featuring writers from the United States and Latin America. It includes more than 60 stories, all 1500 words or less, by established writers and newcomers.

Here you’ll find treats by authors who you may have only read in longer forms, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende and Junot Diaz, alongside up-and-coming authors such as Luna Calderon and Andrea Saenz.

Flash fiction has surged in popularity lately, with several well-established publications (many online) dedicated exclusively to the form — whether the 1,000-word limit story you’ll find at journals like Wigleaf, or “twitter-fiction” (140 characters or less) at places like Nanoism. In this collection, you find that same kind of diversity—everything from magical realism to a striking reality, traditional storytelling to abstract mystery.

In Dagoberto Gilb's "Shout," for example, we get a gritty glimpse into the life of a migrant worker and his struggle to support an ever-growing family: "She was struggling getting dinner together, the boys were loud and complaining about being hungry, and well into the fifth beer, as he sat near the bright color and ever-happy tingle of the TV set, his back stiffening up, he snapped." Another story, "Miss Clairol" by Helena Maria Viramontes, tackles the reality of a 10-year-old's world growing up with a single mom still on the prowl. "The only way Champ knows her mother's true hair color is by her roots which, like death, inevitably rise to the truth."

Both of those writers are based in the United States, but some of the stories from outside the States bring a playfulness of language and realism to them that stand out. Mexico's Socorro Venegas gives us "Johnny Depp," the story of a man without a shadow who believes he is a movie star. Of course, Gabriel Garcia Marquez doesn’t disappoint in “Light is Like Water,” where his mastery of magical realism comes alive in a wonderful bite-sized story about two boys who go sailing on a river of light in their apartment. And Argentinian writer Raul Brasca's micro-story "The Test" reads like a fairy tale. Here are the opening sentences: "'Only when it is cut down will you have my daughter,' the sorcerer said. The lumberjack looked at the tree's slender stem with a self-satisfied smile."

Some of the best stories deal with what happens when Latino culture clashes with white culture. In "The White Girl" by Luis Alberto Urrea, a graffiti artist comes across a banged-up car in which a girl died, finds her bracelet, and can't get her out of his head. There's also the really clever "Day Ah Dallas Mare Toes" by Luna Calderon, where a young girl tries to understand the way her teacher perceives her heritage and the way her own family deals with honesty and love. This last, in particular, has such a delightfully poignant voice it immediately draws you in and keeps on running, as in when the narrator says, "Miss Wilson said that we had to build an altar for a deceased relative because it's Dia de los Muertos next week. 'Cept she said, 'Day Ah Dallas Mare Toes.' Cici Ramirez and I cracked up, but not loud. We both pretend like we don't speak Spanish. But we do, and the way Miss Wilson said it was hecka stupid."

These stories, as a whole, create a rich, vibrant conversation with colorful characters that the reader may have never met before. The illegal immigrant. A homeless man on the street corner. A woman who never wears clothes. The gangster. The result is wonderful—a collection of writing that continues to surprise and has something for everyone.

Tara Laskowski was the 2009 Kathy Fish Fellow and writer-in-residence at the flash fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly, and is now a member of their editorial staff. She earned an MFA from George Mason University and works as a media relations manager and social media coordinator for the university. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications online and print. Her story "Ode to the Double-Crossed Lackey in 'Thunderball'" was nominated for Dzanc's Best of the Web 2010. She can be found online at

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Lannan Literary Symposium and Festival

Here's something that sounds too good not to put on First Person Plural.

The Lannan Literary Symposium and Festival

Literacy · Literature · Democracy
Georgetown University 6 and 7 April 2010

Georgetown’s 2010 Lannan Literary Symposium and Festival will explore the most vital and purposeful connections across the themes in its title, Literacy, Literature and Democracy; the Symposium welcomes a rich selection of writers, journalists and activists to the Georgetown campus over the two days following Easter break, Tuesday 6 and Wednesday 7 April, to discuss and to demonstrate how universal access to literacy, critical attention to the urgency of the creative imagination and the power of the written word, and care for the fragility of authentic democracy must all equally concern citizens working for justice in our contemporary world. Guests to Georgetown include noted writers Dave Eggers, Chris Abani, and Uwem Akpan, SJ journalist, writer and Mother Jones founder Adam Hochschild, social justice activist Mekonnodji Nadingam, poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, and recent Georgetown alums Happy Johnson (’07) and Allison Correll (English MA ’09). Topics across two days of readings, roundtables and performances will include local and national literacy projects like Mr. Eggers’ 826 Valencia, literary, cultural and practical responses to historic challenges like the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina, and the ongoing global refugee crisis, with special focus on vulnerable populations in central Africa; the Symposium concludes with a special tribute to the poet Lucille Clifton and readings in her honor by Mr. Ellis and Mr. Abani. Participants from the Georgetown Community will include Professors Deborah Tannen, Maureen Corrigan, and Michael Eric Dyson, as well as Professor Carolyn Forché, the Director of Georgetown’s Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. For more information please contact Professor Ricardo Ortíz at


Tue 6 April/7:30PM/Gaston Hall

A Public Reading and Talk Featuring

Dave Eggers In Conversation with Maureen Corrigan and Deborah Tannen

Reception to Follow

Copley Formal Lounge

Wednesday 7 April 2010

9:30 to 11am Riggs Library

“Writing Beyond Catastrophe:

Literatures and Cultures of National Revival in Post-Katrina America”

A Discussion featuring:
Michael Eric Dyson, Dave Eggers, and Happy Johnson
Refreshments Served and Books Available in the Presidents’ Room

Copley Formal Lounge
“Writing (and Working) Beyond Genocide: Literary, Cultural and Social Activisms in a Changing Africa”
Session 1 · 1 to 3pm

readings by
Uwem Akpan, SJ, Adam Hochschild

Session 2 · 3 to 5PM

A Roundtable Featuring Mekkondji Nadingam, Allison Correll (MA ’09), Chris Abani, Uwem Akpan, Adam Hochschild

Books Available and Light Refreshments Served

Copley Formal Lounge

The Fisher Family Colloquium Room

The Rafik Hariri Building

McDonough School of Business

7:30 pm: A Tribute to Lucille Clifton

Featuring Michael S. Glaser and Carolyn Forché

Poetry Readings By
Thomas Sayers Ellis
Chris Abani

Reception and Book Signing to Follow

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Discovery Friday: Workshop Leader Dennis Drabelle on the Inspiration for his Forthcoming Book

Today we have a discovery of a different kind. Everyone who has attended a workshop as a participant knows how inspiring workshops can be for your creative work. But what about for the workshop leaders? Can the workshops inspire them to create? For Dennis Drabelle (Book Reviewing), the answer is yes. He has written for The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Film Comment, Civilization, and Smithsonian. He is a contributing editor for The Washington Post Book World and won the National Book Critics Circle's Award (1996) for excellence in reviewing. And he's the author of Mile High Fever: Silver Mines, Boom Towns, and High Living on the Comstock Lode. You can read my First Person Plural interview with him here.

Here he discusses how his last workshop inspired him. (Incidentally, I just happened to take this particular workshop.)

I'm hardly the first teacher to find stimulation in interacting with students, but I may be unusual in being able to trace a book idea directly to giving a course at the Writers Center. About every other year, I teach a class in book reviewing. I ask my students to write three reviews (one on a work of nonfiction, one on a work of fiction, and the third on something of their choice), but I know they don't have enough time to read three books in six weeks. So we deem shorter pieces to be full-length books and proceed accordingly.

Two years ago we read an essay by Emerson for the nonfiction review and a story by Ambrose Bierce for the fiction review. Bierce is an old favorite of mine, and I thought that students would be interested to learn that he once took up residence in Washington, with several reporters and a cartoonist in tow, to spearhead a campaign for the Hearst papers against the Southern Pacific Railroad, which sought forgiveness of a $75 million debt owed the United States from the days of building the intercontinental railroad. Day after day, Bierce and company marshaled arguments and poured out invective, and ultimately, in the face of the immense power of the railroad's bribes, Congress voted not to forgive the debt. 

On the way home from class that night, I remembered that the railroad was widely dissed as the Octopus--and that another writer, Frank Norris, wrote a populist novel of that name, in which he attacked the Southern Pacific every bit as vociferously as Bierce. Two great American writers dueling with the same bullying monopoly--it struck me that this material might lend itself to a book about the power of the pen. Now, two years later, I've just signed a contract to write one, "Taming the Octopus." 

As I say, I've cared deeply about Bierce's work for a long time, but the spark that led to the book I'm now working on didn't start to burn until I presented what I knew about the old crusader at the Writers Center. I'm here to tell you that classes at the Center can be as beneficial to teachers as they are to students.