Thursday, July 28, 2016

Uncovering Whitman with Dara Barnat

In anticipation of the Fall/Winter issue of Poet Lore, editorial assistant Jessica Mason emailed with poet Dara Barnat about the poems that will appear on Poet Lore’s pages ("The Age I Am to Myself" is excerpted below) and her engagement--past and present--with the work of Walt Whitman.

JM: What initially drew you to Walt Whitman?

DB: While searching for a topic for my doctoral research, I discovered that Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was not one book, but several books, each distinct, which he revised and worked on for much of his life. The first 1855 edition, and the last, known as the 1891-92 Deathbed edition, are the most widely available, but they can all be found at The Whitman Archive ( I printed out the editions and sat in the library at Tel Aviv University for weeks, reading every single one from beginning to end. During that time I was making my first attempts at research and writing. As I read through the volumes it felt like everything I would ever need to know about poetry was in Whitman. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origins of all poems.” There was the line, the self, the body, the breath, the divine. There was a deep engagement with life and a reconciliation with death. There was heartbreak, intimacy, and absolution. I didn’t – and don’t – love everything about Whitman. Whitman as a person had his share of flaws and prejudices. But this connection to Whitman’s poetry, a sort of “merge,” to use his term, inspired both my research on his reception by Jewish American poets, as well as my own poetry.

JM: How would you say Whitman’s work influences yours? How did it influence the form and language of the poems that will appear in the Fall/Winter issue?

DB: From Whitman I learned that poetry could be physical, intellectual, spiritual, and a place of empathy. I kept these qualities in mind, although my poems tended to be short and economical in terms of language. It wasn’t until I started writing a poem called “What Luck to Live On,” in my forthcoming book In the Absence, that I locked into Whitman’s longer lines and cataloging. After In the Absence, which was about grieving my father, I needed a framework in which to write new poems. For many of us life can so easily interfere with the writing process. But I need to write to stay grounded. I started a project writing poems about happiness, but that one didn’t sustain itself. Instead, I decided to write a poem a week responding to the fifty-two sections of “Song of Myself.” A year of “Song of Myself.” The poems draw from Whitman to explore how to survive and even thrive amidst the fear, uncertainty, and loss that I have experienced, and that many of us experience in individual ways. I couldn’t start the poems on an empty page, so I leaned on Whitman to unlock them. Every week I read a section from “Song of Myself” and selected lines as an epigraph. Some of my poems respond to the lines directly, and some go in a different direction. I began the first section in June 2015 and finished a draft of the manuscript about a month ago. Though I’m still learning what the Whitman collection is “about,” the working title is Be Unafraid to Walk in the Light of Nothing. I’m honored that the first two poems from this new manuscript will appear in Poet Lore.

JM: You and editor Jody Bolz corresponded about clarifying the context of the line from “Song of Myself” quoted in the epigraph of “The Age I am to Myself.” How does engagement with an editor affect your relationship to a poem? How does it feel to see a poem of yours separated from the series into which it was written?

DB: Yes, corresponding with Jody was, as always, a pleasure! I believe editing is, or can be, an act of true generosity. When I submitted my poems to Poet Lore, the poem “The Age I Am to Myself” (originally titled “The Age She Is to Herself”) went through a couple of crucial changes following our exchange. My poem, the first in the “Song of Myself” series, began with an epigraph from section one: “I, now thirty-seven years in perfect health begin, / Hoping to cease not till death.” This epigraph, which I knew didn’t appear in the earlier versions of “Song of Myself,” was poignant to me. Whitman was older and quite sick by the time he added that line about his age. I was moved by the idea that in poetry we can be our most vital selves, and stay young and healthy in perpetuity. The “I” in “The Age I Am to Myself” will always be thirty-six. Jody and Ethelbert identified that many readers wouldn’t know that Whitman added this line later in life or understand its significance based on the opening lines of the poem. Jody helped me revise the lines, clarify this discrepancy, and provide context for the reader. This exchange, for me, solidified a core aspect of the poem. I’m very grateful for Jody’s attention to my work over the past several years. I’m also happy that the two poems “The Age I Am to Myself” and “What Spanish Moss Knows” are appearing independently from others in the manuscript. I’m hoping that all of the “Song of Myself” poems will be in dialogue with each other, as well as stand on their own. I’m aware that many have read “Song of Myself,” but I also hope that the poems will be understood without prior knowledge of Whitman’s poem. I’m taking “Song of Myself” as a point of departure for my own poems, rather than trying to make a statement about Whitman. Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing the poems in Poet Lore, where they are sure to find amazing company.

JM: You’ve said in “Teaching Walt Whitman in Tel Aviv” that studying Whitman “while under the threat of psychological and physical violence is in fact crucial” and that his poetry has become increasingly relevant in these times. However there are many who regard Whitman as antiquated required reading. For those who have previously put Whitman off to the side, what would you suggest in order for them to reconsider and connect with his work?

DB: I wrote “Teaching Walt Whitman in Tel Aviv” in 2012 during an especially horrific period of fighting in that region. The essay was inspired by the ostensible disconnect between this war and studying Whitman. What I came to believe is that the predominant messages in Whitman – though he is by no means perfect – are inclusiveness, equality, and tolerance. After all, a powerful motivation for Whitman was his conviction that poetry could save his beloved, fractured nation. I believe that the values his poetry promotes can help the world transcend the hatred and division that seem to be worsening all the time, all over the world. The poem often taught to young students is “O Captain! My Captain!” That poem, with its fixed syllables and rhyme, doesn’t display the sense of openness and empathy one finds, for example, in “By Blue Ontario’s Shore”: “[The poet] judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a helpless thing.” There is so much for readers of all ages to discover in Whitman. In Whitman you find acceptance of the self, whatever your identity or orientation. There is music when you listen for it. There is hope for us all.

Dara Barnat’s poetry, translations, and essays appear in Poet LoreThe Cortland ReviewdiodeLilithCrab Orchard ReviewHa’aretzThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her book of poetry In the Absence is forthcoming later this year. Dara holds a PhD from Tel Aviv University, where she is Writing Director in the Department of English and American Studies.

Here's an excerpt from Dara Barnat’s poem “The Age I am to Myself,” referenced above: 

When Walt Whitman wrote the line
that he was thirty-seven, in perfect health,

in fact he was decades older.

I guess the body
is the body, but you can imagine

that day when you swam in a lake, lay

on a silver rock, legs bent, arms behind your head, sun
on your face.

You can feel the heat of the rock on your skin,

track the divots of beetles
as loons dive after them.

I, now, am thirty-six. I guess
this poem is a fine place to be thirty-six.

It’s a fine place to say that the age I am to myself is twenty-six.

For the complete poem and more new work by Dara Barnat, subscribe to Poet Lore and receive the Fall/Winter 2016 issue this October.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Novel Year Program 2016

This is the Year You Finish, Revise, and Pitch Your Novel

By Pamela Alston

Susan Coll will host an information session about the Novel Year program on Saturday, July 30, from 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. at The Writer's Center. RSVP here

Last fall, The Writer’s Center introduced a new workshop to the roster, Novel Year, a program of 10 dedicated novelists selected by the instructor to finish their novels and learn about the publishing process. “I have taken several classes at The Writer's Center before, but I hadn't really become part of a writer's community,” Catherine Baker, a 2015 participant said. “I needed to learn more about living as a writer and engaging with the publishing world, and building a network with other writers. This class provided all of that. Plus, it was really fun—the highlight of each week!” Beginning in September, Susan Coll takes the helm of Novel Year. “I hope to create a warm and supportive environment in the classroom,” she said. “But at the same time, I want to maintain a serious and professional atmosphere because we have real work to accomplish.”
Coll is the author of five novels, most recently The Stager (Sarah Crichton Books, 2014), a New York Times and Chicago Tribune Editor’s Choice. Her other books include Acceptance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), which was made into a television movie starring Joan Cusack, Rockville Pike (Simon & Schuster, 2012), Beach Week (Sarah Crichton Books, 2010) and A Love Story (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

Her work has appeared in The Washington Post,,, and The Millions. She has run many fiction workshops at the Center and recently left a position at Politics & Prose bookstore, where she oversaw events and programs for five years.

Coll is eager to reconnect with students, to engage with writers, and help them shape their work. “I'm especially excited about the small size and the long duration of this workshop,” Coll said enthusiastically, “that will allow time for each participant to get proper attention.” 

Participants will experience the rigor and structure of an M.F.A. program, but with less of an expense and time commitment. Each class will be divided into two parts. In the first half, the group will discuss an aspect of craft and have in-class exercises that will be geared toward each student's own novel. The second half of class will be devoted to workshopping manuscripts. At least three sessions will bring in panels of published writers as well as publishing industry professionals.

Lauren Kosa described last year’s program to be "one of the best classes" that she has taken for advanced writing. Kosa worked on a literary fiction novel she described as "ok" when she began the class. When she completed the program, she described her 300-page work as "much more alive and closer to its final form."

Coll plans to address this idea directly. “Participants will learn more than the basics of crafting technically proficient novels; in some ways that's the easy part,” she said. “I want them to learn how to make their work pop, to write novels that are compelling and that will capture the attention of agents, editors, and readers.”
Instructor Amin Ahmad with the 2015–16 Novel Year participants

Thursdays 7–9:30 p.m.
Fall: September 15–December 8
Winter/Spring: January 12–April 13
Summer: June-August, Individual monthly check-ins with instructor
                                                                Master Class: $5,000

Other benefits include:
  •  Consistent writing deadlines, studying aspects of craft, and being part of a supportive community
  •  Panels and Q&As with experts in the industry, including literary agents and visiting writers
  •  Free access to the Studio at The Writer’s Center during the full year (valued at $1,000)
  •  Free admission to ticketed literary events at the Center
  •  Be a featured reader (reading works-in-progress) at the 2017 Bethesda Literary Festival

Qualifications: Participants must have completed at least 150 pages of a novel before enrolling.To be admitted into the program, potential candidates will need to submit:
  •  A one-page cover letter detailing their interest in the program
  • A 25-page writing sample from their novel in progress
  • Submissions should be sent to

Monday, July 18, 2016

Meet the Instructor: Bennie Herron

Meet the Instructor offers insight into the teaching styles and personalities of our instructors. This time around,we spoke with Bennie Herron, who will lead Seeing the Blues in Poetry, an all-levels class, over three Saturdays from August 6th through August 20th.

The Writer’s Center: What brought you to The Writer’s Center?

Bennie Herron: I respect the fact that The Writer's Center takes the poetry out of the classroom and into the community. Bringing poetry to the people is very important to me.

TWC: How would you describe your teaching style?

BH: I would describe my teaching style as inclusive. I don't pretend to be an expert but I think it's important to rely on the experience and motives of the individuals in the class or workshop.

TWC: What are you reading right now?

BH: Juice! by Ishmael Reed. It is a creatively woven work about the social and political paradigm that we live in both past and present. Great work!

TWC: What are you writing right now?

BH: I'm currently working on multiple projects. I am working on a play and my next full-length poetry collection titled, Music Made Us Do This.

TWC: What does your writing space look like?

BH: Writing space. Ha ha. I usually grab a cigar and sit at a table in my garage and think far too long about what I want to say then start writing. I daydream a lot. But, my basement and garage could be crowned my writing space.

TWC: What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given and by whom?

BH: A great poet, activist, and mentor Matthew Shenoda told me to always keep it simple by telling your story. How you see things leads to the most authentic and relatable work.

Bennie Herron earned a B.A. in psychology at San Diego State University and went on to earn a master’s in social work from San Diego State. He has practiced school-based social work for the last eight years. Herron recently received his M.F.A. in creative writing with an emphasis in contemporary poetry from National University.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Meet the Instructor: Aaron Hamburger

Meet the Instructor offers insight into the teaching styles and personalities of our instructors. This time around, we spoke with Aaron Hamburger, who will lead Words and Wine: Use Your Senses to Improve Your Writing, an all-levels class, on Tuesday, July 26th. He will also lead The Mindful Writing Workshop, an all levels class, over two Thursdays from July 28th through August 4th.

The Writer’s Center: What brought you to the Writer’s Center?

Aaron Hamburger: While flying back from AWP in Boston a few years ago, I happened to be seated next to Genny DeLeon, Stuart Moss, and Zach Fernbock from The Writer's Center. We got to chatting, and the way they described the Center made it sound like a fun and invigorating place to work. So that's how I got hooked, and I've never looked back.

TWC: How would you describe your teaching style?

AH: Profound respect for both the elements of craft and the individual voice of each student. I love reading. I'm passionate about literature, which is why I write, so I love to impart whatever I've picked up about the art of crafting stories and prose in my years of experience as a reader and writer. At the same time, I love teaching because I get to encounter the words and works that other people love, and to get inspired by seeing how each student approaches similar problems of craft, like characterization or setting for example, differently.

TWC: What are you reading right now?

AH: I just finished The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant for my book club, which is about to arrive on my doorstep at any second. I'm also excited to read a YA novel called Speak that a friend recommended. And my niece just gave me Let the Great World Spin by the wonderful writer Colum McCann—plus my nephew gave me The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates. So my bookshelf is full!

TWC: What does your writing space look like?

AH: I have a dedicated room with bookshelves lined with, well, books, plus a desk with a beautiful Moroccan lamp, pictures of people I love, and a postcard with an inspirational quote from the poet Richard Wilbur. And a sign a friend gave me that says: "Nothing is Impossible."

TWC: What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given and by whom?

AH: Best piece of writing advice…there are so many! I guess I'll go with what Stephen Sondheim said in the song "Move On," from Sunday in the Park with George: "The choice may have been mistaken, but the choosing was not." So many writers are afraid to make a choice because they're afraid it'll be the wrong one. The funny thing is there is no wrong choice, except not to make a choice. That's why I admire our students at The Writer's Center, because they have all made the choice to put themselves in the ring and put their voices out into the world.

Aaron Hamburger is the author of Faith for Beginners and The View from Stalin’s Head, which was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and Poets & Writers, among others. He has received fellowships from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation.